Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Seven Deadly Excuses

A couple of weeks ago, I detailed six different “rationale” used by DHS to justify a 40% cut in New York City’s Homeland Security grant. Listening to Wednesday’s special hearings on anti-terrorism funding held by Representative Peter King (R-NY), I was reminded of yet another excuse offered up by Michael Chertoff.

Basically, the secretary (who did not testify at the hearings, but the point was raised by several others in attendance) said, “we don’t pay for people, we pay for things.” In other words, New York City’s allocation was cut because it spent too much money on personnel costs—like overtime for police every time there is a terror alert or the threat level is raised by the federal government—and the Department of Homeland Security likes to use its grant money for the purchase of hard assets, like mobile bio-hazard analysis labs. . . or bulletproof vests for dogs.

Besides being the seventh distinct reason offered for the allocation—making it very clear to me that Chertoff and the Bush administration have no real plan to increase domestic security—it is a very concrete, shall we say, example of a funding strategy offered time and again by Republicans since the days of Ronald Reagan’s military budget increases. Be it silos versus soldiers or tests versus teachers, Republicans (and, perhaps, many elected officials, in general) like to buy more things more than they like to pay more people.

Why? Well, it does offer a nicer photo-op—standing in front of some high-tech gizmo rather than a dozen wage slaves—but I think there is something more to it than that.

When you buy a thing, or 20,000 of the same thing, you buy it from a corporation. . . a corporation that is usually run by one person who is very grateful for that government contract—a gratitude that can be expressed in terms of a nice campaign contribution or a future revolving-door lobbyist’s job.

When you pay for people, you spread the money around. The chances are much smaller that any given new employee will express gratitude for his or her new job in the form of a contribution, and even if he or she did, it would likely be a tiny fraction of what a big contractor could (and would) give.

Further, workers in the public sector run the high risk of being union workers. Be it AFSCME or NEA, it is hardly a revelation to assert that organized labor is a big boogeyman for Republicans. Union employees tend to get benefits, and maybe even pensions, and so make for long-term investments in a way that buying dry goods just doesn’t. In addition, organized labor tends to weigh-in on the side of Democrats, so Republicans are loathe to increase union membership by funding the hiring of more public-sector employees.

Of course, more employees is often just what the doctor ordered. From more security personnel at our nation’s airports, to more cops for our city’s streets, to more and better paid teachers for our children’s schools, the advantages—to all of us—of well-trained and well-paid professionals are clear. In addition, at the risk of sounding obvious, hiring more people directly decreases unemployment, distributes wealth, and adds money to local economies much more effectively than investments in capital-intensive durable goods.

All of this makes me think that Michael Chertoff’s seventh excuse might have finally hit upon the rationale that is actually closest to the truth. After all, what could be a better, more plausible justification for the distribution of our tax dollars than naked partisan ambition and personal and political self-interest?

This is supposedly money for our security—talk about your seven deadly sins.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

United We Stand, Divided We Lunch

If you had a chance to listen to a newscast on Tuesday, or if you pick up a paper today, you might believe that the Democrats are bitterly divided on what to propose we do about US involvement in the ongoing disaster in Iraq.

What would give you that impression? I don’t know. . . maybe a headline like this one in today’s Washington Post:

Democrats Divided on Withdrawal of Troops

Now, I can imagine how this might be confusing for reporters, seeing as the Democrats are actually debating a policy change rather than dittoing some White House talking points. Debate in Bush’s “with us or against us” America can look like something foul and sloppy, I guess. But if the Post had covered the Senate floor speeches instead of eating leftovers outside the closed doors of the weekly Democratic strategy luncheon, they might have noticed that the so-called divided Democrats sound remarkably unified.

“[Sen. Jack] Reed (D-RI) said redeployment should begin ‘as quickly as possible’ to ease the strain on the troops. . . .”

Joint statement of Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA): “Our troops have done their job in Iraq. It is time to redeploy – to help increase stability in Iraq, and more importantly, to strengthen the national security of the United States.”

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI): “[The amendment] does urge that a phased redeployment begin this year, partly as a way of moving away from an open-ended commitment and a way of avoiding Iraqi dependency on a U.S. security blanket.”

See a theme there? Say it with me, ladies and gentlemen of the press: Redeployment. In fact, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (NV) said it quite plainly for you (from the very last paragraph of the Post article):

One thing Democrats agree on is this war has taken too long, it's too expensive and costs too many lives and too many soldiers injured We all agree there should be a change in the course of the war. We all agree that there should be redeployment starting sooner rather than later.

Goshdarnit if those divided Democrats don’t sound pretty unified to me. . . and unified around a plan. . . or at least the outlines of a plan.

And that’s purportedly another thing that the Democrats don’t have. But, again, it seems to me that debating proposals for withdrawal and redeployment is a darn sight closer to a plan than “stay the course.”

I’ll go a step further: The Democrats have a plan—strategic redeployment, for lack of a better term—and are debating the details of that plan. The Republicans, on the other hand, don’t have a plan. Doing more of the same, especially when things are going so badly, isn’t a plan at all, it’s an ideology.

Sure, it’s fun to quote Will Rodgers and play to the expectation that Democrats are not an organized party, but if Republicans and their allegiance to the failed Bush “plan” is the result of good organization, than I’ll take my lunch with an extra helping of division, thank you.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Pledge Now and Get Michael Chertoff’s Excuse-a-Day Calendar

It has been almost a week since Michael Chertoff announced the new allocations of Department of Homeland Security anti-terrorism aid money that cut New York’s funding by 40%. This cut left many around the country, and practically everyone in New York City, scratching their heads as to how DHS had arrived at this formula.

Apparently, it left some at DHS scratching their heads, too. . . or so it would seem. Let’s look at the ever-changing list of reasons given for the new allocations (in roughly chronological order):

Yes, that’s right, that’s a new excuse for every single day the new allocations have been public. And, what’s extra-special about this Pu Pu platter of prevarication, is that it’s not a bunch of aides to undersecretaries going off half-cocked—most of this garbage came straight out of the frighteningly thin lips of DHS chief Chertoff, himself.

Add to the “official” reasons listed above New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s radio comments that the cut was “payback” for his and police chief Ray Kelly going public with a terror “threat” last fall (just two hours before the Mayor was to be a no-show for an election-year debate with his Democratic challenger Fernando Ferrer) despite federal officials protestations that the threat was unsubstantiated, and Senator Charles Schumer’s contention that the DHS cuts, when viewed in tandem with CDC cuts to New York, show that “politics are involved” (gee, Chuck, you think?), and you have more different justifications than there are days since the May 31st announcement.

Of course, there are some real issues to go with the surreal idiocy that is Michael Chertoff’s Department of Homeland Security. I actually think it is possible that Ray Kelly and his crew delivered a substandard application, and we have had very little leadership from the White House (I’m sorry, I meant to say “NO leadership”) as to prioritizing threats, and that leaves all applicants a bit at sea. There likely is some political payback for Bloomberg and Kelly’s election-year stunt, and so it is the mayor and police chief that must share some of the blame. And, it is hard to believe that politics aren’t involved in some way.

But, the real issue, the elephant in the room, is that DHS grants were cut overall—to $1.7 billion from $2.4 billion—in order to provide tax cuts for the super-rich, and “pay” for the Medicare drug debacle and that sinkhole known as Iraq.

"That speaks volumes about the president's priorities," said New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg. "The president is drastically cutting homeland security funding at home at the same time we are spending over a billion dollars a week in Iraq."

And, speaking of presidential priorities. . . defending the homeland doesn’t seem half as important as "defending" marriage.

Obviously, Bush does have his priorities screwed up. After all, you can’t get married if you’re dead.

(cross-posted over at Daily Kos)

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Read My Flips

(This piece is a continuation of thoughts I posted Friday over on guy2k.)

At first, I could not help but laugh. David Sanger, writing last week in the New York Times, told of a recent White House confab where Vice President Cheney was initially opposed to any diplomatic warming toward Iran:

"Cheney was dead set against it," said one former official who sat in many of those meetings. "At its heart, this was an argument about whether you could isolate the Iranians enough to force some kind of regime change." But three officials who were involved in the most recent iteration of that debate said Mr. Cheney and others stepped aside — perhaps because they read Mr. Bush's body language, or perhaps because they believed Iran would scuttle the effort by insisting that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty gives it the right to develop nuclear fuel. The United States insists that Iran gave up that right by deceiving inspectors for 18 years.

What’s so funny? The image of administration officials trying to read the President’s “body language” reminded me so very much of Bush 41’s famous flip-flop. The 1988 “Read my lips: no new taxes” became “Read my hips” to many a comic and critic after GHWB agreed to a budget deal in 1990 that did indeed raise taxes. The inherent warning was clear in the joke: “Don’t listen to what I say, watch what I do.”

And that’s the lesson that makes all of the hoopla over Bush 43’s supposed Iran flip-flop even more funny than the image of Vice President Cankles playing twister with Lord Smirksalot. . . but that’s funny-strange, not funny-ha-ha.

As that former official said above, “At its heart, this was an argument about whether you could isolate the Iranians enough to force some kind of regime change.” Really? Because if that’s so, that doesn’t really seem like much of a change in administration policy—certainly not a flip-flop. If there are any doubts about this (any wiggle room—get it?), look no further than the next paragraph in the Times article:

In the end, said one former official who has kept close tabs on the debate, "it came down to convincing Cheney and others that if we are going to confront Iran, we first have to check off the box" of trying talks.

“Check off the box”—does that sound like a sincere attempt at diplomacy (verbal diplomacy, not gunboat diplomacy)? It sounds to me like this “policy shift” is more like the pro-forma claptrap the administration was mouthing during the run-up to the Iraqi incursion. In fact, many administration officials categorize this opening as “a test” to see if Iran wants engagement more than a bomb, and Bush and Secretary of State Rice have made it clear that this is a limited time offer. Again, does that sound like diplomacy, or a Potemkin diplomacy designed to collapse before US battleships set sail for the Strait of Hormuz?

Need more evidence? Perhaps we should read more lips. (Oh, look! This lip has a big, bushy mustache!) UN Ambassador John Bolton was asked last week on CNN if, as far as President Bush saw it, unilateral military action was still on the table:

That’s why he says no option is taken off the table. But it’s also why he has, the President, has reached out [to] President Putin and other leaders in the past couple of days to say, “We’re making a significant step here,” that will be criticized by many of the president’s staunchest supporters here at home. But he’s taking this step to show strength and American leadership and to say he’s willing to do something that may be unpopular even with some of his supporters, to remove all excuses from Iran and its supporters to say, “We went the extra mile. We gave Iran really, this last chance to show that they are serious when they say they don’t want nuclear weapons.” This is put or shut up time for Iran.

Showing other world leaders that he is willing to do “something” while telling Iran “put up or shut up.” Again, I fail to see real diplomacy here.

Meanwhile, the administration’s unofficial backchannel, AKA the Wall Street Journal editorial page, argues that increased sanctions and an international trade embargo are the surest way to Iranian “regime change.”

As delusional as that theory is, when combined with the words and actions of Bush, Rice, Bolton, et al., it paints a very full picture of the administration’s flipless flip-flop. Words, posturing, empty gestures, and threats, all choreographed to show the world that there is no getting along with the current Iranian leadership. While stating a desire to end Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons, the White House “policy” (strategy, really) is designed to “prove” that there is no changing the Iranian nuclear program without changing the Iranian government.

The Iranian government, however, has a different idea. Proving he can play diplomacy with the big boys, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called up UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and said he’d be happy to talk if the UN would guarantee Iran’s right to use nuclear energy. Ahmadinejad likes to remind the world that as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran is allowed to pursue atomic energy for peaceful purposes. That well might be a lot of posturing on Ahmadinejad’s part, but it seems to put the ball back in Bush’s court.

Fred Kaplan, writing in Slate, says that both sides’ objectives—Iran’s desire for a few A-bombs and the Bush Administration’s desire to destabilize the Iranian government—are in the way of any real negotiations.

. . . unless both sides take a few more steps—unless they both change their attitudes and their goals—the overtures will amount to nothing.

Kaplan is probably right, but what seems more evident to me is that if the Bush Administration hasn’t changed its goals then it hasn’t changed its mind. Its “new” policy is a flip-flop designed to flop. . . if it’s a flip-flop at all.

(t.o.t.h. to Jerome a Paris for the WSJ OpEd)