Thursday, June 19, 2014

Please Just Go Away

Dick Cheney, the Freddy Krueger of American politics, is at it again. Like a horror movie monster who keeps coming back when you were sure he could terrorize us no longer, this week Cheney and his minion daughter Liz have surfaced on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal to tell us how badly President Obama is botching Iraq policy under the title, "The Collapsing Obama Doctrine".

Back to Terrorize Us Some More

I've been less than impressed by Obama's foreign policy, which has frequently struck me as somewhat unfocused and directionless. That is not to say that I am not happy about specific policies such as his moves to bring our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan to an end, but if there is some overarching program guiding US foreign policy under his administration, I've had a hard time discerning exactly what it is. There are also what I consider to be some real blunders, such as the failed "reset" of relations with Russia or the "red line" fiasco regarding chemical weapons in Syria. 

But if there is one person who has absolutely zero standing to criticize the president, it's Dick Cheney. That one of the leading lights of the George W. Bush administration would author (or co-author) the words, "Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many" is an utter denial of his own role as an architect of the mess that is Iraq in the year 2014, and a direct insult to anyone who has bothered to pick up a newspaper in the last decade and a half. If ever there was a case of the pot calling the kettle black—no pun intended—this is it. So humor me while I return to the days of yesteryear to remind you of some of what we lived through in the years 2001–2008 under Bush and Cheney and their pals.

Long ago I shared what was to be a tale in three parts of my discovery of an old but apparently unread copy of the Boston Globe dated August 22, 2001 in a forgotten corner of my shed. In part one I shared my experiences from that period as I found myself inextricably entwined in dot-com madness that eventually ended in tears—and redemption. In part two I reflected on the period immediately following, which saw both the country and my new job under attack simultaneously. In the third and final installment I thought I would finally open up that paper and share my profound meditations on what I found in there and how it relates to my life now (or maybe just ramble and rant in my usual fashion), but I just somehow never got around to it.

So at last I open up the paper, and… there is actually not that much worth remarking on. There is a story on the front page about Senator Jesse Helms, the arch-conservative republican from North Carolina, deciding not to run for another term. I always thought of Helms as a pompous blowhard extremist and I was glad when he finally exited the scene; by today's Republican standards he would probably be viewed as a right-of-center moderate who could never win a Republican primary election. Otherwise the first few pages mostly contain local and national stories of murder and mayhem, and mundane policy discussions about topics that have long been forgotten but no doubt seemed pretty important at the time.

The international section is a little more interesting. There is a story about Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat agreeing to hold talks about ending eleven months of continuing violence. Another story is about a bombing by ETA in Spain—don't hear much about ETA anymore. There is a report about the US considering easing sanctions on Sudan, citing a reduction in support for terrorism; war and genocide in Darfur still lay a few years in the future. Towards the back of the section there is a story about how the US Army was performing surveillance missions in support of NATO peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans (remember the Balkans?) by means of "miniature spy planes… guided by remote control"—the term "drone" had clearly not yet entered our everyday vocabulary.

The lead story in the business section is about the Federal Reserve cutting the Federal funds rate to 3.5%, the seventh cut since the beginning of the year. Currently it's 0.25%, where it's been since the end of 2008. More than half of the business section is taken up by the previous day's stock prices and other financial market information; I can't even remember how long it's been since the Globe stopped publishing that, since it's all freely available online.

As for the rest… In sports, the Red Sox were in second place in the AL East, several games behind the Yankees, as so often. The prime time TV schedule listed a bunch of shows that I don't even remember, but then I'm not a big TV-watcher anyway. There was still a small classified ads section; I guess Craigslist hadn't yet completely killed that.

Of all the stories in that old paper, there was really only one that still seems very timely, namely this one from above the fold on the front page:  "Bush Takes Firm Line as Surplus Dwindles—Defends Tax Cut, Says Overspending Is Danger". The story begins with this:

With two reports preparing to announce that the federal budget surplus has melted away in recent months, President Bush launched a defense of his budget choices yesterday and argued that overspending by Congress is a bigger danger to Social Security and Medicare than his $1.35 billion tax cut.

[Note: that $1.35 billion number was an error; the Globe published this on Aug. 24: "Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story on Page 1 Wednesday about the dwindling federal budget surplus misstated the amount of President Bush's tax cut over the next decade. It is expected to total $1.35 trillion."]

The story continued:

Today's OMB report is expected to reflect a $150 to $160 billion surplus, the second-largest in history. But nearly all but $1 billion of that will probably be composed of the Social Security surplus, which Bush, like most politicians, has promised not to touch. And while the OMB report may show the administration only a few steps short of touching that surplus, other calculations based on a slightly different set of economic assumptions indicate that the White House has in fact dipped into the surplus, a circumstance the Congressional Budget Office may reflect in its report to be released Aug. 28.

It then went on to discuss Bush's promise that his budget would ensure economic growth of 3.2% as the economy faltered in the wake of the dot-com bust, while the Democrats prepared to attack him for funding a tax cut with money that could have been spent on education or defense. Representative quotation:

But Democrats, preparing for a media blitz to accompany the release of the OMB report today, seemed undaunted. "George Bush inherited the strongest economy and the biggest surplus in history. We had eight years of fiscal improvement, and in eight months he's wiped it out," said Tom Kahn, Democratic staff director for the House Budget Committee.

Well, we're still chewing on that one, aren't we? Looking back, that story looks to me like the first real taste of what was going to be eight years of ideologically driven foolishness; a series of profoundly bad decisions that, at the end of the G.W. Bush presidency, would find the country embroiled in two largely stalemated wars, the economy in shambles, the federal government running massive spending deficits and a huge segment of the population feeling the kind of deep existential fear that few of us had experienced since the Great Depression. This article reminds us that as they left office, Bush's approval rating was 22% and Cheney's was an even more abysmal 13%. Four years after Bush just sort of disappeared from sight, seemingly overnight, we still have a long way to go toward recovery, but once in a while we should compare that to the state of the country as it stood a little over five years ago.

Actually… no.

There are many who would argue that the G.W. Bush administration is history now, and we need to look forward and not dwell on those years. Obama has already completed a full term in the White House and is over a year into his second, so whatever may be wrong with the country, it's all about his policies and his performance now. But I reject that. As alluded to above, anything you can say about where we are now needs to be looked at in light of where Bush, Cheney and co. left us some five years ago. Furthermore, the Republican opposition would apparently like nothing better than to not only take us back to the discredited policies of the Bush years, but to double down on them. And now, once again, we have Cheney turning up in the media to continue his campaign to rewrite history. We need to remember where we were, how we got there, and why we can't go back to that place.

Let's review some of what happened during those years. As the Bush era started with his inauguration in January of 2001, the dot-com boom was transforming itself into a giant bust, as I recounted in the first part of this little saga. That wasn't Bush's fault by any means; chalk it up to the strange wave of mass euphoria that somehow led otherwise intelligent people to believe that in the Internet era, giving things away for free is a highly-promising business model, followed by the sudden discovery that it actually isn't. I will remember the summer of 2001 as a period in which the Internet economy was crashing down around our ears, taking jobs and wealth with it. Our president wanted us to believe that cutting taxes would fix this. Unfortunately, even at the time there was no evidence that this actually works. Here is someone's nice little analysis that summarizes this well; here is a more formal analysis by the Center on Budget Policy Priorities. The one qualification here is that tax cuts to low-income people do have some stimulative effect, because people in that category tend to spend every dollar put back into their pockets; unfortunately the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 skewed in the other direction. But don't listen to me; just do a Google search on "evidence that tax cuts stimulate the economy" and draw your own conclusions.

We of course went to war during those years, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. I remember when the first shots were fired in Afghanistan; we were there to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime that harbored it. There were all kinds of declarations about how we would be there to rebuild Afghanistan as a nation, we wouldn't abandon them as we had prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979, and we would generally heave Afghan society from the seventh century into the twenty-first. And what actually happened? 

Well, we got rid of the Taliban government, and in its place installed the fabulously corrupt Karzai government (oh wait, I forgot, Karzai was elected by his countrymen, wink wink). In early December 2001 we located our main targets, bin Laden and his lieutenant al-Zawahri, at Tora Bora and then (according to the 2009 report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) let them escape to Pakistan because General Franks and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld failed to commit the troops needed to kill or capture them, preferring instead to rely on Afghan fighters to do the job (it would be nearly a decade later—under Obama—that bin Laden met his end, and al-Zawahri remains at large). We heard all about how America had to remain engaged in Afghanistan rather than to abandon it to its own devices, and instead help it to become a modern democracy, ignoring both the congenital Afghan allergy to foreigners trying to come in and tell them how to do things and the historic inability of any central Afghan government to control much of the country beyond Kabul (recommended reading: Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War against the Taliban by Stephen Tanner).

Then the Bush administration just sort of lost interest in Afghanistan, letting the situation devolve into a stalemate between the US and its allies on the one hand and a reconstituted Taliban on the other. No, we had more important things to do, namely to invade Iraq on the pretext of fabricated claims that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction and conspiring to hand them over to our enemies. So off we went, authorized by Congress—with the votes of, among others, then-Senators Hilary Clinton, John Kerry and Joe Biden, let us not forget—to apply the might of the US military to removing Saddam and his cronies from office, but with no actual plan for what would come next. 

Lacking any strategy for a post-war Iraq, the Bush administration instead blundered from one tactical error to the next, with Cheney playing a prominent role. The list of screw-ups is far longer than I could document here without boring you any more than I already have (more recommended reading: Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005 by Thomas E. Ricks and Imperial Life in The Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran). But just to summarize: Thousands of American servicemen and -women died. Thousands more went home with life-changing injuries, not a few of them discovering in the process that no real consideration had been given to how they and their families would be provided with the support and the resources they would need to cope with their new reality for the rest of their lives. Hundreds of billions of American tax dollars were spent on the war itself, with billions more wasted to support ill-conceived projects that accomplished absolutely nothing (one more book recommendation: We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People by Peter Van Buren).

We of course have to consider the legacy of the war that Cheney so vigorously—and with such blatant disregard for the facts—promoted on the Iraqis themselves. We don't know the precise numbers, but we can safely say that tens of thousands of Iraqis died in the war and its immediate aftermath. Thousands more have died in the civil war that followed and that has continued with varying intensity ever since. As I read practically every day about people being killed or maimed by this or that bombing in Iraq, or about a government led by a prime minister who tolerates, if not promotes, a practically institutionalized culture of corruption, and who seems determined to disenfranchise large segments of the population and turn Iraq into a client state of Iran (see the recent article about Nuri al-Maliki by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker), I wonder whether the average Iraqi thinks he is better off now than under Saddam. I also wonder why anyone is surprised by the rapid advance of the Sunni-led ISIS militia in the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq, given Maliki's aforementioned determination to cut them off from any kind of influence or power over the institutions that control their lives. I also wonder how the Cheneys can pretend that the logical consequences of the Bush administration machinations that brought Maliki to power are somehow Obama's fault.

The current Cheney op-ed asserts that "[t]his president is willfully blind to the impact of his policies. […] President Obama is on track to securing his legacy as the man who betrayed our past and squandered our freedom." What a breathtaking exercise in hypocrisy and cynicism. What a sad commentary on the state of our society that a major newspaper will publish such nonsense, and that a large segment of our country will no doubt eagerly lap it up. The one thing George W. Bush did right was to just sort of go away when his time in office was up. I wish Dick Cheney would finally follow him.