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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Party Discipline

[Although the pace has slowed very considerably, people are still arriving here because they have received an email on the current state of America--including, most recently, a substantial contingent who were alerted on a web site in Germany. If you are curious about my own views of the origins and consequences of the current crisis in American life, I recommend this link. However, the email attributed to myself comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler, is a forgery which I did not write. Meanwhile, here is the best explanation I've found of why that email is so incredibly popular.]Total hits on this blog, which reached 500-1000 per day for much of the summer and fall, are now at about 200 a day, but the good news is that the vast majority of those now know what they are getting and actually want the real product. In another welcome development, while I received a phone call at my home from an adoring reader of that email on Thanksgiving, yesterday I got no such call.

Like the break-up of a long and difficult relationship, the Senate's passage of the health care bill brought, to begin with, a sense of enormous relief. The continuing controversies which the bill must surmount, including the one about abortion, actually offer some hope that we may be moving into a new phase of our political life. The abortion compromise, to begin with, has drawn heated opposition from both the right and the left. More interestingly, it has also split Catholic hospitals, which favor the bill with the compromise, from the Catholic hierarchy, which opposes it. The split within one of our most ideological political constituencies between purists and some on the firing line of public policy who want to get something done is welcome.

That, in turn, brings me to an essay that I would like to share, from Nate Silver, the baseball analyst turned political analyst who writes the blog fivethirtyeight.com. Thanks to Bill James, whose ideas have probably changed the thinking of more Americans on a subject of general interest (baseball), the analysis of baseball statistics has crossed several intellectual frontiers over the past three decades. Silver, now 31, came from the younger generation of analysts and contributed key concepts to baseball-prospectus.com, a site which not only tries to estimate the worth of individual players, but also spends a lot of time analyzing winning strategies for teams. It took about twenty years for sabermetrics, as the discipline is called, to penetrate into baseball front offices, but several general managers, led by Billy Beane of the Oakland As and Theo Epstein of my own Red Sox (who hired James), have been using it to improve their teams, with remarkable results, for some time. (In Beane's case sound judgment enabled him to keep the As in the playoffs for quite a few years despite vastly inferior financial resources, but his luck has run out for the time being.)

Silver's essay, which I want to summarize, is a great example of how data can open up our thinking. It deals, really, with the critical issue of party and ideological loyalty, which is playing such an enormous role in Washington just now. One reading gave me an entirely new way of looking at the issue of Blue Dog Democrats and how mainstream Democrats like myself should see them. It was not an entirely new view, but I needed reminding.

The essay compared the voting records of every member of the House on ten crucial votes this year to the Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) for his district. The PVI simply compares the presidential vote in that district during the last two elections to the vote in the whole country. Silver correlated the percentage of times that each Congressman voted with the Administration with its district's PVI. That gave him a set of correlations between the PVI of a district (such as R+10, or 10% Republican, or D+7, or 7% Democrat) and how the representative voted on each of these ten key issues. (The whole article, including the list of issues he used, is here.

The next step is more subtle, but critical to understanding what Silver did. First, he arranged the study to evaluate Democratic Congressmen (he's a Democrat) based on the worth of their presence in the House to their party. Every time a Democrat voted FOR an Administration measure, Silver subtracted his district's PVI from 1, and the result became the Congressman's score on that particular vote. Thus, while my own Patrick Kennedy, whose district's PVI must be around 60% (based on our votes in the last two elections) voted for the stimulus package, he got a score of .40 . But if a Democrat from a district with a PVI of .37 from a Democratic view--that is, a district whose Democratic vote in 2004 and 2008 averaged 37%--then he would receive a score on that vote of .63, and count, by Silver's reckoning, as a more valuable Democrat. Silver, in fact, used this method to identify the ten most valuable Democrats in the House--but that's not what I'm going to focus on right now.

Instead, more generally, I would like to suggest that this measurement allows mainstream or left-wing Democrats like myself to evaluate our more conservative fellow party members more realistically. The issue is not how often they agree with us, because if a Democrat in a strongly Republican-leaning district (of which there are now quite a few) always voted with us, he or she would probably lose next time around. The issue is whether such people vote with the Administration at a higher rate than their PVI would suggest they should. If they do, we should support their continued presence as the best alternative available. If they don't, then there's no reason to be particularly upset if they are defeated or switch parties, since a Republican would vote about the same way most of the time. (We are, of course, talking about the House here, not the Senate, where Democrats now need every single one of their votes--but I'll return to that later.)

And indeed, there are also Democrats, including the other one from my state, James Langevin, whose votes on the whole are to the right of their district--that is, they vote for the Administration less often than most representatives whose districts have comparable PVIs. They are the ones who, logically, should face primary opposition. They may be better than a Republican from a Democratic point of view, but they are certainly not the best Democrat that that district could elect.

This brings us to the notorious Senator Lieberman, the Democrats' 60th vote in the Senate. There are few if any Americans who have come to dislike him more than myself, but given the situation in which we find ourselves, the decision to let him keep his seniority was correct. There will be absolutely no reason, however, to show him the slightest mercy in the election of 2012, because he is almost surely the most conservative Senator that Connecticut could ever elect. Any other Democrat would be a vast improvement, and no Republican can possibly be elected in that race anyway--even, in my judgment, Lieberman, should he switch parties.

And what of the Republicans? To put it bluntly, they have become far too partisan to pay attention to anything as logical as Silver's analysis. The majority of the Republican Party now rejects any Republican who will not toe the party line on a wide range of issues (including, or should I say especially, social issues), no matter where that Republican comes from. The Republicans drove Arlen Spector out of their party immediately after Rick Santorum, an arch-conservative, had been beaten in Pennsylvania because Spector was too liberal. As a result, they will have no Senators from Pennsylvania for some time to come. (That does not mean, however, that Democrats should be eager to keep Spector in office--Pennsylvania certainly could elect a far more liberal Democrat than he.) As my former Senator Lincoln Chafee often remarks, every Republican from the Northeast or other liberal parts of the country fears a primary challenge if they vote for abortion rights, or for the President's stimulus, or, obviously, for health care reform. That presumably is why both Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine continue to oppose the health care bill.

I remain extremely concerned about the future of the country and the Obama Administration for a different reason. Consensus is obviously necessary to pass anything nowadays, but it may also, at least for time being, make it impossible to pass anything effective. The Health Care Reform Act is not scheduled to come into effect until 2014, making it not only possible, but, one might suggest, logical for insurance companies to deny coverage as often as possible in the meantime. We may desperately need stronger regulatory and job-creation measures than a consensus, at the moment, will pass, in order to promote genuine economic recovery. But Gen Xers like Silver (and the President!), who focus relentlessly upon results, have what amounts to an insurmountable argument: there's no point holding a line that is certain to be outflanked. Despite all the talk about Roosevelt's hundred days, the struggle for the New Deal lasted for the whole of his three terms. We have begun more slowly and may have at least as far to go. Within that context, the health care bill is an important step, and we have to make sure that it becomes the first of many.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Lincoln or Hoover?

As the year draws to a close it has become clear that President Obama, our sixth crisis President (after Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Hoover, FDR, and perhaps George W. Bush), is not the new Franklin Roosevelt that many of us dreamed he might be. For reasons to which I have often alluded here, that is not really his fault. FDR came into office in conditions of completely unprecedented distress and desperation, possessed of huge majorities in both houses, and even enjoying some bipartisan support. He also could draw on a cadre of progressive reformers--many with backgrounds in social work--to transform the federal government's role. Our problems today are the most serious we have faced since then, but one party remains in complete denial, and the other--the Democrats--are significantly split. In addition, President Obama seems to have come into office with a reformist rather than a transformative agenda. His health care proposal, the centerpiece of his agenda this year, drew on long-established ideas. The stimulus was a one-shot emergency measure that the Democrats and the White House show now signs of wanting to repeat. And the President, as I wrote last year, has not, as his initial speeches suggested he might, transformed our foreign policy. He is winding down the Iraq war--something the feelings of the Iraqis themselves might well have made necessary in any case--but he is doubling down in Afghanistan and Pakstan, about which I may have more to say as I sit here snowbound tomorrow.

President Obama would never have reached the White House without acute political sense, and he has been dealing, daily, with current political realities for some years. Sad to say, he may have been pushing as hard as anyone could. Yet he may be suffering from a real misconception about the state of the nation. His policies, particularly in the economic sphere, seem to suggest that we do not in fact need fundamental reforms parallel to those of the New Deal and the immediate postwar era. In Larry Summers, in particular--who declared last week that everyone knows the recession is over, thus going Herbert Hoover, who talked of good times just around the corner, one better--he has a man who obviously refuses to recognize that there is anything wrong with the freewheeling financial institutions that he, in the Clinton Administration, helped to create, that a few hundred billion dollars of government funds will not cure. If Summers is right, employment will start to grow, albeit slowly, by the second half of next year. If he is wrong, and we are suffering from long-term structural problems that need to be addressed, the consequences will be both politically and economically disastrous. Indeed, it is not inconceivable that such an approach could turn the Obama Administration into the new Hoover Administration.

Hoover was, as I indicated years ago, a very different kind of man that Obama. He was, in generational terms a Prophet, not a Nomad, and he suffered, like George W. Bush, from an excessive faith in his own instincts and opinions. Yet he was neither a fool nor a knave. He had an impressive record as a businessman and an administrator. He took steps to deal with the depression, one of which, the Reconstruction Finance Commission--a kind of institutionalized TARP, but one that lent money to industrial enterprises rather than to banks--remained a pillar of the New Deal all through the Roosevelt Administration. But he also had firm principles, including an unshakable prejudice against any direct or indirect government assistance to the unemployed. Had the economy rebounded during his last two years he might have been vindicated--but it did not. By the beginning of 1932 Hoover in his State of the Union address was reduced to complimenting the American people for not having resorted to revolution or violence, unlike other nations. The people completely lost faith in him and his approach, opening the way for the Roosevelt revolution.

Sadly, it does not seem to me impossible that a similar fate could befall the current Administration. While I have been writing this post Senator Ben Nelson, the most powerful man in America this week, has announced his support for a health care bill. It will evidently do little or nothing to cut costs and break the power of the insurance companies (which some are beginning to compare to the utility companies of 80 years ago, for which the New Deal provided both competition and regulation), and it is thus unlikely to cut costs. But in any case it will do nothing to help the average unemployed American for at least a couple of years, and even then, the help will be marginal. Shockingly--and this really is a provision I do not think the Administration can afford politically--it will not even end the denial of insurance based upon pre-existing conditions until 2014. It gives those without employer-based insurance the right to buy US-government sponsored plans (like my own), but it is not yet clear to me who will pick up the employer's share and make them affordable. I have just read that the bill includes another awful provision, one allowing companies to sell any plan anywhere in the United States, and thus to evade stringent regulations and appeals processes in tough states, just as credit card companies already do. The White House seems to think that the mere act of signing the bill will project an image of effectiveness and accomplishment and create some momentum leading into the mid-term elections. It is true that the public, by substantial majorities, supports health care, including far more radical options than are going to pass--but it is simply not the most pressing concern, I would suspect, of those on the lower end of the economic spectrum. They need jobs. (Earlier this week, Arianna Huffington expressed these same fears rather eloquently, pointing out that Larry Summers is sounding more and more like Chauncey Gardner in Being There promising growth in the spring.)

The Lincoln Administration offers a different parallel, one which may become critical to President Obama's success. Like Obama, Lincoln came into office hoping to re-establish a minimum of consensus within the United States--which at that moment meant avoiding the break-up of the Union. For the better part of two months his policies successfully persuaded Virginia and North Carolina, at least, not to secede--but when the firing on Fort Sumter led to open war, he lost them as well, and began a military response. He used martial law to keep Maryland in the Union after Virginia and North Carolina left, but he most certainly did not, however, take any serious steps against slavery. Just as Obama is now a hostage to the progress of our economy, he was a hostage to the progress of the Northern armies, and particularly of the Army of the Potomac and General McLellan. Because McLellan's invasion of southern Virginia ended disastrously and because the North was still not solidly behind the war, the Democratic Party began doing very well in elections during 1862. (Elections in those days were held at different times throughout the year in different states.)

Lincoln's short-term response was to move in a more radical direction. First, the Emancipation Proclamation, while formally emancipating slaves only where Lincoln had no power to do so--inside the Confederacy itself--put him definitely in the abolitionist camp. Secondly, he fired McLellan because the general evidently lacked enough offensive spirit to actually crush the southern armies. Thirdly, he increased the pace of mobilization, to include even the very controversial draft. It took another two years for all those steps to pay off, but by late 1864 victory over the South was clearly in sight, and he was overwhelmingly re-elected.

We shall not see such dramatic events over the next three years, but the President needs a significant, if incomplete, economic recovery, such as Roosevelt enjoyed by the end of 1936, in order to regain momentum and perhaps even to make sure he is re-elected. Many of the younger voters who put him in office will surely vote next time based upon their economic situations. Meanwhile, if--as I believe--the financial system is still fundamentally unsound, then the danger of another crisis remains present. It will be devastating to whatever Administration is in power when it occurs.

Like Lincoln in his early years, President Obama seems to me to be suffering from a serious inhibition. He wants to avoid confirming his enemies' image of him. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the issue of taxes. The President is now also taking political heat because of the size of the deficit, which as a percentage of the GDP is higher than at any time since the end of the Second World War (although a long way from being as large as it was during that war.) Republicans, of course, are acting as if this problem first emerged on January 21, 2009. The following graph, produced by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities with the help of data from the Congressional Budget Office, very usefully tells us where our current woes come from.

This table seems to leave no doubt that the Bush tax cuts were, and remain, the principal cause of our financial crisis. Had the Bush Administration maintained the existing tax code, the then-existing surplus would have been eaten up by the recession of 2001 and the wars that Bush began, but the country would have been in far better financial shape to meet the current crisis. Tax increases on the highest brackets, it seems to me, would be an obvious political winner right now, particularly since the highest incomes--those enjoyed by investment bankers--are recovering so much more quickly than those of average Americans. Yet Obama in his first two years is teaching taxes the way Lincoln initially treated abolition, as the third rail that he does not want to touch. This is all the more serious since, as I have argued many times, low tax rates on the wealthy have done so much to strengthen the financial sector of our economy relative to the industrial sector, and to promote irresponsible financial practices that have already led to several crises and, I think, will inevitably lead to more.

It is, of course, because our situation is nowhere near as serious as it was in 1933 that the response has been so much more measured in its consequences. History, as Tocqueville wrote, is full of such paradoxes. And we face a truly new problem this time around. Never before, either in 1861 or in 1933, has Washington been inhabited by such a powerful army of lobbyists dedicated to the preservation--and indeed the growth--of an old order that has become dysfunctional. Had the southern states not seceded in 1861 and left their representatives in Washington, slavery could easily have been maintained where it existed for decades more. Ironically, white southerners destroyed the institution by deciding to make war over it. (So inconclusive were the results of the war, however, that they managed to re-establish white supremacy within two decades--another interesting lesson.) Our evils today are not nearly so grave as in 1861, and our economic situation--at least so far--is nowhere near as bad as in 1933. Because of this, most of those at the highest level--including in the White House itself--still believe that a modified form of business as usual is all we need. I am not convinced.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Peace or war?

President Obama clearly sees himself as a consensus-builder, both politically and, as it turns out, in the world of ideas. This week found him in the midst of an unfortunate coincidence: he had to accept the Nobel Peace Prize after announcing the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. The result was both eloquent and oddly ambivalent, and left room for almost any kind of foreign policy over the next few years. Like Franklin Roosevelt in 1937, the year of his ambiguous "quarantine" speech, the President seems to be looking for new ways to cope with a violent world--but like FDR, he remains trapped, it seems, by the political legacy of his time, however different Obama's may be today.

The President began by referring to some of the great idealists who had won the prize, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., but promptly said that he feels he must deal with the world as it is, including the war his predecessor bequeathed him in Afghanistan.

"But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."

Only a thoroughgoing pacifist--and we do not elect such to high office--could disagree with the principle behind that statement, but the implication that evil must always be met with force is disturbing. Certainly the vision for which the United States fights its wars is nearly always inspiring, but unfortunately, war often does less than nothing to turn it into reality. The ability to identify cases in which force will actually improve the situation is the single most important test of statesmanship. The President proceeded to address that question, but from only one particular perspective.

"To begin with, I believe that all nations -- strong and weak alike -- must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I -- like any head of state -- reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don't."

In fact, the United States during the last 60 years would have done much better had it confined itself to wars actively embraced by its major allies. They backed the initial intervention in Korea, but generally opposed the disastrous advance beyond the 38th parallel. Most of them had no interest in helping us in Vietnam. They backed Gulf War I, but (with the major exception of Britain), disdained Gulf War II. And they backed the initial intervention in Afghanistan--and, influenced by President Obama's enormous political capital, are now extending a bit more help to him there.

The President now bowed to another powerful tradition in American foreign policy, especially within his own party--that of humanitarian interventionism.

"And this becomes particularly important when the purpose of military action extends beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor. More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.

"I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That's why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace."

The President is a very smart man and I must believe that he knows things are not that simple. Peacekeeping did not end the conflict in Bosnia until it had essentially burnt itself out and ethnic cleansing had taken place on a grand scale. The Kossovo war stopped the ethnic cleansing of Albanians by Serbs, but has led to a gentler, more gradual cleansing of Serbs by Albanians. In Iraq, a war which the President had the sense to oppose, the presence of well over 100,000 American troops could not even prevent a civil war involving the ethnic cleansing of perhaps two million people from taking place. The model he is proposing--of a multilateral intervention by advanced nations to stop an ongoing civil war or overthrow a repressive regime--has never been successful in modern times.

The most Rooseveltian passage, so reminiscent of FDR's call for a "quarantine" of aggressors after the Sino-Japanese War had broken out in 1937, resumed the search for a magic bullet that began about a century ago.

"First, in dealing with those nations that break rules and laws, I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to actually change behavior -- for if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something. Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure -- and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one."

Sadly, President Obama has not decided to give frequent press conferences. If he did, he, like FDR, would probably face a question as to exactly what he has in mind. The record of economic sanctions as a means of changing the behavior of hostile states is almost uniformly discouraging. The example of Cuba, where 50 years of sanctions have done nothing but impose misery upon the Cuban people, is only the most striking of many.

Then President Obama addressed the issue of nuclear proliferation--in guarded terms that left open at least the possibility of reviving his predecessor's policy of preventive war.

"One urgent example is the effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and to seek a world without them. In the middle of the last century, nations agreed to be bound by a treaty whose bargain is clear: All will have access to peaceful nuclear power; those without nuclear weapons will forsake them; and those with nuclear weapons will work towards disarmament. I am committed to upholding this treaty. It is a centerpiece of my foreign policy. And I'm working with President Medvedev to reduce America and Russia's nuclear stockpiles.

"But it is also incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system. Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted. Those who care for their own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia. Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war."

I have of course been cheered by the President's advocacy of the elimination of nuclear weapons and his recognition of everyone's obligations under the Non-proliferation Treaty. That treaty, however, was an agreement among sovereign states, which any of them can legally denounce. For 55 years deterrence was our strategy against unfriendly nations that insisted upon having them. It should in my opinion remain our strategy against nuclear North Korea and potentially nuclear Iran. But it is far from clear that the President shares that view, based on the passage above. And he also opened the door to armed intervention to deal with repressive regimes.

"The same principle applies to those who violate international laws by brutalizing their own people. When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, repression in Burma -- there must be consequences. Yes, there will be engagement; yes, there will be diplomacy -- but there must be consequences when those things fail. And the closer we stand together, the less likely we will be faced with the choice between armed intervention and complicity in oppression.

It was at this point that the speech began to branch in several opposing directions. To begin with, the President discussed the conflict between realism and idealism, using language surprisingly reminiscent of George W. Bush.

"I reject these choices. I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear. Pent-up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence. We also know that the opposite is true. Only when Europe became free did it finally find peace. America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens. No matter how callously defined, neither America's interests -- nor the world's -- are served by the denial of human aspirations."

But at the same time, he endorsed what used to be called detente.

"Let me also say this: The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach -- condemnation without discussion -- can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.

"In light of the Cultural Revolution's horrors, Nixon's meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable -- and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty and connected to open societies. Pope John Paul's engagement with Poland created space not just for the Catholic Church, but for labor leaders like Lech Walesa. Ronald Reagan's efforts on arms control and embrace of perestroika not only improved relations with the Soviet Union, but empowered dissidents throughout Eastern Europe. There's no simple formula here. But we must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement, pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time."

I was sorry that the President did not do more to put today's threats in historical perspective. Al Queda is reportedly down to a strength of several hundred men--a figure which certainly calls the dispatch of 30,000 more Americans, and about 100,000 overall, to Afghanistan, into question. I am doubtful, too, that large-scale interventions are going to bring peace to the most troubled areas of Africa and Asia. Lastly, as I remarked after the Afghanistan speech, I am troubled when Christians or Jews tell Muslims what the Islamic religion does and does not allow, rather than appeal to international norms of behavior. The President's speech is a setback for those who, like myself, wanted him to steer a fundamentally different course from his predecessors, but it has so many different strains within it that, like Roosevelt's quarantine speech, it tells us little or nothing about what we will actually do in the years ahead.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Obama and Afghanistan

As a loyal citizen and a loyal Democrat, I hope that the decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan will produce a good result. Yet I cannot believe that it will. At worst, it will bring us to the end of the road to hell George W. Bush started us down almost exactly 8 years ago by bringing Islamists to power in Pakistan. At best, it will tie down our resources and attention for another three or four more years, only to produce an inconclusive and unpromising outcome rather like the one we can now see in Iraq. Meanwhile, I cannot believe that it will be politically advantageous to the Administration--certainly not among the voters, as opposed to the punditocracy of Washington, D. C.

In my opinion--and I could be wrong--this latest step is a victory for Osama Bin Laden and all he represents. 9/11, I have come to believe, was, from Bin Laden's perspective, a political master stroke. He wanted above all to discredit the Muslim regimes allied with the United States--and by provoking the invasions of two Muslim countries by George W. Bush, he gave a big boost to Islamic radicalism. The loss of Taliban power in Afghanistan was a setback that has now largely been made good. The elimination of Saddam Hussein was a boon both for Bin Laden and for Iran. What Bin Laden must fear more than anything else, and certainly more than his own death, is that he might return to the obscurity he so richly deserves. President Obama's decision insures that that will not happen any time soon.

For twenty years I have been teaching courses that relentlessly harp upon the same point: the results of any military action ultimately depend on its political effects, which in turn depend on political factors. Our policy depends on two political assumptions: that Afghanistan can create a viable government, and that Pakistan will prove itself at long last a dependable ally. Try as I might, I cannot put any faith in either assumption. We still have not found our way around the great unmentionable of the situation in Afghanistan: that the Taliban has come back in large part because powerful elements within the Pakistani government want it back in power in Afghanistan. And we are also refusing to face another unmentionable: that our policies in Afghanistan and in the tribal areas of Pakistan have made the Taliban a much more significant threat within Pakistan itself.

This evening as I drove home from work I heard Secretary of State Clinton proudly announce that NATO had pledged an additional 7000 troops. I was sad to think that for the next two years at least, the senior Obama national security team will be focused upon the fate of one of the poorest and remotest nations on earth, simply because, nine years ago, a terrorist attack on the United States was plotted there. I still think that the idea that we must create friendly, cooperative states in Muslim areas where states have failed or never existed is neither justifiable nor, above all, cost-effective. Attacks can be plotted anywhere and Bin Laden is now surely living in Pakistan. As my friend Andrew Bacevich explained two mornings ago on NPR, putting American troops in Afghanistan is not the way to head off new attacks in the west.

I am also worried about the purely military problem in Afghanistan. Empires based on naval supremacy such as the British in the last three centuries and the United States in the last 60 years do best in coastal regions. Afghanistan is landlocked and our supply lines, from Pakistan and Central Asia, are politically and militarily vulnerable. The longer that we keep large forces in ungovernable Muslim areas, the more sophisticated IED's will become.

I was sad listening to President Obama the other night because it seemed at times that he was trying to be himself and George W. Bush at the same time. I was particularly shocked when he accused terrorists of defiling the Muslim religion--it may be true, but it is not the place of non-Muslims to say so. He is taking a huge gamble, counting on his already enormous worldwide prestige to lead the world to fall in behind this new step--but, like JFK at the Bay of Pigs, also betting much of it on a very questionable enterprise. And he is taking a bigger risk at home. It is not generally understood that Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 initially pulled back from world affairs, and that until at least 1938 he ran a far more isolationist Administration than Herbert Hoover. He knew his most important work was at home. So is President Obama's.

Obama's decision has already won grudging endorsements from some Republicans (although the opposite decision could have done the same.) Given the overwhelming prejudice of our foreign policy establishment towards military action, he, like Lyndon Johnson in 1965, made the consensus foreign policy decision--which does not in the least make it the wisest one. I suspect he has disappointed a great many people around the world, but I hope it all works out.