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What Difference Would It Make if We Said We’re in a Holy War with Islam?

The political Right, Left, and numerous News Media Outlets are all pre-occupied with how we talk about ISIS, and the dire threats emanating from the middle east. That’s because no one has a cure (right now) that isn’t worse than the disease.  So they talk about…….“how to talk about it.”  The linguists, however, are convinced that talking about ISIS one way, rather than another, is critical to a solution. Everyone from Left leaners Thomas Friedman and Andrea Mitchell, to Lindsey Graham  and Bill O’Reilly, on the Right, say the President’s reluctance to use the word “Islam” to identify the enemy, means he doesn’t understand the problem, and thus can’t mobilize the country and world effectively.  How preposterous!

Perhaps the most thoughtful piece written on this subject is by Fareed Zakaria.  It has not received much attention. You can find it here.  The key question, which is ignored by most of the commentators (Zakaria being an exception), is this:

“What difference would it make if the President and his team said everything they could to ‘remind us’ we are in an epic, Holy war with Islam?”  

What would U.S., France, Canada, or Germany do differently if we spoke that way?  Would it motivate the West to wage war against all of the two billion Muslims in the world?  Incite people to vandalize Mosques and harm peaceful Muslim citizens in Western societies? Carpet bomb countries that are more than 35% Muslim?  Create internment camps for Muslim citizens in Western countries (and maybe in Japan too)?

None of that is very funny and surely isn’t meant to be. But don’t the Friedmans and O’Reillys know such unthinkable solutions follow from the kind of ridicule heaped on the Administration for defending the concept that “we are not at war with Islam, but rather with those who are perverting it?”  (Maybe they do know, and want to push us toward some of those “solutions”?).

Nor does Graeme Wood’s elegant, and erudite, yet illogical, meandering, and deeply ambivalent piece in The Atlantic — the latest “must read” — add anything useful to the discussion.  Wood says ISIS is “very Islam” because it is motivated by an apocalyptic, end of times vision.  (Like Jim Jones/Jonestown and David Koresh/Waco).   Wood traces ISIS motivation to ancient Islamic doctrine. Hardly any Muslims today believe  that. So, what is Wood’s point?

These “insights” from a Harvard educated, liberal intellectual journalist really lit up the blogesphere and impressed commentators of all stripes. In the end, when pressed, Wood agreed with Zakaria, on his recent Sunday morning talk show, that the President is speaking appropriately about ISIS.

I guess Graeme Wood wants to be sure the President, and the rest of us with our heads in the sand, really understand that the ISIS vanguard wants to bring about an apocalypse and receive all the credit.  But don’t you think we all basically know that already – on some level — even if we’re not scholarly enough to find it’s philosophical roots in ancient Islam?  (And how many other theologies or religious movements have something similar in their distant pasts?)




This is President Obama’s ISIS Strategy, Like it Or Not!

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What about President Obama’s Strategy on ISIS?   Is there one?  Yes, but no one seems to know what it is. And among those who do, not many like it.  But, there are even fewer who have a (practical and comprehensible) substitute for it.  In short, , the President’s strategy for ISIS is to manage it (for now), rather than “resolve it”  (whatever that may mean).  And that isn’t satisfying for many.

Potential Republican presidential candidates are, for the most part, treading lightly on ISIS. They don’t know how to “resolve it”  either. The closest any serious “R” presidential hopefuls have come to offering a substitute are Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham. (And Graham isn’t really running, just toying with the idea).

To deal comprehensively with ISIS,  it appears Walker, Graham (and possibly Ted Cruz as well) want to put large numbers of U.S. boots on the ground again in Iraq, and also invade Syria.  They are deliberately vague, but here and here are accounts of the Walker, Graham and Cruz view from different perspectives. Walker has even less foreign/defense policy experience than Senator Obama had in 2008 or George W. Bush in 2000, and it shows.

The U.S. has of course been roped into large scale military solutions before. There is nothing that ISIS would like better to boost its recruitment than to see more Americans killing Muslims.

Otherwise, the closest thing to an alternate strategy are roads not taken — the chorus of Shouldas, Wouldas, and Couldas, from a variety of mavens, most of them trying to secure their own legacy or engage in a simple CYA exercise.  Leon Panetta, Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton,  John McCain, and many others, are certain that if the President had only listened to them, there would be no ISIS.  It’s a cheap and easy argument.  Here is a good account of the Shoulda-Coulda critics.

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OK, so what is the President’s ISIS strategy? Too bad the Explainer in Chief, Bill Clinton,  isn’t available to help out. He can’t, because he’s siding with his wife who (like Panetta) says she gave the President the right answers (earlier). But the President of course didn’t listen or understand, or maybe was busy playing too much golf.

Here is what I think are the planks of the President’s strategy on ISIS. Take a deep breath. Its long, complicated, with a lot of ambiguities. But it is a strategy; not something they just drifted into because Obama is disengaged and isolated.

Planks of the Obama ISIS Strategy, Like it Or Not

  • Right now, slow down and contain ISIS with U.S. aerial strikes. [Yes, a band aid].
  • Provide intelligence and some lethal equipment for the few available indigenous fighters presently on the ground who are trustworthy and competent: mainly the peshmerga (the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan) and elements of Iraqi’s (mostly failed) army. 
  • Meanwhile, await the formation of a unified and viable Iraqi army [don’t hold your breath, but it’s possible] and an effective coalition of predominantly Sunni states willing to confront the ISIS threat militarily.  [The rudiments are there now; the Jordanians and Egyptians are already engaged in an anti ISIS air campaign. The White House Summit on Terrorism this past Wednesday sought to further collaboration along several lines].
  • Get a lot more creative about cutting off ISIS’ financial support and countering it’s  successful recruitment of both Arab and Western fighters. [We can assume those efforts are going full tilt behind the scenes].
  • So long as it’s contained, tolerate (suffer) the kidnappings, be-headings and sporadic attacks on civilians in the West as just another (terrible) risk of daily life in today’s world – a new normal (for awhile).
  • If (G-d forbid) a catastrophic event occurs on US soil (or against US troops or citizens abroad), then massive retaliation (many U.S. boots on the ground plus Shock and Awe 2.0) possibly kicks in.  [War on that level would not likely have public (or even Congressional) support anyway without a devastating blow to the U.S.  See Nazis, FDR, and Pearl Harbor].
  • Otherwise, be ready to commit some special U.S. forces to maintain the new normal,  and wait for Arab nations to own and address the problem (mostly) themselves. [As we speak, the President is seeking authorization from Congress to use additional force with limitations].

CLICK ON PHOTO for Irv Lefberg’s images on Etsy

This Outline was composed early in the week, before Wednesday’s Summit on Terrorism.  The Presidents words at the Summit and the Outline here of the strategy are consistent.   We may not be happy with it,  but it is a strategy.  It wasn’t just stumbled into or improvised.

Here is the bottom line: Whether you agree or not, the President doesn’t believe that massive and more aggressive, unilateral U.S. force at this time (or at the time Panetta,  Hillary,  and Gates were  competing for the President’s ear) can be effective against Islamic Jihad.  Period.

That is a strategy every bit as much as the Monroe Doctrine or the Communist Containment world view that resulted in the View Nam War.  It  just isn’t as aggressive, pro-active, or dependent on U.S. power alone, so a lot of people think it’s no strategy at all. The roots of the crisis in the middle east today are in two devastating 20th century world wars, and doctrines that seemed bold and coherent back in their day.  The Right is right.  Obama is a different kind of President.   Sooner or later, we’ll know whether that’s good or not,


Is the “Exploding” Federal Debt Still a Crisis?

chart_gross-federal-debtHas “the debt crisis” gone the way of the domestic ebola scare?  Here today gone tomorrow? Or is it a ticking time bomb, as some hyper vigilant purveyors of the dismal science still warn?  With stronger economic growth, low interest rates, and six consecutive years of diminishing deficits, the (accumulated) federal debt problem seems less acute or urgent. But, it would be foolish to say it’s gone away, or that “it doesn’t matter,” as Dick Cheney proclaimed in 2002, before the debt approached World War II proportions as a percent of the economy (or GDP).

Economists use the Gross Domestic Product [GDP] as the denominator in computing the key “ratio of debt to the size of the economy.”  That ratio is a lot more informative than the absolute size of the debt.

The debt ratio has stabilized at about 100% of GDP, after soaring from 54% to 95% between 2001 and 2011, or more than $6 trillion.  The long history can be seen here.   Most of this explosion was due to financing two wars and a buildup of homeland security, while allowing generous tax cuts to upper income Americans.  On top of that was the TARP bail out of financial institutions and plummeting revenue resulting from the Great Recession. The later actually dwarfs the other factors. Public debt didn’t cause the Great Recession; it was the other way around.

All of this was set in motion, and well underway, before President Obama took office in 2008. The President’s contribution to the deficit was an $800 billion “stimulus” package, a second TARP,  and refusing to brake hard on federal spending, which would have sunk the economy into even deeper recession.

The most important fact in this essay is that the debt ratio has stabilized at around 100% of GDP.  Except for WWII, that is the highest ratio since the inception of the Republic (1787).

Debt at 100% of GDP means the total amount owed by the U.S. to holders of U.S. Treasury securities, is roughly equal to the value of all goods and services produced in the U.S. economy in a year, like 2014. That’s not good, but it’s not as horrible as it sounds either. Analogies to family budgets here can be misleading, but it is useful to point out that if you own a $300K home and still owe $100K on it, and your annual household income is $100K, not an atypical scenario, you are not in deep trouble.   (Though you may be one bad life event away from real tsouris).

The critical GDP to debt ratio reached 120% of GDP at the end of WWII, but phenomenal post-war economic growth brought it down in just 15 years to 50% of the total economy, about where it had been before WWII. It has since remained in the 30% to 60% range until the 2008 Great Recession.

This time, however, conditions after the latest Hurricane Katrina Category III economic stress are different. The economic recovery from two costly wars and a great recession has been slow, till recently, when it surged into the 4 to 5 percent range in the last half of 2014.
But nobody thinks U.S. GDP will grow at that rate for the next decade or two, which is what it would take to duplicate the post WWII feat (dropping the debt ratio from 120% to 50%).

In fact, most purveyors of the dismal science think the ratio will rise above the current 100% plateau after about 2018, even without another economic downturn.  Why? The non partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says its because of four factors:

• The retirement of the baby-boom generation,
• The expansion of federal subsidies for health insurance,
• Increasing health care costs per beneficiary, and
• Rising interest rates on federal debt.

We may not need to worry about bullet point #2 when the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down federal subsidies for health insurance later this year, but that’s a digression.  CBO bullet point #4 is the most pertinent to the question at hand.

If debt at 100% of GDP is the new normal, there is little room for anything to go wrong without really upsetting the applecart. That’s the main reason I’m not quite as sanguine about the debt as astute economists like Jared Bernstein (see a great article by him here) and Paul Krugman, who sound very close to saying “fogettaboutit” (the debt) for awhile. OK, but how long is “awhile?”

Just like CBO bullet point #4 says, as the Federal Reserve recedes from its easy money policy, interest rates will rise on the debt. What this means is that interest payments on the debt will crowd out other spending.  The U.S. isn’t Greece, Italy or even Japan, but those basket-cases show what happens when debt service is so large that it materially affects core government services.  It makes any ambitious reforms, like the President’s proposals in his state of the union speech to revive the middle class, all but impossible.

debt_interest2Interest payments on the debt have also stabilized at “only” about 6% of federal outlays, but that’s mainly because interest rates have been so (artificially) low – at rock bottom — for so long.  As recently as the year 2000, interest payments on the debt were 15% of total federal outlays. The U.S. is unfortunately more than capable of getting there again, quick.

How big is 15% of the federal budget?  Fifteen percent is more than what’s spent on all safety net programs other than medicare, medicaid, and social security.  Unbelievably, it’s not much less than the 19% devoted to national defense.

If you can still remain blasé about the 100% debt to GDP ratio after hearing that,  please tell me what you’re smoking. (Cannabis is still illegal in California).

That said, it is utter folly to try fixing the problem overnight, the way radicals in the House Republican caucus and far right demagogues in the blogosphere would still prefer. Getting a handle on the problem without the severe pains of a German imposed Greco-Roman austerity (now, there’s a trifecta) is still well within our reach. But that’s possible only with a Grand Bargain that includes both a slow down in spending and new revenue, and which takes at least a few baby steps, sooner than later.

Alas, even toddler steps will require serious regime changes (across all branches in D.C.) and major attitude adjustments. The longer that takes, the harder it gets to find even a long term solution that doesn’t inflict great pain.

So, Who is Really “Qualified” to be President?

The-White-House-Washington-DCThe threshold question of basic “qualifications” to be U.S. President has been in the forefront for the two most recent Presidencies, to a degree that seems unprecedented. For both Bush II and Obama, a deep skepticism (to put it mildly) has permeated around their basic “qualifications” for the job, for vastly different reasons. We are not talking here about constitutional qualifications, like age or citizenship, but competencies demanded by the job. For Obama,  the discredited “birthers” focused on both.

Because the U.S. Presidency is an extremely demanding, one-of-a-kind, job, not very many Presidents have been especially prepared for the position when they first took office. How could they be, especially after the U.S. became a world power and a big player in international affairs in the first half of the 20th century?  Unless you’ve been a secretary of state or defense (with portfolio to improvise U.S. foreign/defense policy), CIA Director, a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, or a Vice President who was empowered to make real decisions, there is a huge hole in almost anyone’s resume.

Reading Foreign Affairs Magazine or going on Congressional junkets abroad, doesn’t quite cut it either. Heading a foreign affairs committee in Congress counts for something, but it’s still not the same as being a real diplomat or executive point person in foreign or defense policy. Having been Governor of a large complex state helps a lot, but still doesn’t satisfy the big foreign and defense policy requirements, even if you can see Russia from the Governor’s mansion.

If you place the resumes of our last twelve Presidents at the time they first ran for the High Office (or succeeded to it), side by side with the Job Description, more than half (the 7 in Red) would have failed the “resume test;” another three (Blue)  would have barely passed; only two — Eisenhower and Bush I —  would have received a grade in the B to B+ range. At least that’s my audacious and subjective argument, depicted in the color coded table.

The gentlemen in the Red section are all essentially at the same level.  Historians would say there’s a mixture of great and failed Presidents in this group.  The same goes for the chaps with the better resumes, in blue and yellow.

Scoring Presidential Candidates. Seven (equally weighted) attributes of the Presidential Job Description are aligned across the top: (A) Leadership on the World Stage, (B) CEO Experience, (C) Diverse Experience in Business, Government,  (D) International Affairs or High Level Military Experience, (E) Knowledge, Education, (F) Judgment, Intelligence.

SCORING PRESIDENTIAL RESUMES: Seven attributes of the Presidential Job Description are aligned across the top: (A) Leadership on the World Stage, (B) CEO Experience, (C) Diverse Experience in Business, Government, (D) International Affairs or High Level Military Experience, (E) Knowledge, Education, (F) Judgment, Intelligence.

For each attribute, I (subjectively) assigned points on a scale of 1-5 for the last twelve U.S. Presidents (when they first took office). All of this is of course my imperfect judgment.  The last column expresses each total score as a percent of the maximum. The maximum is 35 points (a perfect “5” on each of seven attributes).

Every President’s points would of course have been considerably higher if they ran for a second term. Having been President is still by far the best experience for being President.

Yes, Gerald Ford, brought a lot to the table. He was a Yale Law School grad; a Naval officer with combat medals, a Congressman for 25 years, with a lot of budget experience; Republican Minority Leader of the House…..all before he was appointed Vice President (replacing the discredited Agnew) and succeeded to the Presidency (after Nixon resigned). Too bad he was “boring,” had a ponderous speaking style, and was lampooned mercilessly by Chevy Chase on SNL, ironically portraying the most athletic U.S. President in history as a chronic prat-faller.

You may argue with me about the Elder Bush having too high a grade, and Reagan too low. But, Pappy Bush was “Mr. Resume:” Congressman, UN Ambassador, Envoy to China, CIA Director….and more. Check him out.

What about Reagan’s low grade?  First, a reminder: these scores don’t reflect later performance or reputation as President. Reagan, except for having been Governor of California for eight years, which is a very big deal, was weak on the other criteria. (Obviously, my opinion).  Yes, I gave Reagan only a “2” on knowledge and education. We can debate that. He was totally lacking, at the time of his first run, in anything related to foreign affairs, defense, or national security. (So was Carter, Clinton, Obama, and Bush II). Obama’s low score on the resume test does not reflect what I think of his Presidency.

Although Harry Truman was Vice President before he took the High Office, he was in that position for only 82 days when FDR died, and had been ignored and marginalized during that short time. He was mocked by adversaries (and even by some in his own party) as a failed haberdasher from the “corrupt,” Missouri Pendergast machine. Views about the Truman Presidency of course turned 180 degrees years after he left office.

The lack of “qualified” candidates using the resume test should not be a surprise. Besides the difficulties of meeting the foreign and defense policy specs, the advent of primary elections in the 1960s and 1970s, which replaced party conventions and smoke filled rooms, with the (so called) “fresh air” of “democratic elections,” changed everything. Being able to raise money and shine in the media spot light, became more important than satisfying attributes on the Presidential Job Description. All of that was already in play in the Kennedy nomination (see Theodore White’s famous account). And even more so in the nominations of Clinton, Reagan, and Obama. (Once again; that doesn’t mean none were good Presidents).

Am I lamenting the loss of party conventions and cloak room deals?  Yes, to some degree. There are are still cloak room cabals, only now they’re conducted in fancy hotels, gated estates, or board rooms,  with very big money players.