Watching the Fail

Like a dog worrying a bone, the American public can only obsess about one issue at a time, the big crisis of the day. Rupert Murdoch may be having a bad time, having much to explain to the British parliament, and the cream pie in his face was odd, and this may eventually mean that his king-making enterprises on this side of the pond – Fox News and the Wall Street Journal – may lose their ability to define American politics – but that was secondary to most people. And Murdoch may eventually tell the members of parliament to just shut up – he has long decided who gets to run for each seat, and who wins, and who gets to be the prime minister, and he bought the police long ago, all the way up to the head of Scotland Yard. So it’s his country, not theirs. That should put them in their place. But the whole thing is a secondary story.

And somebody might be following the Republicans trying to sort out who they will run against Obama the next time around, but they haven’t sorted that out. Political junkies follow the ups and downs of Romney and Bachmann, and now Rick Perry – who says Jesus may call him to run, and no one would vote against Jesus’ wishes, so that’s a done deal. And there are all the others, each with the charisma of utility-grade drywall, who will be gone soon enough, and the amusing Newt Gingrich and the absurdly persistent Rudy Giuliani and the inexplicable and scatterbrained but ever-belligerent Sarah Palin. Most of America is more than willing to wait and see how the Republicans sort that out. Following that now is for obsessive political junkies, or those with far too much time on their hands. They’ll choose someone. It can wait.

No, there is only one news story consuming America in the last weeks of July, now that our women’s soccer team lost that World Cup championship game, nobly and heroically, to the devastatingly methodical and quite fetching women from Japan. That’s over and done. The only story in the news is the debate over raising the debt ceiling – as on the second day in August we might just have to tell our creditors that yes, they lent us money – buying our treasury bills – but although we can pay them, we choose not to pay them.

Andrew Leonard puts it nicely:

There is a fundamental stupidity to the debt ceiling that defies understanding. Congress passes legislation that spends money: tax cuts, stimulus bills, defense appropriations, unfunded prescription drug entitlements, etc. As a consequence of such congressional action, U.S. government expenses exceed revenue. To make up the disparity, the Treasury must borrow money, and thus, inevitably, sooner or later, we smack into the debt limit.

At which point, Congress must raise the debt ceiling, or in effect, break the contracts it has entered into with bondholders, soldiers, Social Security recipients, government contractors and so on.

Not only is such deadbeat behavior generally frowned upon, but the economic consequences of failing to keep our bond, so to speak, are widely believed to be dire. That’s why, normally speaking, raising the debt ceiling is uncontroversial (we’ve done it 72 times since 1962). Sure, the minority party squawks, and occasionally there’s been a little tussle, but in the end, the limit gets raised.

So why do we need a debt ceiling? Leonard goes on to discuss the history of the thing – when Republicans took over Congress in the 1994 midterm election they ended the fifteen-year-old “Gephardt rule” – that rule raised the debt limit automatically if the consequences of congressional legislation increased the national debt. And now we have this madness. It has become a weapon, an “arbitrary limit that can be employed to extort unreasonable and unnecessary demands.” Give us what we want or we won’t raise that limit, and we’ll crash the world economy and usher in something far worse than the Great Depression.

That’s a pretty good tool, and the folks at the Onion simply remove all the extraneous noble talk going around about this:

Members of the U.S. Congress reported Wednesday they were continuing to carefully debate the issue of whether or not they should allow the country to descend into a roiling economic meltdown of historically dire proportions. “It is a question that, I think, is worthy of serious consideration: Should we take steps to avoid a crippling, decades-long depression that would lead to disastrous consequences on a worldwide scale? Or should we not do that?” asked House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), adding that arguments could be made for both sides, and that the debate over ensuring America’s financial solvency versus allowing the nation to default on its debt – which would torpedo stock markets, cause mortgage and interests rates to skyrocket, and decimate the value of the U.S. dollar – is “certainly a conversation worth having.”

That is about it, as is this – “At press time, President Obama said he personally believed the country should not be economically ruined.”

Now there’s a news story. It’s more exciting than that World Cup thing. And who cares about Rupert Murdoch?

And on Tuesday, July 19, it looked liked there might be a way out of this mess, as the “Gang of Six” plan was unveiled – six senators coming up with a plan that would make almost four trillion dollars in cuts, transforming the government into next to nothing, as the Republicans urge, and about a modest increase in taxes on millionaire and billionaires, which they think is stupid and evil and wrong and whatever else you like. But the massive spending cuts – finally, devastating cuts in everything that had to do with the social safety net – were well received, and the tax thing accepted by many Republicans, those not engaged in temper-tantrums and posturing. This might work. Obama made brief remarks – he’s fine with it – and the markets soared. Maybe the country would not descend into a roiling economic meltdown of historically dire proportions after all. Roiling economic meltdowns of historically dire proportions are bad for business.

Kevin Drum reviews the details of the tax revenue part of the plan – those are complex and puzzling. And he notes this:

The Gang of Six plan raises taxes way more than the plan Boehner rejected because his conference was dead set against it. And that’s in addition to the fact that it’s obviously far too complex to be put into legislative language, scored, and moved through Congress in less than two weeks. So explain to me again why everyone was so excited about this?

This was not the answer, or might not be the answer that’s in time. And the Tea Party folks in the House, who really do want nothing less than a roiling economic meltdown of historically dire proportions, to prove their point or something, are organizing to sink this. And after a discussion of the implications of all that stuff, Drum adds this:

Frankly, I’m not really sure what’s going on anymore and I’m not sure anyone else is either. For now, I’m going to stick with my guess that we’ll blow by the August 2nd deadline, markets will go nuts, and we’ll end up with some kind of debt ceiling increase by August 7th. We’ll see.

And everyone sees the real problem here. Obama backed this plan, and as Ezra Klein documents, if Obama’s for it House Republicans will be against it – as in Mike Allen’s Politico Playbook Wednesday morning:

A Senate Republican leadership aide emails with subject line “Gang of Six”: “Background guidance: The President killed any chance of its success by 1) Embracing it. 2) Hailing the fact that it increases taxes. 3) Saying it mirrors his own plan.”

And Andrew Leonard summarizes:

So, the Gang of Six plan increases taxes on the wealthy, can’t be translated into legislation by August 2nd, and is supported by the President. Maybe it’s time to rethink that market euphoria. In retrospect, the excitement seems best explained as sign of how desperate investors are for anything that remotely smells like a solution.

Well, that’s the big story that is sucking up all the air in the room. Things are hopeless. Is there anything more to say?

Of course one of the things driving our debt, along with tax cuts for the rich costing us seven hundred billion dollars in lost revenue, are the two major wars underway – Iraq winding down and Afghanistan not winding down, although the idea is we might wind that one down too, one day. Neither was paid for. It was all borrowed money. But at least they’re going well.

But in the New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson notes something distressing:

In Afghanistan’s politics, it has become a question of not if, but when, your killers come for you. At the rate things are going, Hamid Karzai himself will be fortunate to survive his Presidency. A few days back, a suicide bomber exploded himself at his brother’s funeral. Four mourners were killed and several wounded, but luckily for Karzai, he and his other family members were unhurt. In fact, homicide is the odds-on likeliest way to leave office for Afghan’s President. Four out of Afghanistan’s last six leaders have been murdered, three of them in office.

No one follows such things, but they are interesting:

In Afghanistan, political retirement is increasingly a matter of murder. A week ago, it was Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s brother and the strongman of Kandahar. On Sunday, it was another Karzai ally: Jan Muhammad Khan, an ex-warlord and ex-governor of Oruzgan, a southern, insurgent-and-opium-rich Afghan province. He was brazenly murdered when his Kabul home was attacked by two gunmen. (The Taliban claimed responsibility.) …

The Taliban seem to be effectively pursuing a strategy of assassination the length and breadth of Afghanistan. The goal, no doubt, is to further loosen the government’s tenuous hold on power as the U.S. and NATO military forces begin their long-announced drawdown and withdrawal from the country.

In April it was the turn of Khan Muhammad Mujahid, the police chief of Kandahar, killed by two gunmen in police uniforms. There have been numerous attacks by Taliban infiltrators embedded within the Afghan police and Army in the past year, suggesting widespread infiltration of the government’s forces by the insurgents. A number of American, British, and other foreign advisors have frequently been the targets of these Trojan-horse attacks.

In May, a suicide bomber killed another close U.S. ally, Muhammad Daud Daud, the counter-narcotics minister and former Northern Alliance warlord. (He was crucial in the defeat of the last Taliban and Al Qaeda northern bastions, of Taloqan and Kunduz, respectively, in 2001). At the time of his death, Daud was the police chief of the north, and, despite private misgivings among some Western advisers about his fiscal propriety and reputed past involvement in the drug trade, he was regarded as a firm anti-Taliban asset who could be counted on in the larger battle for control of the country.

Something is up here, and no one is paying attention, except for Fred Kaplan, arguing that the killing of Hamid Karzai’s brother means the war in Afghanistan is going worse than we thought:

The high-profile assassinations this past week of President Hamid Karzai’s brother and one of his close associates send a clear message to Afghan people who are sitting on the fence: If Karzai and the American military can’t protect powerful guys like this, they certainly can’t protect you. If this perception deepens, it may be game-over not just for Karzai’s regime but for the U.S.-NATO war effort.

And this is pretty simple:

Most insurgency wars are wars for the allegiance or control of the people. They are, in part, fought the same way all wars are fought, with combatants on two or more sides trying to kill one another. But the metrics of success are very different. These wars, ultimately, are not about conquering territory (insurgents hold no territory) or winning battles (insurgents fight battles of their choosing and can simply melt into the population if they figure the odds are against them). The “center of gravity,” as strategists put it, is the population.

The insurgents usually have the easier task: They make progress by sowing disorder and thus undermining the government’s legitimacy. The regime and the counterinsurgents (in this case, the United States, NATO, and the budding Afghan security forces) have to restore or maintain order – and earn, or win back, legitimacy. There are different criteria of legitimacy, depending on the society or political culture. But one standard is fairly universal: The people have to feel secure.

It is this sense of security that the recent assassinations threaten to undermine.

Did we just throw away half a trillion dollars and eight years of effort? It might seem so:

There were also the recent attacks at Kabul airport and the Intercontinental Hotel; the string of killings of American and Afghan security forces by insurgents who’d infiltrated the Afghan army or police; and several earlier assassinations of local officials and police chiefs – figures less prominent than those gunned down in the past few days but well-known in the villages where they’d served.

These are not random acts of terror but very precise and purposeful ones. The attacks on the hotel and the airport are designed to dissuade international-aid workers and prospective investors from coming to Afghanistan to bolster the regime. The infiltrations of the police and military are designed to sow distrust between NATO and Afghan security forces, just as the training and transition programs are being accelerated. The lower-level assassinations are designed to do on a local level what the killings of Karzai’s brother and associates do on a national level: to convince the people that the regime can’t protect them and that, therefore, they shouldn’t cooperate with the regime or its foreign allies.

Where is the momentum we say we’re gaining?

This momentum is real: more Afghan security forces recruited, trained, and equipped; more provinces cleared of the Taliban’s complete domination; more mid-level (and a few high-level) Taliban leaders killed or captured in raids and drone-strikes.

But momentum is a dicey thing in an insurgency war. It can be turned on the proverbial dime; and, in any case, tactical military gains don’t have much value if they’re not followed up with political achievements. And a big problem with this war is that Karzai’s regime – corrupt, incompetent, and often unwilling to delegate power to independent local leaders – has been slow, at best, in following up.

And we’re backing a loser. And the folks we’re backing keep getting bumped off:

The Taliban are not very popular, but they don’t have to be. Many Afghan people remember the harshness of the Taliban’s rule. Many may also know (though this is less certain) that the dramatic rise in civilian casualties in the past six months is the result primarily of the Taliban. (A United Nations report estimates that the Taliban – not U.S., NATO, or Afghan security forces – are responsible for 80 percent of these casualties.)

But this doesn’t matter. The beleaguered Afghan people aren’t going to risk their lives for their government if their government can’t provide them security. And that’s why the killings of the past week – piled on top of the regime’s many other failures and shortcomings – may bode ill for the course of the entire war.

Okay, okay – that’s not the big news story of the day. But Rupert Murdoch does say he’s very sorry. And the Republicans are far from choosing their man or woman to run against Obama next year. And Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead – but you knew that too. No news there. And you also know that a roiling economic meltdown of historically dire proportions looks inevitable. Is the obviously inevitable news?

Just note like that dog worrying a bone, we have forgotten the wars. And the war in Afghanistan is one of the reasons that a roiling economic meltdown of historically dire proportions is bearing down on us. We never paid for it. We borrowed the money to do that. It all fits together. And there’s no way we can win there either.

But now it’s time for the cheery and hopeful wrap-up to this…

And now…


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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