Archive for ‘USA’ Category

Life mimicking art: ask and tell

datePosted on 12:21, February 3rd, 2010 by Lew

Following President Obama’s undertaking in the State of the Union address, Admiral Michael Mullen (Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Robert Gates (US Secretary of Defense) have recommended an end to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy preventing homosexuals from openly serving in the US military, in testimony to the Senate Armed Forces Committee. While the arguments are not quite the same, the general position and line of rhetoric (“the troops will get over it”) was memorably presented a decade ago in The West Wing:

All that having been said, it’s neither the Chairman nor the Secretary nor the President’s call. It’s for Congress to decide, and at present the bill is thirtyish votes shy of passing. But if it is done, this will be a genie of sorts; once out of the bottle, no force will put it back in. If the armed forces are even faintly representative of wider society, there will be thousands — tens of thousands, even — of demonstrably capable, patriotic, decorated soldiers, including perhaps some in the very highest ranks of the service who, while perhaps not having a coming-out parade, will nevertheless feel gradually more free to leave the closet. A future administration will court political and military ruin if it embarks on a witchhunt to purge them all from the nation’s ranks, particularly given the extensive nature of the USA’s current military deployments.

Update: Thanks to Hugh and Pablo (in comments) for correcting me on whose “call” it is.

L

Former Cosmopolitan Magazine nude pinup boy Scott Brown’s victory in the special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat is a body blow to the Democrats and Obama administration, especially with regard to its attempts at healthcare reform. The pundits have already well dissected the reasons for the first GOP senatorial victory in Massachusetts since Edward Brooke’s tenure ended in 1979. Voter anger with the Washington “establishment,” the role of the Tea party movement, the arrogance and complacency of the Coakley campaign–all of these factors made for a decisive electoral shift that will have significant repercussions outside of the state in which the original tea party took place. That much is clear.

But what have the good people of Massachusetts got for their preference? For one thing, they have a rookie Senator who has no national-level experience at all and just ten years of legislative experience in a very liberal state. Nor does he have any executive experience. In fact, Barack Obama looks like an elder statesman in terms of previous experience when compared to the male model-turned politician. Moreover, Brown has been elected at a time of extraordinary anti-politician and anti-Washington sentiment that, even if born out of the mistakes of commission and omission of the Bush 43 administration, have seemingly been compounded by his successor. This has made for a highly volitile political climate that in turn has made extraordinarily attractive his vague populist appeals as a Washington “outsider,” something that traditionally resonates with a disgruntled electorate (and boy, are they disgruntled now!).

Why this matters is because of the arena in which he is about to enter. Much more so than in parliamentary systems (where party discipline and hierarchy often supersede the representational mandate, especially when List MPs are involved), elected officials representing states at the national level in the US Congress fulfill two roles: that of representatives and legislators. On the one hand, they represent the interests of their constituents, be it district (US House of Representatives) or state-wide (US Senate). This role is played up during electoral campaigns (hence Mr. Brown’s claim that he is a “Brown Republican” who will independently champion the interests of his state), and is much more important for US House representatives who are elected every two years. Senators, in contrast and by design, elected every six years and representing state-wide interests that can be quite heterogenous and often competing, tend to limit their appeals to the representative role to election season. Either way, that is only half of the equation.

Once in office, US congressmen and women become legislators. That means that they need to engage in the political bargaining and understanding of national-level issues as well as those that most immediately impact their individual constituencies. Sometimes these two levels of engagement–national and local–run against each other. The congressional legislator, by the nature of the US political process, must steer towards compromise rather than principle in most instances given the competing interests at play. Thus the legislator role often is at odds with the representative role, which is part of the reason why the Founding Fathers designed the two-chamber Congress (in order to allow the Senate to overcome the populist tendencies of House members). 

This is where Scott Brown is about to be schooled. As a novice Senator he will be at the bottom of the congressional pecking order. His appointment to committees, which is determined by a mix of seniority, trade-offs and patronage, will depend largely on how he “gets along” with his fellow Senators (committee work being the most important aspect of a senator’s job, as it is in committee where all bills are first considered). Since his victory is owed more to the tea bag movement and conservative media support rather than than of the GOP bloc in Congress, he is walking into a forum without much political cover. Moreover, he is a moderate Republican (for example, he supports abortion rights) in a party increasingly dominated by non-elected conservative fundamentalists. Sure, he will be lionised by the Republican National Committee and congressional bloc at first. But once the hard work of legislating begins, his representative appeal will have to take a back seat to the back room wheeling and dealing of which legislation is made (recall the old adage that the two things one never wants to see being made is sausage and US legislation). As a minority state senator in a one-party state like Massachusetts he has some notion of what that entails, but if he is to be more than a one-term Senator, he will have to lift his game exponentially given the national stage he is now playing on.

All of which means that his anti-Washington, anti-healthcare appeal, which was essentially a negative campaign about who he was not and what he opposed, now has to be transformed into a practice of pragmatic compromise and centrism unless, of course, he is hoping that GOP majorities will be restored in both Houses in the November 2010 mid-term elections. But even if that occurs, he still has to downplay his representative role in favor of his legislative obligations, at least until he is up for re-election. In a political moment where disenchantment and resentment is rampant throughout the electorate, that may turn out to be far harder than running a dark horse campaign against a lackluster opponent. But if he favours the representative role over the legislator role now that he is in office, he runs the risk of alienating his Senate colleagues and consequently be rendered hopelessly ineffectual in delivering on his promises. Either way, he has his work cut out for him, and his good looks are of no use in that context.

PS: Among many other things I will leave for the moment the conservative movement penchant for photogenic poster people over those with substantive political experience, or the potentially  (seemingly counter-intuitive) negative implications this outcome has for any NZ-US trade deal.

Blog Link: Disloyal Opposition in the US.

datePosted on 13:34, October 27th, 2009 by Pablo

For some time I have watched the opposition to Barack Obama and his administration with growing unease. Having some familiarity with Latin American politics, I began to see parallels between the traditional behavior of conservative Latin American oppositions to Left-leaning  democratic governments and that now manifesting itself in the US. I have now pulled my thoughts together into this month’s Word from Afar essay over at Scoop. The essay has more of a polemical tone than usual, but that is a reflection of my contempt for, and concern over, such behaviour.

Obama’s prize: why not refuse it?

datePosted on 14:27, October 12th, 2009 by Lew

I was as surprised as anyone else who’s been paying the smallest bit of attention to geopolitics this past year when Barack Obama was announced as the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. This is one issue on which many of his supporters and critics are apparently united: what has he done to deserve it?

Obama himself professes to agree that it’s not justified:

“I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many transformative figures that have been honored by this prize,” he said. “I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the challenges of the 21st century.”

So why accept it (essentially on credit) instead of refusing it, requesting that the Nobel Committee award it to someone else, and accept a future prize at a later date when the award can be made on the basis of merit? This course of action would demonstrate that Obama is more concerned with world peace, with the (admittedly flagging) credibility of the Nobel prizes, and more importantly with action than with pretty rhetoric and his own status as a diplomatic celebrity.

Rejecting this award would have caused a stir and some embarrassment among the international diplomatic community, but it would have been an opportunity to silence critics on both Obama’s flanks, the pacifist left and the right. Certainly, some would have found ways to turn it against him (after all, the sun still rises in the East), but I believe it would have been met with near-universal acclaim. It would have been a clear message: judge me on my achievements, not on my identity.

This was a test, and to my mind Obama has failed. It’s a damned shame.

L

On resuming intelligence sharing with the US.

datePosted on 19:52, October 9th, 2009 by Pablo

I must confess that this one has me stumped. In her joint press conference with Murray McCully today, Hillary Clinton said that the US would resume intelligence-sharing with NZ as a sign of the strengthened security ties between the two countries.  It might have been a slip of the tongue, but McCully seemed unfazed and the comment was made as part of her prepared remarks, so it appears that the mention was deliberate. But what does it really mean? The US and NZ already share signal intelligence streams via the Echelon network, which has two collection stations on NZ soil. The NZSAS has a least one officer seconded to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia (as well as NZSAS liaison officers designated to  MI-6 in the UK, ASIO in Canberra, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the French DGSE).  The CIA more than likely has a station officer in Wellington (most likely a political (affairs) officer). These connections presumably are already involved in intelligence sharing. So what gives?

Since I am not privy to the decision-making involved, let me just speculate on what this announcement may mean. A few weeks back word slipped out that NZ had intelligence operatives in Afghanistan. Then the NZSAS were deployed there (to Kabul, as it turns out, in a counter-terrorism and CT training role rather than their previous long range patrol and reconnaissance role, which is an interesting story in itself). Putting these two lines together, I suspect that what Mrs. Clinton was alluding to was a resumption of tactical intelligence sharing between US and NZ forces in theater (rather than first report back to their respective superiors at home and allow the bosses to determine what gets shared). This would obviously be of priority in Afghanistan, but frees up US and NZ intelligence collectors to share information throughout areas of mutual interest such as the Western Pacific Rim. On the latter, subjects of mutual interest could include Chinese intelligence and military activities in the region (as alluded to in the Scoop series I linked to last month), money laundering and arms trafficking, organised crime activities (which would also be shared with INTERPOL), as well as leadership analysis and political and  economic trend forecasts.

More broadly, what this means is that NZ is returning to the US fold on security matters. If Australia is the US sheriffs deputy in the Southern Hemisphere, NZ under National is positioning to become the deputy’s adjunct. What is different is not just the extent of the bilateral cooperation involved, but the fact that the Ozzies make no bones about their belief that their middle power aspirations are tied to the US mantle, whereas NZ has carefully cultivated an image of being a neutral and honest broker in international affairs. With this revelation, that image is bound to be altered, and it remains to be seen if the benefits of closer security relations with the US (which I do not necessarily object to based on the principle of necessity) may translate into to a loss of mana, reputation and prestige in the eyes of the larger international community. Perhaps the diplomatic community is jaded enough to understand that pragmatism requires that NZ play all sides of the fence, that “it has to do what it has to do,”and that its rhetorical lip service is a mere cover to its real, pro-US orientation (I touched on this in the previous post titled “John Key Rides the Fence”). However, I wonder how the Chinese, Malaysians, Iranians and Arab trading partners will feel about this revelation, to say nothing of European partners who have trusted NZ to speak to truth to power on issues as varied as non-proliferation and environmental sustainability. Although Mrs. Clinton was at pains to laud NZ’s role on the latter two subjects, it remains to be seen what (negative or positive) spill-over effects may occur as a result of this closer bilateral security relationship, or, as National will undoubtably argue, whether the issue of intelligence sharing is safely “compartmentalized” and thereby insulated from the broader foreign policy direction of the National government. In three years we should know, but by then the consequences, good or bad, will be inescapable.

Blog Link: The Giant’s Rival Part Two: The US responds.

datePosted on 12:21, September 21st, 2009 by Pablo

The second part of the series on China’s growing presence in the South Pacific is now on Scoop. It explores the US response.

Jimmy Carter is Right.

datePosted on 23:42, September 17th, 2009 by Pablo

A furore has erupted in the US because former president Jimmy Carter has publicly stated the obvious: many of the people in opposition to health care reform, as well as the so-called astroturf “tea party” and “birther” movements (the latter claiming that Barak Obama is not a natural born US citizen and thus constitutionally ineligible to be president), are less in opposition to Obama’s policies than they are to the color of his skin. Even though he is half-white, they are fixated on his blackness, and in posters, cartoons, internet videos and photomontages he is depicted as an ape, and Arab, a terrorist, a commie or a socialist, and–as Sarah Palin so eloquently expressed it–“not one of us.” The “us” in question is presumably white and conservative, but what they really are is racist.  As Carter said, some people cannot abide by the thought that a Negro is running the show.

Normally one could ignore the crackers and their banjo-strumming Deliverance views. They are, after all, evidence of the death throes of white majority America, which in 25 years will see a non-white (mostly Hispanic) majority and more people of color in positions of national authority. But in this instance these retrograde views are instigated and supported by a disloyal elite who share their perspective, and who have significant clout in politics and the US media. Forget the mental midget that is Joe Wilson, Republican representative from South Carolina and apologist for the Confederacy, who last week shouted “you lie!” in the middle of the president’s speech on health reform to a joint session of Congress. The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was correct in noting that the only thing missing from his outburst was the qualifier “boy” at the end.  No president before Obama was interrupted in such a fashion during a major address, to include George W. Bush when he bald-faced lied to Congress and the US public that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was imminently disposed to use them (thereby setting into motion a chain of events that cost thousands of lives and trillions of squandered dollars in pursuit of what ultimately will wind up looking a lot like the Baath Party regime with a Shiia twist–if Iraq is so lucky). I will not even mention W’s defense of coercive interrogations during his last State of the Union address, but the point is that people who knew better still sat on their hands and shut their mouths. It may have been cowardly, but it was also a measure of Congressional protocol dating back 200 years.

So why the breach in this instance, over a remark that even if debatable was relatively innocuous? What is the single difference between Obama and all his predecessors that would embolden a small-town politician to openly question his integrity before Congress and the country at large (BTW–one of the things that is expressly prohibited under the rules of order in Congressional debates is calling people “liars.”) Why have so many right wing media types jumped to Rep. Wilson’s defense and why are people now sending him campaign contributions from all over the US?

Rep. Wilson is of no consequence and there is little danger in his simple breach of Congressional protocol (a Kanye moment of the political sort, if you will). The real danger is in the subtext of racial animus propagated by the likes of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the Christian nutters such as the Phoenix-based Baptist minister who exhorts his congregation to pray for Obama’s assassination, and the other corporate and religious bigots who run the astroturf campaigns against the President’s agenda (“astroturf” refers to the fact that these supposedly grassroots movements are artificially created by  well-funded special interest lobbies using targeted advertising rather than originating from genuine popular discontent). It is these heavily bankrolled conspirators–and they are exactly that–who are the danger. That danger could well turn out to be mortal.

I have written before that the US Right is implicitly setting up a scenario for an attempt on the president’s life. They provide the ideological and rhetorical fuel via their media proxies, and with that stimulus some whacko pulls the trigger or detonates the bomb. It will not be a Muslim fanatic, but a white loser or group of losers holding a racial grudge. The US already has seen evidence of this in the Oklahoma City bombing and repeated white supremacist plots  and attacks (including an assassination plot against Obama during last year’s presidential campaign).  That is why Jimmy Carter needs to be listened to: not all opposition to the President is racist, but a significant portion of the minority that opposes his agenda are playing the man for his color, not the content of his policy. The trouble is that racism is also  the elephant in the room that no one wants to openly confront in this “post racial” era. Until that happens, the descent towards violence is almost inevitable, with implications that are unimaginably bad.

In fact, it can be argued that it will not be a foreign foe that will ultimately defeat the US and reduce it to a fallen empire: it could well be devoured from within, with racism the food for that self-consuming hunger.

Wanting to believe

datePosted on 17:02, August 12th, 2009 by Lew

Now that Barack Obama’s Kenyan ‘birth certificate’ has been revealed as a fairly simple forgery, you’d reckon the birther nutcases would crawl back into their holes in shame, right? Not a chance. (Original site here – the fact it triggers anti-malware warnings is proof of a coverup, natch.)

So it is with any such theory. Evidence brought to bear simply points to a wider, stronger and better-resourced conspiracy.

roveplato

Memo to birthers: you’ve lost Karl Rove.

(Cartoon via Open parachute.)

L

QoT nails it, again

datePosted on 23:44, August 11th, 2009 by Lew

I practically need to script this post.

Go and read Queen of Thorns’ thorough fisking of apologia for George Sodini.

L

Choose your own Americapocalypse

datePosted on 12:16, August 5th, 2009 by Lew

Pretend you’re a USian for a moment, go to Slate and pick up to five things you reckon will bring about the fall of the United States of America.

As for me:

apocalypse

You are a humanitarian internationalist. You’re convinced mankind will terminate America—but at least we won’t off ourselves in the process. You’ll know you’re right when: Everyone on Earth pledges allegiance to a world government; the feds default on the national debt.

The yellow dot is me, the blue dot is the average. Hmm.

(Via bOING bOING.)

L

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