Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Aghanistan Rope-a-Dope

Tonight Obama announced the beginning of a gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan.  Many people with more expertise in military and foreign affairs are writing about the policy issues at play with Obama's Afghanistan decision, but true to my theme I'd like to take a minute to look at the politics.  In particular, I want to pose the question of whether the Republican's position on Libya has cut off their ability to oppose Obama's decision on Afghanistan because of their opposition to the Libyan campaign.

The first step in this analysis, of course, is to consider the ideal course for Republicans.  What would they do if they could wipe the slate clean and obtain the complete political maneuverability to attack Obama's decision in any way they want.  In such a case, what might they argue?  The most likely argument they would make, I believe, is one from the hawkish position as that has been the predominant foreign policy position for Republicans since Reagan.  Republicans made no apologies about supporting the war in Iraq as well as interventions throughout the world and even criticized Obama for not approving a surge in Afghanistan quickly enough (remember Cheney's "dithering" accusation, anyone?).

I do not think that my theory is altered by the fact that the Afghan war is unpopular.  The Iraq war was also very unpopular in 2006 but Republicans stuck with it with disastrous consequences in 2006 and 2008. The most recent Pew poll shows 56% of people favoring a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan.  That's a lot, but not overwhelming, and in my opinion not enough to affect the basic calculus that  Republicans would attack Obama from the hawkish position if they could.

So now the question is, can they pull it off?  Can they attack the Afghanistan withdrawal effectively?  I don't think so, and here's why.

In an effort to attack the action in Libya, the Republicans, even the Presidential candidates, have adopted a new-found skepticism towards military interventions and what some are calling an isolationist attitude.  (I would argue this position is unprincipled and a partisan attempt to attack Obama, but that's another matter.)  No less than Michele Bachmann has attacked the Libya operation as an intervention with no vital national interest at stake. In their rush to attack Obama they have made it very hard for themselves to now pivot and come at Obama from the hawkish position.

The problems for Republicans are compounded by the fact the Obama is largely credited with killing bin Laden.  Because bin Laden is dead, a primary justification for distinguishing Afghanistan and Libya, the vital national interest in dismantling Al Qaeda, is lost.  The further degradation of Al Qaeda globally (a fact highlighted in the President's speech) has a similar effect as the death of bin Laden on the politics of the issue.

So now, the Republicans are in a predicament.  With every passing day and every degradation of Al Qaeda Afghanistan becomes less and less vital to America's interests and the "war on terrorism."  While Republicans might like to attack Obama for not aggressively pursuing a war in a country which has less relevance to America's vital interests every day, they prematurely staked out a position against interventions in any nation without a clear vital interest at stake.  They have effectively boxed themselves in, even the Presidential candidates.

I'm not a boxing expert, but this sounds like a classic rope-a-dope.  The rope-a-dope is a boxing strategy in which one pretends to be vulnerable in order to lure the opponent into opening themselves to an attack.  I don't think Obama did it on purpose, but in attacking a perceived weakness on Obama's part with respect to Libya the Republicans have made it extremely difficult for themselves to take on Obama's Afghanistan policy.  Not only that they have made themselves vulnerable to criticism if they were to make such a dramatic shift in such a short time span. (Not like this would stop all of them from trying, i.e. Newt Gingrich).

If you think Obama's policy is the right one then the politics are on your side.  Because Republicans prematurely rushed to attack Obama on Libya, Obama now has political cover to begin the Afghanistan withdrawal without worrying about an attack of the hawks.

So what do you think?  Can the Republicans effectively take on Obama from the hawkish position?  Is my initial premise correct?  Feel free to comment and let me know.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Impact of Bachmann

The entry of Michelle Bachmann into the Presidential race changes everything! Or does it?

Minnesota Congressman Michelle Bachmann will officially join the Presidential race on Monday.  Let's put on our political strategist hats and think of a few scenarios that could result from Bachman's entry into the race.  Here are what I think are the four most likely scenarios, in no particular order:

1. Bachmann dominates the most ardent evangelicals and tea-partiers but few others, allowing Romney to stick with a more centrist reasonable message and win the primary and possibly the general. In this scenario she plays a role for Romney similar to the one Huckabee played for McCain in 2008.  In 2008 McCain won by wining the large states without large evangelical bases largely because the evangelical voters, and few others, went for Huckabee.  In a sense, Huckabee put religious conservatives on an island with no other voters and with them out of the way a candidate that appealed to independents the non-religious elements of the Republican party could march to victory.

If Bachmann dominated the evangelicals and tea-partiers but few others it would have two effects.  First, it would prevent any serious challenger to Romney from gaining sufficient support to overtake him.  It is hard to imagine a path for Pawlenty (or anyone else) to challenge Romney that doesn't involve either Romney stumbling or Pawlenty catching fire with tea-partiers and evangelicals.  Second, if Bachmann dominated the evangelicals and tea-partiers Romney could credibly cede the evangelical and tea-party base to Bachmann and stick with his more reasonable general election message, helping him in the long run because he won't have to say extreme things he will come to regret in the general election.  In this scenario Bachmann hands the primary to Romney and possibly the general.

2.  Bachmann gains traction beyond just the tea-party and evangelical base forcing Romney to the right to beat her, possibly winning him the primary but losing him the general. In this scenario Bachmann wins Iowa and finishes impressively in New Hampshire, giving Romney a run for his money.  To compete Romney is forced to the hard right, damaging his electability in the general.  This also has parallels from 2008 when McCain moved to the right in tone, if not in substance, costing him crucial independent voters he would need to win the general.  In this scenario Bachmann hands to race to Obama.

3. Bachmann flames out early on, having little impact on the race. Bachmann is prone to saying wrong and seemingly bizarre things, and you can bet the other candidates will be waiting to jump on her if she makes a silly mistake.  One plausible option is that she makes a mistake early on and flames out, having little impact on the race except as a footnote.

4. Bachmann wins the primary, handing the race to Obama. Since this blog is all about being rational, we do have to acknowledge that the odds her winning the primary, though not great, are almost certainly better than her odds of winning the general.  That doesn't mean it would be a landslide, it certainly would not (a large portion of this country would vote for anything or anyone rather than Obama, no matter what, end of story) but Obama's chances in purple states such as Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, Florida, Ohio and North Carolina are vastly improved if Bachmann is the opponent.

Feel free to comment and make your predictions.  As for my bet, I'm with option 3, I think she flames out within a matter of months, but I could be wrong.  If you're feeling bold, now's the time to put your money where your mouth is.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Thoughts on the Republican Debate

Well, I couldn't pass up the chance to comment on the Republican debate.  Three things jumped out at me, both from a political and philosophical perspective.

1.  Let's cut to the political chase first.  Watch Herman Cain as a VP candidate.  Nate Silver has done some fantastic analysis of how well he is performing compared to other candidates with similar name recognition.  To that extent, his strong polling is well known and has caught people's attention.  But here's something I don't think people have focused on.  The Republicans have a history of nominating African-American candidates when running against a prominent African-American Democrat.  When it looked like Kweisi Mfume might be the nominee for the 2006 Maryland Senate race Michael Steele was nominated.  When Obama ran for the Senate in Illinois in 2004 and Jack Ryan withdrew Alan Keyes was sent to run against him.  This does not mean that the Republicans were not capable candidates and/or qualified (I think Steele in particular was a good candidate and well qualified, Keyes...not so much) but rather that the identity of the Democratic nominee influences who the Republicans nominate, which is something that is obvious and non-controversial. 

I don't think Cain has the juice to go the distance, partly because of his inexperience and lack of institutional support, but I think if Romney wins the nomination, he is as good a bet as any at this point for VP.  If Romney wins he will need someone beloved by the tea party and a bit more exciting than he is.  Cain fits the bill, keep your eye on him if Romney or someone similar wins.

2.  From a philosophical perspective, was I the only one who noticed how fast the candidates flip-flopped when asked about NASA?  On the one hand, they spent the entire night talking about the virtues of privatizing governmental functions, but when asked about the plan to privatize flights to the Space Station they insisted that NASA was an important and valuable investment by the government.  But I also know there is no more basis in the constitution for the government to spend on NASA than health care or the Department of Education or the EPA.  If they believe the federal government has the inherent authority under the constitution to spend money sending people to Mars they should also realize the government is well within its power to regulate matters of commerce here on Earth.

Even on a more mundane level, Newt Gingrich insisted that the no "Department of Railroads" was necessary to build the transcontinental railroad.  Newt Gingrich is only right in the slimmest of technical senses, there was no actual "Department of Railroads" but if New Gingrich thinks that the railroad was built without significant government support and assistance he needs to hit the history books again.  The construction of the railroads was in reality a public-private partnership, if not explicitly so.  I could go on about the Republican Presidential field needing to brush up on its history, but I'm sure there will be plenty of that in the future.

3.  The biggest flip-flop of all was, you guessed it - religion.  Let us count the ways Republicans talked in circles.

First, they said that the constitution "protects religion from government, but not government from religion." Fair enough, except that only minutes later when asked about Islam and Sharia law they talked at length about the importance of passing laws to protect the government from religion (in that case Islam).  What they mean to say is that the government should be an arm of the Christian religion, they just don't say it out loud because it sounds so...medieval, because it is. 

Second, that statement is also nonsensical for other more important historic reasons.  It is a established fact of human nature that one cannot protect religion from government without protecting government from religion.  Without fail, as soon as any religious group is able to seize control of government what follows is the oppression of other groups.  Religion is only safe when the government remains neutral in matters of religion and the success or failure of religion is left to the marketplace of ideas and not the political process.  This is a lesson that made a strong impression on a number of the founding fathers, who sought to ensure religious freedom by assuring no religious sect could ever empower itself with the force of government.

Third, contrary to the Republican candidates' beliefs about American history, government neutrality regarding religion would not "shock" many of the founding fathers.  To start, the "founding fathers" were a group and did not have a single agreed upon position on religion.  Just, think a little bit about who the founding fathers were.  When the constitutional convention began in 1877 there were 55 delegates from 12 socially, politically and economically diverse state.  What do you think the odds were that they agreed on anything, especially a matter as emotional as religion?  If you put members of congress from 12 states as diverse as Georgia and Massachusetts together today, would they agree on fundamental questions of governance or religion?  Of course not! The founding fathers had vastly differing views on fundamental questions we still debate today.  There's a reason portions of the Constitution are so vague and ambiguous (what exactly does "due process of law" mean anyway?).  Therefore, anyone who says "the founding fathers believed..." on any controversial issue is just wrong.  Thomas Jefferson was a fervent secularist who banned the teaching of theology and employment of theologians at the university he founded.  Other founding fathers were intensely religious. The Republican attempts to kidnap the founding fathers for their own political purposes are as lame as Palin's attempt to use Paul Revere for her agenda.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Perry's Prayer

First the facts:  Rick Perry, the four term Texas Governor has declared a "day of prayer and fasting" because "some problems are beyond our power to solve"  and also holding a large public prayer event.  The problems he claims are beyond our power include (1) financial debt, (2) terrorism, and (3) natural disasters.  Let's unpack his statement a bit and if these are really problems are so unsolvable our only hope is divine intervention.

1. Financial Debt
This is the easiest one of all.  Through the choices of human legislators and executives our deficit has increased.  To decrease, we must either cut spending, increase taxes, or (more likely) use some combination of spending and revenue reforms.  Contrary to what the good Governor says, God did not create, nor is he required to solve the problem.  Next...

2. Terrorism
If it is beyond our power to prevent terrorism why does Rick Perry support the Patriot Act, the war in Afghanistan or any other counter-terrorism measures?  If humans can't prevent terrorism then how can he credit Bush for preventing attacks after 9/11 of criticize Obama for not properly fighting terrorism.  The very act of trying to prevent terrorism and assigning humans credit or blame for preventing terrorism is proof that at least we believe terrorism is preventable.  And we don't just believe it, there is evidence that  we actually can.  The number of attacks foiled since 9/11 is fairly good evidence that effective intelligence, military and law enforcement efforts can prevent acts of terror.  So, moving on...

3. Natural Disasters
This is a tough one.  On the one hand, humans are unable to prevent certain natural disasters.  If the "big one" were to hit LA or San Francisco tomorrow, few would argue that humans caused it.  Of course, that does NOT mean that God caused the earthquake, just that people didn't.  On the other hand, many of the natural  disasters Perry is likely referring to ARE caused by humans.  Perhaps Perry is thinking of the drought afflicting Texas or the powerful storms increasing in both power and frequency.  In both cases, though humans cannot control the occurrence of any individual storm or drought, it cannot be denied that on a large scale level global climate change is causing more extreme weather and human activity is causing global climate change.  I have no doubt Perry would deny this, but on that matter the evidence is strongly against him and he is wrong.  W.R.O.N.G.  Let's not mince words.  On a basic level, Perry is wrong because God almost certainly does not cause natural disasters, but on a more specific level many of the natural disasters Perry is likely thinking of were caused by people and consequently can be solved by people.

The famed humanist Paul Kurtz has written "No deity will save us, we must save ourselves."  The first step to saving ourselves is recognizing what will not work, and what will not work is approaching the challenges Perry identified (and others) with the belief that humans did not cause and cannot fix them.  To ascribe the problems to God and believe our efforts to solve them is futile is just a wimpy effort to just throw our hands up in futility and absolve ourselves of the moral responsibility to act in the face of known danger, even if it requires sacrifice.  By Perry's philosophy, you don't have to sacrifice or even try to fix large scale problems because all efforts would be futile, and that is wrong on even the most basic moral level.

I understand that Perry's statement shouldn't be taken literally, but nevertheless his philosophy is a real one and one that must be challenged by those who favor action in the face of suffering and danger.  If we are to face our problems with rationality, courage and determination the first step is to take responsibility for them.  Once we do that we can move forward clear eyed about the challenges, but with renewed optimism and belief in our ability to solve them.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Rational Persuasion

A lot of people have been commenting lately on a Drudge article, among others, which are purporting to defend Sarah Palin's inaccurate retelling of the Paul Revere story..  Once again though, it's time to defend rationality and along the way, make a serious point about irrationality in our politics.

The argument they make to defend Palin goes something like this.  There is a historic disagreement regarding whether Revere actually rang bells and when captured he actually did warn the British that the Americans would fight to defend their freedom.  Therefore the words Palin said were technically accurate.  This may well be true, but it also requires that Palin, standing in front of the historic site most closely associated with Paul Revere's ride chose to make references to obscure historical facts with no clues or explanation to the audience, leaving it to us to figure out what she was referring to.  Overall, the "Drudge Hypothesis" is claiming Palin chose not to acknowledge the famous parts of the Revere story, but rather to mysteriously allude to the more obscure elements of the story.  I think that's a bit much given her, let's say...tenuous relationship with the truth. 

Big deal you say, she got it wrong (again) and we all had a good laugh.  Well, not so fast.

We all had a good laugh because we knew that when a politician says something so obviously untrue and outside the scope of their knowledge the appropriate response is to ignore them and even laugh a little.  However, what Palin said is no less demonstrably wrong and outside her expertise than every politician who denies evolution or climate change says on a regular basis - only those errors are far more life threatening than Palin's.  Palin's mistake is a teaching moment, there are moments when people say thing that are demonstrably wrong and they should be confronted.  That is the surest method of protecting our nation from the dangers of irrational politics, rewritten history and magical thinking.

So the next time you encounter a public official saying something that is just wrong you know the right response.  Call them on it and have no mercy.

PS: This is my first post on my new blog.  I hope this blog will serve as a place where in a non-partisan way we can have a discussion of the rational worldview and evidence informs political worldviews.  Admittedly Palin is an easy target for a first post, but over time we will definitely be taking on harder subjects.  Stay tuned and welcome.