Monthly Archives: January 2017

Rating Obama

I’d give Obama a 6 or 7 out of 10.  I would give most of his predecessors a 5 or less.

Trump’s election showed that some of Obama’s greatest successes were his biggest failings.  He saved the US from a 2nd great depression, but failed to prosecute any of the guys who caused the recession.  He ripped off the middle class to help the super-poor and the super-rich.  The poor got welfare and the rich got no jail and low taxes.  Income inequality got worse on his watch, probably because it was the easiest course to keep the economy going, but he failed to help a lot of regular people as the rich got richer.  Unemployment is down, but many people have worse jobs than before 2008.

Obamacare expanded government health care, but it was a mess, purposely so to help the health insurance industry, hospital administrators, doctors, etc.  The real solution was single-payer Medicare of all, and Obama didn’t do it.  I would not be surprised to see him on the boards of some healthcare companies and banks soon or making speeches to them, ala Hillary and Bill.

He also failed to get any kind of gun control; his heart was in the right place, but the NRA beat him.

On foreign policy, he did great keeping us out of new wars.  He was right not to intervene in Ukraine or Syria, but he and the EU made a mess of Libya.  Iraq and Afghanistan are still a mess, and will probably collapse into some kind of chaos if we ever leave entirely.  That’s not all his fault, but he didn’t solve it.  The Iran deal was quite an accomplishment; I hope Trump doesn’t destroy it.  Israel hates Obama, bur should love him; he ended up pitting the Arab states against each other, Sunni v. Shiite, Iran v. Saudi, etc., which meant they couldn’t focus on Israel.  Except for the Palestinians (a problem Israel itself created) Israel is safer than it has been for years.  He was right to try to focus on Asia, but failed.  I think the Israeli lobby would not allow him to turn away from the Middle East.

One of Obama’s strengths was his honesty and decency, keeping corruption at bay.  Because he was such a decent person, he probably didn’t perceive how corrupt Hillary appeared to voters.  For Obama’s main failings it’s useful to look at Bernie’s campaign rather than Hillary’s or Trump’s – health care, inequality, guns….

I’m probably the wrong person to talk about race.  I would give Obama pretty good marks for being evenhanded, especially for being black himself.  But I can see that many blacks think he failed them.

He was a great speaker.  I will really miss that.  I think we have gone from a college level vocabulary to a third grade one.  But I speaking may be overrated.  Some of Obama’s most eloquent speeches were about gun violence, and they made no difference.

Obama’s presidency would have been much better, maybe even great, if the Republican Congress had not stonewalled everything he tried to do.

I like being tough on leakers.  When I was in Brasilia, I had several contacts who used to give me information on Brazil’s nuclear weapons program.  I used to report this pretty straight in secret cables, using their names.  CIA reports like that don’t use names; they have some super secret database that links reports to names.  Their reports say something like, “According to a reliable source with access.”  Only the CIA ops guys know who that really is.  If my old cables had been released, my old contacts would have been in big trouble.  So, I’m unhappy Chelsea/Bradley Manning got released.

Also, when I worked in DC on missile proliferation, we relied on intelligence to to try to stop transfers to bad countries.  The intel agencies often did not want us to use their intel because it might give away their “sources and methods.”  We were forbidden to use their info until they cleared it, which sometimes took weeks or months.  Several times NYT reporter Michael Gordon called me at home around 10 pm to get me to comment on a story based on leaked intel information about something some bad country was doing.  State was always the dove, saying to wait, while the Pentagon wanted to act and beat up the bad guy.  The leak to Gordon was always correct, sometimes of top secret information, intended to pressure us to act.  I aways did the “refuse to confirm or deny” thing with Gordon, but the leak was clearly from the hawkish Republicans in the Pentagon under the G.H.W. Bush admin, probably from people who worked for then Asst. Sec. Steve Hadley, who went on to be G.W. Bush’s NSC Advisor.

I would like to think that leaks are a dishonest way to push a policy in Washington and should be punished.

I also didn’t mention immigration.  My first State job was issuing visas in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  I always felt bad denying a visa, because it probably meant that person would never get to the US, while if a Mexican was denied, they could just sneak across the border.  It was a racist policy favoring those who could walk across the border over those who had to fly.  Immigration laws have been like Prohibition, on the books but totally disregarded.  Now that I’m retired and shopping at a lot of discount stores, I often hear more Spanish spoken than English.  Denver has changed just in the years we’ve been out here.  Obama and the Democrats (and Reagan) refused to enforce the immigration laws.  I think that is dishonest and undermines respect for law in general.  Mexicans are inclined to regard American law as toothless, whether it’s about immigration or drugs.  It’s tough to be a law enforcement officer when your boss, the President, says, “Oh, violating this law is no big deal; let them all go.”  I know Obama deported a lot of people, but as in the financial crisis, he didn’t get the job done in a way that pleased the American public.

I suppose I was never smart enough or tough enough to win a leak war; so, I didn’t like them.  And it is against the laws on the books.

On Mexican territory (California, Texas, etc.), my view is that we won it fair and square and it’s ours now.  Maybe it’s like Israel’s West Bank.  We’ve created even more than 2,500 settlements on it.  And what about the Indians?  Do they get the whole country back?

I have thought about Mexico and California in connection with Ukraine.  Ukraine used to be part of Russia, i.e., “the Ukraine,” like “the American Mid-West.”  Both have been breadbaskets of the country, and Kiev was really the first capital of what became Russia when Moscow was still a backwater, the 11th or 12th century.  The Russians established a naval base at Sevastopol in 1783.  California did not become part of the US until the 1800s and the San Diego Naval Base was not built until the 1920s.  Arguably, our forcing Russia to give up its base at Sevastopol is like Russia encouraging Mexico to take back San Diego and force the US to remove its naval base.  Not the same, but there are similarities.

On migration, I just worry that our country is changing.  The Hispanics have been in Colorado for hundreds of years.  Senator and Sec. of Interior Salazar was from one of those families.  But in general, Hispanics have no shared history with the British Europeans who founded the US on the East Coast.  Washington and Jefferson have no ancestral connection to them, as European immigrants have.  Plus they come here for economic reasons, not political ones; so, they don’t have any particular reverence for the American form of government.  It’s okay, but they are used to the corruption in Mexico, too.  Countries change, but we could have controlled how it did.  We passed laws on immigration, but they were ignored.  We had a preference, but we ignored it, and just let nature take its course.  It’s not unlike global warming; if you ignore it, the impact sneaks up on you.

So, who represents this historically elite East Coast establishment that I extolled?  Donald Trump, the Europeans’ answer to Barack Obama.  I am hopeful that he will do some good things by instinct, but intellectually he could hardly be farther from the founding fathers.  I don’t think Hillary was the real East Coast heir, because her appeal was to the newly powerful Americans — Hispanics and blacks, (with the votes) and Jews (with the money).  She was to be the voice of the new America, not the old one.  Now we have the voice of the old one, and it speaks with a third grade vocabulary.  Oh well….

Obama and Inequality

In general Obama has been a good President; however at this moment there appear to be some significant failures.  History may change perceptions, but it appears one of the main reasons his designated successor, Hillary, failed was that Obama failed to deal with income inequality.  

Obama prevented the great recession from becoming a second great depression, but in doing so he rewarded the tycoons who caused the recession, rather than punishing them.  Obama threw his support behind the super wealthy, who will no doubt reward him in retirement, as they did the Clintons.  His decision has exacerbated income inequality to the point where it has become apparent to the population at large, which caused the backlash against him in the last election.  It was certainly one of the most important factors in Trump’s victory.  

The situation was not all Obama’s fault, since it started under Bush.  The Republicans in Congress were strongly in favor of protecting the wealthy.  The Democrats passed Dodd-Frank while they still could, but its limits were prospective, weak and did nothing to punish Wall Street for what it had done to create the 2008 mortgage crisis.  Obama tried to protect the poor, especially Hispanics and blacks by placing the burden of recovering from the recession on the white middle class.  I don’t think he targeted the middle class; it was just the course of least resistance to have them bail out both the lower classes and the super wealthy.  But it highlighted the fact that Democrats didn’t really care about the middle class, which became increasing evident during Hillary’s campaign.  

This is a bad part of Obama’s legacy that the Democrats will have to bear.  

Baltic Tripwire

I am worried that the membership in NATO of the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – creates a tripwire that could lead to nuclear war with Russia.  

All three of these Baltic countries are legitimate nations with their own histories, ethnicities, languages, and so on.  Over the years, however, they have often been dominated or annexed by one of their more powerful neighbors, often by Russia, but also by Sweden, Poland, Germany and others.  

Poland’s national poem, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, begins, “O Lithuania, my fatherland….”  Wikipedia says that Mickiewicz mean Lithuania to refer to a region and not a country.  In any case, when he wrote the poem, Poland-Lithuania had ceased to exist because it had been divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria.  This is typical of the history of the region.  For NATO to step in and say the borders of the Baltic countries are inviolable is potentially risky.  

We have already seen what happened when Ukraine tried to take away Russia’s Sevastopol seaport in Crimea.  If Ukraine had been a member of NATO, we might have been drawn toward a shooting war with Russia.  Of course a low intensity shooting war has continued in Ukraine, but with no direct participation by NATO.  

While the Baltic states may not have the strategic importance for Russia of the seaport in Crimea, which has been a Russian naval base since 1783, the Baltics have traditionally been influenced by their biggest neighbor, Russia, and if Russia perceived that they constituted a threat, it might react in a similar manner to the Crimean crisis.  

Of course, the West wants the thriving, friendly Baltic states to continue to be independent and free.  However, there is is the military question of whether they are defensible, situated as they are between the Baltic Sea and Russia, only about 100 miles wide.  All of the borders are somewhat artificial, a result of World War II and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Poland, which is the next easternmost extension of NATO, is much more defensible.  It is larger and is separated from Russia by non-NATO nations Ukraine and Belarus, except for the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on its border.  

Because the Baltic countries are so small and bounded by the sea, there is little room for military maneuver.  There is even limited territory to accommodate NATO troops and weapons for a war with a large country like Russia.  The Russians defeated both Napoleon and Hitler.  The population of the three Baltic states is only about six million (Estonia – 1,300,000), Latvia – 2,000,000, Lithuania – 2,900,000), less than the population of New York City.  Should we be willing to risk the existence of New York City, and perhaps the United States,  to protect six million people who throughout history have been under the sway of the Russian empire?  Of course, a crisis does not have to lead to nuclear war, but it might.  Was it wise for NATO to take on this obligation?  Of course, when it did, NATO and the US were in the ascendency, and Russia was falling on hard times.  At the moment the US is becoming much more fearful of Russia, except for Donald Trump.  Is the Cold War returning?  Are we returning to the old strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)?  Will we go mad over the Baltics?  

I don’t think so.  But it is a pressure point where NATO might be vulnerable.