“A date that will live in infamy.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt discusses the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, 72 years ago on December 7, 1941, and the war ahead. The attack, which devastated the Pacific Fleet’s surface forces but left the aircraft carriers intact was a shattering event that led to a stunning series of defeats. But in the end, it jolted the nation out of isolationism and triggered the rise of America to superpower status.
** NEW COLUMNS COMING UP … MANDELA: REMEMBERING THE ANTI-APARTHEID STRUGGLE, MARVELS (AND NOT) OF OUR MARVELOUS CINEMATIC UNIVERSE and CALIFORNIA STORY: JERRY FRAKKING BROWN’S MOSTLY THANKFUL THANKSGIVING.
** WHO’S IN CHARGE ON THE ASIA-PACIFIC PIVOT? BIDEN, HAGEL, NAVY, OBAMA, NOBODY?
Vice President Joe Biden’s very high profile Asia-Pacific trip this week, highlighted by his nearly six-hour meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss China’s new “air defense zone” over the East China Sea and other matters, points up a very key question with regard to the Obama Administration’s pivot from the Middle East and Central Asia to the Asia-Pacific. Who’s in charge, anyway?
With the sudden almost war with Syria’s Assad regime fast becoming a dot in the rear view mirror and with the Iranian nuclear crisis suddenly defused by the interim Obama-led agreement between the Islamic republic and the five permanent UN Security Council members (US, UK, France, Russia, China) plus Germany, not to mention the Iraq War over and the Afghan War drawing down, the US is much closer to being clear of endless distraction from its historically core national interests in the Asia-Pacific.
Indeed, the US could be due for something of a global resurgence. Consider.
Despite all its problems, a technology-driven energy boom may soon make the US not only the world’s biggest oil and natural gas producer but also the world leader in renewable energy systems. And with what is still clearly the world’s best armed forces and an expansive venue in the Pacific with potentially many supportive allies that plays to many of America’s strengths far more than does asymmetric desert warfare against religious zealots, the challenges may be much more manageable and rational.
In fact, the US and China could conceivably work well together. If the People’s Republic’s
Yes, China is bound on a trajectory toward superpower status, hence its hegemonic moves. But it is also a nation that need not be an enemy, assuming that its own authoritarianism does not lead to internal revolt.
Indeed, President Xi has amiable relations with Biden, Obama, Governor Jerry Brown, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — Brown and Schwarzenegger both made big trade and investment trips to China and urged the PRC to collaborate on renewable energy and climate change; Brown conducted a parallel summit with Xi and other top Chinese leaders during the Obama-Xi summit earlier this year in California — and other American leaders, not to mention mutual interests in trade and investment. One senses he knows America well enough to have decided to accelerate matters in the South China Sea and the East China Sea while America was still caught up in its post-9/11 brambles.
All the better to create a set of faits accompli, or facts on the, er, ground (which in this case is more the water and air) that would be far harder to reverse than to block in the first place
But the Syrian and Iranian crises may have wound down — to the extent they have — faster than Xi anticipated. Meaning that some smart thinking and maneuvering over the next several months could serve the Asia-Pacific Pivot very well.
Which also means that the nagging question of who is in charge on the Pivot looms rather large. Especially in the aftermath of the government shutdown debacle, which served China’s purposes greatly as Exhibit A of America the Incompetent and Unreliable Ally with Obama forced to scrap summit appearances he’d been working years toward.
National Security Advisor Tom Donilon had been the Pivot’s big champion in the Obama Administration. But his successor, former UN Ambassador Susan Rice, hasn’t been publicly identified with the strategy until she gave a speech last month in Washington which I covered here.
But she’s more of a humanitarian intervention champion, heavily focused on the Middle East and Africa.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the most likely next president, was also closely identified with the Pivot. But her successor John Kerry is more of a classic Atlanticist, a man of Europe, one who has already given tremendous amounts of time to not only the current Middle East crises but also an effort, fruitless thusfar, to no one’s surprise, to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian process.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has seemed to be playing the most prominent leading role, spending the most time of any senior official in the Asia-Pacific. In fact, he is on a regular scheduldene of major visits.
But now speculation turns to Biden potentially taking over a lead if not the leading role. He knows President Xi the best of anyone, having spent much time with him during Xi’s vice presidency in which he was waiting to take over the top jobs. Hence Biden’s lengthy meeting for a vice president with a president of China.
But there’s a lot more to the Pivot than just working with China. And there will need to be a blend of messages and personalities in dealing with China, from the stern and more military-minded to the friendly and more commercial-minded.
In any event, Biden has a lot to do, though he is probably a good bet when it’s time for a big gun in dealing with Xi.
Could it be that it’s really the Navy that is in charge? After all, many of the ideas and techniques are naval in nature, as the Pacific is by far the world’s largest ocean. In fact, many of the core ideas date back to the presidencies and pre-presidencies of the Presidents Roosevelt, navalists both and each the assistant secretary of the Navy in critically formative moments in American history. It’s probably fitting to drop another naval name from history, Alfred Thayer Mahan, the Naval War College professor whose Theodore Roosevelt-influenced tome, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, is today being read by leading lights in the Chinese, Indian, and Japanese military establishments.
But the Navy is an institution, not a personality, and in any event it wouldn’t be appropriate for a military figure to be the Pivot’s point person. And of course, the one who is really in charge on the Asia-Pacific Pivot strategy may be hiding in plain sight. That would be President Obama himself.
He is, after all, America’s first truly Pacific president. Richard Nixon and Ronald came from California, America’s big commonwealth on the Pacific. But Reagan was naturally a Midwesterner, and Nixon might as well have been at times.
Certainly neither could match Obama’s Pacific heritage. Born and raised in Hawaii, except for a lengthy boyhood stint in Indonesia, one of the region’s most important countries.
The problem with the president as the point person is that he has more to do than the vice president. Especially with all the hassles over the disastrous rollout of Obamacare.
In the end, the Asia-Pacific Pivot may not need a point person or champion, as its logical role as central US strategy becomes apparent to all.
We’ll have a clearer idea next week how Biden’s trip, which winds up on the weekend in South Korea, which with the US fought China in the Korean War, ended up going. China’s new air defense zone not only includes a long-established Japanese air defense zone but also much of a previously announced South Korean air defense zone. And assuming that China doesn’t just do what Biden suggested on the air defense zone, one of the safest assumptions around, I’ll have thoughts on options.
South Korea has been spatting of late with Japan over its leadership’s lack of interest in again apologizing for its imperialist excesses in the war of conquest which led up to World War II.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a former grad student in public policy at the University of Southern California, started off Biden’s big week in meetings with him and other top officials. Abe has led the long-reigning Liberal Democrat Party back to power in both houses of the parliament. And Abe is moving to make Japan’s Self Defense Force a much more expeditionary force to counter China’s rise, in spite of Japan’s rather pacifist constitution largely imposed by American General Douglas MacArthur when he led the rebuilding of Japan after World War II.
I’ll have a lot more to say about that in assessing Biden’s trip once it’s done.
One thing has to be said now. While Biden, who began the week being lauded in the Chinese media for his “old friend” status and ended in controversy after pushed back on the air defense zone, urged Chinese students to exercise their human rights to self-expression, and ripped China for on its remarkably little reported upon crackdown on foreign journalists — especially the New York Times, much of whose bureau is on the verge of being expelled after stories reporting high-level Chinese corruption and repression — ended up getting criticized in the largely government-controlled Chinese media, he was treated more respectfully than British Prime Minister David Cameron.
The Tory PM was in China at the same time as Biden, on a hopeful trade and investment mission. (Is there any other kind?) In this case the hope was not accompanied by the trademark English glory.
For Cameron was urged, for all his troubles, by a Chinese Communist Party newspaper to recognize “that the UK is not a big power in the eyes of the Chinese. It is just an old European country apt for travel and study.”
Not that that Chinese assessment of Britain isn’t just a tad, well, arrogant, mind you.
From my new essay.
Having faced down the Soviet Union in the Cuban Missile Crisis and in Berlin, President John F. Kennedy laid out a tentative pathway to peace in this American University commencement address in Washington on June 10, 1963.
** NEW COLUMNS COMING UP … MANDELA: REMEMBERING THE ANTI-APARTHEID STRUGGLE, BIDEN’S BIG ASIA TRIP AMIDST A CHINA SEA AIR CIRCUS, MARVELS (AND NOT) OF OUR MARVELOUS CINEMATIC UNIVERSE and CALIFORNIA STORY: JERRY FRAKKING BROWN’S MOSTLY THANKFUL THANKSGIVING.
** WHY WE SHOULD MISS JOHN F. KENNEDY 50 YEARS ON.
Coming as they do just before Thanksgiving week, anniversaries of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy invariably arrive and depart with both a bittersweet tinge and a sense of too little time in the spotlight.
Such was the case even with the just past 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. Truth be told, even though a mini-industry grew up around it, it all seemed rather pro forma. Which is unfortunate because JFK and his all too brief presidency have lessons of relevance to today’s events, some of them playing out right now on the global stage, as, among other things, Vice President Joe Biden visits Tokyo, Beijing, and Seoul as China-centered crisis emerges in the Pacific.
Aside from a book from a spotlight-loving Republican consultant on how Kennedy was supposedly the victim of his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, I didn’t see anything eye-catching in the new round of books and programming.
Looking forward, we have a big new X-Men movie for May 2014 with new viral marketing teasing that Magneto altered the course of the magic bullet. Which takes us entirely into the realm of not just fiction, but science fiction.
Though we learned anew what we already knew — that JFK is the most popular president of modern times and one of the highest rated in history — there just wasn’t much new in the way of substantive takes on JFK or his assassination.
Worse still, the whole thing seemed a bit pro forma.
Which is probably not a surprise, since the Kennedys have not, let us say, suffered for a lack of media coverage. Most topics related to their fame, achievement and dysfunction and just plain walks in the park, have been hashed and rehashed.
For the Kennedys have long since become commoditized as celebrities. A supposedly American version of royalty, but celebrities nonetheless. No surprise, since the celebrity industry has overtaken actual royal families. One need look no further than the Diana-fication of Britain’s royals.
But most of it misses the point, that the Kennedy legend exists because John F. Kennedy possessed an unusual blend of intelligence, toughness, reflectiveness, elegance, charisma, and one tough son of a gun for a brother in his ramrodding manager, Robert F. Kennedy. That, together with the great wealth and connections afforded them by paterfamilias Joe Kennedy, Sr. enabled a group of young junior officer and enlisted veterans of World War II to jump the queue in national politics and seize the White House for a tyro 43-year old senator from a middling state.
It was never supposed to be Jack Kennedy, of course, not in the family line-up of things. Which may be why the younger brother was free to develop his own sense of the world at an early age, free from the weight of heavy expectation always placed on Joe, Jr. But a flash of light on a summer’s day over England in 1944 marked the end of that hope. Lieutenant Kennedy had perished in the sudden detonation of a flight test of what might be considered an early forerunner of a drone strike aircraft, which in this case required a pilot to get it off the ground and headed toward its target. Operation Aphrodite (sounds like a Kennedy project, doesn’t it?) was designed to get at Nazi sub pens and missile launchers, a joint project between the Navy and the Office of Strategic Services, FDR’s then personal spy service and forerunner of the CIA.
All that was left for Papa Joe was a posthumous Navy Cross, a folded flag, a sense of what might have been, and plans to convince his more diffident and stand-offish second son, Jack, to go after the prize.
By then, Jack Kennedy had already won his own big medal, and was also a Navy lieutenant. (He might more naturally have ended up in the Office of Strategic Services himself, but after starting off in naval intelligence an affair with a reported Nazi spy created a problem in that regard and he transferred.) Out in the Pacific, JFK commanded a PT boat, as you may have heard, which famously got itself good and sunk when a Japanese destroyer rammed it and smashed its plywood hull to smithereens. (How Jack Kennedy managed to be the only PT boat skipper in history to lose his boat by having it rammed by a much larger and nominally slower ship is another question, but let’s not think the worst.) Kennedy proved his heroism by saving his crew and contriving their rescue and continued his combat service commanding another PT boat. That his surviving crew vouched for his leadership and turned out in force in every one of his campaigns, and that endless stories were done about the dramatic happenings, did wonders for Kennedy’s political image to be.
Politics wasn’t the life he’d intended. A capable journalist and writer with an intellectual bent, not to mention a playboy, Jack Kennedy had followed his graduation from Harvard with a brief stint at Stanford’s grad school in business — the subject matter to please his father, the locale to please himself — but he didn’t find business engaging.
Kennedy was a frequently ironic figure, possessed of an engaged detachment that frequently read as cool — and not just in the pop culture sense of the term — an eye to the absurdities of life developed during his World War II experience and wide reading. As such, he was more intellectually supple than his older brother, whose big man on campus background may have made him too rigid for presidential campaigning or too prone to listen to the experts.
Once convinced by the family to take on the mantle of destiny, at least as defined by his mega-rich father, Jack Kennedy ascended the ladder of American politics with astonishing alacrity, winning the first of three terms in the House of Representatives in 1946 at 29, a first term in the U.S. Senate in 1952 followed by a near-miss as Adlai Stevenson’s vice presidential running mate in 1956, a resounding Senate re-election in ’58, and then the charge to the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960 followed by his eyelash-edge victory over Richard Nixon that fall.
In office, Kennedy was something of a centrist iconoclast, quite capable of ripping big business, and of ripping labor, of ordering interventionist action and of shying away from it, of taking events with the Soviet Union to the brink of all-out conflict and of looking for future ways to avoid the abyss.
Having run against Nixon and the Republicans on a non-existent missile gap, he proved instead to be the pioneering champion of the very special forces we rely on so heavily today.
But he made mistakes, the largest of which was approving the CIA’s long in the works plan to invade Castro’s Cuba with an exile force.
The Bay of Pigs came to be an ultimate symbol for boneheaded interventionism.
Kennedy, worried about America’s exposure in what was going to be presented to the world as an indigenous rebellion spurred and led by Cuban exiles, actually made the benighted plan worse on his own, by changing the landing site in furtherance of a night landing to further disguise the U.S. role. But that put the beachhead further away from the mountains where the brigade members would have to operate from if the hoped for national uprising did not occur.
No matter how it was sliced, the invasion was a bad idea. Castro was much more popular than the CIA and the exiles wanted to admit. And their plans were not entirely secret in Havana.
In reaction, Kennedy canned the greatly esteemed Allen Dulles and the other top CIA leadership.
Kennedy had come off too boyish in an early confrontation with Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschchev at a summit meeting in Vienna, Austria less than two months after the Bay of Pigs debacle. It’s been speculated that Krushchev, sensing weakness in Kennedy, decided to take more aggressive steps, not the least of which was moving Soviet missiles onto a certain Caribbean island 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
First, though, came the Soviet-backed erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, walling off Communist East Berlin from West Berlin in a bid to stop East German emigration to the West. In an epic confrontation which raised the prospect of nuclear war and resulted in major troop mobilizations on both sides, Kennedy made certain that West Germany retained access to West Berlin by running a large American convoy through East Germany to the dramatically divided traditional capital.
In October 1962 came the Cuban Missile Crisis after it was revealed that the Soviets had secretly moved nuclear missiles into Cuba. After 13 days of drama, during which many Americans contemplated what a nuclear war would mean for them, a U.S. Navy blockade proved to be the only military force necessary. Meanwhile, most of the top military commanders had been urging war, in the form of preemptive U.S. air and missile strikes and a US invasion of Cuba.
Kennedy, contemplating the abyss, through a complex series of signals and brandishing of military forces, forced the Soviets to back down, publicly dismantling launch sites in Cuba and returning the nuclear missiles to the Soviet Union.
In turn, Kennedy secretly agreed to remove a number of old Jupiter missiles in Turkey that the military had moved there earlier and essentially agreed not to invade Cuba. But that didn’t save an embarrassed Krushchev from his removal by the Politburo two years later.
In a sense, the Soviets achieved a key goal: Cuba protected from invasion. But a US invasion of Cuba would have been idiotic, as Kennedy undoubtedly knew from the Bay of Pigs experience.
And the propaganda defeat for the Soviets — being caught red-handed and forced to withdraw — was devastating.
In the aftermath, Kennedy and Krushchev agreed to talk more. A regular emergency communications channel was established. Moves were made to make relations more normal, including a nuclear test ban treaty.
Kennedy also, in the opinion of then Defense Secretary Robert Montgomery and others around him, was preparing to draw down US forces in Vietnam before they ever seriously ramped up, adopting as a covering measure the acceptance of rosy Pentagon reports on how swimmingly the U.S. advisory effort was going and how well the South Vietnamese forces were doing.
In short, Kennedy’s tenure contains many lesson about how to navigate through murky, politically-charged geopolitical waters containing multi-dimensional challenges.
The Obama Administration is in the midst of such now, having wound down the Iraq War and now drawing down from an ill-conceived Afghan War, working its way through a near new war in Syria, struggling with revelations of an overly massive global surveillance apparat and too expansive drone strike program, marshaling an international agreement on Iran that doesn’t provide a final solution for the nuclear conundrum there but may succeed in pushing the likelihood of an Iranian bomb, not to mention the likelihood of war to prevent just that, ever on into the future.
And of course the challenges of moving on to the Asia-Pacific, where China increasingly crowds allies in the East China Sea and South China Sea, and may well have been seeking to take advantage of our fateful Middle Eastern fixations to essentially push the American Pacific presence out to the next archipelagos of islands.
It’s a complex and fascinating set of situations, one which would undoubtedly engage Kennedy greatly. It’s too bad he’s not around to counsel Obama.
From my December 3rd essay.
The Obama Administration responded to China’s sudden claim of an “air defense zone” over most of the East China Sea by ignoring the new Chinese requirement to file flight plans and gain permission and instead sending a pair of B-52 bombers winging their way over the strategically significant body of water. Chinese forces did not challenge the US aircraft. China is claiming some Japanese-held islets, the Senkakus, and keeps ramping up its pressure in various way, this coming over the weekend the latest and most dramatic.
** NEW COLUMNS COMING UP … BIDEN’S BIG ASIA TRIP AMIDST A CHINA SEA AIR CIRCUS, MARVELS (AND NOT) OF OUR MARVELOUS CINEMATIC UNIVERSE, DOCTOR WHO AT 50 and WHAT OUR 50TH ANNIVERSARY COMMEMORATION OF THE JOHN F. KENNEDY ASSASSINATION SAYS ABOUT US.
** ISRAEL’S “EXISTENTIAL CRISIS,” IF ANY, MAY LIE IN THE EAST CHINA SEA.
In the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanayhu’s complaints about US and Western appeasement of Iran, the Obama Administration dialed up a dramatic reaction to recent threatening rhetoric. A pair of B-52 bombers flew directly over a potential military target.
In the East China Sea.
But wait, you say, that’s about 4500 miles away from the Persian Gulf, where Israel insists that Iran is absolutely intent on becoming the Middle East’s second nuclear weapons power, Israel being the first. What does this have to do with Netanyahu’s near 20-year insistence that Iran is just on the verge of having the Bomb, thus creating an “existential crisis” for Israel?
Maybe just about everything.
While the US, European allies Britain, France, and Germany, and the other two permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia and China, concluded agreement with Iran on the first phase of a pull-back from the long-simmering crisis over Iran’s development of potential nuclear weapons capability, the US responded very differently to China’s sudden weekend assertion of an “air defense zone” over the East ChinaSea, where the putative People’s Republic already regularly asserts sovereignty over the Japanese-held Senkaku Islands with regular forays of patrol ships.
Netanyahu’s deeper problem may be that time is running out on his ability to influence America’s geostrategic focus, his ability in keeping it coincident with his own and Israel’s. Because it’s not just the East China Sea. As longtime readers know, it’s also the South China Sea, one of the world’s most strategic bodies of water, where China asserts a breathtaking claim of sovereignty over over virtually the entire sea, to the great dismay of most of its overawed neighbors.
After more than a dozen years of frequently off-target and counter-productive response, real and putative, to 9/11, American leaders are realizing that they may just have bigger fish to fry elsewhere. China is a surging would-be superpower with designs on hegemony in various part of the Asia-Pacific, the largest and arguably most economically consequential mega-region in the world, where America has been a principal guarantor of stability since World War II.
Watching the Asia-Pacific slide into chaos, or become a vast Chinese lake, while remaining fatefully fixated on highly questionable Middle Eastern agendas could be disastrous. It would certainly be foolhardy.
In 2002, as a former Israeli prime minister and new foreign minister, Netanyahu was among those who successfully urged the US on to invade Iraq, taking out Israeli enemy Saddam Hussein (who in reality also served a critical counter-weight to Iran’s regional aspirations). Just a few months ago, he was among those who came rather close to convincing Obama to launch a sustained campaign of air and missile strikes against the Assad regime in Syria.
But, although he and his allies in Israel and the US have succeeded in blocking talk of containing Iran — the normal course of action with a rising and potentially very threatening power — in favor of pre-emptively preventing Iran from developing full nuclear weapons capability, the effort to block diplomatic dialogue with Iran has failed.
Which means that, despite its success in putting talk of containing Iran off the table on grounds that Iran is not a rational state actor that can be deterred from using nuclear weapons, Israel has actually failed in convincing the American government that Iran is fundamentally an irrational religious fundamentalist state that would rather suffer its own destruction in order to destroy Israel.
Because that is what Netanyahu’s insistence on Iran’s existential threat to Israel means, at least on the surface. That, having secured nuclear weapons, its Islamist theocratic leaders would damn the consequences to themselves and their own country in order to destroy what it views as the Jewish interloper.
Of course, if Netanyahu and his allies — whose conceptual allies outside Israel include such Sunni Muslim powers as Saudi Arabia — really believe that Shiite Muslim Iran is a non-rational state actor, and if Netanyahu really believes that, as he has repeatedly stated, in unfortunate boy-who-cried-wolf mode, for two decades that Iran is just about to have the Bomb, then one can argue that he should already have attacked Iran.
That he hasn’t indicates at least one of several other things. That Netanyahu is determined to force the US into striking on Israel’s behalf, in the process taking much of the brunt for the action. Or that other key Israeli figures in the military and intel/security apparats don’t agree with Netanyahu’s view that war with Iran may be preferable.
Or, perhaps, that the “existential threat” to Israel is much more indirect. That it is not a matter of Israel being directly attacked and destroyed by an Iran which at last has the Bomb and then hauls off and uses it, but that it is a matter of another regional power having the dissuasive power that a nuclear hole card provides.
Today Israel, which has no defensive depth to speak of in the relatively tiny scope in which the Middle Eastern drama plays out, has not only tremendously superior conventional forces with which to stave off an attempt to overrun it but also the credible threat of nuclear retaliation if conventional defeat seems imminent. A hostile, nuclear-ready Iran might upset that balance of power equation, not to mention the Gulf stand-off between Shiite Iran and Sunni powers in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states.
Or it might not. But Israel, as Netanyahu knows, is perhaps the planet’s ultimate rainspout nation, a post-Holocaust phoenix founded upon ancient religious claims and the collective guilt of the West in unsurprisingly hostile territory. So anything which seriously diminishes whatever edge Israel has gained through a painstaking series of moves constitutes an existential threat. Hence the development of absolutist attitudes among those for whom life has become synonymous with the siege mentality.
Nearly two weeks ago, I wondered here if whatever hyped momentum peace talks between Iran and the US and other international powers had achieved had evaporated with the sudden end of high-level talks in Geneva.
It had not. Over the weekend, we learned that the high-level talks were not only back on but bearing fruit. Because of something that had not been clear; namely, that the US and Iran had already undertaken months of secret high-level talks.
The Obama Administration-led Iranian deal that the conservative governments of Britain and Germany and the socialist government France, the Western powers, have agreed to along with Russia and China — whose ideological bent in such matters is the avoidance of regime change in countries the West dislikes — does not so much eliminate Iran’s ability to create a nuclear weapon as it pushes it back. But the relief it provides from the elaborate sanctions regime is similarly limited.
Iran retains its basic nuclear infrastructure — which Israel, in absolutist, final solution-oriented fashion, wants eliminated — but key elements of it are limited, perhaps even hamstrung, even as the Islamic republic agrees to open previously secret facilities to nuclear inspectors.
It can all go very wrong, of course, but it seems likely that, at the least, the day on which Iran can roll out an actual nuclear weapon is now farther off than it was last Friday.
Which is only bad if one believes that this will diminish the Western will to keep on imposing harsh economic sanctions, as crisis seemingly dissipates and the new Iranian leadership appears reasonable and even friendly.
But that, in turn, is only a problem if one is committed to not just containing a nuclear Iran but preventing one from ever existing.
Does the Obama Administration, do the Western powers as a whole, really share Netanyahu’s absolutist anti-containment sentiments? Or are they engaged in lip service to head off domestic political pressure? You may be able to guess, but it’s still speculation.
But this much seems certain.
Had the US not spent much of the past dozen years careening down the garden path urged on it by the neoconservative and Israeli enemies of Iran, it would be both less exhausted by Middle Eastern melodrama and more responsive to Netanyahu and company’s latest theories of threat. And if China were not bidding fair to upset the apple carts of America and key allies, old and new, across some of the most vast and strategically significant land and seascapes in the world, Jerusalem and Riyadh’s insistence that the US remain fixated on the Middle East’s endlessly lethal games might continue to dominate.
From my November 26th essay.
** FROM THE JERRY FILES – THANKSGIVING.
Governor Jerry Brown has issued his latest history lesson-as-proclamation in honor of Thanksgiving.
The first Thanksgiving in 1621 was a celebration of the harvest that brought together the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation and the Native Americans who helped them adapt to their new environment. Over the years Thanksgiving became an American tradition and one of the first holidays we celebrated as a free and independent nation. In 1789, George Washington proclaimed the first Thanksgiving observance in the newly formed United States of America, writing that “it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.”
Thanksgiving has continued to be one of our most cherished observances, a day to join with family and friends and feast on traditional delicacies from roasted turkey to pumpkin pie, and commemorate the joining of the Old World and the New that brought about that First Thanksgiving long ago.
It is most fitting that we set aside a special day for gratitude. As Americans, we have every reason to give thanks for the wonderful bounty of our land, the strength of our fellow citizens and our system of government that protects our basic freedoms.
NOW THEREFORE I, EDMUND G. BROWN JR., Governor of the State of California, do hereby proclaim November 28, 2013, as Thanksgiving Day.
Of course, Brown and First Lady/Special Counsel Anne Gust Brown have some happy-making things to give thanks for of late.
A state Legislative Analyst Office assessment forecasting big state budget surpluses rolling into California’s future, especially the future in which Brown would be in his record-setting fourth term as governor.
A 55% job approval rating, highest since the first time Brown was governor back in the ’70s.
No significant Republican opposition to speak of from a Republican opposition in split personality mode.
A fundraising operation gearing up with some $20 million on hand. That includes about $2 million from his Hollywood fundraiser the other day chaired by a host of notable filmmakers and executives, with an appearance from the world’s biggest movie star, Brown’s old friend Robert Downey, Jr.
Of course, not everything comes up roses, and Brown may need some push from Iron Man, and some technological innovation from Tony Stark, on the state’s high-speed rail project.
A local Sacramento judge didn’t stop in it a recent ruling but did make things more complicated, rather perversely dinging the rail authority for adjusting the original plan to make it workable (thus supposedly making it different from what voters approved with the state bond measure some years back) and complaining that the entirety of the project’s funding hasn’t been identified.
It’s not a show-stopper, however, and Brown has the moxie to keep moving things along.
I’ll wrap all these things up in a forthcoming piece.
Saying the people are doing their job but the politicians are not, in this 2003 commercial, novice gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger laid out basic themes.
** NEW COLUMNS COMING UP … THE IRAN DEAL: WHAT IS AN “EXISTENTIAL THREAT?,” MARVELS (AND NOT) OF OUR MARVELOUS CINEMATIC UNIVERSE, DOCTOR WHO AT 50 and WHAT OUR 50TH ANNIVERSARY COMMEMORATION OF THE JOHN F. KENNEDY ASSASSINATION SAYS ABOUT US.
** ON THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER SETTLING IN AS GOVERNOR.
It’s been just over ten years since Arnold Schwarzenegger’s surprise governorship of California began. Winner by a landslide in the dramatic 2003 California recall election, Schwarzenegger
was inaugurated on November 17, 2003 after a less than six-week transition period.
The inaugural festivities, covered around the world in real and near real time, were spectacular in scope. And Schwarzenegger laid out an agenda of post-partisan, frequently visionary elements which he did much in office to achieve. But not before sowing some disastrous seeds not long after his inauguration, even as he achieved near record levels of popular approval during his first year in office.
By the end of his first week in office, or, put another way, just about 10 years ago now, three things that turned out to be important in retrospect had come into clear focus.
* First, the big car tax cut, which amounted to $4 to $6 billion a year over the years. It was Schwarzenegger’s first official act as governor, one that was extremely popular. So important was it to him that he rushed to sign his executive order rollback even before he joined friends, family, and top pols at snazzy private inaugural luncheons. Since California’s chronic structural deficit — since eliminated by Governor Jerry Brown’s combination of big budget cuts and tax increases — turned out to be around that number, Schwarzenegger would be blamed for doing it. The thing is, had he not done it, the car tax may very well have been cut by popular initiative.
Governor Pete Wilson cut the car tax in the first place, making amends to the Republican right for raising other taxes early in his ’90s tenure. Governor Gray Davis raised it back up only when he felt he had no other choice. He had no illusions about how unpopular his move was.
It was what Schwarzenegger did next with regard to the budget hole caused by the car tax cut that proved to most important. He relied on economic growth, and to a lesser extent,
proposed political formulas, to make up the difference rather than cuts, revenues, or cuts and revenues. In 2009, Schwarzenegger did go for a mixture of cuts and temporary tax hikes. But by then the great global recession had wreaked its havoc in California.
Saying the people are doing their job but the politicians are not, in this 2003 commercial, novice gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwawrzenegger laid out basic themes.
* As Schwarzenegger has noted recently, his governing team out of the box proved to be almost all Republican, and heavily dominated by veterans of Governor Pete Wilson’s administration. Had he had more time he could have put together a proper collection of people in tune with his rather iconoclastic views. So sudden was his entry into the fast-developing recall campaign, coming on the heels of the release of Terminator 3, which was supposed to have been his big project for the year, meant that he hadn’t yet put together his own blend of folks. That meant that his rhetoric ran bipartisan and iconoclastic, but the day to day reality was more doctrinaire Republican, including old agendas from the Wilson years which would get him in very big trouble in his 2005 special election “Year of Reform” initiatives.
Much of his Arnold 1.0 gubernatorial staff would ignore his initiatives in areas they were not attuned to, such as renewable energy, climate change, and new vehicles and transit, causing them to languish early on and making it easier for opponents to focus on the conventional Republican agenda most staffers and consultants were interested in promoting to make the non-conservative Arnold out to be a conservative after all.
Worse still, despite being paid massive amounts of money as consultants and handsome salaries as gubernatorial staffers, they failed to properly develop the initiatives they were to push in 2005, causing some major public embarrassments, contributing mightily to the defeat of all four of his 2005 special election initiatives.
The reality is that Schwarzenegger could have been much better counseled, his efforts more adroitly coordinated, for a small fraction of the millions spent on and by “Arnold Inc.,” whose members usually also set themselves up as lucrative influencers for hire, cashing in on their access to Schwarzenegger.
* Ten years ago, Schwarzenegger had rented the penthouse suite of the Hyatt Regency at Capitol Park as his temporary state capital residence and was getting used to the place. But the idea was for him and new First Lady Maria Shriver to find a house in Sacramento for the family to live at least part time while Schwarzenegger settled into the complex mechanics of governing the nation’s largest state.
But even though some house hunting activities would continue, it seemed obvious to me a week after the inaugural that there really wouldn’t be a move, and that Schwarzenegger’s hotel suite would be the home away from home. Schwarzenegger loves hotels. Shriver does not. Though her broadcasting career had hit its peak some years earlier, she intended to stay active in the field, though this proved to be essentially impossible over time. But between that and the kids and their schools, there was ample reason to avoid the move.
It was clear to me that Schwarzenegger was not going to spend most all of his time away from his wife and his family. That would have been tantamount to the world’s longest movie location shoot. In the end, Schwarzenegger ended up flying up and down the state all the time, via Gulfstream private jet, the world’s most expensive commuter. While Sacramento is over-rated in its importance, a governor does need to be around, an available presence. The opportunity for creative casual interaction in politics can’t be overestimated.
Ironically, Shriver ended up spending a huge amount of time on what became very expanded first lady tasks, including helping recruit members of his campaign and government teams, mounting massive and massively impressive women’s conferences, redeveloping California Museum, and overseeing a new state hall of fame. All of which could have been done with a second home base in Sacramento, where she turned out to have a significant staff as it was.
But before all that emerged, the inaugural itself was simply spectacular, a once in a lifetime experience in state politics.
The 38th governorship of California launched like a movie premiere, with Schwarzenegger in between movie star and politician mode, projecting his image to teeming masses and swiftly greeting elites in classy, closed-door parties. As I noted at the time in one of my reports as the LA Weekly’s chief political writer, “it may mark the start of an era of political renewal in the tarnished Golden State, or it may mark a wild new phase in California’s ongoing political devolution.”
First Lady Maria Shriver checked out the impressive outdoor stage setup the Sunday afternoon before with the couple’s four children, who practiced their part in the Pledge of Allegiance. She directed much of the day’s planning, and did finishing work with Schwarzenegger on his 12-minute address. The speech was a collaboration between Reagan speechwriter extraordinaire Landon Parvin and Kennedy speechwriting ace Bob Shrum. On inaugural day, fate intervened for Schwarzenegger, described as “the luckiest man in the world” by one associate, as the sun broke through as he spoke on a Sacramento day that usually would have been enshrouded in fog.
Tens of thousands of people were on hand for the festivities, along with an army of media folk from around the world. I was able to thrill my friend Viktoria and her parents back in Moscow by arranging for her to do a live interview on Russian television, a connection I’d made during Schwarzenegger’s concluding campaign bus tour of the state. While the candidate and his staffers rolled around the state in buses dubbed The Running Man andTotal Recall, they were trailed in the motorcade by four buses filled with media, wittily designated Predator 1 through 4.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed California’s landmark climate change program into law in this September 2006 ceremony on San Francisco Bay’s Treasure Island.
After praising Gray Davis for his grace during the transition, noting that the recall was not merely about him, the action movie superstar’s speech played as heartfelt and well-conceived, the statement of a 21st century Hiram Johnson. Its new wave Progressive message emphasized the point that the recall election which gave rise to the once seemingly fanciful new governorship of the former Mr. Universe was really “about changing the entire political climate of our state.”
Likening the entrenched partisan divisions of Sacramento to the crisis of 1787 which led to the U.S. Constitution, Governor Arnold laid out his thematic template for what he hoped would be a fusion administration to revive California as “the golden dream by the sea.”
After the politicians luncheon in the Capitol Rotunda, Jerry Brown joined the family and friends luncheon at the venerable Sutter Club, named for the man who started the California Gold Rush. Then the second term mayor of Oakland, Brown was flying solo on this day with future wife and First Lady Anne Gust Brown over in the Bay Area. In non-ascetic mode for once, he was curious where we were finding certain delicacies. Asked how it felt to be in “the lions’ den” with all those Republicans and his two Republican successors, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, Brown quipped, “Nah, they’re pussycats.”
Brown had repeatedly praised Schwarzenegger and seemed enthused about the new political era. “It’s a time again for reinvention in California,” declared the two-time Democratic presidential runner-up. “He has a real opportunity here.”
Former Governor Deukmejian told me that Schwarzenegger is “more liberal than me” but probably needs to be. “It’s a changed state,” he said, “very different” from what it was in his 1980s tenure.
Former Governor Wilson, acknowledged that Schwarzenegger must draw “from an eclectic group.” Easy for him to say, since his former staffers and appointees had by far the most visible pedigrees in the nascent administration.
For all the bipartisan talk of the Schwarzenegger transition team, the top appointments to the administration were nearly all Republicans. In the top echelons of the governor’s office itself, there was only Bonnie Reiss, a Hollywood Democrat and environmentalist and friend of Arnold’s for more than 20 years who ran his after-school program and is now director of the nascent USC Schwarzenegger Institute on State and Global Policy.
It might have looked very different. A very prominent Democrat, former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg of L.A., was strongly considered for the post of chief of staff to the new governor.
Also considered was a tandem arrangement in which the moderate liberal Hertzberg would work with Republican Patricia Clarey, a corporate conservative. In the end, though, the choice was Clarey, an HMO executive and then protégé of former Pete Wilson chief of staff Bob White, who oversaw Schwarzenegger’s far-flung campaign operation.
But environmentalist Terry Tamminen, then head of the Santa Monica-based Environment Now, was picked as the secretary for environmental protection. As such, he headed an agency that some mistakenly reported during the campaign that Schwarzenegger wanted to abolish. Some within the transition team opposed Tamminen, a friend of environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Maria Shriver’s cousin.
In the end, Schwarzenegger, who told me back in 2001 and 2002, well before he ever ran, that he has an “expansive vision” on the environment and renewable energy and fully intended to go beyond California’s already nation-leading requirements under Davis on renewable energy and energy efficiency, not to mention the state’s early efforts to rein in greenhouse gases by limiting tailpipe emissions, went with Tamminen, the architect of the new governor’s advance policy paper that prompted The New York Times to dub Schwarzenegger “Conan the Green.” In fact, Tamminen works with Schwarzenegger today on their UN-affiliated R20 organization based in Geneva and Santa Monica, which grew out of Schwarzenegger’s three Governors Global Climate Summits.
Schwarzenegger had big plans for renewable energy and new vehicles, climate change and other environmental matters, infrastructure projects, technological innovation and more. But those weren’t getting much service from his staff in the first year and most of the first term governor’s office.
Schwarzenegger succeeded in his first year in office in gaining major changes from the Democratic legislature to the state’s workers compensation system, a major boost for strapped businesses at the time. And in a spring 2004 special election, he gained popular passage of already authorized “deficit bonds,” thus making them constitutional, as well as passage of an initiative introducing a new formula control spending, in order to stabilize the state’s careening finances.
But the initiative didn’t work.
Schwarzenegger delivered his November 2006 victory speech at the Beverly Hilton.
The budget crisis, which became chronic after the end of the dot-com boom, a $26 billion problem when Jerry Brown took over in January 2011, existed because the dysfunctional culture of Sacramento was dominated by ultra-government and anti-government lobbies which pushed for unsustainable program spending and tax cuts, all of it in a political environment in which voters were largely ignorant of the facts, within a system in which, alone among major states, it took a two-thirds vote to raise taxes but only a majority vote to create a tax loophole. Voters generally say they want cuts, but not in the areas in which the money is really spent.
The unraveling began when then Governor Pete Wilson cut the car tax during the dot-com boom. It continued with program expansions and some further tax cuts under Davis.
After his 2002 re-election, Davis, through ministerial action of the state Department of Finance as provided by the tax cut law, raised the car tax back to its earlier, pre-Pete Wilson level. But he was trepidatious about it from the beginning when I talked with him about it in January 2003, knowing how unpopular a move it would be when he finally did it some months later. Voters really don’t like having tax cuts reversed. Schwarzenegger campaigned on cutting the car tax again — I was about 20 feet away when he theatrically pushed a button to smash a car at an Orange County fairground — and did so in his first act as governor. That cost the state $6 billion a year that it badly needed. It also headed off a likely popular initiative to cut the car tax.
Fatefully, Schwarzenegger chose not to get revenue elsewhere in 2004, or to institute major budget cuts. Instead, he bet primarily on the rising tide of the economy. The state managed to muddle through for the next few years as he tried unsuccessfully to enact state spending limits until the bottom dropped out of California’s revenues with the great global recession.
By the middle of his first year in office, frustrated by opposition, Schwarzenegger tried to replace Democrats in the state Assembly in a dozen or so districts he’d carried in his 2003 campaign.
He definitely seemed to me to be intrigued by the idea of endorsing a few Democrats, including one or two who’d been actual supporters of his agenda, but his big money Republican consultants mostly opposed it and he did not.
In the event, none of the candidates he campaigned for won, which led him into the redistricting reform fight. That ended badly in 2005, as this was yet another of his favored initiatives which his own heavily compensated team didn’t prepare itself.
His “Year of Reform” in 2005, focused on a special election effort to pass four initiatives on redistricting reform, teacher tenure, hamstringing public employee union campaign spending, and controlling state government spending, ended in disaster. All four initiatives went down to defeat and Schwarzenegger’s once lofty popularity was a thing of the past after relentless waves of attack ads against him.
Yet he went on to win a landslide re-election victory over then state Treasurer Phil Angelides, one of his harshest critics. He did it by emphasizing his renewable energy and environmental themes that had been blocked by elements of his 1.0 crew and a huge infrastructure bonds package, his Strategic Growth Plan, which also won big at the polls. And he did it with a new crew, including a Democratic chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, and more moderate Republican operatives linked not to Wilson but the White House, such as Steve Schmidt, Adam Mendelsohn, and Matt David.
It was all good. Then Schwarzenegger spent most of 2007 using the capital of his landslide re-election victory trying to pass a bipartisan comprehensive health care program. It was a bridge too far.
After that, with the California Republican Party presaging national trends by going far right — ignoring his entreaties in a telling fall 2007 state party address in which he urged greater centrism — Schwarzenegger had a variety of ups and downs, mostly the former, before hitting the undertow of the great global recession.
At the very end of his administration, I functioned as a special consultant and coordinator of information for Schwarzenegger as he transitioned from governorship to post-governorship, as I mentioned here at the time. It was an interesting project for which I received a measure of cooperation from Schwarzenegger’s staff and consultants.
As Schwarzenegger’s themes and issues, which at times seemed kaleidoscopic, came into sharper focus as his time in office wound down — and while he, ironically, wound up — his job approval rating improved. (His friendly neutrality in the governor’s race — friendly to eventual landslide winner Jerry Brown, that is — didn’t hurt.) As he left office, Schwarzenegger seemed set for a renewed era of good feeling about him. His friendly neutrality in the governor’s race continued general good feelings between him and Jerry Brown, who won the election in a landslide over billionaire Republican Meg Whitman and her biggest spending non-presidential campaign in American history.
Mired at 22% in the summer, Schwarzenegger’s job approval rating rose to 32% in the final poll of his governorship, the Public Policy Institute of California poll released in December 2010. That near 50% improvement over a half-year’s time presaged good things for Schwarzenegger’s post-governorship. But sharp and sudden controversy, public and private, cut short what could have been an era of good feelings for Schwarzenegger as he moved into a very public sort of private life.
Arnold Schwarzenegger makes his last exit as governor of California from the Governor’s Office.
First, he commuted the sentence of a friend’s son who participated in a fight in San Diego that ended in a young man’s death. The friend was former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, a Democrat who began as Schwarzenegger’s enemy and became a great ally. (I remember being in Nunez’s office discussing Schwarzenegger with him, once with a very notable Hollywood figure on speaker phone, as Nunez worked to see if there was a way to turn enmity in something more productive.) His son, Esteban, whom Schwarzenegger had come to know, did not strike the killing blow but was in the idiotic melee nonetheless. And commutation doesn’t mean pardon, it means a cut in the sentence. The young man is still in prison and will be there for awhile, with ample time to contemplate his reckless behavior and perhaps ample time to salvage his life, which Schwarzenegger did not want to see thrown away, further compounding the tragedy.
I learned about this the day before Brown’s inaugural, when I opened my e-mail in a very chipper mood to find a press release. Very few had known Schwarzenegger had this act in mind, and no serious thought had been given about how to present it, as the mood-changing press release made clear.
A few months later, of course, about a week after Schwarzenegger and Shriver announced their sudden separation, someone leaked the story to the Los Angeles Times, Schwarzenegger’s bete noire when he first won election as governor, that Schwarzenegger had verified to Maria Shriver that he had in fact fathered the child of a longtime household staffer. He immediately issued an abject public apology.
Now Schwarzenegger is reviving his movie career and expanding his ventures as a sportsman, including his emerging role as the world’s leading private impresario of multi-sport events. His USC institute, launched over a year ago, is developing and just held a large event with author and MSNBC host Chris Matthews; his renewable energy and climate efforts, already well underway around the R20 organization, are ongoing.
In all these ventures, he will need to take care to blend the old tried and true rhetoric and themes with the risk of the new. After all, it was largely as an avatar of the future that the Schwarzegger persona came to the fore on the global stage in its various guises.
Schwarzenegger didn’t have a big celebration of his 10th anniversary as California’s governor, which he says both publicly and privately is, for all its sturm und drang, his favorite job ever. But his event with Matthews, a discussion before a large crowd at USC about Matthews’ new book — Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked — on how Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill found ways to work together, came just a few days before.
Both decried the corrosive and crippling hyper-partisanship that marks today’s American politics, especially in Washington, “where the city is frozen,” Schwarzenegger noted, “and nothing gets done.” Matthews in particular praised Schwarzenegger for his bipartisan, or as the former governor prefers, post-partisan efforts, especially in political reform.
For Schwarzenegger finally did get a redistricting reform initiative passed, along with an open primary initiative, during his second term as governor. Both these measures force politicians to be at least somewhat more responsive to a broader range of people and perspectives than those in their party’s respective hyper-partisan cores.
Schwarzenegger did not revive California as “the golden dream by the sea,” as he would have had it in his inaugural address 10 years ago. Which in any event may have been a goal achievable only for those in the Tony Stark household. But some very good things did happen. And the things that didn’t work carry important lessons moving forward, some of them not at all obvious.
From my new feature.
And suddenly, the bright futuristic trajectory of America under her charismatic young president was altered in shocking and dramatic fashion, never to be the same again. Walter Cronkite announces the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago today.
** NEW COLUMNS COMING UP … THE IRAN DEAL: WHAT IS AN “EXISTENTIAL THREAT?,” GOVERNOR SCHWARZENEGGER 10TH ANNIVERSARY, MARVELS (AND NOT) OF OUR MARVELOUS CINEMATIC UNIVERSE, DOCTOR WHO AT 50 and WHAT OUR 50TH ANNIVERSARY COMMEMORATION OF THE JOHN F. KENNEDY ASSASSINATION SAYS ABOUT US.
** OBAMA PROCLAIMS J.F.K. DAY OF REMEMBRANCE.
A half century ago, America mourned the loss of an extraordinary public servant. With broad vision and soaring but sober idealism, President John F. Kennedy had called a generation to service and summoned a Nation to greatness. Today, we honor his memory and celebrate his enduring imprint on American history.
In his 3 years as President of the United States, John F. Kennedy weathered some of the most perilous tests of the Cold War and led America to the cusp of a bright new age. His leadership through the Cuban Missile Crisis remains the standard for American diplomacy at its finest. In a divided Berlin, he delivered a stirring defense of freedom that would echo through the ages, yet he also knew that we must advance human rights here at home. During his final year in office, he proposed a civil rights bill that called for an end to segregation in America. And recognizing women’s basic right to earn a living equal to their efforts, he signed the Equal Pay Act into law.
While President Kennedy’s life was tragically cut short, his vision lives on in the generations he inspired — volunteers who serve as ambassadors for peace in distant corners of the globe, scientists and engineers who reach for new heights in the face of impossible odds, innovators who set their sights on the new frontiers of our time. Today and in the decades to come, let us carry his legacy forward. Let us face today’s tests by beckoning the spirit he embodied — that fearless, resilient, uniquely American character that has always driven our Nation to defy the odds, write our own destiny, and make the world anew.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaimNovember 22, 2013, as a Day of Remembrance for President John F. Kennedy. I call upon all Americans to honor his life and legacy with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities. I also call upon Governors of the United States and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, officials of the other territories subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, and appropriate officials of all units of government, to direct that the flag be flown at half-staff on the Day of Remembrance for President John F. Kennedy. I further encourage all Americans to display the flag at half-staff from their homes and businesses on that day.
** BROWN ADDS HIS REMEMBRANCE OF J.F.K.
Governor Jerry Brown joined in the Day of Remembrance for President John F. Kennedy with these observations:
“I had the opportunity to meet John Kennedy and I’ve never met a politician since then that had an aura and charisma, a presence, a confidence that unique. To snuff out such a young, vibrant, unique life like that, it left a mark.”
In honor of the Day of Remembrance for President Kennedy, Brown ordered that state flags be flown at half-staff today.
** OBAMA SETS BIG TRIP AS HE REGROUPS AROUND THE ASIA-PACIFIC PIVOT.
Lost in the shuffle over the health care controversy comes this word. President Barack Obama is heading back to the Asia-Pacific on a big trip early next year to further the US geostrategic shift.
There is no question that the federal government shutdown debacle, which prevented Obama from taking part in long-planned Asian summitry and first ever visit to the Philippines, was bad for America’s geopolitical pivot from from fateful over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to heightened engagement with the rising Asia-Pacific. Obama’s absence, and the total disarray in Washington, enabled the leaders of China — that would-be superpower which unnerves its neighbors with its extraordinary claim to sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, one of the world’s most strategically significant bodies of water, not to mention its aggressive moves in the East China Sea near Japan — to raise doubts that America will help when the chips are down. It also gave Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premiere Li Keqiang the opportunity to travel the region providing economic carrots to complement the PRC’s looming military stick.
All the US could do in answer was send the George Washington carrier strike group through the region for notable port calls and maneuvers with some of China’s neighbors. An impressive spectacle, but clearly not enough. High-level planning with allies Japan and Australia continued, but that’s not public, and Japan is suspect in some quarters after its own imperial adventures in the Pacifi War portion of World War II.
And even the massive US role in helping the Philippines recover from one of the biggest typhoons in world history, which is bringing US Navy and Marine forces into an integrated command structure with Philippine forces as they play the leading role, is not enough. The Marine three-star who ordinarily runs Pacific expeditionary forces from Okinawa is coordinating the US role from inside Philippine armed forces headquarters at Camp Aguinaldo outside Manila.
So Obama, beset by other problems, is heading out to the Asia-Pacific again on a big trip in April. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, not nearly as identified with the Asia-Pacific Pivot as predecessor Tom Donilon, made the announcement in a speech Wednesday at Georgetown University reaffirming the country’s commitment to the Pivot.
America wants this to continue and this is the reason for the U.S. strategic shift, Rice said.
The US, Rice declared, is fundamentally a Pacific power, and has long used its clout to ensure a secure region in which individual countries can prosper, as they have.
Without specifically mentioning China’s potentially hegemonic moves, Rice said that the reason for America’s geopolitical shift back to the Pacific is Washington’s desire for the continuance of what exists.
“Ultimately,” she said, “America’s purpose is to establish a more stable security environment in Asia, an open and transparent economic environment and a liberal political environment that respects the universal rights and freedoms of all,” she said. “Achieving that future will necessarily be the sustained work of successive administrations.”
The key to it all, said the still relatively new national security advisor, once America’s UN ambassador and a longtime Obama confidant, is enhancing security arrangements to secure a stable environment for progress.
“We are making the Asia-Pacific more secure with American alliances — and an American force posture — that are being modernized to meet the challenges of our time,” Rice declared. “By 2020, 60 percent of our fleet will be based in the Pacific and our Pacific Command will gain more of our most cutting-edge capabilities.”
The Pivot, she argued, will leave the US “better able to respond to provocations and better able to launch operations like Operation Damayan” now aiding millions of Filipinos in recovering from the recent typhoon.
“We are updating and diversifying our security relationships in the region to address emerging challenges as effectively as we deter conventional threats,” Rice said.
One of those threats is North Korea, whose nuclear weapons test and missile launch provocations have been uneasily managed by the US and the international community. Which includes China. While loathe to give up on its longtime ally — China fought side by side with North Korean forces against US and UN forces after North Korea invaded South Korea in the Korean War over 60 years ago — as that would hand the entire Korean Peninsula to a key American ally, the PRC’s leadership has acted to rein in the Pyongyang regime’s threatening antics on occasion.
While confrontation with China is certainly envisioned — at some point I’ll try to delve into wargaming being done at the Naval War College and elsewhere — the Obama Administration clearly prefers to avoid outright conflict in favor of what I think of as a creative tension between the two powers. Rice uses some different terminology.
“When it comes to China, we seek to ‘operationalize’ a new model of major power relations,” Rice said. “That means managing inevitable competition while forging deeper cooperation on issues where our interests converge — in Asia and beyond.”
She cited shared US/China goals on containing North Korean nuclear weapons, peacefully resolving the Iranian nuclear controversy, stabilizing Afghanistan and ending conflict in Sudan among a variety of ways in which the US and China can work together to minimize international crisis.
The two countries are already working on combating piracy and China is sending its first ever UN peacekeeping force; to Mali, where French troops beat back an Al Qaeda-aligned push against that African nation’s very shaky central government.
Rice emphasized that enhancing security in the region is the underpinning for all progress.
“America’s purpose is to establish a more stable security environment in Asia, an open and transparent economic environment and a liberal political environment that respects the universal rights and freedoms of all,” she said. “Achieving that future will necessarily be the sustained work of successive administrations.”
“We are making the Asia-Pacific more secure with American alliances — and an American force posture — that are being modernized to meet the challenges of our time,” Rice said. “By 2020, 60 percent of our fleet will be based in the Pacific and our Pacific Command will gain more of our most cutting-edge capabilities.”
The resources shift will leave the United States better able to respond to provocations and better able to launch operations like Operation Damayan that is helping millions of people in the Philippines recover from the impact of Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda. Natural disaster management has long been one of the hallmark issues in the Asia-Pacific. With climate change, we can only expect that to increase.
That sounds nice, doesn’t it? If both Americans and Chinese act with wisdom and forbearance, it might even turn out that way. The US, incidentally, is going to have to pick a new ambassador to China.
Obama has had two so far. Appointing former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman effectively removed a potentially formidable moderate conservative Republican presidential challenger from the gameboard. Huntsman still came back from Beijing and ran, but found no traction in a hard right primary environment. His service as Obama’s ambassador may have helped him finish third in the New Hampshire primary. The problem was that he did it without Republican votes, which is not a sustainable model for a Republican presidential primary campaign.
Huntsman was succeeded by Obama’s first commerce secretary, former Washington Governor Gary Locke, the nation’s first Chinese-American governor. Locke announced in the past week that he is leaving next year, opening the door for a new ambassador to emerge from a pool of potentials including former California state Controller Steve Westly, a big early Obama backer and clean tech venture capitalist and former eBay international exec with extensive experience in China, and some others, perhaps including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.
From my November 21st essay.
As President Abraham Lincoln’s philosophical and rhetorical re-launch of the war-torn American republic 150 years ago, his oh-so-brief Gettysburg Address was one of the seminal moments in US history.
** NEW COLUMNS COMING UP … GOVERNOR SCHWARZENEGGER 10TH ANNIVERSARY, MARVELS (AND NOT) OF OUR MARVELOUS CINEMATIC UNIVERSE, DOCTOR WHO AT 50 and WHAT OUR 50TH ANNIVERSARY COMMEMORATION OF THE JOHN F. KENNEDY ASSASSINATION SAYS ABOUT US.
** WHAT CAN OBAMA DO IN A NON-MAGICAL MOMENT?
Try as one might, it’s pretty much impossible to miss how badly things have turned for President Barack Obama. Not that it hasn’t been building all year.
How does he turn this thing around?
Let’s look first at how he got here.
Obama went from an impressive reelection victory a year ago to a rather desultory second inaugural, the wind in its sails fleeting for the creaky and erratic nature of the economic recovery. From there, he was deflated further by revelations of massive secret government surveillance programs. His response, and especially those of his allies, and of course associates in the permanent Beltway establishment, didn’t help his credibility, which in turn hurt him with his youthful core supporters.
It marked a period of foreign policy careening for Obama which reached its height, or nadir, so far, in the sudden almost attack on the Assad regime in Syria. After a decade of mostly fruitless war in Iraq and Afghanistan — and murky black ops and drone ops in various far-flung locales — we were suddenly, supposedly in a big crisis requiring direct intervention in yet another war in and around the Middle East, this one a civil war involving one of Russia’s closest allies. On the other side. Obama wisely took the elegant off-ramp offered him by Vladimir Putin, but didn’t look good in the process.
Throw in the federal government shutdown debacle — for which Republicans deservedly get far more blame but Obama takes a big hit as well, to the seeming surprise of some of his advisors, in addition to having to miss key Asian summitry long in the works as part of the Asia-Pacific Pivot — and the chutes were greased for a big fall if anything else came down the pike.
Naturally, it did, in the form of the disastrous roll-out of “Obamacare,” long relatively unpopular as it is too complex and seemingly compromised for conventional political marketing to work its wiles on the public.
What can Obama, hitting all-time lows in his approval ratings, do to turn things around?
Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, about which our president, not long ago known as a famous orator himself, remarkably has nothing to say.
Obama, a very notable writer and story-teller, once seemed poised to be a great American explainer, something badly needed in these times which would be very complex and challenging even absent the poisoned media culture and the frenzied hyper-partisan attacks on him.
But he’s backed away from the big set-piece addresses through which he came to fame. That’s not a surprise in a sense, because it’s hard to keep topping oneself and not everything can be solved with a big speech.
Unfortunately, he’s also backed away from the sort of narrative for his presidency which he provided for his life in his acclaimed memoirs, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope.
This is a big mistake.
I follow his presidency and his schedule closely and even I struggle at times to explain what he’s doing. Which, by the way, is quite a lot. It’s complex and various and consequential.
I think most Americans, who don’t follow his schedule and don’t spend much time thinking about politics, don’t know what he’s doing. That has to change.
Second, he has to avoid careening into crises, especially in parts of the world he’s trying to disentangle us from. If intervening in the Syrian civil war was a bad idea last year, and it was, it was a bad idea this fall. Iran can’t become the next Syria. It’s potentially more explosive.
Third, he has to come to grips with the Obamacare situation, the good and the bad.
If it can be fixed, he needs to fix it. This isn’t the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
That wasn’t Obama’s oil at the bottom of the Gulf. This is his health care law.
I’m no expert on health care issues. I find them politically vexing, having seen Bill Clinton’s presidency founder in its first team over health care and having watched Arnold Schwarzenegger spend precious political capital in the year after his landslide reelection as California’s governor in a fruitless quest to enact a not exactly dissimilar program.
But the spotlight is on Obama and his signature domestic policy initiative now. If this moderate liberal approach to national health care — in which government and the insurance and medical industries cut a grand deal which hopefully benefits all the players and the people as well — can work, Obama needs to get in there and make it happen. Or at least make the best of it.
He didn’t break the American health care system, whose fundamental flaws have been display for a very long time, so he doesn’t own it. But he made this replacement version, so of course his ownership
Sorry I don’t have any magical ideas. But it’s not a magical moment. And I’m sorry to say that this column is three times as long as the Gettysburg Address.
From my new column.
While the Obama Administration struggles with the disastrous launch of Obamacare and the Philippines struggles to recover from one of the most massive typhoons in world history, US-Iranian relations may be moving into a state of emergency after the sudden collapse of a much ballyhooed deal on Iran’s hotly disputed nuclear program.
** NEW COLUMNS COMING UP … WHAT CAN OBAMA DO IN A NON-MAGICAL MOMENT?, GOVERNOR SCHWARZENEGGER 10TH ANNIVERSARY and MARVELS (AND NOT) OF OUR MARVELOUS CINEMATIC UNIVERSE.
** THE IRANIAN DEAL: NOW YOU SEE IT (OR DO YOU?), NOW YOU DON’T.
There’s still a fair amount of mystery around the West’s much ballyhooed almost deal with Iran on its hotly disputed nuclear program. Like, what was the deal? And why did it suddenly stall? And what really constitutes an existential threat to Israel in specific and world peace in general?
Here is where the pitfalls of beat journalism and bureaus and that old linear approach not at all attuned to issues with multiple cross-cuts come into play. First those folks dutifully reported what they were told by their sources, US and Western diplomats focused on Iran, that new President Hassan Rouhani had not only a new and more moderate style for an Iranian leader but an actual plan to solve the crisis. A plan which could not be detailed but was very promising. Then lots of very promising atmospherics were reported around the promising deal during ballyhooed high-level negotiations in Geneva between the Islamic republic and the six Western powers — UN Security Council permanent five members US, UK, France, China, and Russia, plus Germany — working to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons through an increasingly stringent sanctions regime. Secretary of State John Kerry was on the scene for the US, along with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, ongoing point person for the West on Iranian negotiations, as were the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany. As the deal got closer to fruition, the foreign ministers of Russia and China jetted in.
The atmosphere was electric. The plan, still unclear. Then … nothing.
No deal. Something had blown it — whatever it was — up. But what?
First, it was the French. Or so it was reported, without reporting what or why. The French? Under the Socialist regime of Francoise Hollande? Then it was Iran itself. Though how Iran had blown up its own undisclosed plan was unclear. Kerry later claimed, rather vaguely, that the Iranians backed away. “The P5+1 was unified on Saturday when we presented our proposal to the Iranians. The French signed off on it, we signed off on it, and everybody agreed it was a fair proposal. Iran couldn’t take it at that particular moment; they weren’t able to accept.”
Which sounds like a way to avoid the look of disharmony and/or disarray in the West.
The plan, it turns out, would evidently have required Iran to freeze expansion of its nuclear program — not roll it back — in exchange for beginning to achieve relief from economic sanctions. President Rouhani reiterated throughout that Iran won’t give up its “nuclear rights,” which included continuing to enrich its own uranium, rather than receive nuclear fuel elsewhere.
It is this enrichment of uranium which has been at the center of the struggle over Iran’s nuclear program. Under its program, Iran has developed more sophisticated nuclear fuels fit for running a reactor, but not to the level of enrichment needed for nuclear weapons. But by continuing to control its own enrichment process, it hastens the day on which it can take its stores of enriched uranium and enhance them further to weapons grade, using devices it continues to develop.
Throughout all this dramatic rush to peace, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu was screaming bloody murder about allowing Iran to continue its own enrichment. But Netanyahu’s problem is that he has been saying for the past two decades that Iran is on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon. Which obviously didn’t happen. At least, not yet. But when one keeps warning that something is just about to happen and it never does, well, even little kids know the fable of the boy who cried wolf.
Finally, it emerged that France — either acting on its own or in concert with others who did not want to be seen as blocking the rush to a peace deal with Iran — based its objections, reported Britain’s Financial Times, not on the enrichment of uranium but on the production of plutonium, another route to a nuclear weapon. Iran’s Arak nuclear reactor is supposed to produce sophisticated radioisotopes for use in medical treatments. Of course, medical isotopes can also be purchased.
My personal read is that Iran is, or at least has been, seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Why else go through so much trouble, with so much damage to the economy, to develop and control such a controversial and problematic energy production technology?
With much of the advanced industrial world shying away from nuclear power even before the Fukushima debacle, I don’t see why energy exporter Iran has otherwise been so adamant about having total control of all aspects of a nuclear energy program even as its economy takes heavy blows from increasingly harsh sanction regimes.
This is a problem for a number of Sunni Gulf Arab states, who may be ruing the day some of them egged the US on to ousting Shiite Iran’s natural regional counter-weight, Saddam Hussein.
It is especially a problem for Israel, that shining beacon of the post-Holocaust phoenix which ranks as perhaps the planet’s ultimate rainspout nation.
Netanyahu and other even more conservative leaders in Israel’s now extraordinarily conservative government say that Iran’s nuclear program is a dagger aimed at Israel’s heart, citing a variety of wild statements made over the years by Iranian leaders about Israel and the Holocaust. The Iranian nuclear program, they have long argued, constitutes an “existential threat” to Israel.
But in a sense, Israel, surrounded by many of those who view it as a state of interlopers at best and invaders — notwithstanding ancient religious claims in Jerusalem — at worst is always in a state of existential threat.
From a military standpoint, Israel is completely lacking in defensive depth. It can’t trade territory for time and opportunity in maneuver and counter-attack because everything is so small and close together.
It is literally always in danger of being over-run by its neighbors. This is why Israel has developed one of the world’s toughest and most sophisticated armed forces, equipped with conventional weapons quite superior to those of its neighbors. But one day those conventional weapons, no matter how ably wielded, may not be enough, with no time for evacuation.
So for Israel, which has them but won’t officially acknowledge the fact, nuclear weapons are guarantors of the state, using the power of deterrence of rational Arab actors. Deterrence works, as we saw in the Cold War, when the Soviet Union — vastly more powerful and capable in its global reach than the rather ragtag terrorists we worry so much about — always decided against a mutually assured destruction. But the Soviets were materialists, rationalists not religionists, with fantasies that did not turn on dreams of destruction, divinely determined spiritual destiny, and an afterlife.
If Iran is not a rational state, Israel is at imminent risk.
Is Iran a rational state?
Again, a question hinging on how much belief to stake on the new Iranian president. He was, of course, a a decades-long security official in the ayatollah’s national security state. Yet that may be a matter of rational self-interest. For in some spots around the world, the classic Blade Runner formulation applies: “If you’re not cop, you’re ‘little people.’” Which is understandable, but begs the central question about Mr. Rouhani, and thus in a sense about the Iranian nuclear program: Was Rouhani faking it to get ahead before, or now?
Of course, the Obama Administration has pledged to Israel and its powerful advocates in the US that it opposes a Cold War-style containment strategy against Iran. Which means it is already settled US policy to believe that Iran is an irrational actor, raising the question why we are negotiating with them. Or it means that the question of “existential threat” against Israel goes beyond the relatively simple and lurid concept of a suicidal nuclear strike against the Jewish state.
If another Middle Eastern state has nuclear weapons, that could serve as a deterrent on Israel’s aims in the region, countering its trump card. The fact that Iran is aligned only with Syria — at least with regard to current governments — and the Assad regime seems in no shape now to threaten Israel suggests that decision-makers in Israel and perhaps the US are considering other scenarios beyond those now in effect in determining what constitutes an existential threat to Israel.
Naturally, we see and hear nothing about this, so those likely arguments go unexamined.
Meanwhile, with the rush to a peace deal thwarted, at least for now, Kerry and President Barack Obama are trying to fend off those in the Congress who want even stronger new sanctions against Iran. Kerry and Obama argue that would reverse recent progress between the US and Iran and even “trigger a march to war” with Iran.
The fun never sets.
Talks resume next week in Geneva. But without the momentum of the moment now past, and with the top players not currently expected to be on the scene, whatever was happening — be it the Munich that the right fears or the successful defusing of the Vietnam that the left always wishes to avoid, both sides being caught in old paradigms — may slide some more.
From my new column.
In his weekend video/radio address, President Barack Obama commemorates Veterans Day Weekend and thanks all those who have worn the uniform. He says he is proud of their service and will do everything possible to ensure America always has their back and always honors their sacrifice.
** NEW COLUMNS COMING UP … THE IRANIAN DEAL and MARVELS (AND NOT) OF OUR MARVELOUS CINEMATIC UNIVERSE.
** HOPE FOR VETERANS DAY.
It goes without saying that I hope for world peace. It also goes without saying that that hope will be unfulfilled.
We are a violent race, riven by faction, by sect, by nation, by special interest, by inherent greed and ever unfulfilled need. Conflict and the potential for conflict are eternal verities of the human condition. When can we afford to study war no more? I would say, approximately never.
So my hope for this Veterans Day is understandably more modest, yet more pressing since it is based on reality rather than wishful thinking.
My hope is twofold. That on the one hand we develop a greater sense of coherence about the military actions we undertake. And that on the other, we develop a greater sense of community with the armed forces.
Gallup Polls in recent years have shown the U.S. Armed Forces to be the most admired institution in America. Which for some of us, at least, is heartening. Until you consider how glib and easy that call can be in a nation which for decades has had an all-volunteer force.
Unexamined and unconsidered support for the military can be worse than shallow lip service; it can lead to unexamined and unconsidered support for military action which in the end is in the interest neither of the institution nor the nation.
This year has seen a series of lurching moves, most notably the near-miss military intervention in Syria by President Obama, which look quite incoherent.
I think that the increasing lack of familiarity with the military in this country, ironically at a time of near constant warfare of one sort or another, is very bad. While military experience was widespread among our forebears — in one of my early memories as a boy I remember my father and uncles, combat veterans all, forcefully hashing out the security issues and personalities of the moment as the cigarette smoke formed cumulus clouds in a San Francisco hotel room after MacArthur died — today it’s not. That’s especially so in my fields, those of politics and media.
In this scene from the greatest of World War II films, John Ford’s elegiac 1945 epic of the dark early days in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor, They Were Expendable, the increasingly beleaguered patrol torpedo (PT) boat squadron takes General Douglas MacArthur aboard to make good his escape from the Philippines through Japanese-held waters, MacArthur — a genius who made more than a few big mistakes as well — having been ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Australia to take command of the Allied comeback in the Southwest Pacific Theater. That included the retaking of the Philippine Islands. In fact, it was MacArthur who first said: “I’ll be back.” Though in his equally famous phrasing, it was: “I shall return.” In addition to the obvious John Wayne playing one of the real-life PT boat skippers, that is Robert Montgomery as the squadron commander and main star of the movie. Montgomery was a decorated PT boat skipper himself in the Pacific, where he served with John F. Kennedy, and commanded a destroyer in the D-Day invasion of France. Montgomery, a major movie star and producer, later became the first high-level media advisor to a politician, working with MacArthur’s former aide, a fellow b the name of Dwight Eisenhower. Montgomery’s daughter Liz went on to star in baby boomer fave Bewitched.
When I took the Navy oath of office on the field at Annapolis on a balmy 4th of July, the vow — “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same” — did not contain a sunset clause. It did contain an entree to experiences and insights I’m glad to have.
But most civilians making decisions about the military today, and most who judge those decisions, have no such experience. And so they are prone to demonizing the military or, more frequently in this political environment, to ascribing a shallow sort of glory to it without understanding the limits of power or the experience of those directed to carry out the missions. In the end, it comes down to some poor souls heading into harm’s way, not infrequently these days humping a rifle and a pack and hoping that the training is enough to get through. In coming years, it will involve some poor souls on patrol boats peering into the fog, wondering what the technologically detected shapes really mean.
If you haven’t worn the uniform, you don’t know what that’s like. You’re also prone to underestimate what can go wrong as well as what can be achieved, to make blithe assumptions based on unfounded notions and no experience at all.
And you probably don’t have the necessary grain of salt, which in some cases should be a salt shaker, to apply in contemplation of military proposals, whether they come from impressive-looking and sounding brass hats or credentialed civilian fantasists.
I came to my limited experience of military service when I accepted a nationally competitive appointment from the executive branch to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. (I turned down a senatorial appointment to the Air Force Academy and the appointment of my local congressman to West Point.) But after my freshman year, having chosen to resign, my involvement came as a naval reservist.
Actually, looking back, resigning from Annapolis may have been a mistake. Most of the folks there were more conservative than me, of course. Which wasn’t the issue. As the only representative of my class — elected by my classmates following the rigors of Plebe Summer — on the Brigade Honor Board, which oversees the Naval Academy’s honor code, it occurred to me that the institution had an unacceptable level of hypocrisy in dealing with questions of who was or was not expelled for lying, cheating, or stealing. Having since had a lot more experience of American institutions than was available to my very idealistic teenaged self, I think my judgment was hasty. Not about individual outcomes at the time, but about the overall.
Yet I digress. Or do I?
The military has always been a flawed institution in America. How could it be otherwise? We’re a flawed nation of flawed people.
They represent the best in us, when they win the medals for valor and achievement. And they represent the worst in us, when they commit heinous crimes. They are us, or at least that segment of us that chooses to mount the watchtowers and think the unthinkable.
It has ever been so.
From my new column.
Governor Jerry Brown was not on the 2013 ballot, but his experience and example are much more significant for the future of American politics than the elections just past. Here he is formally announcing his candidacy for a third term as governor in 2010, declaring: “We need someone with insider’s knowledge but an outsider’s mind.” Which of course is reminiscent of the longtime New West Notes slogan seen in the logo above.
** NEW COLUMNS COMING UP … HOPE FOR VETERANS DAY, THE IRANIAN DEAL and MARVELS (AND NOT) OF OUR MARVELOUS CINEMATIC UNIVERSE.
** WHAT DO TUESDAY’S ELECTIONS MEAN? (NOT SO MUCH)
After an anti-climactic election day which turned out mostly as anticipated going into the elections, it’s time for the quadrennial exercise in over-analysis in search of national import from the races for New Jersey governor, Virginia governor, and New York mayor.
It happens because it’s a slow time in the election cycle and these elections are in the close vicinity of the New York and Washington factions of the East Coast-based national media.
In reality, these jurisdictions taken together aren’t much in the way of bellwethers for anything. But it’s fun for some to pretend that they are.
Still, the elections have some meaning for those who don’t live there, so let’s look at what happened and what it does mean.
As expected, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the longtime Clinton operative and fundraiser, reclaimed the Virginia governorship for the Democrats, defeating a far right Republican in a true swing state. Republican Chris Christie rolled to an easy landslide win in mostly Democratic New Jersey. And Democrat Bill de Blasio reclaimed the New York mayoralty for the Democrats for the first time in 20 years in an even bigger landslide, replacing billionaire Republican-turned-independent Michael Bloomberg, at last termed out of office. Republican Rudy Giuliani reigned for two terms before Bloomberg’s three.
Let’s dispense with the New York City result first, as it clearly has the least national import. That’s not a knock on the Big Apple, one of the world’s truly great cities. But the rest of the country isn’t New York and it isn’t going to be. And the only thing that was striking about the result is that it’s been 20 years since a liberal Democrat has been mayor of this liberal Democratic city.
Giuliani triumphed over a tired left-liberalism. Then the billionaire Bloomberg, who switched his registration from Democrat to Republican to avoid a Democratic primary, narrowly beat my old Hart for President colleague Mark Green in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 with personal campaign spending on an unprecedented scale and the strong endorsement of Giuliani, suddenly a superstar as “America’s Mayor.”
Bloomberg stayed in power with even bigger spending and a Wall Street-centric center-left politics that saw him switch again from Republican to independent. The very liberal de Blasio’s election is in part a reaction to Bloomberg’s demi-imperial style but largely a return to form for New York.
The New Jersey results have more to say about America’s future, but not a tremendous amount. Chris Christie, who would not be nearly as famous if he were not governor of a state next door to the Manhattan media echo chamber, pulled off a huge re-election win against a sacrificial Democratic candidate.
But that was always in the cards after Superstorm Sandy, and serious mutual need, gave the Springsteen-loving voluble governor and a re-election hungry President Barack Obama the opportunity to wow a nation that still yearns for some post-partisan stylings with their friendly across-the-aisle alliance to pursue the obvious common good.
Christie’s big win means we’re going to hear an awful lot about him running for president as a relative moderate against the Republicans’ still dominant far right faction. To be sure, Christie has a good thing going as a candid-sounding moderate conservative who does a good job using controlled anger as a rhetorical style. (Though I’m almost certain that even an increasingly super-sizing nation will not elect someone so morbidly obese to the presidency. It’s hard to visualize Christie in a summit meeting with triple black belt Vladimir Putin.)
But none of this is a new development from this election. And it may make sense for Democrats to have allowed Christie a re-election romp with little serious definitional spending against him. For starters, Christie vs. the Tea Party sets up a great dynamic in the Republican primaries. And if he should emerge, very bloodied from the experience, without succumbing to hypocrisy to win the nomination, there is a new book by the Game Change authors that says Christie had serious vetting problems when he was looked at as Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate.
In any event, notwithstanding his massive Tuesday win, exit polling shows Christie trailing Hillary Clinton in New Jersey, which has been reliably Democratic in presidential politics, by seven points, 50 percent to 43 percent.
In reality, the only big election which might have indicated the shape of things to come was the gubernatorial race in Virginia, a genuine swing state. But even there, though some things are clearer, we’re thwarted from saying too much beyond the facts that Obamacare and the shutdown are both unpopular.
Obama campaigned Saturday in Virginia with longtime Clinton fundraiser and campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe, who somewhat surprisingly had a pretty consistent though slender lead for governor of the Old Dominion state, a lead which in some polls was getting significantly bigger in the closing days of the campaign.
Tellingly, nobody said a word about Obamacare, even though it’s Obama’s biggest legislative win and was the subject of an ongoing assault by McAuliffe’s hard right Republican opponent, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
Exit polling showed most Virginia voters oppose Obamacare, and Cuccinelli made big gains with his stand against the law. He even won a plurality of independents against McAuliffe.
Which to some seems a surprise, since Cuccinelli is a Tea Party backer. But McAuliffe is a hyper-partisan, too, albeit more in the modern world, a hustling political operator and reflexive partisan who was Democratic national chairman and was on utterly relentless spin patrol during his every waking moment as Hillary Clinton’s 2009 presidential campaign chairman.
Still, some were, in their chat show pre-mortems, declaring this an impending victory for moderation over extremism in the wake of the federal shutdown debacle, carried out by Cuccinelli’s ideological allies. That was when it looked like McAuliffe’s slender lead was expanding toward double digits.
Even in the aftermath of a different result than many anticipated in the final weekend — McAuliffe’s more modest 2.5 percent margin, about 60,000 votes — some position the result in that way. Unfortunately, there is a flip side.
Cuccinelli was heavily outspent by McAuliffe, $28 million to $12 million, and party groups spent relatively little on Cuccinelli’s behalf while Democratic groups poured more money in to help McAuliffe.
In other words, had Cuccinelli gotten more financial assistance — as outgoing Republican Governor Bob McDonnell (whose legal problems were a big distraction for Cuccinelli) did in 2009 — his anti-Obamacare message may well have trumped the shutdown issue and delivered a Republican victory.
Which will certainly make for an interesting debate for badly divided Republicans going forward.
So, in reality, there is no big takeaway.
De Blasio’s victory in New York — after blowing away, among others, a Bloomberg-aligned Dem and the Anthony Weiner circus sideshow in the Democratic primary — is a return to form for the Big Apple, not a harbinger of a newly progressive America.
Christie’s huge win in New Jersey was sealed on the day that he and Obama turned Superstorm Sandy into a buddy picture.
And the tea leaves from Virginia can be read in a couple of very different ways.
None of which will stop the agenda-pushers and purveyors of instant novelty from claiming otherwise.
From my November 6th essay.
Meeting with CEOs at the White House Tuesday, President Barack Obama says U.S. businesses are looking for quick passage of immigration reform as he pushes Congress to act by the end of the year. Obama, of course, has had little success getting the House to do the most basic of things and suffers from the bad roll-out of Obamacare, yet he says that “strange bedfellows” support comprehensive immigration reform. This of course is the new effort following the failure of the Bush/Kennedy/McCain immigration reform bid of 2006.
** NEW COLUMNS COMING UP … MEANING (IF ANY) OF TUESDAY’S ELECTIONS and MARVELS (AND NOT) OF OUR MARVELOUS CINEMATIC UNIVERSE.
** QUICK HITS. Governor Jerry Brown got another formal opponent today, with moderate former Republican Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado now joined by ultra-right state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly. The former Minuteman vigilante anti-illegal immigration zealot, who once tried to carry a loaded gun onto an airliner, attacks Maldonado as a fake Republican and Brown as having permissive prison policies (news to the failed prison hunger strikers) and a burdensome anti-business climate (news to the Chamber of Commerce, which saw virtually all of its “job-killer” bills defeated). … Donnelly, like Maldonado, has raised very little money. Brown has over $12 million in the bank and a big Hollywood fundraiser coming up shortly. … Donnelly, who from some angles resembles Walter White of Breaking Bad, had kept an Assembly re-elect campaign account going but says now he is closing it, going all in in his bid to make sure that a real Republican is Brown’s November opponent. … For his part, Brown presided last night at the re-opening of the recently restored 3rd floor of the historic Old Governor’s Mansion on the newly re-lighted grounds in mid-town Sacramento. The Brown family was the last to reside there, Nancy Reagan having found it to be too small and too accessible to the public street below.
** NEW SURVEY: ECONOMIC CONFIDENCE PLUNGED IN OCTOBER. A new Gallup Poll survey reveals that economic confidence in the US plunged in October, though it recovered a bit at the end of the month. Which means it’s nowhere near back up to where it was prior to its cause.
The federal government shutdown debacle.
Worse still, confidence in future prospects dropped twice as much as the assessment of the present.
Americans’ confidence in the U.S. economy sank for the month of October amid the partial U.S. government shutdown and partisan bickering over the federal debt limit. For the entire month, Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index was down 16 points, the sharpest monthly drop since Gallup began tracking economic confidence daily in 2008. Confidence improved after leaders in Washington reached a deal to end the shutdown, but it has not yet recovered to pre-shutdown levels. …
The index in October is the lowest for an entire month since it registered -38 in December 2011, as Americans’ confidence slowly recovered from the 2011 U.S. federal debt crisis and subsequent downgrading of the nation’s credit rating. Confidence is significantly worse than it was in May of this year, when it reached -7, its monthly peak. …
There were double-digit drops in confidence within all major demographic and socioeconomic groups in October, with every group more negative than positive toward the economy overall. Prior to the fiscal debates in October, confidence among blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and Democrats was in positive territory.
Confidence declined the most in October among Hispanics, those living in the West, and independents. At the other end of the spectrum, confidence slipped the least among those living in the East, adults aged 65 or older, and whites. …
An anti-climactic election day begins in America.
** OBAMA TUESDAY. President Barack Obama is in Washington and Maryland.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden received the intelligence and economic briefings and met with senior advisors in the Oval Office.
At 8:30 AM Pacific, Obama and Biden meet with business leaders in the Roosevelt Room. They are pushing for immigration law changes, reforms that looked a lot stronger at the beginning of the year before stalling out months ago.
At 9:30 AM Pacific, Obama and Biden meet for lunch in the Private Dining Room.
At 11:10 AM Pacific, Obama departs the White House on Marine One en route Bethesda, Maryland.
At 11:30 AM Pacific, Obama arrives at Bethesda, Maryland.
At 11:40 AM Pacific, Obama visits the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.
At 1:15 PM Pacific, Obama visits Fisher House in Bethesda.
At 2 PM Pacific, Obama departs Bethesda, Maryland on Marine One en route the White House.
At 2:10 PM Pacific, Obama lands on the South Lawn of the White House.
It’s a big election day today in the States of Virginia and New Jersey and in the City of New York.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the longtime Clinton operative, will reclaim the Virginia governorship for the Democrats.
Republican Chris Christie will be re-elected in a landslide to the New Jersey governorship, a boost for his nascent presidential candidacy.
Democrat Bill DeBlasio will reclaim the New York mayoralty for the Democrats in a landslide, replacing billionaire Republican-turned-independent Michael Bloomberg, at last termed out of office. Republican Rudy Giuliani reigned for two terms before Bloomberg’s three.
Military Crisis Zone Times: The Persian/Arabian Gulf is ten hours ahead of Pacific time, and Afghanistan is eleven and a half hours ahead of Pacific time. The time in Manila, on the South China Sea, is fifteen hours ahead of Pacific time.
** AFPAK: “ANOTHER FINE MESS” IN U.S. KILLING OF TALIBAN CHIEF READYING FOR PEACE TALKS? Is the U.S. assassination by drone strike of Hakimullah Mehsud, head of the Pakistani Taliban, yet “another fine mess” in America’s tangled interventions in Afghanistan and Pakistan? (With apologies to the Laurel and Hardy.)
Friday’s successful strike inside Pakistan yielded one of the highest-value targets, to use the jargon, yet bagged by the US drone program. Good shooting, yes. But good hunting? Quite another matter, it seems.
US drone strike policy again looks, at best, incoherent, and at worst, very counter-productive.
Three months after Secretary of State John Kerry said that US drone strikes in Pakistan were about to end, the biggest one yet went down. “We hope it’s going to be very, very soon,” Kerry said, when asked on August 1st by a Pakistani television station when the drone strikes would end. In reality, they never came close to ending.
In its aftermath, nobody seems very excited and happy about Friday’s American assassination of the Taliban chief — who of course was leading an armed uprising against the government — in Pakistan and any huzzahs in American circles have quickly gone hush-hush. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is angry because his government has been negotiating for a peace settlement with the Taliban.
As one might suppose, Hakimullah Mehsud’s death may just have killed the peace process. And it is leading to demands that the US forces withdrawing from Afghanistan via Pakistan travel elsewhere. Which could get complicated.
Prime Minister Sharif, in fact, who met with President Barack Obama late last month in Washington so the two countries could make better sense of their long-troubled alliance, had just announced earlier on Friday that his government was beginning talks in furtherance of a negotiated peace with the Pakistani Taliban.
Now that plan is thrown into turmoil. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, issued a statement saying the US is engaged in “a conspiracy to sabotage the peace talks.”
Mehsud was reportedly killed by the American drone strike just after he met with other senior Taliban leaders to discuss the peace initiative.
Why kill Mehsud in the first place? The Pakistani Taliban is focused on taking power in Pakistan, not on launching attacks on America.
Well, Mehsud was implicated in a suicide bombing at a CIA base in Afghanistan which killed seven CIA officers in December 2009. They had gathered to honor a man who said he was the physician to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s longtime number two and co-founder of Al Qaeda, then believed to be the terror network’s operational chief.
He turned out to be a triple agent.
He promised to provide the agency with its greatest in-place operative yet. But what he delivered was sudden death, in a brilliant sting operation that brought some of the CIA’s leading experts to the remote Afghan base. One even baked him a cake in celebration.
After investigating the disaster, the US, at CIA’s behest, put a $5 million bounty on Mehsud’s head. Which is understandable. The blast which devastated Forward Operating Base Chapman and wreaked havoc among the agency’s AfPak experts, also killing the Jordanian intelligence officer who accompanied Dr. Humam al-Balawi to the site, marked the greatest single loss of CIA personnel in decades.
Revenge, dressed up as retribution, has long been a part of warfare. Some might say it’s even at its core.
But all military operations have to take place in a geopolitical context.
We’ve been trying to get the Afghan Taliban to negotiate about Afghanistan’s future, even encouraging the establishment of a Taliban diplomatic office in Qatar. In fact, a big part of the rationale for Obama’s ill-starred escalation in Afghanistan was to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
More than 2,000 Americans have been killed in the Afghan War, killed by forces under the command of the folks we want to negotiate with. If we can sit down with the people who continue to kill our soldiers, why can’t we let the Pakistanis sit down with a guy who may have been involved with killing some of our spies?
Which again raises the question of why kill Mehsud when he is moving to the negotiating table with our troubled Pakistani allies? And on the very day that Pakistan’s prime minister — who, mind you, had met with Obama the week before in Washington to better coordinate thing — announced his government’s opening of negotiations with the Taliban?
The move not only seems out of context with what we ourselves have been trying to do, it plays like a slap in the face to the new Pakistani government, coming just three months after our secretary of state said the drone strikes were about to end.
Perhaps there is a good explanation for why Mehsud had to die just as he moved into peace negotiations, negotiations which may well have failed. But none has been forthcoming.
What is clear is that killing him on the very day of Sharif’s announcement is playing very badly in a country we’re trying to better relations with.
One wonders again, as has frequently been the case this year, who is thinking this stuff through from the standpoint of the overall.
From my November 4th column.
** FROM THE JERRY FILES – TUESDAY. Governor Jerry Brown is in Northern and Southern California.
Brown is taking part in the California State University Board of Trustees meeting at the California State University Office of the Chancellor in Long Beach.
No governor, and certainly not the Jerry of the ’70s and ’80s, has spent as much time participating on the boards of the two big California public university systems.
Board appointees, known as Regents with the UC system and Trustees with the CSU system, in some cases frequently develop the impression they have an expertise about higher education which they, well, don’t. It’s difficult for a governor to influence self-empowered appointees to such prestigious boards from the outside.
Click here for my compendium of articles laying out the re-emergence of Jerry Brown as governor of California.
Click here for my compendium of articles providing a narrative of his governorship.
India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, the country’s first interplanetary foray, blasted off today from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India. India launched its first spacecraft ‘Mangalyaan’ to Mars on Tuesday, a test of the emerging Asian nation’s low-cost technology that could help it join a small club of space agencies to have explored the red planet. The 4.5 billion-rupee (USD 73 million) Mars Orbiter Mission blasted off from the southeastern coast on Tuesday afternoon. If successful, the satellite will take about 300 days to reach Mars and will search for methane in the Martian atmosphere. Only the United States, Europe, and Russia have so far successfully sent probes that have orbited or landed on Mars.
** CHINA AMPS UP THE SOFT POWER IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA WHILE WASHINGTON SHOWS THE FLAG. … From my October 31st essay.
** FEINSTEIN, MCCAIN GET OFF THE NSA BUS. …
From my October 29th essay.
** JERRY BROWN HEADS EAST, TALKS WEST. … From my October 25th essay.
** LIBERATED LIBYA AT 2: THREE BIG QUESTIONS TO ANSWER BEFORE FUTURE INTERVENTIONS. … From my October 23rd essay.
** ASSANGE AND ARNOLD: A DASH OF POLITICS AT THE MOVIES. … From my October 21st essay.
** DISTRACTIONS AND CONFIDENCE: THE ROT OF THE PRESENT, THE ROOT IN THE PAST. … From my October 16th essay.
** AH, ABOUT THOSE SPECIAL OPS RAIDS. … From my October 12th essay.
** AMIDST ALL THE ENCOMIUMS FOR HIS RECORD-SETTING TENURE, IT CAN NOW BE REVEALED: JERRY BROWN’S ONLY FATAL VULNERABILITY FOR RE-ELECTION. … From my October 7th essay.
** THE SHUTDOWN CREW TAKES A BIG BITE OUT OF U.S. GEOPOLITICS. … From my October 4th column.
The latest installment in Marvel’s increasingly involved cinematic universe, Thor: The Dark World, opens wide across North America on Friday. It’s already a big hit in international markets. This is the seventh film in the series to come out since Iron Man kicked it all off little more than five years ago in what turned out to be the incredibly successful build-up to last year’s The Avengers.
** FROM GOVERNATOR TO MOONBEAM. … From my January 3rd, 2011 feature.
** OBAMA: RIDING WITH HISTORY. (NOTE: As Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States, this column was the featured column on the top of the front page of the Huffington Post.) … From my January 19th, 2009 Huffington Post column.
** 24/7 LIVE TV NEWS FEED FROM AL JAZEERA. With the US entangled in major military operations in the region, and the Arab awakening underway, it’s valuable to keep up with news and perspectives from the leading Middle Eastern-based TV news network. Click here for a live TV news feed on your computer. The NWN live link to AJ does not constitute an endorsement of the channel’s views. It’s presented as an otherwise unavailable new media window.
** TRACK GLOBAL AND NATIONAL ENERGY PRICES IN NEAR REAL TIME VIA BLOOMBERG ENERGY MARKET WATCH. Having crashed over $147 for yet another record on July 11th, 2008, crude oil is trading around $93 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. This is up about $59 from the low of $34 per barrel prior to enactment of the Obama economic recovery program, reflecting a low point in global economic activity, and down about $21 per barrel from the price at the time of the Osama bin Laden raid.
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