Saturday, December 20, 2008

Reader's Choice #3: In What Respect, Charlie?

Hey look, this is back! Blog reader 'elisaana' asks: "will Obama's new [foreign policy] team be able to counter these threats effectively without a Bush-style overreaction?"

This is an excellent question... and one that I think is central to what kind of presidency the Obama one will be. Barack Obama, of course, defeated Hillary Clinton in the primary for a number of reasons (better campaign, broader appeal, etc), but central to his appeal to Democratic voters was the fact that she had supported the invasion of Iraq, and he didn't. Voters wanted a clean break from Bush-style foreign policy and war.

Will we get it? This won't be known until next year, but let's examine the clues.

First off, let's state the obvious. Barack Obama is not Dennis Kucinich. The hardcore anti-war crowd is likely to find many reasons to be upset at him over the next four eight years. His retention of Bob Gates as Defense Secretary, the curious selection of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State (I'm sorry, I still don't fully get it), and his intention to commit serious military energy to resolving the Afghanistan (and Pakistan, by proxy) issues shows that he is a man who plans to move ahead with a very aggressive (read: I don't mean aggressive in a Bush-Cheney way) foreign policy. Contrary to the spin by the Fox News dead-enders this past year, we elected a pragmatist, not a peacenik.

Still, we have a man who has promised to end our occupation of Iraq, to close down Guantanamo and end U.S.-sanctioned torture, and to take seriously the roles of diplomacy and alliance-building in foreign policy. So this is improvement, if not perfection.

Let me also point out that it was obvious even before his presidency that George W. Bush was a petulant and impatient man, whose foreign policy team was stacked by Project for A New American Century neocons just itchin' for an excuse to start Mideast wars. How that translated into his presidency is now clear. Obama, however, has come across as a patient and deliberate thinker in his character. If that translates into his presidency as well, we have room for optimism here.

In terms of situations that can be resolved diplomatically (ie. with North Korea), we are obviously better off with Obama. He will be taken more seriously on these issues, and his team is obviously more invested in genuine detente than was, say... John Bolton. In terms of situations that are outside the ability of diplomacy to resolve (ie. what happened in Mumbai last month), I also have faith in Obama to a) not be overly hawkish/rash about using force, and b) be more interested in using our intelligence resources wisely, instead of as a means to expand presidential powers.

In the early '60s, we saw a rookie President make a huge mistake by being too rash (the Bay of Pigs), but saw the following year that same President learn from his mistake and resolve a related-- and more serious-- global crisis by responding in a calm and calculated manner (Cuban missile crisis). Good news for Obama... he shouldn't have to screw up to learn from mistakes; he has eight years worth of them already to look back on.

Finally, I would add that I believe Obama gets the big picture... he understands the ways in which threats grow and are interconnected. In his interview in Time magazine this week, he discusses his foreign policy priorities ("Recognizing that it is not simply an Afghanistan problem but it's an Afghanistan-Pakistan-India-Kashmir-Iran problem"), but also adds-
"[K]eep in mind that some of the long-term priorities I identified in the campaign remain just as urgent today. I already mentioned nuclear proliferation. I already mentioned climate change. I think dealing with development and poverty around the world is going to be a critical component of our foreign policy. It's good for our security and not just charity. And so, part of the goal ... is moving our foreign-assistance agenda to the center of our national-security conversations as opposed to the periphery. Paying more attention to Latin America. You know, we have neglected our neighbors in our own hemisphere, and there is an enormous potential for us to work with other countries — Brazil, for example, which is in some ways ahead of us on energy strategies. That, I think, would be very important."

And this is key. Being able to respond well to crisis is great. Being able to preemptively take on the root causes of crisis and aggression... even better.

If he strays from this, and gets stuck in the traps Bush has left for him, then we worry.

The War on Gays

Getting back to the subject of gays, here's another fun story from the past week-
An unprecedented declaration seeking to decriminalize homosexuality won the support of 66 countries in the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, but opponents criticized it as an attempt to legitimize pedophilia and other 'deplorable acts.'

The United States refused to support the nonbinding measure, as did Russia, China, the Roman Catholic Church and members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference...

What great company we keep. We are a very forward-thinking nation.

Friday, December 19, 2008

President Bush: Bailout Accomplished

President Bush, dreading the thought of having his disastrous term end with the collapse of America's auto industry, bypassed Congress and took it upon himself to save the companies, in what I feel was probably a necessary evil. The AP has the details-
Citing imminent danger to the national economy, President Bush ordered an emergency bailout of the U.S. auto industry Friday, offering $17.4 billion in rescue loans and demanding tough concessions from the deeply troubled carmakers and their workers.

[Blueduck's note: So far, only the latter is happening. Natch.]

Detroit's Big Three cheered the action and vowed to rebuild their once-mighty industry, though they acknowledged the road would be anything but smooth as they fight their way back from the brink of bankruptcy.

The autoworkers union complained the deal was too harsh on its members, while Bush's fellow Republicans in Congress said it was bad business to bail out yet another big industry.


[President] Obama will be free to reopen the arrangement from the government's side if he chooses, and the head of the United Auto Workers said the union would be appealing to the new president and the strongly Democratic new Congress on that subject...

...Some $13.4 billion of the money will be available this month and next — $9.4 billion of it for General Motors Corp. and $4 billion for Chrysler LLC, two auto giants that have said they could be facing bankruptcy soon without government help. GM is slated to receive the remaining $4 billion in loans after more money is released from the financial rescue account. Ford Motor Co. says it doesn't need federal cash now but would be badly damaged if one or both of the other two went under.

Under terms of the loans, the government will have the option of becoming a stockholder in the companies, much as it has with major banks, in effect partially nationalizing the industry. Bush said the companies' workers should agree to wage and work rules that are competitive with foreign automakers by the end of next year.

And he called for elimination of a "jobs bank" program — negotiated by the United Auto Workers and the companies — under which laid-off workers can receive about 95 percent of their pay and benefits for years. Early this month, the UAW agreed to suspend the program.

Ahhh yes, once again the folks on the bottom-- who do all the hard work-- are asked/forced to make sacrifices and do more with less, while the folks at the top-- who made all of the major decisions and policies-- of the chain are handed golden parachutes to land gracefully onto piles of free money.

Or, as The Washington Note's Steve Clemons opines, this "doesn't mean that Chrysler will keep the switch turned on at 30 plants it is completely shutting down over the next 30 days. It doesn't mean that any of these firms will stop laying off American workers. And it doesn't mean that this loan money from the government will stop the offshoring of American jobs overseas." Ahhh, true, but it does kick the can down the road for someone else to clean up... and that is a George W. Bush specialty.

Finally, in news of that other bailout, Hank Paulson is asking Congress for the second half of the $700 billion Wall Street cash. He's apparently blown through the initial $350 billion already. On what? And to what greater benefit to American society at large? My guess is-- as with the billions of $$$ poured into the sands of Iraq-- we'll likely never fully find out. It's our fault; we should've asked for a receipt.

I think it's very sad that the end of the Bush administration is now just one month away.

Weekend Odds and Ends

I have Christmas parties to attend, but first I'll throw some news at you...

President-elect Obama named many more Cabinet officials this week, including nominees for the Labor Secretary, U.S. trade representative, and Transportation Secretary positions.

One of his picks from earlier in the week-- former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as the new Agriculture Secretary-- is creating a lot of controversy from people concerned about the future of U.S. agriculture and energy policy.

The WSJ reports that there are "a swath of abortion and other reproductive-health issues under review by the Obama team, which is preparing to reverse a variety of Bush measures." This is, needless to say, much more encouraging news.

On a related note (of getting back to reality-based government), there's also reports that "Speaker Nancy Pelosi is already looking ahead to pumping more science-related spending into the massive economic recovery bill Democrats will begin moving through Congress next month." This may include "investing in renewable fuels, improving the electric grid or investing more in the National Institutes of Health."

Al Franken opens up a lead in the Senate race that will never end.

Cable news debate fiesta!! Earlier this week, Chris Matthews took Iraq war supporter Frank Gaffney to task. Later, Matthews and Christopher Hitchens debate conservative radio host Micheal Smerconish on the merits of U.S. torture policy.

Prime Minister Brown reiterates... the UK is leaving Iraq next year.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, the "Iraqi journalist arrested for throwing his shoes at US President George W. Bush has written to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki apologising over the incident." He has been denied bail, and is asking for a pardon. I believe he received a beating instead.

Finally, Watergate hero Mark 'Deep Throat' Felt has passed away. Ben Stein = stoked.

What Does The GOP Stand For?

Last week, Colin Powell lamented the far-right positions and close-minded approach of the current GOP. Unfortunately for them, they are not listening (maybe he should've held up a vile of scary-looking white powder).

My usual journeys around conservative intelligentsia have shown that they are just digging in deeper, as usual insisting-- despite all polling data to the contrary-- that the party's woes are the fault of them not being far enough to the right. Limbaugh/Palin '12!

Here's my favorite such post of the past week, from National Review's Andy McCarthy. He writes about the Senate Armed Services report about detainee abuse (which concludes that the 'physical and mental abuse of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was the direct result of Bush administration detention policies'), and quotes Sen. McCain reacting to this by stating "These policies are wrong and must never be repeated."

McCarthy reacts angrily to this disgusting sentiment by pansy leftist John McCain by stating himself that "I haven't liked the last four weeks so I imagine I'm gonna like the next four years even less. But I must confess I don't find myself thinking, 'If only McCain had been elected ...'".

Yessir, George W. Bush may be a failed President on almost every possible front, but at least he liked torturing people. This is the kind of feel-good, populist message that will ensure that 2010 GOP comeback (maybe they can promise to waterboard greedy CEOs?). The party of ideas is back!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Barack Obama Selects Crazy God-Dude To Speak at Inauguration

As one of them homos who is single-handedly destroying the fabric of American society by existing, I have been encouraged by little news tidbits here and there in this magical new Obama era where all our dreams will come true. Such as the news that "Barack Obama's Presidential Inaugural Committee has chosen the Lesbian and Gay Band Association, with members from across the country, to march in the inaugural parade." Or the buzz that William White, an openly gay man, is being considered for the Navy Secretary position.

Like I said, this is encouraging. This, however, is not-
Musical luminaries Aretha Franklin, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman will be among the performers at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration, organizers said Wednesday...

...After welcoming remarks by [Sen.] Feinstein, and a religious invocation by evangelical Pastor Rick Warren, Franklin will perform...

Yo-Yo Ma?!! Fuck you, Obama!!! Oh no, wait, that's not what I'm supposed to be mad at.

For those who don't know who Rick Warren is, he is the asshole who has appointed himself the religious leader of America... and the nation's political establishment seems willing to oblige. Both Barack Obama and John McCain went down to his Saddleback Church (wow, that's gay) in CA this summer to pander to religious voters discuss key issues with the pastor (he does care deeply about issues like climate change and AIDS, etc). Warren's defenders are proud to note that compared to folks like James Dobson or Fred Phelps or Pat Robertson, he is quite open-minded. And that's certainly true... if you ignore what a disturbingly low bar that is.

Mother Jones runs down the case against Pastor Saddleback: "He strongly supported Proposition 8. He considers stem cells 'non-negotiable.' He compares abortion to the Holocaust. He has admitted the difference between between him and James Dobson is primarily 'a matter of tone.' In a move that would make George Orwell proud, he just gave George W. Bush an 'International Medal of P.E.A.C.E.'" It's that first part that is pissing off the gay community (and just those in general who... ya know, don't fucking hate gay people), but boy that last one is doozy as well.

Barack Obama defended the decision in a press conference (where he was announcing his regulation team), stating we can "disagree [with Warren] without being disagreeable." Umm... okay? Look, there's no doubt that many of Obama's picks-- whether it's this or appointing conservatives to key positions (like his new Transportation Secretary)-- are meant to keep his potential critics at bay, in this case the religious right (left?). Still, it's upsetting and there's no also no doubt that his answer here is a bit of a dodge.

Liberals/progressives/Democrats/whatever will certainly have many disagreements with President Obama over the next few years, and-- unlike the conservatives who defended/worshipped George W. Bush until the 11th hour-- we should be honest and vocal about these disagreements. That doesn't mean that we should expect our pet causes to be the President's #1 priority (that's just ridiculous), but holding his feet to the fire is the best thing we can do to keep him from becoming the type of politician he ran against.

[Related reading... Dan Savage blasts the 'I have gay friends!' dodge that homophobes use.]

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Facts are stubborn things.

Since we're getting to the time of year when global warming denialists insist that the continued existence of things like 'cold' and 'winter' disproves the entire science of climate change* (see the comment section of this LJ entry, for instance), it's important to keep things in perspective.

Here's a reality check-
More than 2 trillion tons of land ice in Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska have melted since 2003, according to new NASA satellite data that show the latest signs of what scientists say is global warming...

..."It's not getting better; it's continuing to show strong signs of warming and amplification," [NASA ice scientist Jay] Zwally said. "There's no reversal taking place."

Scientists studying sea ice will announce that parts of the Arctic north of Alaska were 9 to 10 degrees warmer this past fall, a strong early indication of what researchers call the Arctic amplification effect. That's when the Arctic warms faster than predicted, and warming there is accelerating faster than elsewhere on the globe.

As sea ice melts, the Arctic waters absorb more heat in the summer, having lost the reflective powers of vast packs of white ice. That absorbed heat is released into the air in the fall. That has led to autumn temperatures in the last several years that are six to 10 degrees warmer than they were in the 1980s, said research scientist Julienne Stroeve at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo.


A second study suggests even larger amounts of frozen methane are trapped in lakebeds and sea bottoms around Siberia and they are starting to bubble to the surface in some spots in alarming amounts, said Igor Semiletov, a professor at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. In late summer, Semiletov found methane bubbling up from parts of the East Siberian Sea and Laptev Sea at levels that were 10 times higher than they were in the mid-1990s, he said based on a study this summer.

The amounts of methane in the region could dramatically increase global warming if they get released, he said.

That, Semiletov said, "should alarm people."

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.... Oh, I'm sorry, were you saying something?

[*I'd add that, here in NYC, it was around 60 degrees on Monday. The following day, we had snow showers. If this is considered to be normal northeast winter activity, consider me confused.]

Time's Person of the Year is...

...Barack Obama!

Runners-up include that Alaska lady, Bush's bailout buddy, and some Chinese Olympic dude.

[UPDATE: Jonah 'Liberal Fascism' Goldberg throws a sarcastic hissy fit over at the National Review. I look forward to schaudenfrade-prone liberals making 'Obama Derangement Syndrome' jokes over the next four eight years.]

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Invisible Hand of the Free Market

As the Republican party (once again) decides that organized labor/working people are the enemies to be destroyed in this economic crisis (using both the auto bailout and the... Blagojevich scandal?), reality continues to pack a one-two punch. Here's some of this week's most exciting free-market news.

There was this news this morning...
A record plunge in consumer prices in November puts pressure on the Federal Reserve to act decisively to guard against a debilitating bout of deflation.

The Fed wraps up a two-day meeting Tuesday. Economists expect the central bank to cut the federal funds rate.

...And then this followup this afternoon-
The Federal Reserve has cut its target for a key interest rate to the lowest level on record and pledged to use "all available tools" to combat a severe financial crisis and prolonged recession.

The central bank on Tuesday said it had reduced the federal funds rate, the interest that banks charge each other, to a range of zero to 0.25 percent. That is down from the 1 percent target rate in effect since the last meeting in October.

Now I'm no economic expert, but this seems... rash? Which means the market loved it.

I also came across this criminally underreported story yesterday-
Congress wanted to guarantee that the $700 billion financial bailout would limit the eye-popping pay of Wall Street executives, so lawmakers included a mechanism for reviewing executive compensation and penalizing firms that break the rules.

But at the last minute, the Bush administration insisted on a one-sentence change to the provision, congressional aides said. The change stipulated that the penalty would apply only to firms that received bailout funds by selling troubled assets to the government in an auction, which was the way the Treasury Department had said it planned to use the money.

Now, however, the small change looks more like a giant loophole, according to lawmakers and legal experts. In a reversal, the Bush administration has not used auctions for any of the $335 billion committed so far from the rescue package, nor does it plan to use them in the future. Lawmakers and legal experts say the change has effectively repealed the only enforcement mechanism in the law dealing with lavish pay for top executives...

Now I'm sure that a) President Bush doesn't want to come off as cartoonishly evil and that, b) the GOP doesn't want to be seen as the party of the rich and big business, so I'm advising them to be a little less obvious next time. You're welcome.

And, finally, one of the week's biggest stories is a heartwarming story of unchecked greed-
Commentators sharply criticized the US financial system Tuesday as more firms announced losses in the suspected multi-billion-dollar swindle run by ex-Wall Street heavyweight Bernard Madoff...

..."The supposed meticulous supervision by (US financial watchdog) the SEC has failed in the task of preventing massive fraud," Spanish newspaper El Pais said Tuesday.

...Madoff, 70, was arrested Thursday and allegedly confessed to defrauding investors of 50 billion dollars in a scam that collapsed after clients asked for their money back due to the global financial crisis.

US authorities allege that Madoff delivered consistently strong returns to clients by secretly using the principal investment from new investors for payments to other investors, in what is known as a pyramid scam.

...US Vice President Dick Cheney said in a radio interview Monday that the alleged scam was "very disturbing" and blamed a few "bad apples."

'A few bad apples'? Seriously, Dick Cheney? I'd pick a different phrase, if I were you.

In conclusion... we need to kick some union ass. The bastards.


Odds and Ends

Yes, it's once again time for my patented (except not) news roundup...

The electoral college makes it official... Barack Obama has been elected the 44th President.

Cabinet appointments continue at a regular pace, with Obama naming "Arne Duncan, the tough-minded Chicago schools superintendent, as the next secretary of education with a mandate to overhaul failing US schools." At the press conference, Obama spoke about his vision for reform.

Obama also named New York City's housing commissioner (w00+) to lead the Housing and Urban Development Department. And Sen. Salazar (D-CO) has been selected for Secretary of the Interior.

Finally, Bill Moyers spoke with constitutional lawyer/blogger Glenn Greenwald this past weekend about the state of the rule of law in U.S. government. And Rachel Maddow interviews warrantless wiretapping whistleblower (say that three times fast) Thomas Tamm.

Just Say No.

Since I'm a New Yorker and it's a hot topic, let me (briefly) weigh in the increasing likelihood of Caroline Kennedy becoming our new junior Senator. I'm against it.

I voted against Hillary Clinton in 2000 (and her reelection bid in 2006, and her presidential bid in 2008) because I hate both carpetbagging and political dynasties. Part of Obama's appeal, for instance, was that he came from political nothingness to greatness in amazingly short time using only his own brains and skills to do so. Senate seats should be earned, not gifts to celebrity politicians. That's not a knock against Ms. Kennedy, whose politics are obviously mostly aligned with my own. It's a matter of principle. NY state has many great congressmen who'd make great Senators, and Ms. Kennedy shouldn't get to cut the line just because of who she is.

Hopefully, Gov. Paterson doesn't give into the pressure.

Bush on Iraq war lies.... "So what?"

Watching the television the last few days, I'm seeing a lot about the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush during a press conference (ungrateful little shit doesn't seem to appreciate his country being invaded and occupied... I mean, we Americans would love to be invaded!). But I'm not so much hearing anything about these other stories.

Such as the exact details of the new Status of Forces Agreement the Iraqis have passed, which will begin the winding down (?) of the U.S. war/occupation in that country.

Or Vice President Cheney-- you may not remember him, he's made about 1.5 public appearances in his role as dark overlord in the last year-- still pretending that the WMD case for war was pretty much solid.

And then there was President Bush himself, being confronted by a reporter on the falseness of Bush's pre-war Iraq-al Qaeda claims, stating "Yeah, that’s right. So what?" Take that, facts!

Maybe this is why people sometimes throw shoes at their televisions.

[UPDATE: I see that Andrew Sullivan posted on the latter story, and why it's so infuriating: "That's how he acknowledges that there was no al Qaeda in Iraq to speak of before he created a power vacuum through his botched war and occupation. So two wars to cripple al Qaeda actually gave al Qaeda and Jihadism in general two new bases for operation: Iraq and Waziristan. Thanks to the amazing work of many troops and generals and Iraqis, al Qaeda is at bay (though not defeated) in Iraq, but resurgent in Pakistan. Which is to say that several thousand Americans - and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis - died to get us back to Square One." This is his legacy, no matter how hard they are spinning it now.

Not surprisingly, polls still consistently show a majority of Americans want us out ASAP.]