About Reagan

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Ronald Reagan is without a doubt a conservative icon who, as President, had many victories but one victory currently relevant does most emphatically not belong to Reagan, even though it’s often attributed to him.  Once again the United States finds itself negotiating with Iran.  Americans are considering whether the negotiations have accomplished their stated goal: To keep Iran from building a bomb.  The question is, is the deal a good one?  Could we have gotten a better deal?  Could Reagan have gotten a better deal?  “Reagan didn’t need a deal” is the slogan running through Conservative circles.  The implication being that Reagan achieved release of the hostages in 1980 through sheer force of personality.  Surely any rational person knows what a farce that is.  But let’s go through the events anyway.

Most people are familiar with the first part.  The secular leader of Iran, the Shah, supported by the US and very friendly to western powers, was overthrown in a religious coup.  The Embassy was stormed and 52 American were taken hostage for over a year.  They were released the day Reagan was sworn in.

In one respect Conservatives are correct.  Reagan did not need a deal.  Because Carter had already signed one.  It’s called the Algiers Accord.  It’s a simple document.  We promise to stay out of their business. We release 7.9 Billion dollars of Iranian assets and sanctions.  They also get some immunity in civil courts.  In return, they deposited one billion dollars in an escrow account as part of arbitration agreement to compensate Americans for assets lost in the revolution. Iranians would receive assets held by the US belonging to the Shaw and Iran would honor their international debts and obligations.  Oh, and the hostages would come home.  Because the Iranians refused to negotiate with the US without an Algerian intermediary (it wasn’t called the Algerian Accords for nothing), and the numerous linguistic barriers the negotiations took a great deal of time.  It also took a lengthy amount of time to physically transfer some of the assets (such as 50 tonnes of gold).  Additionally, Iran was in a war with Iraq which also complicated safe transportation.


In the end it was Carter who secured the release of hostages through a reasonable and complex deal.  It was also Carter who was generous and statesman enough to allow Reagan to make the announcement and implicitly claim credit.  The next time Reagan would negotiate with Iran he would sell our enemy weapons and transfer the funds to murderous death squads against the explicit orders of congress.  This was not a success.  If there was any justice in the world, the Iran-Contra scandal should have brought down the Reagan administration.  Beside Carter, Only Obama has successfully negotiated with the Iran.  He’s created a medium term impediment to Iranians acquiring a nuclear weapon.  In theory the Iranians say they don’t want a nuclear weapon, they only want nuclear power.  Which is fine.  It’s very healthy on the part of the Iranians to wish to diversify their economy.  However, there’s no reason we should trust them.  So these negotiations are necessary.  I won’t go into the finer points of the treaty in this blog.

The point is that the near mythological status that Reagan holds has corrupted the history of our dealings with Iran and have created entirely unreasonable expectations. Without respect, even for an enemy, and compromise, negotiations mean nothing.  It’s time to understand a deep history of the world instead of knee-jerk short-term politicized reactions.


Hope and Change

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The Obama slogan in 2008, and to a lesser extent in 2012 was “hope and change”. I can’t imagine what that the last few years turned out anything like the President thought they’d turn out.  I wonder what people thought “hope and change” would look like.  Real, substantive change has never been easy and it’s often been violent.  It’s not always successful.

The level of animosity towards the President is unreal.  Bush was hated by liberals to be sure, but even they, for the most part, never sank to the depths that we’ve seen people sink to with Obama.  I truly hope this is the nadir of American politics.  But in an odd way I think this is healthy.  Or at least, it can be healthy.  Before you can treat the problem, I think you have to understand it.  To see it exposed in all of its horror.  I think if the issues hadn’t been so damaging, and so ingrained I think Obama could have done something more direct, but I’m afraid that healing these festering wounds will require the efforts of his successor.

And we’ve been distracted.  Obama started his presidency in the middle of two wars and an economic crises unseen since the great depression.  The final days of the Bush Presidency and the first days of the Obama presidency were instrumental in stabilizing the economy.  While the economy has yet to produce gains for the poor and middle class, it’s literally and genuinely the best in the world right now.  The poor and middle class should start to see gains as the slack in the labor market gets absorbed, but the job losses in 2007-2009 were so horrendous that it’ll take more time yet.  I mention this only because its ludicrous to talk about race in America without discussing broader economic principles.  I think if this was something more people realized, it would be easier to tackle some of these outstanding problems.

The point is that we fixed the economy, even sabotaged as it was by austerity, government shutdowns, the sequester, and a threatened government debt default.   We passed healthcare reform.  It was a compromise plan that made no one happy but still offers real and tangible gains for the poor and middle class.  It’s very small change but within that change there is hope.

Lately, the country has been largely focused on criminal justice issues.  Superficially, it looks like dark days.  But it’s not dark days.  Police brutality is not new. We haven’t lived all this time in this country under the righteous and benevolent police force who cares about minorities and engages in continuous honest self-reflection and community dialogue.  That’s the story we tell ourselves.  We used to think that Bad Cops were just a few rotten individuals in a sea of heroes.  Outliers.  We know that’s not true.  With every story of brutality at the hands of police, the country realizes that there is yet another injustice that minorities are suffering through that must be addressed.  With every bald-faced racist newscast and commentary seeking to victimize an entire group of people for the actions of one, we get a better idea of who we really are.  White privileged America had no idea.  This is not a problem we do not face.  Perhaps we are damned for our inability to see the obvious, but we did not know.  But it’s getting harder to do nothing; to say  nothing.  There is hope.  Things are changing.

The police confronted with their clear abuse of power are offended.  They’ve literally turned their back on the mayor.  This is understandable.  This is usually the first response of someone who’s been told they’re racist and abusive.  That they’ve fallen from grace.  That they’re not the heroes they thought they were.  That will take some getting used to.  They’re taking it hard, they’ll get better.  Things are changing and there is hope.

The chief business of America….

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The chief business of the American People is Business.  They are profoundly concerned with buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.  —  Calvin Coolidge 1925

Well?  Is it true or isn’t it?  America created history’s greatest mercantile empire.  We believe in Capitalism so much its nearly a self-destructive religion.  But in light of recent events, one wonders if that’s really what we believe in at all.  Particularly Republicans.  The hue and cry in the name of Capitalism, the flocking to shrines to Reagan and Ayn Rand those patron saints of Capitalism, would all give one false hope that Republicans have anything at all to do with the philosophy.  Yet, time and again, they act against it.  One wonders if they do not understand, or if they do not believe.

If they believe in the power of capitalism to reshape a society to bring prosperity, then why do they resist using capitalism in just that capacity?  All around the world in our bloody history, we have fought wars, embargoed nations, in order to bend them to our will.  Why?  If our ideals are so powerful will they not naturally dominate those other cultures?  More importantly, why do you care?  Cuba has an autocratic brutal dictatorship.  So?  It’s not our problem.  What can we do about it?  We can invade overthrow the government and institute a puppet state, because that’s worked really well for us.  We could embargo the Cubans because after 53 years they’re sure to crack any day.  We could throw a giant hissy fit which will get Republicans re-elected but it serves no one’s interest.  For political and social conditions to change in Cuba, it’ll have to be Cubans who will do it.  The US can do nothing in this regard.

So, let’s use the one thing we’re really good at.  Making money.  Maybe normalizing relations and opening trade between our two countries will bring about modernization and moderation.  Maybe it won’t but at the end of the day you have to have a fundamental respect for the choices people make.  You could argue that socialism and communism is doomed to failure.  Again I ask, So?  Again, not our problem.  Ideally you’d want other countries to be as prosperous as socialism will let them to be, because a prosperous country is a better trading partner.  It doesn’t matter if their socialist.  A complete non sequitur.  If it works for them, great! if it doesn’t, we’ll be there with IMF loans, fiscal policy reforms, and foreign investments to help get them back on track.

I believe in Capitalism.  I truly do.  I see communist countries adopting capitalist reforms and trying to modernize.  And it works.  Growth and prosperity have transformed places like Vietnam and China and the transformation is on going.  Even if it is a slow painful process.  That’s fine with me.  I’m not in a place to dictate to another country what the pace of their progress should be.  But this cold war era mentality was toxic.  It was toxic for 50 years.  That’s why they called it a war.

The business of America is business.  We shall not fight useless battles toward unprofitable ends.  Normalize relations with everyone who will talk to us. Remember, consent of the governed is not a right given to a people, they already have it.  It’s natural law.  We are not to govern them, and their own tyrants do so at their peril. Let’s put our faith in the power of ideas, and the resolution of the people to govern themselves.

Immigration investment

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Dear liberals and minority groups. Obama has never really embraced immigration reform. For most of his presidency he’s been deporting millions of people while advancing small scale solutions. It was in a vain hope of cooperating with GOPs who flagrantly lied about compromising on this issue if he toughened his stance. They’re promises were clearly worthless. But now he’s abandoned compromise and placed what little political capital he has left as a lame duck president to you guys. It’s a huge sacrifice. This will make it harder to craft trade deals, pass a budget, work on social justice issues. Forget income inequality, student loans or environmental causes. He’s making a stand on immigration.

Scratch that he’s making an investment in immigration. He has pushed his authority and the constitution to the breaking point here. And for what? Liberals and minorities betrayed the country when they failed to turn up at the polls earlier this month. They betrayed the countless who suffered and died to make suffrage truly universal. As a result there will be no grand immigration reform. You’ll have to wait until the next election. More than anything else Obama is making a case for why you need to vote. For why passivity is dangerous and counterproductive. The next election will decide which party has a mandate moving forward. If your causes are important to you, there is only one solution.

In a nearly perfect world

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Because we have a 24hour news cycle with no one actually doing any reporting, it’s important to ask, “who’s to blame for ISIS?” Is the President to blame for not moving fast enough with the airstrikes or moving faster with the military aide to “moderate” anti-Syrian forces? A solution to intensify the fighting perhaps but, at this moment, it is doubtful that ANY amount of aide could have resulted in a quick and decisive victory. The “moderate” rebels are divided, disorganized and moderate only in the sense that they’re not quite as bad as everyone else in the region. Yet. However, they just don’t have enough support to take and hold all of Syria which is a necessary step to preventing a group like ISIS from forming. Not only that, the more support they get from outside help, the less legitimate their cause. Any meaningful or decisive help will make it all but impossible to form a government in the aftermath. Few of the Presidents critics seriously blame him for ISIS, just the fanciful notion that he didn’t use a magic wand to fix the problem because he hates America. So if it’s not Obama, who can we blame next?

Well Bush obviously. It was his ill conceived and poorly executed war that destabilized the region and allowed ISIS to gain a foothold. It was Bush that paved the way for Maliki to come to power, it was him that screwed up the rebuilding of Iraq, and it was him that failed to integrate all the various factions.
Without a doubt, Bush is certainly guilty of some of that, as is Maliki, but neither is Bush to blame for the rise of ISIS. For one, ISIS started in Syria not Iraq and has only a tenuous connection to the troubles there. Assad himself destabilized Syria in events that had little to do with our Occupation in Iraq. Once Bush pushed the Sunni and Baathist minority from power, conflict was inevitable. A civil war between Sunni and Shia has been ongoing in that region since the fall of Saddam and has now escalated into ISIS. Perhaps if Bush, Assad, Maliki had been perfect rulers and Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Christians, and other minority groups could have buried the hatchet and forgiven each other for centuries of atrocities and successive repressions, ISIS could have been avoided, but that a bit much to ask for any one president.

Besides, think about it. What would have happened had we done nothing? Imagine that Bush institutes a period of nation building a civic projects to heal the nation after 9/11 instead of going to war. What happens next? We obviously can’t know the details, but we know the rough outline of this story. It’s been repeated so often there is no need to guess. At some point through weakness or incompetence Saddam or his successor falls. There’s a coup, or a revolution. Maybe the Kurds start it or the Shia. Eventually the shit hits the fan and the price for newly minted rubble goes way way down. The various factions can’t get their act together or unite in common cause and regional powers get involved in a complex conflict and chaos is born.

ISIS was inevitable. They were a glass set half off the edge of a table. Sure Bush may have bumped the table and Obama may have failed in his heroic dive to keep it from shattering on the floor but the glass itself had always been doomed. There was no saving it. There’s no cleaning it up or putting it back together. And, unless we wish to remain there forever and ever we can not and should not be involved.

In a perfect world there would be no ISIS or terrorism. But in a nearly perfect world, what do you do? You refused to be terrorized, you stand against the erosion of civil liberties, you build this nation instead of tearing down others.

The conservative playbook

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Conservative Americans in their umbrage over President Obama’s perceived weakness over Ukraine, are making the same mistake as Putin.  They accuse the president of weakness because they want to DO something flashy and explosive and what is the President doing? Seemingly nothing. As perverse as it sounds, and as counterintuitive as it might be, conservatives and Putin are on the same side. That’s not to suggest that conservatives are unpatriotic, quite the contrary. But they see the world through the same old fashioned Cold War perspective as Putin does with the same old geopolitical goals and means. Massive arms build ups, military industrial complexes, fighting proxy wars, accruing debt. Your classic Reaganism.  It won’t work in the short term and in the long term it’d be disastrous for US foreign and domestic policy.

Do you know why we’re giving Ukraine economic assistance instead of military? If we’d followed the conservative playbook we would have done the same thing as Russia.  Sent complex and sophisticated weapons into a volatile area.  As a result that airline could just as easily have been shot down with by the Ukraine government instead of the rebels  and that would have been a disaster for us instead of Russia.  Because of this inevitable atrocity, Russia is now a pariah among nations and facing even stricter sanctions.  Moreover, military aide would further justify Russian involvement. With more weapons to match the Russians, the situation would escalate, atrocities would be committed and it would be our fault. We’d run the very real risk of destabilizing the region and permanently dividing Ukraine. People would flock to the Russian banner not because of Pro-Russian sentiment, or for nationalism but simply to fight the intrusive Americans. In the exact same way, a narrowly divided Ukraine has shifted dramatically to the west because it resents Russian involvement.

So we’re popular. For now. What of it?  Russia could roll right over Ukraine militarily if it wanted to. We need to do something to prevent it.  Right? No.  We don’t. Imagine for a moment that Russia could and would take over not only eastern Ukraine but all of Ukraine and even the nations further west, what should we do? The conservative playbook says to draw a line in the sand and build up a powerful (and expensive) army that’s so powerful that Russia doesn’t dare cross it. This is wonderful for Russia. Russia sees a massive sophisticated army on its border and responds to this existential threat by cracking down on freedoms without inciting it’s people, beefs up its economy through defense spending, and build exclusive trade partnerships with its allies. Russian power and prestige grows.  It collects hardened allies from those nations hostile to American intrusion  and now we’re back to the Cold War.

It won’t work so let’s toss out the conservative playbook even though Putin is still reading from its pages.  Let him. Let Russia take Crimea, East and West Ukraine and whatever else it can seize militarily.  Russia won’t be able to keep the territory any more than the Soviets could. The move would spark massive unrest which would provoke equally massive repression.  This would begin an unending cycle of violence and retaliation that would destroy the regional economies and make the newly claimed territory ungovernable and worthless. Eventually Russia would have to retreat and western powers would move in diplomatically and economically to consolidate power in the region. How do we know this? Because that’s what happened last time and it led to greater political, economic, and military integration under the western aegis.

If Russia makes the same mistakes a second time the gains for the west will be even greater. The key is economic stability and prosperity. This is a war of ideas and trade not with guns and bullets. If conservatives confront Russia with an aggressive military posture, Putin will mirror it and consolidate or expand power. Consider that even now Russia has gained an insignificant peninsula and (potentially) a small bit of land in Eastern Ukraine. As a result it’s been diplomatically isolated, proWestern sentiment has skyrocketed, and where the Russian economy was doing relatively well it risks depression or even collapse due to ever tightening sanctions. Russia can not exist as it is in isolation. No sophisticated economy could. If you really want to battle Russia, develop cheap and easy alternative fuels. You’ll crash the Russian economy even without sanctions and you remove Russia’s only real leverage.  OR better yet, reduce the military, balance the budget, provide a legitimate safety net, invest in education and technology, and broaden dollar diplomacy and trade agreements. That’s how you win.

The #GOP and the #SOTU

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Dear GOP,

In his State of the Union speech, Obama has promised to use his executive office to make changes.  Your first instinct is to call him a dictator and fight him on this.  I would advise against this for a couple of reasons.  First, you can only fight him in two ways.  Pass a law over riding his executive order, (good luck with that) or take him to court.  Unless he steps wildly outside his federal purview,  you’ll lose.  Badly, publicly, and embarrassingly. Very much like every last one of your recent court battles.  But I doubt you’ll do this.  Your second go-to option is to call him names for media attention and to be randomly inflammatory.  Again, I advise against this.  Because the country is going to call your bluff.  You don’t want the president taking action, but you yourselves won’t, or can’t.  So the hypocrisy here is a little intolerable.  The more you fight, the more blatant your hypocrisy will become.  Eventually you’ll start saying or doing something on camera you’ll regret and here comes the mid term elections.  Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me if Obama’s long term game was to provoke you into exactly this sort of scenario.

Here’s the other problem and this is more global than specific.  It’s your persistent inability to formulate a coherent, actionable legislative agenda.  You keep saying you’ll repeal and replace, but you’re horrifically vague on the replacement aspect.  Same with taxes and spending.  You say  you want to cut taxes AND balance the budget by cutting spending, and yet you never say which taxes, by how much, for whom, and which spending programs are being cut.  On almost every  legislative policy agenda, you run into the exact same problem of vague useless plans.  I say this only because, while your welcome to criticize the President for his actions, its your inaction on every substantive issue in  the country that is he’s going to hit you with in the fall.

There’s another reason you need to be careful.  Obama hasn’t issued all that many executive orders especially relative to recent Republicans.  You run into more overt hypocrisy if you call him out on executive privilege.  So calling him out for exercising power he’s both entitled and obligated to use in order to solve problems that you won’t touch isn’t going to end well for you but your welcome to try.