Barry Eisler

Friday, June 27, 2008

John McCain: The Communist Choice?

Hmmm... earlier today, John McCain's former North Vietnamese communist jailer went on the record with his support for McCain, saying he considers McCain an "old friend" and asserting that he would vote for McCain for president if he could. Isn't McCain's communist support something we should consider in determining his fitness for office? Might not his communist support be evidence that he's some kind of fifth columnist?

Obviously (I hope obviously) the title of this piece and the argument above are intended to be ridiculous. But by the bizarre inferences the right has trotted out about Hamas and Obama, my title and argument are entirely coherent. If I'm correct in thinking McCain's communist support isn't going to be a major play on Fox news, it's reasonable to ask why.

Of course, we know why: Fox's purpose isn't journalism; it's support of a political party. Fair enough. But for people with integrity, questioning these inconsistencies is a useful way to expose bias -- not just in others, but in ourselves. So if you're someone who believed a purportedly kind word from a Hamas member was damning to Obama, you should ask yourself why a similar comment by a Vietnamese communist about McCain would be irrelevant.

And if you loathe what President Bush has done to the Fourth Amendment with his illegal, warrantless surveillance program, ask how you can give Obama a pass for breaking previous campaign promises and capitulating to Republican efforts to legalize warrantless surveillance and offer amnesty to telecoms that have previously broken the law. Do you adhere to party, or to principle? Questions like these are a decent way to start finding out.
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Saturday, June 07, 2008

This is Conviction?

Today's Wall Street Journal features an op-ed by AEI resident scholar Michael Ledeen called Iran and the Problem of Evil. The op-ed contains one severe logical fallacy and one weird omission, each unfortunately representative of much of the current state of thought and argument on the right.

First, the logical fallacy. Ledeen lays out his premises thusly: (1), right up until World War II, the west was in denial about the obvious threat of fascism; (2) today, "The world is simmering in the familiar rhetoric and actions of movements and regimes – from Hezbollah and al Qaeda to the Iranian Khomeinists and the Saudi Wahhabis – who swear to destroy us and others like us" (and later he mentions Syria, Egypt, and "European and American mosques," as well); and (3) we are in denial about the nature of these movements and regimes as we were about the nature of the Nazis. Then finally, two thirds into the article, Ledeen arrives at his thesis statement:

This is not merely a philosophical issue, for to accept the threat to us means – short of a policy of national suicide – acting against it. As it did in the 20th century, it means war.


Even if one accepts Ledeen's premises, how does it logically follow that the only way to deal with the movements and regimes he mentions is by going to war with them? Does the United States really have no other policy tools at its disposal? National suicide or war and nothing else? Holy artificial either/or constructs, Batman!

I've written before about this kind of binary thinking -- once in the context of rightist thinking about "The Terrorists;" another time, in the context of rightist arguments for torture. But the notion that the only way of dealing with a country like Iran, with its basket-case economy and GDP about the size of Finland's, is to go to war with Iran as we once did against Germany, dramatically expands the size and opacity of the blinders the right insists on wearing when it ventures to look out at the world.

But the logical gap in Ledeen's argument is so vast that even he can't avoid it. Because -- and here is the weird omission -- he never actually comes out and says what he means. Here's his concluding paragraph:

Then, as now, the initiative lies with the enemies of the West. Even today, when we are engaged on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little apparent recognition that we are under attack by a familiar sort of enemy, and great reluctance to act accordingly. This time, ignorance cannot be claimed as an excuse. If we are defeated, it will be because of failure of will, not lack of understanding. As, indeed, was almost the case with our near-defeat in the 1940s.

Huh? Why argue that al Qaeda, Egypt, Hezbollah, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and European and American mosques are like the Nazis, that as with the Nazis, we have to accept that the existence of these movements and regimes forces us to choose between suicide and war... and then shy away from what obviously, logically (if you can call it that) comes next: a call for a declaration of war?

I don't mean the question rhetorically. Is Ledeen afraid of being called a warmonger? Does he recognize what he's actually agitating for, and at the last moment shy away from it? Is he carried away by his rhetoric and blind to its actual implications?

I've said before that if you want to argue for torture, argue for it -- but don't hide from your own argument by using doublespeak like "aggressive interrogation" or "enhanced interrogation" or whatever. Call it what it is and explain why it's necessary. Similarly, if you think America needs to go to war with much of the Islamic world as we once went to war with the Nazis and fascists, have the clarity (and guts) to make your argument forthrightly. Otherwise, we're faced with the sad spectacle of a man who thinks he's issuing a courageous call but who in fact lacks the courage of his ostensible convictions.
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Friday, June 06, 2008

Hillary's Exit

With some reluctance, I offer a few thoughts on Hillary's defeat, particularly on the notion that she deserves to be, and that Obama should make her, the Democratic vice presidential candidate.

I'm reluctant because Hillary as vice presidential candidate and as vice president is such a self-evidently bad idea that sensible people know it simply will not happen. So I find myself in the slightly weird position of discussing something that in my mind is being discussed only because it's being discussed, like Paris Hilton being famous for being famous.

Okay. Let's first dispense with the idea that Clinton "deserves" the vice presidency. This is ridiculous for so many reasons, not the least of which is that the same Clinton backers who argued (when it was convenient to do so) that superdelegates should be free to follow nothing other than the dictates of their consciences in selecting a presidential candidate now argue that the presidential candidate must surrender that very same freedom when selecting his running mate. I suppose this kind of inconsistency is to be expected from supporters whose approach to politics is flexible enough for them to agree one day that Florida and Michigan would be excluded from the election, and later to find such an exclusion is a moral outrage worthy of a Zimbabwean stolen election on the next; flexible enough, indeed, for them to agree at the beginning of the race that the winner would be determined by delegates won, only to find popular vote counts more significant when the previously agreed-upon rules proved a loss for their candidate. But still.

The irony is, the notion that Hillary deserves the vice presidency is insulting to Hillary. From the beginning, she had a choice: run a relatively positive campaign -- the kind, say, that Mike Huckabee ran on the Republican side, or that John Edwards ran in 2004, or the kind that Edwards, Dodd, and Richardson ran this time -- to position herself as a sensible choice for VP. Instead, Hillary chose to run and all or nothing campaign, doing everything she could do destroy Obama -- including practically urging voters who wouldn't back her to at least back McCain. If her strategy had succeeded, she would have been the Democratic nominee today. But the risk was that if her strategy failed, she would have made herself unsuitable for the #2 slot. As indeed she has: McCain is already using video of Hillary saying, "I've passed the commander-in-chief threshold, Senator McCain has passed the commander-in-chief threshold, Senator Obama has a speech he made in 2002" in his latest campaign ads (although it's encouraging to watch McCain adopt the exact same campaign tactics that have just proven fruitless for the Clintons). Regardless of what you think of her strategy, at least we can respect Clinton enough to acknowledge that she was aware of the consequences of her approach and selected it knowingly. To suggest at this point instead that she should be awarded a prize she deliberately forfeited is to treat an autonomous adult as a spoiled child.

Equally ridiculous, and insulting to Hillary, is the notion that Obama should help her retire her $30 million campaign debt, which includes $11 million the Clintons personally lent to the campaign. The Clintons, their donors, and their lenders all made adult, autonomous, conscious decisions to invest in her campaign the way they did. Why should outsiders have to bail them out? Bear in mind that the Clintons' personal fortune is estimated at about $60 million. Am I the only one who wonders why a politician who professes to care so deeply about the disenfranchised, the invisible, the little people whose votes for her are the same as prayers, is now going to happily stick all those little people with the bill for what since February has been little more than a vanity project? The predictable reply: you're right, it's not fair, but it has to be done to assuage Hillary and get her fundraisers onside. Fair enough, but then let's call this exercise what it really is: extortion.

Look, Hillary could have campaigned in such a way that her proposal to Obama would have been, "Make me your vice president because I'll help you." Instead, her proposal is, "Make me your vice president or I'll hurt you." Even if her implicit threat were credible, Obama would have no choice but to refuse her, lest the next Republican campaign narrative would become (and not without merit), "If he can't handle Hillary, how's he going to handle Ahmadinejad?"

More ironic still is the moniker people attach to the idea of an Obama/Hillary team: they like to call it a "unity ticket." Remember, for the last five months, Hillary has been analyzed mostly through the prism of the Democratic primary. Under these circumstances, it's easy to forget her astonishingly high general election negatives. When a candidate has negatives as high as Hillary's, the only thing she'd be unifying is the Republican party.

Hillary supporters will argue nonetheless that she offers benefits: she can deliver older white women and rural whites, demographics Obama has had trouble attracting. Let's assume this is true. The next question is, is there another candidate who can deliver a similar benefit without simultaneously galvanizing Republicans, alienating independents, undercutting Obama's core message of change, and making Obama look weak by virtue of selecting her?

Pretty hard to believe the answer to that one is no.

Many of her supporters are angry right now. Wouldn't putting Hillary on the ticket mollify them? Maybe... but again, the question is, can the same objective be achieved at lower cost?

The general election is five months away. That's a long time for anger and bitterness to dissipate and for rationality to prevail. Rationality in this case meaning Obama's 100% positive rating from Planned Parenthood, his endorsement by NARAL, his overall policy positions being close to Hillary's. Contrasted with McCain's recent speechifying on conservative judicial appointments (much of it obscured by the dramatic coverage of the Democratic primary) and his record on judicial nominations. Women who are angry today will have to face a question in November: do they want to support, whether by commission or omission, the overturning of Roe v Wade? Do they want their daughters to lose control of their reproductive rights?

The only question at this point is how Obama will finesse Hillary's implicit threats and detach her from her supporters. I don't think any of this is terribly difficult.

First, praise Clinton lavishly. This has been ongoing.

Second, make it known that Clinton is on the shortlist (though in fact, for all the reasons above, she will not be seriously considered). Promise to vet her just as the other candidates will and should be vetted. Leak problems discovered with the opaque and disreputable sources of the Clintons' wealth and the Clinton Foundation's fundraising, with rumors of Bill's behavior, with Hillary's seeming inability to control Bill on the campaign trail, and with Bill's refusal to allow adequate scrutiny of his finances (think of this as the "Blame Bill" strategy).

Third, note that given Hillary's stated passions, indeed, her most recent political raison d'etre, it would be a waste of her talents to take a job that has been famously compared to a bucket of warm piss. She could make a much more important contribution spearheading healthcare reform. How could she turn down such an opportunity? She's explicitly said she's not particularly interested in the vice presidency and that she wants healthcare for every American. Sure, this is all a bluff, but Obama is now in a good position to call.

And fourth, after easing Hillary aside, relentlessly hammer home what McCain means for the Supreme Court and women's rights.

For a long time, Hillary's overall approach has been to threaten punishment if she doesn't get what she wants. This is why she has been so eager to whip her supporters into an unjustified rage, why she encouraged the notion that whites wouldn't vote for Obama, and most of all why she refused to concede on Tuesday even after Obama had achieved a numerical lock on the nomination. The last threat in her arsenal is the threat to disrupt the convention in August and prevent the Democrats from focusing on the general for another two critical months. But with the primaries over and no more excuses for superdelegates not to decide, I think she's realized that any further threats of punishment would force the party to move en masse to crush and humiliate her. Thus her announcement that on Saturday she will indeed acknowledge reality and belatedly concede.

That concession will not cause, but rather instead merely accelerate the inevitable end of the Clintons. Obama will continue to finesse Hillary in all the ways described above. He'll select an appropriate vice president. He'll beat McCain, a remarkably weak, pandering, flip-flopping candidate, in the fall. At which point, the Clintons will have lost all their power to punish.

So it's ridiculous, as well as insulting to Hillary, to suggest that she "deserves" it. Substantively, she makes no sense. Outside the lunatic fringe that always exists and is never ultimately relevant, her supporters will come around in the fall. So now: can we please stop talking about Hillary? The Clinton era is over.
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