Three issues, it seems to me, loom over the Obama Presidency just now, and on none of them, alas, does the President seem to have the initiative. One is the economy; the second, the oil spill; and the third, Afghanistan. At least two of them, in my opinion, require some revaluation of our assumptions, and it is not clear where it is going to come from.
The economic news remains decidedly mixed. Despite numerical evidence of recovery, the only job gains last month game from temporary hiring for the census (illustrating how badly we need more long-term government work programs), and retail sales just took a tumble. But the establishment, whom the President has trusted on economic issues from day 1 onward, has taken up the federal deficit as its principal cause, and the White House seems to think this is good politics too. It isn't. The average American knows the government is in debt but is far more concerned with having a job--see Reagan, Ronald, 1982-88. The Tea Partiers who are obsessed with the issue will never vote for the President anyway. The only way to solve the deficit problem in the long run is economic growth, including job growth, and for the time being that means more spending. But nothing obviously will be done about this until after the election, when we will face a new situation which we cannot foresee. Blanche Lincoln's narrow victory over labor-backed Bill Halter in Arkansas was a very sad day for the Democratic Party. A Halter victory, which he nearly achieved, could have convinced more Washington Democrats that they are far to the right of their constituencies, and had he won in November he could have re-invigorated progressive Democracy in the South. But it was not to be.
It was only last Tuesday, and quite by accident, that I stumbled on the real tragedy of the oil spill. I was on my weekly Tuesday night bike ride, which includes a guy who actually maintains oil storage tanks for a living. He and others in the know confirmed that a relief well, which will take months to drill, is the only real safeguard against a blowout and a massive leak like this one. And in Canada, I discovered--get this--oil companies have to drill a relief well right along with the original well. Why doesn't the President propose such a law for any new drilling in the future--and demand that current offshore wells start working on relief wells now, too? They could pay for it themselves--worthwhile insurance against the next environmental disaster--and it would have a job-creation effect. If ever the American people were willing to make some one spent more money to protected the environment, now is the time. [Note: sadly, it turns out that Canadian law is not that strict. Companies do not have to drill a relief well at the same time, but they have to pledge, when drilling in arctic regions, that they could do so within one season. BP recently tried to persuade Canada to rescind that requirement.
And in Afghanistan, the essential contradictions of our policy are bursting into the open every week or so. Earlier in the week the Times reported that American military authorities now concede that the Marja operation was not a success, and have given up plans for a major military offensive around Kandahar. Instead they foresee a big civilian effort to promote work and reconstruction (gee, why not bring that one home to the US), with the military in a supporting, protective role. The Taliban, inevitably, will target any Afghans who work with that effort, and make some bombing or rocket attacks on the Americans who show up. That news, however, paled in significance in comparison to today's Times lead, that reports that Hamid Karzai, like Ngo Dinh Diem a half century ago in South Vietnam, is losing touch with reality as he tries to reconcile his competing interests. On the one hand, he, like Diem, needs the US to stay in power; on the other hand, he can see that the huge American presence is doing him as much harm as good. In 1963, in the midst of the South Vietnamese Buddhist crisis, when an American claimed that South Vietnamese police had beaten up a couple of American reporters covering a demonstration, Diem said that actually the reporters had beaten up the police. Earlier this month, the Times reports, two senior Afghan officials were briefing Karzai about Taliban rocket attacks on the nationwide peace conference that he had convened, and according to one participant, Karzai replied that he thought the Americans were responsible. Two cabinet members promptly resigned.
In the fall of 1963 Diem and the Americans were so hostile that his brother Nhu spread rumors that he was thinking about making a deal with the Viet Cong and/or Ho Chi Minh himself. My own researchers never convinced me that those rumors were true, but now the same Times story says that Karzai is trying to strike a deal with Pakistan and the Taliban, and that his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, has been meeting with Taliban leaders. Like Diem, Karzai is angry that the US questioned his legitimacy when he stole the election last summer, and he does not trust us to remain in Afghanistan. And like Diem, he has lost the confidence of some of his closest collaborators and may soon be relying almost exclusively on his own family. A recent piece by Steven Coll, a genuine authority on the region, in The New Yorker reaches a similar conclusion. Like several South Vietnamese governments, the Afghan leadership simply does not believe in a strategy of war to reduce the Taliban to insignificance or supplication.
The United States has never been good at admitting its mistakes--few nations are. The right wing has already built a myth that President Obama does nothing but apologize for America. He has already committed himself to a larger, although temporary, effort in Afghanistan, which he allowed civilian and military authorities to convince him might work, despite the objections of the American Ambassador. But if he sticks to that course the facts seem certain to catch up to him. Sadly, neither Secretary Clinton nor Secretary Gates looks likely to grasp this particular bull by the horns now. Stay tuned.