Mr. President: Stay the (Bipartisan) Course

by Matthew Rojansky | February 25th, 2009 | |Subscribe

President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night may not have been called a “State of the Union” address, but his words and the reactions of the political leaders gathered in the House Chamber made it clear that our union is in a precarious state. While Obama talked about building “common ground” with Republicans, partisan divisions were on display in the lopsided ovations for comments on taxes, health care, and the recent stimulus package, to name just a few polarizing issues.

This partisan scene played out in the midst of an ongoing argument in Washington over whether the President was right to reach out to Republicans to seek bipartisan support for his ambitious agenda of stimulus spending and economic reform. The battle over the stimulus package, which passed with a bare minimum of Republican support, has convinced some observers that bipartisanship was at best a distraction, and at worst an outright deception. Many Democrats now argue that Obama should seek to overwhelm Republicans, not court them, as he continues to confront challenges on the economy and other critical issues in the coming months.

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Change on the horizon for Cuba?

by Brian Vogt | February 24th, 2009 | |Subscribe

A new report was released yesterday by Richard Lugar (R-IN) that supported a significant change in US policy towards Cuba.  It’s a sign that the policy of isolation that has continued to govern the US relationship with Cuba since the end of the cold war, could be changing.  This is a welcome development and is the type of policy that should get broad bipartisan support.  For too long, the US policy towards Cuba (at least at the presidential level) has been governed by interest group politics that reflected the hard-line approach of much of the Cuban American community living in the swing state of Florida.

Lugar writes,

After 47 years, however, the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of, “bringing democracy to the Cuban people,” while it may have been used as a foil by the regime to demand further choices from Cuba’s impoverished population…. We must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances US interests.

We can all agree that Cubans would be much better off with a democratic regime that respects human rights and is responsive to their needs.  The question, however, is what is the best way to reach that outcome – isolation or engagement.   Today there is growing agreement that this decades-long isolation simply has not worked.  It has not brought democracy to Cuba.  It has not strengthened human rights.  And, as Lugar mentioned, it has provided a straw man for the Cuban regime to blame for its own deficiencies.

The American public also seems to increasingly be on board.  A February 2009 poll released by Fox News showed that only 30 percent of Americans felt that we should continue the embargo.  In fact, recent polling of the Cuban American community shows that a majority (55 percent) wants the embargo ended.

It’s these types of common-sense solutions that counter narrowly focused interest groups that are ripe for bipartisan compromise.

This not to say that we should give up on human rights and democratization in Cuba.  Certainly not.  These should continue to be prioritized.  However, just as with countries like China, we have decided that sometimes a policy of engagement is the better approach.  Sanctions and isolation have their place and I’ve certainly been one to advocate for these tools for countries such as Burma and Sudan.  In his statement, Lugar even mentions their effectiveness in South Africa.  However, we must also recognize that such tools work in some situations and not in others.  We must not employ a one size fits all solution to these complicated problems.  Clearly, the history of the past several decades has shown that this approach simply has not been effective in the case of Cuba.  It’s time to try something different.

Much Ado About Mexico: Alternative Reality

by Ginger Seip-Nuno | February 23rd, 2009 | |Subscribe

I recently attended the CATO Institute’s policy forum: “Mexico’s Drug War: The Growing Crisis on Our Southern Border,” and it got me thinking about the alternative polices that the US could take when dealing with Mexico.  Some of the popular policy alternatives  mentioned at the conference-although not necessarily advocated by any one participant-included the legalization of drugs, building a bigger wall, and pumping money into treatment and prevention programs to quell demand.  (I was waiting for “full scale invasion,” and “nation building” to be mentioned, but they weren’t.)  Each of these alternative policies to stop/slow the Drug War have a unique set of problems which were more eloquently addressed by the participants of the panel.  (Please note it is not just “Mexico’s” Drug War; Mexico is just taking more *noticeable* casualties at the moment.)  The possibility of political change in Mexico, however, was not mentioned by anyone.  Alternatives to the current US policy–which is outlined in the Mérida Initiative and contingency plans, in case all hell breaks loose North of the border–is fine to kick around academic forums and think tank tables, BUT the one common assumption to all these suggested policies have, is the one assumption that might be changing in Mexico:  what if Mexico itself changes tactics or political parties and becomes less receptive to United States assistance?

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Can We Cut the Pentagon’s Budget? Should We?

by Christopher Preble | February 20th, 2009 | |Subscribe

 

I want to pick up where David Isenberg left off with his post on the dubious stimulative effects of military spending. He and I both agree that Congress shouldn’t use the Pentagon budget as a jobs program. We also both understand that they always have. Finally, we both hope that our current economic troubles might force us to rethink our approach to military spending on a broader level. With “the federal deficit spiraling,” David writes, “U.S. officials are fretting that current levels of defense spending may be unsustainable.” This, he hopes, will force people to confront the high costs of defense, and develop new methods for constraining, and ultimately reducing those costs.

He seems only slightly optimistic on that last point. I am doubtful. For starters, we need to understand better what we mean by “unsustainable.” Military spending as a share of GDP fell to 3 percent in 1999, the lowest level since before World War II. Today it stands at more than 4.5 percent when one includes the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I believe that the levels of federal government spending that we are looking at for the forseeable future will ultimately undermine our long-term economic security. Not this year, not next year, not this decade, perhaps, but eventually, over time. I concede, however, that if the economy managed to survive while devoting at least 10 percent of GDP from 1952 to 1959, and more than 8 percent through 1970, we could similarly endure military spending on the order of 6 or 7 percent of GDP today. It seems extremely unlikely, therefore, that economic pressures will force policymakers to cut the Pentagon’s budget.

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Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose

by John Eden | February 18th, 2009 | |Subscribe

Barack Obama’s legal team has just committed its first great sin.  Throughout Obama’s enthusiastic, energetic and “hope” ridden campaign, we were told that things would be different.  There would be “change,” and by that Obama assured the American public, with deliberate, well thought out oratory fitting of Moses himself (to say nothing of the late Dr. King), that Obama would abandon the shameful approach George W. Bush adopted to fight terror.  Obama’s presidency, or so it was claimed, would be the embodiment of change.

We now know that to be a deceit of the first order.  And just how do we know?  Consider the case of Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian native that was subject to the Bush administration’s extraordinary rendition program.  Under that program, suspected terrorists were (are?) whisked away to exotic locales, not for a sybaritic, martini-soaked holiday, mind you, but to be tortured for information.  Over a period of two years Mr. Mohamed was beaten to a pulp, cut with small scalpel and then burned with hot liquid, and threatened with rape and death.  If this story sounds eerily familiar, it should, as Mr. Mohamed, a British resident, may have been transferred to Pakistan, Morocco and Kabul for his vacances de torture with the full knowledge of the British government.  Even more shocking is the fact that the Bush administration threatened to withdraw national security cooperation with the UK if the dark details of Mohamed’s torture were ever made public. (more…)

Where Things Stand on Israel-Palestine

by Raj Purohit | February 18th, 2009 | |Subscribe

Just a short post from me this morning. I wanted to take a minute and share this terrific video clip interview of Amjad Atallah and Daniel Levy discussing the current state of play on the Israel-Palestine issue. You have to go to the site and click on slide 11. It pulls up a page with some short Q&A clips in which they address issues such as the Gaza crisis, the Obama admin and the regional dynamics. Daniel and Amjad are two of the smartest people addressing this critical foreign policy issue and I am sure you will find the clips very interesting.

Stimulate the Pentagon? You have got to be kidding.

by David Isenberg | February 17th, 2009 | |Subscribe

I have been bemused, to put it politely, by the assertion by various people, many of whom know better, that the recently passed stimulus package should include money for military spending.

I mean, after all, the very last thing the Pentagon needs is to be stimulated to spend more American tax dollars. In its entire history it has never lacked a reason, good or fanciful, for spending money. Indeed, to itemize all its rationales recalls Elizabeth Barret Browning, “Let me count the ways.”

But for some inexplicable reason normally level headed people are giving the Pentagon a share of the stimulus package. Admittedly, it is not a huge share, although how small a few billion is remains an interesting question.

But one of the defenses being trotted out is that military spending will trickle down – yes, right, remind you of anyone – and help create jobs in cities across America.

Look, there are legitimate reasons for spending money on the military. For example a lot of military housing is frankly crappy and should be demolished tomorrow. One might also want to repair or build new hospitals, clinics, child-care centers. But none of this is a secret; it has been known for many years.

But this is why we have something called, wait for it, wait for it, an annual budget. The idea that you should pay for it in a stimulus package is beyond me. Perhaps the Obama administration figures tossing the Pentagon a bone now will make it easier for them later on. Note to administration: appeasement never works.

By the way, if you are confident that any money given to the Pentagon will be well spent you should note that part of the money going there includes $15 million for the office of its Inspector General .

The idea that military spending is an efficient way to create job is laughable. Every other form of non-military governmental spending is more effective. Hiring Dick Cheney to sell shotguns on behalf of the NRA would be better. It is theoretical military Keynesianism, pure and simple, which has long been debunked by all reputable economists. That would exclude the loonies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Even Kim Holmes, a vice president at the Heritage Foundation, wrote last month, “A word of caution. More defense spending is needed, but not as a jobs program, as some defense contractors recommend. That would be bad economics (there are more productive ways to stimulate the economy, like reducing taxes). It also would be a misappropriation of public funds.” That should tell you something. (more…)

The Idiot’s Guide to Bipartisanship for Dummies

by Michael Landweber | February 13th, 2009 | |Subscribe

After the House passed the stimulus bill without a single Republican vote last month, many declared the age of bipartisanship under the Obama Administration over.  How quickly the pundits and the talking heads who hailed the bipartisanship of the new President trumpeted its demise.

So, is President Obama bipartisan or isn’t he?  Everyone wants the answer and they want it now.  The media is tracking bipartisanship as if it can be quantified issue by issue and moment to moment.  This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about what bipartisanship is and why it is important.

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About two thirds of Americans want torture investigated or prosecuted

by Raj Purohit | February 12th, 2009 | |Subscribe

Just a short post from me to note this recent poll from Gallup. I did think the title of their release was a little odd – I would have gone with something like “Two Thirds of Americans want Bush Torture Policy Investigated or Prosecuted.” More analysis from me on this later.

Partisan Fatigue

by Marina Dathe | February 12th, 2009 | |Subscribe

“Bipartisan” surely won first place last week in the top ten of sound bites. Some congressmen spoke out on the issue with surprising candor: Apparently the lack of bipartisanship is making our elected officials melancholic. In a NY Times article, Carl Hulse quotes Senator Martinez (R, Florida) as saying:

I think there are some aspects of Senate life that haven’t been fun the last couple of years, which have to do with the acrimony and lack of getting things done,” said Senator Mel Martinez, the Florida Republican who announced this year that he would not seek a second term. “It is not fatal to the institution, it has been here a long time, but there are a lot of people leaving.

Acrimony? Lack of getting things done? And who is to blame, Mr Martinez? Apparently not the senators themselves, since Mr Martinez goes on to say:

… another factor is the incessant fund-raising needed to generate the money to run for the chance to win and raise more money to run again.

Then there are the politically charged message votes, the impossible-to-please interest groups, the strain on family, the angry constituents, the uninformed critics and the intensifying news media scrutiny.

Mr Martinez is right: serving the people under these circumstances doesn’t sound like much fun. It would serve the senate well to start thinking of ways to reform itself to avoid human hemorrhaging. For starters, it could try less acrimony.

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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.