When Washington returns in 2010 we will have a new issue to challenge the effective management of an already incredibly crowded agenda - a review of our intelligence, homeland security and counter-terrorism strategies and performance in the aftermath of the Nigerian-who-got-through.
The coming debate could radically impact Washington's agenda in 2010. Given that these issues touch on a wide range of Congressional committees and areas of the Administration, and that there is a wide-held belief in DC that the reforms made during the Bush era were not completely effective or well done, it is going to be hard to control and contain the debate once it begins. That there are so many different Congressional committees involved in this debate is itself a sign of the lack of coherence of the new counter-terrorism regime ushered in during the Bush era, from the DNI to DHS itself.
The truth is that it may be time for the country to have a more systematic, thoughtful discussion about how to best deal with the global threat of terrorism, the nature of terrorism itself and how the two wars we are already fighting fit into our overall global national security strategy. Over the last few days you could feel the American people saying - Nigeria? Yemen? Is there no end to this? How does all this relate to what is happening in Iran, Pakistan, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan? It has been almost a decade now, with trillions spent, ten of thousands of American causalties, vast new bureaucracies built, a new significant escalation in Afghanistan, extraordinary opportunity costs - and what have we accomplished? Are we safer? What can we do better? These are reasonable questions for the American people to ask.
If this debate lasts for months - which it could - it may very well knock other important priorities off the legislative calendar this year, a calendar that was already in danger of being incredibly overloaded. Could we end up spending the coming year finishing health care, and having long and significant debates our economic and security policies, pushing a whole array of other important - but less important issues - off the agenda?
Does all this seem like an overreaction to a lone man who got through Fortress America? Perhaps, but that the vast new intelligence appartus built over the past decade didn't put some now clearly reasonable pieces together to stop a threat, and the attack demonstrated how the global jihadi network has spread beyond the places we are already significantly engaged abroad, has raised some critical issues which now seem inevitably headed towards a big, sustained and perhaps overdue conversation.
Rather than fighting the consolidation of the 2010 agenda it may be in the interest of the governing party to embrace it, and not look defensive, as if they have other things they would rather be talking about. Peace and prosperity drive most elections in the US, and 2010 may end up being no different. The Republicans are already jumping on the Christmas Day attempt, and will no doubt spend the year ahead trying to reorient the national discussion to an area - national security - they feel will advantageous for them. But given their actual record in the decade just past, and the extraordinary mess they left for others to clean up, the Republicans may rue the day the debate became about national security, for there is no way to have this debate without talking about the epic foreign policy and security failures of the Bush era, something they simply cannot disown.
So rather than wishing this new issue environment away, the President and the Democrats might decide rather to make it their own, and spend their political year making their case for how they hope to bring peace and prosperity to a country desperately seeking it. They can take on the anarchronistic and disproven arguments of the conservatives head on, defining their vision and plans, and making very clear, where, on the two most important issues facing the nation, it is exactly they want to take us. Not at all an unreasonable thing for the American people to ask of the governing party in a time of great transition and national challenge.
Happy New Year all.
And a new year it will be.
Mon PM Update: On his Mother Jones blog David Corn chews over this essay a bit, and provides some thoughts of his own.
In his monthly column for the Post today, Robert Kagan raises a truly important foreign policy issue which requires greater discussion - the role of democracy promotion. He makes an argument I agree with wholeheartedly - that Bush never seriously pursued a "freedom" agenda. He writes:
Yet there is another area where the administration claims to depart from the Bush legacy but really hasn't, and I wish that it would. That is the issue of democracy and human rights. Ever since Clinton's confirmation hearing, where she talked about three D's -- defense, diplomacy and development -- but not a fourth -- democracy -- the press has made much of this allegedly sharp departure from the Bush administration's "freedom agenda." (Vice President Biden's prominent remarks about the fourth D in Munich last month have been ignored because they didn't fit the storyline.) Thus the Times's Peter Baker writes that "Obama appears poised to return to a more traditional American policy of dealing with the world as it is rather than as it might be." Set aside what a funny sentence that is to anyone with even scant knowledge of American history and its traditions -- remember Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton? The more interesting question is whether the Bush administration ever seriously pursued a "freedom agenda."
As my Carnegie colleague and preeminent democracy expert Thomas Carothers points out, the idea that the Bush administration engaged in a massive effort to promote democracy around the world is mostly myth. While every U.S. president for the past three decades has engaged in some degree of democracy promotion, he writes, "the place of democracy in Bush foreign policy was no greater, and in some ways was less, than in the foreign policies of his predecessors." It did provide important support to struggling democracies in Ukraine, Georgia and Lebanon. But Bush ignored the systematic dismantling of democracy in Russia. Like Secretary Clinton, he did not let human rights get in the way of dealing with China. The Bush administration supported Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf until the bitter end. It backed away from challenging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to hold freer and fairer elections in 2005, and whatever ardor it had about pushing for democracy in the Middle East cooled significantly after the 2006 election of Hamas. Meanwhile, it worked closely with dictators in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Aside from Iraq and Afghanistan, where its stalwart support for democratic progress was undermined for many years by failed military strategy, it is hard to point to many places where the "freedom agenda" was ever seriously implemented.
The world would be a better and safer place if the Bush administration's policies had more closely matched its rhetoric. But in any case, as Carothers notes, the idea that "a major post-Bush realist corrective is needed represents a serious misreading of the past eight years." It would be ironic, to say the least, if in its desire to distinguish itself from Bush on this issue, the Obama administration wound up replicating Bush. Viva la revolución!
I couldn't agree with this sentiment more, and have written often about how what limited efforts the Bush team placed on "democracy promotion" was done in a way that grossly misinterpreted the formula America had tried to export since the days of FDR. To me the American formula has had four components, all required for societies to succeed - democracy, open markets, personal liberty and the rule of law. Somehow the Bush team simplisticly boiled that legacy down to just the magic elixar of "democracy" and free elections, as if just allowing people to vote would magically transform broken and conflicted societies. Allowing Hamas to participate in the Palestinian elections was a break from our traditional formula, as they were allowed to stand for election while maintaining a strong and well funded militia, clearly ignoring any possible triumph of the rule of law.
Kagan is perhaps too kind to Bush. For by cloaking our anti-democratic methods in the Middle East -preemptive war, torture, coddling of dictatorships, rampant corruption in the rebuilding process in Iraq - in the language of democracy, i worry that Bush and the neocons did more than not adequately promote democracy around the world - and in fact did a great deal to profoundly undermine the very idea in the part of the world most in need of modernization and reform.
Yesterday on "Al Punto", Univision's Sunday morning political show, challenger Joe Garcia (D) and incumbent Mario Diaz-Balart (R), had an animated debate on issues ranging from the economic rescue package and Iraq, to Cuba policy and the Colombia FTA. Both are running for the seat in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Florida's 25th district, which encompasses the western portion of Miami-Dade County, including the Everglades National Park. This heated race is a perfect example of what's happening throughout the U.S. - as the country becomes less hard-line Republican or Democrat, more and more "stronghold" districts and states shift into "tossup" territory. Southern Florida, previously considered a solid Cuban-American and Republican area, is changing due to changes in demographics and largely in response to the way the economic crisis has affected this state in particular. Joe Garcia painted Diaz-Balart's vote against the first economic rescue bill as "too little too late" after having had a history of voting with President Bush on all the bills that led to this current economic downturn, siding with "special interests". And Mario Diaz-Balart attempted to paint Joe was a well-versed man with no specific solutions...sound familiar? Yes, much like the Presidential race. On the issues:
On the economy: Mario voted against the rescue bill because he didn't want to give the banks a "blank check", to which Joe responded that he already had - voting to give banks the blank checks through deregulation and by allowing bills to pass that increased credit card interest rates up to 29%. Joe pointed out that while the rescue bill needed safeguards to keep people in their homes, the danger lay in doing nothing, and that he would have voted for the bill to take action to save people in this crisis.
On healthcare: Mario is against nationalized healthcare and proposed to leave insurance decisions in the hands of individuals. His proposal would be to allow for inter-state competition of health care plans. Joe on the other hand, supports Sen. Obama's plan to create a national system of health care. Unlike Mr. Diaz-Balart, Mr. Garcia pointed out the lack of health care in the Hispanic community in particular, and the importance of lowering costs and increasing competition.
On Cuba: Both candidates are firmly against participating in any diplomatic meeting with the Castro brothers, however, Mr. Garcia is for lifting the travel ban on families, and decreasing the restrictions on remittances to Cuba. Mr. Diaz-Balart is firmly against holding talks or contact with Cuba and against fully lifting the travel ban.
On Colombia: Both candidates are for the passage of the FTA. Mr. Diaz Balart noted that President Uribe has been incredibly successful at decreasing the murders of labor leaders and improving security in the country.
Amid news reports that violence is rising in Afghanistan, the New York Times offers a major new look at how Bush Administration policies have contributed to the regrouping of Al Qaeda in the region.
The New York Times editorial page reviews Israel's recent spate of diplomatic engagement in the Middle East, reminding us how these new bold initiatives are a direct repudiation of the now clearly failed Bush strategy for remaking the region.
And the Washington Post offers an insightful piece on the growing conventional wisdom on how the GOP plans to go after U.S. Sen. Barack Obama - casting him as a politician without beliefs, willing to say and do anything to get elected.
There is so much wrong with what Bush said in Israel yesterday that it cannot fit in one blog post. The Huffington Post has this brief writeup, which includes the Secretary of Defense's repudiation of the Bush argument from earlier this week. But what galls me the most is that the cause of recent ascension is the Iraq war itself, and the placement of an Iranian-friendly Shiite-led Arab government in the heart of the Middle East; and that it has been this Administration who has been unable to do anything about the Iranian nuclear program. If there is any group responsible for the rise of Iran as a regional hegemon it is the neocons running the White House, not a Senator who opposed the Iraq war in the first place.
This speech was a dark moment in a terrible Presidency, one that has done so much to betray the core values that have made America a great and generous power. For more on the Bush legacy in the Middle East check out this essay I penned on returning from a 6 day long trip to Israel earlier this year.
I agree with those who say that McCain's confusion about Sunni and Shiite in the Middle East is scary, dangerous, unbelievable. This is a subject I've spent a great deal of time writing about in recent years (for example here and here) and came to believe that it was not just McCain who didn't understand this dynamic, it was the Bush Administration itself. So much of what has gone wrong in Iraq can be traced to this fundamental misunderstanding by Bush and his supporters.
Senator McCain's confusion about Sunni and Shiite, Al Qaeda and Iran, I think is no simple thing to explain away. Our whole adventure in Iraq has been infused by dangerous levels of niavite and ideology, and all too little informed by the facts on the ground or common sense. The very lack of understanding of how hard it would be to bring Sunni and Shiite together - and how an Iraqi Shiite-led government would result in Iran's regional ascension - is the main cause of why Iraq has cost America so much in the lives and limbs of our young, of "our money," and of our standing in the world. That he is confused about something so central to the entire enterprise over there - after having been there for days and been briefed by many parties - is a virtual disqualifier for the highest office in the land.
Rather than suggesting that McCain is recklessly stupid, perhaps his campaign can say his confusion has been brought about by age. That men of his age often get confused, particularly when they travel and are meeting lots of new people. That running for President, to paraphrase our current President, is "hard, hard."
Update: As our readers may recall, NDN spent a great deal of time last year helping draw attention to Administration's apparent lack of understanding of the Sunni-Shiite dynamic in the Middle East. Visit here to watch a video interview we conducted with Professor Vali Nasr, one of the nation's foremost experts on Islam and the Middle East. His book, the Shia Revival, is one of the best books I've read in recent years and has done more to help me understand the challenge of our current strategy in the Middle East than any other thing I've read.