Kevin Drum

Obama and the Muslim World

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 12:30 PM EDT

From Barack Obama, explaining the value of diplomacy and talk:

“What I do believe is that if we are engaged in speaking directly to the Arab street, and they are persuaded that we are operating in a straightforward manner, then, at the margins, both they and their leadership are more inclined and able to work with us....And if there are a bunch of 22- and 25-year-old men and women in Cairo or in Lahore who listen to a speech by me or other Americans and say: ‘I don’t agree with everything they are saying, but they seem to know who I am or they seem to want to promote economic development or tolerance or inclusiveness,’ then they are maybe a little less likely to be tempted by a terrorist recruiter.”

This is exactly the right formulation, and gives the lie to the endless cavalcade of right-wingers who like to pretend that Obama is some kind of foreign policy naif who's convinced he can persuade the world's terrorists and despots into laying down their arms by the power of sweet talk alone.  As he's made clear many times before, though, he's not.  He knows perfectly well that what he's doing will take a lot of time and will work, at best, "at the margins."  It will reduce the recruiting power of terrorists a bit, it will reduce the intransigence of Middle Eastern governments a bit, and it will reduce the general hatred of American foreign policy a bit.  But add up the bits over several years, and they can make a real difference.

Still, there's no question it's a long-term project.  A recent PIPA poll, for example, shows that the Egyptian public is way more enthusiastic about Obama than about Bush.  But click the link for more and you'll see that their view of U.S. goals in the Middle East is every bit as negative as it's ever been.  This is going to be the work of many, many years.

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Reid and Sotomayor

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 12:05 PM EDT

Harry Reid says he's never read one of Sonia Sotomayor's opinions and hopes he never does.  But she's a great choice anyway!  Conor Friedersdorf laments:

Unsurprising but depressing! As Gene Healy’s cult of the presidency continues apace, it is equally remarkable that the legislative branch so often seems unable or unwilling to carry out basic functions [prescribed] by the Constitution. This is a lifetime appointment! And Harry Reid feels comfortable consenting to it having read less of Judge Sotomayor’s work than I have?

Is this fair?  It seems to me that judicial opinions are generally pretty technical pieces of work that are hard to analyze without a fair amount of relevant expertise — and that's true even for someone like Reid, who has a law degree.  Most of us, then, as we do with other technical subjects, primarily rely on the judgment of legal experts rather than fruitlessly trying to read the primary literature in order to develop our own amateur conclusions.  Senators, who deal with hundreds of different topics and are accustomed to relying on their staffs to provide expert analysis, probably do this even more than most of us.

When senators decline to read reports on big issues that are specifically written to be understood by laymen, they deserve some flack.  But not here.  I don't think Reid is doing anything unreasonable.

Healthcare Costs

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 11:38 AM EDT

Yesterday the blogosphere was crammed with charts showing that if the rise in healthcare costs is reduced by 1.5 percentage points a year, then long-term healthcare costs would be a lot lower than current projections.  That's hard to argue with, but what I kept wondering is, how are healthcare costs going to be reduced 1.5 percentage points a year?  The Council of Economic Advisers produced the charts, so Ezra Klein asked CEA chair Christina Romer about this:

It's not really something we looked at in the report. The report asks "if we manage to attain cost savings, what will it do to the economy?" We didn't look so much at the mechanisms that would bring those savings about. It was more about what health reform can do. I didn't get too much into the literature of how coverage could control costs. That's another project for the CEA to take on!

Well, OK.  I'm still a little confused about what the point is here, since I thought everyone was already largely in agreement that controlling the growth of healthcare costs would be a fine thing indeed.  It's how to do it that generates the controversy.  So I guess I'm still not entirely sure what the point of this exercise was.

Wall Street Loves Banks Again

| Tue Jun. 2, 2009 9:14 PM EDT

A few days ago I wrote that I was hopelessly confused about what was going on with the economy.  Here's Exhibit A: I thought it was a fantasy to expect banks to raise lots of private capital after the stress tests were completed, but apparently I was wildly, spectacularly wrong:

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley, American Express Co. and regional bank KeyCorp said Tuesday they sold a combined $8.7 billion in common stock. That pushed the total value of shares sold by the 19 financial firms that were stress-tested by the government to at least $65 billion since the results were announced May 7.

Nonguaranteed debt sales and the conversion of preferred shares to common stock have generated roughly another $20 billion, for a total of $85 billion or more, giving most of the banks considerably more capital than U.S. regulators have required them to amass as they ride out the recession. Money is pouring in so fast that surprised bankers can hardly believe it, especially since most investors didn't want to go near financial stocks just three months ago, even though they were nearly 40% cheaper.

"It's easy to raise capital now," one executive at a bank that recently raised capital through a public stock offering said Tuesday. Investors are "happy to gobble it up."

I dunno.  I continue to think that there are a lot of trouble signs for the economy, with further shocks still to come.  If I had to pick the most likely one, I'd say Eastern Europe, but really, there are a dozen candidates.  Overall, I'm with the unnamed "executive at a New York bank" who thinks investors are chasing after any tidbit of good news even though the financial system remains fragile.  "A bucket of cold water will be thrown in people's faces," he says.

Still, there sure are a lot of people who disagree and are willing to put their money where their mouths are.  I hope they're right but I fear they're wrong.  There are just too many imbalances left in the global economy, too many writedowns yet to come, and no obvious place for sustained consumer demand to come from.  Caveat emptor.

I Am Officially Old

| Tue Jun. 2, 2009 6:14 PM EDT

I just got back from the optometrist with my first pair of bifocals.  (Thanks, Ben!)  Progressives, actually, and I guess these things take some getting used to, don't they?  I stopped in at the market on my way home, and when I moved my head around while looking down an aisle I felt like I was watching a bad student film project from the 60s.  Weird.  But I suppose my neurons will eventually adjust and trick me into thinking that everything is OK.  Or will they?  I actually don't wear my glasses very much, so it might take a while for my brain to figure out the new order of things.  We'll see.  In the meantime, hopefully I'll be able to watch TV and do a crossword puzzle at the same time once again.

Adventures in Diplomacy

| Tue Jun. 2, 2009 3:09 PM EDT

From Marc Lynch:

While it hasn't received much attention, Iraq's relations with two key Arab Gulf states have jumped the tracks over the last week.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has publicly declared that he has given up on trying to reconcile with the Saudis. Meanwhile, Iraq and the Kuwaitis are in an increasingly nasty spat over the question of compensation claims dating back to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It's gotten to the point that a majority of the members of the Iraqi Parliament are demanding that Kuwait pay compensation to Iraq for allowing U.S. troops to invade Iraq in 1991!

In other news, I'm planning to sue that dude whose nose injured my fist a few days ago.  He should have been more careful.

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Them Boiling Frogs

| Tue Jun. 2, 2009 12:26 PM EDT

Hoo boy.  I sure hope James Fallows doesn't watch this video snippet.  He's already annoyed at Anne Applebaum's China fearmongering, and seeing all his good work on the boiling frog myth blown up on prime time TV in a matter of seconds — well, that might just drive him over the edge.  Don't watch, Jim!

Summer Passport Woes

| Tue Jun. 2, 2009 12:02 PM EDT

Matt Welch writes:

Do you feel safer today? Let's hope so, since you're certainly less free to travel about the Northern Hemisphere. Beginning just after midnight, every American returning from Canada, Mexico, and various island paradises now have to flash a U.S. passport to get back in the country. For the 70 percent of citizens who don't have passports, that means a minimum four to six weeks waiting time (and probably more, given the new filing rush) to legally escape the national boundaries.

Great.  My passport is expiring in a couple of months and I downloaded the forms just yesterday to get it renewed.  I didn't realize I was going to get caught up in Phase 2 of the great Canada/Mexico passport debacle. Thanks for warning me just in time, Matt.

Of course, this is only a partial change.  I learned to my chagrin some years ago that at least some Canadian border officials have wanted to see a passport all along.  Flying into Toronto in the mid-90s, I got hassled by a security guy at the airport for having only a driver's license to prove my bona fides ("that doesn't prove citizenship," he said, "it just means you're licensed to drive in California," which, admittedly, is perfectly correct).  He still let me in, but I've made sure to take my passport on trips to Canada ever since.

Pressuring Israel

| Tue Jun. 2, 2009 11:08 AM EDT

President Obama has taken a surprisingly hard line on expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but what's even more surprising is how little pushback he's gotten so far from Israel's supporters in the U.S.  Ben Smith reports that this might be changing:

“My concern is that we are applying pressure to the wrong party in this dispute,” said Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.). “I think it would serve America’s interest better if we were pressuring the Iranians to eliminate the potential of a nuclear threat from Iran, and less time pressuring our allies and the only democracy in the Middle East to stop the natural growth of their settlements.”

....“I don’t think anybody wants to dictate to an ally what they have to do in their own national security interests,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who said he thinks there’s “room for compromise.”

....And Republicans have been more sharply critical of the pressure on Israel. “It’s misguided. Behind that pressure is the assumption that somehow resolving the so-called settlements will somehow lead to the ultimate goal” of disarming Iran, said Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House minority whip.

....The pro-Israel lobby AIPAC last week got the signatures of 329 members of Congress, including key figures in both parties, on a letter calling on the administration to work “closely and privately” with Israel — in contrast to the current public pressure.

For what it's worth, the story here still seems to me to be less about the pushback and more about the fact that pushback to Obama's policy pronouncements remains surprisingly muted.  "It's misguided" is not the kind of temperate rhetoric you'd expect to hear about this from Republican leaders, after all.  Either this means that things have changed, or merely that the AIPAC-centric crowd has decided they're better off working behind the scenes and keeping a quieter profile.  Hard to say which right now.

China and North Korea

| Tue Jun. 2, 2009 12:59 AM EDT

It's true, as Anne Applebaum says, that China is the only country in the world with any real influence over North Korea.  So why do they put up with Kim Jong-il's antics?  The usual answer is that they're afraid of pushing too hard lest his regime collapse and send millions of refugees streaming across the border into Manchuria.  Applebaum, however, speculates that that isn't it at all.  China actually wants North Korea to continue its hotheaded ways:

Despite the risks, there are good reasons for the Chinese to prod Kim Jong-il to keep those missiles coming. By permitting North Korea to rattle its sabers, the Chinese can monitor Obama's reaction to a military threat without having to deploy a threat themselves. They can see how serious the new American administration is about controlling the spread of nuclear weapons without having to risk sanctions or international condemnation of their own nuclear industry. They can distract and disturb the new administration without harming Chinese-American economic relations, which are crucial to their own regime's stability.

And if the game goes badly, they can call it off. North Korea is a puppet state, and the Chinese are the puppeteers. They could end this farce tomorrow. If they haven't done so yet, there must be a reason.

I don't really have much to add to this.  It's just that the refugee explanation of Chinese behavior has always struck me as moderately unconvincing, so I'm sort of interested in alternatives — even if they do come wrapped in some variant of "China must be stopped!" fearmongering.  Which this one does.  But it's worth a thought anyway.