A gas tax holiday from reality

by Brian Vogt | April 29th, 2008 | |Subscribe

Anyone who drives these days gets sticker shock upon arriving into the gas station.  In recent days in the DC area the average price I’ve seen is well over $3.50.  Many analysts predict that when the summer driving season hits in full force we’re likely to see an average price of at least $4 a gallon.  These prices are a dramatic increase from the 1999 price which, in today’s dollars, averaged around $1.25 - the lowest point of the past 30 or so years.  The truth is that the price of gasoline has fluctuated greatly over the years and if measured in inflation adjusted dollars, we are now reaching the high point of the early 80s right after the start of the Iran-Iraq war. 

So, what is the government to do?  Well, considering that we’re in full flung political campaign mode these days, our presidential candidates certainly have something to say about this infringement on the American way of life!  John McCain jumped out front and center and proclaimed his support of a gas tax holiday to provide relief to American car drivers during the summer driving season.  Hillary Clinton jumped on board and expressed her support.  Obama called this for what it is – a scheme.  Clinton then criticized Obama for being for a gas tax holiday when he was a state senator and being against it as a presidential candidate.  Even the White House has been skeptical of such quick fixes.  The NY Times reported that President Bush’s spokeswoman essentially sided with Mr. Obama in saying that tax holidays and new levies on oil companies would not address the long-term problems of dependence on foreign oil.  This is certainly an interesing bipartisan debate:  Clinton and McCain v Obama and Bush. 

The truth of the matter is that a gas tax holiday will offer little relief to consumers and actually serves to perpetuate the very problem we’re seeking to solve.  Clinton and McCain both got this one wrong.  A gas tax holiday would lower the cost of gasoline, thereby encouraging consumer to buy more of it.  A recent analysis by the Washington Post predicted that consumers would actually see little benefit from a gas tax holiday and oil companies would be the real winners.  Right now the true cost of gasoline that takes into account national security and environmental costs is much higher than the price actually reflected at the pump.  The 18.4 cent/gallon gasoline tax is an effort towards correcting for this externality, but it is really just a drop in the bucket.   Most experts admit that this idea really is a loser, but it doesn’t stop politicians from trying to win easy political points.  (more…)

Homeland Security Challenges

by Kirsten Derynioski | April 25th, 2008 | |Subscribe

One team, one missionOn the front page of today’s New York Times is an article describing the trip taken by John McCain to New Orleans, where he promised that the type of “terrible and disgraceful” mismanagement of the response to Hurricane Katrina will not happen if we send him to the White House next January.  He faulted FEMA’s response and its lack of communication and logistics capabilities, and said that he recommended private companies work with the agency during a crisis for better functioning. 

  

This brings me to today’s topic.  The Department of Homeland Security is five years old, and the next president and Congress have the chance to reorganize the agency to make it function properly.  After the 9/11 attacks, the solution of gathering all the relevant agencies under one umbrella made sense, in hopes that an efficient chain of command would be the right tool for preventing future attacks or responding properly to an attack should one happen again. 

 

For some background reading on the formation of DHS and its state as of last year, I’ll direct you to a document published last spring in The Wilson Quarterly by Paul Light, a professor at NYU.  A few things stood out to me. First, the department ranks last or near the bottom of 36 federal agencies in job satisfaction, leadership, and results-oriented performance. This says, essentially, that people are unhappy, their leadership is ineffective, and their organizational culture is not productive.  Also, Light suggests that the DHS mission might be too broad to be useful, in that its goal is to protect all of us from everything that could enter our borders and harm us — people, computer bugs, storms, you name it.  At one time or another, we’ve all bitten off more than we can chew in the way of commitments and have been forced to pare down our activities in order to get something, anything, done.  Was the DHS in its initial formation too ambitious a project? 

  

While the agency is taking a lot of hits in the press and elsewhere, it’s important to note that we haven’t had another terror attack after 9/11.  DHS can count that among their successes, and the DHS is more than happy to describe all of them for you on their home page.  So, since the basics seem to be covered, should we cut them some slack and give Secretary Chertoff and company time to make the merger of 22 separate agencies work? 

  

Light put it well when he wrote, “In coping with the great uncertainty involved in defending against terrorism, four characteristics are vital: alertness, agility, adaptability, and alignment around a core mission.”  What do you think?  If DHS doesn’t have those characteristics today, are they attainable in the near term?  Can we move toward achieving those benchmarks with minor tweaking, such as supplementing operations with elements from private industry as Senator McCain suggests, or do we need to come together and overhaul the whole thing, mission and structure, perhaps separating out readiness and response to natural disasters from the task of preventing terror attacks?    

 

Post-Gitmo Hot Potato

by Raj Purohit | April 23rd, 2008 | |Subscribe

We hosted a dinner for Andy Worthington, the author of Guantánamo files, a few weeks ago and something he said struck a cord with everyone in attendance. During a back and forth pertaining to the positive statements made by Senator McCain, Senator Obama and Senator Clinton vis-à-vis Guantánamo – all seem keen to close it – Andy asked us to consider the end game for the U.S. Specifically he asked what would happen to the prisoners.

Of course the first reaction of most of the individuals in attendance was predictable – these prisoners would be repatriated back to their home countries. However, as Andy prodded us to consider that assumption we all stumbled upon the problem that he was grappling with. It became clear that there would be many countries that would refuse to take back their citizens. After all, the U.S. has been stating since the first prisoner transfer to Guantánamo that it is holding the worst of the worst. With that statement on the record it seems fair to assume that some countries will choose to wash their hands of the matter. Why risk internal strife by bringing back someone who is a radical, has become radicalized or is likely to embarrass his home government by questioning why they did not do more to seek the release of an innocent national. What will the U.S. do if it ends up with a group of prisoners who have no where to go and are not deemed to have committed acts that warrant a trial?

The three candidates for President seem to understand that Guantánamo is a blot on the U.S. image in the world and I am convinced that all of them would like to close it. However, in an incredible irony, it seems possible that the next U.S. President may find that closing Guantánamo proves to be harder than it was for the Bush Administration to open it.

I am going to start making a few calls on this issue to see what the latest thinking is within Defense department circles and will report back in the days ahead.

Attacking Oil Tankers

by Eugene Gholz | April 22nd, 2008 | |Subscribe

It’s a rare day when attacks on the flow of oil don’t lead the news. But with so much happening around the world — and in Pennsylvania — in the past couple of days, the story that pirates off the coast of Yemen attacked a 150,000 deadweight ton oil tanker with a rocket got pushed to the back pages (New York Times, AFP, and Wall Street Journal, for example).  Each article attributes at least a pip of the recent increase in the price of oil to the attack, even though the attack failed to cause any significant damage.

Perhaps the articles are right: oil traders noticed that attack, and maybe any attack that has anything to do with oil will always phase timid businessmen.  But in reality, they should not be so scared.

(more…)

An officer and a media shill

by David Isenberg | April 21st, 2008 | |Subscribe

I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. That was my reaction to reading yesterday’s New York Times article on the use of retired military officers to help generate favorable spin for the Bush administration’s performance. Evidently, the administration believes that with enough retired brass one can turn a lemon into lemonade.

The New York Times considered this issue to be important, as evidenced by the fact that the front page, above the fold, article ran over 7500 words. And it is, though not necessarily for the reason it thinks. In fact, the article is both less and more than one might think.

It is less because the fact is that retired generals and admirals have long been available for rent as ideological water boys. It has long been one of Washington’s worst kept secrets. Retired flag rank officers are like professional athletes. Once they are no longer fit for the playing field it is not as if they are fit for many other professions.

Aside from opening restaurants or bars a retired athlete generally gets a job somewhere in the sports industry. And once an officer is retired his or her career choices are similarly limited. Generally they find work somewhere within the expanses of the military industrial complex, which nowadays, goes far beyond industry. It also includes large parts of academia, and the think tank world. In the past they normally went to work for the normal hardware contractors, Lockheed, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and the like. But with the rise of an always on media universe such officers have increasingly been used as the demand for so called ‘experts” has risen exponentially. If the Blackwaters and Dyncorps of the world can be considered Private Military Companies available for hire, such officers can be considered a different PMC; Private Media Contractors. (more…)

The Sad Irony of the Boycott Debate

by Seth Green | April 18th, 2008 | |Subscribe

There’s been a lot of talk about whether the U.S. President should boycott the Olympics because of Chinese human rights concerns. The irony is that in the eyes of much of the world, it may not mean very much if we took such a bold action. Studies indicate that the U.S. under George W. Bush has a less favorable image than China. And it’s hard to imagine that many people could take Bush seriously when he talks about human rights in China, after he has condoned waterboarding practices that clearly violate international human rights protocols.

Even in an ideal world, I’m not sure that a boycott is the most effective way to influence China’s deeply concerning human rights record. After all, Nixon’s trip to China was arguably the most impactful U.S. act in shaping China’s future and Nixon went there more in friendship than in protest. At the same time, he delivered a clear message. Similarly, I tend to think America should fully participate in the Olympics while wearing a clear symbol of our support of human rights and making clear our hope that China will change its ways.

What’s sad, though, is that our country, which for so long has been an image of freedom despite all our shortcomings and our continued inequities, is now seen so negatively worldwide that it is not clear even if we tried to make a statement anyone would take us seriously. It is yet another sign of one of the great casualties of the Bush years: America’s image in the world.

Acknowledging opposing views: A sign of strength

by Brian Vogt | April 16th, 2008 | |Subscribe

Getting to bipartisan compromise is a tough challenge in today’s political climate.  Those that preach moderation are frequently ignored in favor of those who propose more dramatic and, therefore, “newsworthy” ideas.  Congress – the House of Representatives in particular – has become increasingly partisan thanks to gerrymandering on behalf of both parties and the 24 hour news cycles which promotes conflict and confrontation.  So, what is a politician to do?  While there is no easy answer that will eliminate the partisan rancor that permeates our discourse, I believe that Senator Obama has made some real inroads and presents a very valuable lesson to other leaders who seek to promote bipartisanship in an environment that tends to dismiss compromise. 

Granted, many of Senator Obama’s policy ideas do come from mainstream democratic thought.  However, what differs between him and many other political leaders with similar policy ideas is his ability to present these ideas in a way that is compelling to those of very different backgrounds and political beliefs.  Just as Reagan had fundamentally conservative ideas but was able to present them in a way that appealed to a much wider cross section of society, so has Senator Obama shown a unique skill in being able to appeal to a broad cross section of American society. 

So, what is the key to his success?  There are many.  However, one of my observations is that Senator Obama presents his ideas in a context that does not seek to denigrate those who disagree.  Rather, he frequently acknowledges those with whom he might have fundamental disagreements.  This is not to say that he agrees with them, but simply by acknowledging those ideas, he presents himself as a more open-minded and a more even-handed leader.  And this isn’t just a show.  I am increasingly convinced that this is truly the way he approaches problems.  One of the keys to compromise is acknowledging that even though you may hold very strongly held beliefs, that well meaning people hold equally strong beliefs on the other side.  The first step in solving a contentious problem is acknowleding the concerns of those who disagree.  Senator Obama has shown that he recognizes this important fact.  A couple of examples: (more…)

About Zimbabwe

by Raj Purohit | April 14th, 2008 | |Subscribe

I have followed the developments in Zimbabwe for many years and have led human rights missions to the country and region in the past. I love the people in Zim, they are warm, kind and deserve a break from the trauma of the recent past.

On Saturday, March 29, 2008, hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean’s voted in parliamentary and presidential elections. Reports from civil society, media and the opposition all indicate that President Robert Mugabe lost his reelection bid and that Morgan Tsvangirai won enough votes to become the next leader of Zimbabwe.

Unfortunately, the ruling Mugabe administration has suppressed the release of the final polling results by the electoral commission. Mugabe is now resorting to force and the threat of further violence via the levers of state security, to intimidate the opposition.

Zimbabweans have spoken decisively in these elections and have unequivocally cast a vote to break from the violence and instability fostered by the Mugabe regime in recent years. It is vital that the U.S. and the international community act to ensure that the results of these elections stand.

The U.S. government must engage the international community and our friends and allies in the region to ensure that power is transferred from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu – PF) to Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). It may be necessary for the U.N. Security Council to deploy a small peacekeeping group to assist with this transition. Zimbabwe will also require significant human and economic resources in the weeks, months and years ahead and the U.S. should be supportive of a transparent rebuilding initiative.

It is in the U.S. national interest to ensure that the citizens of states ruled by authoritarian regimes respond by embracing democracy instead of violence. If Zimbabwe can transition from the Mugabe government to that of Mr. Tsvangirai, via the ballot box, it will provide an example to be followed throughout Africa. Furthermore, it is clearly in the U.S. interest to ensure that Zimbabwe does not continue the slide towards failed state status. Currently, Zimbabwe ranks fourth on the Fund for Peace/Foreign Policy Failed State Index. And as the 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy correctly notes: “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.”

Lies, Half-Truths, and Innuendo

by Kirsten Derynioski | April 11th, 2008 | |Subscribe

Sun TzuA recent discussion in the office about the reliability of Mahmud Ahmadinejad and whether or not he’s really in charge in Iran made me think about the effectiveness of bluffing. This, the preferred tool of every poker player with a bad hand, works brilliantly if practiced and perfected. 

Do we know what exactly is going on in Iran or what our best policy should be? After seeing what happened when we charged into Iraq, and acknowledging the current assessment of our troop strength, I can’t say threatening military action is the best course. (If you do know the answer, by the way, please post a comment and tell us all.) We do have other tools to use in this situation, yet our Iran policy looks like one big question mark. 

So, while we’re at “work stoppage” on Iran, take a good look at how their tactic is working. They’ve expended virtually no resources in exchange for keeping the world powers off balance. If I weren’t on the other side, I would say, “Bravo!” This is right out of the Sun Tzu play book and a lesson for everyone. For those of you who aren’t familiar with his work, Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War in the 6th Century BC, and it serves as a template for strategy in warfare. It would be a disservice to attempt summarizing his entire work in a short blog piece, so I’ll mention one of the principles he espoused, which was the conservation of resources. If a leader can bluff, deceive, or lie his or her way to dominance over a real or potential enemy, then this conserves the valuable capital needed in case the bluff doesn’t work. 

As we listen to the Presidential candidates posture on their vision for Iraq specifically and the Middle East in general, all I hear is the subtle (and not-so-subtle) sales pitch by three people, each of whom desperately want to lead our nation. Here at PSA our mission is to encourage bipartisan cooperation on foreign policy, and the partisan wrangling over who would have done more, less, or otherwise in applying force makes me a little queasy. If using force is the last resort, why is it one of the first things mentioned? I’d like to hear their thoughts on how to protect our interests via the woefully underused diplomatic and economic tools we have at our disposal. 

Our limited menu of options in Iraq and our lack of effectiveness in dealing with Iran are manifestations of the same problem: we’ve allowed ourselves to get tricked because we’re either taking a stand on refusing to engage “miscreants,” or bickering about how to engage without appearing weak such that it leaves us flat-footed and unable to properly manipulate a party into submission. The candidates are using the debate as a way to win points and differentiate themselves at the expense of a coherent foreign policy. Thus, here we stand after getting sucked into Iraq and wondering what to do with Iran. 

If there is one thing we must agree on regardless of political affiliation, it’s that we have to get the idea of leading with our aces, the national treasures that are our men and women in uniform, out of our heads. Through extensive training and discipline, these people become war-fighting machines, and while it is their job to implement American foreign policy, once one of them is taken out, you’re not getting that warrior back. Nor can you just go hire a Staff Sergeant or a Captain, one has to be created over time with money and enormous effort, for which there are no substitutes. 

Getting American foreign policy back on the bipartisan track that stops at the water’s edge starts with every member of Congress reading (or re-reading, since it’s not apparent the first time stuck) Sun Tzu’s Art of War. It’s past time to get re-educated on the art of using all forms of warfare, because right now Ahmedinejad and his cohort are giving us a clinic. 

Putting Lipstick On the Pig

by David Isenberg | April 8th, 2008 | |Subscribe

Hmm, flowers are blooming, cherry blossoms emerged; it can only mean one thing. Yes, that’s right, it’s time once again for the semi-annual Congressional circus show, also known as putting lipstick on the pig, starring Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. This morning these gentlemen will testify before Congress on the state of affairs in Iraq and what the chances of success are for the U.S. there. Of course, nobody knows what constitutes “success” but even so it is a daunting prospect.

As Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote yesterday, “the risks in Iraq remain high enough so that no one can yet say whether the odds of any kind of US success are better than even.” Of course Cordesman is hardly a proponent of withdrawing U.S. forces any time soon, which is why his next sentence was so revealing. “The fact remains, however, that there is still a marginally better case for staying than for leaving.” When respected analysts like Cordesman state that the case for staying is only “marginally better” than leaving you know that the United States has problems.

Of course, nobody expects this carefully scripted event to have serious questions or sincere answers if, for not other reason, than the hearing will be attended by Sens. Clinton, Obama, and McCain. Republicans will seek to defend the Bush Administration’s stay the course policy. As senators Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham wrote in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, “No one can deny the dramatic improvements in security in Iraq achieved by Gen. Petraeus, the brave troops under his command, and the Iraqi Security Forces.” Well, actually I could, but that would take another article. Democrats will just as fervently use it to make the case for withdrawing troops. (more…)

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All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.