David Corn

David Corn

Washington Bureau Chief

Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.

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All Quiet in Benghazi...for Now

An eyewitness report.

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 5:54 PM EST

I just spoke to a friend's husband who is in Benghazi. He's Libyan, works there and in Europe, and his family is in this city, the second largest in the Libya. He asks that I don't use his name—because Muammar Qaddafi is not gone yet (and though he'll eventually return to Europe, his relatives won't). He reports:

* Benghazi is quiet and safe. Shops and banks—though not schools—were open today. He had no trouble driving throughout the city. "Everybody's fine," he says. I'ts very safe... Unbelievably. Nobody is afraid of Qaddafi like before."

* The Internet is not functioning in the city. International phone service is sketchy. Many residents are receiving and watching Al Jazeera.

* The city is being governed by an ad hoc assortment of military people, police, past government officials, and groups of citizens.

* There is a major fear shared by the residents of Benghazi: that Qaddafi will launch an air assault on the city. My friend's husband notes that the military guarding the city does not possess anti-aircraft guns. He says that because Qaddafi was distrustful of this region, he did not supply the military based there with large amounts of weaponry. "We cannot fight back against an air attack," he says.

* The residents of Benghazi have been trying to follow what's happening in Tripoli. "I was able to talk to a friend in Tripoli," he notes. "He told me, 'It's hell in Tripoli. There's shooting everywhere. Qaddafi's mafia is shooting people everywhere in the city.'"

He's hopeful that the violence in Libya—a friend of his was shot and killed in Benghazi—will soon be over and Qaddafi gone. "In a couple of days," he says, "everything will be finished."

Obama's Budget: Back to the Future...Again

The president's proposed budget is not about today's economic woes.

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 3:59 PM EST

Winning the Future—that's the new watchword of the Obama White House. It was the core message of President Obama's recent State of the Union address, and it's the motto for the federal budget the administration has just released. But what about the here and now?

At a White House press conference on Monday afternoon, Jacob Lew, Obama's budget director, briefed several dozen reporters on the ins and outs of the budget. His major sales pitch was that the budget prudently saves money (by reducing deficits by $1.1 trillion over the next ten years) and wisely invests money (by increasing spending on education and R&D). Lew's tag line: "we can live within our means and…we can invest in our future." He said that several times.

There were plenty of questions from the assembled reporters about the administration's calculations, about baselines, about the president's reluctance to propose cost-savings in Social Security. (Lew noted that Social Security is not contributing to the nation's deficits at this point and that this is "not an urgent moment" regarding the public retirement program.) Not many questions, though, were aimed at how the Obama administration's proposed budget will directly affect Americans now contending with the country's economic troubles.

A reporter from the Boston Globe did inquire why the administration proposes to invest in wireless internet technology while cutting $2.5 billion or so from the program that provides heating assistance to the poor and elderly. In other words, do seniors and low-income Americans have to freeze next winter so the administration can spend billions on a wireless initiative? Lew noted that this spending reduction was "a very hard cut." He explained that the heating-assistance program (known by the acronym LIHEAP) doubled in size after energy prices spiked in 2008 and should not continue at that level. He added that he had helped create this program years ago, when he worked for House Speaker Tip O'Neill, and that it was designed to be a grant program, not an entitlement program, meaning the feds each year are supposed to figure out each year how much they can afford to hand to cash-strapped states. And the wireless initiative, he said, is part of the administration's crucial winning-the-future agenda. Lew did look pained to be rationalizing this particular cut.

Minutes later, I posed a similar, but broader, question. Noting that the administration was wrapping up the budget with its win-the-future rhetoric, I asked, if one of the millions of unemployed Americans were to look at this budget, what might he or she see that would provide direct assistance in the near-term? Lew replied by first pointing to the December tax-cut deal Obama struck with congressional Republicans, noting that it extended unemployment benefits. He referred to that agreement as a "very important backdrop" to the White House's proposed budget.

But what about the proposed budget itself? Lew cited the billions of dollars in spending increases for infrastructure, noting that the administration was looking for projects that could start quickly, "with a an eye to creating immediate opportunity." He didn't say much more about immediate job-creation.

It seems the administration has concluded that after that tax-cut deal—which did amount to something of a second stimulus—there is not much else the White House can do via government spending (or tax cuts) to create jobs, especially with Republicans controlling the House. A recovery—though anemic—is underway. (At the press conference, Austan Goolsbee, the chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, noted that economic growth tends to average 4.2 percent in the five years following a reception, but the White House is forecasting only 3.8 percent growth in the current post-recession period.) But the president and his aides appear to be holding on to the hope that this recovery will make the next year or two (until Election Day 2012) sufficiently less awful than the past two and yield a political environment amenable for reelection.

Thus, the focus on the future, rather than job-creation right now. (Perhaps Obama should swipe the Bill Clinton theme song that featured the chorus: "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow.") It is good policy to be looking ahead. Such a stance also directs political attention from the economic difficulties of today, which might indeed be beyond the president's reach. Yet all of this looking ahead is unlikely to offer solace to folks out of work at this moment. Will they appreciate that Obama is trying to nudge the slow-to-change economy in a better direction, as he faces harsh challenge from Republicans, who these days have one thing in mind: slash  the government? And Will their appreciation—or lack thereof—be a factor in the next election?

The consensus of White House reporters is that the proposed budget, like most, is a political document that was chiefly designed to give Obama the best shot at winning reelection next year. True or not, until then, there won't be any telling if Obama's emphasis on the future is good for his own.

Why the Egypt Uprising is Bad News for Islamic Extremists

Because it shows democratic and secular protests produce results better than fundamentalism.

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 12:39 PM EST

Glenn Beck conservatives and less-nutty observers of the Middle East have worried that the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings could end up leading to much instability—and trouble—throughout the region. But Thomas Lippman, a former Washington Post reporter who is now adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, sees reason for optimism. He recently posted the below note on a listserv for Middle East experts:

It is certainly understandable that the events in Egypt and Tunisia would inspire a great deal of concern, and a lot of alarmist commentary, about the possible negative effects on the rest of the region. It seems to me that there is a positive side to these developments—aside from sheer jubilation over the downfall of autocrats—that might be worth examining in this forum.

The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated decisively that the quest for freedom and the people's aspirations for liberty can be satisfied by a secular, non-religious movement—and they cannot be satisfied by movements based on religious extremism, intolerance or violence. Consider the difference between what happened in Egypt this week and what happened when Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula tried to rouse the people of Saudi Arabia to rebellion in the name of Islam. The secular movement succeeded, the religious one failed because it did not promise liberty, it promised the absence of liberty.

The jihadists and extremists who have been telling their compatriots for years that the salafi path to liberty is the only path have been shown to be completely wrong. The spontaneous people power of secular uprisings has toppled two regimes in a month. How many regimes have the Islamists toppled? There is no indication that the demands of the crowds in Tahrir Square included restoration of the Caliphate.

The monarchical regimes of the region,and especially those of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, may have many political liabilities, but the popular appeal of jihadist sentiment should no longer be one of them. It is a path not to freedom but to oppression, and everyone from Pakistan to Morocco can now see that—including the people of Iran.

In other words, there is a battle of ideas in the region, and the evildoers are not faring well.

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