"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
September 26, 2012
POLITICS: Romney and Obama Sing From The Same Hymnal on Emergency Room Care
A sure sign of political silly season: seeing a whole lot of Obama supporters reflexively pushing the same attacks on Romney with the same overheated rhetoric at the same time on points that don't stand up to even the most modest logical scrutiny. You'd think, given the clear and obvious points of disagreement between these two tickets on some issues, that would be the focus, but no...
[W]e do provide care for people who don't have insurance ... if someone has a heart attack, they don't sit in their apartment and - and die. We pick them up in an ambulance, and take them to the hospital and give them care. And different states have different ways of providing for that care.
Romney in 2010:
It doesn't make a lot of sense for us to have millions and millions of people who have no health insurance and yet who can go to the emergency room and get entirely free care for which they have no responsibility
NPR characterizes this as "Romney said almost exactly the opposite," but it's exactly the same point: Romney's been arguing for years that his health care mandate plan in Massachusetts was designed in large part to deal with the issue of hospitals getting stuck with the bill for emergency room care that federal law (EMTALA) requires them to provide, but for which they are often unable to collect payment from the uninsured. Romney in 2007, defending his plan on Glenn Beck's show:
When they show up at the hospital, they get care; they get free care paid for by you and me...If that's not a form of socialism, I don't know what is.
"Socialism" here is typical of Romney trying too hard to pander to his audience; he's never been a good political communicator, and if anything he was even worse in 2007, one reason why he lost in the primaries that year. (I'll set aside the issue, which will be the subject of a much longer post in the works, over how we distinguish socialism from other forms of collectivism). Plainly, though, what he's describing is a form of redistribution, i.e., some people receiving services and others getting the bill.
NPR argues that Romney is wrong because uninsured people do get stuck with large bills for emergency room services, but this completely misses his point, which is that (1) uninsured people do go to emergency rooms for care because they know it has to be given regardless of insurance or ability to pay and (2) hospitals are frequently unable to collect these bills, and end up passing on the costs to other customers and/or taxpayers.
You may agree or disagree with Romney's preferred solutions to this - which, in Massachusetts, were essentially identical to Obamacare. You may even think he's unduly concerned about the wrong problems. But what you can't do is attack him for saying this stuff without mentioning that Obama has been saying the exact same thing for years, and indeed has made it a central theme of his policy and legal arguments for his own health care policies. Here's Obama in June 2012:
First, when uninsured people who can afford coverage get sick, and show up at the emergency room for care, the rest of us end up paying for their care in the form of higher premiums.
And the only people who may have a problem with this law are folks who can afford health care but aren't buying it, wait until they get sick and then going to the emergency room and expecting everybody else to pick up the tab. That's not responsibility. That's not consistent with who we are.
Basically, Obama is calling people who go to the emergency room for care irresponsible and un-American. You have a problem with Romney saying this kind of thing, you also have a problem with Obama. Here's White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in June 2012:
You have a choice to buy -- if you can afford health insurance -- and you can, I assume, Jared. So if you don't buy it, and you can afford it, it is an irresponsible thing to do to ask the rest of America's taxpayers to pay for your care when you go to the emergency room.
Now, I wish we had a Republican candidate who was not burdened by the legacy of Romneycare, as its aftermath in Massachusetts illustrates the folly of the Obamacare solution to the EMTALA "free rider" problem; we have to settle for Romney pledging to repeal a law that does things he evidently still believes in. A more robust debate on the issue would benefit everyone. But it's a sign of the intellectual bankruptcy of Obama's defenders that they can find nothing better to do than beat up on Romney for making the exact same arguments as Obama in defense of the exact same policy solutions to the exact same problems. If it offends you to see this sort of thing said about people who go to emergency rooms to get EMTALA-mandated care they will not end up paying for, I have one simple answer for you: don't vote for President Obama.
September 19, 2012
BASEBALL: Mike Trout Scores
Mike Trout recently played his 162nd major league game, in which time he scored 136 runs. How unusual is that? Pretty unusual, at least in modern baseball. Baseball-Reference.com has game logs going back to 1918, and while I can't run a systematic search, I'm pretty sure this is a complete list of the players since 1918 to score 120 or more runs in their first 162 major league games - 8 Hall of Famers out of 26 (plus at least one, Ichiro, who is sure to be a 9th, plus others who still could and a handful of guys who would have made it if they'd stayed healthier or out of World War II). Ages and years are listed by the age the player was in the season when he played his 162nd game:
As you can see, the list includes a number of guys (Ichiro, Jackie Robinson, Johnny Frederick, Roy Johnson, George Watkins) who arrived in the majors as seasoned veterans in mid-career. (This is not the case for Johnny Pesky, who scored 105 runs in 147 games as a 23 year old rookie, then spent 3 years at war before scoring 115 runs in 1946 when he returned). It's also heavily dominated by the high-scoring 1925-41 period. The number of players who compiled a scoring record like Trout's at such a young age is short and dominated by immortals.
I won't chart them, but others of note: Lloyd Waner's better brother Paul 113, Roy Johnson's better brother Bob 118, Joe DiMaggio & Charlie Keller's outfield-mate Tommy Henrich 116 and their teammate Lyn Lary 116, Albert Pujols 115, A-Rod 117, Ryan Braun 116, Dick Allen 119, Frank Thomas 110, Julio Lugo 111, Denard Span 115, Terrence Long 115, Steve Henderson 112, Wally Moses 116, the ill-fated Len Koenecke 110, Earl Averill 111, Earle Combs 115, Vince Coleman 115, Minnie Minoso 117, Bobby Thomson 115, Dan Uggla 111, Gary Redus 112, Al Smith 112, Fred Lynn 108, Lu Blue 109, Jose Reyes 103, Adam Dunn 108, Richie Ashburn 107, Pee Wee Reese 107, Dan Gladden 108, Andrew McCutchen 108, Bob Meusel 101, Jim Bottomley 101, Walt Dropo 106, Chick Fullis 108, Juan Samuel 109.
You can go back and find a few more in the 1900-17 period - Federal League star Benny Kauff scored 124 runs in his first 159 games, Roy Thomas 137 runs in his first 150 games, Lefty Davis scored 150 runs in his first 171 games in 1901-02. The 19th century is different, of course - Willie Keeler scored 191 runs in his first 170 games, Billy Hamilton 165 runs in his first 172 games, Hugh Duffy 204 runs in his first 207 games, and going all the way back to the beginning in 1871, in the days before gloves, groundskeeping or even fixed fielding positions, Ross Barnes scored 272 runs in his first 136 National Association games and 197 runs in his first 165 National League games.
But if you have to go back that far, it should tell you what a special player Trout really is.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:48 PM | Baseball 2012-Present | Baseball Studies | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)
September 17, 2012
POLITICS: Mitt Romney, Friend in Need
The Obama campaign has spent months laboring to get this election to be about anything but the president's record and the candidates' policy proposals. As often happens in campaigns, this requires painting caricatures with no connection to the facts. The Obama camp has worked hard to make Mitt Romney out as a bad, unfeeling, cold-hearted rich guy who only cares about his own bottom line. Romney himself hasn't helped the matter by being such a stiff, tin-eared speaker who actually looks and sounds like a walking stereotype; political communication is not among his skills. But the reality is that Romney's biography shows him to be a real-life Good Samaritan who has walked the walk of caring for his fellow man not only with his own money but with his own time and his own hands. I've had my share of political complaints about Romney, but on this score, the critics should be ashamed of themselves: Romney is a genuine role model of what private citizens can do to assist those in need.
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Romney's roster of good deeds only starts with his donations to charity. Romney's substantial inheritance from his wealthy father was donated to charity; despite being born to money, his own wealth comes from his own business career. Romney's tax returns show that he donated over $7 million in 2010-2011 alone, over 16% of his income. Edwin Durgy at Forbes has more on the Romneys' charitable giving:
Romney and his wife Ann also maintain a separate foundation, established in 1999...The couple have contributed approximately$13.6 million, including an initial gift of more than $3.6 million, to their Tyler Charitable Foundation, based in Boston, MA, in the past 13 years.
This is admirable in itself. But for wealthy philanthropists, writing checks can be easy. Romney has gone the extra mile, giving of his own time. There are many examples:
One cold December day in the early 1980s, Mitt Romney loaded up his Gran Torino with firewood and brought it to the home of a single mother whose heat had been shut off just days before Christmas.
That story begins in the aftermath of the wildfires that engulfed San Diego in the fall of 2007, consuming dozens of homes in Reed Fisher's neighborhood and nearly his own.
On April 4, 1995, four of Mark and Sheryl Nixon's six children were driving back from a youth group meeting outside Boston when the driver of the minivan they were in lost control of the vehicle, which side-swiped a utility pole, struck two trees and flipped over.
Late one summer night in 1993, distraught over his descent into alcoholism and drug use, Mr. Clark, then a 19-year-old college student, decided to confess that he had strayed from his Mormon faith. So he drove through this well-heeled Boston suburb to Mr. Romney’s secluded seven-bedroom home.
Another congregant was inspired by Romney's example of service:
When Clayton Christensen, a Harvard business professor, and his wife, Christine, felt overwhelmed by church obligations, Mr. Romney showed up unexpectedly at the door. With three young children, Mr. Christensen was in charge of missionary work; his wife ran the relief society, ministering to Boston's poor.
Not all of Romney's outreach efforts were as successful as the Washington Post's account of Romney's outreach to the Hatian community, the NY Times notes that "[w]hen young Southeast Asian converts began joining gangs, Mr. Romney set up small storefront churches in rough areas of town, with the hope of drawing them back," but to no avail. But other communities felt the touch of Romney's generosity and compassion, even if it meant bending the rules a little:
In the back office of his Weston, Mass., headquarters a quarter-century ago, Mitt Romney, the chief Mormon authority in the Boston area, told the leader of his Spanish-speaking congregation that he would not directly pay for lawyers to help the growing number of illegal immigrants in his church. Then he carefully instructed his subordinate on how to circumvent the Mormon Church's new hard line against such assistance and subsidize their legal aide.
Ken Smith, the former director of the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, also came on Beck's show to discuss what Buzzfeed called "a cringe worthy moment in 1994."
(You can see video of the testimonials from Smith and some of the others here)
When the daughter of Bob Gay, a Bain colleague who once sat with Romney on the church's high council, vanished, Romney shut down his Bain offices and arranged for a search party. After she was found shaken but safe in New Jersey, Romney boarded a bus to the airport with John Hoffmire, another Bain colleague who belonged to the church. Tears welled up in Romney's eyes as he talked about his journey through New York's rave clubs showing teenagers a picture of Gay's daughter.
Snopes has more, including Gay being quoted at the time - while his daughter was recovering in detox after "a massive dose of ecstasy," saying "I'm not sure we would have gotten her back without" Romney.
It's a story that's not often told. Mitt Romney at his family's summer home in Wolfeboro, N.H. on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee whisking into the night on a Jet Ski with two of his sons to rescue a drowning family of four, their two friends, and their dog.
Click the links above, all of which have much longer accounts of these and other stories of Romney's good works.
You may choose to dislike Romney's politics, his policies, his ham-handed speeches. But what a better country we would have if half the people attacking him now could compile half of the list above. Compared to Barack Obama, who had half his house paid for by a slumlord convicted of bribing politicians, I'd rather depend on Mitt Romney if I really needed a friend when the chips were down.
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WAR: Human Nature, Culture and the Arab Spring's Fall
2011's Arab Spring, like its predecessor in 2005, presented a sight that always elicits natural sympathy among Americans: a popular revolt against tyrannical dictators. But beneath the immediate euphoria, harder questions lurked: who would these crowds follow? Would American interests, and the interests of our democratic allies, be better served if the dictators won? The Obama Administration has never offered any kind of coherent answer to this question, and the Romney campaign does not seem eager to engage the question. In fact, the answers rest on a major fault line in conservative thought not only about foreign policy but about human nature itself.
Here's the dilemma. On the one hand, you have the venerable view, with deep roots in conservative thought, that human nature is universal and unchanging: "human nature has no history," and is the same in all nations and all epochs of history. This is customarily presented as a pessimistic view, an argument against the progressive view of history as one of unfolding enlightenment and the socialist-utopian view that governments can remake man himself. In this context, however, the permanence and universality of human nature has an optimistic character as well. Those who stress the universality of human nature argue that democracy is a universal good because people everywhere share the same basic longings for liberty, peace and security for themselves and their families, just as they also share the same basic urges to violence and oppression towards others. In this view, the virtue of democracy is that it remains the best system for providing people with the ability to promote the former while channeling the latter into lesser forms of conflict resolution. The champions of democracy thus argue that while governments may not change men, men may change governments. Moreover, this is a well-tested method of improving the lot of the individual that has more or less adapted itself to do so in many different times and cultures the world over.
The Federalist Papers, which drew on observed experience with governments around Europe and America, are full of this sort of sentiment. As James Madison famously wrote, in Federalist No. 51:
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition...It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
And in Federalist No. 10:
AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction...
Set against this view is another one with equally deep roots in conservative thinking: the primacy of culture. The story of human history is most emphatically not one in which all societies have provided equal blessings of freedom and progress to their people, and neither the structure of governments nor the variation in climates and natural resources alone can explain these variations. Rather, some cultures - especially the cultures of Western civilization and the Judeo-Christian religious tradition - have provided a superior platform on which to build stable democratic regimes, respect for individual rights and the rule of law, economic development and scientific progress. The proponents of culture argue that transplanting the fruits of Western culture and civilization into the soil of very different cultures will always be a fool's errand, or at any rate that the specific political and legal doctrines promoted by Islam (especially when combined with Arab culture) are inherently irreconcilable with democracy and other Western values.
One need not look far among the Founding Fathers to see the sentiment expressed that democracy itself was only as viable as the morals and, yes, faith of the people. Ben Franklin famously remarked at the close of the Constitutional Convention 225 years ago today that the Constitution had given Americans "[a] Republic, if you can keep it," and in his prepared message to his fellow delegates, warned that "I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other." George Washington thought that the religious morals of the people were indispensable to a functioning democracy:
Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?
[W]e have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other...
Islamic societies, of course, face no shortage of religious strictures, but the proponents of the primacy of culture stress that those strictures are different, and less congenial to the maintenance of self-government and respect for the individual. Alexis de Tocqueville, who viewed American culture, and specifically American civil society outside of government, as crucial to democracy in America, wrote:
The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other; and with them this conviction does not spring from that barren traditionary faith which seems to vegetate in the soul rather than to live....
Arguments over the dependence of democratic government on the morals and faith of the citizenry are, of course, familiar in our domestic policy debates as well. It should be no surprise that these tensions have played out in the foreign policy debates of the Bush era and its aftermath. George W. Bush was never the Wilsonian advocate of nation-building for its own sake that some of his loftier rhetoric inspired his critics to charge - our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq each started with a traditional casus belli and, as in the aftermath of World War II, turned attention to nation-building only in the aftermath of the defeat and deposition of the opposing regimes and conquest of their territory. But Bush did increasingly, over the course of his years in office, embrace the "neocon" view that replacing dictators with popular sovereignty should be a keystone of our approach to reforming the Muslim and Arab worlds in order to address the root causes of terrorism. At the risk of oversimplifying, the neocon view is more or less that that root cause is the dysfunction of Muslim and Arab societies and the need of tyrants to direct popular rage at that dysfunction outward. In this view, democratic systems of government are a safety valve that allow internal tensions to instead be channeled inward in a more productive and less violent manner.
One of the main critiques of Bush on the Right was always that he was unduly optimistic about the Muslim world and specifically whether the Muslim 'street' actually preferred regimes that promoted genocidal war against Israel and terrorism against the United States and Europe. Volumes have been written on the intractability of Islamic political doctrines and their connection to the ideology of the suicide bomber, the impossibility of peaceable coexistence with Israel, and Islam's irreconcilability with religious pluralism or any form of secular law. This critique has only accelerated without Bush at the helm. Many on the Right have given up on Afghanistan as incurably backward and treacherous (examples there and elsewhere - including last week in Libya - show Americans on the ground being betrayed by their own allies). I'm glossing here over some of the deeper debates about internal doctrinal debates within Islam as well as the role of Arab and other ethnic cultures in addition to the religious element.
In the case of North Africa, Mubarak was - as FDR would say - an SOB, but our SOB; Qaddafi had been deterred and contained effectively since surrendering his nuclear program after seeing what happened to Saddam. The regimes that replaced them are not of the most stable character, and in Egypt in particular, even President Obama has now blanched at calling the Muslim Brotherhood-run government an ally. There are substantial arguments made for the idea that winning hearts and minds is an inherently futile task.
As both a student of the Federalist Papers and a child of the Reagan era, I'm naturally optimistic about the attractiveness of the American-style system of government to the universal aspirations of all peoples, and the adaptability of such systems to improve the lives of all peoples even when imperfectly applied. The correct answer, however, likely lies in between - the fact that democracy is preferable in all places in the long run is not necessarily proof that it is the best answer in every place in the short run, not when balanced against the protection of American interests. But a vigorous national debate on the question seems, in this campaign season, a long way away.
On some foreign policy issues, the two candidates present a clear enough contrast. Romney, ever the Eisenhower-era Republican, prefers a stronger military and a more unapologetic defense of American interests and rights abroad than Obama. Obama has tended to put too much faith in his own personality cult and too much emphasis on having America wear the hair shirt, from arguing in 2007 that "I truly believe that the day I'm inaugurated, not only does the country look at itself differently, but the world looks at America differently" to his much-lauded speech to the Muslim world in Mubarak's Cairo back when he viewed Egypt as an ally. But six years after they announced their first presidential campaigns, neither candidate has really laid out a vision of how properly to balance the roles of human nature and culture in evaluating the merits of democratizing the region going forward. That will have to wait for another day.
September 13, 2012
WAR/POLITICS: Barack Obama's Passivity in Crisis
If there is one common theme about Barack Obama's leadership style in a crisis that runs throughout his time on the national stage and is evident yet again in his response to the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, it is passivity. Obama has shown, time and again, that he prefers to sit back, keep his distance and see what other people do first before he says or does anything. This is not an entirely bad trait - smoking out what everyone else at the table is thinking is an effective way to play poker, and there are times when doing nothing or being a follower is the wiser course. It has certainly paid him political dividends in situations where his opponents overextended themselves. But what it also clearly demonstrates is that vigorous public leadership - getting out in front and rallying the public to take some action that was not already widely supported - is above his pay grade.
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Rudy Giuliani nailed this point in his 2008 convention speech, noting Obama's response to the Russian invasion of Georgia and connecting it to Obama's habit of voting "present" as a State Senator (Obama had rather famously coasted through his tenure as a State Senator, gaining most of his successful bill sponsorships from having his name added late to things on which other people had carried the load.):
When Russia rolled over Georgia, John McCain immediately established a very strong, informed position that let the world know how he'll respond as president at exactly the right time. Remember his words? Remember what John McCain said? "We are all Georgians."
Look at how this leadership style played out in the 2008 financial crisis. As I noted at the time, while scores of other people in both parties - George W. Bush, Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Eric Cantor - flew into a whirl of activity and staked out difficult positions and John McCain (foolishly) suspended his campaign to offer his assistance, Obama sat back, took no active part in events or in leading his own party, and collected the political winnings while the public turned on everyone involved. Obama stated in public that "what I've told the leadership in Congress is that, if I can be helpful, then I am prepared to be anywhere, anytime"; nobody ever called him.
In 2009, military commanders pressed Obama for more troops in Afghanistan, stressing that this was critical to their mission. Obama kept putting off the decision, letting months go by before he committed to a troop surge. But as we now know, Obama never intended to follow through in actually seeing the Afghan war to a victorious conclusion, and never even set concrete war aims. By the time of last week's convention speech, Obama was reduced to arguing that "[w]e've blunted the Taliban's momentum in Afghanistan," which is not exactly "veni, vidi, vici."
Meanwhile, the fall of 2009 also saw the outbreak of popular protest in Iran, the unsuccessful "Green Revolution." Obama was famously slow to offer even tepid public support for the pro-democracy, anti-mullah protests, and eventually turned down a request for help from its leaders. He preferred not to get involved.
Then we had 2010's BP oil spill. This time, decisive leadership at the top was clearly needed. But again, Obama was passive. The federal bureaucracy moved sluggishly, bereft of direction from Obama. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was out in front on the local response, but faced delays as the Administration dragged its feet. Public anger again turned first on BP, but this time, voters noticed that Obama wasn't reacting like a leader, contributing to his falling job approval ratings.
Obama has rarely been out in front of the response to domestic natural disasters, from his arms-length response to 2009's ice storms in Kentucky to belatedly visiting New Orleans, after Mitt Romney, following Hurricane Isaac last month.
He has similarly often remained aloof from the kind of arm-twisting on Capitol Hill that is generally associated with party leadership, an unusual trait for a president who came from the Senate; many accounts from Beltway insiders attest to the fact that Obama doesn't spend much time with his own caucus, leaving the heavy lifting of keeping the party in line to Pelosi and Reid. As the New York Times describes Bob Woodward's account of Obama's legislative leadership style in his latest book:
Many aspects of this book's portrait of Mr. Obama echo reports from other journalists and Washington insiders: a president who has not spent a lot of time cultivating relationships with members of Congress, Republican or Democrat, and who has similarly distant (if not downright tense) relationships with business executives; an idealistic but sometimes naive and overconfident chief executive with little managerial experience and little understanding of the horse-trading and deal-making that make Washington run (skills that, say, Lyndon B. Johnson possessed in spades).
When the "Arab Spring" came to Egypt, Obama was conflicted, remaining silent during much of the protests but eventually, at the end, pressuring Hosni Mubarak to step down. In the end, he won neither the gratitude of the rebels nor of Mubarak's supporters around the region. Today, as protestors attack the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Obama admits that Egypt is no longer a U.S. ally.
Fast forward to the early March 2011 outbreak of war in Libya. Some, like Sarah Palin, wanted the U.S. to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya in support of the rebels. As I explained at the time, whether or not you agreed with Palin, her view made more sense if you acted quickly, rather than waiting - as Obama did - to start one weeks later when the regime had had time to put its forces in place and the rebels had been backed into a single city (Benghazi). Obama promised that the war would last "days, not weeks": it took five months. The mission, at least publicly billed as giving a larger role to European NATO allies that considered Libya part of their traditional sphere of influence, was memorably described as putting Obama and the United States in the position of "leading from behind," and Obama never even bothered asking for Congressional approval, which would have required him to rally public support.
Meanwhile, even the high point of Obama's presidency - the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden - went forward only after Obama reportedly cancelled the mission three times over the prior four months and slept on the final decision, waiting sixteen hours to give the green light.
Then there were the negotiations with Congress over the budget crisis in July and August 2011, leading to a short-term deal and the downgrading of America's credit rating. As I detailed at the time, Obama not only refused to put his own plan on the table at any time (leaving Republicans to bid against themselves) and refused to negotiate in public (leaving the voters stuck sorting through he-said-she-said accounts of who actually was willing to do what), but even the modest deal that was eventually struck was worked out by Congressional leaders once Obama was out of the picture:
At one point, GOP officials said, the Democratic and Republican leaders asked Obama and his aides to leave the room to let them negotiate.
Obama's response to the civil war in Syria has been almost as diffident as his reactions to Iran and Egypt, threatening the regime if it uses chemical weapons but otherwise remaining on the sidelines as massacres proceed.
(UPDATE: These are not, of course, the only examples of Obama's sluggish responses to crises or his lead-from-behind approach. In 2009, Obama waited three days to speak from Hawaii on the Christmas Day underwear bomber, downplaying the bomber's international-terror ties: "This incident, like several that have preceded it, demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more resilient than an isolated extremist." Only later would he address the Al Qaeda connection. Earlier this year, Obama finally came out publicly in support of same sex marriage, a position people on all sides of the issue widely suspected him of favoring, only after public statements by Vice President Biden forced his hand.)
Now, the embassies. Mitt Romney is taking a pounding in the press for acting quickly to put out a statement, one that was quickly overtaken by events when the State Department and unnamed White House officials distanced themselves from earlier public statements by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Obama now says that Romney - one of the most famously calculating and cautious people in politics - took a "shoot first, aim later" approach to the controversy by criticizing the Embassy. This is a window into Obama's thinking: he himself was silent until the next morning, and considers Romney foolish for acting swiftly and vigorously - for showing his cards first. Obama has still not taken questions on the rising violence at the embassies, and jetted off last night to campaign in Las Vegas, leaving unclear how his Administration intends to react to the rising tide of violent protest.
Caution and deliberation are not necessarily bad things; important decisions sometimes take time and require the gathering of additional information, and consensuses sometimes form better without heavy-handed leadership. Sometimes, an empty chair is all the leadership we need. Certainly, in at least some of the crises Obama has faced in the Middle East, doing more would have risked creating even bigger problems. But the next four years will present more occasions when active leadership is needed - leadership on facing down Iran, leadership on containing America's public spending, entitlement and debt crises. Barack Obama has proven, time and again, that he'd rather wait for somebody else to step up so he can decide who to follow. America deserves better.
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September 5, 2012
WAR/POLITICS: No, President Obama Didn't Find Osama Bin Laden
With few other unquestionably popular accomplishments for this president to crow about, we should expect to hear a lot at the Democratic Convention the next two days about how President Obama authorized a Navy SEAL team to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Vice President Biden, who opposed the mission, has made it a favorite stump speech line: "Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."
But signing off on killing bin Laden was a no-brainer; as anyone who remembers the past decade knows, the hard part was finding him. The Abbottabad raid was the culmination of many years of intelligence-gathering. And for all the chest-thumping by Obama and Biden, virtually none of that intelligence-gathering resulted from policy decisions that originated with the Obama Administration. To the contrary, several were harshly criticized by Obama and his allies, and some have been discontinued by Obama.
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I looked at this in more detail based on accounts at the time (as did Ace), and little new has come to light since to change that picture; let's review how the pieces of Bush-era national security and intelligence policy fell into place to pinpoint Osama bin Laden in May 2011:
A. Guantanamo and CIA Detention Centers
What we know, based on what's been made public, is that bin Laden was located primarily by means of following a trail of intelligence that revealed that he was communicating with the outside world mainly via a single faithful courier, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed, who went by the nom de guerre of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. And the leads that gave us that knowledge came from the interrogation of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and CIA "black site" detention centers. Those detainees included 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda operational chief Abu Faraj al-Libi, "20th hijacker" Muhammad Mani al-Qahtani, and Hassan Ghul, an associate of Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
None of this would have been possible if these detainees were treated as ordinary prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, to be asked only the proverbial name, rank and serial number. Barack Obama campaigned against these detention and interrogation sites, closed the CIA "black sites" his first week in office, and is still promising (albeit in increasingly empty fashion) to close Guantanamo (indeed, the 2012 Democratic platform is still promising that "we are substantially reducing the population at Guantanamo Bay without adding to it. And we remain committed to working with all branches of government to close the prison altogether because it is inconsistent with our national security interests and our values."). The finding of bin Laden is an unambiguous victory for the detention and interrogation policies of the Bush Administration. And with those sites not accepting new detainees and the Administration switching emphasis to killing rather than capturing and interrogating enemy combatants, it is questionable whether that success can be replicated in the future, with terrorist leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mullah Omar still at large.
Of the detainees questioned on the path to tracking al-Kuwaiti, the one that investigators have described as the "linchpin" of the whole investigation is Hassan Ghul. And where did we capture Hassan Ghul? In Iraq in 2004, reportedly by a Kurdish security checkpoint on the Iranian border carrying a message from Zarqawi to bin Laden asking for bin Laden's support in the insurgency. Of course, none of this would have happened had Iraq remained a Saddam Hussein-run police state hostile to the United States. If we hadn't invaded Iraq, we would not have captured Ghul, and bin Laden would still be alive. Does that, all by itself, justify the Iraq War? I wouldn't go that far - there are a whole battery of considerations that we've all exhaustively beaten to death in that debate. But yet again: Barack Obama opposed the war, and without it, he wouldn't have had the intelligence to get bin Laden.
C. NSA Surveillance
Electronic surveillance also played a key part in locating al-Kuwaiti: at some point between when the CIA pieced together his identity around 2007 and when he was located in 2009, the NSA surveillance net - the subject of much criticism back in the 2005-08 period - was set out to track calls between al-Kuwaiti's family members and associates and anyone in Pakistan. I've seen no reference anywhere to a warrant ever having been obtained for this eavesdropping, and it worked exactly as defenders of warrantless eavesdropping predicted it might. As I argued back in 2005, there was never a policy reason to object to this sort of thing, as long as it was targeted as described (which it was here: to known associates and relatives of al-Kuwaiti).
As a legal matter, was a warrant needed, under the theory of the critics? It's not clear one was, as most of the public sources indicate that al-Kuwaiti's relatives (at least the ones he was caught communicating with) were in the Persian Gulf, not inside the United States. But it's clear that the very same tool at issue in the FISA controversy was crucial to locating al-Kuwaiti and therefore bin Laden.
D. Coercive Interrogation
The three points above have barely even been contested by the once-noisy critics of Bush Administration policies; they have circled all their wagons around denying that coercive interrogation produced any returns, in line with their longstanding insistence that such interrogation has never, ever worked in any situation and never, ever conceivably could in any possible situation.
But the facts are more complex. The Bush Administration authorized the use of waterboarding on only three detainees, but Khalid Sheikh Muhammad was one of them, and he later provided key intelligence; you can draw your own conclusions as to whether confessing to the good cop means the bad cop accomplished nothing, but it's safe to say that if this was a criminal trial, bin Laden's lawyers would be arguing that any information obtained after waterboarding was "fruit of the poisonous tree." Ghul appears to have been subjected to a number of the lesser coercive tactics, and al-Qahtani seems to as well. While basically everyone agrees that it's preferable to use non-coercive interrogation techniques when possible, the record here suggests that a little humility by those calling for a total ban would be advisable, let alone attempting to pocket political winnings from the interrogation of these detainees.
Osama bin Laden is dead because our intelligence and our military found where he was hiding, using tools and leads inherited from the Bush Administration. If President Obama and Vice President Biden want to take credit for the easy decision to act on that information, well, there's enough credit to go around. But they deserve no credit for finding him in the first place.
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