2008 - %3, September

McCain and bin Laden

| Tue Sep. 30, 2008 10:59 AM PDT

McCAIN AND BIN LADEN....Our story so far: Barack Obama says that if he had actionable intelligence about Osama bin Laden's whereabouts in Pakistan, he'd take him out. John McCain says that's naive and reckless. Then, a couple of days ago while ordering a cheesesteak, Sarah Palin jumped in and said she'd take him out too. Huh? So on Monday Katie Couric asked the two of them whether Palin had gone off the reservation. Answer: that's a silly gotcha question. The issue isn't whether McCain/Palin take out bin Laden, it's whether they'd say that they're willing to take out bin Laden. "Never would our administration get out there and show our cards to terrorists," Palin said, "in this case to enemy, and let them know what the game plan is."

Got that? They'd do it, but they'd never publicly say they were going to do it. But Judah Grunstein points us to this interview with McCain from a year ago:

Q: So if you were president and you knew that bin Laden were over there, you had a target spotting, you could nail him, you'd go get him?

McCain: Sure. Sure. We have to, and I'm sure that after the initial flurry, that whoever our friends are, wherever he is, would be relieved because, as I mentioned to you before, he's still very effective in the world, very, very effective.

So long ago, before all of this nonsense hit the campaign trail, McCain himself was saying the exact same thing as Obama: if we knew where bin Laden was, of course we'd take him out — and then pick up the pieces afterward. Needless to say, this will come as no surprise to the government of Pakistan, which has never been under any illusions about this. (And neither have the terrorists, regardless of what Palin burbles about it.) But it's a useful attack line for McCain, so I guess we'll keep hearing it.

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Mission Creep Dispatch: Peter Beck

| Tue Sep. 30, 2008 10:46 AM PDT

beck.jpgAs part of our special investigation "Mission Creep: US Military Presence Worldwide," we asked a host of military thinkers to contribute their two cents on topics relating to global Pentagon strategy. (You can access the archive here.)

The following dispatch comes from Korea expert Peter Beck, who teaches at American University in Washington, DC, and Yonsei University in Seoul.

Does South Korea Still Need GI Joe?

Strolling down the wide, grass-lined street, after passing the Burger King on the left and the convenience store on the right, you would be forgiven for thinking you are in Iowa, but the Yongsan Garrison is in the geographic heart of one of the most densely populated cities in the world: Seoul. Picture putting walls up around Central Park and handing it over to the German army.

SOFA Update

| Tue Sep. 30, 2008 10:23 AM PDT

SOFA UPDATE....Nouri al-Maliki tells AP that (a) a security agreement with the United States is critical, and (b) legal jurisdiction is the biggest remaining hurdle:

The most important hanging issue here is the immunity or the legal jurisdiction over the American troops because certain powers, political powers inside Iraq are getting ready to use this issue once it's — if it's — approved, as a vehicle to overthrow, to destabilize the entire political system in Iraq, to destabilize the government. They would use it as a vehicle to re-ignite public feelings inside the country.

We have proposed that the legal jurisdiction would be on one hand, on one side, with the Americans ... when the troops are performing military operations. When they are not performing a military operation, they are outside their camps, the legal jurisdiction would be in the hands of the Iraqi judiciary.

Translation: if we don't get civil jurisdiction over U.S. troops, the government will fall. It's too much of a hot button issue for guys like, oh, Muqtada al-Sadr, just to pick a name out of a hat.

This actually seems pretty doable to me. The trick is to write language that appears to give Iraq jurisdiction over soldiers who aren't performing military missions, but then define "military mission" in a way that effectively prevents Iraqi police from issuing anything more important than a parking ticket to U.S. troops. This would be accompanied by a tacit agreement with Maliki that they won't force the issue by ever actually arresting an American soldier in the first place.

Of course, if that's all there were to it, we'd already have an agreement. Still, it's hard to imagine that this issue can't be finessed fairly easily.

Why a Democrats-Only Bailout Bill Won't Fly

| Tue Sep. 30, 2008 10:18 AM PDT

Now that I've noted the progressive goals for the next bailout bill, let me add that it's unlikely a Democrats-only bill, loaded with those very same progressive goals, is likely to pass. And it's because of conservative Dems. Ezra Klein makes the case:

The defecting Democrats look to be Blue Dogs -- which is to say, somewhat conservative, generally vulnerable, Democrats -- and members of the Black and Hispanic caucuses. A more liberal bill might get the latter two. It will lose 90 Republican votes. It won't get the Blue Dogs. And you'll lose a few dozen more Democrats who needed the bipartisan cover. My hunch is leadership is relying on market chaos to turn a few votes and trying to figure out the mixture of cosmetic changes and superficial giveaways that will push them over the finish line.

Which is to say, despite the intelligent commentary that suggests a radically different approach to the bailout bill might be wise, there's a relatively small chance we will get a radically different bill. We're more likely to get a bill that the House leadership has tinkered with enough — throwing in a progressive goal here, adding an earmark/sweetner there — to get 15 more votes.

Kevin Drum Wants You for the Bailout, But Consider This First

| Tue Sep. 30, 2008 10:01 AM PDT

Kevin urges readers to call members of Congress and tell them to vote for the $700 billion bailout bill. In an earlier posting, he explained why he favors the plan. But before readers pick up the phone, they might want to read what Mother Jones contributor Nomi Prims says about the bailout. Or what Mother Jones contributor James Galbraith has to say. Or what economist Dean Baker has to say.

Baker notes,

Almost every economist I know rejects the Paulson approach and argues instead for directly injecting capital into the banks. The taxpayers give them the money and then we own some, or all, of the bank. (That's what Warren Buffet did with Goldman Sachs.)
This isn't about begging for a sliver of equity as a concession for a $700 billion bailout, this is about constructing a bank rescue the way that business people would do it. We have an interest in a well-operating financial system. There is zero public interest in giving away taxpayer dollars to the Wall Street banks and their executives.
If Secretary Paulson constructed a package that was centered around buying direct equity stakes in the banks, he could quickly garner large majority support in both houses. Better yet, Congress could just construct its own package centered on buying equity stakes and send it to President Bush. If he balks, we can just threaten him with stories about the Great Depression.

The Lehman Bankruptcy

| Tue Sep. 30, 2008 9:59 AM PDT

THE LEHMAN BANKRUPTCY....Henry Paulson (and the Bush White House in general) handled the politics of the bailout bill poorly. But Ezra Klein says another factor is even more important:

Paulson's political mismanagement doesn't much surprise me. He's not a politician....It was his economic mismanagement that requires closer scrutiny. 15 days ago, he was presented with a crucial choice: Do you let Lehmnn fall into bankruptcy and create a market panic? Or do you save it and risk insulating Wall Street from the consequences of its actions? Timothy Geitner, the head of the New York Federal Reserve, warned that you had to save Lehman; the market couldn't endure that sort of uncertainty. Paulson disagreed. Lehman fell. It was the biggest bankruptcy in history. Within days, AIG, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan were swallowed by the chaos. It was arguably the costliest mistake in the crisis, and it was Hank Paulson's fault.

That's true. But the funny thing is that I don't think this really played a role in the events of the past week. The Lehman bankruptcy may have been a consensus disaster — even defenders of the decision are only willing to argue that maybe it was a necessary test case — but nobody really seems to be blaming Paulson for this. Maybe behind the scenes they are, but in public it's rarely even mentioned.

I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because a lot of people at the time seemed to agree that it was time to stop bailing out banks. Maybe it's because everyone knows there was no political support for propping up Lehman. I don't know. But I'd sure be interested in seeing a tick-tock of the events that led up to Paulson's decision. I've seen a couple of good pieces about the aftermath of the Lehman bankruptcy, but not much about the couple of days before it. Anybody know of one?

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Even Somali Pirates Have Flacks

| Tue Sep. 30, 2008 9:54 AM PDT

The New York Times has managed to interview a "spokesman" for the band of Somali pirates who sparked an international incident last week by hijacking a Ukrainian cargo ship laden with Soviet-made tanks, artillery shells, rocket-propelled grenades, and assorted ammo. Speaking by satellite phone from the bridge of the Faina, which has been surrounded by US naval vessels off the coast of Somalia, the spokesman, Sugule Ali, told the Times that his compatriots were not interested in selling off their haul to ne'erdowells, as many in the international community have feared. "We don't want these weapons to go to anyone in Somalia," he said. "Somalia has suffered from many years of destruction because of all these weapons. We don't want that suffering and chaos to continue. We are not going to offload the weapons. We just want the money." Twenty million dollars to be specific, though Ali suggested the hijackers are willing to negotiate.

The pirates apparently view themselves as some type of vigilante Coast Guard (they call themselves the "Central Region Coast Guard") that patrols for boats "who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas," and Sugule said they plan to any prospective ransom proceeds to "protect ourselves from hunger." He added later, "We're not afraid of arrest or death or any of these things. For us, hunger is our enemy."

A Democratic Voice Speaks Against the Bailout

| Tue Sep. 30, 2008 9:22 AM PDT

Yesterday, I noted that despite very plausible arguments to the contrary, I still believe that genuine ideological opposition was the reason the bailout garnered so many no votes on the far right and far left of Congress. TNR grabbed an example of that ideological opposition on the left, and I want to reproduce it here. It's from Lynn Woolsey, a liberal congresswoman from California:

"Where is the comprehensive economic stimulus package that will assist 95 percent of the taxpayers — a package that includes unemployment benefits, food stamps, infrastructure investment, and of course, foreclosure relief? Stability should come from the bottom up. We need an economic package that will allow those in foreclosure to pay their mortgages and stay in their homes, bringing value back to the mortgage-backed securities that are clogging the financial system. Why isn't Wall Street paying for the mess they created? By reinstating a one quarter of 1 percent surcharge on stock trades, we could raise nearly $150 billion a year from those who have actually caused this mess and profited from it. Finally, question three: With only three months left of this current Administration, why are we willing to even make available $700 billion to them? President Bush and Secretary Paulson have been wrong from the start on just about everything. If you think they will be responsible with this money, think again."

I should note that Woolsey's arguments here are distinct from the arguments of economists who object to the bill on structural grounds. (David cites several.) Those economists believe that there are other mechanisms by which the financial crisis can be addressed that would work better and more fairly. Woolsey's objection, fundamentally, is that not enough progressive goals are being crammed into the bill, at a time when those progressive goals are sorely needed and unlikely to encounter fierce opposition.

And her goals are hard to argue with. Unemployment benefits? Infrastructure investments? Foreclosure relief? These are things America needs. I'm not sure I would seriously delay the bailout in order to achieve them, and they could be addressed by the next president, who may well be a Democrat operating with large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. But if rank-and-file Republicans are going to hold the bill hostage to gain traction for their priorities, why shouldn't rank-and-file Democrats?

Third Long-Form Obama Ad Released: Boring, and That's the Point

| Tue Sep. 30, 2008 8:59 AM PDT

Obama is continuing his run of long-form TV ads in which he speaks directly to the camera about the financial crisis — his third effort clocks in at two minutes long. Here are ads one and two.

Take a look at the link above. I tuned out at 0:42. When did you tune out? (Believe me, you'll tune out.) I'm starting to believe that tuning out is the point. The other day I was watching TV with a friend when one of the earlier long-form Obama ads came on. We were about halfway through when my friend yelled at the television in frustration, "Okay, I get it! You know what you're talking about!"

And that was with the volume turned down.

Obama is presenting himself as the boring choice in this financial crisis. To the extent that boring correlates with responsible, adult, and steady, Obama wins. And with Obama's poll numbers looking the way they are, that appears to be a correlation worth betting on.

David Brooks and the Magic of Redefinitions

| Tue Sep. 30, 2008 8:16 AM PDT

Kevin has his thoughts on the new David Brooks column. I want to highlight a passage he didn't address. Here's Brooks:

What we need in this situation is authority. Not heavy-handed government regulation, but the steady and powerful hand of some public institutions that can guard against the corrupting influences of sloppy money and then prevent destructive contagions when the credit dries up.

Huh, that's funny. "The steady and powerful hand of some public institutions that can guard against the corrupting influences of sloppy money and then prevent destructive contagions when the credit dries up" — what does that sound like to you? Sounds an awful lot like "regulation" to me.

(H/T Merrill Goozner)