"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
September 20, 2013
WAR: New At The Federalist
On Wednesday, I had my debut column at The Federalist, on the "neocon" grand strategy from 2001 to today. The Federalist is an excellent and exciting new web publication featuring some great writers, and I'm thrilled to be doing a semi-regular column there (I'll be cross-posting content to here periodically, I still have to post this one here). I'm not abandoning this blog or leaving RedState, but it's another outlet.
September 17, 2013
POLITICS: Obamacare and the GOP's Negotiation Crisis
Should Congressional Republicans (1) fight to completely defund Obamacare, putting the brakes not only on its immediate implementation but also on any efforts to plan for its future implementation, (2) fight to delay implementation of the individual mandate and/or other provisions (following the Administration's lead in delaying the employer mandate, or (3) leave the issue alone and focus on other elements of the budget? What tactics should the GOP use: should it hold up the next continuing resolution, creating the threat of a government shutdown? Tie it to the next debt ceiling fight?
I have tried, with mixed success, to steer clear of this inside-baseball tactical debate, which has generated an outsized amount of acrimony within the Beltway GOP and the conservative movement alike. The pro-defund caucus has been accused, not without reason but with a lot of unfair ad hominems, of being unrealistic in its expectations and misleading the grassroots into a losing battle. The anti-defund caucus, formally aligned mostly behind the "delay" solution, has been accused, not without reason but with a lot of unfair ad hominems, of being spineless, afraid of its own shadow, and in some cases actively scheming to keep Obamacare alive.
For a flavor of the arguments, see Ben Howe on the fear of defeat driving the don't-defund side, Drew M. on the grassroots' lack of trust in the leadership, Erick on why this is a "read my lips" moment for GOP leadership's credibility, the Wall Street Journal on why the leadership thinks the grassroots and the backbenchers have lost their minds, Avik Roy on the argument for replacing rather than repealing Obamacare as part of a larger entitlement reform strategy, and Robert Costa on how the fight is energizing conservative pro-defund groups. Ben Domenech, in this morning's Transom newsletter (an indispensable read on this issue), reviewed the "delay" options and concluded:
I remain unconvinced that any of these approaches are any smarter or more likely to succeed than the somehow "more radical" defunding approach, and I think it's a bit silly to expect GOPers who won't hold the line on a government shutdown to hold the same line on risking default. I do share the belief that fighting for delay is always more realistic (and polls better) than defunding, and that a debt ceiling fight reflects more on the president than the Congress (where the reverse is true of a CR), but it also makes sense to open any conflict with defunding, because you're only going to move backwards from there. After all, you are a Republican.
There are valid points being made on both sides here, and I'm probably more where Ben is than anything. The issue of trust is pervasive, and a lot of the ire in this fight is a proxy for other longstanding grievances on the Right. It seems to me that we have a fundamental set of internal disagreements on the essentials of how negotiation works in politics, and rather than wade into the weeds, it's worth stepping back to consider those essentials.
1. Know Your Bottom Line: As I noted during the last fiscal cliff showdown, it's essential to enter a negotiation knowing what turf you can feasibly defend, what you can't, what you're willing to retreat on and where you will stand and fight. You need to game those things out in advance, understanding that once you begin a fight, the other side gets a say and all the dynamics that have led to the resolution of prior legislative battles will come to the fore again. You go to war, as they say, with the leadership you have: what is important is to know how realistic it is that these Republicans will hold the lines they have chosen.
2. Unity Wins: Too much emphasis is placed on which side's leadership intends to hold out longer. Leadership is important, and can do a lot to influence rank-and-file members - but a negotiating position is only as strong as its weakest link. And with two Houses of Congress to deal with, even committed leadership on one side isn't enough. That means that not only does John Boehner need to know how many people in his caucus are ready to hold out to the bitter end for a particular result, he also needs to know how much support he has in the Senate; if he starts out knowing that Mitch McConnell and Senate leadership aren't up for a tactic, he will be swiftly isolated and outmaneuvered. There's an inherent advantage in having the White House, because even a weak President still presents a more unified face than Congress. The inability of either the delay or defund side to coalesce into a single strategy suggests that neither starts off in a strong negotiating position.
3. You Have To Convince The Other Side. All the brave talk in the world about Republicans not blinking is no use unless the Democrats can be convinced to blink first. And nobody seems to have a plan to make that happen. First of all, the long history of Republicans caving in fiscal showdowns means that Democrats enter any negotiation with morale high and confident of victory; there must be a plan to change that. Second, the hubris of national Democrats certain of a permanent demographic majority is hard to puncture these days - vulnerable 2014 Democrats in Congress may fear polling showing the deep unpopularity of Obamacare and even some public support for a shutdown, but history shows that the White House is disinclined to listen to them even though the August 2011 debt ceiling fight was the lowest point of President Obama's approval ratings. And third, the institutional memory of the 1995 government shutdown has left Democrats convinced that they will always see their political prospects improved by budgetary brinksmanship. These are realities that any strategy must take into account.
4. The Voters Get A Say: In a back-room negotiation, there's something to be said for being stubborn, as well as for starting off with an unreasonable opening demand and falling back to where you want to be. But inevitably, both sides here are trying to convince the public to take their side - and perceived voter movement will influence the outcome. That means that there's a lot to be said for starting off with a demand that seems more reasonable in the first place, although one could also make the case in some circumstances for taking a harder initial stance and then making a great show of compromising.
5. Perception Trumps Reality: Related to the prior point: one reason disputes over polling are so hotly contested is because much of the ability to win fights on Capitol Hill is driven, not by actual public opinion, but by its appearance. Expect pollsters to craft the phrasing of their questions, and their choices of which polls to release publicly, with that in mind.
6. Sometimes, You Fight To Lose: This is perhaps the biggest thing motivating the intensity of the debate over defunding. The strongest position in a negotiation is actually the position of entering a fight you are willing to lose. Pro-defund conservatives see themselves as playing a long game to change how Congress does business, so they see a losing fight as beneficial in the long run. GOP Senate leaders focused on recapturing the Senate are looking only to what plays best in 2014. Anti-defund conservatives are worried about burning out the grassroots base with yet another failure. The biggest divide is not what we expect to win, but what we're willing to lose.
September 16, 2013
WAR: Neocon Middle East Part II
Set The Greater Middle East Ablaze
The Bush Administration was fond of touting the milestones of democracy and freedom (the two things are not the same), and in the early years they came in waves. At the same time, the forces of chaos threatened to overwhelm the progress. But as the years have passed, chaos has more often engulfed the enemies of democracy than its friends. Step back and consider the timeline of major events - not every battle or controversy, but the large-scale shifts between democracy, tyranny and extremism:
October-November 2001: U.S. invades Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban government.
December 2001: Conference of Afghan leaders in Bonn appoints Hamid Karzai as interim president.
March-April 2003: U.S. invades Iraq, toppling Saddam Hussein's government.
July 2003: Iraqi Governing Council established as an interim government. Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay killed in a firefight with U.S. troops.
December 2003: Saddam Hussein captured. Also, Libya announces that it is surrendering its nuclear and other WMD program, which would be turned over to international inspectors.
December 2003-January 2004: Afghanistan loya jirga assembly adopts a new constitution.
March 2004: Iraq adopts an interim constitution.
June 2004: U.S. transfers sovereign power to the interim Iraqi government, headed by Ayad Allawi.
September 2004: UN Security Council passes a USNC Resolution 1559, demanding Syrian withdrawal from its occupation of Lebanon. Also, Don Rumsfeld airs the Bush Administration's mounting concerns over Iran supporting the insurgency in Iraq.
October 2004: First Afghan election, won by Hamid Karzai, featuring high voter turnout and the participation of women. Karzai would be re-elected in August 2009, an election surrounded by disputes over various types of irregularities, and at present is scheduled by term limits to leave office following the next elections in April 2014.
January 2005: Iraqis throng to polling places for the first parliamentary elections. Ibrahim al-Jaafari succeeds Allawi as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, elections in the Palestinian Authority (boycotted by Hamas) select Mahmoud Abbas as President and successor to the recently-deceased Yasser Arafat.
February 2005: Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri assassinated by car bombing in Beirut, generally believed to have been orchestrated by the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
April 2005: Following the popular protests of the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon and diplomatic pressure from the Bush Administration and the French government of Jacques Chirac to enforce UNSC Resolution 1559, Syria withdraws from Lebanon. The Lebanese protests take inspiration from similar movements in Ukraine and Georgia over preceding months.
May-June 2005: Free elections held in Lebanon without Syrian interference for the first time in 30 years, won by the party led by Saad Hariri, son of Rafik Hariri. The younger Hariri would serve as Prime Minister until 2011, when he would be succeeded by Najib Mikati.
May 2005: Kuwait grants women the right to vote and run for office.
September 2005: First Afghan parliamentary elections.
October 2005: Iraq adopts a permanent constitution via popular referendum.
December 2005: Second Iraqi parliamentary elections, featuring nearly 80% voter turnout. In May 2006, the new government would make Nouri al-Maliki the Prime Minister, succeeding al-Jaafari.
January 2006: Parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority, won by Hamas.
February 2006: Bombing of the Shi'ite al-Askari "Golden Mosque" in Iraq, triggering widespread sectarian violence.
April 2006: Taliban launch a major spring offensive in Afghanistan. The offensive is unsuccessful, but the first of several such offensives, usually in the spring, that have protracted the war while the Taliban remains ensconced in northern Pakistan and parts of southern Afghanistan.
June 2006: A U.S. airstrike kills Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
July-August 2006: Israel goes to war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
November-December 2006: Saddam Hussein convicted and executed.
December 2006-January 2007: U.S. launches the "surge" in Iraq.
May 2008: Lebanese factions reach the Doha Agreement, an accord that resolved a lengthy political crisis involving fighting with Hezbollah, and appeared to set the government on a more stable footing for future elections and management and sharing of power.
September 2008: Elections held in Pakistan after General Pervez Musharraf resigned in August.
October 2008: U.S. Special Forces stage a raid into Syrian territory to kill militants operating across the border into Iraq.
June 2009: New elections in Lebanon, won again by Saad Hariri. Also, Iranian protests over the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - supporters of his opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, contended that the election had been rigged even above and beyond the usual constraints imposed by the mullahs on Iran's tightly limited "democracy" - become a mass movement, the "Green Revolution." But under a government crackdown, the protests die down by the early months of 2010.
September 2009: President Obama announces a modest version of the "surge" in Afghanistan, albeit without any plan to pursue military victory over the Taliban.
March 2010: Third Iraqi parliamentary election. This time, it would take nine months of wrangling to establish a new government.
December 2010-January 2011: The "Arab Spring" begins with a protest movement in Tunisia that leads to the resignation of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
January-February 2011: Egyptian mass street protest movement culminates in the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and collapse of his government.
February 2011: Protests lead to civil war in Libya. The rebels capture the eastern coastal city of Benghazi, but the military consolidates control over the other major coastal cities. Also, protests erupt in Bahrain, leading to a crackdown by the monarchy.
March 2011: The U.S. joins a multinational force to enforce a U.N. no-fly zone in Libya, ultimately escalating to a bombing campaign against the regime. Also, a constitutional referendum is held in Egypt.
March-April 2011: Civil war breaks out in Syria; it remains ongoing, with the Assad regime facing off against a loose coalition of opposition groups, including a significant presence of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups.
May 2011: U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan kills Osama bin Laden.
August-October 2011: The Qaddafi government collapses with the fall of Tripoli to the rebels in August, and Qaddafi himself is captured and killed in October.
October 2011: Elections in Tunisia, won by new Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who would resign in February 2013. The next elections are scheduled for December 2013. Tunisia has been seen as one of the Arab Spring's relative successes, but remains threatened by car bombings and unrest.
November 2011: Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in office since 1978, agrees to step down following 10 months of protests. An election would be held in February 2012, but with only one candidate.
December 2011: U.S. troops depart Iraq.
January 2012: Military coup in Mali, triggering a crackdown on the growing militant Islamist movement in the country.
May 2012: Egyptian elections, won by Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the first elected Islamist head of state in an Arab country.
June 2012: Mubarak convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
September 2012: Attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi and demonstrations surrounding the U.S. embassy in Cairo the same day.
January 2013: France sends troops to Mali to quash the Islamist separatist movement in the Saharan north of the country. Meanwhile, a terrorist attack kills dozens at a natural gas plant in Algeria, near the Libyan border.
May 2013: Lebanon's Parliament, citing the Syrian civil war and ongoing disputes over the settlement of the Doha Agreement, votes to delay the June 2013 elections for 17 months.
June-August 2013: Elections in Mali following a June truce. As of September 2013, there has been some recent fighting, raising questions about the truce's durability.
July 2013: Egypt's military responds to popular mass protests against Morsi by staging a coup and placing Morsi under house arrest. The coup is followed by more protests, by Morsi's supporters. In August 2013, an Egyptian court would set Mubarak free.
August 2013: Chemical weapons are used in Syria, apparently by the Syrian government but possibly also by the rebels. Efforts by President Obama and French President Sarkozy to organize a military response are ongoing, but appear stymied by the lack of support in Congress, the British Parliament, the UN Security Council and NATO and the active opposition of Russia.
Along the way, especially in 2011, we've seen more modest protests and reforms or crackdowns in places like Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Compare all of that to the face of the region in September 2001 - dominated by a few theocratic regimes (Iran and Taliban Afghanistan), a handful of Gulf monarchies, and a long row of strongmen - and you can see how far the project of remaking the face of the region has progressed. By no means is the news all good, but it's all news compared to the statis that characterized the internal politics of most of the region before 9/11.
The Iraq War dominated U.S. political discussion for the greater part of five and a half years from mid-2002 to late 2007, and Americans have a tendency to focus on how the war affected our politics and foreign opinion of us. But it also gripped the attention of the Greater Middle East, dominating al Jazeera's regional programming. For would-be democratic reformers, the scenes of voters lining up at the polls and even of squabbling parliamentarians in Iraq and Afghanistan presented an inevitable contrast to their own regimes. And, for that matter, for would-be Islamist revolutionaries, Iraq not only provided a place to prove themselves in battle, but also showed them how to run an insurgency in their own backyards. If U.S. intervention in the region wounded the pride of Arabs and Muslims, it also awakened them to the fact that maybe they could do it themselves - which was the idea of the neocon theory all along, that the process, once started, could develop a momentum of its own without requiring ceaseless American war. We would go to war in Iraq so we wouldn't have to go to war everywhere else. The Bush Administration's aggressive pressure also contributed to the distators' walkbacks - Qaddafi abandoning his WMD program, Assad leaving Lebanon. Where Saddam had shown a face of defiance, the Arab peoples now saw that even a bloodied, quagmired U.S. could bring the region's strongmen to heel.
Iraq alone wasn't the sole cause of the turning; al Jazeera, which had arrived in 1996 and really took off after 9/11, itself had a role in changing the way the region's people saw their societies. As Rany Jazayerli put it:
Al Jazeera was, from its first day on the air, something the Arab world had never seen before: a television channel in Arabic, available to almost everyone in the Arab world, that provided a frank and reasonably unbiased source of news. It provided the unvarnished truth, and that made it extremely dangerous. If there was corruption going on in Jordan, it was reported. If there was a government crackdown in Egypt, it was reported. If a Saudi dissident living in exile in England had some scandalous information about the Saudi royal family, it was reported. All you need to know about Al Jazeera is that its greatest critics are the Arab governments, who have applied all kinds of pressure on Qatar - where Al Jazeera is based - to tone down the rhetoric.
Satellite TV would not be the only technological advance to grease the skids; the internet and social networks like Facebook and Twitter were also altering the playing field. But tools of communications can be a two-way street for propaganda and surveillance, as well; what makes them work is when they have something to talk about.
While the tide of Arab and Muslim revolution was surging in the Greater Middle East, it was waning in the West. Directly provoking the "Arab street" raised concerns about retaliation by the extremists, but the opposite has been true since the region really began boiling in 2005. We've seen three really large-scale terror attacks - the kind that require coordination and planning - far from the Greater Middle East since 9/11: the October 2002 Bali bombing, the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid, and the July 2005 bus and train bombings in London. India, still locked in a front-line struggle with Pakistani extremists, has not been so fortunate, being hit by terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 (the work of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani Muslim terror group) and again in July 2011. The same is true of Chechen terror attacks in Moscow in 2002 and 2010. (And, of course, Islamists within Europe have been busy with their own forms of homegrown mischief.) The decline in large-scale terror operations is partly due to good fortune, good law enforcement and domestic surveillance; certainly there have been a number of attempted terror attacks against the U.S. that got pretty far, such as the December 2001 "shoe bomber," the December 2009 "underwear bomber" and a May 2010 truck bomb in Times Square. And smaller independent attacks, some of them with major death tolls, have continued: the July 2002 LAX shooter, the Fall 2002 Beltway snipers, the November 2009 Fort Hood shooter, the April 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. But any accounting of major terrorist attacks since the invasion of Iraq shows a distinct shift towards attacks within the region itself.
This, too, was - as Marshall acknowledged at the time - an inherent, if usually unstated, assumption of the neocon grand strategy. People who are busy killing each other won't have time to kill anyone else. A region that is pulling itself apart will not be able to project force outward. A region engaged in a mad scramble for power internally will dedicate its arms, its money and its excitable underemployed young men to winning that struggle rather than staging complex covert operations in another hemisphere.
Sowing dissension among one's enemies has a long history; perhaps the most successful example was Imperial Germany's success in taking Russia out of World War I by shipping Lenin into Russia in the spring of 1917. In this case, it's a logical extension of the "flypaper theory" of the Iraq War. The idea that the region's Islamic extremists should be enticed into Iraq to fight U.S. troops was sometimes referred to as a "flypaper" strategy - that they'd be drawn in and trapped where we wanted them, and thus that a bloody insurgency was actually good news. Flypaper may sound like a callous attitude towards the safety of American troops, but the thinking is actually the ancient motivation of men at war: confront and kill the enemy on the battlefield so he cannot disturb your homeland. It is perhaps a more cynical approach to the security of the local population - but then, it's not unreasonable to want the problems of Iraq and other nations in the region to be played out on their soil rather than ours.
That was never the original war plan, of course; the insurgency may not have been adequately planned for by the Bush team, but it did not result from any provocation by the United States - it was wholly the independent decision of those who rejected a democratic political process in which the Iraqi people would be sovereign. Nevertheless, it was implicit in the broader idea of creating a contest for supremacy in the heart of the region.
And in that regard, even though American troops have left Iraq and are nearing their departure from Afghanistan, the flypaper theory writ large is alive and well. Civil war in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, coup in Egypt, revolution in Tunisia...these are all conflicts that entice the jihadists to test their mettle and influence closer to home rather than travel to the West, and give them enemies other than the U.S., Europe and Israel against whom to vent their frustrations. In that regard, the current landscape may represent the fruits of the neocon project, but it's also in line with old-fashioned cynical realpolitik (division to my enemies!) as well as embodying the kind of Jacksonian attitude towards one's enemies that Harry Truman voiced in 1941 when he expressed the view that "If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don't want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances."
All of these attitudes are wholly foreign to President Obama and his national security team, but they have been neither willing nor able to put the genie back in the bottle, as the momentum and internal logic of the whirlwind have swept away one effort after another to re-impose order.
Where We Go From Here
The grand strategy of the neocons has long since passed out of their control, as few still have any influence with the Obama Administration or even in Congress. But the regional revolution they set ablaze is still with us, and they must trust that the path will be clear enough that even those skeptical of the project will make the proper choices. That is a dicey proposition, because few on either side of the political spectrum understand or accept the grand strategic proposition of turning the region's angst inward to the battle for its own future.
On the Left, there remains no coherent grand strategy or even petit strategy. None of what is laid out above should excuse the Obama Administration from the choices it has made, its inability at times to face the new realities of the region for the challenges and opportunities they present, or its general preference (abroad as at home) for negotiating with elites rather than accepting the messy dynamism of popular sovereignty. In 2009, Obama spoke in Mubarak's Egypt as if the region had been oppressed by President Bush rather than by its tyrants. Since then, as he has grudgingly let go of that illusion, he he failed when he had the chance to encourage moderate forces to rebel against the old order in Iran and Syria, was flat-footed in Egypt and constantly behind the curve in Libya. He has seemed, at times, more interested in weapons than people, and completely oblivious to the efforts of Iran and its ally Russia to gain regional hegemony. He has managed neither a strong hand controlling events nor to wash his hands of responsibility for them. He has acted less like the world's policeman than the world's meter maid, handing out tickets to scofflaws.
On the Right, Jacksonian critics of the neocon project have tended to focus on Islam as an insoluble obstacle to reforming the region, a critique that I've written about before as presenting a collision between two longstanding conservative paradigms: the view of human nature as universal and the view of culture as overriding in its importance. But the facts on the ground have mooted that objection, as nobody has a practical solution if the problem is something inherent in the faith of a billion Muslims; we have no choice but to appeal over the heads of culture to the basic human desire for a better life on this earth. Despairing of a solution is no solution at all.
After the fire of September 11, the neocon plan for the Greater Middle East brought not peace, but a sword. America doesn't need to wield that sword in every conflict - this is a fight that affects us and one we can influence, but in the end it is not our fight to win because it is not our people who must make the final choice. But our ability to affect the course of events begins by recognizing that it's still the neocons' world, there is no way out of the fire but forward.
WAR: It's a Neocon Middle East, And We Still Live In It
Twelve years after the September 11 attacks, threats of American involvement in Syria's civil war have refocused attention on the region at the heart of our foreign policy: the Greater Middle East. By "Greater Middle East" I mean not only the Arab-Muslim heartland of the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, and the Levant, but the broader region stretching from Morocco in the west to Pakistan in the east, from Turkey in the north to Yemen in the south (with the exception, of course, of Israel). Many of the countries in the region are not Arab - Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan - but all are predominantly Muslim, and all are infected to one extent or another with the ideology of Islamism, built around the view that Muslims constitute a pan-national political entity and not merely a religious confession.
For the past five years, U.S. foreign policy has been made by senior elected officials and political appointees who, in the words of the Boston Globe, "built careers on [an] anti-war posture." And yet, our policy in the Greater Middle East remains impervious to new strategic initiatives that seek to fundamentally alter the "neoconservative" course set by the Bush Administration. And while that much-used term is often abused or misunderstood, the policy it describes has taken on a life of its own. It's still the neocons' world, and everyone else is living in it. And the jury is still out on how it will end.
But this much is already clear: the old status quo is gone and cannot be reconstructed. The biggest loser in the post-September 11 world has been established order of a region previously dominated by Muslim and Arab strongmen who (while they might be seen as religious zealots by Western standards) sought to ground their rule on secular concepts like nationalism, who ran stable, tightly controlled police states and engaged in traditional power politics, and who successfully projected the internal tensions of their repressed societies outwards. The forces of popular change have come to the region, and for good or ill, they will not be denied. The harder question is what replaces the old order.
Digging To The Roots
Writ small, the September 11 attacks were a conspiracy by Al Qaeda - a terrorist group based in Afghanistan, Germany, and to a lesser extent Egypt and Pakistan, and consisting largely of Saudi Wahabbist Muslim fanatics - to attack civilian targets in the United States. Some observers argued from the beginning that we should focus on the conspirators and their organization, and forego broader ambitions.
The Bush Administration never treated the attacks simply as a criminal conspiracy to be isolated and punished, instead preferring to treat Al Qaeda as a symptom of a wider problem, and to seek out a solution that required digging deeper into the region's pathologies in the effort to root out the entire problem once and for all. That approach recognized the reality that the organization of jihadist extremist groups was fungible; Al Qaeda was simply one manifestation of a larger movement. Al Qaeda's own recent behavior illustrates this reality: holding a coordinated conference call with other extremist and terrorist groups that one intelligence professional described as akin to the "Legion of Doom"; current Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri calling publicly for more locally organized terror attacks like the Boston Marathon Bombing; radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki giving Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan the ideological encouragement to conduct a lone jihadist attack on an American military base.
The nearly unanimous decision to go to war in Afghanistan was made without real discussion of what our broader goals were, but the war in Iraq nearly a year and a half later forced the question into the open. Even with the publication of memoirs by most of the major players, we have never really had a full, candid accounting of the grand-strategic thinking of President Bush and his team between September 2001 and March 2003. Bush, in his own memoir, summarized his principles in four points:
First, make no distinction between the terrorists and the nations that harbor them - and hold both to account. Second, take the fight to the enemy overseas before they can attack us here at home again. Third, confront threats before they fully materialize. And fourth, advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy's ideology of repression and fear.
That fourth point was the source of the high-flying rhetoric about liberty and democracy and its connection to security in his Second Inaugural Address in 2005:
We have seen our vulnerability - and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny - prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder - violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.
What was missing from all this was an explanation of how we planned to get to that end - precisely who the enemy was and is, and what our strategic philosophy would be in deciding when to use force, when to declare the mission accomplished, when to coexist with dictators who cooperated against the jihadists, and when to support insurrections that were aligned with them. Both Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, in their memoirs, stressed the importance of stepping back and doing strategic thinking even in the bustle of war, but despite their respect for Bush, both memoirs have a little edge of regret that more such thinking wasn't done from the top in a public way that would have given clearer direction to the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But just because the strategy wasn't explicitly stated as such doesn't mean a course wasn't set. When the Bush Administration's actions are considered in light of the thinking of conservative commentators and the justifications offered then and now, it seems clear that the Administration came, rather early, to the conclusion that the problem was the fundamental structure of the Greater Middle East (at a minimum its political structure). Because the solution to such a problem is not merely to launch missiles or drop bombs, but to change the governments of the region - a much more ambitious goal - it inherently required kick-starting the process by choosing a country to make an example. The obvious choice, for a variety of reasons, was Saddam Hussein's Iraq, with which we already had continuous hostilities dating back a decade; the U.S. Congress had already, in 1998, declared a change in Iraq's regime to be official U.S. policy. Regardless of the specific arguments made for the invasion of Iraq at the time, the ultimate historic judgment of the Iraq War must be bound up with the eventual success or failure of the grand strategy it represented, just as the ultimate worth of the sacrifices made in Korea and Vietnam are now subsumed in the larger context of the success of the Cold War.
The Nail Beckons The Hammer
President Bush's "freedom agenda" came to be identified with the neoconservatives, an anti-communist movement dating back to the 1960s, in large part because when the planes hit the towers, the prominent 'neocon' thinkers in and out of government were the ones most ready with an off-the-shelf explanation for how you deal with such a problem, and their template resembled what ended up being put in practice in Iraq and Afghanistan. An accurate history of neoconservatism is too broad a subject for this essay, but it was merely one of several strands of thought on the Right that came to similar conclusions about the Cold War by the time of the Reagan era: that the struggle with Soviet Communism was an ideological one, an important component of which was demonstrating to its captive peoples and those on the fence that our system was superior in delivering a good way of life; that they should be encouraged to undermine and ultimately reject their home governments; and that we would not abandon them no matter how long that struggle took. This broad-based view that the Cold War could be won by rooting out the origins of the conflict had won out over the narrower model of containment that focused on dealing with specific provocations as they arose.
The virtue of the neoconservative model was that it had been proven as part of a long-term ideological struggle that succeeded beyond our wildest dreams by the early 1990s; we had won the Cold War without fighting a full-scale war with the Soviets, ushering in a massive global expansion of democracy and trade. Even Putin's Russia, troublesome as it is, looks more or less like a success story compared to the Brezhnev era - and it looked better in 2002 than it does today. But the parallels were not perfect or entirely encouraging: the Cold War had taken 45 years to win, it had involved a huge, costly military and economic strategy that could not easily be adapted to an adversary that consisted of a loose confederation of non-state-actors and states allied only by convenience, and - perhaps most alarmingly of all - a key ally in the Cold War was the religious faith of Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim subjects oppressed by the atheistic Soviet empire, whereas the battle against Islamism would require convincing millions of Muslims to re-evaluate political doctrines that many of them believed were taught by their faith.
Moreover, the history of the neoconservative model in and before the Cold War offers its own cautions. Ideological competition presupposes populations that have sufficient freedom of action to do something about their governments, or (in the case of Japan between 1850 and 1900) a government that itself sees the benefits of change. Churchill dedicated extensive resources to fomenting rebellion against the Nazis during World War II - he famously directed the Special Operations Executive to "set Europe ablaze" - but the resistance movements in places like Poland and Greece were brutally suppressed; as historian John Keegan concluded from a review of the SOE's operations, most had little impact on the stability of the Nazi occupation. Only external Allied military force was able to crush Hitler. Only the Union Army, rather than slave rebellions, defeated the Confederacy. The French Revolutionaries were rarely able to subvert their monarchical adversaries and had to meet them on a conventional field of battle. Since the dawn of the West, the history of civilizational clashes is long on the use of military force to defend and expand Western Civilization and short on the peaceable conversion of its enemies. Even in the Cold War, the U.S. was compelled to take to the battlefield to protect the populations of South Korea and South Vietnam from conquest.
The neoconservative approach to post-9/11 strategy was not the only one on offer on the Right. On the one hand was the "realist" approach, redolent of containment, that counseled working with the existing regimes in the region to ally against the non-state-actors and bring the bad-actor states in line. The realist school on the Right, preaching power politics, is in this sense often allied with the school on the Left that preaches the maintenance of order by international institutions (an approach that has regained its footing with the passage of time, but which was plainly inadequate to the task of organizing a response in the aftermath of an event like September 11). On the other was the "Jacksonian" approach. Put bluntly, the Jacksonian impulse is to avoid meddling in the world until provoked, and then respond with as much brute force as necessary to convince everyone, innocent or guilty of the attacks, not to get us that angry again. Jacksonians were thus in favor of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but not in favor of sticking around long-term to clean up the mess.
Bush's foreign policy team was by no means ideologically monolithic (just as Reagan's was not); Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice all hailed more or less from the realpolitik school of thought that prevailed under George H.W. Bush (although many of Cheney's old aides, back in government, were identified with neoconservatism), and if you ever described Don Rumsfeld as a "neo" anything, you deserve to have your pundit card revoked. But then, in many ways the decision to seek a more structural, long-term solution was as much a product of Bush's personality and temperament as any ideology. Bush had come into office believing in decisiveness and the use of political capital for large goals and distasteful of half-measures and short-term "kick the can down the road" solutions, and when possible, he naturally gravitated towards bold strokes. Setting the United States the ambitious task of igniting a regional revolution in the Greater Middle East would put all of these impulses into action.
Two Blog Perspectives
To understand the logic of the neoconservative project, it is worth looking back at two essays written at the time from opposite ends of the political spectrum, one on a right-leaning blog, the other for a left-leaning magazine.
Probably the most influential blog essay of the War on Terror was the "Strategic Overview" written in July 2003 by Steven Den Beste. It is interesting and telling, looking back, how much of Den Beste's analysis and that of others on the Right at the time rested more on Arab culture than Islam, although its logic extends to the wider region. Den Beste's essential argument was that we were dealing with a body of people that was (1) stuck in a constellation of failed states and a failed culture, (2) deeply ashamed by that fact, and (3) lacking either the will to face that fact or a political outlet in which to do something about it, and therefore were (4) encouraged to vent their rage and frustrations at those outside the Muslim and Arab worlds. Den Beste's prescription was to break down the political order of the Arab/Muslim world and replace it with something more responsive to popular needs, demands and aspirations. An ambitious project, but one in line with the longstanding conservative view that men can change governments more easily than governments can change men. As Den Beste explained:
The large solution is to reform the Arab/Muslim world. This is the path we have chosen.
In Den Beste's view, it was essential that "we had to conquer one of the big antagonistic Arab nations and take control of it" for the following purposes:
To place us in a physical and logistical position to be able to apply substantial pressure on the rest of the major governments of the region.
In addition to Iraq's strategic location and the various casi belli already in existence (also beyond the scope of this essay, but worth revisiting at another time with the distance of a decade), he also noted the important symbolic reasons why Iraq was well-suited to this project:
Saddam had become a hero to the "Arab Street". He was thought of as a strong Arab leader who was standing up to the West. Though Iraq's military had been decisively defeated in 1991, Saddam survived politically and this actually enhanced his reputation. He hadn't won against us, but at least he'd tried, which was better than anyone else seemed to be doing. The "Arab Street" was proud of him for making the attempt. (This involved a lot of revisionism, such as ignoring Saddam's earlier invasion of Kuwait, or the participation of large Arab military forces in the coalition army which fought against Iraq.)
I would add that Iraq's religious and ethnic diversity (the very thing that caused Joe Biden to argue for it being partitioned into three separate states) also presented both a challenge and an opportunity. A challenge, because of the sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia that would break into something resembling a full-blown civil war in 2006, but also an opportunity, because Iraq could not be unified along monosectarian lines; it needed, and continues to need, some tolerance of pluralism within Islam to function as a single state, some mechanism for enabling tolerance and co-existence.
From the opposite end of the political spectrum, Josh Marshall, writing in April 2003, concluded essentially the same thing about the Bush Administration's strategy, a strategy he found deeply troubling. He described his nightmare for the aftermath of toppling Saddam:
The United Nations and NATO are in disarray, so America is pretty much on its own. Hemmed in by budget deficits at home and limited financial assistance from allies, the Bush administration is talking again about tapping Iraq's oil reserves to offset some of the costs of the American presence--talk that is further inflaming the region. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence has discovered fresh evidence that, prior to the war, Saddam moved quantities of biological and chemical weapons to Syria. When Syria denies having such weapons, the administration starts massing troops on the Syrian border. But as they begin to move, there is an explosion: Hezbollah terrorists from southern Lebanon blow themselves up in a Baghdad restaurant, killing dozens of Western aid workers and journalists. Knowing that Hezbollah has cells in America, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge puts the nation back on Orange Alert. FBI agents start sweeping through mosques, with a new round of arrests of Saudis, Pakistanis, Palestinians, and Yemenis.
Marshall concluded that, in the view of hawks within the Administration,
[I]nvasion of Iraq was not merely, or even primarily, about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Nor was it really about weapons of mass destruction, though their elimination was an important benefit. Rather, the administration sees the invasion as only the first move in a wider effort to reorder the power structure of the entire Middle East....
Eight years later, events have long since taken on a life of their own, and while they have followed neither the precise outline of Den Beste's positive or Marshall's negative view, the essential trajectory has been the one projected: disruption of the long-ossified status quo and the ushering in of a revolutionary era that has replaced one longstanding tryanny after another with something different and (in the short run) more responsive to popular movements.
September 9, 2013
POLITICS: The New York City Mayor's Race: Race, Crime, Unions, Taxes, and...Other Stuff
Tomorrow - Tuesday, September 10 - New York City voters go to the polls to pick the major-party candidates for their next Mayor. Candidates need 40% of their party's vote to avoid an October 1 runoff election among the top two finishers in the primary. At this writing, it appears that the nominees - possibly without a runoff - will be Republican candidate Joe Lhota (a former Rudy Giuliani aide and more recently Andrew Cuomo's appointee to head the MTA transit system) and Democrat/Working Families Party candidate Bill de Blasio (a former David Dinkins aide and the city's Public Advocate). To get from here to Election Day, the City may reopen old racial wounds and have to grapple with the legacy of its last three Mayors.
Five Decades, Four Mayors: Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani and Bloomberg
The Dinkins Debacle
It pays to begin with a thumbnail sketch of the past four mayors, beginning when David Dinkins toppled Ed Koch in the Democratic primary in 1989. Koch, elected in 1977 as the City reeled from a financial crisis, was then seeking his fourth term as Mayor after a scandal-riddled third term; Dinkins was running to become the City's first African-American Mayor. Koch, once a liberal Congressman, had governed as a relatively pro-business Democrat (he was both the Democratic and Republican nominee in 1981) and rejected liberal political correctness on crime, although his anti-crime initiatives were less vigorous and successful than his revival of the City's economy and finances. New York under Koch enjoyed the prosperity and Wall Street boom of the 80s, but it was neither particularly clean nor safe, with the burden of high crime rates falling most heavily on poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods; Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities aptly captured New York in the Koch era. But Democratic primary voters made the problem worse. Facing a 'historic' black candidate in Dinkins, Koch lost roughly 95% of the black vote in the primary, a showing on par with former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke's 4% of the black vote in the general election for Louisiana Governor in 1991. (The Jewish Koch, a fighter for civil rights in the 60s, also had an increasingly acrimonious relationship with Jesse Jackson after Jackson called New York City "Hymietown" - an anti-Semitic slur - in 1984, as well as with rabble-rousing street preachers like then 35-year-old Al Sharpton.) Dinkins rolled up similar margins among black voters along the way to winning the general election against Rudy Giuliani, best known at the time as a crusading US Attorney who took on the mob, drug dealers and Wall Street insider trading.
To describe Dinkins as a failure as Mayor would be a massive understatement. Not even Jimmy Carter managed to discredit liberalism in action as garishly as Dinkins, who saw the murder rate explode and the city descend into the sort of chaos and racial strife that had liberals declaring it inherently ungovernable. In a 1993 rematch providing the same sort of perfect storm of opportunity to move the electorate rightward as Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory over Carter, Giuliani ousted Dinkins - but, this being New York, only narrowly. "Bad as the previous four years were - about 1,700 private-sector jobs lost every week on average, homicides surpassing 2,000 per year, more than 1 million residents on welfare - just about half the city was reluctant to give up on its first black mayor, and the voters in November 1993 ratified change only grudgingly. Incumbent David Dinkins was widely seen as ineffectual, but out of 1.75 million votes cast, in so heavily Democratic a town, Giuliani won by just 50,000." To this day, Dinkins contends that racism rather than the catastrophic state of the City was behind Giuliani's law-and-order campaign and victory (that's not hyperbole: according to his 2013 autobiography, "I think it was just racism, pure and simple").
The Rudy Revolution
What followed was a staggering turnaround in the City's fortunes in general and its law enforcement in particular, completely revising everything people believed about the city's safety and governance. Left-wing frequent Giuliani critic Michael Tomasky wrote that "[m]odern New York, with its safe streets, its gentrified Brooklyn, and booming tourist economy, was born on January 1, 1994. And, love him or hate him, it was Rudolph Giuliani who made the city what it is." George Will called Rudy's tenure "the most successful episode of conservative governance in this country in the last 50 years," Reagan included. Thanks in good part to aggressive, hands-on policing that started with a "broken windows" theory of going after petty offenders like squeegee men, New York became the safest large city in America, the stratospheric murder rates a distant memory. The welfare rolls were cut in half, the public-sector unions brought in line, a few particularly onerous taxes cut, Times Square reclaimed from the hookers and the sex shops to be a place so family-friendly Disney would (literally) later open a store there. Rudy's New York was still socially liberal and far from a libertarian paradise, but he had made it governable again.
Of course, there were always those who never accepted Rudy or his methods, most of all the Sharptonite resistance to Giuliani's law enforcement policies. But a combination of internal Democratic division and external force kept them from unifying when Rudy's tenure was up. Term limits put in place with the Koch third term in mind had made Rudy a lame duck by the time New York voters went to the polls on primary day of his final year in office: September 11, 2001. Between a racially divisive primary against Fernando Ferrer that saddled ultimate Democratic nominee Mark Green with low black turnout in November and the long shadow of the September 11 attacks, the voters elected to stay the Giuliani course with Mike Bloomberg. When the dust settled (literally), the billionaire who had built his fortune catering to Wall Street with trading desk terminals and business news was given the task of rebuilding the City's shattered downtown.
Bloomberg Finds New York's Center
While it's easily forgotten in national conservative circles that revile him, Bloomberg's 12 years in office (he shoved aside the term limits with the collusion of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn) have struck a course that is essentially centrist within the context of NY City politics, complete with drifting in and out of the Republican Party as it suited his purposes. Bloomberg continued and in some ways refined Rudy's approach to law enforcement and management, making it more sophisticated in its use of increasingly detailed data. Rudy had been tough on guns; Bloomberg raised it to the level of anti-gun zealotry. He's held the line against pressure to raise income taxes, and left the private sector mostly free of interference for economic purposes (as Bloomberg responds to charges of being 'in the tank for Wall Street': "I'm in the tank for industries in New York City! That's my job. That's the way people here eat!"). But Bloomberg often sticks his nose into business to advance one of his lifestyle crusades like banning big sodas, tossing smoking out of bars or inveighing against salt, and he also signed off on multiple rounds of property tax hikes. He's pursued a neoliberal policy on education, accumulating more power in the Mayor's office (his long-time schools chancellor, Joel Klein was Bill Clinton's antitrust enforcer), promoting charter schools and using government controls to hold public schools more accountable - which, combined with a negotiating line that prevented reaching a contract with the teachers' union the last several years, has earned him the enmity of the teachers. Befitting a former business executive, Bloomberg has proven a highly capable manager of day-to-day government operations, but has struggled when crises ranging from heavy winter snows to attempted terrorist attacks have called for him to rise to the occasion. And in myriad ways, when Bloomberg needed to buy off support or acquiescence to his policies and ambitions, he's done it by throwing around his own considerable wealth rather than the taxpayers' money.
Many New Yorkers have wearied of Bloomberg's personality, soured on his evasion of term limits and dissented from this or that policy - as Jonathan Chait notes, Bloomberg's contempt for the liberty or good opinion of the individual citizen has over 12 years worn poorly even in New York - but most observers of the New York scene would be hard-pressed to find evidence that the electorate wants a return to Dinkins-era progressivism run wild. A February 2013 Quinnipiac poll showed Bloomberg with a 53-40 positive approval rating and found that 31% of New York City voters cited Giuliani as the best Mayor of the past 50 years, with 25% saying Koch and 24% Bloomberg - compared to just 6% for the archliberal Dinkins, 6% for Great Society liberal Republican John Lindsay and 1% for conventional Democrat Abe Beame.
Bloomberg's Heir: Christine Quinn Misreads The Primary Voters
The conventional wisdom entering the 2013 race, therefore, was that the City's inherent Democratic partisanship (Democrats control nearly everything but the Mayor's office) was overdue after two decades out of power to reassert itself, but most likely in the form of a candidate who would not run dramatically far to Bloomberg's left. Enter Bloomberg's reliable ally and co-conspirator, Christine Quinn. By any reckoning, Quinn was the heavy favorite when the primary began and well into the summer, and is the establishment candidate in the race, winning a rare trifecta of primary endorsements from the New York Times, the Daily News and the Post and running with Bloomberg's blessing and de facto backing. Quinn backed Bloomberg on term limits and has mostly supported his education policies while joining forces on his various nanny-state crusades, and in a broad sense is seen as his heir. Yet, Quinn is distinctly more liberal than the billionaire, most notably on issues relating to private sector business, ranging from a more pro-union stance where Bloomberg has been generally neutral in private-sector labor disputes to an insane law permitting suits for discrimination against the unemployed that she passed over Bloomberg's veto to caving to union pressure on a paid-sick-leave bill. (Quinn has been endorsed by the Teamsters and the building-trades unions). She's also been an increasingly strident critic of the NYPD's "stop and frisk" policies, and has a sour relationship with the NYPD's union.
The massively powerful teachers' union has been a particularly big obstacle for Quinn. Having worked four years without a contract, the teachers are looking for a budget-busting retroactive pay raise that (along with demands by the rest of the City's 300,000 unionized workers) carries an estimated price tag in the $7-8 billion range (that's a thousand dollars from every New Yorker). The 70,000-member UFT hasn't endorsed a successful candidate since Dinkins, prompting Bloomberg to label its endorsement a "kiss of death." The GOP candidates have opposed retroactive raises, with Lhota taking the lead on the issue; Weiner has suggested they be conditioned on concessions on the unions making contributions to their own healthcare (along the lines of what Chris Christie negotiated in New Jersey); Thompson has eagerly endorsed the teachers' demand for retroactive raises, earning him the UFT's endorsement; City Comptroller John Liu's left-wing platform earned him the endorsement of District Council 37, the City's largest public-worker union. Quinn and de Blasio have been cagier on the issue; Quinn has refused to deal in "hypothetical" questions about budget deals, while de Blasio has refused to rule in or out retroactive raises. The difference in their positions, however, is less important than issues of trust: teachers angry at the long stalemate with Bloomberg and his efforts to bring the schools under more Mayoral control have been unwilling to trust his wing-woman.
Quinn's lead in the polls has crumbled so badly that she's now seen as unlikely to make the runoff, if there is a runoff; liberal as she is, and as hard as she pushes identity politics (she touts herself as the potential first woman Mayor of New York; she would also be the City's first openly gay Mayor - Koch's sexual preferences were the subject of much speculation but never confirmed), she's not a likeable campaigner and the Democratic primary voters seem inclined after two decades out of power to reassert their differences with Bloomberg. All of Quinn's substantive dissents from Bloomberg haven't managed to separate her in the public mind from the Mayor. And perhaps the most enduring lesson of Quinn's imminent failure, in light of her alliance with Bloomberg on education, is that a white female Democrat simply cannot afford to be at odds with the teachers' unions.
Dante's Identity: Bill de Blasio and Race
For much of June and July, the Democratic primary race was divided into four tiers: Quinn and Anthony Weiner battling for the top spot in the low/mid 20s, de Blasio and Bill Thompson fighting for position in the low teens, Liu stuck in fifth place due to a lurid campaign-finance scandal, and the rest of the candidates (because what this goat rodeo really needs is more candidates) not even worthy of being polled and not registering when they were. As this great New York Times infographic illustrates, New York City politics remains a labyrinth of racial, religious, ideological and union voting blocs. Many observers, myself included, thought that it was premature to count out Thompson, given that he had won 48% of the vote in the 2009 general election against Bloomberg (who broke all known records for per-vote spending in a major election) and could draw on the traditional loyalty of African-American voters to black candidates, a particularly pronounced tendency in New York City over the years.
The race was rocked on July 23 when Buzzfeed broke the blockbuster revelation that the disgraced Weiner had continued his 'sexting' ways on the internet after being driven from Congress, beginning the process of the bottom dropping out of his support. By August 8, the RCP polling average had Quinn with a 10-point lead and Weiner, de Blasio and Thompson all tied up around 16%:
The Family Card
That's when de Blasio rolled out this ad, featuring his 15-year-old son Dante (visibly reading off cue cards, but hey, he's 15) and his eye-catching throwback-70s Afro:
The ad was such a hit that Dante has had to field questions about his own future political ambitions (he'd probably have to keep the now-signature Afro if that's his plan). Quinnipiac, which has polled this primary race more than any other pollster, illustrates the dramatic effect that followed:
The "Dante" ad wasn't the only factor at work, but it worked on two levels: one, at the level of raw identity politics, it spread awareness that de Blasio's wife and son are African-American; and two, it hit directly on the racial hot-button accusation that the NYPD's "stop and frisk" policy "unfairly targets people of color." The cherry on top is de Blasio's pledge to raise income taxes.
As to the former, on Saturday, Mayor Bloomberg made headlines with his response to the ad, which he initially described as "racist" before backtracking (and later pressuring NY Magazine to drop the "racist" reference):
I mean he's making an appeal using his family to gain support. I think it's pretty obvious to anyone watching what he's been doing. I do not think he himself is racist. It's comparable to me pointing out I'm Jewish in attracting the Jewish vote. You tailor messages to your audiences and address issues you think your audience cares about.
On one level, Bloomberg misses an important point: a guy named Bloomberg doesn't have to tell voters he's Jewish, any more than Bill Thompson has to tell people he's black or John Catsimatidis needs to tell people he's Greek. But de Blasio, a white guy with an Italian surname, has to show people his family to make the point. Identity politics is a sad reality of politics, but we usually don't see candidates remind voters of it quite so bluntly.
If the goal was to prevent Thompson from consolidating black voter support behind the only black candidate in the race, it succeeded wildly. The latest polls show de Blasio leading Thompson among black voters by double-digit margins: 37-26 according to Quinnipiac, 42-26 according to PPP, 39-25 according to Marist.
The Politics of Stop and Frisk
But de Blasio's push is about more than just identity itself; the bigger element of the ad is the racial wedge issue of "stop and frisk." Now, it's important to stop here for a minute and do what Bloomberg and so many others fail to do, and define our terms, because talk about race in politics is chronically beset by confusion over words that have distinctly different meanings:
Racism is a set of ideas and beliefs, about the superiority or inferiority of different groups of people as defined by "race." Of course, race itself is largely an artificial set of distinctions among people who are biologically different only in superficial ways, which is one reason (not the only one) why racism is idiotic nonsense. In practice, it's less important what you believe than what you do - Abraham Lincoln and his generation of Republicans had many beliefs that would strike us today as racist, but what mattered was that they put their blood and treasure on the line to improve the lives of enslaved black people. That said, voters are rightly interested in the beliefs of political candidates, which are often more enduring than their promises. The problem with accusations of racism in politics is not that they're unimportant but that they're non-falsifiable: that is, there's no type of evidence that can be presented to disprove them (indeed, citing any available type of evidence is usually regarded as additional proof that you're actually a racist).
Racial discrimination is the real offense: treating people differently because of their race. That's the case whether the discrimination is individual or whether it's a systematic structure of discrimination like Jim Crow or apartheid. In theory, everybody's against discrimination - except, you know, racial preferences in education and employment.
Disparate impact is treating people the same, but in a way that affects people within different racial groups differently. To use a recent and fairly mild example of this, some people have referred to a tax on tanning beds as "racist," which is ridiculous; that said, for obvious reasons tanning is mostly a thing white people do, so if you're against every possible form of disparate impact, that's the kind of thing you end up crusading against.
Racialism is the habit of viewing everything through the lens of race, a terribly destructive habit but - of course - a hard one to shake when you attempt to write about New York City politics, or national politics in the Age of Obama.
Racial wedge issues, or race-baiting, or the race card, or any number of similar terms refer to pressing political issues or appeals that divide people along racial lines, and that's where we get to what's really at stake with the stop-and-frisk debate and how we talk about it.
The NYPD has - using crime data and statistics - conducted an increasingly active campaign of preventive law enforcement built around stopping individuals on the street for questioning (a tactic blessed by the Warren Court in 1968 in Terry v Ohio so long as there is "articulable suspicion") and frisking them for weapons when deemed appropriate. Beat cops have been concentrated in high-crime areas. A lawsuit charging the NYPD with discrimination did not produce evidence of any policy of racial profiling (thus, no overt evidence of racial discrimination on a non-isolated basis), but relied on statistical evidence to argue (persuasively, to the district judge) disparate impact and an inference of discrimination. In a nutshell, the evidence showed that black New Yorkers were stopped in numbers far disproportionate to their numbers among the population - while the City noted that the demographics of people stopped matched well with the actual population of criminals (as determined both from arrests and victim reports). The evidence also showed that the NYPD was more likely to have "false positive" stops of blacks - ie, stops without a well-explained basis or a resulting arrest.
We have not racial-profiled, we've gone where the crime is....
The merits of the debate demand a more detailed look than space permits here; Slate's Eric Posner explains why the decision got the wrong result:
Twelve percent of the stops resulted in an arrest or summons...So, police stopped black people more often than they stopped whites even though whites constitute a larger fraction of the city's population; they used force against blacks more often; and yet they found weapons and contraband less often when they searched blacks than when they searched whites.
There's the rub: an ideal stop-and-frisk policy will never be error-free, and liberals of all people should know better than to denounce any government program that's not error-free. The question is whether the errors are worth the benefits, and whether they are fairly distributed. As to the former, it's hard to look at New York today compared to the Dinkins years and not want to give a lot of leeway to the NYPD's nearly-miraculous record of crime reduction, a record few government programs in any field can match. As to the latter, an ideal policy will produce a rate of stops that looks like the actual criminal population - that's not a Bayesian fallacy but a recognition that the distribution of errors should mirror the distribution of successes. If the impact on innocent black men is disproportionate, it's because - unfortunately - they disproportionately live in neighborhoods victimized by black male criminals. Any effort to skew the numbers away from the proportions they would hold if they were 100% accurate, simply for purposes of spreading the pain to other racial groups, is not fairness, but its opposite.
For political purposes the question is less about the merits than about how it resonates with the voters - and despite being the major beneficiaries of lower crime rates, black voters are especially hostile to stop-and-frisk and particularly receptive to explicit political appeals arguing that it's racist, discriminatory or at least racially unfair. Is it fair to raise a political issue that divides voters so explicitly on race? I'm no fan of racial politics, for a lot of reasons: playing the race card and gaining voter loyalty on racial lines is often a way of distracting from the real issues and insulating inept or corrupt politicians from accountability. But fundamentally, public policy issues like stop-and-frisk are important issues, just as things like prison furloughs or racial preferences are important issues the voters should be heard on. Liberals who spent two decades freaking out over Willie Horton and the famous Jesse Helms "hands" ad against Harvey Gantt have no moral standing to defend de Blasio's use of a similar racial wedge issue - but even if de Blasio's wrong on the issue and his supporters are hypocrites, that doesn't mean it's an illegitimate issue. Indeed, the parallel to the Helms ad is pretty obvious: in both cases, the candidate is appealing on explicit racial lines to the group that is asked to have innocent members pay the cost of a government social policy (the difference being that preferences are a true zero-sum issue, whereas lower crime rates benefit everyone). That may be ugly and it may be divisive, but at some point, it's still the voters' business.
The Dinkins Legacy
With de Blasio and the other Democratic candidates vowing to put an end to stop-and-frisk (all they'd need to do is drop the City's appeal of the ruling), there's little question that this election will now put at stake 20 years of thinking about law enforcement. The Wall Street Journal reports that it's already taking its toll on the cops' willingness to perform stops.
If all of this seems like de Blasio is trying to overturn 20 years of Giuliani/Bloomberg consensus on law enforcement - and all the crime-fighting success that entails - it's no accident. De Blasio appears to be already looking down the road to make the general election against Lhota a referendum on relitigating the Dinkins-Giuliani races, as evidenced by his reaction to a report (denied by the Lhota camp - "David Johnson has zero affiliation with our campaign and no one on our campaign has ever heard of him") that a Georgia pollster had been polling the public's reaction to de Blasio's interracial marriage:
"I did see the Lhota campaign try and distance themselves from it," Mr. de Blasio replied when asked about the report. "I hope that's true. Because I know who Joe Lhota worked for. He worked for Rudy Giuliani; he was the top deputy for Rudy Giuliani when Rudy was dividing this city as a matter of political strategy."
Given the relative public standing of Dinkins and Giuliani, de Blasio's desire to refight those elections and tie himself and Lhota to Dinkins and Rudy seems mystifying. But by his own admission, de Blasio is a Dinkins guy all the way down:
[After working on his campaign as a volunteer coordinator, w]hen Mr. Dinkins won, Mr. de Blasio secured a job as a City Hall aide, a four-year position "foundational for everything I've done since then," he said. Not only did Mr. de Blasio acquire a taste for politics, he made a series of instrumental contacts, including another young Dinkins aide named Chirlane McCray, whom he met in 1991 and eventually married.
A key element in de Blasio's appeal to liberal activists and older African-Americans has been attempting to revive the reputation of Dinkins, New York's first black mayor. The Dinkins mayoralty meant a great deal to de Blasio, who met his wife and came of age in local politics while both were working for the Dinkins administration. Dinkins, according to de Blasio, was, unbeknownst to the public, a staunch and effective crime fighter. His problem, argues de Blasio, was communications, not substance, though many who lived through the paralyzing fear of the Dinkins years would probably disagree.
Ironically, Dinkins himself - playing to caricature to the end - joined Charlie Rangel in endorsing Thompson rather than de Blasio.
Higher Taxes: What Can't They Do?
The other area where de Blasio has stuck out is taxes: while the Democratic candidates have mostly been non-committal on property taxes, de Blasio pledges to raise income taxes on the City's top tax bracket. There are two obvious problems with this, even beyond the usual problems with tax hikes. One is that these are the very same taxpayers who were already hit when President Obama raised the top federal tax rate by letting the Bush tax cuts expire in 2012, and when Andrew Cuomo raised the top state tax rate in 2011; going back to that same well could push the top marginal rate to a very bad part of the Laffer Curve. And second, for reasons of New York state law and economics, the City can't raise income taxes without the permission of the State Legislature in Albany, and so de Blasio's plan would be dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled State Senate.
That leaves the other big piece of de Blasio's economic message, union organizing in the private sector, an approach that won him the endorsement of SEIU Local 1199, the largest union in the City:
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the front-runner in recent polls, has been most explicit about the role of the mayor in such efforts. Asked on Wednesday about his approach to private-sector unionization, he said elected officials "have to think like community organizers."
His community-organizer approach has come with predictable downsides. Though it's gotten less attention than Liu's campaign finance scandal, de Blasio is dogged by his own scandal, deriving from his support by the Working Families Party, an all-but-socialist third party (the WFP is closely akin to the PIRGs, ACORN and similar groups). The US Attorney's Office launched an investigation into the WFP and de Blasio shortly after his 2009 election as Public Advocate, based on accusations during the campaign that the WFP was pervasively violating campaign finance rules. In 2011, the WFP paid $100,000 to settle state and federal lawsuits charging it had used a for-profit arm to provide below-cost services to campaigns as a facade to provide unreported contributions, something the City's campaign finance board had warned de Blasio and other WFP-backed candidates about during the 2009 race. In 2012, a special prosecutor was appointed to dig further. Earlier this spring, the WFP itself went to court to fight subpoenas in the special prosecutor's investigation.
(de Blasio's other job after the Dinkins years was with Andrew Cuomo and Kirsten Gillibrand in the Clinton-era HUD, which started the nation down the road to the 2008 housing crisis. It's not hard to see why de Blasio would be hesitant to tout that.)
The City's 20 years without a Democratic Mayor is a vivid illustration of Robert Conquest's First Law ("everyone is most conservative about the things he knows best"); even leading liberals like Josh Marshall aren't willing to claim that de Blasio's economic policies will actually work:
The interesting thing about de Blasio...is that he is running as an unabashed progressive....[F]or three decades rising economic inequality has been a cornerstone of the Democratic critique of the direction of the country. It's been a theme of many campaigns. Yet most elected Democrats, particularly those in executive positions, have shied away from implementing the set of policies that might actually change or ameliorate the trend...I don't know if those 'things' will work in the big picture. (That's not just a throwaway line. I'm cautious and somewhat skeptical about our ability to shift these trends through policy....)...
Where is the GOP in all of this? With a much more low-key 3-man race of its own, but really two-man:the most conservative candidate, George McDonald, has drawn positive notices everywhere he's gone but hasn't gained any traction and lacks the resources to get his message out. That leaves the unpronouncable against the unspellable: Lhota (the "H" is silent), endorsed by his old boss Rudy, against Catsimatidis, a Greek-born self-made grocery billionaire endorsed by George Pataki. Catsimatidis' immigrant-makes-the-American-dream bio may be inspiring, but as a candidate he's been prone to all the well-known pitfalls of clueless-rich-guy, consultant-meal-ticket GOP politics, and has made his closing argument that Lhota can't win because he doesn't have enough money. Catsimatidis also doesn't sound like a guy who is willing to go for de Blasio's jugular. Then again, the "Cats Man" did manage to put Lhota in the position of having to make this classic debate denial:
Lhota was forced to answer for a controversial statement he made to New York before Labor Day, when he said he would not have stopped train service to rescue beloved vagrant kittens August and Arthur. "I'm not the anti-kitten candidate," Lhota insisted. "Let's talk about the facts, let's talk about the real facts here. First off, as you all know, I have pets. I love pets. I grew up with cats ... We have thousands of cats, literally thousands of cats, that are in the subway system every single day, day and night, scurrying across the tracks and they don't get killed." The remark removed all doubt that lost and adorable cats would be left to fend for themselves under a Lhota administration.
We get daily mailers from both these guys, and the latest Lhota mailer has more pictures of Rudy than of Lhota; at the end of the day, while Lhota knows he needs Democratic votes to win, he can't avoid the shadow of his old boss and shouldn't try. Lhota isn't a perfect fit for conservatives (given his stances on abortion and same-sex marriage) or libertarians, given his support for stop-and-frisk, but he's easily the best thing GOP voters could have hoped for after Police Commissioner Ray Kelly declined to run. Matt Welch of Reason Magazine argues that Lhota would actually have something to offer to fans of smaller government; as Lhota told the NY Post:
Asked how he differs from Bloomberg, Lhota cites health initiatives in general and Bloomberg's bid to bar sales of super-sized soda in particular.
Tomorrow, we find out if this three-ring circus is finally ready to reduce to a two-man race.