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Lindsey Graham’s Green Lantern Foreign Policy

[ 47 ] July 21, 2014 |

Lindsey Graham is a very serious and intelligent man. After all, he believes this is what John Kerry and Barack Obama should be doing about Russia:

Host David Gregory then asked Graham how the Kerry has failed in addressing the Malaysian plane and evidence that pro-Russia separatists likely shot down the plane with Russian weapons.

“One, he didn’t call Putin the thug that he is. He didn’t call for arming the Ukraine so they can defend themselves against rebel separatists supported by Russia,” Graham responded.

“President Obama is trying to be deliberative. It comes off as indecisive. He’s trying to be thoughtful. It comes off as weakness,” he continued.

Oh yes, I’m sure calling Putin a thug will not only stop the arming of Ukrainian separatists but also give Crimea back to Ukraine. I mean, we all see how Reagan defeated the Soviet Union by calling it “The Evil Empire” instead of negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev over the desire of the conservative foreign policy establishment. And using the term Axis of Evil has absolutely destroyed the governments of Iran and North Korea; the fact that such language helped cause the invasion of Iraq on false pretenses at the cost of 500,000 Iraqi lives and 4000 American lives is a benefit, not a bug. Why doesn’t Obama give a big speech telling Putin off. Now that’s effective American power!

You Can’t Remake Another Country’s Political Culture Without A Green Lantern!

[ 239 ] June 24, 2014 |

You may remember Peter Beinart from such a atrocities as “endorsing Joe Lieberman for the 2004 Democratic nomination” and “writing in December 2004 that opponents of the Iraq War should be ejected from the Democratic coalition.” He has shown increasing signs of rationality since then, but he’s now back to show that he doesn’t really seem to have learned anything:

Obama inherited an Iraq where better security had created an opportunity for better government. The Bush administration’s troop “surge” did not solve the country’s underlying divisions. But by retaking Sunni areas from insurgents, it gave Iraq’s politicians the chance to forge a government inclusive enough to keep the country together.

The problem was that Maliki wasn’t interested in such a government. Rather than integrate the Sunni Awakening fighters who had helped subdue al-Qaeda into Iraq’s army, Maliki arrested them. In the run-up to his 2010 reelection bid, Maliki’s Electoral Commission disqualified more than 500, mostly Sunni, candidates on charges that they had ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

For the Obama administration, however, tangling with Maliki meant investing time and energy in Iraq, a country it desperately wanted to pivot away from. A few months before the 2010 elections, according to Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, “American diplomats in Iraq sent a rare dissenting cable to Washington, complaining that the U.S., with its combination of support and indifference, was encouraging Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies.”

[...]

Finally, last Thursday, in what was widely interpreted as an invitation for Iraqis to push Maliki aside, Obama declared, “that whether he is prime minister or any other leader aspires to lead the country, that it has to be an agenda in which Sunni, Shia and Kurd all feel that they have the opportunity to advance their interest through the political process.” Obama also noted that, “The government in Baghdad has not sufficiently reached out to some of the [Sunni] tribes and been able to bring them into a process that, you know, gives them a sense of being part of—of a unity government or a single nation-state.”

That’s certainly true. The problem is that it took Obama five years to publicly say so—or do anything about it—despite pleas from numerous Iraq experts, some close to his own administration. This inaction was abetted by American journalists. Many of us proved strikingly indifferent to a country about which we once claimed to care deeply.

The first sentence of the second paragraph gets right to the heart of the matter. Unfortunately, it’s surrounded by vague claims that somehow if Obama didn’t give Maliki a “free pass” Iraq would have better government. Because nothing would have increased Maliki’s authority like it being challenged by a country still occupying the country or something. The argument is just the purest green lanternism; Beinart can’t identify any specific source of leverage, it’s just that Maliki would be running a better government if Obama wanted him to because something, and if he won’t deliver Iraqis will replace him with someone more to Obama’s liking because look, balsa wood nuclear drones of terror!

Among the many fallacious assumptions of Iraq War supporters was their complete inattention to state power. Even supporters who weren’t naive enough to think that Iraq would be immediately transformed into a stable multiparty democracy seemed to have the misunderstanding that a strong, effective state is the natural order of things and the invasion of Iraq just transferred leadership of that state to someone better than Saddam at least. But that’s not how things work. Even if Maliki wanted to, he’s not in a position to just cut a deal with Obama and enforce it. Presiding over a very weak state, he’s reliant on various other actors to maintain some semblance of authority. It’s not at all surprising that this would result in a sectarian government, and this isn’t a fact that the American president can just will out of existence.

And that’s the hubris that affected Iraq war supporters then, and still affects Iraq dead-enders today. The idea that the course of another nation’s destiny is shaped by the verbal “invitations” of the president of the United States is bizarre, and tends to go along with the even worse idea that there’s nothing American guns and bombs can’t accomplish if one just wants to badly enough.

Raise the Green Lantern: Millionaire Pundit Edition

[ 71 ] June 24, 2014 |

Shorter Verbatim Chris Matthews: “I’m telling you, I don’t hear you getting it done. The Democrats control the U.S. Senate. The Democrats control the White House. When are you going to do what you just said you’d like to do? Just when? Give me a date. Is it 2017, 2023? … You’re blaming it on the Republicans, but you control the Senate and you control the White House.” It’s a mystery!

Chris Matthews is paid several million dollars a year to opine about politics.

Speaking of America’s plutocrats, I forgot to look into Yves Smith’s claim that Hank Paulson, Republican and hence good guy unlike the perfidious Barack Obama, “lived modestly.” This is generally not how I would describe someone who paid $4.3 million for a house, but anyway. If Gordon Gee ever attacks Obama I’m sure Smith will claim he lives modestly because he never demands more than 20 free bow ties a year.

You Can’t Address Climate Change Without A Green Lantern

[ 168 ] June 23, 2014 |

Shorter Verbatim Yves Smith: “Paulson, who has long been an ardent conservationist (and in contrast to his alpha Wall Street male standing, lives modestly), made a forceful pitch for carbon taxes. The irony of this proposal is that we have a Republican showing what a right-winger Obama really is.”

I know! I will never forgive Obama for vetoing the carbon tax that the Republican House and red-state Senate Democrats rammed through Congress. It’s a complete mystery why Obama would act through EPA regulations rather than causing a carbon tax to appear, and certainly the only explanation can be that Obama considers cap-and-trade-like regulations optimal public policy.

These two sentences manage to hit almost every Green Lantern trope: conservative Republicans treated with far more charity than moderate Democrats, complete obliviousness to the realities of the American political process, policies not actually favored by any American conservatives in positions of any authority described as “conservative,” and an implicit assumption that if it’s not possible to accomplish everything then it’s preferable to do nothing. It’s a Bully Window the Overton Pulpit superfecta.

Will the Green Lantern Work In Iraq? Give Me Six Months

[ 160 ] June 15, 2014 |

I don’t disagree with Erik that Tony Blair is the person I least want to hear from about Iraq. But surely Tom Freidman is in the top 5. Some selected insights from Mr. Suck On This:

  • “in Iraq today, my enemy’s enemy is my enemy.”
  • “In a word, Maliki has been a total jerk.”
  • “Maliki had a choice — to rule in a sectarian way or in an inclusive way — and he chose sectarianism.”  [Nobody could have predicted! --ed.]
  • “Believe it or not, it’s not all about what we do and the choices we make. Arabs and Kurds have agency, too.”
  • “Leadership matters.”

At least Friedman, unlike Blair, is skeptical about intervention, although if the president was inclined to I’m sure he’d come up with some rationalization to support it.  But that thinking this puerile can be so influential explains a lot about how the Iraq fiasco happened in the first place.

See, He Does So Have a Green Lantern!

[ 105 ] May 8, 2014 |

Shorter Daniel Henniger: The shocking

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wave of oppression on today’s campuses — including such manifestations of totalitarianism as someone writing an essay in an undergraduate newspaper — was caused by Barack Obama and his disgraceful campaign to reduce sexual assault.

Roy has more.

Imagine All the (Non-Rich) People, Eating Expired Baby Food After Obama Raised the Green Lantern

[ 127 ] April 24, 2014 |

Shorter Verbatim Fred Hiatt: “Imagine instead that Obama had embraced the bipartisanship of Simpson-Bowles and tried to steer through Congress a package that made the tax system fairer and solved the nation’s long-term debt problem.

He might have empowered Republicans in Congress — the Roy Blunts and Bob Corkers — who want to work with Democrats and get things done.”

The last line is particularly awesome. As always, I prefer to think of this as a parody of a parody being read by Jeffrey Tambor. Chait makes an obvious point about Pain Caucus Troofers:

Interestingly, the Tax Truthers don’t believe that “leadership” could persuade Republicans to change their position on, say, climate change, or abortion, or financial regulation. The conviction that Obama could talk Republicans into supporting policies they forcefully oppose is limited to the issue that they care about more than any other.

Tax Trutherism sustains itself among elite political and business circles through constant repetition by fellow believers, creating a cocoon, much like the Alex Jones listening audience, where the preposterous becomes mundane. Unfortunately, that cocoon includes large sections of the seat of government of the United States.

I mean, give the Green Lantern Troofers of the left this — they at least think the president could force Congress to do anything.

Norm Ornstein brings some historical perspective.

That Green Lantern Won’t Raise Itself

[ 96 ] January 7, 2014 |

In her “conversation” with David Brooks, Gail Collins manages to capture in two sentences how not to think about legislative change:

I’m with you on the single-payer option. If only the president had not taken the path that was touted by several generations of Republican deep thinkers.

The first problem with the “Republican thinkers” bit we’ve discussed extensively — the “generations” of “Republican thinkers” who have wanted to greatly expand Medicaid and substantially tighten restrictions on the health insurance industry don’t actually exist. But let’s imagine an alternate universe in which the Republican offer on health care has not consistently been “nothing,” and 30 years ago a lot of Republicans sincerely favored something like the ACA. What implications follow from this, exactly? Roe v. Wade had 5 Republican appointees in the majority with only 2 Democratic ones, with the two dissenters evenly split on partisan lines. Does this make Roe a fundamentally “Republican” decision Democrats should reject? Should Everett Dirksen’s support for the Civil Rights Act cause us to construe it as a sellout? John Chafee, I am assured by many commenters and people on Twitter, defined “Republican” health care policy circa 1993. So I assume that Chafee’s 1993 proposal for a federal handgun ban is also a “Republican plan” liberal Democrats should reject if it was politically viable?

Anyway, apart from the fact that it’s false and would be irrelevant even if it was true, the “ACA was a Republican plan” is a great argument.

On the second point, the argument that the choices of Barack Obama are the reason single payer didn’t pass should by all rights be a strawman, but it’s not. (In fairness, I assume that given more space to elaborate, Collins would have phrased it in the more typically weaselly manner: “I’m not saying it was guaranteed to work, but we’ll never know if stalwart liberals like Joe Lieberman and Kent Conrad and Ben Nelson would have supported single payer because Obama didn’t. even. TRY! Bully Pulpit! Overton Window on Steroids! Change the Game by Doubling Down!”) Anyway, let’s say Obama had chosen 2009 to initiate a “national conversation” on single payer. Allow me to dramatize the outcome:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: “Dammit, Harry. I know neither Hillary nor myself nor Edwards even ran on it, but I’ve decided that eliminating the American health insurance industry is the only way to go — American political institutions naturally gravitate towards optimal policy outcomes, right? I’m guessing that going public like George W. Bush on Social Security will put us over the top, but how do things look in the Senate right now? I figure that at worst, Congress would have to meet us halfway, just like Bush on Social Security and Clinton on health care.”

MAJORITY LEADER REID: “Thank you for your very serious proposal, Mr. President. I have a whip count in my desk somewhere that my intern typed on her imaginary typewriter. Let me get it for you.”

PRESIDENT OBAMA: “Great, thanks!”

[Instrumental version of "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" plays]

PRESIDENT OBAMA: “Hello? Is there a bad connection?”

[Instrumental version of "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" plays]

Exeunt.

Green Lantern ACA Addendum

[ 254 ] December 3, 2013 |

Armando asks a common question with respect to my post from this morning:

Well, whether the ACA was literally the most that could have been obtained is unknowable. But I will say this:

  • Of course Obama had agency.  It was because of him that health care reform was the top priority, and he certainly could have abandoned it in exchange for token reforms, as his chief of staff inter alia urged him to do after the election of Scott Brown.  Again, nobody thinks that the presidency is powerless.  The question is whether Obama could have done something to get a dozen+ conservative Democrats in the Senate to vote for progressive additions to the ACA they clearly didn’t support.
  • It seems to me that given many decades of failure to pass comprehensive health reform, the burden of proof rests squarely on those who think that Obama could have gotten substantially more.  How, in concrete terms, is Obama getting Lieberman’s vote for a public option?  Then repeat for Nelson, Bayh, etc. etc.   (And, no, “end the filibuster” isn’t an answer, since there aren’t even 50 votes for that now.)
  • In particular, any counterfactual must take into account that Bill Clinton tried the strategy most commonly favored by the ACA’s left critics (develop a plan, use public pressure to get Congress to pass it), and it was an utter catastrophe that set back health care reform for a generation.  Again, the burden of proof is one those who want to argue that Obama should have repeated this strategy rather than trying to do something different, especially since Obama’s actually, you know, worked.
  • If you look at the comments thread, it’s instructive that the “Obama failed by getting unprecedented legislation passed” crowd can’t help assuming that Obama is a Westminster Prime Minister.  Did you know that Obama “let” Max Baucus take charge of the bill as a powerful Senate committee chairman?  Not if you understand anything about American politics.
  • If you want me to take your counterfactuals seriously, it’s probably best to not characterize plans that are supported by Republicans only when supermajorities of liberal Democrats would pass them anyway as “Republican plans.”

Green Lanternism, Right and “Left”

[ 43 ] October 2, 2013 |

Nick Gillespie thinks that you shouldn’t worry yourself about which party is responsible for refusing to negotiate or which party is trying to leverage economic damage of various scope in order to get an agenda that was just rejected by the electorate implemented because probably Both Sides are Doing It. Rather, we should focus on the president who is causing everything by refusing to lead, with leadership:

The one thing that shouldn’t be slighted, though, is that it is ultimately Barack Obama’s fault. He’s the deciderer, right, the top dog? The eight years of his time in office will be known to future generations as the Obama Years and not the Boehner Perplex or the Reid Interregnum.

[...]

Indeed, the shutdown is happening because the federal government doesn’t have a budget for fiscal 2014, which starts today. The reason it doesn’t have a budget is because the Republican-led House passed a budget calling for $3.5 trillion in spending, the Democratically controlled Senate passed a budget calling for $3.7 trillion in spending, and President Obama issued a proposal calling for $3.77 trillion in spending. This happened back in the spring. The House and the Senate passed their budget plans in late March. The president’s proposal, the last to be issued, came out on April 10.

[...]

Then you compounded legislative issues by failing to kick the asses of sorry little functionaries like John Boehner and Harry Reid to pass budgets on a regular basis. At this point, you’re one for five, batting .200 on budgets. If you had forced the budget process, most Americans would never have learned of the debt limit, whose increase you used to rail against so eloquently. It’s hard, after all, for Congress not to pass increases to pay for spending it budgeted through the normal budget process.

Like a head-in-the-clouds grad-school layabout, you yourself were late on just about everything too, such as Obamacare deadlines and this year’s budget plan. Think about it: You became unpopular enough that Americans were willing to vote back into partial power the same team that gave us the goddamn Bush years.

You lost total control of the federal government and thus the ability to not have to offer anything. Get over it. Figure out how to fix the impasse and spend way more money than the American people think the government should be spending.

After all, it’s your name on the era.

First of all, I love the opening tautology — some people will name a political era after the president as shorthand, and some subset of them might be unsophisticated enough to think that this means that the president dominates domestic policy, and this proves that Sorkin and Westen are right! (It probably goes without saying that he moves on to the old “how can you say that the president has limited power over domestic policy when the president can bomb stuff when there’s obviously a single indivisible entity called Presidential Power so haha gotcha” routine.) Also note the end, where Gillespie tries the classic conservertarian move of invoking general opposition to federal spending in the abstract while failing to note the far more relevant fact that most specific federal spending is highly popular. The rest I’ll outsource to Chait:

First, the lack of a conference to negotiate the House and Senate budgets didn’t happen for “all sorts of reasons.” It happened for one reason: Democrats pleaded to hold one and Republicans refused. Senate Democrats have spammed my e-mail in-box pleading for a budget conference on a near-daily basis. House Republicans refused because their strategy is not to negotiate through regular order but to use the threat of a shutdown and debt default to leverage unilateral concessions. This isn’t my partisan accusation. They said this themselves, repeatedly!

[...]

Third, Gillespie’s entire rant is beside the point, because the lack of a negotiated budget is not the cause of a shutdown. Budget conferences are designed to set long-term federal budget policy. Keeping the government open doesn’t require that. You just need to pass a “continuing resolution.” That’s it. Pass the CR, and the government stays open, and then you can either negotiate or not negotiate the federal budget.

It’s continually amazing to me that this publication publishes commentary on public policy by a writer who lacks even a rudimentary understanding of the policy process.

In fairness, lacking even a rudimentary understanding of the policy process is something that can be found on the nominal left as well:

However I have zero sympathy for the Obama administration as they struggle to correct these glitches in the federally run exchanges. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius has asked we give them “the same slack you give Apple,” but that is an unfair comparison since Apple is not forcing you to be their customer.

It’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference between this kind of ostensible “left” and conservertarians. Why not just start babbling about broccoli at this point?

Yes this is an incredibly difficult technological task, but it is only an incredibly difficult task because Obama chose to make it so difficult. President Obama and Congressional Democrats could have adopted a much better health care law that would have also been dramatically easier to implement. They chose not to.

Democrats could have just directly expanded public insurance to the uninsured. Even if they insisted on going with a private insurance system there was no need to build these exchanges. For example, in Switzerland the government simply mandates all insurers sell an approved basic package but there is no special government run site you are made to buy from.

If the incredible complexity at least provided real advantages that might be understandable. Instead the ACA was made needlessly complex so it could purposely leave in place an inferior system that allows the health care sector to continue to rip off Americans.

If you choose to make your plan needlessly complex, you won’t get any slack when you run into problems implementing it.

I guess there is a trivial and irrelevant sense in which the assertion that “Democrats could have just directly expanded public insurance to the uninsured” can be made sorta true. An entity called the “Democratic Party,” in an alternate political universe with a unicameral House about three times the size and heavily apportioned to emphasize liberal representation the way it’s currently apportioned to emphasize conservative representation might have been able to enact a single-payer plan. In the actually existing political universe of 2010, the idea that Obama could have “chosen” to enact Medicare for all is just absurd. As always, such arguments abjure history and structural limitations — the requirement to make social programs more complicated and worse to buy off vested interests is pretty much how social policy is made in the United States; it’s not an invention of Barack HUSSEIN Obama. And this is a particularly strange week to assume that we have a perfect constitutional system that is just being screwed up by those meddling Democratic presidents.

Who Smashed the Green Lantern?

[ 58 ] September 9, 2013 |

Sam Tanenhaus has a piece about presidential war powers that helps me understand why he commissioned a review of a bio of Willie Mays that consisted mostly of nostalgic blubbering about the Brooklyn Dodgers and the horrors of relief pitching:

But Mr. Obama might also have been acknowledging something else: that he holds office at a time when the presidency itself has ceded much of its power and authority to Congress. His predecessors found this, too. Bill Clinton discovered it after the 1994 election, when Newt Gingrich, the architect of the Republican victory in the House, briefly seemed the most powerful politician in the land.

George W. Bush discovered it 10 years later when he claimed a mandate after his re-election, only to see two of his prized programs — privatizing Social Security and immigration reform — wither amid resistance in Congress.

To note the obvious:

  • This is the same as it ever was. There has never been a time in history where presidents routinely just rammed their policy preferences right down the throat of an unwilling Congress.  And, yes, that very much includes FDR.
  • Syria is a very strange example to use as a hook for an argument about declining presidential power.  The authority of presidents to make war (unlike their before-the-fact powers on domestic policy) have substantially increased over the last century, and Congress failing to go along on Syria wouldn’t actually be a good counterexample.  The Libya example strongly suggests that had Obama just unilaterally decided to launch cruse missiles at Syria he could have done so without Congress doing anything about it.  He chose to request congressional approval, therefore putting the power of inertia against his  policy rather than in favor of it — but the key words there are “he chose.”   It doesn’t really tell us anything about the power of modern presidents to order military strikes.
  • If the decline in presidential power is supposed to be that Obama couldn’t just force Congress — including the house controlled by the other party — to go along, again there’s no actual change in presidential powers happening.

I’m not sure why the Times didn’t just go directly to Drew Westen if it wanted this terrible argument made again.

That Green Lantern Won’t Raise Itself!

[ 57 ] July 9, 2013 |

Shorter some unnamed “Democratic strategists”: “Nothing would have House Republicans more likely to support an immigration reform bill than have Barack Obama come out strongly in favor of it. He needs to be proactive, and certainly more strategically dynamic.”

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