Let’s Talk 2016! What? Too Soon?

With the love-fest that was the 60 Minutes co-interview with President Obama and the outgoing Secretary of State, it looked to me to be the groundwork of the 2016 election season.

President Obama was inaugurated just over a week ago, and here we find ourselves, a relatively teensy snippet of time into his second term. With immigration reform and the debt ceiling pressing, the gun control debate spiraling into ever more shrill pitches, and pointed looks into his use of drone strikes, now is of course the time to project into an uncertain future and remark on who might be the next guy to take his seat.

“Guy” of course, is a euphemism to a mean either “man” or Hillary Clinton.  With the   love-fest that was the 60 Minutes co-interview with President Obama and the outgoing Secretary of State, it looked to me to be the groundwork of the 2016 election season. In the way that Bill Clinton almost single-handedly ignited Obama’s reelection campaign, Obama is publicly repaying that favor, recycling the loving stare that Mitt Romney employed during each of their Presidential debates.

The Secret Service couldn’t contain Joe Biden during the inaugural parade as he constantly ducked around them to shake hands and kiss babies. Coming from his successful negotiation with Senate leaders to avoid the fiscal cliff, it’s looking good for Joe in 2016 as well.  His goal for the short term: help secure the economy and wind down the war in Afghanistan.  Long term: distance himself from Obama. 

Obama’s inaugural speech was unprecedented in that he included a multitude of social ideas that had never been thus far voiced by a politician of his stature:  gay rights, gun control, climate change.  Boom.  But when he said “Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone,” there was a disconnect between his version of events and the reality of his last term. 

According to Conor Friedersdorf of The Altantic, “Obama favors greater central authority in health care, energy, education, gun regulation, and occupational safety. His underlings have actively undermined state efforts to decentralize marijuana policy. And on national-security matters, he has worked to centralize authority in the executive branch.”

Here’s where Joe comes in.  Whereas Obama can scarcely contain his contempt for Congress (and who can blame him?) Joe steps up.  The negotiations that mark the makeup of deal-making are his bread and butter – he knows them, he gets them, and by the reflection coming off of his shiny whites, he loves them.  He can be what Obama simply cannot – the bridge between the Senate and the Oval office and the beginning of taking this country back to its federalist roots, putting power back to the states. 

If Obama is the elitist who doesn’t trust the states to do what he deems is right, then Biden does, as long as there is effective leadership.  This is evident from his thirty-six year tenure in the Senate, as Chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee to his work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Hillary has markedly less experience in the Senate and once proved to be as polarizing a candidate as one could possibly be.  Yet she brings with her the heavyweight status of Secretary of Statesmanship and the badass reputation that resulted from her tenure, traveling to 112 countries and transforming Benghazi from what the Republicans wanted to paint as her 9/11 (really?) but will be etched in the hearts of the public as the righteous smack-down of Ron Johnson and Rand Paul.  What it really comes down to is what the state of the country is like four years from now: will the focus be on foreign policy, where Hillary’s experience reigns, or will we see an America fed up with partisan bickering and looking for someone like Biden, who demonstrated that he can lay down the boxing gloves long enough to make a dance partner with the likes of Mitch McConnell?

This could all be null and void if New York’s own Andrew Cuomo continues on the upward momentum of his liberal agenda.  He’s already succeeded in passing gay marriage legislation, and led the country with the first and so far strictest gun control laws, effectively limiting the number of bullets magazines can hold here.  After recouping the state from the inept Governor Patterson after the dramatic step-down of Eliot Spitzer, Cuomo has the advantage of being high profile politician-bred in a powerful state in need of constructive change. (I’m still not ready to talk about Spitzer.  It still hurts.  He should know that he and I are not on speaking terms, though I read him on Slate, and love every sensible smart word that comes out of his mouth.) 

For Cuomo, he’s placing his bets on jobs and education as his “one-two punch” for economic development. If he can reinvigorate the economy and pass more laws to give him top-notch Progressive street cred (Women’s Equality Act, protecting the right to choose and legalizing pot, anyone?), both Hillary and Joe will see some serious competition.  Especially if he can channel the Obama the Orator the way he did in his State of the State address:

 “Our state Capitol is restored to its original majesty in many, many ways.  We set out two years ago to bridge the divide. We needed to bridge a divide from yesterday to tomorrow; from what was to what can be; from dysfunction to performance; from cynicism to trust; from gridlock to cooperation to make the government work. And we are, literally and metaphorically.”

“You people in the media are incorrigible,” Obama chastised 60 Minutes‘ Steve Kroft. “I was literally inaugurated four days ago and you’re talking about elections four years from now.”

That’s why I waited all the way until now to bring this up.

Wall Street Regulation

Glass-Steagall has made somewhat of a comeback with help from the Occupy movement and rising political stars like Elizabeth Warren… The only two political insiders you won’t catch talking about reinstating Glass-Steagall both happen to be running for president.

Part 4 of the Special “Off The Reservation” Election Series in the Long Island Press.

The Banking Act of 1933, commonly known as Glass-Steagall, was established to tame the harmful speculative behavior of an industry run amok in the early part of the 20th century; behavior many observers at the time credited for the market crash that precipitated the Great Depression. For some, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, was the deathblow to financial prudence on Wall Street.

 In reality it was simply the formal recognition of careless financial practices that were largely in place already. Since the near-collapse of the banking industry in 2008, Glass-Steagall has made somewhat of a comeback with help from the Occupy movement and rising political stars like Elizabeth Warren, the former federal consumer protection advocate now running for Senate in Massachusetts. The only two political insiders you won’t catch talking about reinstating Glass-Steagall both happen to be running for president.

Wall Street reform is as important as it was in 2008 but both President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney have taken great pains to avoid talking about it too much. For his part, President Obama seems content to rest on the laurels of the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress’s attempt to rein in Wall Street excess, which had enough support to pass but not enough to be properly funded or enforced. According to Romney’s platform, he would “Repeal Dodd-Frank and replace with streamlined, modern regulatory framework.” That’s the extent of his vision for the future of Wall Street according his platform. Ten words.

So while the rest of the country is suddenly talking about a law enacted almost 80 years ago, these guys aren’t going anywhere near it. The truth is, Wall Street reform and, more specifically Glass-Steagall, is more complicated, making it easy for Obama and Romney to be evasive.

So let’s answer two questions. What would actual Wall Street reform look like and what exactly was Glass-Steagall?

The purpose of the original act was to establish a barrier between traditional banks and the risk-taking investment firms, denying investment banks access to consumer deposits and secure, interest-bearing loans. The unwritten effect of Glass-Steagall, however, was to establish a culture of prudency in the consumer and business banking realm, leaving sophisticated professional investments to more savvy financiers who had the ability to calculate the inherent risk of a financial instrument. For decades to follow, the merits of Glass-Steagall would continue to be debated, but it nevertheless drew a marked distinction between the function of a consumer bank and an investment bank.

Today reinstating Glass-Steagall is a common rallying cry among those who decry the bad behavior of Wall Street. Its repeal has become the fulcrum of nearly every debate surrounding deregulation. Actually accomplishing this, of course, is easier said than done.

The best way to reconcile the debate over whether to reinstate Glass-Steagall is to appreciate that the culture of Glass-Steagall was more important than the act itself. Over time the restrictions placed on bankers under the act were chipped away, but the culture that governed the banking industry endured beyond its measures. Eventually, savvy bankers and politicians found ways to loosen its screws and interpret the act to their own benefit.

Don’t Just Blame Republicans

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter oversaw the passage of the International Banking Act, a bill that should probably receive as much, if not more attention than Gramm-Leach-Bliley. Essentially, the act allowed foreign banks or entities that engaged in “banking-like activities” to participate in domestic financial markets. For the first time, foreign investment firms were able to make competitive loans so long as they didn’t compete for consumer deposits; initially individual states could determine whether their regulatory structure could support this new activity. The government would go on to loosen restrictions governing the competition for consumer deposits and allowing bank holding companies to treat money markets like checking accounts.

In his book “End This Depression Now,” economist Paul Krugman argues that perhaps the most influential step with respect to the banking sector came with Carter’s passage of the “Monetary Control Act of 1980, which ended regulations that had prevented banks from paying interest on many kinds of deposits. Unfortunately, banking is not like trucking, and the effect of deregulation was not so much to encourage efficiency as to encourage risk taking.”

 By 1987 the bank holding companies, including foreign companies allowed to operate within the U.S. banking system, were granted access to mortgages to create a package of investments called mortgage-backed securities; the threshold for the amount of investing activity in instruments such as these was also increased, paving the way for the growth of investments backed by the strength (or weakness) of the consumer market.

During that same year, members of the Federal Reserve began calling for the repeal of Glass-Steagall as then-chairman Paul Volcker was providing the tie-breaking resistance. But this was a mere formality because by this time, Glass-Steagall was effectively over.

Yet even though most of the threads of regulation had been pulled from the overcoat that protected consumers from risky banking practices, the culture of prudent banking still existed to an extent; maintaining the Glass-Steagall Act on the books was an indication of this sentiment. Throughout the decades when regulations were steadily eroding, powerful national figures such as Paul Volcker under Carter and Reagan, and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady under George H.W. Bush managed to temper the enthusiasm of the movement.

That George Bush Senior heeded their admonitions was an admission that the public’s appetite for deregulation was actually beginning to wane in the post-Reagan hangover. Richard Berke’s New York Times article of Dec. 11, 1988, on the eve of the Bush presidency, encapsulated this feeling. Berke wrote, “Lawmakers and analysts say the pressure is fed by a heightened public uneasiness about deregulatory shortcomings that touch the daily lives of millions of Americans: from delays at airports and strains on the air traffic control system to the presence of hazardous chemicals in the workplace to worries about the safety of money deposited in savings institutions.” Alas, these four years would prove to be a momentary hiccup in the deregulation movement.

During the Clinton years, the nation’s leadership was largely comprised of proponents of deregulation. In fact, by his second term, Clinton was almost entirely surrounded by rabid free market enthusiasts. A former chairman at Goldman Sachs, Robert Rubin, was Secretary of the Treasury, Alan Greenspan was still at the helm of the Federal Reserve and Phil Gramm was the head of the powerful Senate Banking Committee. All of these men had close ties to Wall Street and made no secret of their intention to release bankers from the burdensome shackles of regulation and oversight.

Reforming Reform

In 2008, economist Joseph Stiglitz warned of the enduring negative consequences of deregulation. At a hearing held in front of the House Committee on Financial Services, Stiglitz invoked Adam Smith saying, “Even he recognized that unregulated markets will try to restrict competition, and without strong competition markets will not be efficient.” One of Stiglitz’s solutions was to restore transparency to investments and the markets themselves by restricting “banks’ dealing with criminals, unregulated and non-transparent hedge funds, and off-shore banks that do not conform to regulatory and accounting standards of our highly regulated financial entities.”

For emphasis he noted, “We have shown that we can do this when we want, when terrorism is the issue.”

Still, the nagging question remains as to what reform might look like. After all, not all deregulation is irresponsible. Most of the discussion in the media surrounding deregulation revolves around the concept that our banking institutions are “too big to fail.” Thus the rallying cry for reinstating Glass-Steagall and separating banks from investment banks. I’m in tepid agreement with the underlying principle, but the reality of the situation is far more complicated. The fact is banking has gone global and the deregulation genie is out of the bottle.

As I said earlier, Glass-Steagall was as much about instilling a culture of prudency to the banking world as it was about erecting a barrier between commercial banks and investment banks. Advocates like Elizabeth Warren like to say that prior to 1999 and the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the economy functioned through periods of both prosperity and recession since 1934 without the banking sector once collapsing. It’s a fair, but oversimplified assertion that overlooks the fact that Glass-Steagall was on a ventilator in 1978 and dead by 1980. A 30-year run of prosperity from 1978 to 2008, with a few brief recessions in between, is nothing to sneeze at.

Restoring balance to the banking sector does not necessarily require separating the banks. Not yet at least. It begins with transparency and reestablishing the culture of prudency that has been conspicuously absent over the past decade. After all, you cannot value what you cannot see; nor can you mitigate risk unless you first manage reward.

What this really boils down to is accountability, which is ultimately a behavioral issue. Allowing investors to actually see how a bank behaves by viewing the size and scope of their transactions would theoretically assuage their appetite for risk. Given these conclusions, it’s easier to make the case that our current president would provide more accountability and inspire behavioral changes on Wall Street, particularly given Romney’s intransigence when it comes to considering financial reform. But tough talk against Wall Street has all but disappeared from Obama’s rhetoric leaving little hope that a second term will elicit any further positive change. So this week, while neither man seems serious about financial reform, the status quo is better than further deregulation and letting bankers rule the roost.

Tie goes to the incumbent.

Indefinite Detention: NDAA for Fiscal Year 2012

When the courts are no longer responsible for trying its citizens and the president is given the exclusive right to arbitrate in cases the military deems to be matters of national security, we have already descended far down the slippery slope toward fascism

Originally published in the Dec. 22nd edition of the Long Island Press

Every policy in Washington is developed over time and influenced by myriad factors. Even singular foreign policy events such as the Monroe Doctrine or declarations of war are the culmination of assiduous planning and debate that take into account a progression of economic, national security and human factors. Because every policy is based upon building blocks of understanding relative to the time and circumstances in which they were developed, there is always a reason why even the most divisive or treacherous idea gains support, for better or for worse.

Such is the case with section 1031 of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2012 (NDAA), a provision commonly referred to as the “indefinite detention” clause. The NDAA itself has already passed both houses of Congress and currently awaits President Obama’s signature. The detention provision has garnered a great deal of attention from the blogosphere and advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as it marks a decidedly dangerous shift in procedure and rights with respect to detainees in the War on Terror. The section, authored by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), gives the military the ability to indefinitely detain anyone it deems to be connected to the War on Terror, thus superseding the authority of civilian courts.

The NDAA itself is a fairly routine bill that organizes funding for the military. It does not appropriate funding, which is important to understand. The original language in the 1031 amendment was troublesome enough to prompt a strong rebuke from several members of Congress and the President who threatened to veto the bill if it included this measure as written.

The revised measure attempts to codify the language with respect to detainees and assuage the fears of those who viewed this as undermining our Constitutional rights and a threat to the democratic process. The reason is that the original language was vague enough that the possibility of detaining U.S. citizens and legal aliens indefinitely without due process was left open to interpretation.

The language was “clarified” by referring specifically instead to al-Qaeda and its affiliates and exactly who has the ability to authorize detention should a person be suspected of having ties to a terrorist organization. In an attempt to calm the waters surrounding this amendment Sen. McCain—ironically the most notable former detainee in the U.S.—issued a statement saying, “the language in this bill will not affect any Americans engaging in the pursuits of their Constitutional rights.” The ACLU begs to differ.

On its website the ACLU specifically tackles the revised provision with the following: “Don’t be confused by anyone claiming that the indefinite detention legislation does not apply to American citizens. It does. There is an exemption for American citizens from the mandatory detention requirement (section 1032 of the bill), but no exemption for American citizens from the authorization to use the military to indefinitely detain people without charge or trial (section 1031 of the bill). So, the result is that, under the bill, the military has the power to indefinitely imprison American citizens, but it does not have to use its power unless ordered to do so.” They go on to quote Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who said section 1031 “does apply to American citizens and it designates the world as the battlefield, including the homeland.”

Inside the Beltway there has been great consternation over this provision. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) put forward an amendment to water down the McCain/Levin provision (S.Amdt. 1107: To revise the provisions relating to detainee… to S. 1867) but it was voted down 61 to 37 in the Senate (the two senators from Alaska did not vote). Even FBI Director Robert Mueller has expressed concern that this language will inevitably lead to confusion in the field as to who has superseding authority during a terror investigation. The thought of the military being able to access and interrupt a civilian terror investigation and round up suspects unilaterally is a threat to every level of U.S. law enforcement. The fact that it potentially extends to American citizens, despite Sen. McCain’s claims to the contrary, speaks to the ambiguity of even the final language.

At first it seemed as though President Obama balked at this provision out of his understanding of the impact on American civil liberties and Constitutional rights; that the POTUS was back on message from his campaign and defending personal freedom. As it turns out, this couldn’t be further from reality. Incredibly, the White House reversed its stance and withdrew its opposition to the bill after the language was changed to include a stipulation that granted exclusive authority to arbitrate the detention provision away from the Secretary of Defense and directly to the president. In effect, Obama simply consolidated detainee power and privilege into the office of the president.

It’s important also to remember that this bill is not an appropriations bill. Unlike other spending bills that have been in the news this year that require passage to prevent certain government agencies from running out of funds, the NDAA does not fund the Pentagon, it organizes its expenditures and establishes certain rules and provisions. Therefore, nothing would theoretically be interrupted if this bill doesn’t pass. In other words, the POTUS has little to lose in fighting this provision. Instead, he caved. Again.

The question is: Why should this concern Americans? Remember that policy doesn’t develop in a vacuum. Sections 1031 and 1032 don’t stand on their own. When taken in conjunction with the Patriot Act and the government’s decision in 2009 to extend three controversial provisions that include granting the government the ability to collect information and conduct wire tapping and surveillance in secret without obtaining warrants, the detainee provision gets a little alarming. Add to this the extension of the “lone wolf” provision of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to track anyone around the world regardless of their affiliation, and things become even more ominous.

Again, each of these provisions has theoretical and practical merit, particularly when considered within the post 9-11 context in which they were established. Taken together, however, and the dangerous crack in the defense of our civil liberties begins to grow.

Take, for example, the case of Tarek Mehanna of Massachusetts. Mehanna, it would seem, despises America. He even went so far as to seek Jihadist training abroad though he was rebuffed. Today he is being prosecuted, not just for attempting to join a jihadist organization, but also for promoting jihadist material online. A recent Mother Jones article links the Mehanna case to the killing of “Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical U.S.-born Imam whose ability to give sermons in colloquial English made him the symbol of a new era of homegrown extremism.” Most of us harbor little sympathy for either of these men, but the government’s response and action toward both in conjunction with the steady erosion of civil liberties under the Patriot Act and the indefinite detention clause of the NDAA speak to the steady rise in domestic militarization.

When the courts are no longer responsible for trying its citizens and the president is given the exclusive right to arbitrate in cases the military deems to be matters of national security, we have already descended far down the slippery slope toward fascism. This is not hyperbole but rather a strict interpretation of fascism as an ideology that revokes individual rights under the cloak of nationalism and consolidates domestic tribunal authority under the military controlled by a singular authority.

There are two reasons most Americans care little about the debate surrounding the detention provision. One is that most people are law-abiding Americans to whom criticizing America and promoting terrorist speech is anathema. That’s a good thing. The other is that most people probably haven’t even heard of it because the debate, while raging behind closed doors in Congress and inside the blogosphere, is largely absent in the traditional media. The only plausible explanations for this omission are either that corporate media outlets don’t think it’s important or they are afraid of the potential consequences to their coverage.

Let’s assume that the issue of whether the military should be allowed to supersede an FBI investigation of U.S. citizens and indefinitely detain suspects without evidence or the requirement to divulge any of its actions is important to all of us and examine the latter. What could traditional news outlets be concerned about? Take everything covered to this point and consider the following scenario:

A credible journalist reporting on the Mehanna case would need to cite the remarks Mehanna posted on the Internet that prompted authorities to investigate him and consider him an imminent threat. This same journalist would now be technically guilty of exactly the same crime as Mehanna if he is convicted on this count and U.S. law establishes the precedent that reporting jihadist sentiments is an act of terrorism. This would be treasonous behavior calling into question the strength and breadth of the First Amendment. Theoretically the government can not only begin surveillance and wire-tapping on the journalist, the military can decide to intervene and indefinitely detain this person without due process.

Think it can’t happen? Well, technically it can because this entire scenario would be legal in the eyes of the government under the strictest interpretation of the new law. Of course it can happen. This is McCarthyism minus the hearings and histrionics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. It was during the McCarthy years that indefinite detention was first contemplated and even briefly enacted, though it was never officially implemented or acted upon. For as long as that journalist/blogger/activist/whomever can be considered a “Lone Wolf” or perhaps linked to affiliates of al-Qaeda—an organization that is by nature indefinable—his or her constitutional rights as a citizen can be suspended. The War on Terror as conceived by George W. Bush and codified domestically under the Patriot Act, is an active and permanent war in the spirit and definition of the Cold War. If the Bush Doctrine allowed the U.S. to wage war on nations without provocation, then the McCain/Levin provision brings the doctrine home.

The moment Obama affixes his signature to the bill will mark a seminal shift in our democracy. It will also mark the tragic moment that the Obama presidency becomes indistinguishable from the Bush Administration.

 

Main photo: AP – A June file photo of the sun rising over Camp Delta detention compound at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, in Cuba.

Below right: AP file photo of Robert Mueller. Below Left: AP file photo of Tarek Mehanna

Life After bin Laden

A successful war effort, if ever there was one, has always been forged in the extreme premise of good versus evil; a supposition made ever clearer when an antithetical figure looms large in our national imagination.

Osama bin Laden's compound in PakistanAs a resident of Manhattan at the time of the 9/11 attacks, both the enormity and the proximity of this tragedy rendered me almost childlike in my response. There was no precedent in my life against which I could benchmark my feelings, nor any reservoir of wisdom wrought from similar circumstances that could place the unthinkable events of that day in any useful emotional context. The initial shock gave way to overwhelming emptiness on a scale wholly unfamiliar to me—feelings that left me bizarrely searching for some sort of parental guidance from our government. In the days, weeks and years that followed, there was plenty on hand.

The Bush administration, unfit on so many levels to direct the social and economic aspects of governance, was somehow uniquely suited to administering a punishing response to al-Qaida, the Taliban and all those who would defy America in our pursuit of justice. Judgment Day would be leveled upon our enemies with a medieval ferocity married with modern precision. Of this we were sure. And not only were we kept abreast of our military response with clarity and immediacy, but we were told how to feel. It was OK to be angry, for ours was a shared tragedy. Our sadness was collective and our resolve singular. One nation, under God.

Now the object of our malevolence is gone. When my wife awoke me on Sunday night to watch as President Obama informed the nation that an elite American force had finally located and killed Osama bin Laden, I was bleary-eyed and confused. This wasn’t at all how I imagined this moment would be. Frankly, I had lost faith that it would ever come. Osama bin Laden had almost ceased to be real, becoming some sort of metaphoric touchstone for the War on Terror. His deeds would always be perpetuated by our inability to capture him and our shame would grow with each passing day. Catching or killing the man that embodied our terror and consumed a nation with fear for the better part of a decade seemed distant and implausible. In many ways, I wasn’t sure it even mattered any longer—because so much had transpired since Sept. 11, 2001 that any sudden manifestation of the man himself would be almost too complicated and painful to contemplate. Osama bin Laden had officially become the bogeyman. His re-emergence or death would inspire too many questions and bring forward too many painful memories buried deep within our subconscious selves.

Americans are hard-wired in such a way that having a villain allows us to compartmentalize our emotions, thereby narrowing our actions and behaviors to a series of Pavlovian responses. A successful war effort, if ever there was one, has always been forged in the extreme premise of good versus evil; a supposition made ever clearer when an antithetical figure looms large in our national imagination. Figures such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Osama bin Laden were so absolute in their contrast to the American zeitgeist that their very existence allowed America to tacitly define itself as their theoretical opposite. The specter of bin Laden, more than the man, allowed the Bush administration to define itself as the antidote to terror, thereby becoming the natural incarnation of liberty and the ultimate arbiter of any global conflict that challenged our notion of freedom, a right characterized less by what we stood for than by what we fought against.

As we awake, hung over from our 10-year drunken binge of warfare and rage, what are we to make of bin Laden’s death? Our youth has been so inculcated by the steady drumbeat of anti-terrorism messaging that many took to the streets in celebration immediately following the pronouncement of bin Laden’s demise. Inchoate explanations of his whereabouts all these years and our inability to locate him even with the most sophisticated technology and intelligence has left many Americans somewhat wary of the information given to us so abruptly. I believe this is because for the first time in nearly a decade the message was delivered absent the hyperbole that has typically accompanied news of bin Laden and the War on Terror. And so we are left on our own to digest and make sense of not only the news of his death, but the world that he forever altered and has now thankfully left behind.  

The innocent victims of 9/11 are avenged, to be sure. If ever there was one seminal event that would resemble closure, this is the moment. But the hardship and grief stemming from the two wars that ensued and the lives that were lost or forever changed cannot be assuaged by any one action. The men and women sickened from working on the “piles” for days and weeks, sifting through the toxic debris, cannot be healed. Our trust in Pakistani leadership has been shattered. Our reason for waging war cannot be easily explained away.

The near-simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were proffered to the American people as a sort of Sophie’s Choice. Osama bin Laden placed us in unforgiving territory where carnage seemed guaranteed by both inaction and war. Now we are faced with the realization that these decisions were made in a world gone mad, ushered in by a true madman who now rests in disgrace somewhere at the bottom of the ocean. And we are left to pick up the pieces, haunted by our actions, unsure of how to feel and forever mourning the victims of 9/11.

Hot, Flat and Pissed

With so many moderate Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats tossed from office, the next two years will see both sides break against the middle. The problem, of course, is that we are the middle. With two years of guaranteed political gridlock ahead of us and a sluggish economic forecast for 2011, decisive action from Washington on domestic issues will be near impossible. Equally troubling is that the knots that tie our nation together are quickly becoming undone. The more we struggle to achieve consensus on domestic issues, the less pressing foreign policy will seem—and the more dangerous the world will become.

A snapshot of the globe right now paints a terrifying picture, with nearly every country dealing with civil unrest and a pitiful economy. The cracks are beginning to show. Sectarian hostility in Iraq is intensifying as it has yet to establish a centralized government and the United States has officially tapped out. The absence of a strong Iraq has emboldened the fundamentalist leadership of Iran despite reports of widespread unrest among civilians troubled by the lack of civil liberties. Meanwhile, the political vacuum in Pakistan, exacerbated by a slew of natural disasters, has made it one of the most unstable countries on the planet. All of this is a backdrop to one of the worst impasses in recent Palestinian/Israeli/U.S. relations, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is trying to piece back together with chewing gum and paperclips.

And that’s just one part of the Earth.

If we don’t take action and pay closer attention to our surroundings, bigger issues than health care and extending the Bush-era tax cuts await. These issues require a deeper understanding of global issues. This is the time for intellectuals, not cowboys. But according to research conducted by ThinkProgress.org, a liberal policy website, 50 percent of the incoming freshmen House Republicans “deny the existence of man-made climate change” and 86 percent are “opposed to any climate change legislation.” Further, 39 percent of them have “declared their intention to end the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship.” Awesome. Big thinkers indeed.

Barack Obama is a big thinker. He has big thoughts but has an even bigger problem: himself. He can’t seem to get out of his own way, and seems incapable of blowing his stack even though most of us wish he would. At least, then he would look human. But if the president doesn’t start aggressively speaking out now and warn the nation that the world is in peril, he will indeed be a one-term president. And it won’t be because of the economy, it will be because all hell is breaking loose.

In terms of foreign policy, he has a terrific grasp of international relations. His instinct to stabilize the situation in Pakistan by creating a more economically vibrant India, for example, suggests a profound grasp of global politics.

Our most recent experience in Iraq is the perfect illustration of this clear-minded thinking. Had the Bush administration ousted Saddam Hussein simply on the basis of denying access to U.N. nuclear inspectors and not the tenuous presence of weapons of mass destruction, a new political structure could have been implemented in Baghdad without dismantling the entire physical and political infrastructure of the nation. One of the prevailing sentiments among the generals who led the war in Iraq is that the Iraqi military and police personnel had allegiance to the Ba’athist regime primarily through fear, not ideology or respect, and would have been useful in maintaining order. If the trio of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had listened to their generals and taken control of the existing government and military instead of leveling the entire nation, a sustained diplomatic and political presence in Iraq would have given the U.S. the reputation of “liberator” instead of “occupier.” All told, we could have maintained the moral high ground in Iraq and, more importantly, prevented its total economic collapse.

The lesson here: A more stable Iraq equals a more cautious Iran. Likewise, a stable India equals a Pakistan more focused on competing within the region and protecting itself from a natural, regional enemy and less dependent on America. And so on and so forth throughout the world.

But having spent all of his political capital on a shoddy but well-intentioned health care bill, Obama lacks the power or the funding to make any significant global power plays, let alone push a domestic agenda for the next two years. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden can keep their fingers in the dam for only so long. When the flood comes, we’ll see just how bad the Bush-era foreign policy decisions really were; while historians will note this in time, Republicans today will simply pin all of these problems on Obama. Such is the life of a president. Or at least a president who refuses to blow his stack and stand for something.

BP and Obama: The President’s Public Relations Nightmare

Ultimately the only issue I have with the president’s handling of the spill is in his characterizing it as the “worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.” This is a hollow proclamation that examines the spill in a vacuum. The worst disaster is our pernicious environmental policy agenda that allows ignominious corporations to reap enormous profits from our insatiable consumerism that is fueled by other less tangible, but wholly calculated corporate misdeeds such as planned obsolescence and the rise of industrial agriculture.

President Obama in Clinton-esque Form

Short of actually sticking the president into the gushing hole in the Gulf of Mexico, I’m not clear what exactly people expect Obama to do right now. This is a public relations fiasco that is as unprecedented as it is unwinnable and the response to his response has been puzzling to say the least.

Republicans accuse Obama of taking advantage of the spill to push renewable energy and clean technology. Um, OK. Democrats are lining up to accuse Obama of not emoting enough on television. I see. One can only surmise the proper reaction then would be to demand greater dependence upon fossil fuels during a nationally televised address where the president breaks out his hanky and furiously mops his brow while channeling his inner Jimmy Swaggart.
 

Pleasing pundits and demagogues isn’t of primary concern at the moment. The bigger issue is maintaining control of the situation and instilling confidence in the public. For this, Obama has the wisdom of “W” to rely upon. When Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, President Bush was excoriated for not visiting the hurricane-ravaged region sooner. Thus, President Obama has visited the region three times already and locals are furious his motorcade is gumming up the works and the public is charging him with seeking Clinton-esque photo opportunities on the beach.

That leaves us with the working men and women who rely on the Gulf for their livelihoods. Here again, a PR non-starter. On one side are representatives from the fishing industry lambasting the administration for not holding BP’s feet to the fire in processing claims immediately. On the other is the oil industry—incensed over Obama’s six-month moratorium on off-shore deep-water exploration—claiming the penalty for companies in good standing is too harsh and negatively impacting workers in the industry.

One can only imagine the prevailing sentiment in the Exxon Mobil board room is “there but for the grace of God…”

Ultimately the only issue I have with the president’s handling of the spill is in his characterizing it as the “worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.” This is a hollow proclamation that examines the spill in a vacuum. The worst disaster is our pernicious environmental policy agenda that allows ignominious corporations to reap enormous profits from our insatiable consumerism that is fueled by other less tangible, but wholly calculated corporate misdeeds such as planned obsolescence and the rise of industrial agriculture.

Thirty years ago the IXTOC I well in the Gulf of Mexico exploded and proceeded to pour approximately 140 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. It took eight months to cap the leak. The immediate effects on the fishing industry and wildlife from a spill this size are devastating. However, the long-term effects of an oil spill of this magnitude are reported, even by environmentalists, to be rather benign. That is to say, oil is a natural ingredient of Earth and over time it will break down and return again to its original form. None of this is any consolation in a situation that is as maddening as it is sickening.

In practice, our reckless pursuit of fossil fuels is less sustainable for humans than Earth. The great Chief and Faithkeeper of Onondaga, Oren Lyons, says it best: “Whatever happens to us will not have any impact on the world. In time, the world will regenerate. It will come back green, and the waters will be clean again. It’s just that there won’t be any people here.”

And there it is. Suicide by consumption.

What we require in the interest of self-preservation is leadership that demands investment, not into “bridge fuels” like natural gas exploration and inefficient ocean-based wind turbines, but into a massive micro-level renewable energy plan that can be easily adopted by the states. Renewable energy technology on a micro level is more portable and easily funded than quixotic pursuits of windmills and the folly of “clean” coal and “safe” nuclear power. The effort must begin at the top but be decentralized enough to allow the states to administer a plan to simultaneously curb consumption and reward conservation through economic incentives, thereby sparking a global manufacturing race.

Unfortunately, this agenda is neither sexy nor easily explained, but it can be inspired and effective. Either way, this recipe for environmental and energy independence success is a political recipe for disaster.