Friday, April 29, 2011

Very interesting...

No sooner did I post my wish for the demilitarization of David Petraeus than the Obama administration stepped up to grant it. Even though nobody in the punditocracy is interpreting the general's move to the CIA in the light I presented it a few days ago — they honestly couldn't now, could they? — I'm hoping the groundwork is set for a more efficient withdrawal from Afghanistan than we've been led to expect.

A new military assessment claims that seven — count 'em, seven — provinces now can be taken over "successfully" by the Afghan military. Our military drawdown is scheduled to start this summer, shortly after the US leadership shuffle takes place, and it may be that more provinces will be added to the list by then — no matter what actually is happening on the ground. In addition to the Petraeus transfer, the rest of the shuffle looks promising as well.

Robert Gates did a fine job of de-escalating the craziness of Donald Rumsfeld, and I sincerely wish him a pleasant retirement. I think he probably has the grace to keep his face off the cable news networks and spend his time enjoying golf or gardening or grandchildren or whatever. Leon Panetta should be a fine replacement — politically astute, low key, and not seeking further advancement. He should do quite well deflecting criticism from Congressional hawks as he explains how we actually "won" the longest war in our history.

Scarcely anybody outside top military brass seem to know anything about Lt. General John Allen, and one only can hope it stays that way. He doesn't seem like the kind of guy to revel in press conferences, so he's probably a fine choice to take the lead in Afghanistan. It's time for the civilian leaders to reassert power over the military, and Allen is unlikely to stand in the way.

As for Petraeus, he can have the pleasure of continuing to piss off the ISI by lobbing drone-borne bombs at Haqqani network bases in Pakistan. He and the Haqqanis deserve each other, and Predator strikes are about all the CIA is (moderately) good at these days. As an intelligence gathering agency, they've been pretty useless for the past decade or so. (I wonder what the CIA assessment of Gadaffi's ability to hang on in Libya looked like.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan...

Afghanistan finally made it back into the news today, and all it took was the escape of nearly five hundred Taliban fighters from the Kandahar prison. Kandahar, you'll recall, is that "former" Taliban stronghold where US troops and their Afghan allies have been doing so "well" lately.

A photograph in the New York Times shows a hole about three feet across, through which the nearly five hundred men escaped Monday night. Even if nobody happened to notice five months of construction to build the tunnel — complete with electric lighting and air vents — one wonders how so many prisoners managed to queue up and disappear down the rabbit hole without a guard or two wondering what was going on. Apparently all the Taliban fighters were held in some common area, not locked in individual cells. It seems, to me, at least, a very odd way to imprison presumably dangerous men.

Afghanistan, of course, is monumentally corrupt — and corruption certainly must have played a role in the great escape, just as it plays a role in everything else that has to do with US support for the Karzai government. For some reason, though, US officials, both military and diplomatic, refuse to accept that if you can't trust your "allies" — the people for whom you are spilling lots of blood and spending vast amounts of money — there is no chance of "victory."

Since the start of the Obama "surge," death rates for NATO troops and Afghan civilians have spiked. Parts of the country occupied at great cost suddenly lose their "strategic importance," and are abandoned to the Taliban as the troops that took them are withdrawn to fight in some new, "strategically important" area. Most Americans, tired of hearing more of the same news from Afghanistan over and over, have tuned out — but if you ask them, most say we should just pull out of the country and let the Afghans sort things out for themselves.

What keeps a poll-driven administration from recognizing the will of the people, declaring victory, and just getting the hell out?

One factor, of course, is the political power of the military contractors who are making fortunes producing all the crap we are flushing down the Afghan toilet. The other is General David Petreaus.

Petraeus has cleverly positioned himself as the heroic military genius who may never be criticized. Whatever his alleged skill in the field of anti-insurgency, his talent for self-promotion and public relations is unsurpassed. Whenever there is any sign of movement to end our involvement in Afghanistan, Petreaus takes to the media to tell us all how, thanks to his personal genius, victory is just around the corner.

Obama can't control him, so it seems the only way to get the US out of Afghanistan is to get Petreaus out first. An opportunity to do so may arise when the CIA Director's position falls vacant, giving the president an opportunity to "promote" the thorn in his side straight out of the military. I'm sure the general's anti-insurgency "expertise" will be just as "useful" at the spy agency as it has been on the battlefield.

Then, just maybe, command of the war in Afghanistan can be put in the hands of somebody willing to bring the troops home.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Standard and Poors Downgrades Congress

A couple of days ago, Standard & Poors announced that there is a one in three chance that it will downgrade US debt from its customary AAA rating within the next two years. The bond market barely flickered, indicating that nobody who mattered was terribly concerned. Granted, S&P's reputation for accurate evaluation of risk suffered somewhat in 2008, but the real reason for the collective yawn was that bond traders understood the announcement was a political rather than an economic statement.

(Yes, the stock market took a bit of a dive following the announcement as the amateurs panicked, but it rapidly recovered. One might be curious to know just who was shorting the most volatile stocks just prior to the S&P pronouncement.)

So, what was the political point S&P wanted to make? In the words of the shop teacher from South Park, "Hey, you kids! Quit messing around!"

More than anything else, Wall Street values stability — especially since it has shown itself to be so inept at risk management. While nobody in his or her right mind believes the US ever would default on its debt, S&P probably thinks there might be enough idiots in Congress to create instability by playing politics with the debt ceiling right up until the last minute. If the rest of the world gets to thinking that our government is approaching critical mass for idiocy, US debt markets — private as well as public — could suffer.

A statement similar to S&P's was sent by the bond trader PIMCO earlier this year, when it announced it no longer would be purchasing US debt, thereby implying distrust of government. The real reason PIMCO is getting out of the market for government debt is that is pays such low interest — specifically because it is so very safe an investment.

Look a little deeper, though, and there may be cause for concern. S&P issued virtually identical statements — twice — with regard to UK debt. It is widely believed that those "devaluations" helped elect the Cameron government, and encouraged the current British austerity program.

Would Wall Street prefer a compromise closer to the Ryan proposal than to the Obama proposal for debt reduction? Well, S&P speaks for a lot of very wealthy individuals. What do you think?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Obama on Deficit Reduction

Okay, he threw a hefty wad against the wall. Now we have to wait and see how much of it sticks.

To me, the best part of yesterday's speech was the commitment to let the Bush tax cuts expire — presumably including the possibility that middle class taxes also will increase. Personally, I don't think a middle class tax increase would be all that awful. Granted, there is not quite so much middle class as there once was, but what the hell... most of the people who think of themselves as "middle" wouldn't be out more than a couple of hundred a year. Too bad for McDonalds, WalMart, etc.

The worst part of yesterday's speech was the continued assumption that Obamacare would reduce health care costs. The only sensible way to reduce health care costs is to remove the profits enjoyed by private insurance companies. Given that Obama is an unrepentant Clintonista, we won't be hearing anything from him about Medicare for All.

While Obama's speech was more aggressive than I expected, we won't know what any of the rhetoric — generally seen by the news media as "the first speech of the campaign season" — genuinely means in terms of action for a while.

I would love to be surprised.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Obama on the Debt Ceiling

The president announced a speech for tomorrow in which he is expected to offer his plan for reducing the deficit, in the teeth of Republican demands for more blood from the American working classes as a condition for approving an increase in the debt ceiling. As always, the announcement comes with promises of "bipartisan" appeal, but given that the result of failure to raise the debt ceiling would be economic catastrophe, the Republican threat is hollow.

To date, every time Obama promised to be "bipartisan," he followed up with a Grand Canyon sized cave-in to Republican demands, which in turn was followed by greater cave-ins as he proceeded to "compromise" from his weak starting position. If he thinks this is the only way to win himself a second term — appealing to so-called "centrists" in an attempt to appear "reasonable" — maybe he ought to pay a little more attention to what, in a previous administration, was called the "wimp factor." Americans don't like to be led by a shrinking violet, afraid to offend anybody at all.

The first rule of negotiations is to lower the opponent's expectations by demanding absolutely everything on one's wish list. The Republicans do it every time, Obama never. I'll be very pleased if this time, at least, he follows this most basic rule. I'll also be very surprised.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

Back in 1984, Mario Cuomo delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic convention. In it, he articulated what used to be the basic values of the Democratic party. I like to listen to that speech at least once a year, to remind myself that, once upon a time, Democrats shared my values.

I have a fantasy in which I take Barack Obama prisoner, prop open his eyes with those mechanical things so popular in the B movies of twenty to thirty years ago, and force him to listen until at least some of it sinks in. That won't be happening, of course, but I provide the following video for the edification of any of you who have seven minutes or so to spare, plus, perhaps, a little extra time to mourn what we have lost.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Ryan Budget

The 2012 budget proposed by Paul Ryan has received a good deal of press attention for its audacity, with many comments on how "politically risky" it is. Well, it ought to be risky — in point of fact, it ought to bring the Republican party crashing down in the 2012 elections — but Republicans don't seem all that concerned. Once again, they are counting on the overwhelming economic ignorance and the pathetic intellectual laziness of the American people.

Yes, they want to bring the top tax rate for the rich all the way down to 25%, and the deductions they plan to eliminate are those most beneficial to the middle class. The cuts they propose have an inordinate impact on the poor, children, and the elderly. Don't even bother to ask about the estate tax. As usual, their policy advances the further transfer of wealth to the very rich from everybody else.

Are Americans really stupid and lazy enough to buy into it?

Maybe. Well, probably, especially since the Democrats are not likely to make significant efforts to educate and motivate them. The president wants to amass a billion dollars for his 2012 campaign, and given his penchant for pissing off his base over the past two years, he'll have to get almost all of it from Wall Street and other big donors. Watch for some of his signature "compromises," and be ready to put your fingers down your throat.