Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

Obama versus Congress on Guantanamo

Nicholas Wapshott
May 3, 2013 16:07 UTC

A young girl holds a picture of Bobby Sands in a republican march to mark the 20th anniversary of the IRA hunger strike at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland May 27. REUTERS/Archive

Barely a week after Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in London, her ghost is stalking the corridors of power. At his press conference on Tuesday in Washington, President Barack Obama was asked about Guantánamo Bay prisoners refusing to eat. In doing so, the veteran CBS reporter Bill Plante, who asked the question, exposed a running sore in the Obama administration. He also invited direct comparison between Obama and Lady Thatcher – who faced a similar dilemma in 1981.

As a candidate in 2008, Obama, a distinguished Harvard-educated legal scholar known in the Senate for his common sense and humanity, promised to quickly close the prison for 166 terrorist suspects in the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The existence of a U.S. detention center that ignores the basic legal right of habeas corpus and the failure to bring prisoners to trial after so many years “erode our moral claims that we are acting on behalf of broader universal principles,” he said. He went on to repeat his pledge, yet five years on, Gitmo is still open for business.

The president’s embarrassment can be blamed, in part, on his naïveté. For a while after his inauguration in 2009 he appeared to be under the impression he had been elected the most powerful man on earth. It has taken four painful years for him to realize that the division of government guaranteed by the Constitution prevents him from doing not only what he wishes but what a majority of Americans have mandated.

Under the guise of saving money, Congress has stymied the president’s plan to try those believed guilty of terrorist offenses on U.S. soil and to release the 86 innocents who have been held without trial for years. Despite their insistence that they believe in America’s system of justice, it appears that many congressmen have little faith in it.

The sequester is just as destructive as we thought

Nicholas Wapshott
Apr 23, 2013 19:40 UTC

Remember the sequester? When seven weeks ago the deadline to find a federal budget compromise came and went, there was much handwringing in Washington. In the event that no agreement was found there were to be cuts to public spending so severe and painful that no one would dare fail to agree. To deter Republicans from holding out, half the immediate spending savings of $85.4 billion was to be found from the defense budget, and, to ensure Democrats would work to find a deal, half from annually funded federal programs. Despite these encouragements to fiscal discipline, the March 1 deadline came and went.

For weeks the word “sequestration” was used so often that commentators and their readers grew sick of it. The headlines moved on. But quietly, without making much news, implementation is well under way and proving just as dire and destructive as advertised. It is hard to fully comprehend the impact of death by a thousand cuts and where they fall. This week the sequester broke surface when it began affecting air travel, causing long delays at airports, which is to be expected when you send 1,500 air traffic controllers home without pay. One in 10 controllers will stay at home on unpaid leave every day until October. With the vacation season looming, crowded airports full of frustrated passengers will become commonplace.

Many cuts have an impact less obvious than gumming up airports. Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which relies upon federal sources for 86 percent of its research, is losing $7 million between now and September, while the University of Pittsburgh will lose $26 million, mostly from health research. All other research universities tell a similar story. This fiscal year the National Institutes of Health, the largest federal funding agency for many schools, like the University of Minnesota, is spending $1.5 billion less on research.

Gold’s decline shakes the true believers’ faith

Nicholas Wapshott
Apr 17, 2013 18:39 UTC

The dramatic slide in the price of gold in the past week has reversed a rise that for more than a decade has been steady and seemingly inexorable. The sudden fall ‑ in which prices plummeted 9 percent, to $1,347.40 an ounce, on Monday, the biggest two-day loss percentage since 1983 ‑ has put goldbugs, who are by definition pessimistic lovers of certainty, into a state of high anxiety. When the commodity of last resort so conspicuously fails to hold its value, the world becomes scarier place.

There  is room, however, for a small celebration: that the Cassandras have been caught short. Their simple remedy of faith in the abiding value of gold as a hedge against an otherwise treacherous, inflated market has been shown to be flawed.

There have always been those who have advocated cashing out and putting everything into gold against the day the stock market crashed, though the number of investors who genuinely found refuge in gold when the market crumbled in 2008 is probably fewer than goldbugs would like to admit. The flight to gold over the past dozen years has attracted a new form of ardent absolutist who suspects the Federal Reserve and the Treasury do not know what they are doing and who believes quantitative easing to be an evil process that invites inflation. These ideologically driven gold stashers are closely related to, indeed are often the same people, as those who advocate the return of the dollar to the gold standard. Such nervous creatures can only be reassured by the ancient lure of gold as a rock-solid reserve. For the past 12 years the rising gold price has appeared to confirm their lack of confidence in Keynesian manipulations of the economy. Since August, however, when gold started to lose its value, something has gone badly wrong.

The North Korean threat in an age of Pentagon cuts

Nicholas Wapshott
Apr 11, 2013 19:48 UTC

It may not feel like it, but we are closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The temptation to dismiss the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as a cartoonish figure of fun belies the real and present danger his samurai sword rattling presents. A strange time, then, for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to set out on the most thorough reappraisal of our defense spending since the end of Vietnam.

It is no secret that Hagel relishes the chance to slim the armed forces to a more affordable size. It is what commended him to President Barack Obama. He has already commissioned a wholesale “strategic choice and management review” of the Defense Department, which has been told to think the unthinkable in terms of cutting spending. This week, before defending his vision before the House Armed Services Committee, he offered a glimpse into what he has in mind: a slimming of the desk-bound middle management whose pay and perks cost more than the value of their contribution to the nation’s defense; a clearheaded look at the generous health and retirement benefits the nation’s military and veterans enjoy; the abandonment of expensive advanced weapons that may not be necessary; and an unsentimental assessment of the need for all of our domestic military bases.

Hagel invited “change that involves not just tweaking or chipping away at existing structures and practices but, where necessary, fashioning new ones” because “left unchecked, spiraling costs to sustain existing structures and institutions, provide benefits to personnel and develop replacements for aging weapons platforms will eventually crowd out spending on procurement, operations and readiness.” The American military is too large, Hagel argued. “How many people do we have,” he asked, “both military and civilian? How many do we need? What do these people do? And how do we compensate them for their work, service and loyalty with pay, benefits and healthcare?”

When Thatcher met Reagan

Nicholas Wapshott
Apr 8, 2013 18:14 UTC

 When Margaret Thatcher met Ronald Reagan in April 1975, neither was in their first flush of youth. She was 50 and he 65. She was the leader of Britain’s opposition; he a former governor of California. It was by no means obvious that either would win power. They bonded instantly.

Although born almost a generation and an ocean and continent apart, they found they were completing each other’s sentences. Both instinctive politicians rather than taught ideologues, they discovered they had both found validation for their convictions in the works of Friedrich Hayek, at that time a long-forgotten theorist even among conservatives.

From that sure beginning began a working partnership, or political marriage, that solidified the alliance between the United States and Britain at a crucial time when the Soviet Union was facing collapse and the democratic forces in Eastern Europe were pressing to be freed. There have been other Anglo-American alliances. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill eventually became friends, though FDR never let the English bulldog forget that America had overtaken Britain as the world’s most powerful nation and that Churchill was a supplicant.

David Stockman’s economic Neverland

Nicholas Wapshott
Apr 5, 2013 20:55 UTC

David Stockman makes a good Cassandra. His The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America is a popular account of why all economic policy since Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover has been wrongheaded. It is a contrarian’s delight. The New Deal “did not end the Great Depression or save capitalism from the alleged shortcomings which led to the [1929] crash.” Richard Nixon’s decision to unharness the dollar from the gold standard was “a sin graver than Watergate.” Milton Friedman, once a conservative saint but recast by Stockman as “a supposed hero,” is dismissed as “foolish.” He assaults Paul Ryan’s budget as “another front in the GOP’s war against the 99 percent.” He even accuses his old boss Ronald Reagan, a conservative paragon, of being fatally mistaken about slashing personal taxes and about encouraging “the highest peacetime spending share of GDP.”

In brief, Stockman believes Keynesian economics is pernicious and has seduced America away from the true path of capitalism. His tract is long on abuse (he scathingly assaults Republicans as well as Democrats, and gives a pass only to Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy) and short on economic analysis. The theoretical roots of his thinking are missing. The laissez-faire absolutist Ayn Rand is mentioned only in passing to goad those, like Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan, who brushed up against her. Ludwig von Mises gets a single name-check for his work on the credit boom cycle in 1911. Friedrich Hayek, the inspiration for most of today’s anti-Keynesians, does not even warrant a footnote. Stockman’s failure to anchor his instinctive aversion to deficits, public spending and government borrowing in a cogent intellectual framework undermines his case. His faith-based economics reflects, perhaps, the fact that he became Reagan’s director of the Office of Management and Budget armed only with what he had learned at Harvard Divinity School.

Stockman has, however, found a ready audience for his take on the past 80 years of economic policy because he is a rare bird: a conservative purist prepared to argue that when the financial markets froze in 2008 we should have let the market rip and lived with the consequences. When the stock market began to wobble five years ago, then crashed, tripping a wholesale financial disaster that slowed economic activity, caused businesses to fail and threw millions out of work, it was hard to find an economist of standing to defend the alternative to federal intervention: letting the banks and AIG go bust and allowing the market to find its own level.

Gay marriage and the triumph of ’60s

Nicholas Wapshott
Apr 3, 2013 00:23 UTC

Whatever the Supreme Court decides, it seems same sex marriage is here to stay. As the cover of Time put it, “Gay Marriage Already Won. The Supreme Court Hasn’t Made Up Its Mind – But America Has.”

Even some social conservative rabble-rousers have conceded defeat. Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, who in the past has compared gay unions to marrying a goat or a dolphin, has flipped, saying his views have “evolved.” “The compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals,” O’Reilly said last week. “The other side hasn’t been able to do anything but thump the Bible.” Rush Limbaugh, too, is reluctantly resigned to the change. “I don’t care what the Supreme Court does, this is now inevitable,” he said.

Few social liberals thought marriage equality would be as easy as this, but public support has been so swift that politicians of both stripes have rushed to endorse the legitimacy of same sex marriage. Even President Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton were left playing catch-up.

The return of isolationism

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 29, 2013 13:07 UTC

Isolationism is back in the news. The big thinkers of the Tea Party, in their pursuit of slashing taxes, lowering public spending, and severely shrinking the size and power of the federal government, have revived an idea that has not been respectable among senior Republicans for more than 70 years. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky believes that, to encourage more young people to vote for the GOP, the party should stop chasing divisive social issues, like incarcerating people for petty drug offenses, and take up civil liberties issues, like protecting American suspected terrorists on American soil from being summarily executed by American drones.

But that is just a start. According to a recent speech in Cincinnati, Paul thinks that, for the GOP to win younger voters, “even bigger to me than the social issues is the idea of war.” “If we didn’t have to be everywhere all the time, if maybe we tried to reserve it for when our national interests were impacted or a vital interest of ours was . . . [he left the thought unfinished] — and if Republicans didn’t seem so eager to go to war — I think we’d attract more young people.” He would prefer it “if we had a less bellicose approach, if we were for a strong defense but a little bit less aggressive defense around the world.” Paul is not suggesting pacifism. What he means by “a less aggressive foreign policy” is that he wishes America would stop taking its international responsibilities so seriously because it costs taxpayers a lot of money.

This is an extraordinary about-face for a leader of a party that in the post-war world has always proudly defended America’s right to intervene with force when and wherever it wishes. The GOP has always been the natural home for isolationists. The “Irreconcilables” that kept America out of the League of Nations were overwhelmingly Republican and it was largely Republican isolationists who advocated the neutrality laws in the Twenties and Thirties. Robert Taft nudged the party towards isolationism in his many failed bids to become the Republican presidential candidate through the Forties and Fifties. And rogue isolationist Patrick Buchanan gave the GOP establishment a scare when in both 1992 and 1996 he prospered in early primaries.

Uniting court — and country

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 26, 2013 22:14 UTC

The comedian Peter Cook once joked, “I could have been a judge, but I never had the Latin.” Instead, he became a coal miner. “They only ask one question. They say, ‘Who are you?’ And I got 75 percent for that.” As the laughter subsided, Cook added a satirical kicker. “Being a miner, as soon as you are too old and tired and sick and stupid to do the job properly, you have to go. Well, the very opposite applies with the judges.”

It seems that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy may have been listening to some of Cook’s old records. Ahead of this week’s landmark hearings in which the Supremes hear two cases in which they are being invited to decide whether same-sex marriages are constitutional, Kennedy made a sharp and surprising critique of the role the court has played in recent years in settling awkward matters that would have been far better decided by Congress. “A democracy,” he declared, “should not be dependent for its major decisions on what nine unelected people from a narrow legal background have to say.”

It is a strange admission for a Supreme Court justice. Cook made fun of the fact that senior judges are mostly old and doddery, and the older and more doddery they become, the more detached they are from normal life. Many who believe that justice should be impartial welcome the rarefied atmosphere in which judges tend to live and make their decisions. Kennedy, meanwhile, is suggesting the opposite ‑ that if justices have to be brought in to decide issues that would better have been solved by Congress, they should be more of an age and closer to the backgrounds of the ordinary Americans who must live with their decisions.

Sarah Palin and the rejection of scientific method

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 22, 2013 18:56 UTC

The most recent episode in the long-running Punch and Judy show between Sarah Palin and Karl Rove is shedding light on the schism between old-school Republicans and the Tea Party insurgents who are steadily pushing them aside. It appears it is not merely Palin’s personal antipathy to Rove that drives her spleen but a contempt for the dark arts he employs.

It is no surprise, perhaps, that the anti-intellectualism that underpins many of the Tea Party’s most absurd and offensive stances – the insistence that evidence of global warming is invented; the notion that women who are raped do not conceive; the belief that Darwin’s theory of evolution is contradicted by the Bible; the failure to understand that all economics is Keynesian; and so on – also informs Palin’s assault on the science practiced by Rove and every other established political strategist around the world.

In a zinger directed at Rove, Palin blamed Mitt Romney’s defeat on the “top-down political process” directed by a “permanent political class” in “permanent political mode” in Washington that is “busy worrying about their own political future.” “Now is the time to furlough the consultants, and tune-out the pollsters, send the focus groups home and throw out the political scripts, because if we truly know what we believe, we don’t need professionals to tell us,” she declared.

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