Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Listening with the Third Ear to the Democratic Candidates

I watched several of the “audience participation” YouTube questions and answers after the democratic presidential candidates’ debate on 7/23/07. Nothing substantial was said that hasn’t already been recited. The candidates have scripts for just about any question, so it’s the usual fertilizer.

Except in one situation where a Tuber unveiled that old management retreat chestnut, “Say something you like and something you don’t like about the person on your left.” The answers seemed less scripted than usual so even though they were politically meaningless, they showed up some revealing personality traits.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

( question 36: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygaPwW-B2y4&mode=user&search= ).

Here, I “listen with the third ear” to their remarks.

Former Senator Mike Gravel: I like Chris Dodd. I knew his dad, I served with his dad. I do have a difference of opinion of where the money’s coming from…Follow the money to see who you are electing…

It’s hard to go first in this game because no context has been laid. The best Gravel can do is praise Dodd’s father, indicating how distant Gravel is in time and mentality from the other candidates. What does he dislike about Dodd? He doesn’t know Dodd. He is in his own world. Gravel generalizes to all the other candidates with a sweeping arm gesture. They, he implies, are corrupted by their campaign contributions, while I alone am not.

Since Gravel is most known for exposing the Nixon involvement in the Pentagon Papers case in 1971 and thereby helping to end the draft, it is perhaps not surprising that at 78 years old, he is now a conspiracy theorist himself. No doubt money does corrupt politics, but Gravel’s dark innuendos suggest only a broken flower container.

Senator Dodd: I like John Edwards and I have nothing negative to say. We’ve had enough negativity in politics. (Applause).

This perfunctory evasion denies the legitimacy of the game and indirectly, of Gravel’s remarks. Dodd has his helmet on and shield up at this point. Gravel praising his father put him in a shadow, and he is further annoyed by Gravel’s suggestion of corruption, also inappropriate, he thinks. Instead of dealing with Gravel’s remarks he expresses his unhappiness by denying “all negativity.” It’s a flat-footed response but it gets the monkey off his back without having to acknowledge his annoyance or think of anything clever to say.

Former Senator John Edwards: Um, I admire what Senator Clinton has done for America and what her husband did for America, um, but I’m not sure about that coat.

He accepts responsibility for answering the question and avoids a real criticism by making a light joke about her outfit. It’s hard to think fast on your feet, and Hilary did stand out like a Nemo among the sharks on stage, but that very fact made Edwards’ remark an implicit gender criticism, a surprisingly unenlightened reaction. His praise of Bill Clinton in his comment further emphasizes his discomfort about the idea of a woman president. He would no doubt deny that attitude, but that is the message he sent.

Senator Clinton: Yeah, John, it’s a good thing we’re ending soon. (To audience) …I mean (a vague upward gesture of the left hand), I admire uh, and like very much, uh, Barack, (a half head turn in his direction without looking at him ) as I do with all the candidates here. What you’ve seen tonight is how ready the Democrats are to lead…

Hillary’s jibe at Edwards’ remark was with smile and in a light tone, but did convey that the remark was annoying and off key. She makes a little joke of it, but clearly putting him down and reinforcing her image as “bristly.” In fact that putdown took so much mental energy out of her, she had to stall to remember which hand was her left and even Obama’s first name, and then she couldn’t issue a syntactically correct sentence.

That performance shows where her energies naturally flow and where her priorities are: self-defense of her own image before engagement in the ideas. Realizing perhaps that her sentence was garbled, her frustration increased further, so she lapsed into a slogan about being ready to lead, overtly refusing to play the game any more.

Even so, she managed to state again what was on her mind. “All the Democrats are ready to lead” means, from her point of view, that “Despite my neon coral outfit, I am fully equal to any of these dark-suited Democratic men here and just as ready to lead.” She is still bristling about the jacket remark. Her annoyance is well justified but she can’t let it go. Her focus remains deeply egocentric and that trips her up.

Senator Obama: I actually like Hillary’s jacket. I don’t know what’s wrong with it. (Turning…) I like the fact that Bill Richardson has devoted his life to public service. …I don’t like the fact that he likes the Yankees or the Red Sox but (gesturing to himself with both hands) not apparently the White Sox and we’re having a tough time this year.

AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain

Obama also picked up on the inappropriateness of Edwards’ jacket remark, and on Hillary’s anger over it. Obama is the consummate listener. I don’t think he is piling on about the jacket, but genuinely trying to give her some support. His subtext is “Don’t pay any attention to him, Hillary; you’re fine.” In an even quieter subtext he says, “And if you get there before I do, don’t forget who your friends are.” He is a masterful communicator.

Turning to Richardson, Obama grapples with the race issue by focusing on the colors of people’s socks. He is aware that he and Richardson are the only “ethnic” candidates so he subconsciously addresses that with a color theme disguised as baseball talk. But he doesn’t want to be an “ethnic” candidate, but rather (with big hand gesture) a white (e.g., non-ethnic) candidate.

Further, he notes that he is having a tough time this year walking the racial tightrope and trying to rise above his color. This is a fair concern for his campaign. It is a little disappointing, but understandable, that he sizes up Richardson first and foremost as an ethnic category.

Governor Richardson: I love all the candidates here and I think they would all do great … as my vice president. The only negative thing about Joe Biden… We disagree on Iraq, very strongly, on Darfur, but this man has devoted his whole life to public service… and he will make an excellent Secretary of State for me (laughs).

Richardson begins by playing the jester but then seems to realize that is not the impression he wants to leave, as his fractured sentence structure shows him trying to change course. But he overshoots and lands on the negative before he realizes that he didn’t say anything positive yet, so he backs up and heaps considerable praise, which seems genuine enough, on Biden (who soaks it up). Then, realizing he has been perhaps too effusive in his praise, Richardson self-corrects again and finishes with a joke.

The joke is, “We all know that there is no chance that I will win the nomination, so that’s just a joke.” What’s his game then? Richardson’s detailed listing of Biden’s achievements is a clear demonstration of how he himself would like to be assessed, since Richardson also has a distinguished record of service, in congress, as governor, at the UN, and as a Cabinet member. So what is he trying to say? Simply, “Hey everybody, I’m running for Secretary of State over here!”

I can’t tell just how unconscious Richardson’s subliminal message was. It is delivered so naturally and transparently that he must have given the matter of his status in the campaign considerable thought before last night, so maybe his message was really more, cagey than subconscious.

Also notice how tough it is for Richardson to think on his feet. His words get ahead of his self-monitoring so he is always in a self-correct mode, but in the end, he does finish the dance on the right foot. Awkward though it seems, it gets the job done and at least it is real-time thinking, not Kabuki theater.

Senator Biden: Turning to Cucinich: I don’t like a damn thing about him! No, I’m only kidding, only kidding. Dennis and I have been friends for 25 years (no pause, baring teeth, not a smile), I think this is a ridiculous exercise. Dennis, the thing I like about, the best about you is your wife (smirk).

It sounds like Biden really has been friends with Cucinich for a long time. He would have to be, to get away with such nasty remarks. Biden is angry at having to play the game, even though he has had over three minutes to prepare an answer. This tells me that he does not think well on his feet, is frustrated at being required to do so, and he gets angry when he is frustrated.

Instead of explaining why the game is silly, or refusing it in a more subtle way, as Edwards and Clinton did, or sublimating his remarks to a subterranean message the way Obama and Richardson did, Biden just lashes out personally at his purported friend. He starts with the not-funny joke that he doesn’t like a damn thing about Cucinich, then follows with a left handed compliment “Your wife is nice, but you stink.”

I don’t think Biden dislikes Cucinich at all. The frightening part of his reaction is the primitive defense mechanism of displacement, unconsciously kicking his friend instead of acknowledging that his anger is at the game, and that the game makes him angry because he is not very good at it. That’s scary stuff and frightening to see in a presidential candidate.

(Announcer: Congressman Cucinich, please talk about Senator Gravel).

Congressman Cucinich: Hey wait a minute! He talked about my wife! (Laughter). You notice what CNN did, they didn’t put anyone to the left of me. Think about it… (Laughter). But there’s no one more mainstream on the war than I am… But now, about Senator Gravel. Didn’t he show great courage during the Vietnam War? …I’m proud that he’s up here. Thank you Senator Gravel.

Cucinich is no milquetoast. He acknowledges Biden’s aggression and loudly points it out for the audience to see. All under cover of a laugh, to be sure, but his message is “Joe can’t help himself. I know he doesn’t mean it personally and I see that and don’t hold it against him.” Actually he names CNN rather than Biden as the aggressor: “You notice what CNN did…” so he really does not want to acknowledge the intensity of Biden’s displaced aggression. Then he suggests that he would like to punch back at Biden, but since he is at the end of the line, “there is nobody left” to punch at. That is a very skillful, self-effacing joke, in a difficult situation, that manages to defuse the mood even while expressing his own anger at Biden’s outburst. Very impressive real-time thinking.

Cucinich follows up by reinforcing his primary issue, ending the war, then gives some genuine praise to Senator Gravel, thanking him for his important historic role. Not only does this further demonstrate Cucinich’s generosity, but at the same time takes care of a difficult situation: how to say what he likes about someone who is not really in touch with any issues Cucinich cares about. Again a very nimble and effective performance.

Thus the candidates are psyched out. Isn’t it amazing how much more we say than we say?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Romney in Foreign Affairs

Romney on Foreign Affairs

The current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine (July/August 2007; www.foreignaffairs.org) has articles by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, each giving their view of the lay of the land and outlining their foreign policy agendas. I assume both men have staffers who edited, if not produced the articles, but at least the ideas should fairly represent the candidates’ views. Here I review Romney’s article.

Romney’s essay begins badly, with an arbitrary division of the American polity into “realists” and “neoconservatives,” without defining either. In batting down this false dichotomy he then insists that all neoconservative policies are grounded in reality and all realists admit that “much of the United states’ power and influence stems from its values and ideals.” What? Is “neoconservative” a code word for “idealist”? Either this whole introduction is written in political codes that go over my head, or Romney is just inarticulate.

Today’s challenges are listed: the “conflict” (not war) in Iraq, the Taliban, terrorists, nuclear proliferation, Darfur, AIDS, and Hugo Chavez (!). This is a remarkable list for its inclusion of Chavez but not bin Laden, and its omission of climate change, the Middle East, North Korea, and many other vital topics.

Romney continues with a garbled call for a return to leadership values of the past, especially those of Eisenhower at Normandy and those of the space race during the Cold War. How those sets of values are comparable is beyond me. Romney’s main emphasis seems to be that after WWII, Americans established all manner of new government institutions, such as the National Security Council, the Peace Core, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. That was a good thing, for reasons unstated, and we should now be “equally bold.” We should radically reorganize the government? Why? He doesn't say, and I discern only dark intentions, discussed below, in this suggestion.

On Iraq: Romney says that “walking away” from Iraq would present “grave risks” to the United States, chief among them that a “regional conflict could ensue,” presumably worse than what prevails now. Irrationally, and without argument, he pins all his hopes on General Petraeus’ “new strategy” (which was to add a few more troops). While Romney will not predict success (however that might be defined), he insists that an unknown amount of additional time is needed for the “strategy” to succeed (whatever that might look like). This is the administration’s party line and since it does not make any sense, Romney can hardly defend it, so he merely quotes it.

Many people do not comprehend the threat of radical Islam, he claims. Violent extremists reject and resist the “universal values” of the United States, he says. This is a shockingly naive and self-contradictory claim. As terrorism against us demonstrates, U.S. values (whatever Romney thinks they are) are clearly not universal! Oblivious to the contradiction, he notes that radical Islamists seek destruction of the U.S. and worldwide domination. He’s probably right about that.

Yet this threat is “fundamentally different,” he says from the threats we faced during WWII and the Cold War. Why? Because our enemies now have sleeper cells rather than armies. Did communists not have sleeper cells? Does the Taliban not have an army? Romney’s reasoning is flawed but I think he is trying to point out that Islamic terrorists are not uniformed national troops that can be readily identified with any nation. Logic would compel one to ask then why we invaded Iraq, but he is not prepared to discuss that. He notes only that our president has led a “dramatic” response against terrorism. I agree that it has been dramatic.

More threats to national security are then listed: underfunded military, dependence on foreign oil, poor intelligence, pandemic disease, genocide, inept U.N., Iran’s nuclear capabilities. No solutions or strategies are offered against those threats. Instead, Romney bemoans the U.S.’s unpreparedness. We need a stronger military and a stronger economy, he says. Pursuing these will be “controversial” (for unstated reasons) and will be “strongly resisted” (by unnamed opponents) because it will require unspecified “dramatic changes to Cold War institutions.” Does he want to reorganize government bureaucracy; is that what he’s getting at? He hinted at this idea in his introduction and here it is again.

Strengthening the Military and the Economy: Romney would immediately add at least 100,000 troops to the services and massively upgrade weapons systems, up to 4% of GDP. This is easily affordable, he notes, in comparison to what we are spending to fight present wars (which implies he would end the current wars to offset that spending, although he does not say that. If he would increase the military budget while continuing to spend at present rates, the country would surely be bankrupt in a year or two).

What about the economy? Smaller government and lower taxes are the standard Republican keystones, not forgetting better schools and health care, more technology investment and promotion of free trade; all the while maintaining the strength of America’s family values and moral leadership (what’s left of it).

Energy Independence: Romney insists that American must become free of foreign energy sources. How? By ramping up energy technology and by drilling for oil in the Alaskan wildlife refuge. In addition, we need more nuclear power, ethanol, and exploitation of coal. Climate change is not mentioned, nor is nuclear waste disposal.

Rethinking Civilian Capabilities: By “civilian capabilities” Romney means the non-military aspects of the executive branch of government, such as the National Security Council, Department of Defense, U.S. Agency for International Development and other components in banking, education, energy, law enforcement, and diplomacy. For the third time, he seems to be suggesting a massive reorganization of the bureaucracy. Why? He says, to provide clear chains of command, better communications, flexibility, and more “unity.”

It is difficult to understand what point Romney is getting at with this proposal but my gut fear is that he would like to create a monarchy with himself as king. This certainly has been the natural instinct of the Bush administration so it would not be a stretch of the imagination for Romney to wish to continue that trend. He speaks only about the need for national power and results, never about balancing constitutional freedoms and civil rights. Without understanding exactly what he is proposing, I find his vague allusions truly chilling.

Strengthening Alliances: Romney focuses on the UN Human Rights council as an example of a failed institution and he implies that he is not too keen on the rest of the UN either. In the one original idea that I discerned in his essay, he seems to suggest, however vaguely, that the UN is not reformable, and that instead, we should build an alternative to it out of the foundation of NATO, and use that as the international basis for defeating terrorism, stopping the spread of WMDs, and protecting human rights in places like Darfur.

It is not at all clear to me that this is a practical idea, but it is definitely an idea. I agree that the UN is unreformable due to the structure of the security council. An end run around the UN offers both opportunities and dangers. The chief danger would be the prospect of a virtually unilateral US foreign policy unchecked by its most serious opponents. That would be a good thing for the monarch in charge, less good for everyone else.

Romney says his first official act would be to call for a Summit of Nations to address international issues. This “S.N.,” possible successor to the UN, would lead to a coalition of states and NGOs that would assemble resources to support education, microcredit, human rights, health care and free market policies throughout the world but especially in modernizing Islamic states. Notwithstanding my fear and suspicion of a megalomaniacal power grab, the basic idea that it is in our long term self-interest to support trade and economic development in Islamic countries is a wise one. I am convinced that physical well-being will speak louder to people than vitriolic ideology.

Romney insists that “Congress must give the president the authority to move forward with these efforts…” But I say no. I have had it up to here with the American monarchy. No single person is wise enough to run this country, which is why we have a tripartite system. I am not prepared to dismantle our system of government for the sake of today’s whiz-bang idea, no matter how good it sounds at the moment.

I wonder if we must inevitably pay the price of allowing limited intellect, flawed personality, or even mental disorder into the Oval office as the only way to get strong ideas and bold changes into the executive. Healthy, educated, well-rounded individuals are overwhelmed by the job. It’s a frightening thought.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Obama on Foreign Affairs

Obama in Foreign Affairs

The current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine (July/August 2007; www.foreignaffairs.org) has articles by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, each giving their view of the lay of the land and outlining their foreign policy agendas.

The pictures each man had with his article were probably self-selected, since Foreign Affairs online has differently edited versions. Obama is pictured from the waist up, in shirt and tie, coat open, hands resting on his hips, in the midst of a huge crowd of people. He is listening, and smiling broadly at something 45 degrees to the left that genuinely pleases him.

Romney submitted a chest and head shot, in shirt, tie, and buttoned coat, standing in front of a dark drapery, his head and shoulders flanked by huge American flags, a large microphone below his mouth, which is caught open in mid-lecture, right hand raised and aggressively pointing at the audience. His face is forward but eyes are shifted to the left and his head is slightly tilted. A half smirk is his expression.

The two pictures pretty much tell you everything you need to know about the two characters, but what about their intellectual ideas? I assume both men have staffers who edited, if not produced the articles, but at least the ideas should fairly represent the candidates’ views. Here I review Obama’s article.

Obama’s essay is long on “the vision thing.” He uses terms like “vision” and “visionary leadership,” “new vision,” and so on, repeatedly. He focuses only on threats that confront us, not any opportunities. His whole essay is essentially a collection of lists of keywords loosely stitched into a rambling narrative. He provides very few actual ideas and virtually no pragmatic suggestions. His main theme: he favors “diplomacy,” “collaboration,” and “brokerage” to military force. His essay is full of high-minded rhetoric that could be unkindly considered empty.

The main threats Obama identifies are nuclear proliferation, terrorists, and, global warming. That is a plausible list in about the right order. He explicitly and repeatedly blames the current administration for misunderstanding these threats and for giving wasteful and ineffective responses.

Iraq: Obama sees the Iraq war as a diversion from the fight against terrorism. There is no military solution in Iraq. What should be done then? We should put “pressure” on the warring parties to reconcile. Good luck! The pressure is the threat of U.S. troop withdrawal, to be substantially completed by the end of first quarter, 2008 (long before he would ever be in the Oval office). Is there any reason to believe that threat would cause the groups to reconcile? If there is, he doesn’t mention it.

We should also “launch a comprehensive regional and international diplomatic initiative to help broker an end to the civil war…” Good luck on that one, too.

In the broader Middle East, he states clearly that we will remain strongly committed to Israel, even while we “contend” with other threats in the region (List: Iran, Iraq, al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah). We must “strive to secure a lasting settlement.” Again, good luck! Some operational suggestions are offered but these are hardly more specific. We should “talk directly” to Iran. We should use diplomacy and pressure to “reorient Syria”, and so on.

The Military: The military is underfunded, understaffed, and underequipped he says without giving any specific data. But that assessment is true. He would rebuild the military immediately by throwing piles of money at it. . He would recruit 65,00 soldiers and 27,000 marines right away, recruiting only “the very best.” Once again, good luck! The armed forces have not been able to meet existing recruitment quotas. What would he do differently? No clue is offered.

Nuclear Proliferation: This, Obama identifies as the most urgent threat to the security of America, and I agree. The problem is obviously related to the fight against terrorism, but is a different “front” in that struggle.

How would Obama tackle this threat? By “working with other nations to secure, destroy, and stop the spread of these weapons…” I wish him the best of luck in that effort!

Specifically, we must “work with Russia,” and “not rush” to produce new warheads of our own (which is not to say that we should not produce them, only that we should not be in a rush). He would provide $50 million to fund an International Atomic Energy Agency to update the nonproliferation treaty. That’s pretty specific, although it hardly grabs the bull by the horns. North Korea should be dealt with by “sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy…” although a military option is not “off the table,” he says.

Terrorism: Here, Obama says an interesting thing: We must refocus our efforts on Afghanistan AND PAKISTAN as central fronts against terrorism. Naming Pakistan in that context is not incorrect, in my opinion, but bold, and enigmatic. Pakistan is our putative ally in the “war on terror.” If Obama is ready to speak truth, why not name also Saudi Arabia? It seems odd that he would single out Pakistan like that without explanation.

Anyway, what should we do about Pakistan? Obama would “join with our allies in insisting…that Pakistan crack down on the Taliban... and Osama…” I wish him the best of luck in his international “insistence”!

Here at home, Obama would throw money at homeland security, screening all cargo, hardening mass transit, and so on. He would reorganize the intelligence community (again!) in unspecified ways. Finally, he would develop a comprehensive strategy to fight terrorism. He hints (only) that such a strategy might involve massive financial aid to grass roots people in Islamic countries. How that would be accomplished is not mentioned, unsurprisingly.

Rebuilding Partnerships: To combat global threats against America, Obama’s main strategy would be to develop international partnerships, that have, he says, been neglected under the present administration. That seems a fair assessment and a plausible strategy. He would rebuild ties to traditional allies and rally NATO especially to contribute more troops to collective security. Good luck with that!

As for China, he will “encourage” China to play a more responsible role. He will “collaborate” with Brazil, India, and others on “pressing global issues.” He will reform the United Nations (by unspecified means) to address the Darfur crisis.

On global warming he will enact a carbon emissions cap and trade system and throw money at renewables. He will use “assistance policies” to help developing countries leapfrog the carbon-intensive stage of development. Great trick, if that could be pulled off!

Spreading Democracy: Obama does not actually say he will “spread democracy.” I think he is savvy enough to realize that forcing democracy on other cultures who don’t care to have it, is ineffective and actually a form of intellectual colonialism. So instead he talks about “freedom on the march,” not “democracy on the march.” He will merely “help build accountable institutions” around the world. How? By spreading money. He heartily endorses foreign aid and will double our annual giving, focusing especially on AIDS programs, and global education.

Finally, Obama would restore other countries’ trust in America, reestablishing American values for the world to see, and he would restore the American people’s trust in government. Good luck with that!

Overall, Obama demonstrates that he is aware of the relevant issues and their importance and implications, as the present administration does not always seem to be, so that is a positive message from any candidate. However, most informed people, especially those who read Foreign Affairs, are already going to be aware of those issues and would be looking for specific ideas and directions in the candidate’s foreign policy agenda. Obama emphasized diplomacy over unilateral military force as the best way to confront threats to America, and I agree with that at a high level of abstraction. But as for how, specifically, that would be accomplished? I am not hearing anything but platitudes and wishful thinking. This is very disappointing, especially from such a likable candidate, but it is completely consistent with my experience trying to squeeze some ideas out of his two best-selling books.

It may be that he believes his main job right now is to not shoot himself in the foot. He is riding a tremendous wave of unexpected popularity, and all that goodwill is his to lose. So maybe his best strategy as a candidate is to not have a strategy. That’s smart for him, perhaps, useless for me.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Scooter Redux

Three days ago, President Bush commuted the sentence of Scooter Libby, ex aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction and sentenced to 2.5 years hard time. I had predicted in this blog (June 14th) a full presidential pardon, at almost exactly this moment. But this was not a pardon, just a commutation of the sentence, which means that Libby stands convicted of his crimes but need not serve his sentence.

I did not foresee this outcome because I misoverestimated the president’s integrity. A full pardon would have been simple, legal, and straightforward. The president would say, in effect, “Libby’s petty wrongdoings are insignificant in light of his service.” A power play, but clear.

Instead, what we have is, “Libby is indeed a convicted criminal, but he won’t be punished because I like him.” This is the most unprincipled statement the president could have made, affirming his delusion that the executive branch is not answerable to the law.

Furthermore, the legal basis of his action questionable, which will surely lead to further arm-wrestling with Congress, and which eventually will necessitate a full pardon by the president, who did not have the fortitude to do the wrong thing correctly the first time. Thus, I still predict a full pardon, by January, 2009.