Monday, June 30, 2008

Yes, there is such a thing as a regime that is odious enough to rebel against.

This week we've been reminded again how important a gift democracy is, by watching another country in which it has been brutally suppressed.

Robert Mugabe once led a successful guerilla war against the racist white government of Ian Smith in the 1970's and 1980's in what was then Rhodesia. Since winning it though he has led Zimbabwe pretty much alone. He has also proven one of the world's premier despots, especially over the past decade.

His record of abysmal failure is actually pretty astounding. Keep in mind that his country was once the breadbasket of the region, and was one of the few sub-Saharan African countries where nobody starved. That ended over the past decade as he sent in gangs of thugs to take over farms. The farms were white-owned and he justified it as 'redistributing to the masses.' Only the 'masses' were actually gangs of his supporters who knew nothing about farming, to the extent that starvation is now widespread in his country. Many white farmers were shot or hacked to death either when they refused to leave their land or if they didn't leave it fast enough (as an example to others to leave faster.) His brutality isn't limited to whites though (and it should be noted that not all whites in Zimbabwe supported the Rhodesian government either-- some were very progressive at that time and stood shoulder to shoulder with the guerilla movement.) Opponents of his regime, black and white, have similarly been brutalized.

The latest chapter in Mugabe's saga began this past March. An election was held in Zimbabwe, and both exit polls and other indications were that Mugabe's main opponent, Morgan Tsvangarai, had won an outright majority. The electoral commission however (which is controlled by Mugabe loyalists) delayed releasing the vote totals for five weeks. By that time the election results had clearly been tampered with, and the commission released totals that showed Tsvangarai winning, but not by the absolute majority he would need to avoid a runoff.

Although Tsvangarai made it clear that he considered the election results fraudulent, he agreed to participate in a runoff. Virtually everyone in Zimbabwe who had voted for another candidate (primarily Simba Makone) was expected to vote for Tsvangarai in the runoff.

So then Mugabe went back to the tactics he knows how to use. He threatened if he lost the election he would go back into the hills and start his guerilla war again. But there was no need for him to say that. His fighters are already in every town. He unleashed his gangs of thugs. They murdered scores of Tsvangarai's supporters. And he also used the tools of the state, raiding the offices of Tsvangarai's party, detaining and torturing supporters, and breaking up campaign rallies. Tsvangarai himself was detained several times. Finally, Tsvangarai announced last week he was withdrawing from the runoff after reports surfaced that Mugabe-backed militias planned on mass murders of Tsvangarai supporters at the polls. Mugabe continued to claim that the election this past Friday was 'free and fair,' but obviously it is the farthest thing an election could be from free or fair.

Everyone agrees on this point. Both the African Union and the United Nations issued resolutions condemning the violence. Even Nelson Mandela took time out from the festivities surrounding his ninetieth birthday party to verbally slap down Mugabe (once united with him in the struggle to free southern Africa) and criticize the 'failure of leadership in Zimbabwe.' And it is likely that there will be more sanctions.

So what? I've concluded that sanctions never or almost never work. Mugabe has little to fear. They don't work because 1. they actually strengthen a despotic leader by giving him an excuse and an external enemy to blame for the problems of the country (want proof? We've had sanctions on Cuba, Iran and N. Korea for a combined 136 years and the sanctions have done nothing to weaken any of them.); 2. Sanctions often produce more suffering for the people they are supposed to help and not for the tyrants. Zimbabwe may produce very little food anymore, but even if things get so bad that there is just one loaf of bread left in the country then Mugabe will get to eat it; and 3. Sanctions only produce profits for black marketeers who will smuggle whatever isn't supposed to be sold in or out anyway. Even in the case of Rhodesia, the Smith government was not toppled by international pressure or western sanctions (as much as we might want to wish it were so) but frankly by the successful guerilla war led by Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo (that's a fact. Period.)

There are some who suggest military intervention. I disagree with that. A military intervention in a place like Zimbabwe would likely just provoke an endless conflict, and I'm not sure what exactly we are supposed to do once we are there. It would also smack of colonialism. Even an African-led intervention would likely just inflame regional tensions and not achieve anything.

Instead, I would suggest that when we have a despot who is as recalcitrant and brutal as Mugabe, it may be time to use his own tactics against him. Rarely do I support violent revolution as an alternative to democratic reform, but clearly the latter is impossible in Zimbabwe, and there are many people by now who are ready to risk their lives to fight against Mugabe (that is shown both by the number of people who boycotted Friday's election-- despite the fact that no purple finger paint makes them targets, and also the number who were willing to openly support Tsvangarai when he was running.) This may the very rare case where I would suggest supporting armed opposition groups, including those who may be willing to wage a guerilla war within Zimbabwe. Supporting them with political support, but also with arms and covert operations.

It bothers me to say that, but it is clear by now that no other option than continuing repression or violent revolution is left for Zimbabwe.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Back from vacation.

A lot has happened since I went on vacation a couple of weeks ago. So here is a brief wrap-up of what's been going on.

1. I was disappointed that Congress gave in on letting telecom companies have immunity for breaking the law in the FISA bill and also on Iraq war funding. Giving in on important issues like this in exchange for more pork is NOT a compromise. For a lame-duck President I'm disappointed that Congress is still letting him lead them around by the nose on crucial issues involving Iraq and warrantless surveillance. It's no accident that Congress' approval rating, which was rising for a couple of months into 2007, started tanking to the day that they first knuckled under to the Bush administration on Iraq war funding.

2. I'm encouraged by how quickly the party is coming back together. It's been eighteen days since Hillary suspended her campaign, and it's safe to say that while there is still work that needs to be done, the rate that Clinton supporters have been uniting with the Obama campaign is faster than the rate at which conservatives were rallying to McCain after he in effect decided the issue on Super Tuesday, or even after he clinched the GOP nod a month later.

3. In 1977, Jimmy Carter proposed (and Congress for the most part passed) a plan to make us energy independent by 2000. Unfortunately, virtually all of it (except for the original Alaska pipeline, which was only a small part of the whole) was dismantled during the 1980's. Also last year Congress finally passed increased CAFE standards for the first time since the Carter administration-- and it was a combination of Republicans and oil or auto-state Democrats who had scuttled it for thirty years. Keep in mind that a model-T Ford got 25 mpg, and that was a hundred years ago. If the GOP wants to make energy an issue, then bring it on. And yes, while in California I did have to pay $4.679 a gallon for a tank of gas.

4. I was encouraged by some state polls out the last couple of weeks. A survey USA poll out today shows Obama slightly ahead though statistically tied with John McCain in Indiana. The Hoosier state politically has always been a staunch Republican bastion that the GOP could pretty much count on to avoid getting shut out in the Rust Belt even in years when the rest of the region went to the Democrats. That may not be true this year. And a poll in Alaska the other day showed Obama within four. Alaska has also been a solidly Republican state, but then again-- maybe not this year. Obama has said he intends to send paid staff to all fifty states, which he will have the funds to do and McCain won't be able to counter him everywhere.

5. That leads into this observation-- Yes, Obama's decision to pass on Presidential matching funds was a flip-flop and a crass political decision. So what? He's trying to win, and does anyone honestly believe that if McCain had a way to raise $200-$300 million for the general he wouldn't do the same thing? Obama's learned quickly how to play the game, and having a 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 money advantage (McCain will be limited to $84 million) in the fall will allow him to do exactly what Republicans have done in the past to Democrats (when they had the big money advantage.) The real root of the problem is that campaigns are getting more expensive and fewer Americans are dedicating that $3 of their taxes to go to the Presidential campaign. One reform that I would suggest Congress may want to pass sometime would be that when one of two major party candidates opts out of the system then the funds that would have gone to that candidate go to his or her opponent.

6. This observation-- when we went to Disneyland (we were lucky to be able to go this year ourselves, but we had promised the kids and we never break promises to them, plus they themselves worked harder and raised more for going to the Cinderella finals than they needed to this year) it was a lot less crowded than it was the last time we went-- on the same days and the same time of year-- in 2004.) Granted we were only there for two days, but either Disney raised prices too fast or less people can afford to go this year. Likely a bit of both. And oh, yeah-- speaking of Cinderella girls-- congratulations to Erin Nurss. She's always been really nice to our girls every year when we go to the state finals, and she's a class act all the way around. I hope she wins the Miss America pageant.

7. The state legislature, after shutting everyone out (especially members of the Democratic minority) for months has two budgets out-- the house Republican budget that makes deep cuts (and looks great for political grandstanding), and the Senate budget, more or less supported by the Governor, that is more reasonable given the current fiscal pressures facing the state. They will then resolve the differences by negotiating a budget that is likely to be closer to the Senate version. This is the same thing as happens every year. Here is an idea to save the state money-- since we know how this will turn out anyway, why not come out with the budgets in February and have the process wrapped up by March. Just think how much money this would save--especially by not having to pay legislators per diem pay for another three or four months. Well, read that last line again and you'll know why they give us this show every year. Incidentally, I want Obama to win, but if he does I'm well aware that it will hurt us in Arizona because Governor Napolitano would likely get a cabinet post, which would mean that Jan Brewer would move into the Governor's office-- and she'd likely sign the nutty stuff that comes out of the legislature. Plus, a cabinet call for Napolitano would likely deprive us in the Arizona Democratic party of our top candidate for McCain's Senate seat in 2010. Ah, well-- sometimes you are called on to sacrifice for your country and an Obama win would benefit all fifty states.

8. Apparently Senate Banking Committee Chairman and former Presidential candidate Chris Dodd got special treatment on his home loan from Countrywide (though he denies knowing he was getting anything better than anyone else.) He is now sponsoring a bill (actually a bi-partisan bill with Senator Shelby) to help bail out lenders, most notably Countrywide. It's a good thing Dodd isn't the nominee, otherwise this story would be broadcast wall to wall and would be called the biggest banking scandal since Credit Mobilier. In fact, it shows questionable judgement but no wrongdoing and will probably be gone within a week. But the fact that it will shows how much of a higher standard Presidential nominees are held to than also-rans.

9. I admit to being wrong about something. I picked the Lakers in five. What they really need is five. Five guys. Five guys playing defense. They are lucky they play in the western conference because the way they don't play defense I doubt if they would have even beaten Detroit or Cleveland to get to the finals if they were in the east. In fact, I'm wondering whether Tim Donaghy is right-- because the Lakers that showed up in the NBA finals weren't even good enough to have really beaten the Spurs.

10. It's good to be back.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Obama's experience was right for Lincoln; and some advantages that the next President will have.

I will be leaving on vacation for a couple of weeks, so I'd like to bring up two (somewhat related topics) that I've been mulling over today.

The first is that McCain has said he wants to contrast his experience with Obama's relative inexperience. OK, ask Hillary Clinton how well that worked. However, one point that has been overlooked-- Obama's experience (lawyer, community activist, Illinois state legislator, four years in Washington) bears an uncanny resemblance to the experience that America's greatest President had, when he held the reigns of power during America's worst crisis. So to automatically assume that Obama is too inexperienced to be President is rebutted by historical fact.

I wrote a letter on the subject to the USA Today. Since I've had three letters published in that publication (the most recent was last year) my guess is that it won't be published. So I have no problem posting it here.

Dear Editor,

Barack Obama is running for President of the United States. He was a lawyer, active in his community, was in the Illinois state legislature for a few years and spent four years in Congress.

Which is exactly the same governmental experience as Abraham Lincoln had when he ran for President in 1860.

The real experience question is why anyone would think that the best way to solve problems that have been created in Washington is to elect someone who has spent decades in Washington, as John McCain has.

Eli Blake

The second is the observation that the next President will have a tremendous amount of political capital when he takes office. I predict this for three reasons:

1. The American people are tired of hyperpartisanship, which is why they nominated two candidates who talk about 'bringing people together' rather than some of the candidates who might have been more polarizing, such as Hillary Clinton or Mike Huckabee. That will not be lost on the next Congress.

2. The next President will be a sitting Senator (something that has not happened since 1960.) When governors are elected, a lot of times (in fact most of the time) they've made the mistake of talking down to Congress the way they are used to talking down to their state legislature, and Congress is always ready to deliver a reminder to the President of how limited his power is, especially if one or both houses of Congress are controlled by the opposition party. But these two candidates as members of the world's 'most exclusive club' know about how to package legislation and make deals, and certainly in the case of the Senate will already have the familiarity with individual Senators to be able to sit down and work something out in a way that former Governors have always had trouble with.

3. The next President being a Senator also means that the Senate will be unlikely to block whatever he wants in terms of legislation, treaty ratification or confirmation of appointments (including judicial appointments.) There is an old joke that a Presidential primary debate is the same thing as a Senate subcommittee hearing. That actually isn't too far off-- for some reason 'President-itis' seems especially to afflict members of the senior body. Just among today's 100 sitting Senators, I count fourteen who I've read at least one report of in the past few years as forming an exploratory committee or otherwise feeling out the prospect of running for President

(Bayh, Biden, Brownback, Clinton, Dodd, Feingold, Hagel, Harkin, Kennedy, Kerry, Lieberman, Lugar, McCain and Obama).

Obviously some have been more serious and/or successful at it than others.

This however is one out of seven members of the U.S. Senate. That's a significant number, and there are probably more who also have had visions of themselves sitting behind the President's desk, they just to date haven't voiced it out loud. These other would-be Presidents realize that this is the first time since 1960 that the voters are poised to send one of their number to the White House, so they have a vested interest in the President at least being somewhat successful, so as not to return the voters to the old mindset that Governors are better Presidential material.

For this reason this election is all the more important. We can expect that the next President will have some clear advantages in dealing with Congress that past Presidents have not had.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Obama is the Democratic nominee

The last primary results are in and the last state to vote, Montana (which closed its polls one hour after South Dakota and so deserves credit for being the last) is the state that pushed Barack Obama over the top and gave him the delegates needed for the nomination. As a former resident of the Big Sky state I'm glad that Montana put him over the top.

Hillary Clinton ran a great campaign, but it's time for her to put action behind her pledge to 'work to unify the party.' She said she won't make a decision tonight, but he's now got enough delegates that when the roll call is called in Denver he will end up on top. She has the right to continue to challenge, but I'd only point out that the last four nominees who had convention fights (Humphrey in 1968, McGovern in 1972 and Carter in 1980 for the Democrats, and Ford in 1976 for the Republicans) all lost the following general election. And were that to happen then any ideas that Hillary had about running in 2012 would probably be about as good as Ted Kennedy's of running in 1984 were after a lot of people blamed him for Carter's loss in November. Yeah, I know-- Ronald Reagan fought Ford at the 1976 Republican convention but it didn't hurt him in 1980. However the difference was that in 1976 neither Ford nor Reagan entered the convention with a majority of delegates; there were some legitimate unocmmitted delegates to fight over. True, this year the Democrats have 'superdelegates' who can change their mind, but that is the point-- they would have to change it. Hillary has already made every argument she can think of and they are still for Obama. So it's unlikely they will change now.

But regardless, the night clearly belongs to Obama. He made a great speech, and is clearly ready to go after John McCain.
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