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September 18, 2008

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This isn't really related to the topic at hand, but since no one has commented on this, I figured I'd give my two cents.

The thing that bugs me about most the discourse surrounding Obama is its total lack of any mention of the most obvious things about him and his campaign. So, just to give a few examples real quick, the fact that Obama talks so much about change, but gives very little details about how it will be done (and when he does, they aren't really changes). The fact that he claims to not take money from lobbyists, when everyone knows that they bundle their contributions through individual donors and he gets it all the same. The fact that he doesn't at all disagree with Bush's "War on Terror" just the particular way Bush has carried it out (focusing too much on Iraq, not enough on Bin Laden). The fact that he takes almost identical stands as McCain on foreign policy (except for Iraq, but he actually doesn't differ much there either). The fact that his healthcare plan doesn't really fix the problem of private medicine, but rather extends it. The fact that he initially acted like an anti-war candidate, but has now said we might not leave Iraq until 2013.

In the end, sure, he's a hell of a lot smarter than McCain, but are his politics really that much better? Doesn't seem like it to me.

You seem to be assuming that because you disagree with both candidates, then there is no difference between them.

Consider health care. McCain's plan won't pass Congress. If it did, it would amount to a $12,000 burden placed on most families (the additional cost of an individual plan) offset by only a $5,000 tax credit. Obama's plan, which will pass, would cover all children and millions of additional families.

Perfect? No. But a lot of unnecessary human suffering eliminated.

Then there are taxes. Neither candidate will raise them sufficiently on either a gross or net level. (It appears that McCain won't raise them at all.) But Obama's plan does two major things that McCain's doesn't. First, it reduces the tax burden on tens of millions of poorer families who can use the help. Second, it does cut the deficit. Perfect? No. But again, a lot of unnecessary human suffering alleviated, and a step away from an Argentine-style crisis taken.

Regarding foreign policy, both sides, to take one example, support Georgia. Obama wishes to procede with a "Membership Action Plan," McCain wishes to admit Georgia forthwith. What's the difference? A MAP provides technical and political advice to the country. NATO membership commits the U.S. to going to war if that country is attacked. In other words, a MAP quite nicely splits the difference between abandoning Georgia and moving the world closer to World War 3.

(I'm not sure that a MAP is a good idea, to be frank. Jussi? But I am sure that NATO membership is a godawful stupid one.)

In addition, as you say, Obama is smarter. Much of foreign policy is reacting to the unforeseen --- and there is a lot of evidence that Barack Obama's academic decision-making process is going to lead to much better results than McCain's. It won't be the foreign policy that you like, but it will be one that is much more likely to avoid unnecessary wars or push the Russian Federation into doing something really dangerous, like adopt a launch-on-warning stance for their missiles.

Meanwhile, well, I support the Taliban war in Afghanistan. (As you'll know if you click around this blog, I've been to Afghanistan.) Of course, there are reasons not to support that effort, and I respect people who hold that opinion. Which does not mean that there are not differences between the candidates --- on Georgia, as I mentioned, or Iran, which I haven't. You won't get your preferred policy from President Obama. But you will get one that you prefer a lot more than President McCain's.

Then there is global warming. You have the difference between a cap-and-trade plan (with higher caps than I'd like) and a cap-and-trade plan with no caps. That's right; McCain's "cap and trade" program won't involve capping. Don't ask me, ask him. But that's a big difference, one between a step on the road to sanity and no action at all.

And here are two little-mentioned issues: abortion and habeus corpus. The Supreme Court is one justice away from effectively overturning both. (Or at least the first, because to be fair, Scalia used to be unpredictable on civil liberties and may become so again.) While it is certainly possible that Congress will force McCain to appoint a moderate when John Paul Stevens passes away, that is not a risk that I want to take with my country.

Lastly, there is the fact that the U.S. just (wisely, IMHO) nationalized a big chunk of the financial system. A new system of regulation is needed for the non-bank banks that have sprung up in the last two decades and got us into this mess. Obama has supported that for some time, whereas McCain just changed his mind on the issue around Monday. In addition, Obama's stimulus plan aims at shoring up local governments and building roads, bridges, and a better electrical grid, whereas McCain's involves giving people more rebates. In terms of maintaining aggregate demand when the financial system is seizing up, the former is a much better plan. Less unemployment, less unnecessary human suffering.

In short, even if neither candidate is as far to the left as I would like, or Paul Krugman would like, or you would like, there is an immense amount of space between them.

And that is why I strongly urge you to click the link on the left and donate to the Obama campaign. $10, $25, whatever you can. His election won't bring the millenium by any means. It won't even bring the perfect government. But it will bring a somewhat-more-perfect government, and prevent a lot of human suffering.

Which, at the end of the day, is about all we can ask for. Nirvana, sadly, is not on the table.

But a slight shuffle in that direction is worth a lot to this country. So please, click the link.

Noel,

You basically demonstrated, with lots of evidence, exactly what the premise of my whole statement was: Obama's politics aren't that much better than McCain's.

Sure, I admit they're marginally better, but I'd argue that they aren't significantly better.

You say:

"Obama's plan does two major things that McCain's doesn't."


Okay, fine. But I don't think this is very significant, because even if Obama can make changes in taxes, he's still not addressing the root of the problem (corporate influence over tax policy) and so, as soon as he's out of office its likely that taxes will be changed right back to where the corporations want them. Pretty insignificant "change" if you ask me.

"Regarding foreign policy, both sides, to take one example, support Georgia."


And I think this says a lot. They both have the same overall goals in their foreign policy. The only way they differ is in the specific ways that they SAY they will pursue it. Now, its important to remember that they SAY a lot of crap right now, but when it comes down to it they'll both be taking the advice from the same intelligence agencies on what to do, and so will probably both pursue a very similar strategy. Overall, US foreign policy doesn't typically change much from president to president, (with the recent exception of Bush) regardless if they are Rep or Dem.

"Meanwhile, well, I support the Taliban war in Afghanistan."

So you support the arbitrary bombing of a country that had nothing to do with September 11th, killing thousands of innocent poor people, and the forceful overthrow of a regime that we once helped into power?

In the end, here's the deal. As long as people keep supporting these Democratic candidates that are marginally better than their Republican counterparts, we are condemning ourselves to forever having to make this very same choice. Until we break the two-party monopoly of American politics, we will ALWAYS be forced to choose between a bad candidate, and a somewhat less bad candidate. Do you understand what I'm saying?

If we don't start voting for third party candidates, we'll never have any viable third party candidates. Support for Obama is support for the status quo, support for the two-party monopoly, and support for bad policies that are marginally better than McCain's REALLY bad policies.

I think it was Eugene Debs who said "I'd rather vote for someone I want and not get him, than vote for someone I don't want, and get him!"

I give up on you, Toby. You can't help but be confrontational, and you won't change your mind here.

If you believe that there are only marginal differences between the candidates, then you've got an idiosyncratic definition of marginal. If you believe that nothing short of Nirvana is worth working for, then you're going to be forever disappointed.

So, no, young man, I don't understand what you're saying, and it would be very nice if you'd learn how to be polite.

How old are you?

Noel,

Where exactly was I impolite and confrontational? Please cite the example.

And, you say I won't change my mind, but will you change your mind?

You said:
"If you believe that there are only marginal differences between the candidates, then you've got an idiosyncratic definition of marginal."


Your definition depends on your perspective. If you're looking from a place that is far to the left of these two candidates, like me, then their minute differences in HOW they will carry out the SAME GOALS seem insignificant to say the least.

It is the overall goals that are the fundamental problem here, not HOW they go about them. They both seek to extend American power, dominate the Middle East, install a US-friendly government in Iraq, roll back leftist movements in Latin America, extend free trade agreements to more countries, etc. etc.

Neither seeks to end exploitative private medicine in America, reduce massive military spending, open up the two-party monopoly in American politics, decrease corporate power over the legislative process, reform campaign finance (at least not that I have seen), deconcentrate control of the media, and on and on.

Its easy to get caught up in their flowery rhetoric, but, when it comes down to it, do these guys really have goals that are that different?

Well, Noel, the fact is that as far as the Russian reaction is considered, there's no difference between the MAP and the NATO. The Kremlin sees both of these as an unwarranted western incursion on their backyard.

So, in that respect, there's really no _objective_ difference between Obama's position and McCain's position.

My guess is that Obama has chosen his position just because he himself thinks that it's more "moderate". The reason why he has this impression is probably because he's still not that well-versed on this topic, and he's relatively inexperienced in the intricacies of international politics in general. But his position is nonetheless one of confrontation with Russia.

... in fact, you could make a good case that leaving things up in the air with the MAP would be worse, because it just perpetuates the volatile situation. Offering Georgia a full membership in the NATO would mean an immediate and effective constrain on any hypothetical Russian action on Georgia.

Unless, of course, one actually believes that the Russian Federation has a vested interest in attacking a NATO country and initiating the Third World War over North Caucasus. But that's not going to happen.

So, describing the Georgian membership in the NATO as a "godawful stupid idea" and using it as an example of John McCain's irresponsible brinkmanship is probably unwarranted.

There are, of course, many solid reasons why both the Georgian position in the MAP as well as a full Georgian membership in the NATO may not be good ideas. Both of these would place the NATO directly in a rather untenable position where the alliance would have to deal with a permanent Cyprus-like situation, except that this time, it would work in reverse.

But on the realm of truly "godawful stupid things", there's the East European missile shield. That's a godawful stupid idea par excellence, and both McCain and Obama support it.

Their positions are identical, and both of them are trying to explain that the shield has nothing to do with Russia... which matters precious little, because the Kremlin is not going to believe either one of them.

So, at least in this sector of the foreign politics, there's no difference between the two.

It's sort of difficult for me to grasp why surprisingly many non-Americans are so thrilled with the idea of Obama's presidency and see it as some kind of a move towards a better, more wonderful world. I'm sure that the U2 soundtrack on the mass rallies and all the talk of "hope" sound lovely, but it might not be a bad idea to check the real content of the platform.

For example, when it comes to the "little issues", I might note that Noel left out one - namely, the capital punishment. Obama, of course, supports it quite openly, as "the justified means for the community to express its outrage". I've made my personal opinions of that matter known before.

I should probably add here the usual caveat that I'm not really a particular fan of anyone who wishes to intensify the "Euro-Atlantic security institutions" further; in my opinion, in today's world, the splendid isolation of the United States may be exactly what both the United States and Europe need.

And in such a situation, Barack Obama would, of course, make a perfectly fine Western Hemisphere leader. And even then, there'd be every reason to do business and maintain communications with the United States.

As I've said before... it's your election.


Cheers,

J. J.

Jussi, as always, a breath of fresh air.

So let me quibble with you for a moment, while stating that you've convinced on the main point, which is that Moscow will view a MAP and full membership identically.

A MAP, however, means that Georgian stupidity will be far less likely to spin out of control. I don't trust the Georgians not to cause a crisis, even if inside NATO.

A second difference between Obama and McCain on their Russian policy, which is that Obama is committed to pursuing further arms-reduction talks with Moscow. McCain did too, but has dropped that position since the August War.

I'm not so sure that Obama supports the missile shield. Anthony Lake, Susan Rice and Gregory Craig are all opposed. Meanwhile his public statements (the ones I know of) are a masterpiece of ambiguity: we'll only procede if it does not target Russia. But I understand that a non-position plus circumstantial evidence is not the same as a negative position.

Finally, McCain now wants to gratuitously toss Moscow out of the G-8. Red flags, bulls, and all that.

You've convinced me about the MAP-v-NATO issue from the Russian perspective, but there still seems to be quite a bit of daylight between the two candidates on their Moscow policy.

Noel,

You don't really think Obama's actually going to go through with a middle class tax cut, do you? It seems much, much more likely that, as happened about fifteen years ago, he's going to get a good long look at the deficit/debt numbers and tax cuts of any sort are going to go on hold till the mess is straightened out.

Andrew,

That would be prudent, but in a situation where median incomes have been flatter than Kansas for nearly a decade --- and are probably on the verge of a substantial decline --- such a cut would be politically impossible to resist. Some campaign promises are impossible to renege on (look what happened to Bush the Elder in '92) and this is almost certainly one of them.

The good news is that with interest rates on federal debt around zero, the inevitable debt crisis can be costlessly kicked down the road.

The bad news is that interest rates are around zero.

I have a feeling that you have it backwards, Noel. More than a few political commentators have argued that the NATO has a stabilizing effect on its members. Assuming that Georgia had been allowed to enter the alliance this year - with the usual, ironclad instructions to behave - the whole South Ossetian mess might have very well been avoided.

Also, the problem is that if the Alliance keeps the MAP simply as a convenient state of limbo, the MAP immediately loses all meaning. As the name indicates, it's supposed to be a Membership Action Plan, with the membership as the direct goal... not some kind of a temporary freezer where you can store the problematic countries you don't quite want to admit yet, but not abandon, either.

The fact is that the MAP is a commitment which also comes with obligations; if the NATO isn't ready or willing to accept those obligations, Russians are going to draw the inevitable conclusions. And so are the prospective NATO member states, such as Ukraine.

Besides, it's not like Georgia is the only country to have issues with Russia, even though their territorial disputes are an order of magnitude higher than elsewhere. Estonia, which is a NATO member state, has not been able to ratify a border treaty with Russia, either, and as the Bronze Warrior riots testified, there's potential for crisis in that direction as well. In fact, one could regard the whole diplomatic meltdown over the statue as the first Russian test-ball to the NATO.

And when it comes to the hot-spots that might start the Third World War, there's also Taiwan. Obama seems to support the status quo in that direction; which, I suppose, means that he either doesn't believe in any kind of a resolution, or that he just doesn't know how to do it.

Obama's readiness to pursue arms-reduction talks with Moscow may be nice, but so what? The Kremlin pulled out of the CFE with no intention of looking back, and I'm seriously sceptical of Obama's ability to sweet-talk them back.

As for the missile shield, Obama stated publicly to foreign minister Sikorski that he's ready to proceed with the construction of the installations if he's elected. He did attach the usual proviso you mentioned, but I wouldn't call that a "masterpiece of ambiguity"; instead, I'd describe it simply as "confused".

Perhaps I'm cynical, but this is the world we're living in.


Cheers,

J. J.

Regarding Taiwan, I have to agree with Obama's (and McCain's, and, I suppose, almost everybody except George Bush for a few very stupid moments at the beginning of his first term) position on Taiwan. Best of a bad situation and all that.

I don't believe that NATO membership is inherently stabilizing. I don't see the mechanism. That doesn't mean that there isn't one, of course.

I take your point on the MAP. Using it as a halfway house isn't optimal.

But we live in a second-best world, and probably always will. (There's cynicism for you!)

Here's a question. You're president of the United States, presumably with the interests of the United States first in your mind, and all the domestic political limitations faced by an American president.

What would be your Russia policy?

As you know, Noel, the NATO has a collective defence. Part of the concept is that the NATO exercises surveillance on its members, which is indeed the prerequisite for the successful integration of the new members and their armed forces.

The new member states develop their national defence in accordance to the standard NATO development guidelines. Consequently, the new member states are under the observation and the guidance of the NATO.

That's the stabilizing mechanism.

It's sort of difficult to imagine how Saakashvili could have managed to launch his South Ossetian adventure in a situation where Georgia had managed to become a NATO member already this year, with the armed forces of the country under the watchful care of the official observers and advisors of the Alliance.

So, as you can see, McCain's argument does have its merits.

There aren't many examples of the NATO member states acting like loose cannons; Turkey and Greece over Cyprus are about the only serious example that comes to mind. The Spanish-Moroccan crisis was mediated very quickly. The new member states are, by definition, under considerably stricter surveillance, and have consequently behaved themselves.

As for the question of what would be the best Russian policy as far as the interests of the United States are considered, well, that just raises another question. What exactly _are_ the interests of the United States?

What does America want? What are the long-term goals? The absolutely optimal situation would probably be the one where the United States would not need any Russian policy at all, except in the questions regarding the Alaskan border.

If there has to be an American policy towards Russia also in questions regarding Europe, that policy should be collective and multilateral; the last thing that this Continent needs is a new Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

I'm a pragmatic. There are situations when confrontation is appropriate, desirable and perfectly in the national interests.

If the president and the government of this country were listening to me, I would have probably adviced them to politely and regretfully refuse the Russian invitation to the Victory Day celebrations after the inflammatory RIA-Novosti statements. Likewise, I would have advocated a hard line on Russia during the Bronze Warrior riots and the violations of the Vienna Convention back in the last spring.

And obviously, when it comes to the Finnish membership in the NATO, I don't support it, but I sure as hell wouldn't tell that to the Russians. Better keep them in the dark, and guessing. Thus, every time that they'd make a new foreign political screw-up, I could plausibly threaten to use the NATO option.

But I see no particular reason to get excited over Georgia.


Cheers,

J. J.

J.J. says:

"I'm sure that the U2 soundtrack on the mass rallies and all the talk of "hope" sound lovely, but it might not be a bad idea to check the real content of the platform."

Sounds like J.J. and I actually agree on this one.

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