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Category: Barack Obama

Iran nuclear deal eliminates existential threat to Israel

Originally published July 15, 2015

On my last day visiting Israel three years ago, our tour group met with a national security advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named Sheldon Schulman. And his talk was more than sobering. It was downright frightening – and depressing about the future existence of the Jewish state. He joked about how all national security briefings those days had become meetings about Iran (which was “topic one” in all political conversation in Israel).

Netanyahu’s advisor then grimly recounted a nightmare scenario that would result if Iran acquired a nuclear bomb.

“Mr. Schulman related to us that starting this September, all Israeli schoolchildren in Grade 5 and above will receive training on how to survive a nuclear attack – including on how to care for younger siblings should their parents be separate or killed. Mr. Shulman told us that Iran has constructed models of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to test the correct height at which to explode a bomb over those cites for maximum impact. In Mr. Shulman’s view, once Tehran gets the bomb, it will make good on its threats to use it against Israel.”

He went on to explain that Israel could not wait to see if it would survive a first strike from Iran because its command and control facilities in such a small country might be tested beyond capacity. In other words, traditional deterrence (“mutual assured destruction”) that kept the peace between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. during the Cold War would not work between Israel and Iran. So once Netanyahu’s red-line on Iran’s nuclear program had been crossed, which was coming soon, Israel would be forced to take preemptive military action – especially because he believed that Obama’s red-line was Iran actually launching nuclear missiles against Israel (which in retrospect seems ridiculous).

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Now that the Obama Administration and the other P5 +1 countries have negotiated an agreement that will freeze and roll-back Iran’s nuclear program, Netanyahu is now playing a bait and switch. He and his aides are no longer emphasizing a potential Iranian bomb as an existential threat to Israel, which had been the sole focus of their previous concerns. Instead, the threat has now shifted to a non-nuclear Iran unbridled by international sanctions throwing its weight around the Middle East with better-financed conventional armaments. And how could Obama have signed off on the nuclear deal without linkage to the Iranian conventional threat?

But this is where a conversation that our tour group had with an Israeli kibbutz leader comes back into memory. Unlike the Netanyahu aide, the kibbutz leader was more concerned about Israel’s inability to fight back against Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah guerillas located across the border in Lebanon, if their principals in Tehran are armed with nuclear weapons.

I’m guessing that even the more practical kibbutz leader is unhappy with the pending Iran nuclear deal because he’d be unhappy about sanctions relief.

But Israel has been fighting a conventional war against Iran and its Arab neighbors since its founding – and doing pretty well at it. Yes, the lifting of sanctions against Iran does pose a problem and may have an effect on the regional balance of power. It increases the conventional threat to Israel and may cause a non-nuclear arms build-up among the Gulf Arabs to counter Iran. But it won’t cause a nuclear arms race among the Gulf Arabs. And most importantly, it will eliminate the threat to Israel’s very existence that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would have constituted.

President Obama addressed the sanctions issue at his press conference Wednesday, saying:

“Do we think that with the sanctions coming down, that Iran will have some additional resources for its military and for some of the activities in the region that are a threat to us and a threat to our allies? I think that is a likelihood that they’ve got some additional resources.

“Do I think it’s a game-changer for them? No.

“They are currently supporting Hezbollah, and there is a ceiling, a pace at which they could support Hezbollah even more, particularly in the chaos that’s taking place in Syria.

“So can they potentially try to get more assistance there? Yes.

“Should we put more resources into blocking them from getting that assistance to Hezbollah? Yes.

“Is the incremental additional money that they’ve got to try to destabilize the region or send to their proxies — is that more important than preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? No.”

The bottom line is that Iran is not going to stop being Iran because of this accord, and regime transformation was always going to be beyond the scope the negotiations. Remember, China and especially Russia have no interest in including non-nuclear issues in the negotiations, and their participation in the sanctions regime was critical to its effectiveness – which sanctions regime unravels internationally once Iran agrees to resolve the nuclear issue irrespective of whether the U.S. signs off on the agreement.

There certainly is hope that the present agreement with Iran will be an inflection point, leading to at least a détente with the Islamic Republic – maybe even an entente if engagement, commerce and diplomatic relations follow. “Iranians are generally believed to be one of the most pro-American populations in the Middle East,” according to the RAND Institute as corroborated by Pew Research Center surveys of global attitudes toward the United States. (52% of Iranians view America favorably, whereas the Egyptians with a positive view barely break double digits.) Ironically, it may be this potential for a geopolitical realignment that has the Israelis and Gulf states most worried. But any such realignment would have to include a rapprochement, with them, too, for the Persians to rejoin the community of nations that respects the rule of law and other countries’ sovereignty.

The bottom line is that we do not need to go to war with another Muslim country to disarm it, and that was the alternative to the present agreement with Iran. We avoid war, and Israel avoids being subject to an existential threat of nuclear annihilation from an Iranian bomb, which is now under wraps. That’s a good tradeoff, historic even.

The Obama Doctrine: fiercely minimal, but about to change to confront ISIS?

Originally published August 30, 2014

068e8a193d871ff37cbf0081671113a4I ignored the political commentariat yesterday because I couldn’t bear to hear the predictable fallout from President Obama’s statement at his press conference that “we don’t have a strategy [on striking the Islamic State] yet.” Like his gloss on Elizabeth Warren’s more articulately stated riff that business owners don’t build the public infrastructure needed to run their companies, Obama’s admission of a lack of strategy obviously didn’t mean what his critics would contend it did – that the Administration had no ideas about confronting ISIS. Rather, it is clear that members of the Administration have plenty of ideas, but our chess-player-in-chief is wading through the policy options before carefully and deliberately deciding on the nation’s proper course.

The president is either awfully prescient or incredibly lucky because his decisions on foreign policy that have appeared dubious in the moment have proven themselves over the long haul.

Libya? His critics wanted American to lead a full-scale military invasion to topple Colonel Gaddafi. Obama held back and let other European nations lead a multinational bombing campaign, which had the same result.

Syria? The Administration threatened airstrikes after Assad crossed the president’s redline on the use of chemical weapons. Republicans decried redlines that mean nothing. Instead of a barrage of missiles that would have felt good but accomplished little, Obama negotiated the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

Ukraine? Oppose the Russians with sanctions, but do not engage them with militarily.

Al-Qaeda? Hillary Clinton belittled Obama’s position in the 2008 presidential primary campaign that as president, he would pursue a high value terrorist even in Pakistan if the Pakistanis wouldn’t. When he made good on that promise against Osama bin Laden in 2011, Obama scored the biggest foreign policy success of his first term.

Is there a common theme to President Obama’s broad foreign policy? Some believe that the outlines of the Obama Doctrine have taken shape. Peter Beinart calls it “fierce minimalism.” By that Beinart means that the president has been relentless in pursuing a vigorous campaign of anti-terrorism where American interests and lives are in direct involved. Bin Laden. Somali pirates. The Mosul Dam.

As Beinart puts it,

“… Obama has shown a deep reluctance to use military force to try to solve Middle Eastern problems that don’t directly threaten American lives. He’s proved more open to a diplomatic compromise over Iran’s nuclear program than many on Capitol Hill because he’s more reticent about going to war with Tehran. He’s been reluctant to arm Syria’s rebels or bomb Basher al-Assad because he doesn’t want to get sucked into that country’s civil war. After initially giving David Petraeus and company the yellow light to pursue an expanded counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, he’s wound down America’s ground war against the Taliban. Even on Libya, he proved more reluctant to intervene than the leaders of Britain and France.

“On the other hand, he’s proven ferocious about using military force to kill suspected terrorists. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, he’s basically adopted the policy Joe Biden proposed at the start of his administration: Don’t focus on fighting the Taliban on the ground, since they don’t really threaten the United States. Just bomb the hell out al-Qaeda from the air….”

In other words, the president is not willing to commit American blood and treasure to intervene abroad for broad, vaguely defined policy goals. Hillary Clinton derided Obama’s formulation that “Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle. According to Secretary Clinton, ““Great nations need organizing principles.”

Obama is betting that at this moment in history, the United States is not in need of any such grand organizing principle. The founding generation needed popular sovereignty as an organizing principle. The Civil War generation to save the Union. The WWI generation to make the world safe for democracy. And the WWII generation to defeat Nazism and then communism.

We seem to define our organizing principles negatively, by what we need to oppose. Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine aside, Russia is no Soviet Union and likely not the basis for a grand geo-strategic doctrine for the 21st Century. The fight against spreading radical jihadism may just be that generational struggle that requires a big national, and international, policy to confront effectively. When the president decides to more broadly engage the Islamic State, his strategy choice will undoubtedly be fierce, and it may need to need to go beyond minimalism.

State of the Union: Obama rejoins tax debate with Buffett rule

Originally published January 25, 2012

While the GOP presidential candidates are in a bidding war to see who can propose the lowest tax rates, President Obama tonight proposed what amounts to a new “alternative minimum tax” for millionaires. (Call it an “MAMT.”)
Mitt Romney would like to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, including for those in the top tax bracket.

President Obama Addresses The Nation During State Of The Union AddressNot to be outdone, Newt Gingrich wants a flat tax rate of 15% on earned income – a rate that he notes is about the same as the effective rate of the taxes that Mitt Romney actually paid in 2010. Turns out, however, that Newt would eliminate all capital gains taxes, so Mitt might reconsider his vote since he would pay close to zero in taxes on the dividends and capital gains from which most of his “unearned” income is derived.

President Obama had a rejoinder to these Republican proposals in his State of the Union Address this evening:

Right now, we’re poised to spend nearly $1 trillion more on what was supposed to be a temporary tax break for the wealthiest 2 per cent of Americans. Right now, because of loopholes and shelters in the tax code, a quarter of all millionaires pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households. Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. . . .

Tax reform should follow the Buffett rule: If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 per cent in taxes. . . . [I]f you’re earning a million dollars a year, you shouldn’t get special tax subsidies or deductions. On the other hand, if you make under $250,000 a year, like 98 per cent of American families, your taxes shouldn’t go up. You’re the ones struggling with rising costs and stagnant wages. You’re the ones who need relief.

Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.

The President also had a response to Mr. Romney’s claim that those criticizing his venture-capital ways are merely jealous of his wealth.

We don’t begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference – like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet. That’s not right. Americans know it’s not right. They know that this generation’s success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to their country’s future, and they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility. That’s how we’ll reduce our deficit. That’s an America built to last.

In other words, it’s not about envy, but equity. Clearly, Mr. Obama lost Mr. Romney’s vote as his tax bill would more than double under the Buffett Rule.

Obama’s Tucson speech was his Gettysburg Address

Originally published January 17, 2011

At the mid-way point in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln gave his great address to dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery on the site where so many had died during the decisive battle at Gettysburg. In making his memorial speech in Tucson to honor those who were injured or killed last week, President Obama used many of the words and themes of the Gettysburg Address, along with those of Lincoln’s other speech carved into the walls of his Memorial, his Second Inaugural Address.

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In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln began, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Similarly Obama began, “There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts. But know this: The hopes of a nation are here tonight.”

Obama directly borrowed some of Lincoln’s language in his memorial speech. Obama talked about our “sharply polarized” discourse and admonished us to “pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” Obama instructed us to “sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hope and dreams are bound together.” In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln’s instructed the nation as follows:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds. . . [and] do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves. . . .

Lincoln observed that the two parties engaging in the Civil War, both North and South, “read the same Bible and pray to the same God.” Obama similarly observed that those who were harmed or killed “are part of our family, the American family 300 million strong. We may not have known them personally, but surely see ourselves in them.”

The subject of Lincoln’s addresses, of course, was the Civil War: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” Whereas for Obama, it is the scourge of incivility that has blanketed our airwaves:

. . . [I]f, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy – it did not – but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would them proud.

The emotional arc of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was to dedicate the war memorial in honor of goal for which the soldiers had died there: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. . . .” Obama’s emotion arc in his speech was similarly dedicated to those who perished. “If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate – as it should – let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle.”

Obama then made the plea for civility extremely personal:

Imagine — imagine for a moment, here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that some day she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council. She saw public service as something exciting and hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us — we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

President Obama observed that Congresswoman Giffords, her staff and many of her constituents were gathered outside a supermarket to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and free speech, thus fulfillng a central tenent of representative democracy. He further characterized the gathering — which Ms. Giffords called “Congress on Your Corner” — as “just an updated version of government of and by and for the people.” In so doing, he made explicit the connection to the Lincoln’s final dedication in the Gettysburg Address: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

It was only in retrospect at the end of war that the Battle of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Address there were seen as a turning point in the Civil War. So, too, can we hope for President Obama’s speech at Tucson with respect to the poisonous partisan discourse through which we have been living of late.

 

Obama’s second act: Keynes now, Reagan later

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Originally published November 17, 2010

Did you notice? President Obama launched his reelection campaign last week, and he wasn’t even in the country. The first leaks from his Deficit Commission broadly outline the themes on which the president plans to seek a second term: namely restoring long-term fiscal sanity to the American economy. His second-term agenda is as large at his first, but is its political mirror image: taming government in place of bigger government. It’s a great campaign theme, goes against type in a constructive way and ultimately will be successful only if one of his first-term signature programs actually does its job by 2012: that would be the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, aka the $787 billion stimulus program, and its yet unfulfilled job of reducing the jobless rate and igniting economic growth. No John Maynard Keynes now, no second term later.

The president plans to do deficit reform in a typically Obamaian manner: a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes. Not blue or red, but his unique shade of purple! This approach has the genius of being able to outflank the Republicans, if not the Tea Party, on the right with the current mix of new taxes to cuts in a reported ratio of 25% to 75%. And by eliminating (some very popular) loopholes and lowering overall marginal rates, Obama has positioned himself to run as a tax cutter like that last transformative president, Ronald Wilson Reagan.

In his first presidential debate with John McCain, Obama said that his top three campaign promises for his first term were, in order: (1) a new energy policy stressing domestic production and alternative fuels; (2) education reform; and (3) health care reform. Indeed, in response to persistent questioning by the moderator of the debate, Jim Lehrer, as to what of his agenda he would have to scale back in light of the onset of the financial collapse, Obama pointedly said none would be taken off the table. As a side note, Obama even rightly predicted that just like an earlier program during the Great Depression, the funds expended to rescue the economy under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (“TARP”) would likely be repaid. The point is that Obama had to go big and spend political capital in ways he did not contemplate in light of the Great Recession (big stimulus, financial regulatory reform) before ever addressing his real priorities (health care, energy, education) – all of which also implicated big, activist government.

What Obama, and David Axelrod, knew was that the president would have only one to two years to get as much of his agenda passed as possible. After that, the mid-terms of 2010 and the onslaught of the campaign for 2012 would make any new significant legislation impossible. And that was before they knew how bad the midterm red wave would turn out to be. So by his own standards, Obama did pretty well: he did health care and started education reform – all the while stopping our economic free-fall. Other than stimulus investments, however, he never really got around his key energy/environmental reform: cap-and-trade, which passed the House but not the Senate. But two out of three’s not bad. And Obama had to pass these reforms getting little or no assistance from the other side of aisle – yet while making overt political gestures of being open to bipartisanship to keep true to his brand, even if it proved to be unrequited.

The Republican’s politics of obstructionism took its toll. But for the Party of No, the president could have gone even bigger: the public option, separating retail and investment banking, banning derivatives trading, a larger stimulus. And that was when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. Now that the Republicans have taken over the House, and are being watched carefully by their Tea Party erstwhile collaborators, the chances of any compromise on legislation other than the basics (war funding, temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts and the budget, after a fight) in the second half of Obama’s first term are slim to none. I’m betting on a government shut-down by the Spring and Articles of Impeachment by the Fall. Since Obama did almost everything on his first-term agenda in his first two years – some say he was the most legislatively consequential president that we have had since L.B.J. – Obama doesn’t really need to pass anything more before standing for reelection in 2012. Now he has his own Do-Nothing Congress to run against.

Indeed, Obama’s chances of winning reelection may have been sealed when he made a political, instead of purely economic, calculation on the size of the stimulus in his early days in office. The president and his chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, decided that they couldn’t sell a stimulus with a “t” in it. When Christina Romer, economic historian of the Great Depression and first Chair of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, left the Administration and headed back to Berkeley over the summer, she revealed a troubling behind-the-scenes decision-making process. Romer had estimated that the stimulus needed to be $1.2 billion in order to replace the demand sucked out of the economy by the recession and reignite job and economic growth. But the president only considered one under $800 billion. In other words the actual stimulus proposed and then passed was 50% too small to do the job – and was further watered-down with tax cuts to get three Republican votes (one of which, Arlen Specter, was then chased out of the Republican Party). It is now ironic that Obama’s success in his upcoming reelection campaign rests upon a knowingly undersized stimulus.

When Reagan won reelection in 1984, unemployment had come down over the preceding 2 years from 10.8 % to 7.2% — and was headed in a downward trajectory. Morning in America. As John Judis showed in the New Republic (http://www.tnr.com/article/job-one?page=0,2), there is a direct correlation between the employment rate and the president’s favorability rating. In other words, in order for Obama to win a second term, the unemployment rate must drop at least 2 to 3 percentage points below the present level of 9.6% and have the feel of dropping further. If the stimulus doesn’t get us there, bottom line, there will be no second term. If it does, and Obama campaigns on long-term deficit reduction that the Do-Nothings refused to take up, then 4 more years are in order and rightly so.