Jay Cost at the Real Clear Politics blog takes on the emerging liberal canard about America suddenly becoming “ungovernable”:
Recently, some analysts have suggested that the lack of major policy breakthroughs in the last year is due to the fact that America has become ungovernable. Ezra Klein argued that it was time to reform the filibuster because the government cannot function with it intact anymore. Tom Friedman suggested that America’s “political instability” was making people abroad nervous. And Michael Cohen of Newsweek blamed “obstructionist Republicans,” “spineless Democrats,” and an “incoherent public” for the problem.
Nonsense. America is not ungovernable. Her President has simply not been up to the job.
Cost goes on to lay out, in some pretty good detail why he claims Obama hasn’t been up to the job. And I think he does a pretty thorough job. Be sure to read it all.
He also mentions something in there that I think is lost on the left and sometimes the right. While for many of us, we’ve seen government grow well beyond what we find acceptable or prudent, we actually could be worse off. And one of the reasons we’re not is the inherent design of the system of government we have. The same design many on the left now find frustrating and obstructive.
Let’s acknowledge that governing the United States of America is an extremely difficult task. Intentionally so. When designing our system, the Founders were faced with a dilemma. How to empower a vigorous government without endangering liberty or true republicanism? On the one hand, George III’s government was effective at satisfying the will of the sovereign, but that will had become tyrannical. On the other hand, the Articles of Confederation acknowledged the rights of the states, but so much so that the federal government was incapable of solving basic problems.
The solution the country ultimately settled on had five important features: checks and balances so that the branches would police one another; a large republic so that majority sentiment was fleeting and not intensely felt; a Senate where the states would be equal; enumerated congressional powers to limit the scope of governmental authority; and the Bill of Rights to offer extra protection against the government.
The end result was a government that is powerful, but not infinitely so. Additionally, it is schizophrenic. It can do great things when it is of a single mind – but quite often it is not of one mind. So, to govern, our leaders need to build a broad consensus. When there is no such consensus, the most likely outcome is that the government will do nothing.
The President’s two major initiatives – cap-and-trade and health care – have failed because there was not a broad consensus to enact them. Our system is heavily biased against such proposals. That’s a good thing.
So, as Cost points out, governing America is hard. But that’s a feature not a bug. It is intentionally hard because within that system is a means for the minority to be heard. That’s a critical feature. Because of that feature, the majority isn’t able to ram through legislation that isn’t acceptable to a broad base of the voting constituency. Health care reform and cap-and-trade represent legislation that has been found wanting in that regard. So the left, who used it like a Stradivarius when they were in the minority, now want that check eliminated in the Senate (kill the filibuster) and pine for the good old days of elite rule when, they claim, ramming through major legislation was so much easier.
No real surprise there.
Which brings me to Richard Fernandez’s take on this subject. He agrees with 99% of what Cost says, but says there is 1% where he’d differ:
The Left doesn’t want to govern, it wants to rule given the chance. It is as always willing to leave its own Big Tent behind at the decisive moment. The continual calls from the Democrat Left for Obama to ‘grow a spine’ are really coded calls to say that the moment is now; that the President must ‘’seize the day, seize the hour”. It’s not as Cost imagines, a call to compromise. It’s a call to say that the time for compromise is over. They can drop the mask; they can hoist the Jolly Roger.
I think Fernandez is right. Remember “I won” soon after Obama’s assumption of power? That bit of gloating was a moment the mask dropped.
The left would much rather rule than govern. It is certainly easier. And it tends to agree more with their authoritarian bent.
Governing is a messy and hard business in which they must listen and react to constituents. It means they actually are servants to the public. On the other hand, ruling means the elite choose what the constituency should live with since it is believed by them that the elite know best what that should be. Those they represent exist only to justify the presence of their rulers. The only difference between our left wing and that which founded the USSR is ours haven’t ever had the chance to effect the change those in Soviet Russia did. To this point, our system has mostly prevented it. But redistribution of income, more government intrusiveness and more government control are certainly the obvious desired results of most of the left’s agenda.
And, much to the frustration of the left, the system is preventing it again (with the stipulation that the GOP doesn’t find a way to cave and pass the unpopular bills cited above).
I’m not sure what Barack Obama thought he’d be able to do in terms of “ruling” instead of “governing”, but I’m sure that those who supported his “hope and change” agenda weren’t looking for a ruler. However it is clear, per Cost’s article, they’ve not gotten someone who can govern either (back to the leadership problem again). And, somewhat surprisingly, Obama doesn’t seem to understand the situation he’s put himself in as he doubles down on the leftist agenda he’s allowed liberal Congressional Democrats to craft. He, like so many deluded politicians, is convinced the problem with lack of popular support for the agenda is to be found with the message’s delivery, not with the message itself.
Cost concludes with an answer that I think fairly well destroys the “ungovernable” canard:
This remains a divided country, which creates complications in a system such as ours. The President should have recognized this, and governed with a view to building a broad coalition. But he has not.
America is not ungovernable. Barack Obama has so far failed to govern it.
Here’s to further frustration to the left and their agenda by the “ungovernable” among us.
Those of us who are familiar with this process and have seen it at work before (Rathergate) won’t be particularly surprised, but Richard Fernandez does a fascinating essay comparing the CRU scandal to differing civilization types, discussing the main difference between nomadic empires (Mongols) and more traditional ones (Rome) and how they are represented by the internet:
The story of these ancient empires acquires a renewed interest today because many of the conditions present in the vast, unsettled steppe superficially resemble the uncharted borders of the online world. In the 21st century just as in the 13th century, powerful ideological and economic forces move effortlessly across settled boundaries in ways that no single nation-state can easily control.
So, we have the Mongol Empire and the Roman Empire (a true “Barbarians At The Gate” scenario) opposing each other:
Whereas one side believes that government should be limited to tasks that the individual or local government cannot perform and that relationships between the parts are regulated by a distributed program expressed in the Constitution and Judaeo-Christian tradition, the other side believes that “government should be there for you”. It should be there for you in the bedroom, in the playground and recycle bin. It should be there when you are eating transfats or farting. It should even be your sexual mentor, where possible in school. Like every good imperative program, it should leave no room for anything but itself.
And, as Fernandez points out, the Romans almost won:
The endless proliferation of treaties, laws and regulations were the imperative rules; and their embodiment in a never-ending expanse of organs of governance from local governments to the UN — with NGOs and activist groups filling every conceivable gap — was the instrument by which the ungoverned were going to be fenced in. Even private life was brought under cultivation by slow degrees and a code of Political Correctness suffused every aspect of life. In time it would become impossible to even think a subversive thought; the language would be incapable of expressing it. The vast increase in government over the last sixty years brought the settlement of the world — some might call it the End of History — almost within reach.
But then Al Gore “invented” the internet, and the internet recreated the steppe on a virtual scale:
The “climate change” debate is almost a perfect example of intellectual combat between the two sides. It is a modernized re-enactment of a struggle between one side operating under distributed programming and another using a top-down paradigm. The construction of the “climate change” meme followed the traditional socialist pattern. The idea was built up with articles written about it in the press. Advocacy groups formed around it; authority from some academic source found to bolster it; celebrities were engaged to tout it. The UN was persuaded to give the whole its imprimatur. It had always worked before. Post after post was driven into the ground anchored around Kyoto, the UN and the EU. Strand after strand of wire was fastened to the timbers. And then, just as the gate was going to be closed, the nomads of the Internet charged the wire.
They have almost broken through. Led by individuals like Plimer, McIntyre and Lomborg and followed by a motely, a growing tide of discussion on the Internet has pushed in the wire so hard that it might actually collapse. The nomads looked at the data, the computer models. Someone may have hacked the CRU documents or leaked them. And once the data was out they knew where to look. The site Watts Up With That is a perfect example of the demolition of a staid University Department meme under the cut and thrust of the terrors of the intellectual steppes. Watts Up With That goes through one instance of the CRUs data fiddling in step-by-step detail and by the end it you have gone along for the ride. You have followed the process and find it impossible to simply say that “the CRU may have been naughty but the data is good”. The data itself may be bad or intentionally corrupted.
It is a fascinating spectacle. What the nomads have on their sides is reality. What the sown has on its part is manner and method. And the struggle between the two sides is one whose outcome, even in general, is still unknown.
The difference, of course, is the barbarians have been able to challenge the “method” and “manner” in which the statist side has used for seeming eons to get us to our present situation. To the swift, nimble and adaptable go the battles (assuming they also have the facts on their side as I believer the skeptics do in this climate scandal). The barbarians are able to mass at will, engage subject matter experts and tap their knowledge and erode the foundations of trust the empire has built up, falsely in many cases, over the years.
It is indeed a fascinating spectacle and one I feel thankful to both witness and participate in. I’ve always been the type that likes to question authority, and being an ad hoc member of this huge dissenting tribe has been most fulfilling and enjoyable. My question to you is, given what Fernandez puts forward here, do you think this may mark the high tide of this particular empire type or simply a pot hole in the road down which Leviathan continues to gather speed?
Richard Fernandez of the Belmont Club writes a very well done essay on the present Afghanistan decision making process. He compares Andrew Sullivan’s apologia with David Kilcullen’s concerns about the time involved in reaching a decision. You can disregard the Sullivan part except to understand that he thinks it is just marvelous that Obama is taking so much time considering all the options and doing his homework before making a decision to change the strategy there.
Fernandez reminds us of a very important point that seems to have escaped many as they await the decision. The strategy President Obama is planning on changing is his own. In March of this year he said:
Good morning. Today, I am announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This marks the conclusion of a careful policy review that I ordered as soon as I took office. My Administration has heard from our military commanders and diplomats. We have consulted with the Afghan and Pakistani governments; with our partners and NATO allies; and with other donors and international organizations. And we have also worked closely with members of Congress here at home. Now, I’d like to speak clearly and candidly to the American people. … So let me be clear …
This is surely something the administration would like you to forget. And thus you hear all the nonsense that’s been coming out lately (and has gotten pushback from former VP Dick Cheney) that Afghanistan was just left adrift by the former administration. It is nonsense because the basis of the March “careful policy review” was that which the former Bush administration had done.
However that’s not really the point – the point is that a “comprehensive, new strategy” for both Afghanistan and Pakistan were announced by this administration. A new general, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was named to implement that strategy. Now, suddenly, they’re involved in reviewing that strategy.
What, if anything, has changed?
The event that has been blamed is the national election in Afghanistan. And, as mentioned, it has been coupled with the baseless claim that the Afghan war was left adrift by the Bush administration. The former problem, while serious, isn’t a show stopper (see Iraq). The latter problem is simply untrue. What has changed is the politics surrounding Afghanistan. The polls show a deeply divided United States with the majority not favoring an escalation and many favoring we leave altogether. Given his domestic political problems trying to ram an unpopular agenda through Congress – which has succeeded in splitting his base as well as firing up the political opposition – he needs something with which to bring his base back in line. Afghanistan may be that issue.
Consider too who he has involved in his review: VP Joe Biden who is pushing a minimalist “super ninja” strategy. He wants to use special operators and drones to kill al Qaeda. Let Pakistan and Afghanistan sort themselves out politically. Obviously if that means the Taliban takes over Afghanistan again, well, so be it. The fact that Biden was wrong about every aspect of Iraq as he suggested strategy then doesn’t seem to matter. Also included is Sen. John Kerry. He’s considered such a lightweight when it comes to military matters that he’s usually ignored outright when he pontificates on matters about which he obviously hasn’t a clue. He thinks Gen. McChrystal’s plan goes “too far, too fast”. The fact that Kerry has somehow managed to include himself and is apparently being taken seriously by Obama tells you how little Obama knows about any of this and how out of his depth he is on the issue.
Lastly, there’s David Axelrod, who claims he “doesn’t have a seat at the table” when these policy reviews take place, but attends every one of them anyway. While he may not have an official seat at the policy review table, he owns the table of chief political advisor and Obama sits at that table daily. Axelrod’s job is to divine the political winds and keep Obama sailing in the fair ones.
Thus the strategy review. When Gen. McChrystal accepted the job to implement the Obama administration’s new March ’09 comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, he began what all new commanders do – a commander’s review. In that review he takes the strategy and mission and he games them out. He attempts to ascertain, to the best of his ability, what it will take in terms of resources to accomplish the mission the strategy outlines. Once he has ascertained that, he submits his plan to his commander – in this case, directly to the President.
It isn’t a complicated process – the boss gives you a mission. You analyze the mission, determine what it takes to accomplish the mission and you go back to the boss with a plan and a request for resources. That’s precisely what happened.
However, in the interim, politics began to rear its head. In July, right in the middle of the assessment process, Obama’s National Security Advisor and former Marine General Jim Jones showed up in Afghanistan and made it very clear that requests for more troops would not be a welcome event. Speaking to Marine commanders there he was quite clear:
Now suppose you’re the president, Jones told them, and the requests come into the White House for yet more force. How do you think Obama might look at this? Jones asked, casting his eyes around the colonels. How do you think he might feel?
Jones let the question hang in the air-conditioned, fluorescent-lighted room. Nicholson and the colonels said nothing.
Well, Jones went on, after all those additional troops, 17,000 plus 4,000 more, if there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have “a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment.” Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF — which in the military and elsewhere means “What the [expletive]?”
Nicholson and his colonels — all or nearly all veterans of Iraq — seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get.
The “17,000 plus 4,000 more” troops were a part of that March ’09 “new” strategy based on the former administration’s plans. Jones made it very clear that regardless of what these commanders thought they needed to do the mission they’d been given, they’d better plan on doing it with what they had. And later, in another interview, Jones dismissed any additional troops requests or their need by claiming that all commanders in the field ask for more troops, whether they really need them or not.
Apparently, however, Gen. McChrystal decided, Jones admonishment notwithstanding, that he couldn’t with clear conscience, heed that advice and accomplish the mission given (although rumor has it he cut his initial estimate of troops needed from 60,000 to 40,000). He went ahead and submitted his plan at the end of August asking for more resources and troops.
Back to that fairly simple process I outlined above. Once you submit your plan to your boss with the request for resources necessary to accomplish that mission you normally then sit down with him and explain and defend your plan. That, of course, has never happened. And that 20 minutes on the tarmac in Airforce One while in Copenhagen did not give McChrystal the opportunity to do that. That meeting was driven by bad press and politics, not a desire to meet with and discuss the plan McChrystal had submitted. The required meeting, to date, still hasn’t happened. But numerous “war council” meetings continue to happen. And as word leaks out, it appears politics – not a mission to succeed in Afghanistan – is taking center stage.
On October 31st, in their Washington Post article, Anne Kornblut and Greg Jaffe made it clear that Obama was seeking a political decision vs. a military one:
The military chiefs have been largely supportive of a resource request by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, that would by one Pentagon estimate require the deployment of 44,000 additional troops. But opinion among members of Obama’s national security team is divided, and he now appears to be seeking a compromise solution that would satisfy both his military and civilian advisers.
A worse scenario cannot be imagined. But it is in perfect keeping with how a politician would work vs. a Commander in Chief. Compromise is the bread-and-butter of politics. It is about keeping constituencies satisfied, if not happy. Contentment means votes. But compromise in terms of military strategy usually means disaster. Attempting to satisfy “both his military and civilian advisers” means he’s looking for the best political solution, not the best military solution.
And since such a solution is hardly obvious, he dithers. Sullivan mistakes that for slow, considered and methodical decision making. But in reality, it is a method of stalling as old man himself. Ask for more information, reject the options presented, send your minions back to the drawing board – all the while making the argument or implication that it is the fault of those presenting the options for not getting it right, not the CiC. Of course, anyone with any military experience knows that’s nonsense since it is the “commander’s guidance” from which any options are derived.
That brings us back to David Kilcullen. If you’re not familiar with Kilcullen, he’s considered to be one of the gurus when it comes to counter-insurgency warfare. And Kilcullen gets to the very nut of the problem with this “process” that Sullivan mistakenly praises:
David Kilcullen, one of the world’s leading authorities on counter-insurgency and an adviser to the British government as well as the US state department, said Obama’s delay in reaching a decision over extra troops had been “messy”. He said it not only worried US allies but created uncertainty the Taliban could exploit.
Speaking in an interview with the Guardian, he compared the president to someone “pontificating” over whether to send enough firefighters into a burning building to put a fire out. …
Kilcullen expressed concern that Obama might deny McChrystal the 40,000 extra troops and split the difference between the four options, the kind of fudge common in domestic politics.
“Time is running out for us to make a decision. We can either put in enough troops to control the environment or we can credibly communicate our intention to leave. Either could work. Splitting the difference is not the way to go,” Kilcullen said.
“It feels to me that all these options are dangerously close to the middle ground and we have to consider whether the middle ground is a good place to be. The middle ground is a good place on domestic issues, but not on strategy. You either commit to D-Day and invade the continent or you get Suez. Half-measures end up with Suez. Do it or not do it.”
There is no “third way”. At least not a credible one. In this sort of warfare, to use a poker analogy, you either fold or you’re “all in”. Domestic political considerations should have absolutely no place in these sorts of deliberations and decisions. But it is clear they do.
That is also clearly a disservice (to put it mildly) to every man and woman in uniform serving our nation today. It is also something which may easily get many of them killed.
So let’s remember President Obama’s words at NAS Jacksonville when he told those gathered there:
And while I will never hesitate to use force to protect the American people or our vital interests, I also promise you this-and this is very important as we consider our next steps in Afghanistan:
I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm’s way. I won’t risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary. And if it is necessary, we will back you up. Because you deserve the strategy, the clear mission, the defined goals and the equipment and support you need to get the job done. That’s the promise I make to you.
Gen. McChrystal, based on the commander’s guidance issued by the president in his March ’09 strategy for Afghanistan, has done his review and submitted his plan to accomplish the mission outlined in that strategy. Now the commander wants to change the strategy.
Is it any wonder that many doubt Obama’s commitment to success in Afghanistan, military or otherwise? Is it any wonder that many are concluding that he’s looking for “off ramps” well before talking about “on ramps”. And is it any wonder then, that those considering how this process is progressing have come to the conclusion that it’s not about the military or winning in Afghanistan – it’s about the politics of getting re-elected before pulling the plug.
If that’s the case, President Obama will be seen as spending the lives of American soldiers in an attempt to protect his political viability. There is nothing most could think of which would be more despicable than that.