Discreet Balderdash

Friday, June 26, 2009

Obama Plays it Right on Iran

Iran could be in the throes of genuine change. So naturally, many are considering how President Obama should act. Should he react with outrage to the crackdowns? Should he have questioned the Iranian regime’s legitimacy earlier?

I think Obama’s reaction has been about right. Many conservatives such as Lindsay Graham and John McCain would have liked Obama to take a tougher line. Perhaps Obama could have been more outspoken in support of the protesters early on. But I think keeping a moderate tone was the correct move in this situation.

As he referenced in his Cairo speech, the US has a trouble relationship with Iran. Many Iranians are still upset about US support for the Shah. If the American President were to play a visible role in favor of the protesters, the Iranian regime would be able to paint the all the dissidents as Americans stooges. Given the animosity many Iranians have for the US, that could hinder reformers.

Moreover, the US needs to be able to deal with whatever regime emerges in Iran. If the current regime does prevail—as it seems it will—it would be bad to further alienate it, or give it an excuse to stop all negotiations. Granted, the regime is obstinate and may not work with us, but I would prefer not to foreclose all possibility of such engagement.

Lastly, it is not clear what taking a combative tone would do. Intervening militarily on behalf of the protesters will not happen. There’s no sense in making promises that can’t be kept.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Laker Parade Is a Good Idea

Los Angeles is slated to have a parade in honor of the LA Lakers victory in the NBA championships. When I first heard about this, I was strongly against the idea, but I have since changed my mind.

What had me upset was the idea that Los Angeles could be spending a large amount of money to celebrate the achievements of millionaires during a deep recession when the city is contemplating firing thousands of teachers. It seemed irresponsible.

But it turns out that the bill is being mostly footed by wealthy philanthropists which means that the city will not have to go further into debt to fund the parade.

It also turns out that there could be economic benefits to holding the parade for the city. The mayor claims that the parade will boost the economy by $15 million, which is nothing to sneeze at. I’m all for anything that boosts local economies right now.

The parade might also be good in that it promotes city unity and helps people stop thinking about their economic woes for just one night. I think having the parade is a good idea.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Who Really Won Iran's Election?

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will continue to be the President of Iran. The interior ministry reports that Ahmadinejad won 62.6% of the vote in Friday’s election. His reformist opponent, Mousavi won less than 34%

Mousavi is alleging vote fraud. And I wouldn’t doubt it. Ahmadinejad faced plenty of concern especially with the economy and inflation. At the very least, I would have expected the results to be closer. It does look though that there were shenanigans. The Washington Post reported that:

“Mousavi's supporters charged that officials were trying to steal the election and cut off alternative sources of information. For several hours during the balloting Friday, they said, international telephone lines to Tehran were down and text messaging -- which Mousavi's supporters had used to organize street rallies -- was blocked. Members of the baseej, a paramilitary force of volunteers organized by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, reportedly seized a building in North Tehran that housed several Web sites supporting Mousavi, which were shut down.

A senior aide to another opposition candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, charged that the Interior Ministry was distorting the early vote count by providing results from the countryside and not cities. "We believe these results are void and not acceptable," said the aide, Morteza Alviri.”

Although Ahmadinejad won the election, I’m not sure there is a clear winner in all of this. There are violent riots and protests going on in Iran right now. This shows that there is quite a bit of dissatisfaction with his regime, and a feeling that perhaps the political process was twisted. Ahmadinejad may as a result have less political capital with his people.

On the other hand, it looks like Barack Obama might also be a loser in this. The mere fact that Ahmadinejad is still in power may well hurt his attempts to win concessions from the Israelis on settlements and Palestinian statehood. So long as a man who wants to wipe Israel off the map remains in power, Israelis will insist on dealing with Iran before they worry about the Palestinian question.

What is yet to be seen is how Ahmadinejad reacts to his victory. Will he feel emboldened, as I suspect he will? Or might all the protests and violence cause him to adopt a more conciliatory approach to governing and focus more on his economic problems at home, and less on bombast in the international arena?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Treat Voters like People, Not Puzzle Pieces

Under every election model, political scientists argue that politicians tend to be more centrist when in power to gain reelection. This makes sense because those to the left of a Democrat’s votes or to the right of a Republican’s votes will be voters already predisposed to give their vote to the respective candidate. The interesting part of this discussion is whether this predisposition means that these voters are largely ignored by their party’s candidate even though they are essential for their victory.

The first example Marcus deals with is blacks and Democrats. He correctly points out that by the history of the relationship between blacks and the Democratic and Republican parties of the 1960s has led to blacks disproportionately voting Democrat. He also correctly recognizes that the Democratic Party, while always championing that they are the party for racial minorities, has done little with policy to help out with these communities.

For example, when the mandatory minimum drug penalties were being negotiated in the 1980s, it should have been the Democratic Party that came out against the large differences in sentencing guidelines for powder cocaine (consumed disproportionately by whites) and crack cocaine (consumed disproportionately by blacks). Instead, the sentences were passed. Democrats have championed more funding for schools in lower income areas and better public housing, but the quality of both these programs today are a testament to the effort the Democrats actually put into these issues.

Moreover, you can compare public housing and low-income school quality to the power of unions, another traditional liberal issue. Unions have gained in power throughout the country, making ridiculous compromises helped along by liberal politicians around the country. One could say that since blacks are a strong supporter of liberals, Democrats could focus on union workers more, some of whom who could vote Republican because of social issues. The fact remains that Democrats have increasingly taken black votes for granted, something that neither helps the black community nor the future of our country.

Where I disagree with Marcus is on his point about evangelicals. He writes that the right takes them for granted and thus issues like school prayer, abortion, and intelligent design are not being addressed. Here’s the problem with Marcus’ argument. I’m not sure that these issues would even be prevalent in the national debate if the 20% of evangelicals were not a strong part of one of our two parties. That is, Republicans run the risk of becoming nobodies in the future of the party without first cementing their evangelical values and voting likewise, like what happened to Arlen Specter and other Northern Republican Senators (or Republicans in Name Only (RINO) as Rush Limbaugh likes to call them).

Republicans may actually be ignoring and taking the fiscal conservatives in their party for granted. While George W. Bush frequently championed evangelical issues from his bully pulpit, fiscal conservatism was put on the back burner when introducing legislation like No Child Left Behind and not consolidating spending in the federal government.

Both parties need to treat their base voters like people, instead of another statistical point on their way to power. Only this sort of mindset will allow such groups to both be loyal to their parties and effectively represented through favorable legislation.

Do the Parties take certain demographics for granted?

Both parties have come to depend on certain coalitions to win elections. Republicans rely on white evangelicals, economic conservatives, and foreign policy hawks. Democrats rely on racial minorities, labor unions, environmentalists, and feminists.

Certain groups within these coalitions tend to get shortchanged. For Democrats, it’s often been blacks, while for Republicans it has been white evangelicals.

Let’s start with blacks and democrats. For around 40 years now, blacks have given close to 90% of their votes to democrats. Much of this was because of Lyndon Johnson’s support for civil rights and black advancement. Also, as conservatives took over the Republican Party in 1964, blacks felt less welcome. For example, Barry Goldwater opposed the civil rights act and carried states in the Deep South in 1964. William F. Buckley, the father of the conservative movement once wrote that:

The central question that emerges . . . is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not prevail numerically? The sobering answer is Yes — the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists.

After the civil rights movement, blacks felt targeted by Republicans when they ran ads like Jesse Helms’ quota ads in 1990, and the Willie Horton ads during the 1988 election. Here are the links:


So blacks have often felt like they simply had no choice. They became loyal democrats. But in many ways, they have received precious little in the way of recompense for their staunch support. Inner city schools have not received real reform; the most sincere effort might well have been No Child Left Behind by Republican George W. Bush. Disparate drug laws are just now being revised after decades of disproportionately putting black men in jail. Mandatory minimums are still in place. The election of a black President, Barack Obama, is a huge silver lining, but it is still important to see what concretes steps he and the democrats take to make life better for poor blacks.

Traditionally, blacks have been a radioactive part of the Democratic base. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson for example are less popular with whites than affirmative action, hard as that is to believe. Democrats need black support to win elections, but they also need to win white moderates. Appearing to be too overtly pro-black during the 1980s and 1990s would have hurt these efforts tremendously.

Evangelicals have faced a similar problem with the Republican Party. There isn’t really a place in a democratic party which is staunchly pro-choice, and where a considerable segment of the party elite detest the Religious Right. Evangelicals have failed to win any major policy victories aside from ephemeral triumphs on gay marriage.

Abortion remains legal, and there are normally over a million abortions a year. Roe vs. Wade will probably never be overturned. Even if it were, most states will keep it legal. School prayer is not allowed. Evolution instead of intelligent design is taught in schools.

While Republicans have accomplished nothing for evangelicals, they have pushed full speed ahead on economic and foreign policy conservative agenda items. They cut taxes including the estate tax. They had a buildup against the Soviet Union and invaded Iraq. Case in point, after the 2004 election where evangelicals swept Republicans to victory, they didn’t try seriously for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, or to ban abortion. Instead, they tried to reform social security. Republicans go to evangelicals during election time, but once in office, they don’t deliver on their issues.

Friday, June 5, 2009

My Reaction to Obama's Muslim Speech

President Obama gave his much-hyped speech to the Muslim world today. So, how did he do? Here are some thoughts I had listening to the speech

1. Obama did an effective job of communicating changes in policy

Obama noted that he has banned the use of torture, and closing Guantanamo. On Iraq, he pledged that US forced will be out of the country by 2012, and was eloquent when he said the US will deal with Iraq as a “patron, not a partner.” All of these drew large applause from the crowd. These show that Obama is making a bona fide effort to reset US relations with the Muslim world. He was wise to make this case, and did so effectively.

2. Less attention to Iran

Here, I thought Obama did fine as well. He noted that he wants to pursue a world where there are no nuclear weapons, and that he was willing to let Iran use nuclear power peacefully. It was good that he indicated a desire to put the past behind him. But overall, he didn’t spend as much time in the speech dealing with Iran as I would have thought. He could have for example, spent more time detailing what he envisions as the future for Iran. That future could include having no sanctions, having a strong economy instead of rampant inflation, etc.

3. Israel-Palestinian conflict

Obama strongly embraced Israel and said our bonds with that country are “unbreakable” He movingly detailed the history of the holocaust and excoriated those who would deny that message—a veiled swipe at Mahmoud Achmadinejad. This was probably aimed to reassure Israel and make sure American voters know that he will not be abandoning the special relationship. But he won lots of applause when he reiterated his opposition to Israeli settlements and said he would do everything possible to make sure that Palestinians could have their own state. I tend to believe that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a good way would give the US enormous credibility with the Arab world and help build consensus to take on Iran. It was important for Obama to take this issue on.

4. Democracy and women’s’ rights

This might have been the thorniest issue to address. It’s no secret that many Arab countries including Egypt where he gave the address are not exactly democratic. Obama did his best to make sure his appeal for democracy was not seen as another western crusade. He insisted that his support for democracy promotion was based only on the human desire to have a say in how one is governed. On women’s rights, he acknowledged that many Islamic countries have elected female leaders and avoided condescension towards those in the audience. But he did press them to make sure that women could choose their roles freely and that women have as much to contribute to society as men. Overall, I thought taking on the issue of women’s rights was brave in this environment.

That all leaves me wondering what the effect of this speech will be. I think on the issue of Israel-Palestine he bought himself some goodwill in the Arab world which will give him time to address the conflict. He also won further goodwill by detailing changes in US policy and insisting that the US is not, and never will be at war with Islam. George W. Bush said similar things during his term, but this is simply more believable coming from Obama. On Iran he probably didn’t change much, and he might have caused some useful controversy when talking about democracy and women’s’ rights. I have spent most of this post focusing on the Muslim audience. But he had an American one as well. On that score he assured them that he viewed his first priority as keeping them safe. He also had the requisite tough words for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups I don’t think he said anything to hurt his domestic political standing.

Obama's Egypt Speech: More of the Same from the POTUS

In his speech in Egypt on June 4th, President Barack Obama aimed to lay the foundation of a renewed relationship between the United States and the Muslim nations of the Middle East. He aimed to do this in Cairo by speaking both about similarities between the United States and the Middle East and joint interests for the future. While the speech was well intentioned and praised by the mainstream media, it was ultimately another speech with empty rhetoric by the President of the United States.                              

As Obama mentions in his speech, it is certainly in the interest of the entire World to see the conflict in the Middle East come to an end. Obama, however, places the blame for the conflict equally on the Israelis and the Palestinians. He says that Palestinians have not been able to follow their dreams in their current state because of their dislocation. This is true, but the way that Obama structures his speech around this point insinuates that this has been because of the state of Israel, not mentioning that the Palestinian people decided to put a terrorist group into power. He blames Israel for the humanitarian crisis that engulfs the Palestinian population, not recognizing that Israel must take such actions to protect their own citizens. At a time where Israel has a strong distrust of the Obama Administration, this speech did nothing but worsen relations between the United States and its reliable ally in the Middle East.

I was hopeful that Obama would talk about the many problems that Iran developing nuclear weapons would cause in the World. He pointed out a future of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East as the inevitable end of the current policies of Iran. His next step should have been to encourage Iranians and other countries in the Middle East to put pressure on the power in Iran to disband its nuclear program. Instead, he agrees with the critics of America by talking about how “unfair” it is that a responsible country like America dares to keep nuclear weapons while at the same time preventing a hostile and dangerous regime in Iran from obtaining them. He continues by espousing his clearly fantasy world outlook where the United States would get rid of its nuclear weapons. Proposing such a solution is not only fantastical but also unproductive and unintelligent for any President.

Obama did show some backbone when bringing up the issues of women’s rights. I would have been happier to see him talk more specifically about how major reform is needed in culture with regards to women but understand why he chose not to. Obama spoke of “confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice…[and] the freedom to live as you choose” as intrinsic human rights that are independent of democracy. It was interesting because many of these undemocratic or farcical democracies in the Middle East are the same places where these intrinsic human rights do not apply to women. Democracy is the proxy that would allow women the rights and freedoms that are given to them by birth. Not emphasizing democracy directly with the protection of human rights, something the founding fathers often did in the pre-constitutional years, was a big mistake.

All in all, I was not surprised by what Obama talked about in Egypt. I know others would say that Obama has only had five months to fix the many problems that he inherited and I completely agree that he must be given more time. What frustrates me is that Obama has been treading on the side of appeasement to the Middle East so far into his administration, something that I sincerely hope does not continue during his four years in office.