Saturday, May 2, 2015

Two Experts Look at the Syrian Civil War

Is Bashar al-Assad Finished, for Real, This Time, Again?
A conversation with two of the country’s best Syria experts on what the rebel gains actually mean.
MAY 1, 2015

The rumors and assessments are flying. Analysts and experts are starting to wonder whether recent rebel gains in the north of Syria don’t constitute some potential tipping point that could signal a fundamental weakening of the regime. Is Bashar al-Assad on his way out?

Of course, this is the same question we’ve been asking ourselvesrepeatedly for the past five years now. Indeed, in 2011, the conventional wisdom on this matter had all but declared that Assad couldn’t possibly survive his Arab Spring and that he would eventually go the way of the dodo (see: Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh, and Qaddafi.)

So here we are almost five years on. Is it going to be different this time? Could it be that President Barack Obama’s August 2011declaration that Assad must step aside is actually going to be realized — largely as a result of a better organized Islamist opposition, fractures within the security establishment, and the difficulty of recruiting Alawites to fight? Could this really be the end?

The answer, of course, is that nobody knows. And it’s really hard to divine tipping points or moments when there really is a significant change in any situation, particularly in a case like Syria when you’re reduced to reading tea leaves and goat entrails for insights into the Assad regime. So, in search of answers and some clarity on what could be one of the most potentially consequential developments in regional politics in the past five years, 

I decided to ask the experts, the University of Oklahoma’s Joshua Landis and the Atlantic Council’s Fred Hof (formerly Obama’s special advisor for the Syrian transition), two of the finest analysts of Syrian politics I know. Here’s what they told me:

Aaron David Miller: Rebel gains in Idlib and Jisr al-Shagour suggest the insurgency is now stronger than ever. Have we reached some sort of tipping point that signals the beginning of the end for Bashar?

Fred Hof: The beginning of the end for Bashar commenced in March 2011, when he elected to respond to peaceful protest against police brutality with lethal violence. There is no doubt his army is now tired, depleted, and demoralized. The army’s backbone — Assad’s own Alawite community — is weary of sacrificing its children for the sake of a clan that (even before 2011) did precious little for the community or for Syria, more generally. Yet Alawites and others grudgingly stick with the regime because of the perceived absence of a recognizable, desirable alternative and because of existential fears stoked by the regime. As for the current tactical developments on the ground, they do not necessarily presage the fall of Damascus or the disappearance of the regime. There is ebb and flow in this conflict, and Iran may again (as it did in 2013) find ways to reverse regime losses with foreign fighters.

Joshua Landis: It is far from over. But the losses at Idlib and Jisr al-Shagour demonstrate much greater rebel organization and strength. It is definitely worrying Assad’s people. What accounts for this new rebel strength and coordination? Jabhat al-Nusra’s two main rebel competitors have been neutralized. The United States has significantly weakened the Islamic State. Nusra destroyed the “moderate” militias that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia supported. This forced the Islamic Front and other militias to accept Nusra as the dominant force and to coordinate with it.

[In Saudi Arabia], the new king has prioritized weakening Iran over weakening the Muslim Brotherhood, reversing the strategic goals of his predecessor. This means that Saudi Arabia is not on the same page as Turkey and Qatar, which promoted the Islamist militias to the chagrin of Riyadh and the United States. But Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham seem to have consolidated their leadership over the rebel forces [under the banner of the Army of Conquest] and have found a way to work effectively together. That is big. There could be a King Salman effect — increased Saudi aid and cooperation with Turkey and Qatar. That may be an important part of recent rebel strength.

Assad will have to improve his military and defenses. He still owns some 65 percent of the Syrian people. There are many reports of his men wanting to avoid military service, however, which will make it hard for him to reverse this blow to morale.

All the same, Assad’s strategy has been to maintain regime outposts in all corners of Syria, in the belief that he could reconquer all [of] Syria. The outpost in Idlib and the salient reaching up to it, which contained Jisr al-Shagour, was weak. It is not certain if the opposition conquest of this vulnerable region dog-legging up into enemy territory is the beginning of the end, or whether it will force Assad to change strategies — retreating from distant outposts to the part of Syria that he believes he can hold. This may force Assad to work for a de facto partition of the country, rather than maintaining his “all corners” strategy.

ADM: Do you buy the idea that there are acceptable Alawites in the military who are either part of the current regime or outside who could speak for their community and emerge as credible interlocutors in a political solution?

JL: I do not believe that a political solution will be found. The Islamist rebels are intent on retaking all of Syria. Assad, so far, is equally intent on taking all of Syria. Assad has demonstrated over four years that he is capable of contracting the land he rules, but not reforming politically. His regime and rule is dependent of the political structure of family rule and traditional loyalties that his father established 45 years ago.

FH: I believe that Alawites must be full partners in a Syria featuring self-rule by empowered citizens. Surely there are plenty of Alawites in the regime-directed military who have served with honor and who have refused to engage in war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Syrian opposition should make it clear that the term “Assad regime” refers to a clan and a relatively small circle of criminal enablers, and that all others will be welcome to participate in the politics and defense of a united, post-regime Syria.

ADM: If the Islamist insurgency actually took Damascus, what would unfold for the Alawites and Christian minorities?

FH: Damascus is a large city and the rebellion against Assad’s rule involves many different groups whose leaders represent a range of political opinions and sectarian attitudes. The Islamic State (IS) isnot part of the anti-Assad insurgency: it is an Iraq-derived phenomenon working often in tandem with the Assad regime to defeat Syrian nationalist alternatives to it and to the regime. Should IS change its target and go after the regime there would be a spirited and effective defense of Damascus — with or without Assad — because IS’ reputation for sectarian slaughter is well-established.

Should Damascus fall to an alignment of forces similar to that which recently took Idlib — an unlikely development in my view — surely there will be fear within the Damascene populace, and yes there will be incidents of violence. The war unleashed by the regime will not be easily contained or forgotten. But a general, systematic pogrom? Maybe not, but the threat itself ought to inspire Washington to get serious about supporting non-jihadist, nationalist regime opponents. The regime has, after all, gone out of its way over the past four years to implicate minorities and supportive Sunni Arabs in its own crime spree. Washington needs to exercise total control over who gets what from regional powers to the Syrian opposition.

JL: The “great sorting out” that I have argued is taking place in the region would continue. Christians have largely left Syria. They probably account for less than 3 percent of the population today. Alawites would be subject to revenge and their towns looted. There is no reason that the rebels would show mercy to them. Many Alawites would flee to Lebanon rather than find out what awaited them should Islamist militias take their towns. The Islamist leaders consider Alawites unbelievers and apostates. Even the more moderate Islamic Front leaders state that Shiites should be ethnically cleansed from Syria.

ADM: How important is Assad and Syria to Iran, and what are they prepared to do to save him?

JL: Alawite rule and Assad’s regime is very important to Iran. Tehran may spend more money [to support the regime], but I find it hard to believe that it would send brigades of Iranian soldiers to fight in Syria.

FH: During two years’ worth of track two discussions with influential, non-official Iranians, I’ve been consistently told that preserving Assad personally is a top Iranian national security priority. Iran sees him as utterly compliant in supporting Iranian efforts to keep Hezbollah’s anti-Israel missile and rocket force at a high state of combat readiness. Although the domination of Syria is, on its own merits, a hegemonic feather in Tehran’s cap, the Assad-Hezbollah connection is deemed by Iran to be vital in a practical sense. The Iranians fear — perhaps with good reason — that with Bashar Al-Assad gone the regime will collapse, and that no successor would subordinate Syria to Iran in the way Assad has.

ADM: If Assad fell, what would the impact be on Hezbollah?

FH: Unless Iran were able to replace Assad with a similarly compliant and effective funnel to Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese militia leader would become the equivalent of a well-armed military commander who knows he has no prospect of effective resupply. This could have an operationally inhibiting effect on Iran and its Lebanon-based strategic force. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and [Hezbollah chief] Hassan Nasrallah would both know that the employment of the rocket and missile force would be a one-time event. And the force itself would deteriorate over time without steady resupply and upgrading.

JL: Hezbollah would be cut off from its source of heavy weapon supply. Israel and the United States can police sea and air deliveries, but not the overland routes that Assad uses to deliver Iranian arms to Hezbollah.

ADM: Is there an Islamist insurgency capable of ruling the country?

JL: I presume the Islamist forces would find a way to rule Syria.

FH: “Islamist” is a very broad term. Can Syria be ruled legitimately by people who think that sectarian minorities have a lower grade of citizenship than the majority? No. Is it admissible for there to be a political trend in a constitutional republic advocating the position that law should be derived from the moral teachings of the Quran and the Hadith? Yes. But Syria is an ethnic and sectarian mosaic, one that can enjoy the consent of the governed — required for true legitimacy and stability — only if citizenship trumps everything else politically. Is there in the opposition a ready-for-prime-time government? No. Yet neither is the Assad regime fit to govern, unless one is comfortable with mass murder, industrial strength corruption, and tacit cooperation with the Islamic State.

ADM: What would Assad’s fall mean for IS?

FH: IS wants to be one of two parties left standing in Syria. It wants the other to be the Assad regime. IS fears Assad being replaced by an alternative attractive to the Syrians it currently tries to rule. With Assad still in the saddle, IS has the face of sectarian-driven war crimes and crimes against humanity for a powerful recruiting poster as it seeks to draw to Syria the damaged, disaffected, and deranged of the Sunni Muslim world. There is a solid, practical reason why IS points its weapons at alternatives to it and the Assad regime, not at the regime itself.

JL: If Nusra and the Islamic Front were to weaken Assad’s control of Syria’s major cities, IS would have to make a concerted effort to take them. It could lead to significant defections from IS to Nusra, just as initial IS victories led to Nusra and Islamist military defections to IS.

ADM: If you had to guess, where will Syria be a year from now?

JL: Assad will still remain in control of Damascus and the coastal regions, but the city of Hama will either have fallen or be engulfed in war. This, of course, is wild speculation. Much depends on whether Iran and Iraq up the ante to meet greater Turkish and Saudi aid to Syria’s Sunni rebels, as it depends on how much the region’s Sunni powers want to defeat Iran and Assad in Syria.

FH: If Washington maintains an arm’s-length approach to protection of civilians and political-military support of Syrian nationalists, one year from now the humanitarian abomination will have deepened significantly and the country will be uneasily and unofficially partitioned between IS and the regime as it hemorrhages people. There would, I think, continue to be an unstable live-and-let live relationship between the two parties left standing: Iran will not waste its Lebanese assets on recapturing an eastern Syria it deems largely worthless; and IS will want to concentrate on consolidating its presence in eastern Syria to facilitate operations in Iraq.

The key variable, however, will be American policy. If the United States elects to protect civilians, to replace an anemic train-and-equip initiative with the building of an all-Syrian National Stabilization Force, and recruits regional powers to provide ground forces to sweep IS from Syria so that a governmental alternative to the Assad clan can be established, then the pessimist scenario can be avoided. And then Syrians can have a shot at a negotiated settlement leading ultimately to legitimate governance.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Notes and Reflections -- 2008

My first assignment as a senior care-giver was as a "live-in" instead of the typical hourly shift. Except for eight-hour daytime Monday breaks, I lived two months with a client recovering from a broken ankle. I would not have accepted living with with someone in declining health and the ravages of old age, but this was an otherwise healthy man in his seventies recovering from a broken bone to resume living independently. He and his extended family made me feel like one of them, and all I had to do was fix meals, get the mail and help him with daily living activities until he recovered.

Quite by accident, those were also the days and weeks at the end of the 2008 election and the financial crisis of 2008.  I spent many hours following the news on both network reporting and C-SPAN. Like many others I had never heard of Nouriel Roubini, but after that crisis he became an investment rock star, having warned everyone well ahead of the crisis to move financial assets from equities to cash, a smart move for those who followed his advice.

I did not have access to my computer, so what follows was scribbled the old fashioned way in long hand, later transcribed to my blog. I'm copying it here verbatim, mostly for my own record, but also for anyone who might be interested.


Fall reflections, 2008

This shaggy-dog rambling was written a week before the election of Barack Obama. As the event grew near the outcome seemed obvious, but for some of us it seemed too good to be true. I only had forty-five years to wait to see a black American president. I cannot imagine what it is like for someone born black. And as the day approached I simply had to sit on my expectations. So often over the years I experienced dashed hopes and disappointments. Great progress has taken us far beyond the days of segregated schools, restrooms, and water fountains. But the facts of racial discrimination have remained stubbornly embedded, even in the black community itself, in the social fabric of America.

This "reflection" is more than it appears to be on the surface. It rehearses for me the origins and growth of how one high school kid got radicalized even before the Sixties became a benchmark decade. By the time I graduated in 1962 I was well on the way to being a life-long Liberal, even though I had no idea at the time what that was going to involve.


My sixty-fifth birthday is still half a year away but I can still recall my youth clearly enough to know that sometimes you simply have to squeeze a zit. "Back in the day," as the newer locution of "in the good old days" would have it, we saidpimple, not zit. But the morphing of language is a reflection of how views and values also tend to change. And I have been forced to watch helplessly since my political infancy as words and trends took on a life of their own over which I had little or no control. If the world says "zit" and I say "pimple" everyone will know how retrograde my thinking is. Whatever other ideas I hold come into question, like the polite but indelible racism of people who still refer to "colored people" when they should be referring simply to "people." So this morning I feel the need to squeeze a pimple, so to speak, to get a few things off my chest.

Having been away from blogging for two months now (except for a few softball posts) I realize how little I am needed at this keyboard except for my own edification. Traffic, to my satisfaction, has not dropped off as the result of my neglect, thanks to four years of material that still feeds into Google searches. I am expecting after next week to lose about half the number of hits because that one post that I put up almost two years ago, regarding Obama's religion, continues to get half or more of all visits. Surely that question will be moot after next week's election. We'll see.

In the meantime I am struggling to keep a lid on my excitement as next Tuesday approaches. I can hardly believe that after all these years a political candidate whom I endorse is actually getting this close to the finish line. Moreover, Obama's historic campaign is changing the dynamic of American presidential elections in a way that I never thought possible, bringing with it what for me is a long lost spirit of the past that was taken out by the killing of John F. Kennedy in 1963. If I allow myself to think too long about it it still makes tears come to my eyes.

Last week I was listening with half an ear as someone on a local Atlanta TV panel made reference to something she had read in Human Events magazine. I never thought someone reading Human Events would admit to it in public. In my mind it has about as much credibility as The National Enquirer. It has been a long time since I heard anyone refer to that publication and the mention of it triggered a flashback to my high school days. I am by no means a red-diaper baby but I was aimed in that direction as an adolescent as the result of circumstances in my life. My first exposure to Human Events Magazine was an important part of that development.

Here is the story.

Sometime during my high school days at Columbus High School in Columbus, Georgia, the school sponsored an event in the auditorium that was intended to emphasize the notion of brotherhood. I don't recall the official reason for the occasion, but there were three representative speakers from the three main faiths of the day, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish. This is almost like a setup for a joke, but it really happened that way. As I remember, each had about fifteen minutes to talk about tolerance and brotherhood, with the preacher going first. His message was a generic Christian appeal to what Lincoln referred to as the "better angels of our nature" but years of habit would not allow him to let it go at that. He was compelled by the Great Commission to include at least one or two gentle but unmistakable references to Jesus Christ, stopping short of an altar call on the spot. The priest was somewhat less pointed, but there was no mistake about it, the Christian part of our Judeo-Christian heritage was clearly the more important of the two roots, and those with Christian ears would hear edifying words of encouragement.

It was Rabbi Goodman whose message stuck in my memory, partly because of the image and story he chose, and partly because of the contrast it left in the context of the three presentations. He said that when he was a youngster someone did something to him that hurt him deeply. Some insult or mean-spirited remark gesture had sent him to his mother, seeking her advice as to how he could best get even with those who had been so ugly to him. Her advice to him was this: "Go out and find a mud puddle with sticky mud. Then put some of it into your mouth and go spit it on them! That will teach them not to mess with you." His point (as well as his mother's) was that there is no way to "get even" with someone else without getting a taste of ugliness yourself. "Getting even" is contrary to the spirit of brotherhood, even when someone has it coming.

As I left the auditorium I thought about the story and how obvious it was. But I also thought about how unintentionally careless the other two clergy had been by overlooking the fact that at Columbus High School there were a lot of Jewish students who might not hear their Christian message in the way they had intended. It was a well -known fact at that time in Columbus, Georgia, that practically every Jewish family in town sent their children to Columbus High School. Of the other two white high schools Baker was way to the other side of town, more transitory, in the shadow of Fort Benning, and no one from established families sent their kids there. The other school, somewhat snootily referred to as a "trade school," was actually called Jordan Vocational High School and everyone knew that Jews always sent their kids to college prep high schools if they couldn't afford a private school. (Outside the school community I sometimes heard nick-names like "Jew-Blue High School" or references to "Jew-lovers" aimed at CHS, but I learned to overlook those remarks as the indications of ignorance that they were. It was true, by the way. I recall that so many Jews were absent on a couple of Jewish holidays that we couldn't have a good band rehearsal because to many were out. Seems like half the brass and a third of clarinets went missing one time, but I can't say for sure.)

These early exposures to antisemitism were part of my growing up. Although I was not Jewish, I had many friends who were, and a few time I went to Friday night services at the synagogue just to see for myself how they worshiped. I was much impressed that following the service there was always a sumptuous reception in the social hall below the sanctuary spread with treats I had seen only a few fancy occasions in my own limited experience. Later, when I felt that my Southern Baptist peers were not on the side of the angels at the start of the civil rights movement I found a college home at Hillel, the Jewish students organization, as the only non-Jew in their midst. it was there that I learned to enjoy lox, bagels, cream cheese and danish, and later, potato latkes and applesauce.

(Can you believe all these memories were stirred by the mention of Human Events Magazine?)

About the same time, two local controversies were raging in Columbus, Georgia that got my attention. One was a very acrimonious debate about whether the local water supply should be treated with fluoride because it was found that in parts of the country where fluoride occurred naturally in the local water there was a marked decrease in the incidence of tooth decay. Something about fluoride seems to protect against cavities, hence those references on toothpaste labels. The other debate had to do with whether or not the city and county governments should be combined into a single administrative entity for the sake of consistency and economy. I think it was called "consolidated government."

I was not aware of politics at the time, so I had no way of knowing that Columbus, Georgia was (and probably still is) what we would call an extremely conservative place. There are a lot of reasons for this which others can explain, but at the start of the Sixties there was already an active local chapter of the John Birch Society, a group I didn't have any knowledge of, except that they seemed to be four-square opposed to both water fluoridation and consolidated government. Naive me, both proposals seemed to be eminently sensible and practical and I didn't see any problem with either. But this was the time when "Impeach Earl Warren" signs were all over the Southern countryside, George Wallace was soon to be standing in an Alabama schoolhouse door just a few miles away on the basis of "states rights," and there was a widespread and credible threat that Communists were just waiting to get control of everything we held dear.

It was in this milieu that none other that Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, came to Columbus to speak to local supporters at the old Royal theatre. There was no charge for admission, and it was at that time that I, along with two other high school students, sat politely through the man's speech and then passed out leaflets to people as they left warning them that the John Birch Society was not what they thought it was. It was a simple, four-page typed flyer run off on a church mimeograph machine, that said, in part...

Just how so many Americans have been tricked into such Communist ruses as democracy, foreign aid, UNICEF, the United Nations, NATO, and national defense defies reason.
We, the Teen-Age Democratic Club are not indifferent to the John Birch Society; We are willing to take a positive stand. 
We fear the Birch as a demagogic (gaining political influence through social discontent) and fantastic (a program of strong centralization, severe nationalism, and suppression of opposition) group. In this opinion, we accept the following wild-eyed "commie" supporters: "Time" and "Life" magazines, and the Los Angeles Times; The New York Times, J.Edgar Hoover, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
A local flap ensued during which a local columnist suggested that the three of us had been manipulated by some unknown but sinister outside agitator. Who knows? I didn't write the leaflet and the guy who brought it was a preacher's kid who had used the copying machine at a local Methodist church to execute his subversive plan. But that's not the point. The point is that I agreed with what it said and I was willing, even at that young age, to take a stand for what I thought.

(I know. Human Events. We're getting there.)

A couple of years later I was in Tallahassee, Florida getting involved with a student group calling itself, believe it or not, the "Liberal Forum." Can you imagine? The word liberal was not yet the completely reviled label that it has lately become, forcing today's liberals into apologizing for the word by calling themselves "progressive." A few people still refer to the word but they are careful to be prissy about it, specifying themselves as "classic" liberals, but I remain the un-reconstructed Sixties liberal that I was at that time, ashamed of the moral turpitude of the time but mostly pleased about how we stood on politics social issues.

Walking downtown one afternoon I went into a bookstore called "American Opinion," an outlet for conservative printed materials in general and John Birch Society publications in particular. I know well where I was, but I didn't leave. I wanted to stay and find out first hand what those people were saying, how they were saying it, and if there was anything there that might still appeal to me. Remember, I was still young and malleable. I was leaning into what would later become a Liberal direction, but I remained open to other ideas. I was still attending the Baptist Church there in Tallahassee, but by then I was informed that my home church in Columbus already had a deacons' meeting to discuss a contingency plan should any Negroes show up some Sunday to stir up trouble. They knew there was no way that Negroes coming to a white church would really be there to worship, so it was planned in advance how best not to admit them.

I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I was leafing through a copy of Human Events Magazine and it appeared to be a pretty well-done piece of work. No in-your-face extremism that I could find and articles that seemed to be of general interest. But I came across a piece by Westbrook Pegler making reference to Elanor Roosevelt that got my attention. In my innocence I knew that Elanor Roosevelt was an important political character and had a lot to do with black people. For all I knew she might have helped form the NAACP, but in those days when more extremist groups like CORE, SNCC and the SDS were all over the place, the NAACP was about as old-fashioned and harmless as a Black Baptist church. Besides, Columbus was right down the road from Warm Springs, FDR's Little White House, and the name of Roosevelt was well thought of in those parts. Pegler's description of Elanor Roosevelt was about as vile an expression of ad hominemattack as I had ever seen in print, making reference, I recall, to her "hooked nose" and other physical attributes having nothing to do with politics or principles. I put down the magazine and left the store. Many experiences of my college years have been lost in my memory, but that exposure to that issue of Human Events remained burned in my memory for the rest of my life.

I have been sitting at this keyboard now over two hours squeezing this pimple and I was about to put together a closing paragraph. Here we are over forty years after the fact and I decided to try a Google search to find if the exact article that I may have been reading in 1962 might be found on line. To my surprise I did a search just now for Westbrook Pegler Eleanor Roosevelt and got over fifteen hundred hits. [Now, in 2015, the number is fifteen thousand.]

But I found an even bigger surprise, appearing in the Wikipedia article about Pegler.
Interest in Pegler was revived when a line originally written by him appeared in Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin's acceptance speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. "We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity", she said, attributing it to "a writer."The speech was written by Matthew Scully, a senior speech writer for George W. Bush.

I called it a "surprise," but after thinking about it for a moment, I may be disturbed, amazed, wowed or evendisappointed. But surprised? I think not. And I can think of no better ending to this reflection.

Later....April 17, 2009

I notice someone from Michigan has been reading this post. I had not thought about it since I wrote it and never imagined anyone else would be interested. Reading it now, half a year later, it reads pretty good. Messy and without much of a point, but okay reading.

I drilled further in to the Pegler/Palin links and came up with the article mentioned. (WSJ op-ed) This fleshes out the story somewhat. Thomas Frank's The GOP Loves the Heartland To Death is a treasure. I'm grabbing the whole thing because too many times archived links go nowhere.
It tells us something about Sarah Palin's homage to small-town America, delivered to an enthusiastic GOP convention last week, that she chose to fire it up with an unsourced quotation from the all-time champion of fake populism, the belligerent right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler. 
"We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity," the vice-presidential candidate said, quoting an anonymous "writer," which is to say, Pegler, who must have penned that mellifluous line when not writing his more controversial stuff. As the New York Times pointed out in its obituary of him in 1969, Pegler once lamented that a would-be assassin "hit the wrong man" when gunning for Franklin Roosevelt. 
There's no evidence that Mrs. Palin shares the trademark Pegler bloodlust -- except maybe when it comes to moose and wolves. Nevertheless, the red-state myth that Mrs. Palin reiterated for her adoring audience owes far more to the venomous spirit of Pegler than it does to Norman Rockwell. 
Small town people, Mrs. Palin went on, are "the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food and run our factories and fight our wars." They are authentic; they are noble, and they are her own: "I grew up with those people."
But what really defines them in Mrs. Palin's telling is their enemies, the people who supposedly "look down" on them. The opposite of the heartland is the loathsome array of snobs and fakers, "reporters and commentators," lobbyists and others who make up "the Washington elite." 
Presumably the various elite Washington lobbyists who have guided John McCain's presidential campaign were exempt from Mrs. Palin's criticism. As would be former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, now a "senior adviser" to the Dickstein Shapiro lobby firm, who hymned the "Sarah Palin part of the party" thus: "Their kids aren't going to go to Ivy League schools. Their sons leave high school and join the military to serve our country. Their husbands and wives work two jobs to make sure the family is sustained." 
Generally speaking, though, when husbands and wives work two jobs each it is not merely because they are virtuous but because working one job doesn't earn them enough to get by. The two-job workers in Middle America aren't spurning the Ivy League and joining the military straight out of high school just because they're people of principle, although many of them are. It is because they can't afford to do otherwise. 
Leave the fantasy land of convention rhetoric, and you will find that small-town America, this legendary place of honesty and sincerity and dignity, is not doing very well. If you drive west from Kansas City, Mo., you will find towns where Main Street is largely boarded up. You will see closed schools and hospitals. You will hear about depleted groundwater and massive depopulation. 
And eventually you will ask yourself, how did this happen? Did Hollywood do this? Was it those "reporters and commentators" with their fancy college degrees who wrecked Main Street, U.S.A.? 
No. For decades now we have been electing people like Sarah Palin who claimed to love and respect the folksy conservatism of small towns, and yet who have unfailingly enacted laws to aid the small town's mortal enemies. 
Without raising an antitrust finger they have permitted fantastic concentration in the various industries that buy the farmer's crops. They have undone the New Deal system of agricultural price supports in favor of schemes called "Freedom to Farm" and loan deficiency payments -- each reform apparently designed to secure just one thing out of small town America: cheap commodities for the big food processors. Richard Nixon's Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz put the conservative attitude toward small farmers most bluntly back in the 1970s when he warned, "Get big or get out." 
A few days ago I talked politics with Donn Teske, the president of the Kansas Farmers Union and a former Republican. Barack Obama may come from a big city, he admits, but the Farmers Union gives him a 100% rating for his votes in Congress. John McCain gets a 0%. "If any farmer in the Plains States looked at McCain's voting record on ag issues," Mr. Teske says, "no one would vote for him." 
Now, Mr. McCain is known for his straight talk with industrial workers, telling them their jobs are never coming back, that the almighty market took them away for good, and that retraining is their only hope. 
But he seems to think that small-town people can be easily played. Just choose a running mate who knows how to skin a moose and all will be forgiven. Drive them off the land, shutter their towns, toss their life chances into the grinders of big agriculture . . . and praise their values. The TV eminences will coo in appreciation of your in-touch authenticity, and the carnival will move on.

My mind got infected at an early age. Too bad. Now, forty-odd years later when I see or hear reference to Sarah Palin it invokes memories of Westbrook Pegler, Human Events Magazine, The John Birch Society, Robert Welch (who I saw and didn't like) and now journalist Thomas Frank (whom I've never seen or heard of but like very much). I hope she finds enough happiness and fulfillment in Alaska to make her want to remain there. But I fear that sometime between now and 2012 she's gonna get the urge to relocate to the lower forty-eight.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Social Security Links

When I looked for this I ran into two or three attempts to sell it behind a subscription, so I'm collecting it here for my own future reference. When I personally recall a few key words I don't believe it's fair to charge me to see the rest of a piece if that's all I'm looking for. The commercialization of the Web is like an invasive species -- virus, plant or animal. 
Molly Ivins January 24 1999

AUSTIN, Texas — Well, see, you live long enough, and sooner or later, you end up agreeing with Alan Greenspan. How right he is, that clever Mr. Greenspan — investing Social Security funds in the stock market is a truly bad idea.

This particular lemon is the pet project of Wall Street, which stands to make a killing from it, and of conservative Republicans. That President Clinton should embrace this barmy notion is a typically Clintonian political play. He really wants to do something about Social Security, and opening up the stock market option as well as individual savings accounts should get the R's, who have been pushing both ideas, excited enough to try to work out a deal.

Of course, putting Social Security money into the stock market is not solely the intellectual province of such folks as Martin Feldstein, chairman of Ronald Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers. Sen. Patrick Moynihan and some other liberal lights are for some variation of the plan.

And not all Republicans favor it: Rep. Bill Archer, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, said: "We can save Social Security without making the government an owner of private markets. The proposal will lead to mischief, political favoritism and less money for Social Security recipients. It's a very bad idea." Sen. Phil Gramm added his own cordial condemnation and allowed that he doesn't think they'll get far on Social Security this term — maybe next year.

Since Clinton has proposed the ideas, some Republicans are now backpedaling, on the theory that anything advocated by the man they regard as Beelzebub must be wrong. Several congressmen have decried Clinton's idea that the government should invest the funds.

"The decisions will be made by government bureaucrats instead of professional money managers," cried one. Right — professional money managers like Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, Charles Keating, Nick Leeson (the guy who brought down Baring's, the old bank in Britain) and John Meriwether (the hedge fund genius who had to be bailed out to the tune of $3.6 billion). Yes, we certainly want those professional money managers involved.

I'm all for letting people make their own decisions, but can you feature a zillion senior citizens, many of whom have Alzheimer's or are getting vague from old age, many of whom never learned a thing about stocks in their whole lives, suddenly put in charge of investing their Social Security money? They'd be sitting ducks for every con man in America.

Some would fall for phony preachers; some would listen to their son-in-law the dentist; others would hear that some people were getting a guaranteed 20 percent a year and believe it.

This seems to me the equivalent of the equally daffy idea that we can solve Social Security's problems by extending the retirement age to 70. The first idea shows how out of touch Washington is with the intellectual realities of old age, and the other shows how out of touch it is with the physical realities of old age.

Of course, if you're a congressman, you can go on voting and bloviating until you're as old as Strom Thurmond without any difficulty. But have you ever looked at the feet of an old waitress? Do you know what it's like to do heavy lifting all day in your 60s?

A more hilarious Republican reaction is that Clinton's program is actually ... socialism! Rather than privatizing Social Security, Michael Farr, president of the financial consulting firm Farr, Miller and Washington, declared it "the de-privatization of corporate America."

You must admit that there is evidence for the concern about whether government money managers might take political correctness into account when making investment decisions. In fact, a certain very large state I know well recently decided to pull $43 million in its permanent school fund out of the Walt Disney Co. because fundamentalist Christians on the State Board of Education were upset about Disney's support of gay people.

The one country that has carried out privatization of its social security system is Chile, during the reign of Augusto Pinochet and under the influence of Milton Friedman. The results have been awful. And Britain's partial privatization from the Thatcher era is an unqualified disaster. If you have not read a serious account of what has happened in these two places, I recommend that you do so.

I noticed some ill-informed commentary to the effect that Clinton's proposals "come from the left." Not only are they right-wing Republican ideas, but anyone familiar with the left knows that our thinking on Social Security is that there is no problem.

Wall Street has been telling us that the sky is falling to panic us into precisely the kind of dumb moves that Clinton recommended. The fact is that Social Security projections are based on extremely pessimistic economic assumptions: a growth rate of just 1.8 percent during the next 20 years (a lower rate than any comparable period in American history), with more low growth after that. The July 1998 issue of The Atlantic Monthly carried an important article debunking much of the hysteria over Social Security; I highly recommend it.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at


Thursday, April 9, 2015

Nudge as Politics

Now that Cass Sunstein has published three or four books on his idea of the nudge, I asked Connor Kilpatrick for some...
Posted by Corey Robin on Wednesday, April 8, 2015

This post by Corey Robin reminds me of an old blog post I put together when Sunstein left the Obama administration two and a half years ago. The comments thread is more cute than informative. That was back in my Newshogger days which unfortunately have mostly vanished in the Web equivalent of a landfill, the place where broken links and lost thoughts go when they die. I was able to retrieve this much from Mr. Google

August 4, 2012

Buh-Bye, Nudger-in-Chief

Cass Sunstein is leaving his role as administator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, otherwise know as the Regulatory Czar.
[He] came to Washington to test his theories of human behavior and economic efficiency in the laboratory of the federal government. Now he is departing with a record that left many business interests disappointed and environmental, health and consumer advocates even more unhappy. 
Mr. Sunstein, 57, who projected an air of disheveled academic detachment while becoming one of the Obama administration’s most provocative figures, announced Friday that he was leaving government to return to Harvard Law School.
Applying a cost-benefit analysis to his reviews of proposed rules, he said his goal was simply to make the nation’s regulatory system “as sensible as possible.”
His critics saw it differently. 
“Cass Sunstein is the most well-connected and smartest guy who’s ever held the job,” said Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform and a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. “But he’s also done untold damage.”
Since we haven't heard much about him and he appears to have pissed off allies and opponents alike he must have done a pretty good job. I put together a post about the guy a couple years ago and nothing in his leaving comes as any surprise to me. He and the boss are reported to be long-time friends and the "nudge" approach has been a hallmark of this administration's management style from the start. Except for a few targeted assassinations, most people would agree that kicking ass isn't the president's strong suit. Nudging is not the same as letting others step on you. Think wrestling. Graeco-Roman has an array of straqtegic moves but Sumo takes nudging to an art form.

Two examples of how nudging works come to mind...

The phrase leading from behind has never before, to my knowledge, been applied to a president or anyone else in a position of leadership. But that phrase has popped up repeatedly over the last two or three years, most prominently regarding Libya

And just yesterday Maggie Mahar put together a great summary of how the impact of PPACA is already being felt and how that "aircraft carrier" is starting to turn. [Even during his campaign Obama used the "aircraft carrier" image to illustrate how tough it is to change the direction of any government policy.]

The evidence is building: As we move toward making the Affordable Care Act a reality, Medicare spending in slowing, and even in the private sector, for the first time in more than a decade, insurers are focusing on reining in health care costs .

The passage of reform legislation two years ago prompted a change in how both health care providers and payers think about care. The ACA told insurers that they would no longer be able to shun the sick by refusing to cover those suffering from pre-existing conditions. They also won’t be allowed to cap how much ithey will pay out to an desperately ill patient over the course of a year –or a lifetime. Perhaps most importantly, going forward, insurance companies selling policies to individuals and small companies will have to reimburse for all of the “essential benefits” outlined in the ACA–benefits that are not now covered by most policies. This means that, if they hope to stay in business, they will have to find a way to ”manage” the cost of care–but they won’t be able to do it by denying needed care.

That's a subject for another post if I get around to it. (Maggie trimmed this down to a mere 3000+ words.) But the point is that nudging has started a process of long-overdue change. I sensed as much a couple months ago when I posted this.
The word unsustainable is more than a political nostrum. The train is leaving the station. The political types with their polls, weathervanes and double-talk will eventually figure out what needs to be done. But improvements to the system are already happening, with or without Obamacare.
That's what I call nudging in action.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Sunday, 2015

Garrison Keillor reminds us at his Writer's Almanac of the origin of the word Easter, the Easter bunny and the custom of decorating Easter eggs.

And on television one of the Christian Zionist channels shows an image of the president speaking at Georgetown University, making a point to report how he refused to speak unless they covered up the cross behind the lectern.  This, of course, is all the evidence needed to once again underscore how duplicitous and un-Christian the man is. But having got in that swipe they moved on to a less political message.

I checked the backstory and sure enough something like that did happen in 2009, six years ago.  It was not on Easter, which in 2009 was two days earlier. This is from and half the links no longer work, but enough are still active (including NBC) to validate their explanation.
This mini-controversy bubbled up shortly after President Obama gave a speech on the economy on April 14 in Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall. Numerous media outlets reported on it, all of them saying virtually the same thing. But we’re still getting several queries from readers about it. 
The monogram "IHS" – a symbol for Jesus – that appeared behind the podium where Obama spoke at Georgetown was covered up with a piece of black-painted plywood. This led to speculation that the White House had asked that all religious imagery in the hall be covered or removed, as our reader notes. But Georgetown University and the White House have said this was not a case of any kind of religious cover-up. (Cybercast News Service, which says it aims to counter a liberal bias in the media) was one of the first to cover the story, and it reported that Julie Green Bataille, associate vice president for communications at the university, said that all university signs were covered to accommodate a presidential backdrop: 
Georgetown University spokeswoman Julie Green Bataille: In coordinating the logistical arrangements for yesterday’s event, Georgetown honored the White House staff’s request to cover all of the Georgetown University signage and symbols behind Gaston Hall stage. 
The White House wanted a simple backdrop of flags and pipe and drape for the speech, consistent with what they’ve done for other policy speeches. Frankly, the pipe and drape wasn’t high enough by itself to fully cover the IHS and cross above the GU seal and it seemed most respectful to have them covered so as not to be seen out of context.
Bataille’s statement has been repeated in other news accounts. A White House spokesman also told news organizations following the story that the only motivation behind the request was to create a presidential image for TV. "Decisions made about the backdrop for the speech were made to have a consistent background of American flags, which is standard for many presidential events. Any suggestions to the contrary are simply false,” spokesman Shin Inouye told ABC News, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times noted that while the "IHS" behind the president’s podium wasn’t visible, "the letters ‘IHS’ are posted elsewhere around the hall approximately 26 times" and that Obama mentioned Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in his remarks. There are also religious paintings visible high above Obama’s head in MSNBC’s video of the speech.
And so in the midst of the RFRA flap  Easter Sunday becomes more than the sacred occasion celebrated by Christians for centuries. This year they also launch anointed scud Mediamissiles (defensive, you know) in an ongoing War Against Religion.  Just as diplomatic efforts to resolve Middle East conflicts become evidence of weakness, attempts on my part to bring reason to an emotional argument are met with indifference.