Archive for January, 2011

What Should the U.S. Root for in Egypt?

Hosni Mubarak is a dictator, despite whatever a clueless vice president says.  But while he may be an S.O.B, he’s our S.O.B., and it could be that the interests of the U.S. diverge from the interests of the Egyptian people.  Certainly if Mubarak gets replaced by a Sunni version of Iran’s Islamic theocracy, that would be A Bad Thing.

But how likely is that?  The chart above, from Nate Silver via Andrew Sullivan, is encouraging.

Egyptian popular opinion toward the United States has substantially improved over the course of the past 2 to 3 years, to the point that a new leader would probably not gain any points by expressing anti-American sentiment.The BBC World Service conducts an annual survey in 28 countries, in which it asks participants how they feel about each of the others. The BBC has interviewed Egyptians as part of its survey since 2007.

Egyptian sentiment toward the United States has improved dramatically since the survey began. In 2007, just 11 percent of Egyptians said they viewed the United States as having a “mostly positive” influence, versus 59 percent who said it had a “mostly negative” influence. The numbers were even worse the next year: 16 percent positive, but 73 percent negative.

The election of President Obama created a major change in opinion, however. In 2009, positive opinions about the United States rose to 40 percent against 48 percent negative. And last year — the first survey conducted after Mr. Obama’s well-received June 2009 speech in Cairo — positive opinions became the plurality, at 45 percent, against 29 percent negative views, figures comparable to those for survey participants in the United Kingdom and France.

Whether Obama’s Cairo speech was “well-received” depends on who is doing the receiving, but it seems clear that the replacement of Bush with Obama has had a strong positive effect for American popularity in Egypt.  And while other conservatives have found fault with Obama’s handling of the Egyptian crisis, I don’t see much to criticize.  This is not  the good-versus-evil riots in Iran in 2009, when it took Obama five embarrassing days to unambiguously side with the protesters over a regime that has been at war with us since 1979.  Not only is Mubarak a long-standing U.S. ally, he’s not nearly as oppressive as the mad mullahs in Tehran. It makes perfect sense for the U.S. to adopt a neutral stance regarding Egypt.

While the Egyptians may favor Obama over Bush, Bush will deserve some credit for any positive outcome in Egypt.  Max Boot:

But whatever happens, one thing is already clear: as Pete Wehner has already noted, President Bush was right in pushing his “freedom agenda” for the Middle East.

When he pushed for democratic change in the region, legions of know-it-all skeptics — including Barack Obama — scoffed. What business was it of America to comment on, much less try to change, other countries’ internal affairs? Why meddle with reliable allies? Wasn’t it the height of neocon folly to imagine a more democratic future for places like Iraq or Egypt?

Turns out that Bush knew a thing or two. He may not have been all that sophisticated by some standards, but like Ronald Reagan, he grasped basic truths that eluded the intellectuals. Reagan, recall, earned endless scorn for suggesting that the “evil empire” might soon be consigned to the “ash heap of history.” But he understood that basic human desires for freedom could not be repressed forever. Bush understood precisely the same thing, and like Reagan he also realized that the U.S. had to get on the right side of history by championing freedom rather than by cutting disreputable deals with dictators.

Hm… Comparing Bush with Reagan… where have I heard that before?

Who says the federal government isn’t responsive to ordinary citizens?

Barely a year has passed since A.T.I.N. advised Janet Napolitano to scrap the silly color-coded alert system, and now published reports say the Homeland Security Secretary will do exactly that in a speech tomorrow.

There have been complaints about about the five-tiered system since its adoption. In its eight years, the alerts fluctuated between yellow for “elevated” and orange for “high,” reaching red for “severe” once, on Aug. 10, 2006. In that case, the alert was applied to flights coming from the U.K. after discovery of a “well-advanced plan” suggesting that al-Qaeda was plotting to use liquid explosives and detonators disguised as electronic devices to blow up jetliners in midair.

The threat level was lowered to orange three days later and has remained there. The green or blue symbols, representing the lowest threat levels, have never been used.

“Each and every time the threat level was raised, very rarely did the public know the reason, how to proceed or for how long to be on alert,” Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, ranking Democrat on the House homeland security panel, said in a statement.

After the color-coding was introduced, all the cable networks had the color of the day embedded in their chyrons at the bottom of the screen.  I think that lasted about two weeks.  The rainbow-inspired alert hierarchy will apparently be replaced by a monochromatic system of more specific alerts aimed at particular audiences, such as law-enforcement officials or airline travelers.

Disclaimer: Janet did not actually consult with me on this one, and may not be making this change directly in response to my recommendation.

At church today I had the privilege of reading excerpts, from the lectern, of one of the greatest speeches in American history.

I was worried that I wouldn’t make it all the way through without crying.  I have a Boehner-like tendency to dissolve in tears on solemn occasions — not just at funerals, but also at weddings and ordinations, and whenever some spoken sentiment profoundly moves me.

This is the weekend of Martin Luther King Day, and it was only 15 minutes or so before the opening hymn this morning that I learned I would be reading from Dr. King’s speech. I was intent on doing justice to the text, so I ignored the early part of the service as I sat in the pew, listening to the famous cadences march through my mind. Here is the passage that choked me up repeatedly; it’s at about the 6-minute mark in the video:

I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

A dream deeply rooted in the American dream.  Dr. King had grievances with some Americans, but a deep love for America.  Yes, I know about the dalliance with socialism, and about the anti-war activism that sometimes lapsed into anti-American rhetoric.  But Dr. King deserves to be judged on the totality of his life, and for paving a path for others to follow.

Nearly half a century later, another skilled black orator would proclaim America’s greatness even while urging Americans to do better. In eulogizing a murdered nine-year-old girl last week, President Obama said:

We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us. That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

When Dr. King gave his famous speech, Obama was just two years old — too young to share Christina’s interest in politics.  But Obama came of age in a society profoundly shaped by Dr. King’s legacy — so profoundly that a daughter of a slave lived long enough to vote for the first black president.

Ulysses Grant Dietz

I made it through my reading of Dr. King’s speech this morning, then returned to my pew to listen to a moving sermon by parishioner Ulysses Grant Dietz, the great-great-grandson of the general who won the war that freed the slaves.

Ulysses talked about “the bubble of integration and acceptance of diversity” that we enjoy in Maplewood, NJ.

My children, who are not white, have never been taunted because of their skin color, nor because they are adopted, nor because they have two fathers, nor because one of their fathers is Jewish.  They have black friends, and Asian friends, and white friends, and even gay friends—all of which would have been unimaginable in the Syracuse of my childhood.

The road to civil rights paved by MLK Jr. is not complete. The legal instruments of justice and equal civil rights for all Americans are largely in place—with some glaring exceptions. Living into those legal facts, however, is still, as we all know too well, a work in progress.  But we are on that road, and together we are moving forward.

America is not perfect, but it is exceptional.  Dr. King helped make it a better place through his leadership, his eloquence and his sacrifice.  Happy Martin Luther King Day.

In the Face of Evil, Good People Did Something

Evil

Seldom has any news event captured the spirit behind this blog’s title as powerfully as the atrocity (not tragedy) in Tucson.

“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”  It’s usually quoted as “good men,” but since Edmund Burke apparently did not actually say it, I’ve felt free to modernize the language.

Sometimes good people don’t get a lot of warning before they have to step up.  I yield to nobody in my admiration for Sergeant Kim Manley, the brave civilian police officer who first traded shots with the Fort Hood jihadi — and was shot twice for her troubles.  But it does her no disservice to note that when she ran toward the gunfire, she was responding to her training and doing the job that the police force paid her to do.

Patricia Maisch had no such training. She’s a 61-year-old small business owner who “came out to thank Giffords for her vote [in favor of] the stimulus bill.”  I’ll forgive her that, as she was the bystander who grabbed the second magazine (of 31 rounds) from Jared Lee Loughner before he could continue firing.  How many more dead would there have been?

Not all heroes are women, of course.  24-year-old Joe Zamudio heard the shots and ran toward them, prepared to take action; he was carrying a concealed, legal handgun.  He told MSNBC (at 2:12 in the video):

I saw another individual holding the firearm, and I kind of assumed he was the shooter, so I grabbed his wrist and told him to drop it, and forced him to drop the gun on the ground.  When I did that, everyone said, no, no, it’s this guy, it’s this guy.  And I proceeded to help hold that man down…

[At 4:40:] Sir, when I came through the door, I had my hand on the butt of my pistol, and I clicked the safety off.  I was ready to kill him.  But I didn’t have to do that, and I was very blessed that I didn’t have to do that, and I was very blessed that I didn’t have to go to that place.

The Second Amendment has never been a primary issue for me.  To the extent I’ve thought about it at all, I’ve generally favored tighter gun control. But episodes like this, and Virginia Tech, and Fort Hood, make me more sympathetic to arguments about the benefits of an armed populace.  The challenge, of course, is to find ways to keep guns out of the hands of deranged people like Jared Lee Loughner, while putting them into the holsters of responsible citizens like Joe Zamudio.

Congressional Intern Daniel Hernandez brought his nursing background into play and provided first aid that may have saved the Congresswoman’s life. “It was probably not the best idea to run toward the gunshots, but people needed help,” he said.

The Web Goddess, who can’t stand the sight of the photo of Loughner, pointed me to a Slate “Explainer” column published in the wake of Virginia Tech.  It says that if confronted by a gunman, your best bet is to run away, as it’s hard to shoot a moving target.

Patricia Maisch, Joe Zamudio, Daniel Hernandez — they all did exactly the opposite.  When confronted with evil, the good people did something.

I saw another individual holding the firearm, and I kind of assumed he was the shooter, so I

grabbed his wrist and told him to drop it, and forced him to drop the gun on the ground.  When

I did that, everyone said, no, no, it’s this guy, it’s this guy.  And I proceeded to help hold

that man down.

Sir, when I came through the door, I had my hand on the butt of my pistol, and I clicked the

safety off.  I was ready to kill him.  But I didn’t have to do that, and I was very blessed

that I didn’t have to do that, and I was very blessed that I didn’t have to go to that place.

Sarah Palin and everyone associated with her political action committee are, no doubt, regretting the boneheaded decision to superimpose crosshairs on the districts of Gabrielle Giffords and other House members Palin was “targeting” in the 2010 campaign.

But it’s easy to make too much of the ad, and there was support for Palin from an unlikely source today.  Writing in The Daily Beast, Tina Brown’s left-leaning news and opinion site, former WaPo media columnist Howie Kurtz, puts it in perspective:

The use of the crosshairs was dumb. But it’s a long stretch from such excessive language and symbols to holding a public official accountable for a murderer who opens fire on a political gathering and kills a half-dozen people, including a 9-year-old girl….

This isn’t about a nearly year-old Sarah Palin map; it’s about a lone nutjob who doesn’t value human life….

Let’s be honest: Journalists often use military terminology in describing campaigns. We talk about the air war, the bombshells, targeting politicians, knocking them off, candidates returning fire or being out of ammunition. So we shouldn’t act shocked when politicians do the same thing. Obviously, Palin should have used dots or asterisks on her map. But does anyone seriously believe she was trying to incite violence?

Others on the left side of the media spectrum reacted more predictably.  In The New Yorker, George Packer wrote:

[F]or the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale. Instead of “soft on defense,” one routinely hears the words “treason” and “traitor.” The President isn’t a big-government liberal—he’s a socialist who wants to impose tyranny. He’s also, according to a minority of Republicans, including elected officials, an impostor…. This relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right. (On the left it appears in anonymous comment threads, not congressional speeches and national T.V. programs.)

Packer falls into the common trap of believing that the opposition is uniquely guilty of inflammatory tactics and statements.  I’ve written about this phenomenon before — see, for example, “Don’t Blame Me for Rush Limbaugh, I Won’t Blame You for Michael Moore,” and “Left Vs. Right: Who Has the Best Echo Chamber?

Packer tries to inoculate himself with a lame aside about “anonymous comment threads.”  But Checkpoint, a 2004 novella based on a fictional plot to assassinate then-President George W. Bush, was not published in an anonymous comment thread, nor even by an obscure publishing house.  It was published by Knopf, a storied 95-year-old imprint and a division of Random House.  (Yes, I know that’s only one example.  But it’s one more specific example than Packer gave.)

Jonathan Tobin at “Contentions” puts his finger on a double standard:

As the political left seeks to use the Arizona tragedy to tar all conservatives with the brush of the murderer, there is another point to remember here. In the past few years, there have been several shootings and terrorists attacks carried out or attempted by American Muslims who were clearly influenced by extremist Islam.

Yet every time such a crime happens, liberals loudly warn us that an examination of the motives of those who carry out such attacks is beyond the pale, since such ruminations might be prejudicial to Muslims, even if the truth is that those crimes were influenced by Islam.

When a crime has a seriously deranged perpetrator, like the young man who opened fire in Tucson yesterday, it’s counterproductive to speculate about where the suspect falls on the left-right political spectrum. There’s plenty of inflammatory rhetoric on both sides, and the whole point of realizing that the perp is a nutcase is to understand that his political opinions are not based on reality.

Since the shooting, the New York Times has published two separate articles about “a wrenching debate” or “a wrenching process of soul-searching” over the lack of civility in America’s public discourse.  Let’s hope this soul-searching continues past the current news cycle.

Because only one-third of the Senators face the voters in any given election, it was mathematically impossible for the Republicans to pick up enough seats in 2010 for a veto-proof majority that would allow them to overturn Obamacare altogether.  In the event, the GOP had to settle for a minority that increased enough to sustain a filibuster.

So now the strategy is to delay and defund the worst components of Obamacare whenever possible, while waiting for the courts and the election cycle to take care of the rest.

In the Weekly Standard, Noemie Emery does the best job I’ve seen of explaining how health care “reform” could continue to backfire on Obama and the Democrats.  I couldn’t improve on her headline, so I put it in quotes at the top of this post.  You really should read the whole thing, but of course you won’t, so here are some excerpts:

[S]eldom before has an administration governed so against the grain of public opinion, and when this occurs, there are costs. The costs are the loss of the House by a landslide of epic proportions and the implosion of support for the president’s party. The success is the passage of Obama-care, which liberals believed would change things forever. Congresses come and go, so they said, while a historic reform is forever: It would live on, they averred, while the results of the midterms would blow off quite quickly. But even before the Eastern District Court of Virginia blew a large hole in Obamacare in early December, finding its individual mandate unconstitutional, there were signs that this bargain was taking on water.

Because the historic GOP tsunami occurred in a Census year, Republicans will have significantly more influence over the gerrymandering process than they would have otherwise.

Added to this, Obama now faces hostile state governments in all the swing states he won two years ago, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, as well as Ohio, Virginia, and Florida. He has to win most of these, or else he’s a goner.

The GOP-dominated House undoubtedly will pass an outright repeal of all or most of Obamacare, which will never get to the Senate floor for a vote.  However,

The House will make life hard for the Democrats in the Senate, 23 of whom are up for reelection in 2012 [versus only 10 Republican senators-KP], and 13 of whom come from states in which Obamacare is extremely unpopular and which took a sharp turn to the right in the recent midterm elections. It will force them to vote over and over on health care, choosing between their constituents and their party and president, knowing their “aye” votes will find their way into commercials run by their GOP challengers, and their “nay” votes will enrage their own party’s base. When they voted “aye” for the first time (in December 2009) it was bad enough, but they had no way of knowing that the endgame would become quite so ugly, that the act itself would become quite so unpopular, or that Obama would become quite so unable to save them from voters’ hostility; now they know all of these things.

The sweeping nature of the Democrats’ health care “victory” will work against them.

Along with the lawsuits, and fights in the House and statehouses, there seems to exist a distinct possibility that the act may collapse of its weight. Assembled in haste​​—​one might say desperation​​—​and larded with deals to secure votes and backing, it is a 2,000-plus page assemblage of time bombs with varying fuse lengths that are starting to blow up in succession, causing large numbers of people inconvenience, or money, or both. … “Firms Feel Pain from Health Law” ran a recent article in the Wall Street Journal describing the problems faced by large and middle-sized businesses in trying to understand, much less to comply with, the act.

“There’s [an] administrative burden just to try and understand the 2,400 pages,” said one executive, describing the pain of spending so much time and money on things that aren’t helping their companies grow. Because of this, among other reasons, the bill continues to grow more unpopular, as six in ten people now favor repeal.

Looking ahead to 2012:

If a Republican is elected in 2012, then health care is history. If health care is the issue, Obama will lose. If all things are equal, and it is an issue, a loss is still likely. If the economy rebounds strongly, Obama will probably win. But if it doesn’t, and he loses because of this reason, then health care will have helped do him in. Businesses are sitting on loads of cash these days, reluctant to invest and add jobs until they know what will happen with regulations and taxes under this new health care dispensation, which may take effect, be radically altered in the states or by Congress, or be blown away by the courts.

To paraphrase King Pyrrhus, another such victory and the Democrats are undone.

.

Along with the lawsuits, and fights in the House and statehouses, there seems to exist a distinct possibility that the act may collapse of its weight. Assembled in haste​​—​one might say desperation​​—​and larded with deals to secure votes and backing, it is a 2,000-plus page assemblage of time bombs with varying fuse lengths that are starting to blow up in succession, causing large numbers of people inconvenience, or money, or both. Almost every provision seems to have some part that conflicts with another or contrives in some way to screw up the market in ways hitherto unforeseen. Increased costs are causing employers to drop people from coverage, to charge more for coverage, or to drop drug coverage for employees’ children. Thus far, 222 waivers have been granted to members of interest groups who favor the Democrats, enabling them to opt out of parts of the plan that might become onerous. Doctors are planning to shutter their practices. The promises made by Obama​—​about being able to keep your own plan or doctor​—​are turning out to be hollow. “Firms Feel Pain from Health Law” ran a recent article in the Wall Street Journal describing the problems faced by large and middle-sized businesses in trying to understand, much less to comply with, the act.

“There’s [an] administrative burden just to try and understand the 2,400 pages,” said one executive, describing the pain of spending so much time and money on things that aren’t helping their companies grow. Because of this, among other reasons, the bill continues to grow more unpopular, as six in ten people now favor repeal. “It’s looking more and more as if [the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act] as passed is simply not politically (or practically) stable,” Megan McArdle wrote on the website of the Atlantic. “I think Democrats were counting on having more years to tweak it.  .  .  . That was a very dangerous gamble .  .  . considering how badly it did in the polls.” They counted on time to tweak it upward and left (assuming that history moves in just this direction), and now have to realize it will be tweaked downward and right, if it survives in the first place. And let us recall that all of their upbeat predictions​—​that Obama’s numbers would go up by 10 points once he signed it (Bill Clinton); that people would reward Democrats for having “proved they could govern”; that people would ignore or get over the process that was used to pass Obamacare; that it would be accepted and grow popular, like Social Security​—​have proved to be wrong.