Change in Effect: Obama Gives First Presidential Interview to Al Arabiya

Lest this blogger be accused of publishing only negative stories, I want to put out a link to Obama’s interview with Arabic language news organization Al Arabiya. This was the first interview that Obama gave since become president – there is very little he could have done to signify greater respect towards the Arab world. It’s almost too much to suddenly have a President who does things the right way, but he nonetheless deserves kudos for following through on the use of public diplomacy.

The transcript itself is also a thing of beauty: Obama seems to understand its opposition to the US is based on our policies and our message. If we were to just change how we communicate our message, but that not our policies, as Bush attempted to do with high profile public diplomacy such as the debacles of Karen Hughes and Al Hurra, we won’t get anywhere with the Arab public. Obama said all the right things to demonstrate the seriousness of his commitment to engagement with the Arab world, and the reality that inevitable disagreements shouldn’t give way to conflict. He also stressed the importance of listening to the Arab world, and not just dictating terms, especially on the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

Transcript is here.

Also, see a smart take from Mark Lynch. I hope he one day goes on Al Jezerra, but this is a great start.

FWIW: I also think George Mitchell is a great choice.

After the “Global War on Terror”

The global war on terror seems to be finished under Obama. Good riddance, I say. Better to divide our enemies than lump them together under a common slogan and thereby glorify their violence. Simply breaking from the disastrous policy of the past does not make a good policy , but the early signs from the Obama administration offer very encouraging signs that the prosecution of Al Qaeda will no longer threaten the US long term strategic interests or greviously violate our principles. Obama has made outstanding appointments to the legal offices that oversee the prosecution of terrorists,  restricted the ability of members of his administration to invoke executive privilege, and halted the military commissions trials at Guantanamo Bay. By reinstating restrictions on the use of force and executive authority, Obama has moved towards reestablishing the rule of law in the realm previously referred to as the “GWOT.”

In a sense, deciding that the war on terror must be fought within the rule of law is less difficult than determinig the framework by which the law will operate. Said differently, simply deciding to folllow the rules doesn’t make the right rules any easier to figure out. As in many other areas of policy, Obama will benefit from the “bad boyfriend” effect that comes from following George W. Bush’s presidency – anything he does that isn’t completely horrible will seem like a ray of sunshine in comparison. What will be more complicated is the process of determining how to instantiate the view that our ideals must guide our foreign policy and intelligence work and how to communicate this objective.

Daunting questions about the future of the process remain unanswered. What legal process will we use to try the detainees at Guantanamo? How can we withdraw from Iraq without leaving chaos in our wake? How do we deal with the Pakistani intelligence service’s reluctance/inability to going after Al Qaeda? These questions require much more sophisticated stances than blanket opposition to torture, or the war in Iraq. Of course, Obama has said much of these issues throughout the campaign and transition and liberal think tanks and advocacy groups have done much of the yeoman’s work on outlining the policies that would make a more effective War on Terror.

I guess my question is how to discuss the interrelated issues of antiterrorist and foreign policy without the framework of the war on terror. Perhaps it makes the most sense to simply quit using the phrase, as the British have done. Overall, I think this makes a tremendous amount of sense. As noted foreign policy analyst David Cross has suggested, it is rather difficult to make war on a verb. Even the lesser step of securitizing foreign policy, or even posing all legitimate foreign policy objectives in the language of security, has the unfortunate effect of eroding the rule of law and limitations on state violence.

I imagine that future attempts to narrativize US engagement in the world will be communicated under the rubric of “American leadership,” but I perhaps big thinkers like Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was just appointed the chief policy planner under Hillary Clinton at the State Department, will propose a more defined framework for understanding our role in the world. I tend to think these kinds of thematic articulations have much more force than my institutional political science background would suggest – I agree with my anthro friends who argue official discursive formations have impact on the shape of policy and institutions. These kind of themes actually matter, and I wonder how they will be defined in a post-War on Terror world.

The Limitations of the Cult of Obama

As has been noted elsewhere throughout the blogosphere, and probably in your email box, the Obama campaign made a decision about what to do with the 13 million email addresses they’ve been collecting over the past two years. In this video, Obama announces that Organizing for America will be the next step in the grassroots campaign.

This video makes clear that the Cult of Obama will be folded into the DNC, while maintaining a separate identity. This distinction will split the difference between those who called for a full incorporation within the DNC and those who thought independent and new voters would be turned off by any partisan affiliation. I think this arrangement demonstrates the limitations of candidate based organizations in the US system. Democracy for America – the second incarnation of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign – faced a similar challenge in attempting to pivot grassroots momentum into a post campaign environment, as have Ron Paul supporters. These groups inevitably lose a large percentage of their organization (measured in donations, membership, hours volunteered) depending on the degree to which the campaign can be translated into an issue agenda. Said differently, post-campaign organizations maintain momentum to the degree that the campaign was based on a clear ideological program.

The problem with OfA is that Obama distanced himself from his ideological and partisan affiliation throughout the campaign and it’s unclear the extent to which Obama voters share an ideological viewpoint. To be successful in presidential politics you must assemble a broad coalition of voters and voters tend not to be nearly as ideological coherent as political scientists would like them to be. This motivates presidential campaigns to obscure as much as possible – the most partisan voters have little reason to vote for anyone else and the least partisan voters are likely to be turned off from what they see and don’t like. Presidential candidates thus have an incentive to reveal as little as possible of their policy preferences to the public, all else being equal. Unfortunately, this same incentive cuts directly against the political organization of interest groups and social movements, which are based around stances on a chosen range of policy questions. The American political system is uniquely personality based, compared to most other advanced democracies, which makes it more difficult for out of party organizations to rally behind official programs.

This is all a round about way of saying that any Obama affiliated organization will struggle to transform a personality based organization into a policy/issue organization. Organizing for America has the benefit of starting from a huge base, which allows for a lot of attrition, while still maintaining giant membership. If only 1 in 100 people who contributed to Obama for America contribute to Organizing for America, you’re still talking about one of the biggest organizations in American politics. If the group puts boots on the ground, as some have suggested they are going to do, you’re talking about a truly unique organization in American political history – nothing of this type has really been tried before. It’s unprecedented to have a post-campaign organization with that level of resources.

However, the limitations won’t be due to a lack of resources, but on the lack of flexibility based on a lack of independence. Will Organizing for America really be able to pressure recalcitrant democrats into line using the resources of a DNC affiliated organization? If, say, Blanche Lincoln the Democratic senator from Arkansas who is the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus, is making noises that she won’t vote to override a Republican filibuster on the controversial Employee Free Choice Act, will Organizing for America’s field op in Arkansas really be able to enlist Obama for America volunteers to make calls that pressure her into supporting the bill? I don’t think it’s likely, because those volunteers are probably not willing to make calls against their democratic senator, and the President won’t want to risk alienating the conservative and moderate voters that elected Lincoln in the first place.

Obama wouldn’t want to risk offending Lincoln over the long term by having a Democratic organization take political action against him. The lack of independence between OfA and Obama limits it’s potential to act as an enforcer for progressive ideological goals. Obama wouldn’t want to be seen as publicly breaking with Democratic lawmakers on votes that require party loyalty to override Republican vetoes, such as the Employee Free Choice Act. Of course, the new organization could be helpful in pressuring moderate republican in states that Obama won into supporting broadly popular legislation (OH, ME, NV, PA, NH, IN) , which I suppose is the model they are going for. The organization will be useful in pressuring these potentially moderate Republicans and shouldn’t be discounted for this reason.

However, I think that progressives should concern themselves with the lack of institutional firepower independent of the party that can act as a magnet to pull the pendulum towards the left. Even with large majorities in both houses and the presidency, the American political system is exceptionally resistant to change and the unique political opportunity of the current moment could pass without bold action if the Democrats aren’t held accountable. The Democrats have a singular opportunity to significantly alter the structure of the American economy, reform the contract between citizens and their government, and revitalize our infrastructure for the 21st century. They are going to need someone to hold down their left flank, and give them cover for taking bold policy stances. The pressure must come from outside the party, because party officials, including Obama, are limited in their ability to publicly disagree with their fellow party members.

The problem is that try as they might, political parties can’t incorporate many aspects of social movements, and this organization will run-up against those limitations. The act of governance requires a much tighter adherence to the script than social movements and the vague promises of participatory engagement made to the Obama “movement” will be difficult to allow once in power.

UPDATE: Check out this video from the Onion if you don’t yet see what I mean.
Obama Win Causes Obsessive Supporters To Realize How Empty Their Lives Are

Negotiation is the first step towards peace

Yesterday I wondered whether the incoming Obama administration would be able to maintain the realist/Clintonista/Obamanaut coalition of foreign policy operatives on difficult questions like the situation in Gaza. The apparent appointment of Richard Haass as Middle East envoy is the first step towards a more pragmatic, even handed role in the crisis (it could have been Clinton era negotiator Dennis Ross). Haass has had sensible things to say about the US’ role in the Middle East more generally, and I believe he understands the importance of strategic leadership in a post-unipolar world. Of even greater interest to the potential for a solution to the conflict is the possibility of negotiations with Hamas, who must be satisfied for any ceasefire agreement to have lasting effect. According to the Guardian:

The incoming Obama administration is prepared to abandon George Bush’s ­doctrine of isolating Hamas by establishing a channel to the Islamist organisation, sources close to the transition team say.

The move to open contacts with Hamas, which could be initiated through the US intelligence services, would represent a definitive break with the Bush ­presidency’s ostracising of the group. The state department has designated Hamas a terrorist organisation, and in 2006 ­Congress passed a law banning US financial aid to the group.

The article goes on to explain that the administration won’t give Hamas diplomatic status or hold high level talks. But  merely recognizing and engaging with Hamas could eventually prove to be a move towards reconciliation, and is a useful first step in the path towards a lasting peace. The situation in Gaza is in some ways analogous to the financial collapse: the collapse of current policy could provide political cover to finally make the sacrifices to move the world in a more positive long term direction. I hope the Obama administration will start to bring Hamas into the international community, just as was done with the PLO, and give credence to the complaints of the Palestinian people.

In doing so, Obama should embrace and extend the non-military aspects of Bush’s democracy promotion in the Middle East. Bush was committed to democracy in name only, and was not truly willing to accept the will of the people in instances where Islamist governments won free and fair elections. However, the US, and the West more generally, would be making a grave strategic mistake if they fail to accept the inclusion of Islamist parties in government, and will do much more harm than good by seeking to marginalize all Islamist groups. Hamas won a free and fair election to represent the Palestinian people and were immediately opposed by Israel, the US and the international community. This was a mistake from the start, and the Palestinian civil war, and the War on Gaza are the direct result of this decision.

What I am advocating here may sound radically pro-Palestinian, but I actually think of myself as a Zionist who wishes to see the continuation of a majority Jewish state in the Middle East. I believe the only way to reconcile my traditionally liberal political beliefs and my desire for a majority Jewish state is the creation of a stable, viable, Palestinian state that provides the Palestinian people with the autonomy and resources to create a future for themselves. The US must recognize the importance of the creation of a vibrant Palestinian state for the continuation of Israel as a Jewish state. Furthermore, we should recognize that any organization that legitimately represents the Palestinian people will express resistance to what the Palestinians view (as does most of the rest of the world) as a occupation by a foreign power. The current conflict will only solidify Palestinian feelings of injustice and powerlessness, and strengthen groups like Hamas that prey off the anger that ensues.

The US must be tough and fair with the Israelis – but also with the Palestinians. This means recognizing that Hamas is the most legitimate broker of the Palestinian agenda – an agenda that must be reckoned with. However, bringing Hamas to the table doesn’t mean acceding to their demands. The US should overwhelm the potential resistance to a peace deal by offering terms that would make Hamas look foolish for refusing. We could do this by pledging to underwrite a peace keeping force that would be responsible for maintaining preliminary international boundaries, while negotiations for a final agreement were underway. The terms of the final agreement will, for political and policy reasons, look something like the Arab Peace Initiative, and include an agreement with Syria.

Of course, the path I am outlining is a bold one, and will require an extreme amount of care taken towards solidifying Israeli public opinion. There are an incredible number of potential obstacles to this path, not the least of which is domestic American political opposition to the move towards peace by a right wing, Likud affiliated US pro-Israel lobby. However, after eight years of languishing without any hope of movement towards a lasting peace, any change in policy, not matter how slight, could be the first step in a forging a new path in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ah, there it is again: Hope! Change! In these halcyon days of transition from the administration that is the originator of all evils to the administration That Can, we (I?) can project any and all actions as a move towards the ideal policy.

Yes we might!

Couldn’t We Ask The Supreme Court What They Think Of The Rules?

Max, allow me to say that I am wholly in support of our executive branch upholding the law and I am disappointed if I came off otherwise. And I don’t think that sentiment is in conflict with my original argument that our leadership has handled a few Senate scandals, including the Blagojevich-Burris situation, poorly. In regard to Powell v. McCormack there are definitely those who believe the Senate’s hands are tied but there also seems to be an argument on the other side that because Burris was not elected by the people of Illinois it may be possible to refuse to seat him. Given that there appear to be reasonable arguments behind both interpretations of the law, it is a fair bet that any challenge to Burris’ appointment would eventually go to the Supreme Court. I suspect (and hope) that before Harry Reid’s initial comments that the Senate would refuse to seat anyone appointed by Blagojevich that Reid actually investigated whether contesting a Blagojevich appointment was legally tenable.

Reid also (allegedly) made the catastrophic mistake of privately pressuring Blagojevich to select either Lisa Madigan or Tammy Duckworth for the seat over Jesse Jackson Jr., Danny Davis and Emil Jones. Not only was Reid making a mistake to publicly state the Senate would not seat any Blagojevich appointee while privately pushing for particular appointees, but Reid also opened himself up to the criticism that race was a driving factor in his preference for the appointment. And astonishingly Reid did this by assuming he could trust a corrupt politician in the midst of scandal and public bouts of megalomania to keep a private conversation private. Reid effectively neutered himself on the issue and a better leader would have handled the situation without embarrassing himself so thoroughly. Reid backed himself into a corner where it would look like he was advocating for particular candidates because of their race rather than their qualifications (and he very well may have!) and it hindered his ability to be fully critical of Blagojevich’s slection of Burris. In fact you could say this was played masterfully by Blago after receiving the “advice” from Reid.

As for Obama, it is less clear where he stands however he does have a dicey history with the black Chicago south side constituency that Burris made his career out of. Obama even lost an election to Bobby Rush, who spoke at the press conference during which Burris’ appointment was announced. It could only look bad for Obama to involve himself in these issues. Obama would be lowering himself to take a legally risky position (although once again, possibly tenable) in a battle against a weak, scandal tainted Illinois politician and two pillars of the Chicago black community. The risk is high and the reward likely low. And we have already seen Obama shy to risk any capital when he declined to actively campaign for Jim Martin against Saxby Chambliss in Georgia’s Senate runoff.

What I see here is ham-handed leadership by Reid and a need to be mindful of risking political capital by both Reid and Obama. My point was never that political agendas should trump the law, instead my point was that concerns of integrity will likely always lag behind concerns of politics. The old boys network of the Senate must laud a long time Senator regardless of his number of felony convictions and our legislators only dislike Blagojevich appointees when the appointee is not the one that the party privately lobbied for.

Make No Mistake The Rules Still Do Not Apply

We heard campaign pledges of accountability and of changing the atmosphere in Washington. We heard about change and saw the word boldly written in light blue capitals below the striking redded, blued and beiged visage of now President-Elect Obama. We were offered visions of a Washington more like what we would like it to be. Thankyou Barack, and thankyou Shepard Fairey for providing us with those uplifting moments of hope whose memory still brings a cozy feeling of inner warmth. So this is a good time to remember that it has been reported, including being emphasized by someone who was unceremoniously kicked off of Obama’s campaign jet for his reporting, that Obama likes to operate in the world as it is not the world as we would like it to be. With that in mind perhaps it should be no surprise that we still live in the world as it is and the rules still do not apply.


We would like an unrepentant convicted felon not to receive an extended standing ovation on the United States Senate floor. In some dream world we might even hope that a convicted felon would be denied a chance to return to the Senate floor. Once again remember we live in the world as it is. We would hope that a governor whose term has been tainted with scandal, corruption and an impeachment trial for trying to sell off an open Senate seat, and who was overcome with glee by the opportunity to hold obtuse press conferences designed to push an already upset public to the point of being irate, would not be allowed to select his state’s new Senator. It appears our hopes are being dashed. And dashed rather quickly.

It would be a great risk of political capital to stand up to Stevens or Blagojevich or Burris. Standing up against any of them would be a messy legal battle and a risk of failure which would result in being branded with a scarlet “F” for the remainder of a political career. The sensible and pragmatic thing for President-Elect Barack Obama and the rest of our nation’s leaders to do is to work with the cards they have been dealt rather than stubbornly pointing out the deck has been tampered with.

Yet notice that the post-Bush era is beginning with a lack of leaders willing to dig in their heels against brazenly illegal and immoral acts. Notice that the post-Bush era is beginning with leadership unwilling to take political risk to stand up for what appears right to all but a few of us. Is this not what we supposedly whisked away? I imagine few of us actually believed there was a seismic change in Washington brewing, but could anyone have imagined such an absurd gaggle of political imbroglios would make our lack of “new politics” so abundantly clear from day one? The only elected official with real hope of changing our political system is one whose cry upon being sworn in is: “It is your duty as a citizen to unseat me for the betterment of society, as I am susceptible to the temptations of doing what is politically advantageous.” The world as it is still is. Let us hope that the other promises we received, that our leaders will change our disappointing, pragmatic, Machiavellian world for the betterment of our pocketbooks and health care plans, prove to be less shallow.