Political MoJo

Embracing Islamists

| Tue Jun. 7, 2005 7:39 PM EDT

In the Lebanon Daily Star today, Michael Rubin warns the United States against embracing Islamist reformers in its quest to spread democracy all about the Middle East. Indeed, he sees troubling signs to the contrary from the Bush administration:

The White House has also flip-flopped on Hamas. While Hamas candidates came in second to those of Fatah in Palestinian elections, it nonetheless won the largest municipalities in Gaza. White House spokesman Scott McClellan called Hamas' successful candidates "business professionals." But election participation does not make candidates democratic. Hamas ran on a platform rejecting the compromises necessary for Palestinian statehood. Its charter embraced imposition of Islamic rule, with the Koran as its constitution, and it has eschewed the rule of law. Well-known for its attacks on Israelis, it has also targeted liberal Palestinians.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, another recipient of recent State Department outreach, also has a long legacy of violence. Its armed wing has murdered thousands. Engaging any group that has been involved in terror only legitimizes the violence that propelled that group to prominence. Better that Washington support bold but peaceful politicians like Ayman Nour.

Well, the White House has flopped again, mistakenly, on Hamas, but I get Rubin's point. The problem with this argument, though, is that liberal "peaceful politicians" like Ayman Nour in Egypt simply don't have large, well-organized constituencies. That's the legacy of Arab authoritarianism in the Middle East: in the absence of robust political parties or other civic centers, the only groups with any sort of strong organization are Islamists. This was painfully obvious in Iraq. Rubin doesn't like the Shiite militiamen and thugs now running the country—fine—but it was clear from the January 30th election that Iyad Allawi's semi-liberal slate was no match in the popular imagination for the religious authority of Grand Ayatollah Sistani. So it goes elsewhere; like it or not, Hamas and Hezbollah and, yes, the Muslim Brotherhood are genuinely popular. Moreover, it's unrealistic to expect some of these groups to disarm before entering politics. Ideally the White House can get Islamist groups to agree to abide by certain principles—the rule of law, independent judiciaries, universal suffrage, etc.—but if we're demanding perfect behavior we'll be waiting a long, long time. That makes engagement both tricky and unpredictable, but that's the whole point of democracy—it's impossible for anyone but the voters themselves to control the outcome.

Rubin's main fear seems to be that by engaging Islamist groups that have used violence in the past, the United States will only lend legitimacy to that violence. That's noble, but the more important question is whether it's practical. It seems not. Again, look to Iraq. It was only a year ago that Muqtada al-Sadr was leading his fighters against Marines in Najaf and Sadr City. Now he's taking part in government, and by all accounts, he's moderated his hostility towards the establishment clergy and kept the peace in his home neighborhood. Is Muqtada trustworthy? No. Is he the sort of person I would want running my country? Of course not. But he's not threatening mass uprisings anymore, either. The mundane business of governing sometimes has a way of moderating radicals, whether you want to call it "appeasement" or something else, sometimes it works.

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Selling Washington

| Tue Jun. 7, 2005 2:37 PM EDT

In the New York Review of Books this week, Elizabeth Drew has perhaps the best overview yet written on the sordid ties between K Street and the Republican-controlled Congress in Washington. There's far too much in here to do justice by way of excerpt, but these paragraphs on how companies raise money for candidates were particularly depressing—especially the last bit:

The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill in 2002 didn't stop powerful companies and members of Congress from buying and selling influence. Representative Barney Frank, a major backer of the reform bill, says, "It works about the same as it did before." But, he adds, because the new law banned large soft money contributions by individuals, corporations, and labor unions to campaigns for federal office, and maintained overall limits on how much a person can contribute to federal elections—doubling them from $2,000 to $4,000 per election cycle—everyone has to work harder to raise the money. Still, congressmen are seldom heard to complain that they can't raise enough money and in fact, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, both the political par-ties and individual candidates are raising more money than ever. Lobbyists still manage to deliver large amounts to legislators by "bundling" smaller contributions.

They contribute most of the money they raise to incumbents who can be depended on to do favors—a major reason (in addition to gerrymandering) why there is serious competition in only 10 percent of House races, and only about five seats change hands in each congressional election. Members of Congress expect to receive contributions from local industries (and their workers)—say, the coal industry in West Virginia—and they back legislation to help them out as a matter of doing constituent work. It's illegal for a firm to compensate employees for their political contributions, but, a Republican lobbyist says, a job applicant is often told that he or she is expected to make contributions, and salaries are adjusted accordingly.

Definitely read the whole piece. Abramoff and DeLay are just a tiny, tiny tip of a gruesomely large iceberg here.

Where Are the Advisors?

| Tue Jun. 7, 2005 12:56 PM EDT

There are days when I wish I had some special insight into goings-on in Iraq—what might be done, whether or not it's all going to turn out okay—but most days it's difficult to read the news and do anything other than echo Juan Cole's line: "Sometimes you are just screwed." Meanwhile, in more good news, Eric Umansky notices that the new Iraqi government is laying off workers—always a good way to add a few disgruntled unemployed Iraqis to the ranks of the insurgency—and is, ah, a tad behind in paying its special forces units. Also a bit of a problem.

Now I know that Iraq is supposed to be a sort-of kind-of sovereign country, and make decisions on its own, but aren't there supposed to be American advisors around trying to warn against this sort of thing? No, apparently not; there hasn't been an ambassador in Baghdad for six months. Of course, let's not accuse the Bush administration of being slow on the draw. On matters of real urgency—like appointing an Ayn Rand acolyte to the SEC—the White House has no problem racing through the nomination process.

Inequality and Inequality

| Mon Jun. 6, 2005 6:04 PM EDT

Powerline tries to catch liberals in a "trap", it seems:

[The] latest discussion of inequality is a sure sign that the economy is doing well. No longer able to talk about a recession or a jobless recovery, the left now resorts, as it did during the prosperous Reagan years, to income inequality.

Um, but the whole point of talking about income inequality is that the economy is not "prosperous," because it's not prosperous for all. At any rate, people often seem to talk about two different things with regards to income inequality. One, it could be the case that all income groups are doing well, but the rich just happen to be doing astronomically well. Now I happen to think that that sort of inequality may well pose real problems and inflict real costs on society, but this debate admittedly gets pretty complex, and defenders can say at least the rising tide is lifting all boats. On the other hand, it could be the case that only the wealthy are doing well, and everyone else is worse off—the rising tide swamping all boats. In a lot of ways, that's the sort of inequality we have today: real wages for workers have been falling during the "Bush recovery," as they did during the Reagan years, and that's a massive, massive problem, irrespective of how well the top tax brackets are doing.

New at Mother Jones

| Mon Jun. 6, 2005 5:11 PM EDT

It's not Just Eskimos in Bikinis
By Chip Ward
Close-to-home global warming effects that we hear little about.

The Parent Trap
By James K. Galbraith
Social Security "reform" is being touted as fiscal liberation for the young. What will young families do when it condemns them to care for their elders.

Is North Korea Budging?

| Mon Jun. 6, 2005 2:06 PM EDT

The news that North Korea may be prepared to return to talks with the United States is certainly welcome. But the pressure that U.S. negotiators are receiving from Bush administration officials—those who want a hardline against Kim Jong Il—is more than a little unsettling:

Mr. Hill, a seasoned negotiator who played a major role in the Dayton accords, which ended the Bosnian war in 1995, is looking for leeway to give North Korea incentives to return to the talks but is meeting resistance from officials who want to stand pat with Mr. Bush's vaguely worded offer last June to improve relations once North Korea begins dismantling its nuclear facilities and allows full inspections.

Yes, yes, the point here is that Bush doesn't want to "bribe" the North Koreans into acting good. Stand tough and all that. But really, what's wrong with a little bribery? Take, for instance, Pakistan. The United States recently sold a bunch of F-16 fighters to the Pakistani government. What doesn't get much press is the fact that we had originally held up the transfer of these fighters in 1990, after Pakistan violated its commitments to the United States, especially on developing its nuclear program. But now here we are, rewarding them for their bad behavior. It's cowardly, it's unprincipled, but it's also reasonably smart. By bringing Pakistani President Perez Musharraf closer to us, we have, in theory, far more ability to influence Pakistan's behavior than we did previously.

Now that's not to say that the White House should approach North Korea just like it approached Pakistan—there are important differences here—but it's worth noting that negotiating with hostile dictators, however loathsome it might be, isn't always a dumb idea. Of course, as several former administration officials note in the story, a little appeasement isn't all that's missing here—the Bush administration hasn't put much in the way of pressure on North Korea. But I wonder how much pressure is available here—South Korea and China, after all, are resisting any sanctions regime against North Korea, fearful of a catastrophic collapse of the government—and at some point the White House may have to realize that it's in a much weaker position than it would prefer to be.

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What Does Darfur Need?

| Fri Jun. 3, 2005 3:55 PM EDT

Mark Goldberg has one of the best takes on Darfur I've read in quite a while. There may not be a perfect solution for the region, as many have long argued. Indeed, stopping the genocide altogether might well take more troops and manpower than is either operationally feasible or politically realistic. But that said, there are a lot of good intermediate steps that could be taken to ease the catastrophe there—and the Bush administration is far, far from exhausting those possibilities.

Meanwhile, much has been made of Bush's recent decision to call what's going on in Darfur by its true name: genocide. But calling the crisis in Sudan "genocide" and then failing to act does nothing but cheapen the term, and ensures that future dictators will have reason to believe that they too can get away with massacring entire populations in the name of putting down a few rebel groups. Honestly, I never thought I'd pine for the days when conservatives were obsessed with the deterrent value of punishment.

UPDATE: See also Eugene Oregon, who argues that the mere credible threat of intervention in Darfur could force Khartoum to reign in its janjaweed militias. I don't know if that's true in this specific instance, but the general point is quite sound. If the international community was credibly committed to stopping genocide in all its forms, and never tolerated regimes that massacre civilians, then you'd be less likely to see the sort of thing that's happening in Sudan from even starting up. Likewise, a committed response to Darfur would not only stop the current genocide, but could deter genocides of the future. But that's not the international community we have, or the response we're getting, and so now there's little reason for any dictator to think twice about starting up genocide if need be.

Where's the Consistency?

| Fri Jun. 3, 2005 1:13 PM EDT

Over at Democracy Arsenal, Michael Signer thinks through the logic of the Bush administration's approach to North Korea and wonders why we aren't considering military options against Kim Jong Il in the same way that we did during Saddam Hussein. Now I don't at all agree with Signer that we always need to have "some consistency to our foreign policy"—I'm perfectly happy with taking countries and crises on a case-by-case basis, and would warn against getting caught up in one single approach to every problem.

Nevertheless, it's a decent question: why is the military option off the table with respect to North Korea? Certainly there's concern about the country's 500 artillery tubes pointed at Seoul. Kim Jong Il could wreak havoc in the region if he wanted to. But it's often forgotten that in 1994, when North Korea was wavering on IAEA access to two of its nuclear facilities, the Clinton administration threatened military action against North Korea, pouring equipment and missiles into the country and drawing up plans to strike the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon. Robert Galluci, the chief American negotiator at the time, has said that the buildup was "essential" to getting North Korea to compromise. Meanwhile, it's not as if the risks of a strike against North Korea would be much more deadly than what we thought the risks of war against Iraq would be at the time. But despite all this, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly said back in 2003 that the White House has not drawn up any "red lines" against North Korea. That's not to say we should be amassing troops along the border, but it's certainly worth asking how such a hawkish administration continues to insist on such a dovish position.

Here's one answer. Over at Duck of Minerva, a new foreign policy blog, Daniel Nexon points to a new paper suggesting that the White House got itself "discursively entangled" into negotiating with North Korea. In other words, rhetoric matters, and our early warmongering rhetoric against Iraq basically constrained our options and led to war—indeed, we often heard that it would be impossible for the United States to "back down" once we had amassed so many troops in neighboring Kuwait in early 2003—while the administration's cautious rhetoric against North Korea has led to yet more caution. That may be true. The problem here is that the White House hasn't yet established a norm of actually negotiating. What it's established is a pattern of rhetorical saber-rattling, from which it can't back down, coupled with an operative policy of not actually setting red-lines and allowing North Korea to do whatever it wants, from which it also can't seem to back down or change course.

Basically, the theory goes, the White House has got itself stuck on a particular foreign policy track and, perhaps because the president is so unwilling to make mistakes, can't change course. Now that's a bit odd since Bush may be stubborn, but the White House is perfectly able to change course on domestic issues. Bush was against Homeland Security before he was for it, for instance. And he even shifted his stance on China early in his presidential career—he was adamantly against apologizing for our downed spy plane in 2001, remember, before he was for it. So why can't Bush change course and start negotiating with North Korea—and I mean seriously negotiating, not waiting for China to take charge, which, as Joshua Kurlantzick reports, will probably never happen. It's a bit of a mystery, and the best explanations probably involve a mixture of indecision, infighting among foreign policy principles in the administration, and outright incompetence.

Class Struggle

| Thu Jun. 2, 2005 4:39 PM EDT

Robert Gordon's cover story in this week's New Republic, about No Child Left Behind, really sums up nicely a lot of things we've been saying for awhile. Yes, yes, the act's far from perfect, and it is true that it needs better funding. But the overall goals of the act—from nationwide standards to accountability to an increased focus on minority students—are extremely laudable, and liberals too often lose sight of that when lambasting the Bush administration on education. The anti-NCLB trend that Gordon notices is nothing short of disturbing:

Resistance to federal power is now a progressive rallying cry in education. Democrats at the National Conference of State Legislatures recently helped draft a bipartisan report charging that NCLB infringes upon states' Tenth Amendment rights. Most Utah Democrats supported a new state law jeopardizing $76 million in aid to poor students on the grounds that the state's own assessment system should have priority over NCLB. But that state system does not even exist today; the real question, as the law's lead sponsor asked, was, "At what price is our sovereignty for sale?" The National Education Association (NEA) is now suing Washington for forcing states to spend more money on education. Connecticut's Democratic attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, has praised the suit and threatened to bring one of his own….

Thanks to NCLB, many schools are now offering those students help they desperately need. If the NEA's suit prevails in court, it won't even yield more money; it will just yield precedents limiting federal power and enable states to ignore the law's demands. That would be sad: One of the NEA's plaintiffs told The New York Times that NCLB had forced her district to offer longer school days and Saturday classes for low-achieving students. Progressives should celebrate that fact, not complain about it.

Other proposals from the left would dash inner-city hopes to placate suburban anxieties. Many parents at better schools now worry that rote "teaching to the test" has crowded out better teaching. Much of that problem could be addressed by spending more on complex assessments worth teaching to. That would preserve the accountability so critical in the worst schools, which, at least now, are teaching to something. Yet many progressives, including state legislators and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, would allow student performance to be counterbalanced by academic indicators of states' choosing. In some iterations, these measures could include parental satisfaction or student attendance. This regime would replace the clear demand for student achievement with a malleable nonstandard. It would be fine for most students in Greenwich, but a step backward for Bridgeport and New Haven.

This sort of thing really needs to stop—and indeed, one perverse effect here is that much of the carping is undermining parent and teacher support for NCLB, which only increases the chance of failure. As Gordon notes, the answer to too much "teaching to the test" isn't to end all accountability, and shrink back into our decentralized school-control shells, but to create better tests. Today's New York Times has a good bit of reporting on how standards and accountability have reaped positive gains in New York City. That's the sort of thing that should always be embraced, period.

Meanwhile, Gordon suggests that liberals ought to focus more on improving teacher quality. Agreed. I was always rather surprised that John Kerry never made more hay over his excellent plan to institute pay-for-performance standards for teachers in underserved areas. It's a genuinely good idea, and as Gordon notes, many of the worries about "arbitrary merit bonuses" on this issue are a bit overblown—teachers would be evaluated just like employees at many other companies, all across the nation, are evaluated. That's no terrible thing, especially if it comes with an overall hike in pay and assurances that the most talented teachers will get ahead. Fortunately, some liberal think tanks, like the Center for American Progress, are starting to hop on this bandwagon—let's just hope they stay with it rather than succumbing to NCLB-bashing all for the sake of scoring points against the White House. There are a million of other Bush initiatives to roast alive; this one should be treated with more caution.

UPDATE: Of course, no one wants to go too far in the other direction. Teach and Learn worries that Democratic education reformers concerned with performance could grow too intolerant of teacher's unions. Good cautionary note.

Big Tobacco Marches On

| Thu Jun. 2, 2005 3:45 PM EDT

Speaking of perverse incentives, there's a fascinating Washington Times piece today about how large tobacco companies have used court settlements to their advantage and muscled out small businesses:

Critics say the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement has not turned out as expected as big players accused of wrongdoing wound up with market protections while small businesses were forced to pay up….

Under the deal, the big cigarette companies agreed to restrict their marketing, fund stop-smoking efforts and make annual payments to the states for 25 years.

But attorneys on both sides knew the large companies would raise cigarette prices to make their payments, so they built in protections to prevent companies outside the agreement from taking too much market share.

The states that are enforcing these protections argue that yes, maybe it's sad that smaller tobacco companies are getting squeezed out of the business, but the ultimate effect here is to reduce cigarette consumption. Of course, the counterargument here is that so long as a number of large tobacco companies have unduly large wealth and influence, the prospects for further tobacco regulation will continue to look bleak, both now and in the future. On the other, other hand, regulations on smoking—from advertising restrictions to bans on smoking in bars—seem to be picking up in recent years regardless. Basically, it's hard to say whether Big Tobacco's beating a retreat or still charging strong.