Sunday, November 29, 2009


I must be honest with you – of all the public policy issues that regularly engage our nation in debate, none matter as much to me as those involving war and peace. And on that score, I’m not a happy man these days.

Consider me a bit like the pro-life crowd who sometimes come across as single-issue fanatics -- except that the lives I’m most worried about losing are actual living persons, rather than potential living persons. Debates about taxes, jobs, and minority rights are important, but somehow life and death seems even more fundamental. Even the health care debate, which ultimately affects life and death for Americans, pales in comparison to war and peace issues. After all, what is worse, what is uglier -- to stupidly fail to create a health-care infrastructure that can prevent as many American deaths as possible? Or to go overseas and intentionally slaughter people for no apparently compelling reason? To me, it is difficult to imagine anything worse for our image around the world (and even our self-image) than crazy adventures like the Iraq War. And it is difficult to imagine any greater glory for this country than if we could actually broker a just and secure peace in Israel and Palestine.

On issues concerning war and peace, this is the Thanksgiving of my discontent. We haven’t jumpstarted anything yet with Netanyahu or his Palestinian counterparts. If there is a peace process to speak of, it’s sure lost on me. A bunch of us will be gathering at the 6th and I Street Synagogue in Washington D.C. on Sunday, December 6th at 2:00 p.m. to attempt to gather some grass roots support for Middle East Peace. Maybe we can generate some momentum here in D.C. and call a little public attention to the problem. But we need the White House to be poised for action, and we need the leadership of the combatants in the Holy Land to want peace more than they want victory. Right now, I’m not seeing that happening.

I’m also not anticipating that President Obama will do what he has to do in Iraq and Afghanistan – which is to end America’s participation in those wars, and I mean now. Theoretically, there may be some legitimate role for a scaled-down U.S. military presence in that region. But the idea of hundreds of thousands of American troops remaining there in what can only be called a permanent nation-building exercise – that would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. If foreign troops are so damned necessary in the mountains of Afghanistan, let other countries supply the muscle for a while. There’s a reason why nobody is volunteering for that mission, and it’s not because we’re the only potential victim of international terrorism. It’s because there are plenty of cheaper ways to fight al Qaeda than by attempting to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. If I could read the lips from Berlin, Moscow, Paris, Beijing, and Tokyo, I’d know exactly what they’re all saying: “Good luck with that, suckers.”

All that said, there are always things to be sincerely thankful for this time of year – and I’m not just talking about the fact that if I can write this blogpost, and you can read it, it means that we’re both above ground and breathing. Thank God for that, and for the following as well, which I offer in no particular order of importance:

1. Thank God that we Americans live in a nation that has finally demonstrated its willingness to elect a black man President. I look forward to the day when our future Presidents will include a Latino, a Latina, a person of East-Asian descent, a Jew, and yes, a Muslim. Now, for the first time in history, those aspirations don’t sound so far-fetched.

2. Thank God that the man we have elected is such a thoughtful one. We may not like everything he’s been doing, but this weekend, it is appropriate to consider what we do like about him – and his thoughtfulness is what comes most immediately to mind. Contrast that to his predecessor, who viewed thoughtfulness as a mere symptom of indecisiveness.

3. Thank God that there is at least one silver lining to all the damage that the GOP is doing to our legislative process: at least they’re securing Barack Obama’s job security through 2016. My Republican friends like to point out that this nation is “center-right,” but these days, their party is more like troglodyte-right. Obama’s style is way too classy, and his substance way too moderate, to be defeated by someone reactionary enough to unify that Party. In other words, the GOP can continue to sabotage the legislative branch of our Government, but it can’t do that AND claim the Presidency – not against a campaigner as skillful as Obama.

4. Thank God China is finally beginning to make some noises about climate change. Yeah, I know – its announced target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40-45 percent by 2020 is grossly inadequate, yet it is a start. And the more that our nation busts its butt to fight global warming, the better shape we’ll be in to demand that China improve on its proposed target. It’s reasonable to expect the Obama Administration to emphasize climate-change reforms during the next several years as one of our highest priorities – for one thing, this is an area that could produce job growth, as well as promise environmental purification. Until now, we and the Chinese have been holding back the rest of the world. But if we come around, how could the Chinese dare to continue with business as usual?

5. Thank God that it now appears more likely than not that we’ll have significant health care reform. I know that this ballgame is far from over – the Blue Dogs in the Senate can still prevent a bill from seeing the light of day. But I suspect that the Senate will pass something, and then, through the reconciliation process, we’ll see a (partial) public option emerge. I don’t know too many people who doubt that at this point.

6. Thank God that all this talk of an economic “collapse” turned out to be hyperbole. This is not to say that nobody has suffered – I have friends who’ve been out of work for a long time, and frankly, I panicked and sold stock at a big loss to my family. But what’s pretty clear at this point is that the doomsday predictions of a year ago were way off base.

7. Thank God that Bruce Springsteen and his band are still going strong – and playing well – after more than three decades. I can think of better rock n’ roll bands (at least for my money), but none had the longevity of the E Street Band. And no, I don’t consider anything that Mick and Keith have done since the very early ‘80s to be the Rolling Stones. In fact, you can make a pretty good argument that there hasn’t been a legit Stones album made since Some Girls in 1978.

8. Thank God that Brett Favre didn’t listen to all the naysayers and decided to start his fifth decade on earth as a truly magical QB. I say that not only because I’m a Vikings fan, but because I’m a FOOTBALL fan. If you can’t appreciate what that guy is doing this year, you’re not one.

9. Last but not least, thank God that the greatest golfer of all time is healthy and ready to continue his assault on the record books when the season starts next year. Like everyone else, I assume that Tiger’s collision the other night and his refusal to speak to the media indicates that he’s been a naughty boy. But the beauty of living in a nation where citizens’ rights are respected is that he never has to explain his naughtiness – or his wife’s, if applicable – in excruciating detail. It’s possible that whatever sordid details exist will come out, but it’s also possible, and perhaps even likely, that someone as shrewd as Tiger might be able to keep the story effectively under wraps. Right now, the story reads like this: an athlete may or may not have had an extra-marital affair; the athlete’s wife may or may not have gotten pissed and hit him in the face; and the athlete may or may not have left his house in fear of his wife’s over-reaction to the news of the affair. We’ll see how much traction a (non) story like that will have. Even Nancy Grace might not want to take it on if nobody close to the situation is talking.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Today, I’d like to focus on two municipalities. One seems to be improving; the other deteriorating. While we desperately need both to thrive, if either one succeeds it will be cause for profound joy. So I suppose it could be said that this post should evoke the proverbial “glass half empty/half full” emotions. Let me know when it’s over how you’ve reacted – as a “half full” or “half empty” kind of person.

Let’s start on a positive note, and cross the ocean to the West Bank town of Ramallah. If you’ve read David Ignatius’ Thursday column in the Washington Post, you read about developments in this town that should cause you to believe that maybe, just maybe, the impossible can happen. Here’s how the column began: “Look at this city [meaning Ramallah], you can imagine what a Palestinian state could someday be like if folks got serious: The streets are clean, there’s construction in every direction and Palestinian soldiers line the roads. A visitor sees new apartment buildings, banks, brokerage firms, luxury car dealerships and even health clubs. These are “facts on the ground,” as the Israelis like to say. And they are the result of a determined Palestinian effort, with U.S. and Israeli support, to begin creating the institutions of a viable Palestinian state. Even Israeli hard-liners, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, agree that the improvement in Palestinian security forces is real.”

This success story isn’t the result of some overarching peace deal. Nor is it the result of suicide bombings and threats. It’s not even the result of a non-violent resistance movement. According to Ignatius, the recent improvements in Ramallah’s living conditions have been made under the leadership of Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, and with the assistance of the Great Satan and the Little Satan (as the U.S. and Israel are known to some of their Middle Eastern enemies). Fayyad has constructed a plan for a two-year transition to Palestinian statehood that focuses on creating the infrastructure needed to establish both prosperity and security. At this point, Ignatius claims, Fayyad has reorganized the public services in the West Bank so successfully that the economy is growing at an official rate of seven percent, and perhaps even more.

Ironically, when I talk to Palestinians and their American partisans these days, I am bombarded by stories about how awfully Israel is behaving in the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip. I hear about how the settlements demean the Palestinians and strangle its economy, and how the Israeli soldiers who guard these areas treat Palestinians as if they’re sub-human. The tales evoke stories of the way the Nazis must have treated my own people back in the 30s and early 40s.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that these tales are all true – that Israel has for years been perpetrating horrible injustices against the Palestinian people. It would remain the case that the only way to end the nightmare is to work like hell to ensure that Fayyad’s infrastructural plans succeed as quickly and as dramatically as possible. The more rapidly the West Bank starts to look like Switzerland, or at least like Scottsdale, in terms of its economy, criminal justice system, and executive branch institutions, the more unsustainable it will be for Israel to oppress its neighbors. By contrast, as long as the Palestinians define themselves primarily in opposition to the “Apartheid” state of Israel and ignore the primacy of infrastructural development, the easier it will be for the Israeli right-wingers to continue to set the agenda and place their Palestinian neighbors on a tiny, dehumanized leash.

Lest we think that all will now be smooth sailing now that the Palestinian Authority is run by a man who gets the importance of economic efficiency and honest government, Ignatius included a clear warning sign. He quoted Martin Indyk, a macha with the Brookings Institute, for the proposition that “Fayyad is the only game in town, but his plan isn’t sustainable without a political process.” The problem, of course, is that at the moment, we have a thoroughly dysfunctional political process, in part because the inmates are running the asylum in Israel. This is where we in the United States must come in. Now is the time to support the Palestinian Authority with generous contributions, and to start to put some pressure on Netanyahu -- he who refuses to freeze the settlements and yet has the chutzpah to call himself a man of peace. Instead of emphasizing the beginning of peace talks (before these talks have a possibility of success), we need to pressure Netanyahu into increasing his support of Fayyad’s nation-building efforts.

Frankly, if we didn’t have this insane fixation with winning every war, no matter if their sensible shelf-life has long since ended, we could actually consider shifting our nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to the West Bank instead. How about it, Barack? It would be a gutsy move, but then again, you did say that you would offer “change.” Some of us actually thought you meant BOLD changes, and not mere tinkering.

So anyway, that’s the good news – don’t let my little jeremiad at the end fool you. When it comes to Ramallah, we can actually see some rays of hope. Perhaps that’s not yet true about that other part of Palestine, but I’m praying that progress in the West Bank will ultimately lead to progress in Gaza. And that is why the second city I’d like to discuss isn’t Gaza City but rather a place that’s beginning to look more and more like it. I’m referring to that God-forsaken part of America known as Detroit.

For quite some time, I’ve been hearing about how you can buy a home in Detroit for a few thousand dollars. This week, I heard that for a few hundred thousand – or $583,000, to be exact -- you could buy the Silver Dome. That’s the price that a Canadian developer paid to purchase the former home of the Detroit Lions. It’s a little more than one dollar per square foot. Or should I say, it’s the same number of dollars per square foot as the number of playoff games that the Lions won in that building in 26 years.

Truth be told, laughing at the Lions is fun. But what’s happening to Detroit is no laughing matter. In the Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn area, the unemployment rate now tops 18 percent. When you add to that number the workers who are earning minimum wage or something close to it, it’s hard not to appreciate the depths of despair that are engulfing the region. Recently, I read that social workers who are trying to assist the resident of Detroit are seeing more and more acts of aggression, and are actually scared for their own lives. Those of us who are too young to remember the Great Depression are simply not used to the kinds of conditions that the people of Detroit are experiencing. And the crazy thing is that while all this is happening, the stock markets are going great guns.

As Yakov Smirnoff would say, “What a Country!”

I realize that when you’re in a period of recovery, the unemployment rate is a so-called lagging indicator. But there’s something about the extent of this particular “recovery” that’s sticking in my craw. Maybe it has to do with the fact that it is happening at a time when the President is supposed to be a progressive Democrat, 60 Senators are Democrats, and the House is overwhelmingly Democratic. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that the folks who have led the President’s economic team seem to be in bed with the Wall Street types who crashed the economy to begin with. Of course, the stockbrokers had plenty of help, including the myopic auto execs in Detroit. And yet I still wonder, with all the money we have thrown at the bankers and brokers, why can’t we be doing more for Detroit, or Dearborn, or for that matter, the many states other than Michigan that have now hit double-digit unemployment rates?

And I keep getting back to one word – infrastructure. It’s the secret to Ramallah’s current success. And it’s what is destroying my own country, only in this case I’m not talking about infrastructure in terms of economics, but rather politics.

As I see it, we now have two political parties. One is determined to make the President fail at almost any cost. They spent like drunken sailors when they were in power, but now when a Democrat is in the White House, they’re cheaper than a miser in a poorhouse. As for the other political party, the one that’s supposedly in power, trying to get them to support any significant initiative is like herding cats. I guess little has changed since the days of Will Rogers when he said “I’m not a member of an organized party; I’m a Democrat.”

Obviously, the prognosis for Detroit and the other high-unemployment areas in this country is more favorable than the prognosis for the West Bank. But it’s nice to see that the latter is being captained by someone who knows how to steer. What’s tragic is that now that we finally have our first African-American President, our nation is allowing a city like Detroit to go into free fall. Something must be done about this, and I mean now. When a modest suburban house in Bethesda is worth more than a 143,000 square foot stadium near Detroit, it makes you wonder if this really is “one nation, under God.” And when you consider that, and add to it that the Wall Street folks are now fattening up on a brand new round of bonuses, you begin to see why the social workers in Michigan are starting to fear for their lives.

So there you have it -- good news, bad news. Uplifting? Or depressing? I'll let you decide that one for yourself. But we can at least agree on this -- there's plenty of work to be done in both of those cities. Yet if either one can be looking up, there's hope for both.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Like every other progressive in this country, I must admit that it was a hell of a lot more fun being critical of our last President than this one. By the time Barack Obama and his supporters manage to eke out a health care bill, he will be able to boast that he has (a) brought back the economy from the brink of disaster, (b) implemented significant, positive reforms on a topic that has confounded his predecessors for decades, and (c) brought the United States back to a position of honor in the world community, as reflected by his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. He will also have brought the kind of style that should delight every non-ditto head in the nation: open-minded, thoughtful, compassionate, down-to-earth, and the very portrait of the American melting pot. In short, in so many ways, Barack is the kind of leader that Blue Americans have been waiting for.

Cue the balloons, right? Well, not exactly. As every progressive knows, there’s a darker side to the equation, one that, to some degree, has been chronicled in the media. For example, we’ve heard plenty of reports about people who are out of work or underemployed, and are wondering why the boom on Wall Street hasn’t yet solved the problems of Main Street. We’ve heard complaints about why Barack has allowed fat cats like Geithner and Summers to control the trajectory of our economic “recovery,” whereas liberal voices like Krugman and Reich remain in the wilderness. And we’ve been told about liberal interest groups, like gay activists, who are wondering when the reality will ever meet up with the rhetoric. Clearly, if Barack the President was being rated in terms of his progressivism, he wouldn’t score nearly as high as Barack the Candidate.

But still, we all love the guy. Even Michael Moore, when he made his movie about capitalism and ripped Geithner and Summers to shreds, stopped short at blasting the President. Let’s face it, when Michael Moore pulls his punches on your behalf, you know you’re golden in the progressive community.

And therein lies a problem. You see, one of the consequences of Barack’s popularity among progressives is that the dissent on the left is more muted than usual. As I’ve said, we’ve heard about that dissent in a few areas – the economy and civil rights come immediately to mind. But there’s one domain in which dissent has been practically non-existent, at least relative to what you’d expect if someone were to say that Barack would be essentially continuing the policies of George Bush. I’m referring to the way we are continuing to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Increasingly, we’re beginning to resemble America in the early 60s – run by a Democratic Commander-in-Chief, committed to a guerilla war halfway across the world with no apparent end in sight and no clearly understandable mission in mind, and seemingly apathetic about the whole problem. It wasn’t until 1965 when the antiwar protests of the Vietnam War reached any critical mass. At this rate, it will be 2015 before the progressive community begins to challenge Barack’s Bushian turn in Central Asia. Folks, that’s simply unacceptable.

I admit to being part of the problem. When W was President, I would take to the streets on several occasions and protest the war in Iraq, but it has been years since I joined in such a march. It’s time to dust off the old walking shoes, wouldn’t you think?

With respect to Iraq, I have no clue why (a) roughly 120,000 U.S. troops are still in Iraq, at the cost of more than $7 billion per month to the U.S. economy and even though all other nations have withdrawn their troops, and (b) the timetable for withdrawing our troops from Iraq seems ineluctably to get pushed back, and even now we’re talking about leaving 35,000-50,000 troops in Iraq after the remainder are moved at the end of the summer of 2010. Could someone who has Barack’s ear please ask him to explain this to his base – the ones who are now pulling punches and marveling at how classy he is as a leader?

As for Afghanistan, what in God’s name are we still doing there? And why would Barack possibly be considering ratcheting up our involvement? The regime that we propped up is as corrupt as a coked-up telemarketer. Bin Laden is probably hiding out in the tribal regions of Pakistan, rather than within the Afghan borders. And as for the Taliban, what is it about them that poses such a danger to the United States – assuming that we ultimately leave Afghanistan? Plus, if history has taught us anything, it’s that the Afghan terrain is unconquerable. So why don’t we simply withdraw all the troops except for some special forces, and narrow the scope of our mission to espionage and police activities aimed solely at al Qaeda?

I had thought that one of the benefits of the Obama Presidency would be that if we were truly needed to fight foreign wars, other nations would be joining us in an equitable fashion so that our own troops wouldn’t disproportionately have to bear the risks and expenses of war. The funny thing is, though, that at the same time that the world community is extending to Barack a Nobel Peace Prize, Europe and Asia seem completely uninterested in sending their boys off to die in Afghanistan. If they won’t, why should we? What is so damned compelling about this struggle that would cause an American family to be proud of their son for dying in it?

Why, in short, is this any different from Vietnam?

I think it is incumbent on Barack Obama to explain this to us. And as great an orator as he is, if he can’t persuade us, isn’t it time to dust off the old walking shoes?

Friday, November 06, 2009


I still remember Candidate Obama saying these eight fateful words: “We are the change we’ve been waiting for.” To his partisans, like me, they were magical. To his detractors, they were signs that the speaker was the emptiest of suits.

What was it about those words that transfixed so many Americans? For starters, we were convinced that America desperately needed change. W had been running us into the ground for nearly eight years; even he probably had had enough of his Presidency.

But there was something more in those words than the call for change. There was also a realization that the change agents had to be completely different. The powerbrokers in Washington simply weren’t getting the job done They weren’t exactly a generation like Washington, Jefferson and Adams; nor were they the equals of Webster, Clay and Calhoun. Larry, Curly and Moe seem like a more apt analogy. And given that the folks in power couldn’t be trusted, either in terms of motivation or competence, “we the people” were needed to right the ship.

Yeah, I know it all sounds so idealistic. Yet that’s where Barack Obama came into play. If anyone could lead us to the meaningful change we needed, Barack’s the guy. His was the freshest of faces – upstanding, honest, earnest, kind, and symbolic of our nation’s glorious ethic melting pot. What’s more, Barack was hardly a Lone Ranger; his campaign staff seemed to be touched by God. Collectively, they did an unprecedented job of using the Internet to rally, not only supporters, but donors. By the time Super Tuesday came along, his backing was both broad and deep, and it was anchored by an incredibly devoted base: the young. If you were anywhere from 15 to 25 and you weren’t in love with Obama, you probably needed psycho- pharmacological help.

After the campaign was over and Barack won in a laugher, we were treated to an Inauguration like none other. As he stood before literally millions of loving Americans, Barack looked like a truly transformative figure. Never in my lifetime had I witnessed such enthusiasm for a new American President. You got the idea that if only we could add one more face on Mount Rushmore, we just found our man.

But that was then. And this is … well, this is the week that we’re welcoming new Republican Governors in states that had previously been Blue. Go ahead and call them “local elections” that have nothing to do with Barack, but I’m not buying it. Barack might still be relatively popular – personally – but what’s changed is that he has absolutely zero coattails. Right now, voters just want to throw the bums out, and if the majorities of the bums happen to be from Barack’s Party, so be it.

What went wrong? What happened to the “we” who were supposed to change the country? Where the hell were all the young people who worked tirelessly for Barack, but are now invisible when it comes to politics? Without them, the “we” is surely gone.

Perhaps the problem was that when Barack the Candidate became Barack the President-Elect, our nation was in a true economic crisis. You could make a strong argument that the only way out was to make a deal with the Walt Street Devil. As a result, Geithner and Summers rapidly became the most prominent faces of the Administration, and they symbolized anything but change. Still, I think the problem is deeper than that. Even when the crisis was averted and Barack was given a bit of breathing room, he hasn’t exactly shown political courage. Has he fought hard on health care reform? Not at all – he basically threw that issue back at his do-nothing Congress. And what about Iraq and Afghanistan? Has he taken a clear stand there? Nope. Frankly, I’m not exactly sure what he’s done over there that W wouldn’t have.

What about a cause like Middle East Peace? I’ve devoted a lot of attention to that issue on this page, and believe strongly that Barack has real talent as a diplomat. But what I haven’t yet seen is the resolve to fight at any cost for a just and secure peace in that region. I want Middle East Peace to be one of Barack’s obsessions. If it is, however, he hides it well.

If you ask me, the problem here is that Barack is too practical. Everything from him is measured. Nothing seems terribly urgent – other than the rhetoric that flows from his mouth as mellifluously as a mountain stream.

I want to see Barack take some chances. I want to see him dare to fail. I want to see him get out of the middle of the road in Afghanistan and either win the damn war or get the hell out of there (preferably the latter). I want to see him bring the health care reform issue to a head so that he can expose the phonies in the Democratic Party. He should go ahead and let them filibuster a popular bill. If they want to make asses of themselves in front of the nation, let’s roll out the red carpet and watch them implode.

Mostly, though, I want to see Barack grab hold of a controversial issue like my dogs grab hold of a bone. It almost doesn’t matter what issue he picks as long as he deals with it passionately, and it seems to be part of a wider vision that he holds for his Presidency. That’s what Reagan brought to the table, and that’s why he was so effective at making changes, whether we like them or not.

Right now, my man is just too cool for school. And the cooler he gets, the more bored we get by his Presidency.

Remember, Barack’s eight words were truly inspiring, and they rang true. It is all about “us.” We were the change we were waiting for – not the do-nothing Congress, not the Wall Street Barons, and not Barack himself. If he wants us back in the fold, if wants to be a leader of a movement that has some staying power, he has to model raw emotion on behalf of some courageous positions. Do that, and for the next seven years, we’ll have his back.