Friday, August 30, 2013

President Obama,

American credibility is not at stake over the question of whether or not to intervene in Syria.  Credibility never has been, nor ever should be, an adequate reason for military intervention.  History shows time and time again that military interventions for the purpose of propping up credibility, reputation, and muscle flexing are, more often than not, long-term failures.

Sincerely - Seth Goodwin
Dear President Obama,

I want to register my utmost concern regarding the possibility of US surgical strikes against Syria. While the apparent use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime is horrific, I believe that US air strikes would be incredibly destabilizing and dangerous. Air strikes might serve as a deterrent to Iran, but I believe they are more likely to inflame and damage our relationship with Iran and seriously undermine the possibility of a diplomatic solution to their nuclear ambitions - not to mention create a more serious threat for Israel. And although Russia has been a bad actor in supporting the Assad regime and deserves little sympathy, I believe that air strikes will make our already poor relationship with Russia even worse and jeopardize the fragile geopolitics of the Middle East. It is my strong opinion that American military involvement, on the heels of Iraq and Afghanistan, would be one of the most dangerous and risky interventions possible.  I strongly urge you to refrain from military action and instead let diplomacy, sanctions, the UN, and the Arab League provide the consequences and the pressure.

Sincerely - Seth Goodwin

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Congress Slogs On: Returning to Work When Your Job Performance Stinks

Originally written on January 20, 2012

Americans loathe Congress.  The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Congressional approval ratings plummeting to 13%, a forty-year low.  Disliking Congress is nothing new.  They’ve only averaged an approval rating of 38% since 1974 in polls by ABC News/Washington Post and Gallup.  But this depth of frustration is unusual.    

Congressional Republicans have attracted the most ire with a 21% approval rating.  But their Democratic colleagues are only slightly more popular, at 33%.  Both parties have lost 17 percentage points in their Congressional approval ratings over the last three years and have together bottomed out at 13%. 

This should result in a pink slip.  Imagine what would happen to most Americans if their job performance ratings were so low?  Everyone but Congress sees the absurdity of this situation.  Unfortunately, the people can do little except wait for their terms to end.   

Far from being embarrassed, many in Congress blame one another for their dysfunction.  “The American public are right to be distressed, disappointed, anxious, angry about the failure of the Congress to address the serious problems confronting our country,” said Democratic Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland recently.  What Hoyer and his colleagues across the aisle don’t understand is that contrition cannot replace the profound change that most Americans expect in Congressional politics.  Absent is any accountability or remorse.  Americans have seen this sophomoric squabbling for years.  It’s become tiresome, as this latest poll indicates.    

Why such historic levels of disapproval now?  Consider two possibilities: brinksmanship and behavior.  What Americans really resent is the ease with which Congress gambles with their livelihoods.  Who suffers from Congressional intransigence?  The people who elected them.  A low point came last July during the debt ceiling and default crisis.  The public’s outrage was palpable as partisan politics threatened to undo America’s credit rating. 

Making matters worse was the glib self-righteousness expressed by Republicans that a credit-rating downgrade was inconsequential.  This is American financial exceptionalism at its most dangerous.  Despite a last ditch agreement on the debt ceiling in late July, creditors and markets twitched.  Proving Congress’s irrelevance, Standard and Poor’s downgraded the US credit rating, and the Dow Jones had its most tumultuous week since the 2008 financial meltdown.  

Congress fell off the approval cliff last summer amid the budget squabbling that led the country to near-default; it went from a dismal-enough 28 percent approval a year ago to half that in October,” points out Langer Research Associates.  Most stunning of all, and what probably jumpstarted the disgust with Congress, were the statements that followed the debt ceiling agreement.  Democrats and Republicans cast themselves in heroic terms.  Instead of being humbled by aspersions thrown their way, they glibly asserted they had saved the day.  Americans could only listen in amazement. 

Here’s a sampling: From House Speaker John Boehner, “I’m going to tell you, this has been a long battle - we’ve fought valiantly - and frankly we’ve done it by listening to the American people.”  Or this from Majority Leader Harry Reid, “I am relieved to say that leaders of both parties have come together for the sake of our economy, to reach a historic bipartisan compromise, that ends this dangerous standoff.”  This is akin to a medical team waiting to start CPR until the patient is blue and then congratulating themselves for saving a life.

The silver lining is that President Obama could benefit from the public’s dim view of Congress, although he’s not without his own problems.  His 48% approval rating is a glowing 35 percentage points above Congress.  This allows him to shift some blame onto Congress and cast himself as a hardworking Democratic president who has been thwarted by obstructionist Republicans in Congress.  He may get some traction with this narrative.  However, of the four presidents who began re-election years with approval ratings below 50% only one was re-elected – Richard Nixon in 1972. 

Most of the electorate is grumpy, from conservatives who refuse to back Mitt Romney to liberals castigating President Obama.  Congress may be an easy target, but no politicians are immune from the anger that’s simmering in the electorate.  This is not a year to be smug if you are doing the people’s work. 

Kane, Paul and Jon Cohen. “84 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, poll finds.” 16 Jan. 2012. The Washington Post. Web. 22 Jan. 2012. 
Langer, Gary. “Congress Hits a New Low in Approval; Obama Opens Election Year Under 50%.” 16 Jan. 2012. ABC News Blog. Web. 22 Jan. 2012. 
Langer Research. “ABC News/Washington Post Poll: Congress and Obama.” 16 Jan. 2012. Langer Research Associates. Web. 22 Jan. 2012
Real Clear Politics. “Congressional Job Approval.” 20 Jan. 2012. Web. 
Rowley, James. “Congress Returns Amid Historically Low Approval Ratings.” 19 Jan. 2012. Bloomberg Businessweek. Web. 20 Jan. 2012.     
Wolf, Z. Byron. “Obama, Boehner Announce Agreement to Raise Debt Ceiling, Avoid Default.” 31 Jul. 2011. ABC News, The Note Blog. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.   

Monday, January 30, 2012

Mitt Romney: The Only Choice for Pragmatic Conservatives

Originally written on January 16, 2012

Secret, evangelical Texas ranch meeting aside, Mitt Romney, not Rick Santorum, will be the conservatives’ choice for 2012.  Be they religious conservatives or the plain garden variety.  Republican voters, outside the Texas ranch inner sanctum, are smart enough to rally around an electable candidate.  The bottom line is that they fear a second term President Obama more than they fear a President Romney. 

Religious conservatives, and some pundits, predict that evangelism will trump political common sense.  This wisdom suggests that Romney’s Mormon faith makes him unpalatable to Christian evangelicals and that the South constitutes some crazed religious demographic that only votes with their Bibles.  Like most caricatures, those who view the South Carolina Republican primary as a hallmark in another Great Awakening have misinterpreted the cyclical history of previous Great Awakenings.  The awakened ones are actually now headed back to slumber in American politics.     

The religious right still wields considerable power within the Republican Party, but less when compared to years past.  The evangelical tent of the Republican Party has to enlarge its footprint as the South Carolina primary approaches, and this is where pragmatism will defeat evangelism.

Yes, religious conservatives are unhappy with their options, but they usually are.  Remember, in 2008 they even failed to unite behind Mike Huckabee, a model religious conservative candidate.  Now, the evangelical kingmakers have chosen Rick Santorum at their Texas ranch conclave.  The problem is that conservative South Carolinian voters could care less.  Romney is still leading in most South Carolina polls, and he will prevail on primary day.  Why?  Because evangelical kingmakers have, for the moment, run their course in American politics, usurped by political pragmatism.  Mitt Romney is electable.  Rick Santorum is not. 

Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama allegedly pose an existential threat to religious conservatives – the primary difference being one of party.  Many pundits and evangelical conservatives predict Romney’s demise in South Carolina, pointing to his precarious conservative credentials and his Mormon faith, perhaps the biggest elephant in this race.  But for the religious right, Obama poses a far greater threat than does Romney. 

While they express misgivings about Romney, they become downright hysterical in arguing that another four years of Obama will undo the republic.  Given that level of anti-Obama rhetoric, it’s hard to imagine that Republicans of any stripe will rally around more conservative, but unelectable, candidates like Gingrich or Santorum.  Conservative voters are savvy, and they will put aside their gripes with Romney in order to defeat Barack Obama. 

South Carolina will reveal this pragmatism and demonstrate Romney’s potential strength in a general election against Obama.  Republican strategists know that early consensus around a candidate strengthens their chances in the general election.  A good showing for Romney among religious conservatives will allow him to wear their mantle in the general election.  And his moderate tarnish will stand him in good stead as he drifts toward the center.  If Romney can pull in religious conservatives, independents and conservative democrats disillusioned with Obama the Republicans may have a winning strategy in November.  We’ll see, though, how Romney’s moderate credentials stand up to withering attacks that are sure to come from the left. 

Romney’s conservative credentials have been in tatters ever since the race began, evidenced by the lack of enthusiasm from the right for his candidacy.  And his clumsy attempts to prove his credentials have been unconvincing.  But this will likely turn out to be less catastrophic and may well be highly advantageous come November.  His move to the center will be easier and more believable than with previous Republican candidates. With the country so evenly split, voters who form the center-right and center-left voting block will decide the 2012 presidential election.   

Mitt Romney is on a roll.  Despite scorn from his opponents about his career at Bain Capital, Romney pulled off a significant political victory in the New Hampshire primary by finally getting close to his poll numbers.  This may go a long way toward quieting critics who argue that he cannot connect with ordinary people.  His significant support from the forty percent of New Hampshire voters who are registered independents gives Romney bragging rights. 

But on Super Tuesday, and on general election day next November, candidates must have successfully moved toward the center in order to win.  Romney is well on his way to pulling off this trick.  Republican voters know it.  Even if this message had not yet breached the barbed wire at Brenham Ranch in Texas by last weekend. 

Fournier, Keith A. “Brenham Ranch Surprise: Rick Santorum Endorsed by 150 Evangelical Leaders.”  15 Jan. 2012. Catholic Online. Web. 16 Jan. 2012. 

Gail Russell Chaddock, “Evangelical leaders try to unite behind Rick Santorum.”  14 Jan. 2012.  The Christian Science Monitor. Web.  15 Jan. 2012.     

Hagerty, Barbara Bradley. “Evangelical Leaders Struggle To Crown A Candidate.”  National Public Radio. January 13, 2012.  Broadcast. 

Halloran, Liz. “In Search Of An 'Anti-Romney': Guide To The Players.” National Public Radio. January 13, 2012.  Broadcast.

Klein, Ezra. “Wonkbook: Moderation is winning in the Republican primary.”  The Washington Post, Wonkblog.  11 Jan. 2012.  Web.  16 Jan. 2012.  

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Did the CIA Miss the Boat on Egypt?

Senatorial drumbeats are mounting as the inquiry begins into whether or not the CIA missed the signs leading up to the Egyptian street protests.  The link below to a February 5, 2011 NPR story examines this question and also adds some support to Rhami Kouri's contention in the link from the previous post that, alarmingly, some people within the US intelligence community were surprised by the uprising.  Khouri, on the contrary, asserts that the seething warning signs of intense instability were present for some time.

The NPR story makes clear that many analysts within the CIA were aware of this instability, but that the trigger for street protests is far more difficult to discern and predict - the precise place where intelligence work becomes an art rather than a science.  The story goes on to provide a far more nuanced analysis of the CIA's role in analyzing such events, which provides a nice counterpoint to those Senators simply seeking to blame someone for failing to predict the enormously complex wave of Egyptian protests.

The difference, explains Gen. Michael Hayden, is between a secret and a mystery.  The events in Egypt had triggering mechanisms that were mysteries, not secrets that someone failed to discover through intelligence gathering.

Lastly, the NPR story also raises the extremely troubling issue of Egypt's involvement in the CIA's program of extraordinary rendition.  Although briefly treated, several important points are made regarding the future relationship between the US and Egyptian intelligence agencies (note that Omar Suleiman, Egypt's former head of intelligence, is now the vice president).

Link to the NPR story:
Egypt Unrest: Didn't U.S. Intelligence See It Coming?    

Friday, February 4, 2011

Rami Khouri on the Egyptian Crisis

I would highly recommend the following February 3, 2011 interview with Rami Khouri to anyone who is looking for an interesting perspective on the Egyptian crisis and its implications for the broader Middle East.  Khouri, a Palestinian-Jordanian, is a keen observer of the region with a particular knack for placing current events within larger historical perspectives and narratives.

In this piece, I was particularly interested in his observations about the roots of the Egyptian crisis and how they have been misunderstood.  He also provides an exceptionally cogent explanation and analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood and its role in Egyptian society.  Lastly, he frames these ongoing protests in the Arab world as one of the most significant moments in modern Middle Eastern history. What we are witnessing, he argues, is the third epic movement in the modern history of the region.  His analysis, although perhaps debatable, is nonetheless well articulated and immensely helpful.  Some critics have taken issue with his reliance on post-colonial analysis in examining these protests, but his perspective is essential in gaining a thorough and complete understanding of these events and their implications for the wider Middle East.

Link to the interview with Rami Khouri on "Here and Now":
Commentator Describes ‘Unraveling Of Post-Colonial Order’ In Arab World