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“The Siren Song Of War”: Why Pundits Beat The Drums For Iraq

Pundits like to imagine that they take political positions only after a careful consideration of the merits — listening to arguments, studying position papers, weighing the pros and cons, and coming to a decision.

But politics is not necessarily so rational, and never was irrationality more plainly on display than in the months leading up to the Iraq War. Ten years later, it is worth exploring why so many opinion-makers – including those who were otherwise critical of the Bush administration — passionately advocated war.

For at least some leading pundits, their position seems to have been shaped less by “reason” or “ideas” than something more primal and even tribal, reflecting their fantasies about who they imagined themselves to be. What follows is a taxonomy of certain pundits on the center and the left who, to their eternal shame, beat the drums of war — hard.

First let’s consider the contrarians. Young Matthew Yglesias, who was in college at the time and thus deserves to be excused, wrote a refreshingly honest piece that noted the seductions of contrarianism: “Being for the war was a way to simultaneously be a free-thinking dissident in the context of a college campus and also be on the side of the country’s power elite.” It was easy to feel the glow of being an utterly unique snowflake, and yet at the same time to join the establishment. How special!

What Yglesias calls the“fake-dissident posture” held a powerful allure for war supporter Dan Savage as well. Reading between the lines of his stridently pro-war 2003 column, it’s clear that the anti-war types worked his last nerve. Everything about them is uncool — their posters are “sad-looking” and their slogans are cheesy. True, the left can be deeply irritating. Protests are great, but why can’t the organizers come up with better music? Yet that’s a stunningly shallow reason to support a brutal war that left over 100,000 people dead.

Next up are those heroic journalists – sometimes dubbed the “Keyboard Commandos” — who wanted to re-fight World War II in Iraq. This crew saw Islam as a noxious, world-conquering ideology akin to Nazism: Islamofascism, as the late Christopher Hitchens once coined it. He and Andrew Sullivan flattered themselves as intellectual heirs of George Orwell, saving the world from both fascism and left-wing appeasers. Sullivan’s smearing of war opponents as a “fifth column” made that abundantly clear.

Paul Berman was another journalist who tirelessly refought the good war from his armchair. As he explained in a roundtable, Iraq was important because it provided an opportunity for intellectuals to “speak up.” How lovely for them! Admittedly, says Berman, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were “counterproductive in some respects,” because “for a while, they appeared to discredit the notion of liberal democracy, which was dreadful. This, apart from the deaths and suffering.” [emphasis added].

On the tape, writer David Rieff is aghast: “All this to raise the issue of liberal democracy? My God, man!” My God, indeed.

Let’s not neglect the pundits of the so-called “decent left.” Obsessed with preserving the martial virtue of the Democratic Party, these types zealously advocated a militaristic version of liberalism. Peter Beinart, then editor of The New Republic, figured prominently in this group. To Beinart, opponents of the Iraq War were guilty of “abject pacifism”, and he all but advocated purging them from the Democratic Party, Cold War-style. They might be liberals, but wanted the world to know they were respectable thinkers– not filthy hippies.

Finally, there’s the most powerful, if most deeply buried justification of all: Iraq provided an opportunity for dweebish, pasty, desk-bound dudes to indulge in macho daydreams. Throughout history, men have asserted masculine dominance through imperial adventures. While few liberal female pundits were pro-war, many centrist and liberal men were unable to resist the war’s siren call.

The most infamous example of such macho knucklehead punditry is Thomas Friedman’s 2003 appearance on The Charlie Rose Show. The war, he said then, was “unquestionably worth doing” so we could tell the Iraqis to “suck on this.” Commentary so inane and puerile would sound outrageous coming out of the mouth of Friedman’s fictional look-alike Ron Burgundy; that an actual, Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times columnist said it simply boggles the mind.

By 2011, writing as the last American troops pulled out of Iraq, Friedman’s macho swagger had completely vanished. Was the war a wise choice? “My answer is twofold: ‘No’ and ‘Maybe, sort of, we’ll see.’ ” Weasel words don’t get any more weaselly. This week he said merely that America “paid too much” for the war.

Writing this week in The New Yorker, Packer admits “the war was a disaster for Iraq and the U.S. alike. It was conceived in deceit and born in hubris.” Note the passive voice — he takes no personal responsibility for helping to foment the media stampede into war.

For what it’s worth, Beinart eventually saw the war as a tragic mistake. But his repentance came far too late. But Berman clearly has learned nothing and has no regrets. He wrote in The New Republic this week that “the isolationist alternative” to the war was “fantastical nonsense.”

Sullivan eventually denounced the war as tragically wrong – but in the early days, when it actually mattered, he was among its most obnoxious cheerleaders. His buddy Hitchens died in 2011, without ever having second thoughts about Iraq.

As for Dan Savage, his position grew more ambivalent within six months after that highly belligerent column — but he doesn’t seem to have written a word about Iraq since then.

The inability of these pundits to think straight may simply be a symptom of narcissism poisoning. For them, invasion and war were all about presenting their preferred face to the world — and to themselves. Henry James once wrote that a writer should be “one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” For these pundits, everything was lost — everything, that is, but their own overgrown egos.


By: Kathleen Geier, The National Memo, March 22, 2013

March 23, 2013 Posted by | Iraq War, Pundits | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Greed Has Not Been So Good”: The Private Sector Does Not Produce Public Virtue

Ever since he first proposed it in the same year Thomas Jefferson declared all men to be created equal, people have been delighted and beguiled by the hidden workings of Adam Smith’s famous “invisible hand.”

For a millennia or more, humans who marveled at the orderly movements of the heavens sought to invent some system to explain and predict the comings and goings of the planets. And so, it was entirely inevitable that in the fullness of time people would seek to impose the cosmic reliability of celestial mechanics onto more terrestrial phenomenon as well, like economics.

“Let the market decide!” That has been the battle cry of free market aficionados from the day Adam Smith first suggested that private avarice might transubstantiate into public virtue right through to the unspoken suppositions buried deep within Congressman Paul Ryan’s god-awful budget that tax cuts pay for themselves and the whole point of national fiscal policy is to lift from the minds of America’s job-producing investor class the dark clouds of “uncertainty.”

But what if the laissez faire conception of the free market doesn’t hold up any better than did the Ptolemaic vision of an earth-centered solar system that very nearly got Galileo burned at the stake for contradicting?

What if private vice doesn’t produce public virtue at all, as Adam Smith surmised, but rather invites a heedless and reckless pursuit of private profit that leads inexorably to public catastrophe? That was the conclusion which the Chicago-school conservative Richard Posner reluctantly reached after sifting through the rubble following the collapse of capitalism in 2008.

In his 2009 diagnosis of the most recent financial crisis, The Failure of Capitalism, Posner concluded that the fundamental problem with free market capitalism is that behavior which is perfectly rational when pursued by individuals, and individual firms, is disastrous when that behavior is aggregated across the entire society.

The micro-economic laws of supply and demand that tell an economic participant how to use the price mechanism to maximize profits, in other words, are worse than worthless as a macro-economic guide for the national policymaker whose aim is, not profits, but the productivity and prosperity of the economy as a whole.

It makes perfect sense for the consumer to buy when the market is strong and save when it is weak, “but by doing this they make the downturn worse,” says Posner, since from the standpoint of the overall society “we want people to save when times are good and spend when times are bad.”

Likewise, it can be rational to ride one of the serial economic bubbles that have become all too commonplace since high finance replaced making things as America’s signature industry — even if you know it is a bubble — since the individual investor can never know when that bubble will burst. And until it does, says Posner, there are lots of profits to lose if one climbs off the bubble too soon.

As a former Citigroup CEO put it: “When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing you got to get up and dance. And we’re still dancing.”

Because risk and return are positively correlated, Posner says a firm that plays it safe is, paradoxically, “courting failure because investors will turn elsewhere.”

Likewise, while a “cascade” of bank failures could bring the economy to a halt, Posner says “no individual bank has an incentive to take measures to avoid such a consequence.”

That is why, he says, it may be risky to follow the herd, but it is not irrational.

Since the 2008 collapse, the media has been on high alert (unlike the government) for the scoundrels and knaves who brought our economy to grief. But in apportioning blame, Posner says “there is no need to bring cognitive quirks, emotional forces, or character flaws into the causal analysis.”

The “rational maximization” of businessmen and consumers all legally pursuing their self-interest, together and intelligently, within a framework of property and contract rights, was all it took to “set the stage for economic catastrophe.”

It’s this “rational indifference” to the consequences of one’s own business and consumption behavior — an indifference baked into the very nature of the “free” market itself — that explains why government has a duty to do more than merely prevent fraud, theft and other infringements of property and contract rights, even though this “is the only duty that libertarians believe government has,” as Posner says.

Government also has an obligation to regulate financial behavior, says Posner, for without such regulation “the rational behavior of law abiding financiers and consumers can precipitate economic disaster.”

Given the structural deficiencies of the free market and the perverse, self-destructive incentives it creates, it was probably smart for conservatives to shift the focus of their cheerleading away from capitalism’s economic performance and towards laissez faire’s imagined moral underpinnings instead — freedom, liberty, individualism and all of that. That’s because, as an economic incentive that promises broad-based prosperity, greed, it turns out, has not been so good.


By: Ted Frier, Open Salon Blog, Salon, March 21, 2013

March 23, 2013 Posted by | Capitalism, Economy | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Today’s Conventional Wisdom”: It’s Not The Left That’s Changed, It’s The Economy

Have American liberals moved too far to the left? That’s long been the contention of conservatives contemplating liberal positions on a host of social issues, such as gay marriage and the legalization of undocumented immigrants. But opinion polls on these issues show that yesterday’s far-out liberal positions are quickly becoming today’s conventional wisdom.

A more nuanced conservative critique focuses on liberals’ support for a greater government role in the economy. To be sure, New York Times columnist David Brooks argued in a recent column, liberals have traditionally urged government to take up the slack in economic activity during recessions, but now, as the budget proposal of the Congressional Progressive Caucus shows, liberals believe that “government is the source of growth, job creation and prosperity” even when the economy has righted itself. The progressives’ budget, Brooks complains, proposes spending $450 billion on public works and sending $179 billion to the states so they, too, can provide more services and pave more roads. All this and more would be financed by increases in progressive taxation — draining the private sector of the capital it needs to grow, hire and produce prosperity.

Not surprisingly, liberal economists have jumped on Brooks’s arguments. Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute argues that the economy is still performing so under par — $985 billion below its potential output if all our factories were going full tilt — that it needs a major boost from government-financed economic activity to increase production, employment and consumption. Coincidentally, the day after Brooks’s column was published, Gallup released a poll showing that 72 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, would support a major federally financed infrastructure repair program and a federal program creating 1 million jobs. Nearly 80 years after Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration, it seems the American people would like the government to re-create it.

But there’s a bigger problem with the conservative contention that government stands athwart the private sector’s capacity to create jobs and prosperity: It fails to acknowledge that the private sector no longer creates jobs and prosperity like it used to, completely apart from whatever effects governmental policy may have on job creation. Entirely on their own and well before Obamacare was a gleam in anyone’s eye, employers began cutting back or altogether dropping health coverage and retirement benefits for employees. Nor have government regulations compelled employers to increase the share of company revenue going to profits (which is at its highest level in decades) and reduce the share going to wages (which is at its lowest level in decades).

The U.S. corporations that make up the Standard & Poor’s index of the 500 largest publicly traded companies get almost half their revenue from sales abroad, according to a 2011 S&P analysis, and, despite all the hoopla about bringing manufacturing back to the States, much of their production is going to remain abroad. The rise of machines has, we all know, taken its toll on employment too. U.S. corporations are sitting on $1.7 trillion in cash, with share values and profits that render most of these businesses’ leaders happy campers. Even if the U.S. economy continues to fall far short of full employment, and even if the rate of workforce participation continues to decline, these businesses can still sell their products all over the world. Unlike in the 1930s, the shortfall in domestic consumption does not present them with a crisis but with perhaps nothing worse than a missed opportunity.

In short, the economy is working for our economic elites. The massive changes they would have to make to investment strategies and the division of corporate revenue so that the economy worked for the majority of the American people are nowhere on the horizon. The great growth machine that once was the U.S. private sector ain’t what it used to be — which is one reason each recession since 1990 has been longer, deeper and more in­trac­table than the last. That’s the new economic reality in this country, and that’s what the budget of the Congressional Progressive Caucus responds to. It’s not that liberals have been prompted to move leftward through the readings of ancient socialist gospels or by smoking some stash left over from the ’60s. It’s that the economy has reached a dismal stability far short of its full employment potential or renewing the promise of widespread prosperity, and government investment is required to make up the difference. If anyone is smoking something, it is conservatives who foresee a rebirth of prosperity if only the private sector is left alone.


By: Harold Meyerson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, March 21, 2013

March 23, 2013 Posted by | Economic Recovery, Economy | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Ideology Versus Reality”: The Republican Party’s Shortcomings

Recent brutal attacks on the GOP have claimed that minorities often think that “Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.” That younger voters are “rolling their eyes at what the party represents.” That former Republicans view the party as “scary,” “narrow-minded,” “out of touch” and populated by “stuffy old men.”

But these were not Democratic attacks. The quotes come from the Republican National Committee’s “Growth & Opportunity Project” report, which, as far as I can tell, is unique in the history of party-sponsored self-reflection. Losing parties generally look in the mirror and see the need for cosmetics. This report calls for reconstructive surgery. In the aftermath of the 2012 election, it describes a party unpopular with the public, fading in must-win states and progressively marginalized at the national level.

Yet this analysis should be encouraging for Republicans in the same way that a reliable medical diagnosis is encouraging — it provides the basis for aggressive treatment.

The report, inevitably, set off an internal GOP conflict. This is not so much a matter of ideology; a number of politicians with tea party roots, such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, have fully internalized these political realities. The emerging argument is between political realists and ideological entrepreneurs.

All conservatives believe in the power of markets, which is explanatory in this case. The RNC is attempting to reach the market of gettable voters in Ohio, Colorado, New Mexico and other electorally strategic places. Other conservatives target the markets of talk-radio listeners or attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference. The RNC report engages this divergence of purposes in a forthright manner: “We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.” The role of a political party, the report insists, is different from the pursuit of “universal purity.”

This declaration of independence is accompanied by a serious reassertion of the role of the party itself. The document calls for more purposeful outreach to minorities, improved campaign mechanics and a more rationally designed presidential primary process. It criticizes the proliferation of primary debates, as well as redundant or unhelpful campaign expenditures by lone-wolf advocacy groups.

But the report recognizes that Republicans require more than changed tone or technique; they need relevant, appealing policies. Here, the GOP is making some preliminary progress. The two early rivals for presidential buzz, Rubio and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, both support variants of comprehensive immigration reform. Republicans who oppose gay marriage, such as Rubio, and those who support it, such as Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, are now agreed on marriage federalism — respecting the rights of states to make their own choices.

Still, these efforts merely clear the decks of some existing objections, not dramatically expand Republican appeal. The 2012 election revealed insufficient GOP enthusiasm among working-class Americans and plummeting support among rising demographic groups, particularly Asians and Latinos. Appealing to these voters will require more than repetition of the Republican economic message circa 1980. They want the reassurance of a modern, functioning safety net and the realistic hope of economic and social mobility. Republicans have yet to effectively address either priority.

This is partly an institutional problem. A smattering of conservative policy experts is working on these issues — conservative alternatives on health and education reform or promoting social capital and family stability. But the major conservative think tanks tend to be driven by ideological and donor priorities. Few conservative institutions operate effectively at the confluence of policy and politics.

Democratic reformers in the 1980s and ’90s had the Democratic Leadership Council to help reshape their identity and lay the policy foundations for Bill Clinton’s presidential run. Britain’s Conservative Party has the Centre for Social Justice, which in the past year has produced policy documents on fighting modern slavery, addressing child poverty, breaking the cycle of domestic abuse and strengthening marriage. Where is the Republican equivalent?

Major Republican donors seem perfectly willing to support the presidential races of quixotic candidates. They foot the bill for television attack ads. They seem less interested in funding the revival of ideas and policy that is a prerequisite to reestablishing a GOP majority. It is a strategic failure of the first order.

Those concerned about the Republican future hope for the arrival of a transformational candidate. But he or she will need something compelling to say.


By: Michael Gerson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, March 21, 2013

March 23, 2013 Posted by | GOP | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“An Ornery Piece Of Work”: Ted Cruz On How Not To Make Friends And Influence People

Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) career on Capitol Hill has spanned less than three months, but he’s clearly made an impression. Frank Bruni noted that Cruz is “an ornery, swaggering piece of work,” preoccupied with “grandstanding and browbeating.” The Atlantic added that “a remarkable number of both Republicans and Democrats” have already come forward “to say that they think Cruz is kind of a jerk.”

The New York Times reported that “even some Republican colleagues are growing publicly frustrated” with the right-wing freshman.

And all of this came before Cruz objected last week to a routine Senate resolution commemorating Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Week.

Congress passes hundreds of resolutions, meant to commemorate everything from a special awareness week or Little League champions. The resolutions lack any real power of law and are predominantly ceremonial. For example, earlier this month the Senate passed resolutions to mark “World Plumbing Day” and commemorating the three-year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake.

In order to keep business moving and not clog the Senate floor, they are normally passed in bulk through a “unanimous consent agreement,” meaning a vote isn’t tallied since both sides agree to it.

But last week, Cruz objected to including the MS Awareness resolution. He was unhappy with a clause in the resolution describing the purpose of the Multiple Sclerosis Coalition, according to a Democratic staffer.

Wonkette published the entire text of the uncontroversial resolution, and the only provision that seems remotely controversial — at least to someone on the far-right fringes of American politics — was language about “expanding access to medical treatment” for those affected with multiple sclerosis.

Maybe “expanding access” sounds to Cruz like code for “socialized medicine”? Perhaps, in the senator’s mind, those who can’t afford health insurance haven’t rightfully earned “access to medical treatment”?

Cruz’s office, meanwhile, said that the senator objected because he received a copy of the resolution “less than 48 hours” before it was brought to the floor. He wanted more time to review the measure before voting, so Cruz felt compelled to block unanimous consent.

For context, it’s worth noting that the symbolic resolution, which doesn’t actually do anything substantive, is only about 500 words; it was already approved unanimously by the Republican-led U.S. House; and as Steve M. noted, it “passes without objection every freaking year.”

But Ted Cruz balked anyway. It’s almost as if he wants to be disliked, not just by the American mainstream, but by his own colleagues in both parties.

In theory, this would do real damage to Cruz’s ability to be an effective lawmaker — who wants to partner with a senator they actively dislike? — but since he doesn’t seem interested in legislating, I suppose it doesn’t much matter.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 20, 2013

March 23, 2013 Posted by | Senate | , , , , | Leave a comment

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