Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bipartisanship No, Working Majority Yes

The topic below was originally posted on my blog, the Intrepid Liberal Journal.

In the grown up world, honorable and reasonable people may initially disagree but eventually compromise upon a collective review of empirical evidence. It was in this spirit, that the nascent Obama administration reached out to Republicans with respect to their proposed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which finally passed both houses of congress yesterday.

Unfortunately, most Republican politicians are neither honorable nor reasonable. Instead, most Republican politicians are predatory conservatives dedicated to establishing a permanent corporate theocratic plutocracy. As far as they’re concerned, the 2008 election is merely a temporary setback and attempting bipartisanship with this crowd resulted in legislation far less bold than most economists hoped for.

Hence, it is in the spirit of admiration and support that I urge this new administration to absorb the following lesson: Bipartisanship No, Working Majority Yes. President Obama is a quick study and has likely absorbed this lesson for himself. Indeed, I recall him often using the phrase “working majority” during the campaign. Nonetheless, it is instructive for both liberal activists as well his administration to always keep this simple phrase on the front lobes of our brains. Repeat after me: Bipartisanship No, Working Majority Yes.

This phrase is especially pertinent to the United States Senate. Senators are divas with parochial interests, outsized ambitions and a Constitution that empowers their narcissism. Hence, the only language these people truly understand is leverage with a proper dosage of ego massage. They know that any one of them has the power to hold any piece of proposed legislation hostage to their whims.

Indeed, senators sometimes behave as if they have the power of little Anthony Freemont in the classic Twilight Zone episode “It’s A Good Life.” Like that little boy, one can just imagine Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell, fantasizing about wishing supporters of universal healthcare into a cornfield never to be seen or heard from again. That is the mentality we’re dealing with.

The upside however is there will always be enough politicians prepared to bargain in order to elevate their own importance, demonstrate independence and serve the interests of their constituents. With respect to the stimulus legislation the three so-called Republican moderate senators were Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter and Maine’s Olympia Snow and Susan Collins. Connecticut’s “Independent” Republican patsy Joe Lieberman and conservative Nebraska Democrat, Ben Nelson, also joined those three in bargaining with the Obama administration, the Senate majority and the House of Representatives.

Had President Obama initially proposed legislation far bolder they still would have bargained, a filibuster majority still would have been achieved and the end result would have been far superior to the legislation that ultimately passed. Next time around it may be a different group of Republican senators and recalcitrant Democrats doing the bargaining, perhaps related to geographic interests. As long as President Obama’s political standing remains high, it will always be possible to cut deals on favorable terms with a rotating group of senators because their relevance depends upon it.

Hence, a working majority will always be ripe for plucking even without a filibuster proof majority. And even if we had sixty Democratic senators a few of them would threaten denying a filibuster proof majority to promote their independence and get what they want. At the end of the day, bipartisanship has nothing to with it. Leverage, enlightened self-interest, service to constituents or contributors and political survival are everything. There is no love in politics. Only leverage, respect and fear.

The appropriate posture is to treat reluctant politicians with symbolic respect, bargain hard for every penny and compromise from a position of strength. That is the best way to maximize potential of a working majority going forward while simultaneously maintaining broad public support. Sometimes, operating a working majority will require President Obama to demonstrate toughness, walk away and threaten vetoes if a few senators opt to behave like Anthony Freemont in the name of bipartisanship.

Barack Obama is an impressive human being with many admirable qualities. Indeed, Obama represents an ennobling change of pace after George W. Bush’s insipid indecency. He is learning however that governing is delicate balance requiring the dual personalities of Mahtatma Ghandi and Don Vito Corleone. If anyone can achieve that delicate balance it’s this president. Nonetheless, we must remain vigilant and toughen his hide.

Bipartisanship No, Working Majority Yes.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Reinventing America's Relations With the Muslim World: An Interview With Former CIA Analyst Emile Nakhleh

The topic below was originally posted on my blog, the Intrepid Liberal Journal.

Building consensus within America’s body politic and national security establishment for a new way forward with Muslims worldwide is a formidable challenge. Many Americans still don’t appreciate the complex nuances of Muslim society and remain stubbornly Islamophobic almost seven and half years after 9/11. Equally formidable is earning the goodwill of Muslims worldwide following the Iraq War as well as American atrocities perpetrated upon Islamic detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Hopefully, President Obama’s historic election has finally opened a path for constructive conversation about how America can most effectively engage the Muslim world.

The CIA’s former point man on Islam, Emile Nakahleh, has vigorously entered this conversation with his new book, A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations With the Muslim World (Princeton University Press). From 1991 to 2006, Nakahleh served as the director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program in the Directorate of Intelligence at the CIA. He holds a PhD in international relations and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Nakhleh’s book combines a revealing memoir with in-depth analysis and proposals for the future. Ever since his retirement from the CIA in 2006, Nakhleh has been a vociferous critic of the Bush Administration’s legacy with respect to American-Muslim relations. Indeed, in September 2006, Nakhleh told Harper’s Magazine that because of Bush’s policies,

“We've lost a generation of goodwill in the Muslim world.”
Nakhleh's proposals for improving American-Muslim relations stems from his conversations with Muslim "interlocutors" spanning three decades. These conversations include government ministers, Islamic activists, academics and radicals. Nakhleh also examined and analyzed considerable polling data of Muslims worldwide.

Overall, Nakhleh contends that the vast majority of Muslims and America have common interests and values. His blueprint includes robust dialogue with mainstream Islamic political parties as well as a tangible commitment towards democracy in the Muslim world, even if we don’t always like the short-term electoral results. His book is an accessible 160 pages and divided into four chapters: (Chapter 1) Political Islam and Islamization, (Chapter 2) Intelligence, Political Islam, and Policymakers, (Chapter 3) Public Diplomacy: Issues and Attitudes and (Chapter 4) Public Diplomacy: A Blueprint.

Nakhleh was born in Galilee, north of Nazareth in Palestine and raised a Greek Catholic. He emigrated from Israel to the United States approximately 50 years ago and attended a Benedictine university in Minnesota for his B.A., a Jesuit university in Washington, D.C., for an M.A. and was awarded a Ph.D. from the American University in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the CIA he taught at a catholic college in Maryland for 26 years.

Nakhleh agreed to a telephone interview with me in podcast format. Among the topics we discussed was whether he believes the surge in Iraq worked, the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran inside Iraq, President Obama’s new strategy in Afghanistan, Hamas and America’s role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his argument that American commitment to democracy in the Muslim world is imperative to our long term interests.

Some of Nakhleh’s answers and views may surprise many listeners. Our conversation was just over 47 minutes. Please refer to the flash media player below.

Either searching for the “Intrepid Liberal Journal” or “Robert Ellman” can also access this interview at no cost via the Itunes Store.

Please note that I erred in the audio introduction when I said Emile Nakhleh worked for the CIA between 1991 and 1996. I mean to say he worked for the CIA between 1991 and 2006. Also my apologies for the echo sound on Emile's side. Sometimes technology has its limits.