Entries from October 2008

Obama In Reagan’s Shadow

David Frum October 30th, 2008 at 9:22 pm Comments Off

Shrum proclaims “end times” for Reaganism. Wise Democrats will want to handle that prediction with care.

If the chapter is closing on the Reagan era in U.S. politics—and I think it is—it is not closing because Reaganism has been repudiated (as Shrum would wish). It is closing because Reaganism has been accepted and digested.

A little history.

In the years after 1965, a generation of bold liberal politicians tried to out-Roosevelt Franklin Roosevelt. With the federal treasury overflowing from the 1960s boom, they launched huge new spending programs like Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare, Medicaid, and the War on Poverty.

These liberals quickly discovered that they had been over-optimistic. The programs they had launched cost much more than expected—and a slowing economy yielded much less revenue than expected. Jolted by inflation, energy shortages, and other crises, politicians began to interfere more and more in the innermost workings of the economy: freezing prices and managing industries. It didn’t work, and the dominant liberalism of the years 1930-1965 began to unravel. Ironically enough, the most extreme of these interventionists was Richard Nixon—the conservative’s conservative on cultural issues, but very much an adherent of the postwar consensus on economic issues.

The unraveling was accelerated by the social disintegration that set in after 1965. Crime, family breakup and urban decay at home and weakness in the face of Soviet provocations abroad all took their toll. As Jonathan Rieder wistfully observed in his famous 1975 anthropological study of the Jewish and Italian-American voters of the Canarsie neighborhood of New York City, the word “liberalism” had come to acquire connotations of “profligacy, spinelessness, malevolence, masochism, elitism, fantasy, anarchy, idealism, softness, irresponsibility, and sanctimoniousness.”

The collapse of liberalism brought Reagan to power. Indeed, the turnaround began even before his election, as neoclassical economics began to win converts even among some Democrats. Gerald Ford launched the deregulation of the economy by repealing New Deal controls on gold ownership and stockbrokers’ fees. After suffering losses in the congressional elections of 1978, Democrats in Congress joined Republicans in deregulating transportation industries. Congress compelled a reluctant Jimmy Carter to pave the way for deregulation of the prices of oil and natural gas (which Reagan would accelerate in 1981).

When Reagan arrived in Washington, he cut taxes, supported the Federal Reserve in its anti-inflation struggle, revised labor laws to restrain the excessive power of trade unions, and generally set a tone reassuring to business and investment. His actions were matched by ideological cognates around the world: Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Brian Mulroney in Canada, and Helmut Kohl in Germany. In true tribute to their success, they were eventually imitated, in part, even by left-of-center parties in Australia, New Zealand, France, and elsewhere.

In the 1990s, conservative Republicans in Congress and the states launched a new wave of reforms. Their crime control and welfare reform programs curbed and corrected harms bequeathed by the social engineers of the 1960s.

Now notice what Reagan and his successors did not do. They did not abolish wholesale New Deal—or even Great Society—programs. Medicaid and Medicare remain in business. They did not repudiate Franklin Roosevelt; indeed Reagan always presented himself as a fulfillment of Roosevelt’s vision. They set limits on liberalism: thus far and no farther.

The Reagan Revolution bookended the New Deal. It did not repeal it. Not all of Reagan’s heirs were so modest, and they usually paid a political price for it. It took him some time, but Bill Clinton made his peace with the legacy of Reagan. He signed welfare reform, accepted balanced budgets, acceded to a cut in the capital gains tax. Just as President Eisenhower accommodated himself to his gigantic liberal predecessor, FDR, so Clinton accommodated himself to Reagan.
 
Now it is Obama’s turn. He can try (as Shrum recommends) to overthrow the Reagan legacy, to establish himself as a new historical bookend, hurling himself into the kind of great campaign for economic redistribution hinted at by his own early rhetoric. If he does, his career will likely be tumultuous and ultimately doomed. This remains a basically conservative country.

Or Obama can fit himself into the American story, seeking continuity with all that came before, accepting institutional limits on his actions, innovating by inches. That may disappoint his most ardent followers, who long for a second coming of FDR. But it will emulate his wisest predecessors.

Sorry, Senator. Let’s Salvage What We Can.

David Frum October 26th, 2008 at 9:23 pm Comments Off

There are many ways to lose a presidential election. John McCain is losing in a way that threatens to take the entire Republican Party down with him.

A year ago, the Arizona senator’s team made a crucial strategic decision. McCain would run on his (impressive) personal biography. On policy, he’d hew mostly to conservative orthodoxy, with a few deviations — most notably, his support for legalization for illegal immigrants. But this strategy wasn’t yielding results in the general election. So in August, McCain tried a bold new gambit: He would reach out to independents and women with an exciting and unexpected vice presidential choice.

That didn’t work out so well either. Gov. Sarah Palin connected with neither independents nor women. She did, however, ignite the Republican base, which has come to support her passionately. And so, in this last month, the McCain campaign has

Palinized itself to make the most of its last asset. To fire up the Republican base, the McCain team has hit at Barack Obama as an alien, a radical and a socialist.

Sure enough, the base has responded. After months and months of wan enthusiasm among Republicans, these last weeks have at last energized the core of the party. But there’s a downside: The very same campaign strategy that has belatedly mobilized the Republican core has alienated and offended the great national middle, which was the only place where the 2008 election could have been won.

I could pile up the poll numbers here, but frankly . . . it’s too depressing. You have to go back to the Watergate era to see numbers quite so horrible for the GOP.

McCain’s awful campaign is having awful consequences down the ballot. I spoke a little while ago to a senior Republican House member. “There is not a safe Republican seat in the country,” he warned. “I don’t mean that we’re going to lose all of them. But we could lose any of them.”

In the Senate, things look, if possible, even worse.

The themes and messages that are galvanizing the crowds for Palin are bleeding Sens. John Sununu in New Hampshire, Gordon Smith in Oregon, Norm Coleman in Minnesota and Susan Collins in Maine. The Palin approach might have been expected to work better in more traditionally conservative states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, but they have not worked well enough to compensate for the weak Republican economic message at a moment of global financial crisis. Result: the certain loss of John Warner’s Senate seat in Virginia, the probable loss of Elizabeth Dole’s in North Carolina, an unexpectedly tough fight for Saxby Chambliss’s in Georgia — and an apparent GOP surrender in Colorado, where it looks as if the National Republican Senatorial Committee has already pulled its ads from the air.

The fundraising challenge only makes things worse. The Republican senatorial and congressional committees have badly underperformed compared with their Democratic counterparts — and the Republican National Committee, which has done well, is directing its money toward the presidential campaign, rather than to local races. (It was RNC funds, not McCain ’08 money, that paid the now-famous $150,000 for Palin’s campaign wardrobe, for example.) This is a huge mistake.

In these last days before the vote, Republicans need to face some strategic realities. Our resources are limited, and our message is failing. We cannot fight on all fronts. We are cannibalizing races that we must win and probably can win in order to help a national campaign that is almost certainly lost. In these final 10 days, our goal should be: senators first.

A beaten party needs a base from which to recover. In 1993, our Republican base was found in the states and the cities. We had the governorships of California, Michigan and Wisconsin in 1993, and Rudy Giuliani won the New York mayor’s race later that year. The reform we delivered at the state and local levels contrasted acutely with the shambles of President Clinton’s first two years — and helped us win both houses of Congress in 1994.

I very much doubt that we will be able to show that same kind of local strength in 2009. The statehouses were the engine of our renewal in the 1990s; the Senate will have to play the same role after this defeat. That’s especially true because of two unique dangers posed by the impending Democratic victory.

First, with the financial meltdown, the federal government is now acquiring a huge ownership stake in the nation’s financial system. It will be immensely tempting to officeholders in Washington to use that stake for political ends — to reward friends and punish enemies. One-party government, of course, will intensify those temptations. And as the federal government succumbs, officeholders will become more and more comfortable holding that stake. The current urgency to liquidate the government’s position will subside. The United States needs Republicans and conservatives to monitor the way Democrats wield this extraordinary and dangerous new power — and to pressure them to surrender it as rapidly as feasible.

Second, the political culture of the Democratic Party has changed over the past decade. There’s a fierce new anger among many liberal Democrats, a more militant style and an angry intolerance of dissent and criticism. This is the culture of the left-wing blogosphere and MSNBC’s evening line-up — and soon, it will be the culture of important political institutions in Washington.

Unchecked, this angry new wing of the Democratic Party will seek to stifle opposition by changing the rules of the political game. Some will want to silence conservative talk radio by tightening regulation of the airwaves via the misleadingly named “fairness doctrine”; others may seek to police the activities of right-leaning think tanks by a stricter interpretation of what is tax-deductible and what is not.

The best bulwark for a nonpolitical finance system and a national culture of open debate will be the strongest possible Republican caucus in the Senate. And it is precisely that strength that is being cannibalized now by the flailing end of the McCain-Palin campaign.

What should Republicans be doing differently? Two things:

1. Every available dollar that can be shifted to a senatorial campaign must be shifted to a senatorial campaign. Right now, we are investing heavily in Pennsylvania in hopes of corralling those fabled “Hillary Democrats” for McCain. But McCain’s hopes in Pennsylvania are delusive: The state went for Kerry in 2004, Gore in 2000 and Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and McCain lags Obama by a dozen points in recent polls. But even if we were somehow to take the state, that victory would not compensate for the likely loss of Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and other states tipped to the Democrats by demographic changes and the mortgage crisis. The “win Pennsylvania and win the nation” strategy may have looked plausible in August and September, when McCain trailed Obama by just a few digits. Now it looks far-fetched.

But it is not far-fetched to hope that we can hold 45 or 46 of our current 49 Senate seats. In 1993, then-Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) stopped Hillary-care with only 43 seats. But if we are reduced to just 40 or 41 senators, as could easily happen, Republicans and conservatives would find themselves powerless to stop anything — and more conservative Democrats would lose bargaining power with the Obama White House.

2. We need a message change that frankly acknowledges that the Democrats are probably going to win the White House — and that warns of the dangers of one-party, left-wing government. There’s a lot of poll evidence that voters prefer divided government. By some estimates, perhaps as many as 8 percent of voters consciously cast strategic votes in favor of division. These are the voters we need to be talking to now.

I’m not suggesting that the RNC throw up its hands. But down-ballot Republicans need to give up on the happy talk about how McCain has Obama just where he wants him, take off their game faces and say something like this:

“We’re almost certainly looking at a Democratic White House. I can work with a Democratic president to help this state. But we need balance in Washington.

“The government now owns a big stake in the nation’s banking system. Trillions of dollars are now under direct government control. It’s not wise to put that money under one-party control. It’s just too tempting. You need a second set of eyes on that cash. You need oversight and accountability. Otherwise, you’re going to wake up two years from now and find out that a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House have been funneling a ton of that money to their friends and allies. It’ll be a big scandal — but it will be too late. The money will be gone. Divided government is the best precaution you can have.”

It’s the only argument we have left. And, as the old Washington saying goes, it has the additional merit of being true.

The World Needs Pricier Oil For Its Own Good

David Frum October 25th, 2008 at 9:26 pm Comments Off

In this week of financial panic, we can already begin to see hope for economic recovery.

In trading Friday, the price of oil fell below US$65 a barrel, down from US$145 only four months ago. This dramatic price collapse will act like a massive global tax cut. Along with the huge monetary stimulus delivered by the U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks over the past few weeks, it should jolt the world’s major economies back to health over the coming months.

The only thing surprising about this price collapse is that anybody could be surprised. Some forecasters asserted that because oil had gone from $50 to $100, it must therefore double again to $200. These must be the same forecasters who predicted that because a detached house in suburban Las Vegas had doubled in price between 2003 and 2007, it must therefore double again between 2007 and 2011.

The price of oil is declining for the same reason it always does: Econ 101. If the price of something rises, people use less. When people use less, supplies increase. When supplies increase, the price comes down. It happens so regularly, you might almost think it was a law or something!

Here’s how the law operated in this case:

The real-estate bubble of 2003-2007 enriched millions of Americans. Many borrowed against their homes and used the proceeds to buy goods imported from China. That spending spree triggered a giddy boom in China, growth of 10% and more a year. The richest Chinese bought cars. Car sales in China zoomed upward, peaking at almost 9 million in 2007. Forecasters extrapolated from past results and predicted that China would buy more than 30 million more cars over the next four years. Cars of course run on gasoline. With 30 million more cars in China, the price of the oil from which gasoline is refined could only go up, up, up — unless something happened.

Something happened.

The U.S. housing bubble popped. U.S. consumers stopped buying. Chinese economic growth decelerated. Those projections of Chinese car buying suddenly looked fanciful. Crash!

People got the oil market wrong because they assume oil is immune to market discipline. It’s not.

Some history: U.S. demand for oil rose rapidly in the cheap-oil 1960s. It continued rising even after the oil shock of 1973. But the second oil shock of 1979 changed American behaviour. Consumers bought smaller cars. Utilities closed oil-fired generators. Industry invested in energy efficiency. Result: a sharp decline in oil consumption. Through the 1980s and 1990s — right up to 1996 — Americans continued to use less oil per year than they had in 1978. (The same pattern applies in Canada and other developed countries as well.)

Oil got cheap again in the 1990s. Americans bought bigger cars and bigger houses, further away from work. Demand rose. By 2006, Americans were using 10% more oil than the previous peak of 1978.

The spike in oil prices in recent months has altered that behavior. U.S. oil use has abated again as consumers change their buying practices.

But here’s the risk. As oil prices decline, consumers could revert to old habits — and all that talk of “energy independence” will fade with the U.S. election campaign.

Politicians like to talk of reaching energy independence by inventing some sci-fi substitute for the internal combustion engine. Much more likely, however, is that the world will move off oil gradually, by investing in step-by-step improvements in automobile efficiency: hybrid cars first, more futuristic developments later. There is only one stimulus that can drive this kind of change: price. Today’s lower prices, welcome though they are, threaten to halt the progress away from oil.

The answer is to prevent the cost of oil to the consumer from declining any further. Let consumers pocket and benefit from the decline to US$65. Then impose a stand-by excise tax on any further declines. If oil goes to US$64, the government taxes $1. If the decline continues to $63, $2. And so on.

Consumers will continue to substitute away from oil. Manufacturers will be induced to continue investing in efficiency. Homebuilders will continue to shift to smaller, more centrally located development. Revenues to the governments of producing nations will be squeezed. Revenues to the governments of consuming nations will rise — and those governments should use the new tax to cut other taxes, especially taxes on work, saving and investment. I’d nominate the corporate income tax as the first tax to cut — and ideally eliminate.

There’s no miracle cure for the Western world’s dependence on oil. But there is good grounds for hope for a gradual emancipation from the stuff. The cure is not free. But it’s worth paying for.

President Obama’s Challenge

David Frum October 23rd, 2008 at 9:27 pm Comments Off

Shrum is right: This is no time for Democrats to go wobbly. After Election Day—that’s the time to go wobbly!

As Republicans have learned, governing isn’t nearly so carefree as campaigning. Soon it will be the Democrats’ turn at the controls. Beginning on November 5, they will have a series of very important decisions to make.

1. Will they continue the moderate economic policies of the later Clinton years? Or will they interpret Barack Obama’s primary victories over Hillary Clinton as a mandate to repudiate Clintonism and revert to the more left-wing policies of the past? To what degree do they intend to “spread the wealth?”

The huge federal intervention in the financial sector raises this question in acute form. Will Democrats seek to liquidate federal ownership as rapidly as possible? Will they discipline themselves to vote the federal shares only with taxpayer considerations in mind? Or will they succumb to the strong temptation to use the federal role to pay off Democratic interest groups? (A little something for the unions, this for minority business owners, that for the big-city mayors, and this for the donor who was so helpful in the early days when it really counted.)

2. Will Democrats emancipate themselves from their soft-line foreign policy instincts?

This question, too, will take urgent form in the first days of a new administration. The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. Barack Obama has spoken of increasing the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan but his words seemed obviously politically motivated. They broadcast a message: “See—I am not a reflexive left-wing peace puff!”

Now comes the time to make good on that commitment—or not. To succeed in Afghanistan, the U.S. and its allies will have to send more troops and spend more money. We will have to build a new national police force, target narco-traffickers and compel Pakistan to end its support for the insurgency. Those will be difficult and costly tasks, and many Democrats (like many U.S. allies) will doubt that the cost is worth the likely benefit.

Meanwhile, the Iraq strategy that Obama opposed is succeeding better than anyone dared hope. Will Obama jettison a winning program? Or will he challenge his dovish base, stay in Iraq and claim the success as his own?

Joe Biden was right: If Obama wins, America’s adversaries (and many of its friends) will test this inexperienced and unhardened new president. The young John F. Kennedy failed his early tests, which predictably led to a bigger one: the Cuban Missile Crisis. Can Barack Obama do better?

At home and abroad, Democrats will succeed only to the extent that they overcome their most self-defeating impulses and develop the backbone to say NO—and stick to it. Maybe this time, at long last, they will gain that strength. More likely, though, they will replay the past and do in office just what Shrum wants them to avoid in the final days of this campaign: Wobble.

Harper Confronts Economic Crisis As A Lonely Conservative On World Stage

David Frum October 17th, 2008 at 9:29 pm Comments Off

You probably know this old joke:

A mother and her son are walking along the beach. Suddenly a giant wave roars into shore, engulfs the boy and carries him out to sea. The woman bursts into prayer: “Lord I have always been a good woman, given to charity, prayed every day, shunned every sin. Please Lord — restore my son!” No sooner had she finished, but another wave roared in, and deposited the drenched lad. She eagerly embraced him, then turned to Heaven, and said: “He had a hat.”

Supporters of the Harper government find themselves this week in a similar position. For a government to be re-elected in the middle of the worst financial chaos in a generation — some say since 1929 — is an achievement. To increase seat totals, make inroads in once inhospitable ethnic and urban ridings and win one-fifth of the vote in Quebec is an even more impressive achievement.

Yet it’s also true that the government failed to cross that once beckoning threshold to majority status. And if not now, then when? Will the Liberals ever again offer up as tempting a target as Stéphane Dion? Won’t the government — any government — stumble into damaging trouble and controversy as its tenure extends into year four, five, six? Can the future hold anything positive?

Anybody who owns a crystal ball has its dial firmly set to the Wall Street channel. But here are some hopes and goals that Canadian conservatives might want to keep in mind over the coming months:

Prime Minister Harper will soon confront some of the most difficult challenges faced by any Canadian leader since 1945: a global economic crisis, a grinding war on the other side of the planet and an aging population that will require more and more public support.

And he will face these challenges intellectually very much alone. Other recent prime ministers could all find inspiration and support from ideological soulmates around the world.

Jean Chrétien was elected in 1993 as one of a wave of neo-liberal politicians, questioning past Big Government orthodoxies: Bill Clinton in the United States, Tony Blair in Britain, Gerhard Schroeder in Germany. These leaders borrowed ideas, policies and rhetoric from each other and provided each other important moral support — as when, for example, Bill Clinton all but endorsed Chrétien’s Clarity Act in a speech in the Canadian House of Commons.

Brian Mulroney could find allies around the planet for his deregulating, market-opening and anti-Soviet economic and foreign policies: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Germany’s Helmut Kohl, Japan’s Yasuhiro Nakasone.

Pierre Trudeau did not get on well with any American president. But he could find like-minded leaders in Britain (Harold Wilson and James Callaghan), Germany (Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt) and Mexico (Luis Echeverria especially).

Harper, however, will soon be standing quite alone. If Barack Obama wins the U.S. presidential election, as seems probable, Harper will be left as the only surviving conservative head of government in the English-speaking world. The non-English-speaking world is not much more congenial: In Germany, a very slightly conservative party governs in coalition with Social Democrats. And in France, Nicholas Sarkozy is veering further and further left with every drop in the stock market indexes, calling, in a speech this week in Brussels, for a “new form of capitalism” in which no financial institution “should escape regulation and supervision.”

This situation opens both opportunities and dangers for Prime Minister Harper.

The danger first: Canada’s reliably left-tilting media will soon be taunting Harper as an international outlier, a sorry holdout against the glamorous new ideas of President Obama.

But the opportunity is even greater: Free-market, limited-government conservatives around the world have long looked to the United States and the Republican party for leadership. After the defeat impending in November, however, Republicans seem fated to recoil upon a thin inventory of purist rhetoric and antiquated policy ideas. Such a reaction could lock U.S. conservatives out of government for years to come — and impoverish the thinking of centre-right movements worldwide.

The members of the Harper government have gained a real opportunity to redefine the centre-right for the 21st century. This is an intellectual project launched by British conservatives — but it is Canadian conservatives who have the first opportunity to test whether the concepts and themes articulated by David Cameron can survive encounter with the realities of politics and government.

That test offers an unusual eminence for a Canadian political leader. But then, these are unusual times.

Early Winter For Republicans

David Frum October 16th, 2008 at 9:30 pm Comments Off

Sometimes campaigns and candidates make the difference. Very possibly, a different campaign or a different candidate could have won the presidency for the Democrats in 2004. (Most Republicans cited Dick Gephardt as the Democrat they feared most, John Kerry as the candidate they feared least.) Not impossibly, as Bob Shrum suggests, a different vice presidential candidate might have helped Al Gore in 2000.

But 2008? On the cable chat shows, the interviewers ask: “What’s the one thing John McCain has to do to turn this thing around?”

“Well Chris, two things that would really help would be a 5,000 point rise in the Dow and a 20 percent jump in home prices over the next three weeks. Failing that, I suppose he might talk about the 1960’s some more.”

Yes, the McCain campaign has been ghastly. It cannot decipher what ails the U.S. economy and it offers no remedies. All McCain has is a biography—at a time when voters are focused on their own lives, not the candidates’. Baffled by a lack of enthusiasm for McCain’s personal narrative, the campaign shifted its focus to the other candidate’s biography.

Trouble is, Barack Obama’s biography is not very interesting. Hillary Clinton, at least, worked with actual radicals at a time when radicalism was a going concern. But Obama? McCain’s attack on him is the equivalent of the William McKinley campaign attacking William Jennings Bryan for having kept company with Nathan Bedford Forrest decades after the Civil War. Yes, the old rebel was an unrepentant traitor. Mostly though, he was all washed up.

Republicans have been fighting this second American civil war for eleven election cycles now. It’s been a good run! But just as 19th-Century Republicans eventually ran out of Union generals from Ohio, so the modern Republican Party has bumped up against the statute of limitations on campaigns against hippies.

McCain needed a bigger message.

While nobody could have predicted that a global financial crisis would erupt in the fall of 2008, it was observable a year ago that the incomes of the middle class had stagnated during the Bush years. (I know because I observed it—in fact, in 2007 I published a whole book largely on this very point.) McCain previously had expressed doubts about many Bush policies, from the tax cuts of 2001 to the administration’s easy indulgence of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in 2005. He could have continued that theme in 2007 and 2008. He could have campaigned as Nicholas Sarkozy to Bush’s Jacques Chirac—a critic from within the party who offered change combined with practical experience and a moderate worldview.

Had McCain seized the middle in this way, his last-minute attempt to depict Barack Obama as an out-of-touch radical might have made sense. After all, it is true that Barack Obama happily kept company with extreme characters in the days when he was contemplating a campaign for mayor of Chicago: not only the unrepentant bomber Bill Ayers, but also the flamboyant preacher Jeremiah Wright. That truth, however, only becomes interesting when linked to a broader truth relevant to voters’ lives.

Had McCain offered a meaningful economic message early on, he could now say: “I want to solve this crisis—and I know how. Barack Obama just wants to use the crisis to sell a lot of destructive social programs that nobody would accept if they had time to think about them.”

The moment at which such a message became impossible for McCain was his decision to embrace the full re-enactment of Bush’s tax cuts. It must have seemed an easy decision back in the primary. It was a litmus test for many conservative voters and, after all, with Democrats poised to expand their majorities in the next Congress, there was zero likelihood those tax cuts would ever be enacted.

Trouble is, by founding his campaign on a full supply-side message, McCain denied himself the opportunity to say anything new. Worse, because that message originally took shape as a (correct) response to the problems of the 1970’s, McCain’s attempt to dust it off and reuse it as a response to the very different problems of the 2010’s only made him look more out of date.

That’s not a failure of campaign tactics. It’s not even a failure of strategy. It’s a failure of the Republican Party and conservative movement to adapt to the times.

Very soon, this election will be over. Then Republicans and conservatives will confront a much harder question: How long will this adaptation take? It took Democrats 12 years to understand and accept their defeat in 1980. Surely we can be faster learners?

Pakistan Is The Obstacle To Advances In Afghanistan

David Frum October 11th, 2008 at 9:31 pm Comments Off

Talk to the Taliban?

That’s the big policy question everybody asks about Afghanistan. After an eight-day NATO-sponsored tour of the country, I can report that the best minds at work on the country all give the same answer: “Maybe later. Not now.”

Here’s why:

1) The current push to talk to the Taliban comes from Afghanistan’s Karzai government for short-term electioneering advantage.

The Taliban are most active in Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. If the Taliban are still fighting, the Pashtun may not be able (or willing) to come out to vote in the presidential elections scheduled for 2009. President Karzai comes from a leading Pashtun family, and low Pashtun turnout would threaten Karzai’s re-election hopes.

Karzai’s government is not well liked in the other areas of Pakistan, where it is perceived as corrupt and incompetent. So Karzai badly needs a deal that will allow voting to proceed in the Pashtun areas.

Last weekend, The New York Times published a thickly sourced story in which half a dozen current and former U.S. officials accused Karzai’s brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, of massive involvement in Afghanistan’s huge heroin industry. This accusation represents a devastating challenge for the Karzai government. (I was in the presidential palace to meet Karzai’s official spokesman on the day the story broke. He arrived looking as if a bomb had just gone off in the building.)

Obviously, Karzai cannot sustain the war without American backing. Threatened with the loss of American support, he may be seeking to try to end the war — transferring his base of support from the ethically fussy Americans to the more understanding Pashtun tribes. You can see why he’d want to do that. Harder to see why the Western world should endorse it.

2) Right now, the Taliban are looking strong; the West is looking weak. But 2009 will be NATO’s year. Up to four U.S. combat brigades will be arriving. The Germans are sending 1,000 more troops. Other NATO forces have reached peak strength.

Meanwhile, the Taliban faces trouble ahead. Those big spectacular Taliban attacks on well-trained NATO troops armed with automatic weapons are very, very costly to the attackers. Enemy insurgents suffered upwards of 4,000 dead in 2007. And the insurgents face internal political problems of their own. Many of their footsoldiers are Pashtun villagers who fight only because they are paid or because they are afraid of retalitation against their families. Morale on the enemy side is not always high. And the same xenophobia that leads Pashtun villagers to shoot at NATO forces has also led them to shoot at Arabic-speaking al-Qaeda when they show up in their villages.

The insurgent forces in Afghanistan are a coalition of ideological Taliban, local warlords, and drug traffickers. Over the next 12 months, our coalition will enjoy growing power, while theirs may experience useful fragmentation. Better to talk when we hold the advantage — and elements of their coalition are rethinking their loyalties.

3) The most important thing to understand about Afghanistan is that it is not a civil war. As one British officer put it, maybe a little over enthusiastically, “If Afghanistan were an island, this war would be easy.”  Or as a high civilian official put it: “Imagine you are a Taliban fighter. You have a wife in Quetta, maybe a brother or mother. If you say you want to quit fighting, somebody in a Pakistani army uniform will come to see them — and warn them of bad consequences. And if you do quit, those bad consequences will follow.”

Sound policy in Afghanistan begins by waking up to the reality that the Taliban would be at worst a local nuisance without the support of the Pakistani military and intelligence services. Pakistan enjoys the legal status of a “major non-NATO ally” of the United States, the same status held by Japan and Australia. And yet at the same time, Pakistan — or important forces within Pakistan — is waging a proxy war against the United States and NATO.  

Before talking to the Taliban, the U.S. and NATO must first talk to Pakistan — and talk more firmly and clearly than anybody has up until now. Until now, the West has always had higher priorities. Britain wants Pakistan to help hunt down Pakistani-born terrorists operating inside the U.K. The U.S. wants Pakistan to stop proliferating nuclear materials. For both leaders of the NATO mission, pressuring Pakistan to end support to the Taliban was a secondary priority.

That may be changing. If it does, the Taliban will suddenly find themselves isolated and vulnerable. That’s where we want them. That’s when to talk to them.

Mccain Self-destructs

David Frum October 9th, 2008 at 4:51 pm Comments Off

I compare this election to a job interview. The employers (that’s you, Mr. and Mrs. America) are sick to death of the current job holder (that’s my team, the GOP). They are itching to fire us.

But they cannot do it until they have found a plausible alternative. Now if the alternative gives offense or embarrasses himself at the interview—if he somehow shows himself unacceptable—then the employer will have no choice: He’ll have to struggle on with the current incumbent for a little longer.

If, however, the alternative behaves himself—if he says the right things, if nothing disgraceful can be found in his resume—then the job is his.

So (to repeat something I said in my very first column in this space) Barack Obama’s most important challenge in this race was to make himself boring. He needed to leave behind the soaring rhetoric and grand themes of the primary campaign and act the part of a responsible, level-headed president-in-waiting.

Watching Tuesday’s presidential debate—possibly the most boring presidential debate in history—I can only say: mission accomplished.

Meanwhile, McCain careens from mistake to mistake.

McCain’s job in this campaign was to stay cool. He had to recognize: “Look, by all rights I should lose this thing. But you never know. Obama is inexperienced, over-educated, and likely to be perceived by many voters as exotic, even alien. Over months of electioneering, he’s bound to stumble. When he does, I’m here—a steady pair of hands—to pick up the pieces.”

But staying cool in the face of downbeat polls requires tremendous discipline. The natural temptation is to Do Things—to Change the Game!

Hence the Palin nomination. Hence the campaign suspension. Hence the misleading negative ads.

The problem is that the more a candidate Does Things, the more likely he is to make a mistake—to frighten off voters at the very moment he needs to be reassuring them. That is what has happened to McCain. Whatever else you say about his campaign, it’s not boring!

The McCain campaign has depicted Obama as a dishonorable slanderer of American troops, a friend of terrorists who is thrusting sex upon kindergarten children. Spicy stuff. (It certainly got a reaction from Shrum.)

But then we see the actual Obama on stage—and he sure does not sound spicy. He sounds grave and measured. He speaks respectfully of John McCain. He finds something nice to say about George W. Bush. You can almost hear swing voters across America thinking, “He’s polite. He’s presentable. He seems less jumpy than the old white guy. He’ll do.”

I’m not sure that McCain’s negative advertising was ever meant to be believed. I think it was meant to provoke.

McCain may have hoped to do to Obama what George W. Bush did to him in the famous South Carolina primary of 2000: get under his skin in a way that goads him into a self-destructive outburst. If Obama had lost his temper, if he had even complained, he would have been done for. America is ready for a lot, but it’s not ready to hear a young, Harvard-educated black man criticize a white war hero.

But then—Obama doesn’t have to criticize him, does he? He can follow the advice of another white war hero, Napoleon Bonaparte: Never interfere with an enemy in the process of self-destruction.