Oct 022013
 
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Over the past few months, I have been cranking an awful lot of my thought and wordsmithing into the insatiable maw of Mark Zuckerberg. A vigorous discussion—okay, knock-down-drag-out brawl—with my friends whose one-size-fits-all impulsive response to all prospective actions by institutions they don’t like (e.g., military, intelligence, or corporate institutions) is NOOOOOOO simply couldn’t get their minds around why I thought putting some consequences alongside use of chemical weapons on civilians was a good idea.

All of that content went up onto Facebook, instead of here. Which means that’s where whatever eyeballs happened to point at it helped to line Zuckie’s pockets instead of giving me a little bump in Green Dragon visits.

My fault–I decided to do it that way, and as a lot of the conversation involved very long comment threads with much meandering into sinkholes, I’m not going to try to reconstruct it over here. It’s all old news now.

Anyway, the end result is that what could—and should—have been a set of pieces about why enforcing international WMD laws is important, why leverage is a necessary precursor to diplomacy, and why it was therefore completely against the cause of peace or human rights to screech that Obama should stand down and not threaten to strike Syria’s Assad for his actions…are not here.

Oh, well.

As it happens, *cough cough*, I was right. Gunboat diplomacy worked for Teddy Roosevelt, and it has now worked for Barack Obama: Vladimir Putin—the world’s poster child for Short Man Syndrome, turned up to 11—has blinked, and his puppy Assad is now going to have his chemical weapons taken away under international UN supervision.

Leaving the option for US use of force if he doesn’t on the table, in case you doubt who won the face-off.

In recent days, the President and the new President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, have begun stating to the press that each of them wishes/hopes there is a way for the US and Iran to begin to talk about the issues that divide them—in particular, the Iranian nuclear program. A few days ago, Barack Obama had a conversation with the Iranian President: the first time that has happened since 1979.

I don’t think this is a separate development from Russia’s cave on Syria.

At all.

I think there is an absolute connection between POTUS’ having just stared down Vladimir Putin, and Iran’s new interest in diplomatic engagement.

Of course, former Iranian President Ahmoudinejad had to be replaced first. But after 30 years, it would have been the status quo for Iran to maintain radio silence.

Here’s my read:

Obama has pretty consistently been up for reconsidering the nature of US postures v/v problematic states (including Israel, Libya, Egypt, and Syria). He has led the US not to follow the established script on these countries, which has had the effect of toppling Mubarak (previously propped up) and Qaddafi (previously left alone), shaking up Israeli politics (formerly no meaningful pressure on human rights & Palestine), and preventing Russia from coming to Syria’s aid by recognizing the opposition.

If I’m Iran, I think: Well, okay, there’s only one superpower in the neighborhood.

And I also think: opportunity. When is the next time I’m going to get a US President who doesn’t reflexively follow the dictates of AIPAC? Those sanctions hurt–a LOT–and if we didn’t have them, we could have a pretty sweet economy here. So screw the bluster and the usual line: I’m gonna condemn the Holocaust in the strongest possible terms, signal willingness to deal on the nuclear program, and pick up the phone.

Remarkable things are happening in the Middle East right now. Ugly and brutal as the conflict areas may seem, many of the indicators are actually positive. The era of despotism-as-norm has stumbled, certainly, if not ended completely. Yes, it was at the hands of the military, and it’s a mess, but the toppling of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt in the name of trying to have a pluralistic state is a defiance of the radical Islamist idea of establishing theocracies in the wake of military dictators. Sizeable democratic oppositions exist in Iraq, in Egypt, in Libya and in Syria. All are a mess, of course. But the only way they could be unmessed right now would be to have terrifying torture generals like Mubarak and Assad and Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi oppressing them.

The idea of the public franchise has entered the marketplace in the Arab world in a way it had not before. The President deserves some credit for encouraging this. Yes, it faces terrible opposition from the angry, bitter fanatics who want to pull the world back to the 16th century. But it is not going meekly into a hole and accepting its fate. Not even in Iran, which is one reason this unfreezing is now possible.

The sad thing to me is that because the administration has chosen deliberate, mostly undramatic, strategic chess moves instead of either a) doing nothing about use of chemical weapons on civilians to satisfy peaceniks, or b) bombing the shit out of everything in sight to please John McCain and the neocons, he gets no credit for this. Everybody is mad because he threaded the needle instead of trying to drive the thread through the eye with their favorite hammer.

Pundits are bizarrely trying to cobble recent events into some cohesive “Obama Doctrine”, and completely missing the point, which is that a doctrine is a one-size-fits-all policy that may look great in the news, but actually leads you into nothing but trouble in reality. The world is complex. If there is an “Obama Doctrine”, it is: don’t have a doctrine. Understand the context, look at the board, and make the best moves to advance your goals and values. Don’t get caught in the trap of ideology. Instead, solve problems.

(It bears pointing out that exactly the same approach brought us health care reform. If he’d had a “single payer doctrine”, no bill would have passed and nothing at all would have changed for at least a decade.)

Given the tinderbox that is the Middle East, this is not to say everything is going to be ducky. There is no possible approach which would lead to that in the short term.

But this has been played out about as well as I can imagine it being played, not only for US interests, but for the values of peace, democracy and human rights. Well done, Mr. President.

At publication, the Dragon was DIGGIN’ IT

Jun 132013
 
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Welcome back to the Green Dragon! Sorry we’ve been closed; as it turns out, Alexander the Great was buried in our parking lot. But the dig’s over, and we’re back in business. Here, try some of the new lager—it’s nice for warm weather.

I’ve been wrestling with friends on Facebook over the claims by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden of wholesale warrantless collection of private data by the NSA directly from the servers of the major internet companies. As far as I can tell, those who have swallowed this whole seem mostly to be projecting their fearful/angry beliefs onto “knowledge” that isn’t, and opting for outrage first, facts (maybe) later.

Some of these friends go so far as to suggest that there should be no government secrecy at all, which I find wildly naive. But for those who acknowledge that a nation cannot possibly operate diplomatically, militarily or to protect domestic security without keeping some information from those who don’t need to know it, there is still a steady howl over their “certainty” that their rights are being abridged.

Let’s start with facts. It is now becoming clear that Snowden’s claims are either quotes out of context or exaggerations. The initial Guardian report and the screeds of professional concern troll Glenn Greenwald stated that the NSA had direct access to the servers of the major ISPs, and was routinely sucking up your email, phone metadata, etc. without a warrant–a claim these companies vehemently and credibly deny.

As it turns out, that isn’t right, and the Guardian has now backed off the claim: in fact, the ISPs upload data requested from them by NSA or the FBI pursuant to a FISA court order to a secure FTP server that acts as a dropbox. Which is consistent with the steady denial of Snowden’s published claims by those who actually know the facts about the program.

Greenwald, characteristically, got it wrong and just keeps doubling down[UPDATE: that story has now been updated to show that the Guardian has now admitted that it got the story wrong]

The reality now coming out is an entirely different thing from Greenwald’s and the Guardian’s initial claim, and it isn’t in the least bit scary. The data collection is 1) limited to pertinent data about people under investigation; 2) meets a threshold justifying the judicial order in the eyes of a FISA judge; and 3) doesn’t under any circumstances enable intelligence agencies to filter or monitor the entire data throughput of these companies’ servers.

But those friends of mine who are prone to assume that government is just itching to go through their spam folders went with the first story, and most are sticking with it. It reinforces their prejudices, and no more information is welcome or required. My friends in this camp typically discount or completely dismiss the idea of threats to American lives; a couple have gone so far as to suggest that since car accidents kill more of us, we should pretty much just let terror attacks happen once in awhile in the name of preserving absolute data privacy.

Yesterday, General Keith Alexander, the current Director of the NSA, testified not only that dozens of actual terror attacks had been prevented by this program, and he would provide details in a closed session of Congress, but also that he wants a general overview of the program declassified, so Americans know specifically what it does.

Now, why would an evil Stalinist ubersnoop say such a thing in full light of the cameras? He could have declared that the information is classified and stopped there. By calling for greater transparency, he puts his own administration on the spot to follow through on his suggestion, and makes things far worse for them if they don’t. Why?

I’ll tell you why: because he knows that the program actually does balance privacy and security concerns, and operates within the rule of law. There is no other possible explanation…unless you believe that the declassified description of the program would be a deceptive smokescreen, rather than the truth. Which means you will never believe anything these institutions say, ever, and we’re now in the realm of ideology rather than reason.

My friends who have a reflexive suspicion of any agency with authority and power automatically assume the worst of such entities, and to me, that reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of governmental bureaucracies and the public employees who work for them. I’ve worked with a lot of employees of various public agencies in my career, and pretty much universally, what I’ve seen are people who believe they are serving the public and want to do what is in the public’s best interest.

They also want to keep their jobs. And going out on a limb with an overreach in application of authority is a great way not to do that.

I’d say it’s pretty much guaranteed that the civil service and line staff of entities like the CIA and NSA generally feel they are serving their country and helping to protect the people of the United States. They know that what they do has limits, and they have departments full of lawyers advising them to parse what those limits are.

Where things can go rotten is with the political appointees who head those agencies. There, you can have real problems. Put Cheney lapdog George Tenet in charge of the CIA, and agency staff will start being told to do things they really shouldn’t be doing, and that puts them in a bind.

A lot of intelligence people quit under the Bush misadministration, including National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism Richard Clarke, who proved to be a candid and truthful critic of the Iraq adventure, of the Bush gang’s malfeasance in ignoring evidence of the growing threat before 9/11, and of its dishonesty in selling the Iraq War later on. His integrity was so high that he ended his career rather than go with the gang’s agenda.

If you poke around, you’ll find a lot of reports that many who stayed at CIA hated the things they were being asked to do. The whole “enhanced interrogation” episode is a terrible black eye for the CIA, and they know it. I am certain that no one was more relieved than they were when the executive order came down from President Obama to end it. I believe that a part, at least, of the administration’s unwillingness to prosecute those associated with the program is because those who are truly guilty–Ashcroft, Gonzales, Tenet, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush–will never be touched. They have sovereign immunity. Only the little people would be taken down, and it wasn’t their idea. As it is, association with that program has become career poison: because of her involvement with it, the first woman to head the CIA’s Clandestine Service (as interim Director) was passed over for the permanent job.

There is no reason to believe that intelligence gatherers and analysts are scary people who are hell-bent to sniff out your Facebook friends and what kind of porn you’ve been surfing. Nor is there a reason to believe that wholesale trolling without warrants is taking place. Have we seen a wave of prosecutions of people based on information discovered through warrantless internet information seizures? No, we haven’t.

There is a difference between the men and women who have made their careers in doing what the vast majority must understand as serving the American people, and those who are appointed by Presidents to direct them. The former are trying to get the pertinent data in a legal way and to analyze it correctly: that is the best way to serve and the best course for their careers. While we would hope the latter had the same goal, we saw in the years of the Bush fiasco that when you appoint people who dismiss the Constitution as “just a piece of paper” to run intelligence agencies and the Departments of Justice and Defense, things can get pretty Orwellian.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act update of 2008 was intended to put a legal framework around the rogue and unaccountable behavior the Bush goons had committed. Yes, it’s a secret process—but it’s also a process which, again, requires approval by a judge before data collection and analysis occurs. A case has to be made that there is sufficient reason to target specific individuals with surveillance–the act does not allow a wholesale snoop into America’s internet traffic.

I would not be satisfied with a process that allowed the CIA or NSA to determine on their own whose data they could access. The potential for abuse here is very serious, and there need to be some checks and balances. But I’m satisfied with the process as described. I don’t believe that the people who are appointed to the FISA court are ill-intentioned and don’t care about the Constitution. They’re judges—high-ranking judges—and they became judges by having some respect for the law. Barring any evidence to the contrary, I will go with what I have seen to be true: that people who choose public service by and large do, indeed, serve the public to the best of their ability.

The weak link in all this is in who is appointed to head these agencies, and in that, fortunately, we have a say. We get to decide who is President, and who is in the Senate to confirm nominees. It’s by no means a perfect system, but it isn’t anything like the Chinese government, either.

At the end of the day, this debate hinges on trust. My friends who fear and distrust institutions do not and will not give those institutions performing functions for which they have distaste (generally, security and intelligence gathering) the benefit of the doubt*. Their default position is to assume the worst of both leadership and functionaries of these agencies, whether or not evidence—or even a rational motive—for wrongdoing is present.

I don’t think that makes any sense. Checks and balances are necessary, but wholesale dismissal of everyone who works for the agencies that perform the grittier functions of government is neither rational nor a workable way of engaging the politics of the country.

It is not a benign and gentle world. There are people who mean Americans harm, and who have articulated as their express mission the killing of our fellow citizens through secretly planned surprise attacks. No government can or should just ignore such conspiracies, and the only way to disrupt them is to identify those who plan to carry them out and stop them before they do so.

That has to happen in a manner that balances the civil liberties of citizens with the requirement to provide them with security, and I believe that is what is happening now. The 8-year nightmare of the Bush/Cheney years was an outlier, I believe–and one which would be far harder to return to in the wake of the update to FISA.

So I hope that NSA Director Alexander gets his wish, and the outline of how PRISM works is declassified for public examination. The head of NSA under Bush said yesterday that the Obama Administration is much more transparent about these programs than was its predecessor–he’s hardly a Democratic partisan, and I think that is a good indicator, once again, that our President is basically a decent man who is trying to do his job with integrity.

 

At publication, the Dragon was WEARY

*Yet nearly all of them want the government to take over their health care (as do I). Hmm.

Obama Errs

 Posted by at 8:27 pm  National Politics
Apr 052013
 

onoz_omg2So, those of you who have accused me of being nothing but a cheerleader for the President, hear this:

I hate the proposed shift to chained CPI for federal inflation calculation. It’s probably more accurate, but that’s no consolation for people who get smaller increases going forward.

That said, I think it’s important to understand that chained CPI wasn’t just thrown on the table by itself. The President’s proposed budget is a package. It includes significant tax increases and loophole closures targeting wealthy individuals and corporations, and its clear that his intent is to get beyond the endless nattering about debt and deficits so we can start rebuilding the country.

I don’t know that I agree with him about that, but I’ve always credited him with thinking big, and this is the kind of thing you get when someone thinks big. The kind of person willing to take on third-rail subjects like health care and tax hikes and guns and DADT and DOMA and infrastructure and energy and brain R&D initiatives probably isn’t ABLE to ignore an issue as big as the nation’s problematic balance of accounts. He has to try to do something about it. And he’s looking at those dates–not that far in the future, let’s be honest–when SS and Medicare start going broke, and he wants to fix that, too.

Personally, I’m with Paul Krugman in that I don’t believe the deficit is nearly as big a deal as most people seem to believe it is. I think the solution on SS and Medicare is simple: get rid of the income ceiling on contributions and charge FICA on every nickel people earn.

But everyone knows that isn’t going to fly. Not now.

I don’t like this proposal. And I don’t necessarily believe the President’s dogged effort to come to grips with the nation’s balance of accounts is as important as he thinks it is, especially in times like these. But to me it’s still clear he is trying to do what would be best for the country, as he understands it. So I won’t trash him for it and start in on Teh Big Lefty Stoopid about how he’s a closet corporatist blah blah blah.

I just think he’s wrong here. I think he’s making an error in perception, because what his base, the press and the opposition are seeing isn’t the integrated package he clearly intended to offer.

They’re just seeing naked Social Security cuts offered up, and that’s a tactical mistake.

At publication, the Dragon was NONPLUSSED

Dec 202012
 

keep-calm-and-stfu-127The Zeitgeist at Daily Kos is so annoying right now that I can’t stand to read it. Yet another iteration of Chicken-Littling about “OBAMA SELLING US OUT OMG OMG OMG OMFG!!!!!!!” Just like all the previous times…when, in the end, it has turned out he’s done nothing of the kind.

Markos himself has posted the same nonsense (here is one example diaryhe’s posted about five of them in recent days). Maybe he’s just stirring up the pushback, but the language he is using about what a lousy negotiator Obama iswhich flies in the face of historyis personal, insulting, and highly emotional. Also, baseless: it flogs a narrative that can only be considered true if you think failure to screech purist talking points while eating the Republicans’ lunch in policy face-offs is “weak”.

If you don’t think so, cast your eye back to the Republicans’ attempted hostage-taking of the debt ceiling in summer 2011.

Remember that one? Where the same Chicken Littles were screeching about “Obama slashing Medicare and Social Security”, because he’s a corporatist closet Republican blah blah yawn?

Remember the actual outcome? The actual outcome was to throw the deficit question to a commission which 1) everyone knew would fail to reach an agreement; 2) did, indeed, fail to reach an agreement; and 3) therefore, resulted in these impending sequester cuts which exempt Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, while balancing fully half of the cuts on the military…and don’t take place until after the Bush tax cuts expire, leaving all the leverage to whoever won the 2012 election.

In other words, understanding that anything he would have wanted would be dismantled under a Republican President anyway, Obama made the relatively safe bet that he would have a second term, protected the very things the Chicken Littles were certain he was destroying, and handed the GOP a live grenade with no pin and an achingly strong handle spring.

Yeah, that was weak negotiating, all right. Oh, also a big giant orange and lime green sell-out, let’s not forget that…while we’re tripping balls.

So that brings us to today. The current face-off’s necessary outcomes include

  1. Raising the debt ceiling, so the US doesn’t default on its credit (credit extended by act of CONGRESS, it bears saying…not by the President);
  2. Extending unemployment insurance benefits for millions who will lose them next week;
  3. Doing some kind of deal on the deficit that avoids the draconian cuts to both military and social spending which will happen under the sequester deal unless such a deal is made. That means raising revenue, cutting spending, or both.

This isn’t just a battle over policies. It’s a battle over who gets to own “reasonable” in the eyes of voters, with the 2014 midterm elections hanging in the balance. Context includes the coming sequester and the sunsetting of the Bush tax cuts. So as of Jan. 1, taxes will go up on everyone by quite a bit…improving the revenue situation a lot, but also blowing a hole in our economy, which is still floating barely above the waterline as it is.

Oh…and the election for Speaker of the House happens on Jan. 3.

That election is Boehner’s top priority, make no mistake. And he can’t possibly get a bill with NO expenditure cutting through his caucus–if he tries he’ll either lose that election or win it so narrowly as to become even weaker than he is now. The President has insisted that taxes must rise on the wealthy–his position during the campaign was all incomes above $250K, but he recently offered to reduce that to $400K, and cuts including changing the COLA for Social Security to a chained CPI system, which is actually a more accurate way of estimating cost of living increases, but liberals are squawking about it because it is less generous than the current system.

Obama’s offer includes the requirement that the debt ceiling be raised and unemployment benefits extended as a part of the deal (read: “no more hostage-taking. Ever.”), and that interest payment savings to taxpayers by reducing the deficit through sunsetting the tax cuts on the wealthy be counted as part of the “cuts” side of the equation, which means nearly $300 billion less in actual cutting of expenditures. It also includes a permanent solution to the annual “doc fix”, which, if you don’t know what that is, you can go look up, as it’s a tangent to this post.

Boehner’s knee-jerk reaction to this was to declare a “Plan B” in which he proposed restoring Bush tax cuts for all incomes under $1 MILLION, and nothing else. The White House promptly said it would veto that, and Boehner doubled down, bringing it to a vote today even though he knows it’s doomed. It’s an empty gesture trying to make Democrats oppose a tax cut, but nobody is buying it. No matter what the outcome, Boehner loses.

Isn’t it obvious what’s going on here? Obama has Boehner on a limb, and he is steadily sawing it off.

A time-honored, ruthlessly effective political negotiating technique is to make an offer you know your opponent can’t possibly accept, but which appears to go much farther than s/he had any right to expect in the first place. If the offer appears to appall your supporters, so much the better…clearly, then, you must be trying really hard to find common ground. And then when your opponent refuses this offer, because you’ve poisoned it enough to make that inevitable…guess who’s the asshole?

Saying that “everything should be on the table” is positioning language, people. It doesn’t mean what it says. Anyone paying the slightest attention knows that. Eliminating the Department of Health and Human Services isn’t on the table. Eliminating the Navy isn’t on the table. Nationalizing the oil industry isn’t on the table.

I mean, c’mon. Take a break from your drama binge for a minute and think, for god’s sake. Boehner does have some leverage. He can prevent unemployment benefits from extending, and we really need for that to happen. Obama wants some infrastructure investments, too. He is going to have to give Boehner something for those, and it may come in the form of backing off somewhat from the $250,000 ceiling for restoring the tax cuts, and some expenditure cuts. I wish it weren’t so, but the Republicans hold the House. That’s just reality.

That said, I’d say it’s pretty much guaranteed that beneficiaries of social safety net programs are not going to see their benefits reduced by whatever comes out of this deal. They may, it’s true, see benefit increases slow a tiny bit, but by no reasonable definition does that constitute a cut.

Medicare benefits won’t be cut. Social Security benefits won’t be cut. Funding for the Obamacare programs won’t be cut. Medicaid won’t be cut.  Unemployment will be extended and the middle class tax cuts will persist, enabling the economy to continue to warm. You can take that to the bank.

The guy you’re smearing has your back. Maybe you can lay off the hyperbolic tarbrushing until there is an actual outcome you can assess, instead of forming up the circular firing squad again. Sheesh.

At publication, the Dragon was GROWLING