Saturday, February 26, 2011

Oh Know You Don’t!

When it comes to spinning yarns, Republicans might as well own a haberdashery. After basically taking a two-year sabbatical from any responsibility for helping revive an economy they had a major role in driving into the ground, they are now expending considerable political capital constructing a bold new narrative that they are hoping to peddle to the electorate. The narrative? The reason for the great recession of 2008-09 was owed directly to an out of control government not living within its means.

Yep, you heard that right. Deficit spending was the prime culprit for the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Not Goldman Sachs, not the repeal of Glass-Steagall, not even Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Well, give Republicans this much: they finally figured out that nobody was buying the Fannie / Freddie fable. That dog just wasn’t hunting. Rule number one in politics: keep it simple. If you have to spend more than two sentences trying to explain something that, for the most part, flies over your audience’s head, it’s probably not going to get any traction. And traction is what politics is all about.

Republicans rode the tide of voter frustration over a sluggish economy all the way to shore in last year’s midterms in large part by arguing that stimulus spending, rather than helping, was actually making things worse. Not content with merely ignoring most prominent economists who insisted that the stimulus actually kept the economy from plunging into a depression, Republicans are looking to parlay their audacity by rewriting the history of the event altogether. And if Democrats aren’t careful (i.e., don’t wake up) they are going to find themselves on the short end of yet another narrative gone astray.

The sheer hubris of such a stance, in the face of overwhelming and contradictory evidence, is owed directly to two undeniable factors: The first is known and taught by every political science professor in the country. If you don’t challenge a lie quickly enough, it eventually becomes the truth. The “laydown” by Democrats during the healthcare debate of ’09 was textbook and proved fatal. Over time, Republicans were able to convince enough voters that the claims they were making were true, when in fact virtually all of them were false. There was no government takeover of the healthcare industry, there was no public option and, most importantly, there were no death panels. If anything, the watered down bill that President Obama signed into law more closely resembled the Bob Dole compromise that Bill Clinton rejected in 1994, than the single payer system progressives were hoping they’d get.

No matter.  Like it says in Politics 101, say it often and loud enough and the multitudes will believe almost anything. Never give a sucker an even break. That W.C. Fields was a genius, wasn’t he?

But, I fear, the biggest factor behind this Republican hubris may run much deeper than anyone suspected. You can basically sum it up in one word: denial. Deep down there is a fundamental refusal to accept that this great engine of capitalism has an inherent flaw within it that damn near wrecked the world economy and, worse, threatens a repeat performance.

When the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic in 1912, taking fifteen hundred souls with her, the public outrage brought about sweeping changes in the way steamship companies conducted their business. No longer were ships permitted to navigate at full speed through waters known to be hazardous; all ships were required to have sufficient lifeboats for all hands onboard; and all ships were required to have twenty-four radio facilities in the event of an emergency. But besides the public outcry for regulation, there was a willingness on the part of these companies to modernize their fleets and bring their personnel up to speed on the new regulations. In short, while the cost of doing business went up, the prevailing logic was that the alternative was too ghastly to contemplate. Another Titanic was unthinkable. Public confidence had been shattered and needed to be rebuilt. End of story.

Almost one hundred years later we have come face to face with our own economic equivalent of an iceberg, and we have seen the Titanic founder in front of our very eyes. Millions have lost virtually everything they had; millions more were adversely affected in some way, while still millions more sit and wonder what will happen to them. Will they be the next to lose their jobs or get a reduction in pay? But, unlike that infamous maritime tragedy of a century ago, the lack of any outcry is profoundly disquieting. It is the undeniable truth that no one speaks about. The great ship has sunk, shush, don’t say anything. Don’t confuse the frustration that people are feeling over the way things are for an outcry for change. They are two different things entirely. The former is a natural reflex; the latter reveals a willingness to deal with the underlying cause.

Of course if you don’t acknowledge the disaster in the first place, it didn’t really happen, did it? And while one can certainly understand the state of denial that exists in the minds of those who have just seen their loved ones freeze to death, there is no excuse for such denial existing on such a massive scale as we have seen in this country over the last year and a half. I’ve heard of business as usual and getting on with one’s life, but this amount of reluctance to look at the truth is beyond bizarre; it smacks of something pathological.

And the GOP is capitalizing on this psychosis by driving a Mack truck right down the middle of the road straight towards Fantasy Land, with of course the aid and abetting of corporate America, which neither sees a need for fundamental change within its basic structure, nor acknowledges it had anything to do with the calamity in the first place. When you combine these three forces – corporate collusion, public apathy and willful political deceit – you get an iceberg a mile high and ten miles deep just waiting for the next vulnerable steel hull to ram its icy spur into.

I have watched “Titanic” on my DVD player dozens of times and not once have I ever been surprised at the ending. The largest, most opulent ship in the world, steaming at full speed through an ice field, oblivious to the warnings that have been issued to her, only to be felled by the inevitable fate that lies in her path. It is the consummate example of greed and arrogance run amuck.

The great recession of 2008-09 was caused by those same ingredients: greed and arrogance. To suggest anything else is to engage in delusional thinking. To attempt to capitalize on the misfortune and ignorance of the victims by distorting the truth and concocting falsehoods is reprehensible. And that is what the Republicans are doing. In their version, the reason why the Titanic sank is because she wasn’t allowed to navigate as her owners thought best and was too hindered by the outdated rules and regulations of her day. Also, had she been smaller and less bloated, she would’ve survived. And then there is the matter of all those useless lifeboats cluttering up the boat deck.

Astonishing!

Of all the reasons why the Titanic sank, none have ever been attributed to her size or girth. In deed, the fact that she was so large actually helped keep her afloat a little longer than most ships would have with comparable damage. Something to think about as Republicans take their hatchets out to “trim” the budget. Size does matter.

We were lucky in many respects that we had a President and a Congress that took the steps they took in the early months of 2009. We did not escape unscathed; it will take years before the economy is back to where it was before the recession hit. But know this, as bad as things got and continue to be, it could’ve been far worse.

Yet in some ways we are no wiser for the wear. And that is because we still have not completely dealt with the true culprit responsible for the disaster. We are fixated by the iceberg; and that fixation has prevented us from seeing the willful negligence that took place on the bridge of the stricken vessel. It is still taking place, as we speak, in boardrooms across America. Greed and arrogance are always among us, and are virtually unchecked. Too big to fail is still in place and everyone who knows better holds their collective breaths and prays that the great ship will somehow manage to avoid its destiny next time. Good luck.

For the next time disaster strikes – and there will be a next time – it might well destroy everything we hold near and dear to us. And when that happens we will, all of us, be as guilty as those who aimed the “unsinkable” ship straight at the iceberg. On that day there will be no rest for the weary, no excuse for the blind, or salvation for the culpable.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Strip Tease

Okay now, settle down people, it’s not what you think.

For the past two days the weather in New York has been absolutely balmy. All over people were seen outside in shorts and tea shirts rejoicing in the break from what can only be described as one of the worst winters in recent memory. May in February. Who could resist the temptation to strip down and let it all hang out?

Unfortunately, we all know what happens to May-like days in February. They pass quickly into that long night of winter. That wonderful taste of spring becomes the acid reflux of winter and the painful reality dawns on us all. Spring, it turns out, is still weeks away, and what just occurred, though refreshing, was nothing more than a tease. The truth hurts, doesn’t it?

Well, it seems the weather wasn’t the only thing that was teasing us. Remember that tax cut deal during the lame duck? The one the White House brokered with Congressional Republicans that drew the ire of liberal Democrats? Yes, that one. For a brief moment both sides got together, albeit grudgingly, and agreed that there were enough good things about the compromise that they could wink on the bad things and get it passed. Ahh, bipartisanship, what a concept! Well, so much for the spirit of bipartisanship.

Like I mentioned in a number of op-ed pieces last December, much to the chagrin of the few brave souls who actually manage to find the time to read my op-ed pieces, the real fight was coming down the road. Healthcare, financial reform, the debt ceiling, there would be plenty of opportunities for progressives to get their dander up. Well progressives, here’s your chance. Start getting your dander up. Like the cold returning to the February air, Republicans are gearing up for the battle royale they have long anticipated and dreamt of. If you thought their conduct unbecoming over the last two years – when they basically sat on the sidelines and pouted like children – you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Stuck on a pledge they made to their Tea Party supporters to slash current spending by $100 billion – without of course touching entitlements or defense – the GOP has boxed themselves into a corner and drawn a line in the sand, daring the White House to step over it. To make matters even worse, the Republican-controlled House has passed a number of resolutions such as defunding the current healthcare law, eliminating all funding to Planned Parenthood, and prohibiting the EPA from enforcing pollution laws already on the books that prevent greenhouse gases from being spewed into the atmosphere. And we haven’t even talked about their long-standing feud against Big Bird and PBS.

While none of these initiatives has even an ice cube’s chance in hell of passing the Senate, much less being signed into law by the President, that’s not the point. It’s irrelevant to House Republicans. The fact that they are tied to spending measures ostensibly means that they go hand in hand with any talk of a continuing resolution to fund the government. The current CR expires March 4th. Failure to pass another one means a government shutdown. Period. Can you spell extortion?

Without having a majority in the Senate or occupying the White House, the GOP can basically bring the whole federal government to its knees. Why? Because by controlling the House of Representatives, Republicans get to write and, yes, fund anything they want. And while the Senate and White House can block anything they pass, what they can’t do is fund the government by themselves. You see the purse strings are attached to the House. While they can’t make new law on their own, they can put the brakes on any laws they deem unacceptable. In plain English, they can hold the government hostage until it meets their demands.

Now you know why I was so concerned last fall, and why I was so pissed at progressives who were whining about how Obama and Congressional Democrats weren’t doing enough for the cause. So a lot of you stayed home, or, worse, voted for third-party candidates, who likely prevented Democrats from holding onto their seats. I’m not implying that that was the sole reason for the landslide loss of the House to Republicans, but I’m equally sure had more of you swallowed hard and turned out to vote, some of this damage could’ve been mitigated. That you didn’t know what was at stake was appalling.

And now, as it says in the Good Book, we must all reap what we’ve collectively sowed. The war that’s coming will be of epic proportions. 1995 was nothing compared to what’s in store for America in 2011. For one thing, while Newt Gingrich may have been the most arrogant and self-absorbed Speaker that the House has ever had, he did not have the support of a movement as riled up and as resolute as the Tea Party behind him. The movement that swept Republicans into power in the ’94 midterms was primarily a populist one; this one makes that movement seem limp by comparison. They will fight like hell to get what they want, even if it means crippling a precarious recovery and hurting millions of people in the process. Irrationality this intense knows no quarter.

As this drama unfolds, don’t expect much willingness on the part of John Boehner to compromise. And with Obama threatening a veto, I fully expect things to come to a head this March. The only question is how long will the government be shut down this time? In ’95, the shutdown occurred in two parts. The first lasted a week; the second - which was a partial shutdown - just under three weeks. This time around it may well be a month or longer.

So hunker down progressives. The fight of your lives is about to take place. Now’s your chance to dust off that old musket you’ve been hiding in your closet and come out shooting, figuratively of course. Wouldn’t want a certain half-term governor from Alaska to get all hot and bothered now would I? Oh, and did I forget to mention the issue of the debt ceiling is right around the corner? Boy it’s really going to get intense around here. As I’ve said many times before, so much insanity, so little time.

Better button up your overcoat. Baby, it’s getting cold outside.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Now What?

With the “stepping down” of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the military taking over the reigns of power, no doubt to the great delight of millions of Egyptians, there remains one fundamental question that begs to be answered. Now what?

Yes, now that a popular uprising has brought about an end to one of the most corrupt dictatorships in the Middle East, what are the implications for the rest of the region? And for that matter, the United States? Do not kid yourselves. While many on the Left are calling this a triumph for democracy – and rightly so – the ramifications are still not fully known or understood. For instance, what type of government will eventually emerge out of the vacuum that Mubarak left behind? Which government will be the next to feel the wrath of its people? Saudi Arabia? Jordan? Both? To believe that Egypt will be the last domino to fall would be naïve. Already many experts are conceding that the tide that is currently sweeping through the Middle East may well claim before it subsides virtually every autocracy and monarchy currently standing. And while it might give comfort to many progressives to see the last remnants of American imperialism in the region come to an end, I would urge extreme caution before counting so many chickens from those eggs.

For one thing, Democracy, as we know it, has not done well in the Middle East. With the exception of Israel, there are no cases of a flourishing and successful democratic movement anywhere in the region. While the neo-cons may tout Iraq as an example, the fact remains that without American interference, Iraq would still have been under the auspices of a brutal dictator; and even with an illegal and unwarranted invasion, the country remains to this day in utter chaos. It will take years before a fledgling Democracy will take root there, if ever.

The problem with the Middle East is that is has no reference point by which to measure successful Democracies. While populist uprisings have certainly occurred – see Iran, circa 1979 – most of them end up resembling the proverbial switching of staterooms on the Titanic. In essence what we end up seeing is one form of brutal and oppressive rule replaced by an equally brutal and oppressive rule. The only variable is the relationship the U.S. ends up having with the new rulers.

And that, of course, is the random element that is playing out in Egypt at this very moment. The Obama Administration’s handling of this revolution – mishandling is more like it – has caused some Egyptians to, once again, question whether they can count on America being a true supporter of whatever government ends up taking form over the next few months. When you combine our track record in the Middle East with the region’s lack of experience in democratic movements, it’s like stepping up to the plate with two strikes against you. If history is any indicator, we may be in for a rude awakening as the regimes of the Saudi and Jordanian ruling families are rocked and eventually toppled.

Will the U.S. support the existing dictatorships? Will it play a neutral role, which the Administration began doing and then abandoned for some unknown reason? Or will it come out in full support of democracy, thus getting a jumpstart on the inevitable?

Tough questions, to be sure, but how well they are answered may go a long way towards determining whether America will build partnerships with these new governments, or, like Iran, will face the next several decades staring down the wrong end of a loaded gun. At stake are trillions of dollars in oil reserves and the future of Western hegemony and its combined economies.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Flying the Coup

Well so much for giving the Obama Administration credit for not taking sides in the Egyptian revolution quagmire. Talk about not quitting while you’re ahead. Let’s see if we can piece together the events of the last two weeks shall we.

First, the Obama Administration quietly put pressure on Hosni Mubarak to usher in reforms, while taking great pains not to be seen as favoring one side over the other. Laudable and wise, given the circumstances surrounding the unrest. It’s always best to walk before you run, especially when you can’t see the path ahead and you don’t yet have all the facts.

But then the Administration apparently got caught up in all the excitement of the moment and dove headfirst into the mess. Obama publicly called for Mubarak to step down, the first sign that the Administration was siding with the protesters. The only problem was that his special envoy, Frank Wisner, contradicted both his president and the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, by insisting that Mubarak needs to stay on to “steer” the changes necessary for a democratic transition.

It didn’t take long for the State Department to circle the wagons and issue a statement. “We have great respect for Frank Wisner … but his views are his own and not coordinated with the US government.” Ya think? Can anybody spell clusterf**k?

To say this is the worst two-week period in Barack Obama’s relatively short political life would be putting it mildly. Not only did he commit the ultimate cardinal sin by showing his hand in a dispute that promises to be messy no matter how things turn out, he couldn’t even ensure that all his troops were on the same page when he committed the sin. And now his administration and the country are left with egg on their face.

Add to that today’s events, which plunge the story from the proverbial frying pan to the fire, and you’ve got a potential disaster brewing in one of the few Arab countries where Americans aren’t hated. Not only isn’t Mubarak stepping down, he’s drawn a defiant line in the sand and basically dared anyone and everyone to step over it. Earlier it had been reported that Mubarak was on the verge of resigning and turning over control of the country to the military; a move hailed by the protesters as a victory. But now all that appears to have gone up in smoke. Mubarak is staying, at least for now, and the Obama Administration finds itself in damage control mode.

Critics on the Right and Left are having a field day with the President and rightly so. It is rare in deed when I agree with anyone on the Right, but the cavalcade of criticism, this time, is well deserved. The irony is that if Obama had simply maintained his stance, and quietly worked behind the scenes with the Mubarak regime, the dictator might have been persuaded to peaceably step down and turn over control of his country to a more moderate and democratically-minded group. Now we may never know what would’ve happened. Once more, the United States has meddled in the affairs of another country and once more it has screwed up royally.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Remembering Reagan

Political icons are rare in deed, especially ones as badly misunderstood as Ronald Reagan was. Liberals despised him because of what he represented; conservative worshiped him because of what he represented. And as the years have passed, it seems the man’s life is seen through a very definitive black and white prism. You either hated him or loved him; there was little, if any, ambivalence toward him.

Unlike other former presidents who over the years have seen the rough edges of their reputations smoothed over – Nixon – and even some who have grown in stature – Eisenhower – Reagan remains as polarizing a figure in American politics as the day he entered it. His indelible personality and uncompromising worldview defined both the man and the president like no other.

While his policies became a lightening rod for critics and admirers alike – supply-side economics, escalating the Cold War with the Soviet Union – his greatest accomplishment was in how he connected with the electorate. An accomplished, if sometimes ham, actor of the B-movie era, Reagan used his skills of persuasion like a swashbuckler uses his sword. Two terms as governor of California, a tough but unsuccessful primary bid in 1976 against Gerald Ford, and two terms as president would’ve been impossible without his uncanny ability to influence those with whom he vehemently disagreed with and who disagreed with him.

He was the “Great Communicator,” the “Gipper,” a larger than life figure, playing his ultimate role on the ultimate stage, and while the goals of his administration often contradicted the actual accomplishments of it, Reagan forever changed the way in which the office would be viewed and run. In the years since he left politics, only Bill Clinton has come close to matching his charisma. What we commonly refer to as Reagan Democrats and Clinton Republicans were nothing more than run of the mill independents who flocked in droves to both men.

And while Reagan was often portrayed as stubborn when it came to his policies, the truth was that he was far more pragmatic than most of his supporters would have you believe. In deed the irony is that the far-Right in the guise of the Tea Party movement has appropriated much of Reagan’s rhetoric and steadfastness, but has failed to incorporate any of the give and take that defined most of his eight years in office.

In fact the one political figure in Washington who probably understands Reagan better than most isn’t a Republican at all. It’s Barack Obama. Though it may pain many conservatives to hear this, the message of hope and crafting of a vision for America to live out its promise comes not from the Right these days, but from the current occupant of the very same Oval office that Reagan held three decades earlier.

It’s no secret that President Obama is an admirer of Ronald Reagan. The styles and circumstances of both men are almost eerily similar. Both swept into power on the heals of economic chaos which saw the opposition party self destruct; both exuded an optimism for America’s future that connected on a visceral level with voters; and both suffered mid-term losses due to a sluggish economy and political unrest. Of course we could squabble about the philosophical differences that defined how each man viewed the role of government, but two things are undeniable: 1. Reagan’s success was the ultimate example of legend triumphing over actual accomplishment. He commanded the podium like no president since FDR, and he could construct a narrative that resonated with people better than any one alive; and 2. Obama is reading up on him fast and seems determined to follow in his footsteps.

Progressives should get this through their heads once and for all. Obama will adopt the Reagan strategy over the next two years to a tee. He will be the voice of reason and optimism surrounded by a sea of obstructionism and cynicism. He will be more than the adult in the classroom; he will be the one setting the agenda. Unlike the last two years, when he ceded much of the legislative process to the progressive flank of his party, look for Obama to take back the reigns and go for a more MOR approach. It will anger many on the Left, disarm many on the Right, and score political points with much of the Center. Like Reagan he will set the tone and reconstruct a narrative that will appeal to a majority of voters. And, like his Republican predecessor, he will prevail.

But getting back to the Gipper, yes, there were the contradictions. The man who came to Washington to end the era of big government actually ended up more than tripling the size of the national debt from $900 billion to $2.8 trillion; and the jury is still out on his signature accomplishment: that of ending communism in Russia. As precarious as the Cold War might have seemed, the fact was that both sides knew that if hostilities broke out directly between them, it would mean the end of everything. Mutually assured destruction – MAD – for all its imperfections worked. The world we live in now is far more treacherous and unstable than the world Reagan railed against during his tenure. Can anyone say with a degree of certainty that the demise of the Soviet Union was a good thing for world peace given what has taken place over the last twenty years?

But then, once more, we are nitpicking aren’t we? Politics, as we all know, is about the art of perception, not reality. And, while it would be politically expedient to denounce Ronald Reagan as a hypocrite whose policies helped gut the middle class, it would be equally dishonest not to give the man his due for redefining the presidency in a way that will long outlive all of his detractors and benefactors.

Love him, hate him, but never dismiss him. To do so, after all these years, would be foolish.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cutting Off Their Noses

With all the chatter over Michele Bachmann’s “response” to President Obama’s State of the Union Address, the official Republican response was almost completely overlooked by yours truly. Almost, I said.

Paul Ryan made the usual, typical Republican claims: government bad, private sector good. And certainly no one who listened should’ve been surprised that the GOP response would be anything different. But what was “interesting” about Ryan’s retort wasn’t so much his anti-big government slant, but rather his comparison of Europe with America and how America is following in Europe’s footsteps. Ryan highlighted three specific countries in Europe – Greece, Ireland and the United Kingdom – as nations that didn’t “act soon enough” to control runaway spending and, as a consequence, “have been forced to impose painful austerity measures: large benefit cuts to seniors and huge tax increases on everybody.” Interesting analysis, but wrong.

In a New York Times’ op-ed piece titled “Their Own Private Europe,” Paul Krugman calls Ryan and his ilk out. Europe, it seems, is not even remotely close to what the GOP envisions it as being. While the Greece example is “more or less true,” the other two examples “refute” conservative claims completely. Krugman elaborates, first on Ireland, then Great Britain.

“On the eve of the financial crisis, conservatives had nothing but praise for Ireland, a low-tax, low-spending country by European standards. The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom ranked it above every other Western nation. In 2006, George Osborne, now Britain’s chancellor of the Exchequer, declared Ireland ‘a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policy making.’ And the truth was that in 2006-2007 Ireland was running a budget surplus, and had one of the lowest debt levels in the advanced world.

“So what went wrong? The answer is: out-of-control banks; Irish banks ran wild during the good years, creating a huge property bubble. When the bubble burst, revenue collapsed, causing the deficit to surge, while public debt exploded because the government ended up taking over bank debts. And harsh spending cuts, while they have led to huge job losses, have failed to restore confidence.

“The lesson of the Irish debacle, then, is very nearly the opposite of what Mr. Ryan would have us believe. It doesn’t say ‘cut spending now, or bad things will happen’; it says that balanced budgets won’t protect you from crisis if you don’t effectively regulate your banks — a point made in the newly released report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which concludes that ‘30 years of deregulation and reliance on self-regulation’ helped create our own catastrophe. Have I mentioned that Republicans are doing everything they can to undermine financial reform?

“What about Britain? Well, contrary to what Mr. Ryan seemed to imply, Britain has not, in fact, suffered a debt crisis. True, David Cameron, who became prime minister last May, has made a sharp turn toward fiscal austerity. But that was a choice, not a response to market pressure.

“And underlying that choice was the new British government’s adherence to the same theory offered by Republicans to justify their demand for immediate spending cuts here — the claim that slashing government spending in the face of a depressed economy will actually help growth rather than hurt it.

“So how’s that theory looking? Not good. The British economy, which seemed to be recovering earlier in 2010, turned down again in the fourth quarter. Yes, weather was a factor, and, no, you shouldn’t read too much into one quarter’s numbers. But there’s certainly no sign of the surging private-sector confidence that was supposed to offset the direct effects of eliminating half-a-million government jobs. And, as a result, there’s no comfort in the British experience for Republican claims that the United States needs spending cuts in the face of mass unemployment.”

With all the data in front of their eyes, Republicans still seem hell-bent on starving the engine that, at least for the moment, is keeping the economy from collapsing in on itself. What Ryan and his fellow cohorts can’t seem to understand is that while, in the long run, deficit spending has inherent risks that could bring about dire consequences, in the short term, it has proven to be an effective way to climb out of a hole. Massive spending cuts at this juncture, while politically popular, are akin to cutting off one’s nose to spite their face. Just ask Andrew Cuomo, who is about to lay off thousands of state employees in order to balance New York's budget. Now times that by fifty.

There is a staggering disconnect between facts and preconceived notions swirling around the electorate – a naïve belief that somehow, magically the great engine of capitalism will restart itself once the tyranny of big government is removed from its path. That mindset now threatens an extremely fragile recovery and if followed through will undoubtedly plunge the economy back to where it was in the beginning of 2009, only this time with no stimulus to backstop the slide. Hello 1929.

Even after all these years the Hoover apologists are alive and well and still peddling their drivel. Until quite recently, most of the country dismissed it. That it has gained traction over the last two years is proof positive that no matter how many times you bury a bone, some mutt can always dig it up and make you chase him around the yard trying to grab it from its mouth.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Barack Obama’s Precarious Dance

Once more President Barack Obama is being tested, and this time the test is not coming from within his country. No, this test is coming courtesy of the Egyptian people, who apparently have figured out, after thirty years, that living in a dictatorship is undesirable and have decided to revolt en masse against Hosni Mubarek.

Predictably pundits on both sides of the political aisle have weighed in with their opinions. Neocons fear that if Mubarek falls, Egypt will become yet another extremist Muslim nation that will be a hotbed for terrorists and pose a threat directly to Israel and indirectly to the United States. They want the Obama Administration to send a clear message of support for the regime, with some even suggesting an armed incursion should things get ugly. Liberals and progressives, on the other hand, are calling for the Administration to throw its support behind the revolutionary forces that are calling for Mubarek to resign. They believe that it would be in the best interest of America to be on the right side of a revolution for once.

And while I sympathize with many liberals and progressives, like the Iranian demonstrations in the summer of 2009, this situation calls for prudence and not rash judgment. Don’t get me wrong, the U.S. has had a horrible track record with respect to backing dictators, especially ones in the Middle East, but the Egyptian situation is somewhat unique and extremely delicate.

On the one hand if America sides with the revolutionaries and Mubarek manages to survive and ushers in enough reforms to placate his people, our relationship with him would be severely compromised. With the Suez Canal hanging in the balance – along with the billions of barrels of oil that pass through it each year – the whole economy of the Western hemisphere could be threatened. And then there’s the delicate relationship between Israel and Egypt. Mubarek has never felt comfortable being viewed as a “supporter” of the Jewish state’s right to exist. Antagonizing him could provide just the excuse he needs to adopt a more anti-American stance, which would endear him to extremist elements within the Middle East.

On the other hand, supporting him, as the neocons want, would only add more fuel to the fires of discontent that run deep within the Arab and Islamic communities. Backing a regime, which is seen as unpopular in the Middle East would be yet another example of “the great Satan” exerting its influence in a region where it isn’t wanted or appreciated. Less than ten years after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. is still desperately trying to repair its badly tarnished reputation. Adding Egypt to its trophy chest would be the ultimate nightmare of nightmares that could well destroy any hope that the region has to one day know a lasting peace.

The only safe hand is the one that Obama is currently playing: continue to call for reforms while being careful not to appear to be taking sides. The strategy appears to be working. After he addressed the Egyptian people, which did not go over well, Administration officials behind the scenes have been pressuring Mubarek to step up reforms. Obama revealed that Mubarek “recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and a change must take place.” Privately, everybody knows that he will have no choice but to step down. But he will do so without any undue influence from without.

By staying out of the limelight, an orderly and peaceful transition can take place and can occur on Egyptian terms, with no meddling from the U.S. and, more importantly, without America continuing to pick the same scab that has undermined its prestige in this region for generations. Sometimes being an interested bystander has its advantages.