Transparency of Closed Door Negotiations

So there’s been some debate about whether or not C-SPAN should be permitted to cover any informal negotiations that work to merge the House and Senate health care bills. It sounds obvious that we should strive for maximal transparency, but I agree with this:

Consider the Senate floor debate.[…]Senators from both party played to the cameras. Grandstanding, launching unnecessary rhetorical attacks, but barely tweaking the bill on the Senate floor. The real substantive change, if you’ll recall, came in the form of Reid’s amendment (and when he merged the two Senate bills). At times, the rhetoric on the floor sounded like cable news chatter. The real discussions and compromises — Sens. Lieberman’s and Nelsons objections, for instance — were reserved for private discussions; incidentally, the two Senators didn’t appear on the Senate floor until the 60-vote deal was struck.

One way or the other, there are going to be backroom negotiations. As Ezra Klein argues, televising these will ensure that participants eschew candor for fear of reprisal from opportunistic political opponents and result in negotiations between staffers (who are unelected). What’s more, there will unquestionably be leaks during closed door negotiations and the final bill will be released to the public before a vote, so it’s not even clear how much this increases transparency. What it will do will further delay reform and boost ratings for cable news networks who make hay out of day to day legislative grandstanding.

Finally, the argument that C-SPAN is merely attempting to hold President Obama to his campaign promise of increased transparency is clever, but doesn’t really apply. President Obama didn’t campaign to be princeps, this is an issue of the legislative branch.

Trouble Lurking

Kevin Drum comments on Afghanistan NATO Commander Gen. Stanley McChrsytal’s savvy troop request strategy. The idea is pretty basic negotiating: set extremes as plausible and “settle” for the compromise. In terms of this particular question, the choices are a a “high risk option” of no troops, a much higher, not to be taken seriously request of around 80,000 troops, and a the “compromise” of about 40,000. Kevin registers his displeasure with promoting Generals based on political acumen.

This is all pretty obvious stuff and I don’t want to make too much out of it.  But I’ll repeat something I said earlier anyway: I’m not really thrilled at the idea of the Pentagon focusing its energies on promoting generals who are good Washington gameplayers.  If McChrystal truly doesn’t favor the higher option, we’d all be better off if he just left it out and instead made the recommendation he really believes in. Trying to box in the commander-in-chief may be business as usual when it comes to things like F-22 acquisitions or base closings, but I don’t have to like it.  I especially don’t have to like it when it comes to things a little more important than Lockheed-Martin’s balance sheet.  And I don’t.

This is all true, but to get to the specific question at hand, it really makes me continue to worry about the strategic rational for being in Afghanistan. That is, it’s hard to see how a single consistent approach could simultaneously allow for no troop increase, a moderate troop increase, and a massive troop increase. I mean, if the war would be best executed with a troop increase of 80,000, then that’s something that should be considered and McChrystal should make the case on the merits. Same goes for 40,000 or no additional troops. But if the range of options is somewhere between 0 and 80,000, that sounds more like a strategy for escalation for its own sake than it does for achieving any specific goals. And that is cause for concern.

Chamberlain Round Up

As expected, a number of conservatives have reacted to Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize by highlighting the incontrovertible fact that Barack Obama — far from a missionary of peace — is actually a weak willed appeaser like Neville Chamberlain, and as Michael Ledeen earlier suggested, is making the world a more dangerous place.

Most of the comparisons I’ve seen so far today come from lightly trafficked right wing blogs (nothing wrong with lightly trafficked, by the way), but now I see that Michael Savage has thrown his hat in to the ring. Anyway, other instances of Chamberlain comparison I’ve seen so far can be found here, here, here, here, and of course on countless comment sections on news sites.

UPDATE: Dr. Laura hits it.

Thoughts on the Prize

What with this health care reform business going on, I haven’t had much time to post lately, but I figured I Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize merited some comment. So, a few thoughts.

First, I think there’s some merit to the idea that Obama hasn’t really done much to deserve the award — though he has clearly affected some change with respect to non-proliferation and climate change. And of course, his commitment to peace in the Middle East is nice, but thus far he seems reluctant to really pressure Israel. Anyway, none of these things represent serious, world changing accomplishments — they’re merely progress relative to the Bush Era.

Second, this award clearly comes with expectations. That is, the foreign policy of the United States won’t be set to accord solely with the expectations of international elites, but the award is demonstration of support for certain items on Obama’s agenda that tend to be less popular with neoconservatives at home (i.e., everything but the “Afghanistan Surge”). Accordingly, this crystallization of international sentiment might help build momentum on pressing multilateral projects like Iran, Israeli-Palestinian relations, and climate change.

Most clearly though, this is really all much more entertaining as a matter of watching the right wing cast itself into fits of adolescent smugness and indignant outrage. And then there’s the sort of bizarre: we have Jonah Goldberg arguing that this could have been prevented by Mike Ditka and this hilarious entry by Bill Kirstol hoping for the fall of Communist America:

Mikhail Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. A year later, he was out of power and the Soviet Union had dissolved.

I don’t mean to compare Barack Obama to Gorbachev, who was, whatever his faults, a truly historic and courageous figure. But let’s hope the parallel extends this far: that a year from now the Democrats suffer a major electoral repudiation, and that the New Liberalism goes the way of Reform Communism. And that, beginning in 2013, Obama will have lots of free time to spend hobnobbing with Gorbachev on the international celebrity circuit.

Lastly, as always, the Chamberlain Watch is on.

Poland, Our Great Strategic Partner

Is this worth poisoning the well?

Is this worth poisoning the well?

Naturally, there’s been a lot of neocon frothing about the Obama administration’s decision to scrap the the controversial missile defense system, an expensive, ineffective boondoggle, whose primary virtue to conservatives was that the Russian’s don’t like it. Of course, even if it the project did work, and was cost-effective, there would still be little strategic rationale for its existence, as Michael Goldfarb inadvertently points out here (delighting in the fact that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk didn’t take Secretary Clinton’s call):

Tusk, of course, denies that the Obama’s capitualation [sic] is a defeat for his country. And what else can he say? But the fact that he turned down a call from both the secretary of state and the president last night tells the whole story — the Poles aren’t happy, and no one can say otherwise with a straight face (not even Tusk). Tusk did subsequently talk to Obama, but Hillary is still waiting for a call back. I’m sure he has your number Mrs. Secretary.

Leaving aside for the moment that Tusk did eventually talk with President Obama, since when are we basing our foreign policy around what makes the Poles happiest? This isn’t the Cold War, so we’re not trying to explicitly contain communist Russia; by our own admission, the system wouldn’t have by itself done anything to defend against Russian aggression; and it’s not exactly like Russia is about to march on Europe, so we’re left with the rationale of pleasing Poland. On the other hand, we actually do need Russia to work on issues of actual strategic importance like Iranian containment  (the putative raison d’etre for the missile system in the first place) and nuclear non-proliferation.

I mean, I’m not trying to be callous — just channeling my inner realist here — what do the Poles provide for us that their “being happy with us” is worth worsening relations with a legitimate strategic partner? European academic Dr. Olaf Osica makes the case:

By the same token, the Obama team would make a major mistake if it ignored America’s role in European security. The American presence, be it military or political, delineates West from the East and defines geopolitics from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Rather than providing a shield against rough states, Europe views the Missile Defense project as a vehicle for extending America’s influence on – and commitment to – the continent.

Participation in the Missile Defense system therefore represents status and power in a changing Europe – not just the security of allies. In this way, Missile Defense should be viewed, as W. Wohlforth has described, as “an existential threat to the status (but not the existential security) of other traditional Great Powers. To the extent that they prize status above material rewards, policymaking elites in other states may be willing to forgo potentially beneficial regional cooperation with the United States if it comes at the expense of their collective self-esteem.”*

In other words, the American rationale for strategic partnership is that Poland is positioned to be a proxy for the United States to flaunt strategic interests out of spite. You know, piss everyone off and show them who’s boss just because we can. The basic idea being that once recognizing who’s the boss, the entire world will just bend to our will, or something. (You might recognize this strategy from such neocon foreign policy successes like The War In Iraq: Transforming the Middle East and We’re All Georgians: Mucking Around in Russia’s Sphere of Influence)

Anyway, in addition to having a sort of inane circular quality (we piss them off because we can, and because we can, we piss them off), wouldn’t it just be a lot simpler to achieve strategic goals by working with the relevant countries?

NB: I don’t mean to diminish Poland’s contributions in Afghanistan, where it has sent 2,000 troops as part of the NATO fighting force, but it does highlight a few issues. One, Poland is a NATO ally — if Russia were to attack Poland, we’d be obligated by the terms of the alliance to defend them. So, in addition to other missile deployments the Obama administration has committed to, it’s not exactly like we’re leaving them defenseless. Two, if Russia is cooperative in working on the Iranian issue and on reducing the world’s level of nuclear warheads, would it be worth 2,000 less Polish troops? That’s the question.

Between A Rock and Hard Place

Matt Taibbi has a characteristically scathing post on the Obama administration’s deal with PhRMA, which basically entailed buying the lobbying group’s tepid support by refusing to let Medicare bargain drug prices in bulk and by banning re-importation of drugs. This is all mostly true, although I think it misses the important point that Republican lock-step obstructionism and general intransigence among conservative Democratic Senators has left the administration between a rock and a hard place. If Republicans are almost entirely unwilling to negotiate and key Democratic legislators basically in hock to health care interests, it’s hard to see how see how health remains politically feasible without the support of affected industry groups. If you think the timbre of August was bad, imagine what it would have looked like with drug makers, hospitals, and device manufacturers dumping rocket fuel on the fire. Even if you assume an almost unprecedented — and perhaps ultimately misguided — dose of legislative courage from the left, I still don’t think you can get to 60 without providing cover for the conservative wing of the Democratic party.

What We Don’t Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate

It hasn’t been an uncommon gripe among liberals that Barack Obama has somehow not communicated his ideas on health care reform clearly. I don’t have a link, but I’ve seen Bill Maher argue something like this, and I’ve heard it a number of times either around the office or in conversations with other people. Steve Benen — not complaining — mentions the criticism today, in the context of some disheartening polling which shows the public to remain confused about the various health care reforms on the table. Steve sensibly points out that Obama has made constant efforts to promote reform, and what’s more, is fighting an uphill battle because Congress has yet to coalesce around a single proposal. This is all true, but I think there’s a simpler explanation. From an NBC/WSJ poll:

As you can see, there are large swathes of the public — majorities in some cases — who believe things that are categorically false, but have nonetheless been peddled by Republican operatives, politicians and conservative members of the media. Indeed, Republicans have mounted a concerted strategy to lie about the particulars of health care reform, scaring vulnerable demographics into opposition. And despite the White House’s efforts — and the occasional debunking in the main stream pressresearch indicates that once a lie or distortion has entered the public debate, it’s basically impossible to undo the damage. Matters are not helped by a mainstream media that sees as part of its mission of even handedness to continue quoting people who are lying.

All these things considered, it seems quite difficult to blame President Obama for failing to communicate clearly. Strategically speaking, I think there are a number of things the White House could have done differently — for example, adjust more quickly to Republican obstructionism (arguably Max Baucus is most deserving of blame for this, though the White House could have done something to put the heat on), but I don’t think it’s been a failure of messaging per se.