Work and Days

Our Present Anxieties

These guys are really sensitive, aren’t they?

I thought that former Vice President Al Gore’s vein-bulging attacks on Bush & Co. marked a new “no rules in the arena” era of politics. Fine—if the Left wished to write novels, make films, and write op-eds about doing in Bush, and if Nazi/brownshirt was to be on everyone’s lips, from Al Gore’s to Garrison Keillor’s, then I thought surely they would be immune to criticism when their turn to return to power came.

But no. Instead we are getting this hysteria about the evil Cheney criticizing Obama, or furor that “bipartisanship” has ended, or mania about the archaic filibuster. It is sort of like the retiarius throwing his net every which way while stabbing with trident—only to cry foul  and “how dare you!” when nicked back by the sica of the Thracian.

“Jobless Recovery”

I am delighted as anyone that the latest unemployment figures show a slight drop in joblessness to 10%. Much of the media is upbeat as well—which raises the question: in 2004, John Kerry ran on the theme of a “jobless recovery”, a charge resonating through the major media outlets. Yet unemployment in the last quarter of 2004, when these accusations were most frequent, was 5.4%— and soon dipped to average 5% for 2005. If 5.4% is termed “jobless”, what is 10%—job-full?

Reset button/’they did it’ diplomacy

Barack Obama, nearly a year into his term, is still talking about Bush culpability for everything from unemployment to Afghanistan.  At what year will it ever stop?

Bush inherited a nuclear Pakistan, a firewall between the CIA and FBI in matters of counter-terrorism, an appeased and ascendant Osama bin Laden, unsustainable no-fly zones over Iraq (the French had already bailed), al-Qaeda with a safe zone in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and an intifada-prone Mideast—in other words, no more than the regular stuff. But I don’t remember Bush talking of the creepy Clinton pardons—Eric Holder  being at their epicenter—after a year in office.

When Clinton arrived in January 1993, the Balkans were a mess, and no one knew what to do about Milosevic. Eastern Europe and the former republics had been promised varying degrees of NATO membership. And we were running staggering trade deficits, and in a recession. But even Clinton got over blaming Bush soon enough.

Bush I had to deal with an invigorated Saddam Hussein, the Kuwait mess, a Noriega who was out of control, easing the Soviets out of eastern Europe, a divided Berlin reuniting—and, again, the usual stuff.

Reagan inherited a demoralized military, an insane regime in Khomeini’s Iran, a bellicose and appeased Soviet Union, and communist expansion in Central America.

In other words, nothing Obama has seen overseas is, by past standards, all that unusual. Iraq was mostly quiet when he assumed office. We had not been hit again since 9/11. The Patriot Act and anti-terrorism protocols were in play and working. The fact that he has not yet closed Guantanamo and kept Predators, tribunals, renditions, etc. apparently means he finds them useful—despite the reset rhetoric.

But what is different from past Presidents is the serial, incessant whine of “poor me”, “Bush did it”, “we have to hit the reset the button” with the Russians, the Arabs, the Iranians, the Europeans, etc. I thought all this would have the usual shelf-life of 6 months. But here it is nearly a year and we are getting more, not less of it. We are back to the lamentations of Jimmy Carter, who, 30 years after his disastrous leadership in 1979-80 on the Iranian hostage crisis, is still talking about how others would have done worse, and how he had saved thousands of lives.

Suggestion: a 10-day-free-period in which no one in the Obama administration says “they did it” and “we had to reset…”

Debt will do us in…

Either Obama will stop the  astronomic spending and spiraling debt, or he will not only destroy his presidency, but take his party—and many of us— down with him. He apparently did not understand that the fury against Bush was not just due to Iraq, but the unprecedented $300-400 billion annual deficits. But rather than address that, Obama has scheduled a number of trillion-dollar-plus annual deficits for the rest of his term.

Obama’s legacy is to reduce the word “trillion”—which used to be a mind-boggling concept—to the equivalent of “billion”, as in a “trillion here, a trillion there.”

There are solutions, of course.  Don’t laugh: the ridiculous can become the real when the money runs out. We can furlough federal employees 1 -5 days a month. We can inflate our way out by expanding the money supply. (I started farming with 12% inflation, and 19% interest rates and 10% unemployment, and watched the price of raisins go from $1,350 a ton to $480 in a single year: ergo, anything, I learned, is possible. [There is really no “they” who will step in and save us.])

E.g., we can default on Social Security and Medicare—as in saying “those who make over $150,000 will not be eligible for Medicare” or have 50% of their Social Security withheld as tax. Don’t laugh, worse may be in store.

Most civilizations whose assemblies vote themselves entitlements they cannot pay for ultimately slash defense—cf. the British in the 1940s, the French in the 1930s, or the Byzantines in the 13th-15th centuries. We may too. Perhaps mothballing 2-3 carriers, or selling off our stealth fighters to India, or dissolving 4-5 divisions? Perhaps Obama will institute a federal sales tax, as in 10% or so on top of 6-10% sales taxes in many states. He may add a dollar on top of state gas taxes, making about $1.50 here in California. The above absurdities will not be in a few years at the present rate. Again, anything is possible.

Then there is the Afghanistan business

I am relieved that Obama followed, sort of, the generals’ suggestions and that Afghanistan could in theory follow the successful Iraqi paradigm. And I understand to send more troops offended his base, and so required some audacity of hope.

But, after all, candidate Obama once lectured the Left, amid all his anti-war rhetoric, that Afghanistan was the ‘good’ war, that he would send more troops, that he would, if need be, go into Pakistan in hot pursuit, that …, that…, etc.

So it is not like the Left should be surprised, much less angered. Indeed, the base is as deceptive as Obama. They too were talking of a good war  in Afghanistan when it was quiet, expecting it would remain so, and happy that Obama had protected his right flank.

Now the only difference between Obama and his supporters is the tiny matter of governance: he has responsibilities for the fate of 26 million Afghans and soon well over 100,000 US and NATO troops. Otherwise, I think as a Senator, the once most partisan Senator Obama would by now be the war’s chief critic, along with his supporters.

More troops now, less later…

All that said, it was a terrible mistake to talk of deadlines at the same time of reinforcements. In mid-1944 as the American armies in eastern France were becoming short of manpower (given the demands of Italy, the Pacific, the global air and sea wars, etc.), and clamoring for reinforcements, FDR did not say, as the war continued, that  our divisions would start coming home by January 1945.

In fact, I cannot think of any President (or any king, Prime Minister, or autocratic thug) who sent troops, while at the same time promising a date to start bringing them home. Anyone who reviews the stalemated mess in Korea from June 1951 to July 1953 realizes that discussions of armistices and peace were entirely predicated on the assumed ebb and flow of battle along the 38th Parallel. The same is true in Vietnam from 1973-4. Should we launch an offensive, in conjunction with the Pakistanis on the other side of the border, to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban, then there will be less talk of a coalition government and withdrawals. Like it or not, the perception of US military success and concomitant political stability and reform, not rhetoric, deadlines, or gimmicks, will determine the course of the war.

Afghanistan Was Lost?

Here are American fatality rates in Afghanistan: 2001: 12; 2002: 49; 2003: 48; 2004: 52; 2005: 99; 2006: 98; 2007: 117; 2008: 155; so far in 2009: 301.

One can twist statistics in all sorts of partisan ways. But I do not think that any fair-minded student could suggest that the Afghan war—in which from 2001  through 2006 no more than 100 Americans died in any given year—was somehow lost—or even a war in the sense of WWII, Korea, or Vietnam.

In 2004, 987 American soldiers died outside of both Iraq and Afghanistan, mostly to accident and illness. This year’s total of 301 fatalities is about the same as all the years’ losses in Afghanistan from 2001-through about half of 2006.

So if one were to define Afghanistan as “lost” by a standard of US fatalities, it surely was not until very recently. More troops, of course , from 2002-6 might have helped subdue the Taliban (and would have increased our own losses), but, nevertheless, I don’t think one can suddenly post hoc say that the Afghan war has been a disaster for years.

Commanders at the Top Matter

Troops have to know that the man at the top wishes to win. Lincoln was irreplaceable in summer 1864, given the combination of dreadful news from the Army of the Potomac and his own insistence of finishing the war with the defeat of the Confederacy. In contrast, LBJ’s heart wasn’t in Vietnam, and the troops sensed it. Georges Clemenceau changed the dynamics of the French army when he took over in 1917. I can’t imagine anyone calling Obama “The Tiger”, though he has a historic chance to finish Afghanistan and achieve a dramatic victory and stabilization of the reform government there.

Why the Deer-in-the-Headlights?

Life is not fair, and quite often so. The 2007 candidate Obama thought he hit on a neat theme. Since he was suspect on national security by the fact of running to the left of Hillary, he pounded his chest on Afghanistan as the good war that he would win (he logically concluded that a war that had cost Americans 117 fatalities in 2007 after over five years of combat was a somnolent theater).

Contrarily, Obama assured us that the Iraqi surge had failed and all combat troops should be out by March 2008. Presto—his “let me at “em” on Afghanistan assured us of his ferocity, while his junk Iraq plan was simply a reflection of the majority opinion at the time.

Yet “I’m tough, but want to be smart-tough by fighting the right war” was full of all sorts of contradictions (Iraq was always the easier problem, given terrain, ports, logistics, literacy, oil considerations etc; both houses of Congress had approved both wars; by 2006 non-candidate Obama said he had no major differences with the administration on Iraq; etc.), and was bound to bite a President Obama, who now perhaps would wish to say something like this:

“Under my leadership, Iraq is at last quiet and a consensual government functioning. It is free of radical Islamic terrorists, and the populace has preferred American peace-keepers to al Qaeda operatives. Afghanistan, however, is my predecessor’s war, not mine, and was bequeathed to me just as it was heating back up.”

In Retrospect…

If Obama forges a new alliance with Russia that results in the nuclear disarmament of Iran, I will praise him to the skies. (I think the opposite is more likely: a quicker Iranian bomb with Putin on board). Ditto should he make Afghanistan as quiet as Iraq is today, or achieve some sort of agreement in Palestine.

In turn, at some point, cannot the Obamians confess that  it was in our interest  that Gaddafi gave up his entire WMD arsenal, or Dr. Khan once shut down his nuclear mail-order business (let out of house arrest this year!), or there is quiet in post-surge Iraq, or that the Syrians are at least out of Lebanon, or that from 2001-9 we weren’t hit again on a 9/11 scale?

How odd that amid all the reset slurs, no one has mentioned just one thing that went well from 2001-9—not one?

What is so hard about winning wars you begin, paying debts as you go, and keeping taxes and government small? (Is the antithesis really that appealing: quit conflicts you begin, borrow every year, raise  all sorts of new taxes for new questionable government expenditures?) One is a Roman republican, the other a late imperial, ethos.