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My thoughts on the world around me

Major Changes Depend on Little Details

President Barack Obama knows that if he wants to improve relations between the United States and the Muslim world, he will have to focus on the details. On Day 2 of his presidency, Obama made a statement by visiting the State Department.

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February 1, 2009 Posted by | Barack Obama, Foreign Policy, Obama's First 100 Days, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Obama’s First 100 Days: Day 1

Since the days of FDR, following a new president’s first 100 days in office has been a tradition in the media. What actions will President Barack Obama take? Will we see policies advanced similar to those of the previous administration? Or will he break away from George W. Bush? To answer these questions, the first 100 days of the Obama presidency will be a good barometer of where we stand as a nation.

President Obama showed up for his first day on the job, and made it very clear that this is no longer George W. Bush’s White House. He quickly set the tone by freezing the salaries of his senior White House officials, imposing the highest limits on lobbying in the history of any administration (according to Obama himself), and calling for the government to disclose more information. For the video, please go to The Huffington Post’s link.

Here’s a breakdown of President Obama’s decisions:

1. White House Pay Freeze

The freeze would hold salaries at their current levels for the approximately 100 White House employees who make over $100,000 per year. As an act of good faith, he wants the administration to be a reflection of the troubles Americans are facing:

Families are tightening their belts, and so should Washington[.]

Those affected by the freeze include the new White House Chief of Staff (Rahm Emanuel), national security adviser (Jim Johnson), and press secretary (Robert Gibbs).

2. New Lobbying Rules

The new rules (a) ban aides from trying to influence the administration when they leave his staff; (b) ban those already hired from working on matters they have previously lobbied on, or to approach agencies that they once targeted; (c) ban lobbyists from giving gifts of any size to any member of Obama’s administration; and (d) require that anyone who leaves his administration cannot try to influence former friends and colleagues for at least two years.

How do you like that, K Street?

3. Greater Government Transparency

Again, Obama made a clear break from Bush policies. He is directing his agencies to follow a very different interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act:

For a long time now, there’s been too much secrecy in this city. The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known.

To be sure, issues like personal privacy and national security must be treated with the care they demand. But the mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should always use it. The Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent, and of holding it accountable. And I expect members of my administration not simply to live up to the letter but also the spirit of this law…

Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.

In his closing, Obama recognized that these new directives will not resolve all the issues, but that hopefully they serve as a small step toward reestablishing a once-held trust between the people and their government:

Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. And that’s why, as of today, I’m directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans — scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs — because the way to solve the problem of our time is — the way to solve the problems of our time, as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives.

The executive orders and directives I’m issuing today will not by themselves make government as honest and transparent as it needs to be. And they do not go as far as we need to go towards restoring accountability and fiscal restraint in Washington. But these historic measures do mark the beginning of a new era of openness in our country. And I will, I hope, do something to make government trustworthy in the eyes of the American people in the days and weeks, months and years to come. That’s a pretty good place to start.

It was just the first day, and only small steps were taken, but we are headed in the right direction.

January 22, 2009 Posted by | Barack Obama, Obama's First 100 Days, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Recession Hits the Beltway

The recession is also being felt among the nation’s political elite. With President-Elect Barack Obama taking over, loyal Bush appointees are now scrambling to find work.

In spite of their powerful positions and experience, these officials are seeing how difficult it becomes when the market shrinks:

“For Republicans, the inn is full,” lamented veteran GOP operative Ron Kaufman, a close White House adviser to former president George H.W. Bush and an executive at Dutko Worldwide. “You have lots of folks in the House and Senate on the streets and 3,000 administration appointees on the streets at a time when the job market is shrinking anyways. It’s just not a fun time.”

Of the roughly 8,000 politically appointed positions in the federal government, hundreds have been vacant since a wave of departures last spring, administration officials said. But appointees who have remained through the final days of the Bush administration have seen an already shaky job market collapse. The traditional avenues of employment for outgoing government officials — corporations, nonprofit foundations or think tanks — are clogged because of hiring freezes.

Some are choosing to forgo the job market, at least for the time being:

Bush appointees who can afford the luxury are taking time off. White House press secretary Dana Perino plans to travel with her husband to volunteer in South Africa at the Living Hope Community Center, a beneficiary of Bush’s anti-AIDS initiative.

“I didn’t want to sit around the house thinking about what I want to do next,” Perino said. “I wanted to do something that would help others.”

This recession truly does not discriminate.

January 19, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Redeploying Troops Into Afghanistan a No-Brainer, Right?

Barack Obama has noted that among his foreign policy objectives, he plans on gradually withdrawing troops from Iraq and redeploying them into Afghanistan. Like the Guantánamo Bay prison, the war in Iraq is a legacy he would prefer for President George W. Bush to savor alone.

With no WMD’s or terrorist training sites, Iraq does not currently pose a national security threat to the United States. In Afghanistan, however, the Taliban grows in both strength and boldness, and al-Qaeda continues to lurk along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

So redeploying the troops into Afghanistan is a no-brainer, right?

Not according to Bob Herbert, a New York Times op-ed columnist. In a recent column, Mr. Herbert argues that the time for a prolonged war in Afghanistan has come and gone:

In an analysis in The Times last month, Michael Gordon noted that “Afghanistan presents a unique set of problems: a rural-based insurgency, an enemy sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan, the chronic weakness of the Afghan government, a thriving narcotics trade, poorly developed infrastructure, and forbidding terrain.”

The U.S. military is worn out from years of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. The troops are stressed from multiple deployments. Equipment is in disrepair. Budgets are beyond strained. Sending thousands of additional men and women (some to die, some to be horribly wounded) on a fool’s errand in the rural, mountainous guerrilla paradise of Afghanistan would be madness.

The time to go all out in Afghanistan was in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks. That time has passed.

Mr. Herbert contends that the prudent move would be to withdraw the troops and live to fight another day:

With no personal military background and a reputation as a liberal, President-elect Obama may feel he has to demonstrate his toughness, and that Afghanistan is the place to do it. What would really show toughness would be an assertion by Mr. Obama as commander in chief that the era of mindless military misadventures is over…

In his article for Newsweek, Mr. [Andrew] Bacevich said: “The chief effect of military operations in Afghanistan so far has been to push radical Islamists across the Pakistani border. As a result, efforts to stabilize Afghanistan are contributing to the destabilization of Pakistan, with potentially devastating implications.

“No country poses a greater potential threat to U.S. national security — today and for the foreseeable future — than Pakistan. To risk the stability of that nuclear-armed state in the vain hope of salvaging Afghanistan would be a terrible mistake.”

Making matters worse, the troops’ negative morale is being overlooked. According to a Yahoo! News article published last month, over 540 active-duty soldiers in the Army have committed suicide since 2003. Redeploying soldiers, sometimes on their 4th or even 5th tour of duty, cannot be the most sensible option right now.

Mr. Obama, there are two things you need to focus on: the economy and on bringing the troops home. Having waged war for seven years, our soldiers now need for us to rally around them. Bring them home, get them psychiatric help, and allow them to decompress.

If the troops are redeployed, Mr. Obama will owe the country an explanation. As Mr. Herbert notes:

He will owe that to the public because he will own the conflict at that point. It will be Barack Obama’s war.

January 18, 2009 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

America, Be Not Afraid to Look Behind You

Appearing in a New York Times op-ed column, Slate Magazine’s Dahlia Lithwick says Americans would rather turn the page than prosecute top Bush officials for war crimes and other atrocities. The crux of her argument is that this hope of “rebooting” the government, of preferring to recover, is not found in the language of law. There is no legal justification for not investigating or prosecuting senior officials who have authorized torture and warrant-less surveillance.

Americans want to focus on the brighter future that hopefully lies ahead, not dwell on our dark past. As Ms. Lithwick notes, however, that would be a mistake:

Nobody is looking for a series of public floggings. The blueprints for government accountability look nothing like witch hunts. They look like legal processes that have served us for centuries. And, as the Armed Services Committee report makes clear, we already know an enormous amount about what happened to take us down the road to torture and eavesdropping. The military has commissioned at least three investigative reports about the descent into abusive interrogation. Michael Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, has compiled what he believes to be sufficient evidence to try senior Bush administration officials for war crimes…

It’s not a witch hunt simply because political actors are under investigation. The process of investigating and prosecuting crimes makes up the bricks and mortar of our prosecutorial system. We don’t immunize drug dealers, pickpockets or car thieves because holding them to account is uncomfortable, difficult or divisive. We don’t protest that “it’s all behind us now” when a bank robber is brought to trial.

And America tends to survive the ugliness of public reckonings, from Nixon to Whitewater to the impeachment hearings, because for all our cheerful optimism, Americans fundamentally understand that nobody should be above the law. As the chief prosecutor for the United States at the Nuremberg trials, Robert Jackson, warned: “Law shall not stop with the punishment of petty crimes by little people. It must also reach men who possess themselves of great power.”

At the Senate confirmation hearing, Eric Holder said that “waterboarding is torture.” Is Holder and the Obama administration prepared to bring these people to justice? Can the American people stomach the potentially difficult process? We must all remember that, as Mr. Holder said at his confirmation hearing, “no one is above the law.” To not investigate or prosecute these officials to the full extent of the law is to establish a dangerous precedent.

There is no immunity for war crimes, even when allegedly done for the sake of national security.

January 15, 2009 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Law, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

All Eyes on Holder

Since the days of Alberto Gonzales, the Department of Justice, and particularly the Office of the Attorney General, has tainted, to say the very least, the United States judicial process. In the Bush years, torture and CIA black sites have become somewhat synonymous with the war on terror.

That’s why today’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Eric Holder’s nomination for US Attorney General is so significant. Immediately, Holder’s responses established a position, both a legal and a philosophical one.

These were Chairman Leahy’s first two questions, and Holder’s answers to them:

Is waterboarding torture?

“Waterboarding is torture.”

Can the commander-in-chief override a law, in the name of national security, to allow this form of torture?

“No one is above the law.”

Hopefully this is the beginning of the cleansing process. Hopefully we will reconstruct our image as a nation of laws.

Mr. Holder, our eyes are on you.

January 15, 2009 Posted by | Law, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Washington Post’s Ann Telnaes’ Cartoon

The Washington Post recently published one of Ann Telnaes’ cartoons. In it, George H.W. Bush, with George W. sitting on his lap, tells the world how he would love for Jeb Bush to run for the US Senate seat being vacated by Mel Martinez, and to later run for president. At the news of this, George W. lets out a shriek, ultimately shattering the picture frame of Jeb in the background.

This cartoon, while simple, reveals quite a lot. George H.W. Bush plotting to have three generations of Bushes in the White House reminds me of “Manifest Destiny.”

Manifest Destiny was the historical belief that the United States was divinely ordained and destined to expand across the North American continent, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Under this belief, not only was it good to expand, but it was both obvious (“manifest”) and certain (“destiny”).

I found this painting on Wikipedia. Painted by John Gast circa 1872, and titled “American Progress,” it’s an allegorical representation of Manifest Destiny. Columbia, a personification of the United States, leads the American settlers westward, stringing telegraph wire as she travels. She’s also holding a school book. The painting, then, highlights the various economic activities of the pioneers, as well as the changing forms of transportation. As you’ll notice to the left, the Native Americans and wild animals flee.

George H.W. Bush saying “I’d like to see [Jeb Bush] be president some day” suggests that he thinks that it’s his family’s destiny to control the most powerful office in the world.

Well, Papa Bush, thankfully we live in a society with elections. I certainly would hate having to flee as our native brethren did in centuries past. Granted, we’re not above making a mockery of elections (Bush v. Gore), now are we? With that said, though, I truly hope America has had enough of this family.

January 5, 2009 Posted by | Art, Fine Art, Humor, Law, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Bush Wins Rulings on Gitmo Detainees

Very quietly, an important case was passed on Tuesday.

Richard Leon, a federal district judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia, ruled Tuesday that the government was properly holding two Guantánamo detainees as enemy combatants. This was the first clear-cut victory for the Bush administration in what are expected to be more than 200 similar cases.

Rulings such as these are significant, among other reasons, because the Obama administration may use them to justify continuing to hold certain detainees even if they’ve already closed the Cuban prison down.

This is only a district court case that is likely to be appealed, so the extent of its impact is likely yet to be determined. The lawyer of one of the detainees said several issues were appealable, including the fact that the government was allowed to rely on classified evidence which her client was not permitted to see.

December 31, 2008 Posted by | Law, Politics | , , , , | 1 Comment

Will Obama Abuse His Power?

In response to a New York Times article, in which a Yale Law School student said that some liberal students, disillusioned by how conservatives had run government, would be applying for jobs within the Obama-Biden transition team because they “feel like government now can be potentially a huge force for social justice,” George Mason University law professor David Bernstein made an interesting argument:

“[I]t’s a categorical mistake to think the fundamental problem with abusive government is who is in power, rather than the existence of the power itself, combined with human nature.”

Sure, political philosophers, from Machiavelli to Kant, have opined on man’s difficulty to wield political power without abusing it. Power, some have argued, inevitably corrupts.

Look no further than President George W. Bush.

The U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing a case in the spring, Al-Marri v. Pucciarelli, to address the issue of whether the Executive has the legal authority to indefinitely detain a legal resident in the United States, without charge, by declaring him an “enemy combatant.” Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri was arrested in 2001 as a material witness in the FBI’s investigation of 9/11. In 2002, he was charged with credit card fraud and other criminal offenses. Prior to his trial in 2003, however, President Bush declared al-Marri an “enemy combatant.” Five years have passed, and Mr. al-Marri remains in solitary confinement without charge.

Our “lame duck” president also continues to push highly contentious regulations into the midnight hour. One such regulation, if enacted, would provide stronger protections for doctors and other medical staff to refuse to perform abortions if the medical procedures would violate their moral or religious beliefs. While Roe v. Wade remains good law, this regulation would gravely impact indigent women, whose access to medical resources is already limited.

Will President-Elect Obama follow in his soon-to-be predecessor’s footsteps? Will he, too, abuse of his power?

There is little way of knowing what may transpire over the next four years. However, if the formation of Obama’s cabinet is an indication of anything, it’s that Obama is aware of checks and balances. By many considered a “team of rivals,” this group consists of political heavyweights whose views span the entire ideological spectrum.

During the Democratic primaries, Senator Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State designee, differed from Obama on troop withdrawal from Iraq. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates is a Bush appointee. General Jim Jones appeared with John McCain during the campaign. The fact that these public officials are forming part of Obama’s “CHANGE” team has many liberals outraged.

And that’s the point.

One marked difference between the Bush administration and Obama’s cabinet picks is cronyism. The American public expected Obama to select his friends. On MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Chris Matthews, referring to Obama selecting former Clinton officials and even Republicans, said that “elections ought to matter.”

But this election has mattered.

Obama has purposely surrounded himself with people who will challenge him and question his views. By debating him, his advisers hold him accountable. If he is answerable for his actions, then Obama may be less inclined to abuse of his constitutionally granted powers.

So, Professor Bernstein, while the marriage between man and power is necessarily volatile, there still remains hope that the future commander-in-chief can be a man of principle, a leader who navigates perilous waters with integrity.

December 12, 2008 Posted by | Politics | , , , , | 3 Comments