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Gates: Isolation or Engagement

It seems Defense Secretary Gates has been retiring almost as long as he served Presidents Bush and Obama. The media, ardent fans of the Secretary, have followed him on five or six victory laps in his months-long ceremonial departure.  As the New York Times puts it, “…the last trip to Afghanistan, the last hearing before Congress, the last news conference, a series of last interviews with reporters” not to mention a couple of  commencement speeches

Gates’ most lasting achievement may be accepting the Secretary of Defense job in the first place.  He claims credit for deterring the Bush Administration from taking military action against Iran and engaging other foreign military adventures.

“The only thing I guess I would say to that is: I hope I’ve prevented us from doing some dumb things over the past four and a half years — or maybe dumb is not the right word, but things that were not actually in our interest,” Mr. Gates said.

It’s ironic that Gates came into the Bush Administration to clean up after Donald Rumsfeld and leaves as questioning and debate about the future of American power accelerates after Iraq and Afghanistan:

I’ve spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower, and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position,” he tells NEWSWEEK, seated in a windowless conference room aboard the Boeing E-4B. “It didn’t have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time.”

A pause.

“To tell you the truth, that’s one of the many reasons it’s time for me to retire, because frankly I can’t imagine being part of a nation, part of a government … that’s being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world.”

Indeed, it’s time for Gates to retire, because scaling back the military, in particular, is what the times as much as the economy, demand.  For over 20 years,  the single ‘Superpower’ model has been an illusion.  The more the US exercises power unilaterally in any sphere – military, climate, human rights – the more the world pushes back.   After WW2, the US and USSR became two co-dependent superpowers that manipulated war, politics and the subtleties of diplomacy to their own advantage in a race for domination. One without the other, standing alone, can’t depend on Cold War myth or a hyped fear of terror to rally allies.

It’s been left to Gates to call a spade a spade in a disheveled and contrary world.  He recognized the dangerously adventurous policies of the Bush Administration and canceled the F-22 program as symbol of Pentagon waste.   More cuts have been forced on the Pentagon in direct response to the bleeding budget deficit, itself accumulated in large part by the ‘wars of choice’ Gates candidly warned future administrations to avoid.

Cold Warriors like Gates have a knee-jerk reaction against terms like ‘isolationist’ for good reason. Standing on the sidelines in WW2, or not rebuilding Europe afterwards would have been morally and economically disastrous for the US.

But to many of the Vietnam generation and beyond, pulling back from world crises would benefit the US.  ‘Engagement’ has too often meant American intervention into conflicts within other nations through the ‘soft’ approach of aid or the aggression of war, coup d’etats and assassination.  More recently, the ‘war on terror’ has been used to legitimize similar efforts.

The US will never abandon all its international commitments or even all its off-shore operating bases.  But it can’t police the world.   Power has shifted.  What business does the US have in selling advanced weapons systems to Taiwan?  If Taiwan decided to use them against the People’s Republic of China, we won’t risk war with China on behalf of a small, island nation that China claims in the first place.  NATO, born of the Cold War as a US-European military alliance that could face off with the USSR and Warsaw Pact,  is now in the absurd position of flying air sorties to loosen Col. Quaddafi’s grip on Libya – a far cry from its original mandate. The War in Afghanistan is the only case in NATO’s history where the alliance was called upon to fight in defense of one of its members.  NATO, a bloated relic of the past, is a huge waste of time, money and leadership that should have been dismantled two decades ago.

The US currently  maintains 865 military bases outside the US, Iraq and Afghanistan at a cost of $102 billion a year -  more if the latter are included.  Is this the global infrastructure we need sixty years after WW2?  Shouldn’t other countries and regions be more responsible for their own protection and security? During the Cold War, the US rebuffed Europe whenever European leaders moved to strengthen their independent defense capability.  Fear of European independence is absurd today.

Too many assumptions about US security not challenged in decades still direct the deployment of US troops and material around the world.  Even without the economic meltdown of 2008-9, China and India were growing in relation to the U.S.  The ‘decline of America’ has become a political catch phrase.  Some use it to strike fear in our minds and build anti-foreign sentiment.  Others give it an anti-capitalist slant.

In reality, we are experiencing a relative decline in American economic and political power as other countries develop their own economies and assume greater roles in world politics.  China may be the world’s second largest economy but its per capita economic output in 2010 is the same as America’s was in 1878,  that’s 132 years ago.

Right now, the staggering US economy is pressuring cut-backs in America’s far-flung global infrastructure.  It’s a time to recalibrate and adjust, not panic.



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America in Decline

“The Decline of America” is a hot topic this summer.  Soul-searchers ask how and when American culture degenerated to a point where 24/7 media coverage of Rep. Weiner’s puerile self-indulgence is tolerated.   To many, it exemplifies the embarrassing and peculiarly American fetish around politics, personality and sex.  Why Weiner’s antics triggered comparisons to the decadence of ancient Rome, when Sarah Palin’s rise to VP candidate didn’t, is beyond me.

A few musings first published in The Week:

America in 2011 is Rome in 200AD or Britain on the eve of the first world war: an empire at the zenith of its power but with cracks beginning to show. – Larry Elliot, Economics Editor, The Guardian

Rome in the first two centuries A.D. faced a yawning gulf between rich and poor. The mighty empire built on tribute reached its geographic limits. Its economy created few exportable goods. Slaves acquired by conquest built most of its bridges, roads and aqueducts and took jobs in farming, mining and construction. As this cheaper labor replaced Roman citizens, idle, unemployed, hungry people filled the capital. – Alice Schroeder, Bloomberg News

Historians, for decades to come, will be unfoldingly horrified and appalled at the Bush administration’s alternating recklessness and indifference; levels that make James Buchanan, by comparison, look like a Lincoln. – P.M. Carpenter

Personally, I think it was some moment between the Congress’s assent to torture in 2006 and when Sarah Palin was selected as a serious vice-presidential nominee in 2008. – Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Beast


I for one believe the publication of People Magazine by Time 1975 signaled America’s cultural decline.  It was a brilliant business move.  The magazine captured the mood of a nation turning inward and craving distraction after the divisive debates of Vietnam and Watergate.  People validated a weird, collective self-absorption (the ‘me generation’) sweeping the country and set in motion the triumph of Personality over ideas, culture, politics, even religion and morals.  Added bonus: if readers were dissatisfied with their own lives, they could live vicariously through others.

Glorification of the individual, the personality, the ‘self’ dove-tailed nicely with the heightened ethics of greed and ruthlessness marking a major shift on Wall Street and in the economy  during the ’80s.  Captured brilliantly in the best-seller “Barbarians at the Gate”, the creation of wealth was moving away from production and building towards finance,  money off of money.  Financier replaced industrialist.  Carl Ichan, Michael Milkin and Henry Kravitz were Big Personalities,  innovators for using debt to finance corporate take-overs. Factories closed.  Dynasty and J.R. Ewing dominated TV.  Wall Street was a block- buster movie.  Conspicuous consumption ruled.  Kids killed for a pair of high-end sneakers.  Coke became drug of choice for the elite while the crack epidemic underwrote crime and urban decay.  Steel mills closed. Textiles moved overseas.  Auto makers shed thousands of jobs.  But an unending parade of Personalities could take your mind off things.

Personality and greed drive our culture even more today.  Conservatives, after all, have the Biggest and Baddest Personalities. The  People Magazine credo reached its apex with Sarah Palin’s 2008 candidacy. Finally, a Big Personality broke through the glass ceiling, overcoming ideas and deliberation, substituting the colorful background bio for lengthy (boring) C.V. Personalities in sports get nine lives in addition to multiple million dollar contracts.  Personalities in news are the news.  And once they become ‘the news’, they’re qualified to write books that become best-sellers.  Governance is a thing of the past: too many Personalities vying for power.  Big Personalities in finance try to control theirs: greed sells better under the radar screen.

Poor Representative Weiner.  His penis bulge was really minor after the likes of Clinton, Spitzer and Newt.  He  never started a needless war under false claims of WMD, never tortured a soul.  On the contrary, he was on the road to becoming the Biggest Personality in the Democratic party.  The 2012 nomination for  Vice-President seemed just around the corner!

Weiner did ace one part of last week’s ordeal  Whenever the Big Personality falls, he or she must confess and take full responsibility for the offending actions.  Confessional exposure for the sake of confession is one of the highest virtues one can exhibit in America today and the best chance for a fee pass on the misdeed.  The public forgets as soon as it forgives.




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Newt Dumps on Supporters

In an action worthy of a ’70s SNL sketch, senior staff, including his entire Iowa operation, resigned in disgust from Newt Gingrich’s so-called campaign. Why these professional were involved with the undisciplined, ego-centric candidate in the first place seems the appropriate question to pose. This guy has no shame. apparently you can rally against Muslims ‘destroying’ the country, Obama being a Kenyan anti-colonial demagogue or socialist creep in government and still run for President in this country. But no candidate can drop out of sight for a two-week vacation in Greece or travel to New Hampshire and (darn!) forget to campaign.

The Newt episode displays once again an American political process out of control. At this early stage. the only people burned by Mr. Gingrich’s cavalier, silly effort are those who contributed to the campaign, his most loyal supporters and his former staff. Newt represents a type of careerist political corruption that sees nothing wrong taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from supporters to build what looks like a credible staff and then – through his own actions – throws the commitment back in their face.

For once, as has-been politician, voted out of office by his own district, gets his comeuppance.

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Are Dems Discovering how to Campaign?

The Atlantic has a good article on why the Democrats should campaign on a successful bank bail-out.  Finally, someone is thinking.  No matter how much hatred Americans have for that bailout, the fact is that it save huge number of jobs in the financial industry, including secretaries, administrative personnel, back-room technicians and other ‘main street’  jobs distinct from high rollers on Wall Street.  One of the worst ‘sins’ of the Obama communications strategy was letting conservatives talk about the bail-outs as costing ‘trillions’ of dollars.  It’s now made $157 million but was fully paid back months ago.

Not only that, but contrary to conventional wisdom, which holds that Republicans voted for the bail-out under President Bush, the truth is more complicated. First, Republicans voted against it, the market dropped 700 points overnight, then they voted for it.  But it was not Paulson under Bush but Geithner under Obama who came up with a bail-out plan that had a chance of being paid back.  Remember when Geithner was the bette noire of both parties first for his lousy testimony before Congress in March 2009 that looked like he had no plan at all and second for the extended amount of time it took to work out the details?  To think:  that was all just two years ago!

First, it’s kind of puzzling that Democrats are campaigning on the success of the auto bailout — and not the bank bailout. In fact, taxpayers fared far better through their “investment” in the banking industry than they did in the auto industry. As of the Treasury’s March bailout program update (.pdf), the auto bailout is expected to cost taxpayers $15 billion. Meanwhile, the non-housing-related financial industry bailout is expected to provide the government with a net gain of $157 billion. Obviously, the taxpayers were far better off rescuing the banks than they were rescuing out the auto companies.

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Kyl Want to Stike Planned Parenthood Comments from Congressional Record

This is disgusting.  Kly should be censured for making the comments in the first place (see below).  But now he wants to pretend it didn’t happen.  There seems to be a Senate rule whereby Senators can just erase and leave no track record of what they’ve said.  The Week ridicules the charade.

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Why Does Jon Kyl Get Away Making False Claims about Planned Parenthood

Something should be done when a US Senator makes false statements about controversial subjects, whether those statements are misleading assumptions, careless guesses or deliberate lies.  Last week Jon Kyl frothed at the mouth for the benefit of his conservative  base, saying that ‘over 90%’ of Planned Parenthood’s work centers on providing abortions.  The real figure is 3%. Senator Kyl said his words were ‘not intended as a factual statement.’  That means he deliberatedly lied or carelessly ‘guessed’ an exaggerated number based on his political ideology, causing Planned Parenthood funding to become the leading obstacle in passing a bill to fund the government for the rest of this year.

Planned Parenthood centers are more than anything a place where women who don’t have insurance can go for annual tests, cancer screening, birth control and other gynocological services.  I used Planned Parenthood in my 20s when I didn’t have private health insurance and was charged on a scale I could afford.

For years, Planned Parenthood has received government funds with the stipulation those funds cannot be used for abortion.  These centers keep scrupulous records.   They have to, given public scrutiny of their work.  Without Planned Parenthood, many young mothers would have no access to prenatal care, a key reason for undersized babies and complications at birth.


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‘The American Conservative’ on O’Donnel and Palin

Actual constitutionalists have at least some basic familiarity with these, not least since they tend to see these amendments and later interpretations of the 14th Amendment as having been particularly damaging to republican self-government. Based on her responses, O’Donnell not only doesn’t agree with them, but she wouldn’t even be conversant with the relevant arguments.

So says Daniel Larison

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