Five years ago, in the darkest days of insurgent violence and Sunni-Shia strife, it seemed as if the Iraq war would shadow American foreign policy for decades, frightening a generation’s worth of statesmen away from using military force. Where there had once been a “Vietnam syndrome,” now there would be an “Iraq syndrome,” inspiring harrowing flashbacks to Baghdad and Falluja in any American politician contemplating an intervention overseas.
But in today’s Washington, no such syndrome is in evidence. Indeed, it’s striking how quickly the bipartisan coalition that backed the Iraq invasion has reassembled itself to urge President Obama to use military force against Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi.
The Iraq war became known as George W. Bush’s war after Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction didn’t turn up, because at that point no liberal wanted to take responsibility for the conflict. But the initial invasion was supported by Democrats as well as Republicans, liberal internationalists as well as neoconservatives — Hillary Clinton as well as John McCain, The New Republic as well as The Weekly Standard.
Now a similar chorus is arguing that the United States should intervene
directly in Libya’s civil war: with a no-flight zone, certainly, and perhaps with arms for the Libyan rebels and air strikes against Qaddafi’s military as well. As in 2002 and 2003, the case
for intervention is being pushed by a broad cross-section of politicians and opinion-makers, from Bill Clinton to Bill Kristol, Fareed Zakaria to Newt Gingrich, John Kerry to Christopher Hitchens.
The justifications for military action, too, echo many of the arguments marshaled for toppling Saddam Hussein. America’s credibility is on the line. The Libyan people deserve our support. Deposing Qaddafi will strike a blow for democracy and human rights.
It’s a testament to the resilience of American power that we’re hearing these kind of arguments so soon after the bloodiest years of the Iraq war. It’s also a testament to the achievements of the American military: absent the successes of the 2007 troop surge, we’d probably be too busy extricating ourselves from a war-torn Iraq to even contemplate another military intervention in a Muslim nation.
But that resilience and those achievements may have set a trap for us, by encouraging the American leadership class to draw relatively narrow lessons from the Iraq war — lessons that only apply to wars premised on faulty W.M.D. intelligence, or wars led by Donald Rumsfeld.
In reality, there are lessons from our years of failure in Iraq that can be applied to an air war over Libya as easily as to a full-scale invasion or counterinsurgency. Indeed, they can be applied to any intervention — however limited its aims, multilateral its means, and competent its commanders.
One is that the United States shouldn’t go to war unless it has a plan not only for the initial military action, but also for the day afterward, and the day after that. Another is that the United States shouldn’t go to war without a detailed understanding of the country we’re entering, and the forces we’re likely to empower.
Moreover, even with the best-laid plans, warfare is always a uniquely high-risk enterprise — which means that the burden of proof should generally rest with hawks rather than with doves, and seven reasonable-sounding reasons for intervening may not add up to a single convincing case for war.
Advocates of a Libyan intervention don’t seem to have internalized these lessons. They have rallied around a no-flight zone as their Plan A for toppling Qaddafi, but most military analysts seem to think that it will fail to do the job, and there’s no consensus on Plan B. Would we escalate to air strikes? Arm the rebels? Sit back and let Qaddafi claim to have outlasted us?
If we did supply the rebels, who exactly would be receiving our money and munitions? Libya’s internal politics are opaque, to put it mildly. But here’s one disquieting data point, courtesy of the Center for a New American Security’s : Eastern Libya, the locus of the rebellion, sent more foreign fighters per capita to join the Iraqi insurgency than any other region in the Arab world.
And if the civil war dragged on, what then? Twice in the last two decades, in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, the United States has helped impose a no-flight zone. In both cases, it was just a stepping-stone to further escalation: bombing campaigns, invasion, occupation and nation-building.
None of this means that an intervention is never the wisest course of action. But the strategic logic needs to be compelling, the threat to our national interest obvious, the case for war airtight.
With Libya, that case has not yet been made.
By: Ross Douthat, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, March 13, 2011
He is not a bad person. He may be hard-working and incredibly brilliant. He may be rich or poor or, more likely, somewhere in between. He may, in fact, be a she.
What Oscillating Low-Information Voters have in common is they pay very little attention to politics. Again, this does not imply stupidity—only ignorance. The Low-Information Voter is thus a different animal than the rational non-voter , who may keep up with the news but concludes his vote is statistically meaningless.
For whatever reason, the Low-Information Voter is simply uninformed.
His ideological preferences are transactional, and thus fluid: “What have the guys I just put in charge done for me lately?”
So what is this highly-prized, “independent” bloc of voters up to now?
A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll reveals exactly what I always expect. The Oscillating Low-Information Voter is oscillating! Polling analyst Gary Langer explains:
The drop in trust to handle the economy has occurred chiefly among independents, now drawing away from the GOP after rallying to its side. As recently as January, 42 percent of independents preferred the Republicans in Congress over Obama to handle the economy. Today just 29 percent say the same, and there’s been a rise in the number who volunteer that they don’t trust either side.
The “bottom line,” according to online political tipsheet The Note, is that “voters want results, not rhetoric.”
That would be the charitable way of putting it.
I think it’s more accurate to say that such voters are all-too-easily swayed by political rhetoric.
This is precisely the quality that makes “swing voters” swingable.
By: Scott Galupo, U.S. News and World Report, March 15, 2011
Let’s say that for every dollar you gave me, I gave you a crisp $10 bill in return. Good deal, right? Almost too good. But before you start to ask questions, I’ll remind you that this is my thought experiment. Perhaps I just love dollar bills. Or perhaps I just love you. At any rate, there are no strings attached, and you can take advantage of it more than once.
Now let’s say that you’re in debt and you need to get your finances in order. Do you start handing me more dollar bills? Or fewer?
If you’ve got any sense, you’ll give me more. Converting dollar bills into $10 bills is an excellent way to pay off your credit card. Except, it seems, if you’re a House Republican.
On March 1, House Republicans voted to cut $600 million from the budget of the Internal Revenue Service for the remainder of 2011, and they want even deeper cuts in 2012. Perhaps that doesn’t surprise you: Republicans don’t like spending — at least when they’re not in power — and they don’t like taxes. Why would they fund the IRS?
Well, as the Associated Press reported, “every dollar the Internal Revenue Service spends for audits, liens and seizing property from tax cheats brings in more than $10, a rate of return so good the Obama administration wants to boost the agency’s budget.” It’s an easy way to reduce the deficit: You don’t have to cut heating oil for the poor or Pell grants for students. You just have to make people pay what they owe.
But deficit reduction is not the GOP’s top priority. It’s a bit lower on the list, somewhere between “get Styrofoam cups back into Congress” — an actual push the Republicans took up to thumb their nose at Nancy Pelosi’s environmental policies — and make “Sesame Street” beg for money. In fact, if you listen to Speaker John Boehner, he’ll tell you himself. “The American people want us to focus on creating jobs and cutting spending,” he has said. And that comment wasn’t a one-off: “Our goal is to cut spending,” he said in another speech.
Cutting spending is related to, but in important ways different from, cutting deficits. For one, it rules out tax increases. That’s how Republicans can lobby to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, at a cost of $4 trillion over 10 years, and yet say they’re fulfilling their campaign promises by making much smaller cuts to non-defense discretionary spending. If you add up what Republicans have offered since the election, the policies they’ve endorsed would increase deficits but also decrease spending, at least in the short term. The IRS example shows that spending cuts don’t always reduce the deficit. But it’s worse even than that: Spending cuts don’t always reduce government spending.
There are three categories of spending in which cuts lead to more, rather than less, spending down the line, says Alice Rivlin, former director of both the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget. Inspection, enforcement and maintenance. The GOP is trying to cut all three.
Let’s begin with the costs of cutting inspection — for example, the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department. Together, the agencies are charged with ensuring that the nation’s food is safe. That’s increasingly crucial as our interconnected, industrialized system makes contaminated food a national crisis rather than a local problem. In recent years, we’ve seen massive recalls stemming from E. coli in spinach, salmonella in peanut butter and melamine in pet food. Each required the recall of thousands of tons of food and alerts to consumers who, in many cases, were screened or treated.
The problem was bad enough — and the people and pets sick enough— that Congress passed a bipartisan food-safety bill during last year’s lame-duck session. But now Republicans want big cuts in the agencies’ budgets, meaning fewer inspectors and a higher chance of outbreaks and food-borne illness. And those don’t come cheap. They show up in our health-care costs, disability insurance and tax revenue, not to mention in the pain and suffering and even death they cause.
Next up: enforcement. As any budget wonk will tell you, cracking down on “waste, fraud and abuse” won’t cure all our fiscal ills. But waste, fraud and abuse do happen, particularly in Medicare and Medicaid, where they can be costly. Republicans are looking for big reductions in the Department of Health and Human Services, meaning fewer agents to conduct due diligence on health-care transactions. Costs will go up, not down.
Then there’s deferred maintenance. In 2009, the Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s existing infrastructure a grade of D. They estimated that simply maintaining America’s existing stock would require up to $2.2 trillion in investment. But Republicans have been cool to Obama’s calls to increase infrastructure investment. Just “another tax-and-spend proposal,” Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said when the initiative was announced. But a dollar in maintenance delayed — or cut — isn’t a dollar saved. It’s a dollar that needs to be spent later. And waiting can be costly. It’s cheaper to strengthen a bridge that’s standing than repair one that’s fallen down.
And there are plenty of examples beyond that. Republicans have proposed massive cuts to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which would make another financial crisis that much likelier. They’ve proposed cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which conducts tsunami monitoring. In their zeal to cut spending, they’re also cutting the spending that’s there to prevent overspending. Just as you have to spend money to make money, you also have to spend money to save money — at least sometimes.
There are all sorts of reasons Republicans are being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Cutting $100 billion in spending in one year sounded good on the campaign trail but turned out to be tough in practice. Curtailing the IRS and cutting the Department of Health and Human Services — and, particularly, its ability to implement health-care reform — is a long-term ideological objective for Republicans.
Whatever the reason, the effect will be the same: a higher likelihood of pricey disasters, an easier time for fraudsters, and bigger price tags when we have to rebuild what we could’ve just repaired.
By: Ezra Klein, The Washington Post, March 15, 2011
The Obama administration is rightly keeping the pressure on tax cheats and the bank executives who help them by stashing their money in secret accounts overseas. Now we would like to see the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department take the battle to the banks themselves. That’s the only way of getting them to drop this lucrative and illegal business.
The Justice Department has charged five bankers with helping wealthy Americans conceal their assets from American authorities. A former employee of Switzerland’s UBS who now works for rival Credit Suisse was arrested in January and accused of helping 100 to 150 Americans hide as much as $500 million from tax authorities.
A few weeks later, three former employees and one current banker at Credit Suisse were indicted for helping 17 Americans conceal assets in accounts at the bank and then helping them move the stash to other banks in Switzerland, Hong Kong and Israel once it was clear American authorities were on the trail of tax evaders at big Swiss banks.
This is a promising route both to recover unpaid taxes and to deter other Americans from trying to evade the I.R.S. this way. So far, however, the banks have faced no charges. The country-hopping by the Credit Suisse account holders in search of a safer hiding place suggests that cross-border tax evasion won’t be shut down until the institutions determine that secret offshore accounts are too risky a business.
The I.R.S.’s strategy gathered momentum when the agency went after UBS, which was caught sending bankers to the United States to offer tax evasion services and settled with the government. The bank paid a $780 million fine and exited the business. It promised to cooperate with the government and later revealed the names of some 5,000 American secret account holders. The case eventually led Switzerland to relax its bank secrecy laws and cooperate with American authorities.
Since then, some 20,000 Americans have disclosed their accounts to the I.R.S., taking advantage of programs that shielded them from prosecution in exchange for paying back taxes, interest and a substantial fine. UBS has since gotten out of the American cross-border banking business, as have Credit Suisse and other big Swiss banks. But there are still banks willing to open secret offshore accounts for wealthy Americans. It will take some more high-profile action against financial institutions to force them out of the racket.
By: The New York Times-Editorial, Opinion Page, March 13, 2011
Count me among those who were glad to see the documentary “Inside Job” win an Oscar. The film reminded us that the financial crisis of 2008, whose aftereffects are still blighting the lives of millions of Americans, didn’t just happen — it was made possible by bad behavior on the part of bankers, regulators and, yes, economists.
What the film didn’t point out, however, is that the crisis has spawned a whole new set of abuses, many of them illegal as well as immoral. And leading political figures are, at long last, showing some outrage. Unfortunately, this outrage is directed, not at banking abuses, but at those trying to hold banks accountable for these abuses.
The immediate flashpoint is a proposed settlement between state attorneys general and the mortgage servicing industry. That settlement is a “shakedown,” says Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama. The money banks would be required to allot to mortgage modification would be “extorted,” declares The Wall Street Journal. And the bankers themselves warn that any action against them would place economic recovery at risk.
All of which goes to confirm that the rich are different from you and me: when they break the law, it’s the prosecutors who find themselves on trial.
To get an idea of what we’re talking about here, look at the complaint filed by Nevada’s attorney general against Bank of America. The complaint charges the bank with luring families into its loan-modification program — supposedly to help them keep their homes — under false pretenses; with giving false information about the program’s requirements (for example, telling them that they had to default on their mortgages before receiving a modification); with stringing families along with promises of action, then “sending foreclosure notices, scheduling auction dates, and even selling consumers’ homes while they waited for decisions”; and, in general, with exploiting the program to enrich itself at those families’ expense.
The end result, the complaint charges, was that “many Nevada consumers continued to make mortgage payments they could not afford, running through their savings, their retirement funds, or their children’s education funds. Additionally, due to Bank of America’s misleading assurances, consumers deferred short-sales and passed on other attempts to mitigate their losses. And they waited anxiously, month after month, calling Bank of America and submitting their paperwork again and again, not knowing whether or when they would lose their homes.”
Still, things like this only happen to losers who can’t keep up their mortgage payments, right? Wrong. Recently Dana Milbank, the Washington Post columnist, wrote about his own experience: a routine mortgage refinance with Citibank somehow turned into a nightmare of misquoted rates, improper interest charges, and frozen bank accounts. And all the evidence suggests that Mr. Milbank’s experience wasn’t unusual.
Notice, by the way, that we’re not talking about the business practices of fly-by-night operators; we’re talking about two of our three largest financial companies, with roughly $2 trillion each in assets. Yet politicians would have you believe that any attempt to get these abusive banking giants to make modest restitution is a “shakedown.” The only real question is whether the proposed settlement lets them off far too lightly.
What about the argument that placing any demand on the banks would endanger the recovery? There’s a lot to be said about that argument, none of it good. But let me emphasize two points.
First, the proposed settlement only calls for loan modifications that would produce a greater “net present value” than foreclosure — that is, for offering deals that are in the interest of both homeowners and investors. The outrageous truth is that in many cases banks are blocking such mutually beneficial deals, so that they can continue to extract fees. How could ending this highway robbery be bad for the economy?
Second, the biggest obstacle to recovery isn’t the financial condition of major banks, which were bailed out once and are now profiting from the widespread perception that they’ll be bailed out again if anything goes wrong. It is, instead, the overhang of household debt combined with paralysis in the housing market. Getting banks to clear up mortgage debts — instead of stringing families along to extract a few more dollars — would help, not hurt, the economy.
In the days and weeks ahead, we’ll see pro-banker politicians denounce the proposed settlement, asserting that it’s all about defending the rule of law. But what they’re actually defending is the exact opposite — a system in which only the little people have to obey the law, while the rich, and bankers especially, can cheat and defraud without consequences.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, March 13, 2011