Entries from September 2009

Obama: Hanging with the Wrong Crowd

September 30th, 2009 at 2:00 pm 19 Comments

At the United Nations last week, Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi showered U.S. President Barack Obama with unexpected praise, telling the heads of state and dignitaries assembled that he hoped Obama could “stay forever as the president.”

This was hardly a flattering endorsement for Obama.  Qaddafi has been tied to countless acts of terrorism including the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 and the bombing of a German nightclub packed with U.S. servicemen in 1986.

The endorsement from the “mad clown of Tripoli,” as President Ronald Reagan called him, is not an isolated incident.  Scores of other dangerous despots, terrorists, and anti-American mouthpieces have come out in support of Obama’s foreign policies, which include ambivalence about the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, wavering support for Israel, and a diminished sense of American exceptionalism.

It began when candidate Obama ran on a foreign policy platform of what scholar Robert Satloff later described as “anti-Bushism.” Whereas George W. Bush sought to confront rogue regimes and radical ideologies, Obama sought to find understanding with them.

Cuba, which earned sanctions and isolation for decades of support for terrorism, was heartened by Obama’s campaign promises to ease restrictions on Cuban Americans traveling to Cuba that were imposed by the Bush administration.  Accordingly, Raul Castro struck a conciliatory tone in January, saying that Obama “seems like a good man,” and wished him luck.

Similarly, Syria smiled when Daniel Kurtzer stated that peace with Syria, which has a long and incontrovertible record of aiding the Iraq insurgency and supporting anti-Israeli terrorist groups, would be a high priority. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad complimented Obama after his election, calling his victory, “a positive sign” that U.S. foreign policy was changing.  Over the summer, Assad even had the audacity to invite the president to meet him in Syria.

Less than a week after Obama’s inauguration, the Taliban terrorist group that had once given safe haven to Osama bin Laden, lauded the new president for his stated goal of closing the prison facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. “Obama’s move to close Guantanamo detention center is a positive step for peace and stability in the region and the world,” read a Taliban communiqué, which also asked Obama to “ void all those evil projects established in the light of Bush’s satanic perspective of instability in the world.”

Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez also found reason to celebrate the new U.S. president’s non-confrontational foreign policies.  In April, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, after noting a more conciliatory U.S. policy towards his regime, he gave Obama a copy of the anti-American screed, The Open Veins of Latin America.  Because Obama tolerated these antics, Chavez later said he would give Obama another bookWhat is to be Done? by Vladimir Lenin.

Two months later, Obama delivered a speech to the Muslim world in which he appeared to distance himself from Israel, exhorting the Jewish state to eschew policies that undermine “efforts to achieve peace.”  This earned the president praise from the enemies of Israel in the Middle East. Ahmed Yousef, a spokesman for the Hamas terrorist organization, told al-Jazeera television in Gaza that the President’s speech was reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr. in its vision. “What he said about Islam was great. What he said about Palestinian suffering and a Palestinian state is great.”

Most recently, Russia cheered when Obama declared his intention to cut missile defense by $1.2 billion in 2010, and to altogether scrap European missile defense.  Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who attributed Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia to the “arrogant course of the American administration,” lauded Obama’s decision to scrap missile defense a “responsible move.”

Judging by the overwhelming approval of these nations which often challenge the United States, Obama’s foreign policies are failing to serve American interests.  A Wall Street Journal/NBC news poll released on September 24 confirmed this, noting that Obama now “faces significant doubts from the American public” about his “handling of foreign policy.”

When Americans begin to signal their support and terrorist groups and authoritarians begin to howl with disapproval, we can be assured that U.S. foreign policy is serving U.S. interests. For now, however, the President is dangerously off-track.

Words Won’t Stop Iran’s Nuclear Program

September 30th, 2009 at 1:49 pm 10 Comments

To many people, the continuing saga of Barack Obama as U.S. president is one of often noble declarations of intent, with stumbling blocks of reality along the way.

At the UN, he told the 15-member Security Council (five permanent, 10 non-permanent members) “We must never stop until we see the day when nuclear arms have been banished from the face of the earth.”

Who can disagree with that as a goal? But how to achieve it?

The Security Council is hopeless, specializing in declarations of intent that rarely come to fruition. Remember how Saddam Hussein jerked them around. The summit is now over, having endorsed an Obama-like resolution to “seek a safer world . . . without nuclear weapons.”

The stumbling block for Obama (if not the Security Council) was French President Nicolas Sarkozy scolding: “We live in a real world, not a virtual world, and the real world expects us to make decisions.”

“Decisions” are more than declarations of intent. “Decisions” don’t come as easily to Obama as platitudes – witness his reluctance to decide on whether more troops are needed in Afghanistan, which his hand-chosen military leaders say are essential to avoid defeat.

With this in mind, it came as a refreshing surprise to many when Obama seemed to hurl a gauntlet at Iran’s quest to develop nuclear weapons by exposing a new nuclear site in Iran that international intelligence sources agree is only useful for weaponry.

Flanked by Sarkozy and Britain’s PM Gordon Brown (who said the time has come to “draw a line in the sand” with Iran), Obama talked tougher than usual in warning Iran to desist and dismantle.

The denials by Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were more pathetic than persuasive. Neither China nor Russia seemed supportive of Ahmadinejad.

While total nuclear disarmament is unlikely to inconceivable in the lifetime of most of us, Iran and North Korea are the main obstacles to nuclear progress – both being rogue regimes intent on developing and expanding nuclear weapons.

If Iran gets nukes, neighboring countries will also want them. How long before they reach Hamas? And al-Qaeda?

The world has no shortage of nutbar leaders and terror activists who’d relish a nuke to detonate in an unsuspecting city. Sarkozy recognizes this, and has called for action that will realistically deter the lust for nukes.

No problem if Russia and the U.S. agree to trim their nuclear arsenal by, say, 25%. Neither is likely to behave irrationally. Can the same be said of Ahmadinejad?

One hopes Obama goes beyond platitudes about banning nuclear weapons — “That is our task, that is our destiny.” More says Obama. Just rhetoric.

The UN resolution to seek a safer, better world, preventing nuclear proliferation with “new, comprehensive, legally binding agreements…” is not reassuring.

Such agreements are meaningless. As Sarkozy points out, Iran has flouted five Security resolutions since 2005, North Korea 15 or more since Kim Jong Il ventured into nuclear blackmail.

So far, only Israel faces international condemnation if it takes direct action against Iran’s development of nuclear capabilities. And it’s the target country. UN members are never reluctant to condemn Israel if it defends itself, or fights back against terrorism.

Would NATO ever take action against Iran if it developed nuclear weapons? Doubtful, since most NATO countries are too craven to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Iran tests its new surface-to-surface Sajil missile with impunity.

Cap-and-Trade: Will Dem Donors Get the Spoils?

David Frum September 30th, 2009 at 11:22 am 23 Comments

Yesterday, a draft copy of the Senate version of cap-and-trade leaked from the Boxer committee. A public draft is expected today. The bill proposes a 20% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 as compared to 2005 levels and expanded regulatory authority for the Environmental Protection Agency.

But here’s the fascinating thing: the single biggest issue in cap-and-trade goes entirely unmentioned in the Boxer bill. That issue is, “Who gets the allocations?” Allocations – permissions to emit – will be worth hundreds of billions of dollars. The pure theory of cap-and-trade calls for auctioning them to the highest bidder. The House version of cap-and-trade instead assigned them to the biggest donors.

Colossal fortunes turn on this decision. Yet the Boxer bill offers little information. Apparently 25% of the allocations will be auctioned. The destiny of the remainder is undecided or anyway unannounced. Perhaps it will be decided later, after hearings and, hem, other consultations. In which case, instead of auctioning off the allocations to the highest bidder, they may instead  be quietly assigned to the most wired lobbies and the most generous Democratic donors.

Deal or No Deal?

David Frum September 30th, 2009 at 6:47 am 36 Comments

… well, maybe not. The thing has a way of reviving when least expected. Still, yesterday’s votes in the Senate Finance committee represent large and serious defeats.

What follows now? For Republicans, one big decision: deal or no deal?

Until now, the threat of a government-run healthcare plan has deterred Republicans from negotiations with the administration. They were (reasonably) afraid of being mousetrapped into a philosophically unacceptable deal. But if the single most threatening element of such a deal has been voted down by Democrats, the field looks different. Instead of worrying about worst-case scenarios, Republicans now can begin to think: are there things we want? Might we successfully wedge centrist Democrats away from the Chuck Schumers? Until now, Republicans have clung to the untenable healthcare status quo in great measure because they feared the likeliest alternative would be worse. But what if the alternative might be an improvement over the status quo? Suddenly the deal option begins to look a lot more interesting.

More Regulation Isn’t the Only Answer

David Frum September 30th, 2009 at 12:01 am Comments Off

Are we in danger of learning the wrong lessons from the banking crisis? President Obama is pushing for tighter regulation of U.S. banking — maybe to look more like Canadian banking, which has largely escaped the current crisis.

But is regulation really the story here?

Like the United States, Canada dropped the barrier between commercial and investment banking. Like the United States, Canada also allowed banks to take more risk: at the peak of the boom, Canadian banks were borrowing 18 times their equity, a ratio that looks cautious only compared to the even more zany ratios that prevailed south of the border.

No, there are two very different lessons to learn from Canada.

First: Canadian banks are stronger than U.S. banks not because they are more regulated, but because they are more diversified. Unlike, American banks, chartered by states and concentrated in certain regions, Canada’s big banks are chartered by the federal government and do business on equal terms in every province.

Second: Canada escaped the United State’s financial crisis not because of smarter bank regulation, but because of less stupid housing regulation.

The Canadian government did not press Canadian banks to extend zero down-payment mortgages: 20 percent down is the rule. In Canada, a mortgagee who cannot meet the payments does not just hand over the house keys to the bank. He or she hands over his or her checking account, and any other assets as well. Canadian home ownership rates approximate rates in the United States, but because mortgage interest is not tax deductible Canadians pay the full cost of ownership themselves and so tend to buy smaller homes than Americans do, about 1800-square-feet for the average new home, as opposed to the more than 2300-square-foot average in the pre-crash U.S.

A model to follow? Apparently not. We are eager to blame the banks for securitizing bad mortgages, not nearly so eager to put an end to the bad mortgages that started the trouble.

We want to hem banks in, not allow them to grow and diversify. We tell ourselves that we want solutions. But what we really want most is somebody to blame, meaning somebody other than ourselves of course.


Originally broadcast on Marketplace on September 30, 2009

Zelaya Standoff Costing Impoverished Hondurans $50 Million a Day

September 29th, 2009 at 4:05 pm Comments Off

Honduras’s interim government has taken some steps over the past few weeks which, if not reversed, could mean severe damage to the political and economic infrastructure in the country.

Since former president Manuel Zelaya snuck into the country last week, taking refuge at the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran government has closed two pro-Zelaya radio stations, declared a state of emergency which costs Hondurans $50 million a day, and allowed security forces to get into frequent clashes with protesters.

After legitimately but forcefully removing Zelaya from power, Honduras’ interim government has been deluged by crises. Zelaya has been a constant thorn in the side of Roberto Micheletti’s interim government, rallying supporters to his cause and refusing to back down from demands to resume his term in office. For his part, Micheletti has refused to agree to any concessions which might allow Zelaya to return as president, a stance that leaves the negotiations, led by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, in a deadlock.

The real victim of the ongoing crisis is the Honduran people, who have to deal with nightly curfews, retracted democratic freedoms, and an economy stuck in idle. To his credit, President Micheletti told the press yesterday that he wanted to “ask the Honduran people for forgiveness” for the crackdown on democratic freedoms, and promised to lift the measures soon. One can only hope that his policy reversals will be forthcoming.

In the irony of the day, China’s Xinhua news agency, the Communist party’s official mouthpiece, is the outlet with the best coverage of the radio station censorship story. Xinhua, of course, is the news agency which Reporters without Borders has called “the world’s biggest propaganda agency… [with] hand-picked journalists who are regularly indoctrinated.” The National Post’s Neil Hrab investigates the fascinating Xinhua-Honduras connection here.

Some Truths More Inconvenient than Others?

David Frum September 29th, 2009 at 11:17 am 67 Comments

Here is Paul Krugman this past weekend:

In a rational world, then, the looming climate disaster would be our dominant political and policy concern. But it manifestly isn’t. Why not?

Part of the answer is that it’s hard to keep peoples’ attention focused. Weather fluctuates — New Yorkers may recall the heat wave that pushed the thermometer above 90 in April — and even at a global level, this is enough to cause substantial year-to-year wobbles in average temperature. As a result, any year with record heat is normally followed by a number of cooler years: According to Britain’s Met Office, 1998 was the hottest year so far, although NASA — which arguably has better data — says it was 2005. And it’s all too easy to reach the false conclusion that the danger is past.

But the larger reason we’re ignoring climate change is that Al Gore was right: This truth is just too inconvenient. Responding to climate change with the vigor that the threat deserves would not, contrary to legend, be devastating for the economy as a whole. But it would shuffle the economic deck, hurting some powerful vested interests even as it created new economic opportunities. And the industries of the past have armies of lobbyists in place right now; the industries of the future don’t.

Nor is it just a matter of vested interests. It’s also a matter of vested ideas. For three decades the dominant political ideology in America has extolled private enterprise and denigrated government, but climate change is a problem that can only be addressed through government action. And rather than concede the limits of their philosophy, many on the right have chosen to deny that the problem exists.

Let’s test whose ideas are vested here. It ought to be unignorably obvious that the only near-term way to generate sufficient electricity while reducing the use of coal is nuclear power.

And yet… Krugman does ignore that particular inconvenient truth in this column and in so many others. In a 2006 exchange with readers, the Times columnist did have this to say:

William R. Mosby, Salt Lake City: Does nuclear energy have a part to play in mitigating global warming in the long term? Assuming it produces sufficient net energy and that fuel recycling/waste partitioning is used, nuclear energy could be one part of a non-CO2-emitting energy mix that would be sustainable for as long as a few thousand years, using the depleted uranium already in storage in the U.S. A great deal of research has already been done on the type of reactor and fuel recycling facility required to do this — the Integral Fast Reactor — but was canceled for political reasons in 1994.

However, those who see an urgent need to do something about global warming generally don’t talk about nuclear energy as a prominent part of the solution. Do they think that nuclear energy would be a bigger problem than global warming?

Paul Krugman: I was at a reception for Al Gore after a screening of his movie, and he was asked that very question. I thought his answer was very good. He said that yes, nuclear should be part of the mix, but it can’t be the main answer. And there are problems with nuclear we need to resolve: not just disposal of radioactive waste, but vulnerability to terrorist attack. In fact, as nuclear power becomes more common around the world, the possible misuse for weapons, terrorist or otherwise, will be a big problem. So unless there are some breakthroughs, nuclear power is only a piece, and maybe not a big one, of the solution.

But why can’t nuclear be the main answer? After all – there isn’t any other answer! Conservation can be incentivized through higher prices, yes. Solar and wind can contribute in some specialized niches. But remember, half of America’s electricity is generated by burning coal.  Only nuclear power is sufficiently cheap and scalable to replace so massive a power source. If your version of environmentalism cannot accept that truth, please kindly refrain from lecturing others about the blinding effects of ideology!

Sarah’s Story

David Frum September 29th, 2009 at 9:00 am 112 Comments

Sarah Palin’s admirers defended her resignation as governor of Alaska on the grounds that the decision would free her to study the issues deeper and deliver some major statements on national policy.

Detractors countered that Palin resigned in order to cash her sudden and enormous fame. The “issues” were the last thing to interest her.

These contrasting hypotheses are about to be tested. Reuters reports that the publication date of Palin’s memoir has been brought forward to November 17, meaning that the book must already be substantially finished. The deal was signed in May – meaning four months of writing time. Obviously, we can’t evaluate the book before it’s published. But the schedule sure casts doubt on the “all about the issues” thesis – and lends credence to the alternative hypothesis that with Palin, it’s all about the Benjamins.

The Jewboy Email: Let’s Go to the Tape!

September 28th, 2009 at 11:18 pm 2 Comments

Americans for Limited Government’s communications director charged today that NBC producer Jane Stone had originally denied sending any email to ALG. This claim, which diverges from statements by NBC News, reveals an apparent inconsistency that is sure to add more fuel to the growing NBC-ALG controversy, in which Stone is alleged to have sent an anti-Semitic email to ALG media outreach director Alex Rosenwald.

In an exclusive interview with NewMajority, ALG communications director Carter Clews said that ALG had recorded their phone conversations with NBC News on Thursday, when the email was allegedly sent.

According to Clews, Stone was caught on tape denying any email contact with Alex Rosenwald, something that has since been contradicted by an NBC News statement. NBC says that Stone had sent an email to Rosenwald asking to be deleted from his distribution list.

If it is true that Stone initially claimed to have had no contact with Rosenwald, then questions arise as to whether NBC’s subsequent version of events holds much weight.

On the other hand, ALG has no plans to release its tapes of the phone conversations. “We’re going to hold the tapes in the hopes that there can be a resolution to this,” said Clews. Further, ALG has no plans to release its email server logs, planning instead to bring in a third-party to investigate its logs first.

For their part, NBC News stuck to its story today. “NBC Legal, NBC News Management, NBC News Security have done a thorough investigation,” said spokesperson Lauren Kapp, “One email was sent, with the message ‘take me off this list!’”

Kapp also protested that NBC News had not given ALG permission to record their conversations, but was non-committal when asked whether NBC News would be taking any additional steps to resolve the matter.

On the other hand, Americans for Limited Government stressed the importance of making further efforts to settle the issue. “We want to get to the bottom of this,” asserted Clews, “We have to stand up for an employee that has been deeply, deeply hurt… If [Stone] did send it, we’ll accept an apology.”

Lengthen the School Year?

David Frum September 28th, 2009 at 6:03 pm 18 Comments

My two older children were 9 and 6 respectively on voting day, 2000. Both were passionately George W. Bush supporters on the basis of a single issue: Al Gore’s expressed interest in lengthening the school year. Plus they had heard a clip from a speech by Bush on TV that used the phrase “No school across America…” They didn’t need to hear more. They accepted that pledge as a solemn commitment.

Almost a decade later, my children – the third is now the same age as the middle child was then – have made their peace with the unfortunate continuation of schooling in America. Happily, summer holiday also remains a fact of life.

If President Obama wishes to play school superintendent, here’s an issue that will make much more of a difference to the academic performance of America’s schoolchildren: heed the scientific research about teenagers’ sleep patterns and reverse the crazy trend towards an earlier and earlier start of the school day. The adolescent brain is not operating at 7:20 am, much less at the 6 am wakeup call for 7:20 arrival.  It’s not enough for the kids to do their homework. They also have to remember to bring it back to school the following day!