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Special Section: Hunt Watch (Series 3)
What and Why
Everybody has a least favorite columnist. Mine (despite stiff competition from many quarters) is Al Hunt, whose smirking, inaccurate, idea-free, ad hominem insinuations have appeared in every Thursday's Wall Street Journal for more years that I care to look up. The purpose of this section is to subject Mr. Hunt's effusions to what I hope will be rational analysis. I shall do my best to be fair and, in particular, to give the target credit for any wisdom that he imparts. I'm not anticipating, however, that I will face that task very often.
Headline dates are those on which the column appeared. I don't expect to respond on the same day but will try to be more or less timely.
Note, 3/18/03: "Hunt Watch" is not forgotten, but the past week has featured events of sufficient magnitude to distract me from Al Hunt's follies. I'll catch up soon. [Note to note: "Soon" turned out to be not such a short interval, but "Hunt Watch (Series 4)" began with Mr. Hunt's September 18, 2003, column.
February 27, 2003
Not too many months ago, Al Hunt was urging the Democratic Party to make opposition to war against Iraq the centerpiece of the 2002 election campaign (9/5/02). In this week's column, he concedes the existence of "a very compelling case that Saddam has clearly violated the United Nations resolutions and is a danger to the region and to the world". He likewise admits that, contrary to his one-time apprehensions,
The war – still a virtual certainty – is likely to be short with minimal casualties; we'll occupy Baghdad within weeks. And don't worry about Saddam on the lam a la Osama; this guy lives in palaces, not off the land. Then in short order it'll be clear the Iraqis illegally possess weapons of mass destruction and the human-rights horrors of Saddam's regime will be fully bared. War critics will be on the defensive.
Do these statements come from a mea culpa in which Mr. Hunt reconsiders his unreflecting denigration of President Bush's common sense and competence? Of course not. The sneers merely move to a different level. The United States may be winning the war on the ground, but it is "losing in the court of world opinion". Why? The answer given in "Our Way or the Highway" [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] is murky. I shall try to decipher it step by step.
"Size of protests it's like deciding, 'Well, I'm going to decide policy based upon a focus group.'"
– President Bush, when asked last week about millions of anti-war protestors [sic] around the world.
Polls and focus groups are used by every major American politician, none more than George W. Bush. These can be misused in two ways: to substitute for principles and policies or to dismiss findings as inconvenient.
George W. Bush understands that domestically; virtually every pronouncement or message is shaped by the White House's extensive public soundings. But the administration is tone deaf when it comes to opinion elsewhere; there seems little desire to understand, or even acknowledge, the growing negative view of America around the world.
Does Mr. Hunt mean that the anti-war protests were a kind of worldwide focus group? If so, he presumably does not think that the President should have used these "public soundings" to decide whether to depose Saddam Hussein. Mr. Hunt himself now thinks that getting rid of Saddam is a good idea, and he says that focus group surveys should not "substitute for principles and policies".
If he has any coherent concept here, it is that the protests should in some way have "shaped" White House pronouncements and messages about the war. He doesn't explain how.
The pro-Saddamites who marched on the weekend of February 22nd were, judging by their signs and slogans, hard-core Anti-Americans and antisemites, turning out in unprecedented force because they can no longer trust long-cherished illusions about the decadence of the U.S. and the imminent collapse of Israel. I think that the President understands and acknowledges their "negative view of America" well enough. In the same way President Reagan understood and acknowledged the anti-Americanism of those who wanted the United States to surrender in the Cold War. Some views, once understood, can only be firmly resisted.
Mr. Hunt nonetheless sees "the court of world opinion" as an important forum, in which our country is doing badly, largely because of "the hubris the administration displays – torching the Kyoto treaty rather than trying to improve it, nixing the International Criminal Court embraced by 100 other nations." There are three points here, which need to be looked at separately:
1. How important is "world opinion" to American interests, and in what way?
2. Is the United States doing badly in that arena?
3. If so, what are the reasons for American unpopularity, and what can be done about it?
1. On the first question, Mr. Hunt offers a couple of rather peculiar thoughts:
"It may not matter on the battlefield, but world opinion is critical to sustaining American leadership," ventures Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. "This goes beyond the contentious French or unreliable Germans. It's difficult to find a single country that supports American foreign policy. That is really very serious."
The administration, or the Cheney-Rumsfeld wing, dismisses such criticism, arguing that the old Cold War international alliances, where we had common interests, are increasingly irrelevant. The alternative to U.S.-led and dictated action is a dangerous passivity. On the looming war to get rid of Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction, they say: lead and the rest will follow.
It's easy to compile a long list of countries that support American policy in the War on Terror in general and on Iraq in particular: Britain, Spain, Italy, Australia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, the Netherlands, Israel, Turkey (a plurality of whose parliament backs allowing a large military presence to fight Iraq, though gaining the necessary absolute majority is proving difficult) and so on. It is the obdurate dissenters that are "difficult to find". Germany and France may be doing all that they can to derail the overthrow of the Ba'athist regime in Iraq, but the former still tries to gain American good will by sending troops to Afghanistan, and French officials keep making ambivalent noises about how they will be on our side "in the end". Since Mr. Brzezinski doesn't ordinarily utter complete nonsense, one suspects that Mr. Hunt's quotation is not entirely reliable or that "supports American foreign policy" is meant in an absolutist sense: No country agrees with the United States all the time on every issue. That is true, but a reason for worry only if we really do want satellites rather than allies.
The position attributed to "the Cheney-Rumsfeld wing" is pretty innocuous. Commentators of all stripes have for years questioned whether "the old Cold War international alliances" have any meaning when the threat that they were organized to confront has vanished. Nor does anyone seriously think that, without "U.S.-led and dictated action", the rest of the world would ever do anything about Saddam Hussein. During the Clinton Administration, when the U.S. remained passive, other nations were passive, too, or worked actively to dismantle economic sanctions against Iraq. "Lead and the rest will follow" is the simple lesson of experience. It hardly implies that Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld don't care whether anybody else follows or not.
Taking it for granted that the White House hawks would just as soon not have allies, Mr. Hunt advances reasons why they will be useful in reconstructing Iraq and dealing with other crises, such as North Korea's nuclear threat. No doubt, but assistance in those areas is most likely to be motivated by other nations' own interests, not by their abstract attitudes toward the American foreign policy. Once Saddam is overthrown, desire for good relations with the new government of a major oil supplier will probably attract more "help" than we can use. It is a sign of how unserious tirades about American "hegemony" really are that France, Germany and Russia apparently take it for granted that we won't prevent their companies from returning to Iraq after the war.
The North Korean crisis is a superlative example of the role of "allies" in the post-Cold War environment. All of the countries that Pyongyang directly menaces – South Korea, China, Japan – are eager for distant America to take the lead in resolving the problem. Fear of the so-far-minuscule North Korean nuclear deterrent makes them shy away from doing anything to eliminate it themselves. That is the responsibility of the "hyperpower", and the more unilaterally it acts, the  happier others will be.
So, contrary to Mr. Hunt's assertions, the Bush Administration does not scorn allies. Where gathering them is difficult, a major obstacle is, ironically, the perception of overwhelming American strength. Why should others run any risks to furnish marginal help to a power that doesn't need it, especially when the U.S. is unlikely to punish them for failure to lend a hand?
2. Aside from his absurd Brzezinski quote, Mr. Hunt's proof that the U.S. is "losing in the court of world opinion" consists of the observation that "the opposition to this administration's policies and, personally, to this president, are far more pervasive [than the Islamic world and France]; no region and few countries are immune. Successful national campaigns recently in Germany, South Korea and Brazil had one common element: anti-Americanism", coupled with a sidebar of poll results showing that residents of Spain, Russia, Argentina and Pakistan overwhelmingly answer in the negative when asked whether American foreign policy has a positive or negative effect on their countries.
These bits of evidence are far from compelling. As I have discussed elsewhere, foreign views of American policy are often ambivalent or self-contradictory. That has been the case for decades. Mr. Hunt presents -- and I know of -- no reason to believe that negativism toward the U.S. has increased markedly under the Bush Administration or has any close relationship to its actions.
3. Regardless of the extent of anti-Americanism in the world, we would all prefer to have less of it and therefore are interested in its causes. Mr. Hunt is confident that he knows the culprit: "the caricature is of an out-of-control, haughty country bent on a domineering hegemony". Though he uses the word "caricature", Al thinks that the picture is true to life:
The Bush policies reflect more the post-World War I Wilsonian arrogance, including the moral piety, than the inclusive sensitivity of post-World War II's Harry Truman and George Marshall.
To be sure, as the world's only superpower, resentment is inevitable. But the hubris the administration displays – torching the Kyoto treaty rather than trying to improve it, nixing the International Criminal Court embraced by 100 other nations – makes it considerably worse.
Further on, he laments "the verbally reckless" Don Rumsfeld's lack of respect for the tender feelings of other countries' leaders.
Mr. Hunt has heard admirers of George W. Bush call his policies "Wilsonian", which is enough to turn "Wilsonian" into a derogatory epithet in his vocabulary. Yet the specific point toward which he directs his criticism, viz., the President's refusal to subordinate American decision making to international organizations, is one for which "Wilsonian" is clearly the wrong adjective. President Wilson placed his highest hopes in the League of Nations. President Bush displays little faith in the ability of the League of Nations' successors to accomplish much. It is his critics, the incessant champions of "multilateralism" who denounce the Administration for "torching" international agreements, who are the Wilsonians here, complete with President Wilson's penchant for gestures rooted in pious emotion. The Kyoto Treaty and the International Criminal Court have much more to do with making moral statements than resolving practical problems. The former would, if implemented, retard global warming by less than a decade, and the latter is, as I have discussed elsewhere, a sanctimonious pipe dream.
Equally ahistorical is "the inclusive sensitivity of post-World War II's Harry Truman and George Marshall". The Truman Doctrine was as much an exercise in line drawing as the Bush declaration of "with us or against us". Mr. Hunt writes as if it were the charter of multiculturalism.
The nub of Mr. Hunt's charge of "hubris", if it has a nub, is the familiar refrain of "unilateralism". If only America would go along with the consensus of world opinion on the environment, war crimes, etc., it would incline favorably to us. Perhaps it would, or perhaps it would demand further concessions on our part. If the U.S. had signed on to Kyoto and ICC, is it really likely that Germany and France would be cheering on our efforts against Saddam?
In fact, American forbearance in wielding power is a phenomenon unparalleled in history. A real hegemon wouldn't be wooing insignificant members of the United Nations Security Council for a nineteenth resolution condemning Saddam Hussein's intransigence. Turning to lesser matters, it certainly would not tolerate the unilateral attempts of the European Union to impose EU policy preferences on the rest of the planet in areas ranging from capital punishment to antitrust law to the metric system.
Secretary Rumsfeld's colorful rhetoric is no sign of a "haughty country bent on a domineering hegemony" but a wartime tactic. As New York Times-man Thomas Friedman – no conservative and no hawk – writes in his latest book, "From here forward, it's the bad guys who need to be afraid every waking moment. The more frightened our enemies are today, the fewer we will have to fight tomorrow." The Rumsfeld image warns that America takes slights seriously and is not to be trifled with. That is exactly what we want the other side to think.
The Secretary's bluntness also imposes sanctions, if only verbal ones, against politicians in friendly nations who indulge in cheap anti-Americanism. His crack about how the three nations that we are sure won't support us in Iraq are Cuba, Libya and Germany undoubtedly stung many Germans, but it was just retaliation for months of hostile declarations from Berlin. If Chancellor Schröder wishes to gain domestic political advantage from an intransigent anti-war stance, it is only fair to point out what sort of company he is keeping.
In his concluding paragraph, Mr. Hunt offers his bottom line suggestion for reducing ill will abroad.
At home, the White House appreciates that most politicians won't support them if their constituents feel otherwise; that's one reason they do so many polls and focus groups. They need to understand reality doesn't stop at the water's edge.
Unfortunately, as the unimpressive performance of the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy shows, the United States has no effective means of influencing other countries' electorates – and those electorates' leaders would be outraged if we did. Turning the War on Terror into a species of political campaign would be a futile, indeed silly, exercise. In the long run, success in defeating the specter of terrorsim will engender as much popularity as we need. If we fail, popularity will be no consolation for us or anybody else.
[To comment, click here.]
February 20, 2003
Judicial nominations, contentious affairs since the Presidency of John Adams, have risen to a new level of discord this year as the Senate Democratic leadership filibusters against appeals court nominee Miguel Estrada. There have been quite a few controversial appointments to judgeships in recent years – Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and Daniel Manion to the Seventh Circuit, for example – but never before has either party deployed the filibuster, the Senatorial equivalent of nuclear weaponry, to block a nominee. [1]
So what is it about the Estrada nomination that justifies the Democrats' unprecedented maneuver? Al Hunt would like us to believe that it is simply a matter of "Symmetry in Judicial Nominations" [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only]. He leads by presenting the dispute as nothing more than a routine disagreement about the significance of election results:
The White House has a message for Democratic senators tying up its judicial nominations: we won the election, you're thwarting the people's will.
Not quite. Never mind it was an evenly divided electorate. The selection of judges was a non-issue. George W. Bush didn't even mention the topic in his speech at the GOP's Philadelphia convention or in his acceptance remarks when he finally emerged victorious – thanks to judges – after Florida. [Note how the media recounts, demonstrating that Mr. Bush owed his election to the voters in Florida rather than the judges in Washington, have not influenced Mr. Hunt. They might as well not have been conducted.]
Does Mr. Hunt mean to suggest that judicial appointments are an optional Presidential activity, in which he should not indulge unless he has a mandate from the electorate? Judges form a co-equal branch of the federal government. Keeping their ranks filled is a constitutional duty, not just a policy preference.
The Constitution provides that judges are to be appointed only with the advice and consent of the Senate. Senators Daschle and Schumer and Leahy and the other Democratic ringleaders have every legal and moral right to advise against Miguel Estrada or any other nominee. They are not, however, making a case and presenting it for the consideration of the other solons. Instead, they are trying to prevent the Senate from giving advice one way or the other.
Our system of government gives a great deal of leeway for delay and outright obstruction. Those are part of the checks and balances that have worked splendidly for most of the Nation's history. But custom has set limits on the use of dilatory tactics. If it hadn't, the government would have dissolved into impotent chaos decades ago.
In the case of judgeships, a few practices have evolved to limit the risk of deadlock when different parties control the Presidency and the Senate. First, with the rarest of exceptions, nominees used to be entitled to a floor vote unless they were named in the latter part of a Presidential election year, in which case the more controversial might be put off until after the election. Second, when a nomination became controversial, all sides at least pretended to base their positions primarily on the nominee's character, intelligence, experience and judicial temperament rather than his ideology. Third, to defeat a nomination, its opponents had to muster a majority vote. Not even against Clarence Thomas, whom they accused of near-criminal conduct, or Dan Manion, whom they denounced as a right-wing extremist moron, did the naysayers conduct a filibuster. As recently as 1998, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) declared, "I would object and fight against any filibuster of a judge, whether somebody I opposed or supported. . . . If we don't like somebody the president nominates, vote him or her down. But don't hold them in this anonymous unconscionable limbo, because in doing that, the minority of Senators really shame all Senators."
When the Democrats gained a tenuous Senate majority in June 2001, they scrapped the first two of those traditions, bottling up a large proportion of President Bush's nominees in the Judiciary Committee and declaring explicitly that their motives were purely ideological. Now that they no longer have Judiciary as a handy burial ground, they have revolted against the tradition of allowing all nominations to come to a vote. Senator Leahy, who five years ago said that he "would object and fight against any filibuster of a judge", is today one of the leaders of – a filibuster of a judge.
Mr. Hunt wants to steer the discussion in other directions by pretending that what his Democratic friends are doing is run-of-the-mill:
Currently, Senate Democrats are staging a mini-filibuster [note the weasely attempt to minimize its significance] over the nomination of movement conservative Miguel Estrada for the U.S. Court of Appeals to the dismay of not only Republicans but many editorial writers. How dare they employ politics!
The dismay stems, however, from the fact that Mr. Estrada's foes are going outside the bounds of ordinary politics. Among the editorial writers at whom Mr. Hunt sneers are those of the liberal Washington Post, who pointed out a few days before he wrote that the Democrats' tactics will rebound against them in the long run: "If Mr. Estrada cannot get a vote, there will be no reason for Republicans to allow the next David S. Tatel – a distinguished liberal member of the court – to get one when a Democrat someday again picks judges."
Perhaps sensing that more than just "politics" is at issue, Mr. Hunt rushes to assure any Democrats who might be wavering that, whatever the rights or wrongs of the case, they don't jeopardize their reelection chances if they talk the nomination to death.
For all the emotions judicial appointments arouse on both sides, the political implications for senators are wildly exaggerated. Over the past several decades the only one who lost an election because of a judicial vote was Illinois Democrat Alan Dixon, defeated in a primary after he voted to confirm Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. What these battles are about is energizing the base; that's why during presidential campaigns they are retail, not wholesale, issues.
So what nominating Miguel Estrada – a distinguished appellate lawyer who, at 42 years old, has already argued 15 cases before the Supreme Court and received the left-leaning American Bar Association's highest rating – is "about is energizing the base"! So Senators shouldn't be overly concerned about the merits of the nominations, because "the political implications . . . are wildly exaggerated" (but – hint, hint – the Democratic base just might punish an incumbent who votes the wrong way). Mr. Hunt usually keeps his Beltway cynicism under better control than this.
Now comes further insistence that the Dems are just being balanced and reasonable:
In these matters there should be a simple test: symmetry. Or, as former Clinton Solicitor General Walter Dellinger declares, "Whatever factor a President may properly consider, senators should also consider." Since ideology clearly is the guiding force behind the slate of Bush circuit court nominees, it's perfectly appropriate for Senate Democrats to use the same standard.
This argument has two levels of irrelevance. First, the propriety of filibustering judicial nominees has nothing to do with whether ideology is a proper factor for a Senator to consider in deciding how to vote. Traditionally, Senators have not filibustered judges even when they regarded the nominee as grossly unqualified. Second, if one is going to be "symmetrical", ideology should have no greater weight on one side than the other. Mr. Estrada has abundant qualifications for the bench that have nothing to do with his political opinions. He obviously wasn't picked solely, or primarily, because he is a conservative. Yet the Democratic filibusterers are, by their own account, opposed to him because of ideology and nothing else. They are not applying "the same standard" as the White House but a wholly different one that ignores most of what is important to serving successfully as a judge.
Having raised ideology as a crucial qualification, Mr. Hunt might at least explain what his so terrible about Mr. Estrada's. Yet all that he says about it is this:
Orrin Hatch is outraged at Democrats' insistence that nominee Miguel Estrada, who refuses to express an opinion on any Supreme Court decision, be more forthcoming. Yet it was only a few years ago that the same Utah Republican was insisting on the need "to review . . . nominees with great specificity."
That's it. During his confirmation hearings, Mr. Estrada stated that, as an appellate court judge, he would follow all Supreme Court precedents and declined to enter into theoretical debates about which of those precedents were right and which were wrong. Senator Schumer and other committee Democrats questioned him about inter alia the Court's decisions on the death penalty, the Bakke case, which struck down racial quotas in university admissions, and Lopez v. U.S., in which the Justices held that the Gun-Free School Zones Act exceeded Congressional authority. Their unhidden agenda was to prod the nominee into saying that these holdings were erroneous. His refusal to go along is the basis for charges that he is some sort of "stealth extremist".
It is not, of course, the business of lower court judges to substitute their opinions for binding precedents. The committee has examined Mr. Estrada on that point "with great specificity". As a member of the Post's editorial board points out, he has said as much about his political and judicial philosophy as any past nominee. To argue that his judicious reticence is grounds for a filibuster is so absurd that it's doubtful that his critics themselves believe it.
The column then wanders off to what Mr. Hunt thinks is wrong with the judges appointed by Republican Presidents. It is the usual tissue of complaints: Conservative judges are "judicial activists". They have construed narrowly laws that liberals would like to have expanded. They are in thrall to "the right-wing Federalist Society [whose] agenda envisions an activist judiciary that would roll back many of the guarantees enacted by Congress". One nominee "clearly would turn back the clock on protecting people with disabilities". (What that means is that he represented an Americans With Disabilities Act defendant before the Supreme Court and won his case.)
Whatever the merits of such arguments, they are beside the point. For a Senator to vote against a nominee because he isn't sufficiently liberal may be defensible, but the immediate question is whether Miguel Estrada is so reprehensible that a minority of Senators are justified in preventing any vote at all.
Mr. Hunt avoids giving an answer. Yet, though he doesn't bother with a rational defense of his liberal comrades' tactics, he does offer the White House a "compromise", devised by Clinton Administration solicitor general Walter Dellinger:
Mr. Dellinger, for one, notes that if the focus is only on "noncontroversial" selections, the result chiefly would be courts full of "relatively undistinguished lawyers lacking any substantial record of creative scholarship or advocacy." Instead, he proposes a more constructive solution. Opposition leaders in the Senate would develop a short list of distinguished scholars and practitioners for the president to submit for the courts of appeal. There is a precedent: President Bush last year renominated Clinton nominee, Roger Gregory, the first African American on the Fourth Circuit, in to win acceptance for his other nominees.
Currently, Mr. Dellinger says if Senate Democrats proposed a "distinguished" nominee like former Solicitor General Seth Waxman for the U.S. Circuit Court, a deal could be crafted whereby he and Bush nominees Mr. Estrada and John Roberts are promptly confirmed. Republicans still would hold the upper hand, but the rightward rush would be modified.
There are many drawbacks to altering the constitutional allocation of powers at this late date, but, on a practical level, one need look no further than the "precedent" that Mr. Hunt cites. In his first batch of eleven nominations for Circuit Court vacancies, President Bush included two previous Clinton appointees: Judge Gregory and Judge Barrington Parker (for the Second Circuit). Did that gesture "win acceptance for his other nominees"? The Senate confirmed Judge Gregory on July 20, 2001, Judge Parker on October 11. The remaining nine waited quite a bit longer. Only two, neither of them particularly controversial, were confirmed before the 2002 election: Edith Brown Clement (Fifth Circuit) on November 13, 2001, and Terrence Boyle (Fourth Circuit) on April 15, 2002. Immediately after the election, two more got through. The Senate Democrats have so far prevented the remaining five, including Miguel Estrada, from coming up for a vote. Based on that experience, why should the President try the same bargain again? And why should anybody believe that the next Democratic President will feel bound by a deal that no longer offers any partisan advantage?
The arguments for letting the opposition party appoint an unspecified proportion of the judiciary are not, in any event, impressive. It would lead to a more politically balanced bench, but the Nation has never suffered grievously from having a majority of judges from one party or the other. Judges' insulation from politics makes them notoriously unpredictable. Famous examples are President Eisenhower's selections of Supreme Court Justices Warren and Brennan. On the other side, the Warren Court's leading conservatives were named by Presidents Roosevelt (Felix Frankfurter), Truman (Tom Clark) and Kennedy (Byron White). History does not suggest the need for any special measures to achieve political parity.
What the judiciary does need is lawyers of high intellectual caliber. Most of its work has little to do with political philosophy and much to do with understanding an increasingly recondite body of legislation and case law. The present system doesn't produce a unbroken array of Marshalls and Storys and Frankfurters. What system could? But we can be certain that divvying the posts between the parties will lead to less, rather than more, scrutiny of the nominees' qualifications, no matter how loud the pledges to pick only "distinguished scholars and practitioners".
With the Senate Democrats having resorted to weapons previously considered illegitimate by everyone, any high-minded truces that they now offer will stand on the same level as Germany's peace feelers to England after the fall of France. I doubt that the President will be interested in negotiating. Another two years' stalemate would be unpleasant, but yielding to extortion will make the period less pleasant yet. The Estrada filibuster is an assertion of raw power, an effort by the left-most wing of the Democratic Party to cow an Administration whose right to office they deny into yielding part of its authority. Success here would lead to attacks on other fronts. Ultimately, it would lead to a usurpation of constitutional authority by a minority of one House, based simply on its ability to bring the government to a halt if its demands are not met. It would be better that no judges by confirmed for the next two years than to let the Constitution be turned into a sham.
1. There is a partial exception that shows the strength of the rule: In 1968 Lyndon Johnson nominated Abe Fortas, already on the Supreme Court, to succeed Earl Warren as Chief Justice. A few conservatives objected on ideological grounds, but the nomination faced no serious obstacles until evidence came to light showing that Justice Fortas had engaged in some rather dubious conduct, including briefing the White House on confidential Court deliberations and accepting subventions from a foundation linked to organized crime. (The latter involvement eventually led to his resignation from the Court.) The upshot was that many Senators became wary of casting an up-or-down vote. They did not want to displease the President by voting "no" but didn't want to be on record as voting for a tarnished character. A convenient filibuster saved them from having to take a stand. Only 45 Senators voted for cloture, and the White House withdrew the nomination without asking for another cloture vote.
Further Reading: The Washington Post, "Just Vote"; Benjamin Wittes, "Silence is Honorable"; Terry Eastland, "Filibustering Miguel"; Alberto R. Gonzales, "White House to Schumer: You're Wrong"
[To comment, click here.]
February 13, 2003
What the United States will do in Iraq after it kicks out Saddam Hussein is a reasonable topic for debate, which Al Hunt’s latest column approaches from a less-than-reasonable point of view. “The Toughest Test: Après Saddam” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only] would be a fine title for a piece about what needs to be done to eradicate the terrorist infrastructure after eliminating one of its most useful allies. I have offered my own thoughts on that question elsewhere. I would compare and contrast Mr. Hunt’s, except that he has none to offer. By “Après Saddam”, he means only the reconstruction of Iraq, not victory in the War on Terror, a task that he seems to have forgotten.
Iraq’s future is a worthy topic, of course, even if not of first importance to anyone but Iraqis. So what are Mr. Hunt’s ideas there? Well, it turns out that they, too, are an empty set. All that he has to say is that (a) George W. Bush hasn’t thought about the matter enough and (b) whatever happens will most likely be horrible. It takes little reading-between-the-lines to discern that Mr. Hunt, who just a few weeks ago was lamenting the Administration’s tardiness in attacking Saddam, now hopes that Americans will, at the last possible moment, recoil from the prospect of expending money and toil to rebuild the country that the tyrant has wrecked – and will opt to do nothing instead.
The hook for the column is the February 11th Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing at which “Two of the Bush administration's national security heavyweights – Marc Grossman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, and Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy – testified on plans for a post-Saddam Iraq.” To Mr. Hunt’s jaundiced eye, the day didn’t go well for the Administration:
On the nature, scope, cost and duration, they spent the entire morning on the ropes, offering few specifics.
The inescapable conclusion: The U.S. has prepared brilliantly for the military operation and is frightfully ill-prepared for the more difficult aftermath. The top administration officials were followed by outside experts, including Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command, who lamented the lack of a post-Saddam "counterpart" to the military planning: he was dismissive of the high-level groups assembled at the Pentagon three weeks ago to consider the next stage: "That doesn't do it for me."
Since the Administration’s witnesses emphasized that no final decisions have been made (or, at least, are ready to be announced) concerning the administration of post-Saddam Iraq, it isn’t surprising that they had “few specifics” to offer. Does that equate to being “frightfully unprepared”? Only if one equates preparation with organization charts, timetables and budgets. In the immediate aftermath of Saddam’s ouster, the United States will have a quarter of a million troops in the Gulf region, a good idea of who our friends and enemies are, and several specific, short-term objectives: keeping essential services running, securing the Iraqi oil fields against sabotage, hunting down any remnants loyal to the former regime, bringing pro-democratic leaders together to form a transition government. That is probably as much preparation as is feasible. It is more than we had when Germany surrendered in 1945.
What would a “post-Saddam ‘counterpart’ to the military planning” look like? The essence of military planning is the imposition of one’s will on the enemy through force. A military-style plan would determine who will hold power in Iraq after the Ba’athists and how to compel the Iraqis to accept that decision. Presumably, that is not what Mr. Hunt desires, as he warns a few paragraphs later that “the notion of America being able to create a post-Saddam political and economic system and pick the people to lead is more than perilous”.
To summarize Mr. Hunt’s criticism succinctly: The White House is unprepared if it doesn’t already know in detail what is going to happen in Iraq after Saddam is gone – and engaged in a foolishly dangerous enterprise if it does.
The bulk of the column is devoted not to plans for making Iraq into a happier place but to how much can conceivably go wrong. Mr. Hunt naturally offers no ideas on how to deal with troubling contingencies. All that he is doing is shrieking “Quagmire!”, evidently in the hope that America will, at well past the eleventh hour, turn back and leave the tyrant unmolested.
The American public, as Sen. Joseph Biden declared the other day, thinks it's going to be "swift and bloodless," and while President Bush has created domestic support for removing this brutal dictator, he has been silent on a long and costly aftermath that may require considerable sacrifice. "The American people have no notion of what we are about to undertake," complains Sen. Biden.
The President has, however, stated again and again that the War on Terror will be a long undertaking. Iraq is a single campaign within that larger war. It almost certainly will be “swift and bloodless” – because the Administration has assembled a much larger force than is probably necessary to administer a crushing defeat to an ill-equipped, badly trained, demoralized army of conscripts. Mr. Hunt concedes that American victory is “certain” but asks whether it is “more likely to take several months with heavy Iraqis casualties and infrastructure damage” than to be a “cakewalk”? The question insinuates his preferred answer, but he gives no grounds for alarm. We heard the same talk before the Gulf War. Back then, it had a little justification. Saddam’s military was at full strength, and ours was untested. Today, one side is a shell of its former self, and the other is significantly stronger.
Perhaps sensing that not too many readers will be frightened by the Iraqi army, Mr. Hunt passes quickly to the difficulties and expense of reconstructing Iraq. He quotes various “experts” who are certain that the process will take a long time and cost a lot of money. Undersecretary Grossman cautiously predicted that an American occupation of Iraq would last no longer than two years. Mr. Hunt counters with General Zinni’s assertion that ten years would be “more realistic”.
The cost surely will be hundreds of billions of dollars, even under the optimum case, prompting Sen. George Voinovich to raise a red flag this White House ducks: "There will be things this country will not be able to do," the Ohio Republican warned, including big tax cuts.
Since Al regards tax reduction as a great evil and has complained that the Administration isn’t demanding enough sacrifices in the War on Terror, I wonder why he doesn’t see the cost of occupying Iraq as a point in its favor. Be that as it may, his argumentum ad laborem suffers from two fallacies. First, it overstates the likely difficulties by several orders of magnitude. Second, it ignores the benefits, for America and the whole world, of eradicating the terrorist lairs in the Middle East. Compared to a never-ending state of fear, the price of winning the war will be trivial.
There is such a thing as cock-eyed pessimism, and Mr. Hunt is afflicted with an advanced case. What are his reasons for thinking that the United States will want or need to occupy Iraq for a decade? In his testimony, General Zinni picked that figure because we have been “containing” Saddam Hussein for 12 years since the end of the Gulf War, a fact whose pertinence is rather hard to discern. Unless one foresees a persistent pro-Ba’athist guerilla movement or endemic civil war, there is no strong reason to expect America to maintain a major military presence in Iraq for any longer than it takes to devastate the terrorist infrastructure in the surrounding region. That mission could be completed in a few months. If it takes years, the delay will be the consequence of our timidity, not of the occupation of Iraq.
What about the cost? Iraq has a gross domestic product of about $60 billion a year. Will it really cost “hundreds of billions of dollars, even under the optimum case” to repair the damage wrought by Ba’athist misrule? Thanks to its oil resources, squandered by Saddam Hussein on WMD’s and personal glorification, the country may need remarkably little cash from external sources. The biggest challenge, I anticipate, will be ensuring that the proceeds of oil sales benefit Iraqis in general instead of being absorbed by a resurgent statist bureaucracy.
One of the fearmongers’ immediate concerns was also raised on the eve of the Afghan campaign:
At a minimum there will be a short-term crisis dealing with feeding 23 million Iraqis and a potentially massive refugee problem. Tuesday's hearing lent credence to the fears of Joel Charbny [sic – sc. Charny], vice president of Refugee[s] International, that the administration's "preparations for the humanitarian consequences of the war in Iraq are woefully inadequate."
Mr. Charny has prepared an informative paper on the humanitarian situation in Iraq, from which Mr. Hunt has borrowed and twisted a single phrase. The paper leads off with the statement that "preparations for the humanitarian consequences of the war in Iraq are woefully inadequate”. It does not, however, assign the blame to the Bush Administration but to “Lack of funding, United Nations and U.S. legal restrictions on the operations of humanitarian agencies in Iraq, and an apparent initial reluctance by the UN to accept the inevitability of war” [emphasis added]. The most urgent post-war problem, according to Mr. Charny's analysis, will not be obtaining food but distributing it, not likely to be an insuperable task. It is not, however, one that Mr. Hunt seems willing for the world’s most powerful nation to tackle alone:
How much of this will be an international or U.N.-led effort, as opposed to a dominant American one, is also unclear. For both costs – over 80% of the Gulf War costs were borne by other countries – and politics, it's far preferable to have the legitimacy of an international force occupying or protecting Iraq for years rather than 75,000 American troops. But anything involving international nation-building seems Clintonian and faces resistance in some administration quarters.
Is his fear that no one will offer to help or that the Bushite unilateralists will scorn international assistance? Following the Afghan campaign, other countries (even Germany, currently sharing the joint military command in Kabul) were eager to take part in peacekeeping. For reasons of naked self-interest, if nothing else, they will be equally forward in claiming roles in a richer and more important area. To what extent their aid is desirable is a different question, but the Bush Administration hasn’t turned it down in Afghanistan.
Other possibilities that unsettle Mr. Hunt are (i) the fall of Saddam Hussein may not lead to instant revolutions in our favor in neighboring countries (not something on which anyone is counting, though we hope that a democratic transformation in Iraq will be a useful regional precedent); (ii) Saddam’s successor may be worse; (iii) Saddam may damage the oil fields before he is deposed (a good reason to strike quickly, I should think, rather than continue a diplomatic fandango that gives him more time to prepare mischief); and, most vaguely of all, (iv) “there will be unforeseen and unpredictable consequences”.
Let’s suppose that all of the worst case scenarios come to pass and that we face years of slogging in Mesopotamia. The key question is, would we be better off doing nothing and letting Saddam Hussein continue his drive to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear weapons? The alternative to overthrowing Saddam is not a peaceful, carefree world. It is a lifetime of apprehension, of constantly expanding defensive measures and constantly shrinking liberties. Next to that, “blood, toil, tears and sweat” in Iraq are not "the toughest test" at all.
Further Reading: The biggest danger looming for post-Saddam Iraq is that the U.S. will follow the "pragmatic" route of leaving Ba'athist thugs in place, just as some American military commanders did in the early days of the occupation of Nazi Germany. For the reasons why we should favor freedom and democracy, even at the risk of annoying the Middle East's incumbent despots, vide Ahmad Chalabi, "Iraq for the Iraqis" and Fouad Ajami, "Iraq and the Arabs' Future".
[To comment, click here.]
February 6, 2003
The title and opening paragraph of Al Hunt’s jeremiad against the Bush Administration’s proposed budget (“What They Say and What They Do” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only]) recall a famous quote from Richard Nixon’s attorney-general John Mitchell. Like most people, Mr. Hunt has forgotten the statement’s original context. It was made to assure liberals that the Nixon Administration wasn’t going to act as conservatively as its rhetoric might suggest, a prediction that was borne out over time, as the President embraced detente, wage-price controls and the very first government-backed program of racial preferences in hiring (the “Philadelphia Plan”). Some conservatives think that George W. Bush is following the same strategy on domestic issues: talk right, govern left. Naturally, Al doesn’t see it that way.
What the president says – the compassionate conservatism rhetoric – resonates with many swing voters, usually political moderates or centrists. What he does – slashing taxes and cutting back government's role and responsibilities – is red meat for the base, mostly conservatives.
That is transparent in the president's pronouncements and policies. The rhetoric is outreaching, inclusive; the reality is a reverse Robin Hood, cutting back on programs that principally benefit the poor while initiating huge new tax cuts principally for the wealthy. Examples abound in this week's Bush budget.
Mr. Hunt proceeds to offer four examples: the National Institutes of Health, retirement savings accounts, Medicaid and homeland security. Most of these, ironically, would be better examples in the hands of a right-wing critic. Far from being a “reverse Robin Hood”, President Bush has not yet discovered that “compassion” can be shown in ways other than spending ever-increasing amounts of taxpayers’ money.
National Institutes of Health: The president is a self-styled champion of health research. "The NIH," he declared, "is one of the most successful undertakings in our history."
He's right. American biomedical advances in recent years are the envy of the world. With bipartisan support, the NIH budget doubled over the last five years. Even with that, only one-in-three legitimate, peer-approved grant applications – meaning they offer real promise – are approved.
Yet the Bush 2004 budget proposes a dramatic scaleback, with only a 1.8% increase in NIH funding, not even keeping up with inflation. The real impact on critical research for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, strokes and other diseases is even worse, as virtually all the increases in research grants are bio-terrorist related.
"The president's budget is extremely short sighted . . . it would begin to undo all the progress of recent years," says former Republican congressman John Porter, a lawmaker with special expertise in health research. The consequence: a diminution "in breakthroughs in new therapies." Instead of curbing these critical investments, the ex-GOP lawmaker declares, "we should forgo the big tax cuts."
During the 2000 election campaign, candidate Bush promised to double NIH’s 1998 level of spending by 2003. As Mr. Hunt acknowledges, that pledge has been kept. The doubling was completed by last year’s 17½ percent spending boost. So leveling out after such rapid increases is a “dramatic scaleback” that will “begin to undo all the progress of recent years”? How, one wonders, did “American biomedical advances in recent years [become] the envy of the world” when NIH’s budget, just half a decade ago under Mr. Hunt’s hero Bill Clinton, was only half its present size?
The plateau in budget authority, one should also note, is not at all tantamount to a plateau in actual research expenditures. NIH outlays for FY 2004 are estimated to be 14 percent above the 2003 level. In other words, there will be substantially more research going on next year than this. That Al Hunt is not just dissatisfied but apoplectic reveals the insatiability of the Beltway spender.
What we ought to be asking is not whether the FY 2004 budget proposal represents a shocking decrease but whether scaling back government-funded medical research might not be a good idea. Private enterprise has immense incentives to find cures or preventives for major diseases. It is not obvious that the government is performing a necessary function when it pays for research that will, if successful, produce therapies with high profit potential, such as treatments for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and strokes. Where government involvement can be justified is in areas that have no appeal to the private sector: rare diseases, fundamental research and protection against biological weapons. An economically conservative NIH budget would be directing resources to those areas and eliminating programs that duplicate what private enterprise can do. The President’s is merely a continuation of liberal policies – and still gets nothing but catcalls from the Left.
Private Savings Accounts: The administration proposes to significantly expand tax-free savings accounts. The rationale: To help middle-class Americans save and invest and to simplify this task by consolidating private savings accounts.
The reality: Huge new tax breaks predominately for the wealthy, further erosion of the tax code's progressivity and more budgetary red ink. A Treasury study a few years ago found that only 4% of those eligible for individual retirement accounts ($2,000 maximum for an individual or $4,000 for a couple then and $3,000 and $6,000 now) contributed the maximum. That suggests only high-income taxpayers will set aside $45,000 in new tax-induced accounts. Moreover, most government and private studies strongly suggest that these tax-oriented savings schemes don't add to national savings but merely shift assets around.
Ronald Pearlman, the Reagan administration's top Treasury tax official, says the Bush proposals are aimed at moving to a consumption tax (albeit without saying so) and would be "the beginning of the end of a progressive income tax." In The Wall Street Journal this week reporters Theo Francis and Ellen Schultz revealed these plans "would strip away most of the rules designed to keep employer plans from favoring highly paid employees," and would probably result in less retirement savings for lower-income employees.
I’ve discussed the Administration’s proposals at tedious length elsewhere, pointing out that the failure of current incentives to increase savings results from the fact that they are extremely limited and are set up so as to be unattractive to young workers with middle class or lower incomes. The new savings accounts are designed specifically to appeal to that group. They will also benefit the filthy rich, of course, but hardly enough to lead to “further erosion of the tax code’s progressivity”. The President’s proposal, taken as a whole, increases the proportion of income taxes paid by the upper brackets, as noted in the last Hunt Watch.
What about “strip[ping] away most of the rules designed to keep employer plans from favoring highly paid employees”? The analysis on which Mr. Hunt relies is co-authored by a reporter whose ignorance of the rules governing retirement plans is demonstrated almost every time that she writes. (Vide, for instance, her erroneous comments on Enron’s pension plan.) Her discussion of the Administration’s ideas for revising the qualified plan “nondiscrimination” standards concentrates on inconsequential liberalizations of the rules for 401(k) plans, while saying not a word about the draconian tightening for the type of plan most often used by small businesses. The portion of the proposal revives a Clinton Administration initiative that was rejected out of hand by a Democrat-controlled Congress, and its negative effects, if adopted, would far away the minuscule benefit that highly paid employees might derive from the 401(k) changes.
Medicaid: With state governments facing fiscal trainwrecks, governors have cried for relief in health-care spending for the poor. The Bush budget rushes to the rescue, heralding more federal assistance and greater flexibility for the states to run these programs.
      Sure enough, federal aid, combining Medicaid and the children's health insurance programs, rises $3.3 billion in next fiscal year over what was slated and between $1 and $2 billion over the next half dozen years. Then the hook: starting in fiscal year 2012 [emphasis added], there'd be cutbacks in this federal support by $4.4 billion, and then $8.8 billion the following year.
Here's the deal: Give them some crumbs now to quell the protests – and political heat of poor people being denied basic health care – and then later force a reduction either in services offered or poor people covered. Conveniently, this budgetary savings kicks in when the massive tax cuts for the wealthy start draining the federal budget even more.
So federal support of Medicaid will be fattened for the next nine years, after which state governments will supposedly have learned how to control costs? That is a conservative policy? It is really a parody of welfare reform: years of carrots, with the distant threat of a stick at a time when every single sitting governor will very likely be retired from office. The states’ budgetary problems stem from reckless spending during the fat years of the 1990’s. They won’t be cured by removing the consequences of those actions.
Homeland Security: The president and Republicans shrewdly turned this against Democrats last fall, even defeating Vietnam triple amputee Max Cleland by impugning his patriotism. The White House stresses its all-out commitment on homeland security; the budget directs $3.5 billion of federal aid to localities for first responders – cops, firefighters and emergency rescue crews.
      The problem, however, as first reported last month by Congressional Quarterly, is the White House is playing "a shell game," double counting funds. Most of these monies merely are taken from other crime-fighting or emergency management measures and paraded as new monies. "This has all the earmarks of a reshuffling of the chairs on the deck," charges Harold Schaitberger, head of the firefighters union. "We also don't know if this is only for real first responders or, like last year, also for veterinarians, utility workers and other groups."
When will Al Hunt stop repeating his lie about Republican criticisms of Max Cleland? Senator Cleland advocated amendments to the Department of Homeland Security bill that would have reduced the President’s authority over the new department’s personnel policies. The wisdom of that stance, vigorously opposed by Georgia’s other Democratic Senator, was a perfectly legitimate campaign issue, yet Mr. Hunt continues to pretend that raising it was an indecent tactic.
As for the substance of Mr. Hunt’s complaint, the Administration does not claim that the “first responder” grants are not offset by savings elsewhere. In the not entirely eloquent words of Secretary Ridge, “Some of it is clearly the aggregate of dollars from other programs that were supported pre-9/11 and reflect an administration priority to . . . move them into the homeland security mission. There are new additional funds, as well. It's a combination of both. So, that's a shift in priorities, a shift of some dollars and new dollars, as well." In other words, the White House has decided that anti-terrorism measures are, for the moment, more important to public safety than, for instance, the COPS program, which Mr. Ridge characterizes as "bait-and-switch; we'll give you something today and then slowly, but surely, we're going to take it away from you”.
Mr. Hunt’s complaint boils down to a desire for more spending everywhere. He then closes by alleging that the Administration is understating the federal deficit over the next decade.
But Budget Chief Mitch Daniels insists a balanced budget is a "high priority" for the Bush administration. Remember the late John Mitchell: Watch not what they say, but what they do.
For once, I agree. What they are doing, alas, is a lot more liberal than the President’s reassuring rhetoric.
[To comment, click here.]
January 30, 2003
In “State of the Union Speech: A Short Term Game” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only], Al Hunt condemns George W. Bush for two vices: paying too much attention to polls and not taking a long-term view of the Nation’s problems. He then particularizes his complaint by griping that the President isn’t following the polls with sufficient sincerity and is ignoring short-term problems. He also overlooks the ironic fact that those elements in the President’s policies that are dictated by polls are the liberal, not the conservative, ones.
This is a White House that insists, unlike its predecessor, that it pays little attention to public opinion. In reality, Mr. Bush is a poll- and politics-driven president with a seemingly shrewd approach: Keep the base content with broad policies and try to pick up pieces selectively: West Virginia with steel protection, Hispanics with visible judicial appointments [a swipe at D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Miguel Estrada, whose outstanding qualifications mean nothing to Mr. Hunt – any Hispanic nominated by Bush must be an instance of ethnic pandering].
And, we are told, the President exhibited “chutzpah Tuesday evening in proclaiming he ‘will not pass along our problems to . . . other generations’ – like the $2 trillion of debt he would leave our kids and grandkids”.
By “poll- and politics-driven”, Mr. Hunt doesn’t mean what one expects. He does not claim that White House policies on taxes, Iraq and Medicare – the three areas from which he draws his particulars – are formulated by picking whatever pollsters find is most popular. Rather, the President’s sin is that he tries to “frame the debate on [his own] terms” by presenting arguments that the public is likely to accept rather than reject. Thus he emphasizes how his tax proposals will provide relief at all income levels and will help stimulate the economy, instead of confessing to what Al regards as “the truth”, that the whole scheme is welfare for millionaires and won’t improve the economy at all.
It is certainly possible to argue about how fairly tax relief is distributed under the Bush plan and how much short-run impact it will have. In terms of percentage reductions in tax liability, it is, as Mr. Hunt’s colleagues on the WSJ editorial page have pointed out, skewed toward the lower, not the higher brackets. According to Treasury estimates, the average reduction for all taxpayers is 12.3 percent, but a much bigger percentage cut goes to those making under $30,000 a year (17percent) than to the over-$200,000 bracket (11.2 percent). Most favored of all, with a 20.1 percent cut, is the $30,000-$40,000 range. Mr. Hunt isn't interested in that way of looking at the numbers, focusing instead on dollar amounts.
The president is right; 92 million Americans would get an average tax cut of almost $1,100; half of taxpayers, however, get less than $100 dollars, while people making over $1 million average a $90,200 tax cut; that does average almost $1100 apiece, just the way baseball's Aaron brothers hit an average of 384 home runs -- Henry hit 755 and Tommie hit 13.
Then there's the touching portrait of eliminating taxes on dividends -- over half the cost of the president's economic package -- to help the poor, struggling elderly. It's true that ten million senior citizens would get this tax cut. What the president conveniently ignores is that the elderly with incomes below $50,000 -- two- thirds of all those 65-years or older -- only get 4% of those dividend tax cut benefits, while the rich geezers -- with incomes exceeding $200,000 -- would get almost half the benefits going to seniors.
If no tax cut is fair unless it gives an average family the same dollar reduction as a millionaire, we will never have any cuts at all, since it is the upper brackets that pay nearly all income taxes (as I have discussed elsewhere). Mr. Hunt does, however, overlook the most “populist” statistic in the President’s pitch for tax relief: “A family of four with an income of $40,000 would see their federal income taxes fall from $1,178 to $45 per year.” What more could the most full-throated populist do?
To the extent that the President’s tax package has been shaped by polls, they are the polls that Mr. Hunt likes, those that show little interest in lowering taxes for “the rich”. Very few economists would suggest a higher child care tax credit as useful medicine for the economy, but the President and his advisors have deployed that and a few other measures to hasten the effective exodus of millions of people from the income tax rolls. That strategy upsets some conservatives, but why should it bother Al Hunt?
Aside from being “unfair”, Mr. Hunt complains that the proposed tax reductions won’t stimulate the economy.
The emphasis on getting the economy moving squares with the WSJ/NBC News poll findings that job stimulation is Americans' top priority; it just doesn't square with the president's proposals. "If you asked economists to come up with ten things to stimulate the economy," ventures Brookings Institution economist William Gale, "none would have come up with that."
The most devastating critique this week of the Bush plan was not from any lefty, however, but from conservative writer Christopher Caldwell, previewing the State of the Union speech in a delicious dialogue on with Christopher Buckley and Walter Shapiro. "I'd be less put off by the supply-side bias of these cuts if the president hadn't so consistently urged a demand-side remedy to the problems of running a war economy," he wrote. "The rich get money; the middle class gets patriotic exhortations to spend." Mr. Caldwell warns that when asking the public for "wartime risks . . . it's imprudent to increase the percentage of poor and middle-class people who perceive themselves as being taken for a ride."
Mr. Caldwell’s critique, written before the tax proposals were actually unveiled, is pretty much incomprehensible. What is “a demand-side remedy to the problems of running a war economy”, and when did the President urge one? Is the reference to his exhortations not to let the threat of terrorism disrupt our daily lives? If that is a “demand side remedy”, it is a remedy for a problem distinctly different from slow employment growth.
We aren’t told what the Brookings Institution would put on its list of “ten things to stimulate the economy”.  I suspect that Mr. Gale is talking about very short-run measures of the kind that would be proposed on the downward slope of a recession. That is not the type of stimulus that the State of the Union message calls for. As the President observed, the economy is expanding, not contracting. Last year’s real growth rate, 2.4 percent, was at the level that Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary once termed the fastest sustainable rate possible. (He later changed his mind.) What is disappointing (not surprising, as employment is a trailing indicator, but still disappointing) is that the jobless rate hasn’t been declining to match the economic expansion. What is needed, then, is not stimulus to “get the economy moving” but measures that will encourage employers to hire more workers. The most effective way for the government to accomplish that, in the President’s not unreasonable view, is to lower the barriers to capital formation, which his tax plan aims to do by accelerating scheduled cuts in marginal tax rates and eliminating the double taxation of corporate profits. Critics like Mr. Hunt, who advocate temporary steps designed to give a one-time boost to consumer demand, are the short-sighted folk. Even if the government had some effective means of pumping up demand for a few months, doing so would not encourage companies to make the commitments entailed in adding to their work forces.
Iraq is the next article of the Huntian indictment, though the exact nature of the charge is unclear:
On Iraq, the president was passionate, offering his most cogent and compelling case so far; he stressed going back to the United Nations on Saddam's sins – though pointedly not saying he will seek another resolution, which he almost certainly will not – and of leading a "coalition to disarm him."
That reflects the WSJ/NBC poll of a hawkish but patient and multilaterally oriented public, which wants to see the evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and still considers al Qaeda and terrorism the much larger threat.
So, is Mr. Hunt denouncing “a poll- and politics-driven president” for doing what the public wants by presenting evidence for Saddam’s wrongdoing to the United Nations and seeking allies against him? Would he have rejoiced if the President had said, “We don’t gotta prove nothin’ to Kofi Annan, and we don’t want no pansy allies. The bombing starts in five minutes.”?
I suppose that the real complaint is that Mr. Bush is insincere, that he is committed to ousting Saddam Hussein whether or not other nations or the U.N. are willing to join him. They may well be, and I think that the U.S. would be right to go it alone. Nonetheless, out of “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind”, we are making our evidence public (at considerable risk to intelligence sources). We also are not lacking in support from other countries. The afternoon before Mr. Hunt’s column appeared, the pro-U.S. declaration of eight European leaders was published in The Wall Street Journal. Since then another ten European countries have followed suit. Whether we need help or not, we are not the only ones in the world to see that overthrowing the Iraqi tyranny is an urgent priority.
The president's most persuasive al Qaeda connection is prospective: a contained Saddam, clearly possessing chemical and biological weapons, might more eagerly supply terrorists with lethal weapons to be used against American interests. But the president's efforts to link Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein now only undercut his credibility; almost every intelligence agency agrees with Iraqi expert and invasion advocate Ken Pollack that any current connection is "tenuous and inconsequential."
Whether Mr. Hunt has covert sources at “almost every intelligence agency” or is simply parroting a popular left-wing line, I don’t know. He wrote before Colin Powell’s address to the United Nations, so it is unfair to criticize him for not being aware of what the Secretary of State would disclose about Saddam Hussein’s friendly relations with al-Qaeda. On the other hand, his invocation of Kenneth Pollack is somewhere between disingenuous and dishonest. After searching Nexis, Google and other sources, I cannot locate any statement by Mr. Pollack to the effect that “any current connection is ‘tenuous and inconsequential’”, though a leftist commentator, perhaps relying on Mr. Hunt, puts the same words into his mouth. What Mr. Pollack has said, in an interview last October, is this:
Q: There is a lot of back-and-forth about Saddam's support of terrorists. Do you think he presents a serious threat to the world as a result of his history or present proclivities?
A: Saddam’s Iraq is a state sponsor of terrorism. There is no question about that. They were a charter member of the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and well-deserved. That said, it is also true that in the 1980s, Saddam changed his relationship with different terrorist groups. He ratcheted down – diminished somewhat – his support for international terrorist groups, and instead focused more on regional terrorist groups – groups that he used against his own enemies. So he supported the Mujahadin e Khalq against Iran; he supported the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, against Turkey.
Now what we are finding in 2002 is that Saddam has started ratcheting up his support for Palestinian terrorist groups against Israel, as a way of exacerbating the violence between Israelis and Palestinians in a desperate bid to divert attention from his own misdeeds and prevent the United States from coming after him.
Q: Are you talking specifically about – or only about – this giving money to the families of suicide –
A: No, more than that. "Sixty Minutes" actually did a wonderful piece on Sunday [September 29] which was about how the Israelis have uncovered all kinds of documents – when they went into Ramallah and raided Arafat’s headquarters – uncovered all kinds of documents linking the Iraqis much more directly with certain Palestinian terrorist groups.
I should also say something about al-Qaeda. In the past, Saddam’s relationship with al-Qaeda was always very tenuous – not a whole lot you could pin on him, and I think there really isn’t a very good case that he was somehow responsible for September 11th, or even involved in September 11th. That said, there are reports now and the administration is claiming that they have information – in part from the Israelis – that indicate that those ties have deepened. It is something that’s entirely possible. We’ve always known that because of the common interest between Iraq and al-Qaeda that there were people in these two different organizations that were trying to make contact with each other. But I think the administration is going to have to come forward with some of that evidence to make the case stronger than they have so far.
Q: On the face of it, you’d think that bin Laden wouldn’t want anything to do with him, because he’s secular. He’s not trying to install an Islamic regime. He attacked the first Islamic regime.
A: Correct. A line from the book: He’s killed far more mullahs than he has American soldiers in his lifetime. And this is why I think that anyone’s first position has to be skepticism that they have now made common cause, but nevertheless you also shouldn’t rule it out. [emphasis added]
Not having seen the evidence, Mr. Pollack did not want to overstate possible ties between our two enemies, but he doesn’t sound like the thorough skeptic that Mr. Hunt portrays. I would guess that he would speak more boldly today, after Secretary Powell’s presentation. While mostly devoted to exposing Saddam Hussein’s attempts to conceal biological and chemical weapons, the the speech devotes its last section to demonstrating that Iraqi denials of cooperation with al-Qaeda are not credible. An al-Qaeda cell operates openly in Baghdad, and a former Osama bin Laden associate runs a terrorist network based in the part of northern Iraq controlled by a pro-Saddam faction.
Going back to the early and mid-1990s, when bin Laden was based in Sudan, an Al Qaida source tells us that Saddam and bin Laden reached an understanding that Al Qaida would no longer support activities against Baghdad. Early Al Qaida ties were forged by secret, high-level intelligence service contacts with Al Qaida, secret Iraqi intelligence high-level contacts with Al Qaida.
We know members of both organizations met repeatedly and have met at least eight times at very senior levels since the early 1990s. In 1996, a foreign security service tells us, that bin Laden met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Khartoum, and later met the director of the Iraqi intelligence service.
Saddam became more interested as he saw Al Qaida's appalling attacks. A detained Al Qaida member tells us that Saddam was more willing to assist Al Qaida after the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Saddam was also impressed by Al Qaida's attacks on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000.
Iraqis continued to visit bin Laden in his new home in Afghanistan. A senior defector, one of Saddam's former intelligence chiefs in Europe, says Saddam sent his agents to Afghanistan sometime in the mid-1990s to provide training to Al Qaida members on document forgery.
From the late 1990s until 2001, the Iraqi embassy in Pakistan played the role of liaison to the Al Qaida organization.
If Mr. Hunt was genuinely fearful for the President’s credibility, he ought to be reassured now.
Mr. Hunt has one final thrust on the Iraqi front:
Public reservations about multilateral backing will vanish once American men and women go into harm's way. But these concerns are harbingers of huge political problems if the post-Saddam period is as messy as many experts fear.
The implication is that America lacks “multilateral backing”, the absence of which will be detrimental to the reconstruction of Iraq. The first point is wrong, as already noted, the second highly doubtful. Does Mr. Hunt imagine that the world will shun a liberated Baghdad just because “unilateralist” Americans were the liberators?
Mr. Hunt’s last point, almost trivial compared to the others, has a slight degree of validity:
Other issues touched by the president also were shaped by public opinion. He was especially disingenuous on health care, championing patients and doctors in calling for affordable care and prescription drugs benefits for seniors. He even took a passing shot at HMOs, which his administration has sided with repeatedly over the interests of doctors and patients. There was no mention of his real goal to make Medicare work more like the private insurance market; the public overwhelmingly opposes that notion.
The President certainly tried to be reassuring to everyone, but he did not disguise his belief that private insurance, not a government-administered system, is the right way to finance health care. Mr. Hunt may think that the public doesn’t like the private insurance market, but voters in Oregon – no hotbed of libertarianism – last November voted down a governmental single-payer scheme, the only viable alternative to private insurance currently on offer, by a four-to-one margin. Maybe that is the public opinion that has shaped the President’s views.
Despite the speciousness of the column's reasoning, its final sentence is one with which nobody can disagree:
What matters, far more than any political sales pitch, is whether a year from now the economy is humming and democracy is budding in the Mideast, or whether the insecurities of the economy and terrorism have been exacerbated.
We shall see what the future holds. For the moment, President Bush is charting a course far more likely to bring a happy outcome than anything that his ill-wishers have offered.
Further Reading: George W. Bush, "The State of the Union, 2003"; Jeffrey Goldberg, "The Unknown"
[To comment, click here.]
January 23, 2003
The debate over “affirmative action” has grown so heated that the Left has called in the military. At least, they have called on the military service academies as allies in their campaign to write racism into law under the name of “diversity”.
In “Service Academies: Affirmative Action at Work” [link for Online Wall Street Journal subscribers only], Al Hunt claims that racial preferences in admissions policies have made the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Academies better institutions, from which we should conclude that the rest of society is right to promote “diversity” through similar measures.
Today one in seven cadets or midshipmen are blacks or Latinos (minority percentages at West Point were down slightly for a few years, but African-Americans and Hispanics now comprise about 16% of the student body). As these academies have become more diverse, far from lowering standards, their academic standings have grown.
* * * *
Using conservatives' favorite yardstick of test scores, minorities indisputably have an edge. Linda Chavez, the GOP activist who has turned opposition to affirmative action into a cottage industry, assailed the service academies a few years ago for utilizing a "widespread system of (racial) preferences."
Indeed, the latest data at West Point suggests that while the average African-American cadet scores 1191 on the standard achievement tests and Hispanics average 1225, that is 5% to 10% lower than whites, or an average of more than 60 to almost 100 points. There are similar disparities at Annapolis.
But Ms. Chavez and other affirmative action critics are wrong that this lowers standards or the standings of the institutions. Outside experts say the service academies are far better academic institutions than they were 30 years ago, before affirmative action. The Princeton Review gives all three institutions its highest four-star ratings for academic and selectivity, while the Barrons Review ranks Army, Navy and the Air Force as among the most competitive schools in the country.
Mr. Hunt’s argument can be broken down into three propositions:
1. The service academies give preference to black and Hispanic applicants on the basis of race.
2. Preferential treatment for minorities has made the academies better institutions.
3. What works at military academies can and should be translated to the civilian sphere.
All three propositions, where not flatly wrong, are vastly oversimplified.
Linda Chavez’s think tank, the Center for Equal Opportunity, recently published a study of racial preferences at West Point and Annapolis (Robert Lerner & Althea K. Nagai, “Racial, Ethnic and Gender Preferences in Admissions to the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy”) that, using data for the classes that entered in 1995, examines the extent to which preferential treatment actually affects the schools’ admissions. Their conclusion is that being black or, to a much lesser degree, Hispanic makes acceptance more likely, particularly at the Naval Academy, but conveys a far smaller advantage than at elite private universities. The greatest disparity is between blacks and non-Hispanic whites applying to Annapolis. A black applicant is 4½ times as likely to be chosen as a white with equal SAT scores and high school class rank. At the University of Michigan, his chances are 174 times as good (Lerner & Nagai, "Affirmative Action in Michigan Higher Education", Table 15). The full table of “odds” at the academies looks like this:
These statistics suggest a modest degree of favoritism for blacks at both academies and for Hispanics at the Naval Academy, as well as bias against Asian applicants (not a phenomenon that ever seems to trouble liberal sensitivities). They do not, however, present a complete picture.
The raison d’etre of the service academies is not higher education but training officers for the Armed Forces. The qualities that class rank and test scores measure are hardly that sole criteria for success in the military profession. For that reason, the academies give only 60 percent weight to academic qualifications – far less than any private, nonmilitary college. Also taken into account are leadership qualities (30%) and physical fitness (10%). It is hard to compare applicants quantitatively in those areas and therefore hard to evaluate whether some of the apparent favoritism toward blacks and Hispanics results from their superior nonacademic qualifications. One way to gauge whether admissions bias exists after taking all factors into account is to look at graduation rates. Ceteris paribus, if less qualified blacks or Hispanics are admitted, their graduation rates will be lower than for other ethnic groups. At elite universities minority dropout rates are appalling. The story is not at all similar at West Point and Annapolis:
[Caveat: The graduation rates by sex shown in this table for the Military Academy are not consistent with the rates by ethnic group. The paper does not explain the discrepancy.]
The graduation figures support the inference that West Point discriminates not at all in favor of Hispanics, only slightly in favor of blacks and somewhat more against Asians. At Annapolis pro-black, pro-Hispanic and anti-Asian bias is more marked but scarcely overwhelming. All in all, Mr. Hunt's implicit belief that "affirmative action" at the academies is as strong and pervasive as in the private sector is not supported by the evidence.
The claim that such racial preference as the academies practice has made them better is equally specious. Mr. Hunt offers in support the (true) statement that their academic standards are higher than in the immediate post-Vietnam period, but that improvement has no discernible connection with the ethnic makeup of the student body. It resulted from the military's determined efforts to raise standards in all areas following its demoralizing experience in Vietnam. The real test, in any event, is whether skewing admissions toward favored minorities produces a better officer corps. Mr. Hunt cites some military men who believe that it has, but they do not make a very compelling case.
Officers there say affirmative action has made them better. "A different prospective . . . diversity . . . enhances our educational process," says David Vetter, dean of admissions at Annapolis. Michael Jones, his West Point counterpart, observes that "academic testing is not a science," and notes the large number of cadets, including many minorities, who display leadership skills superior to some with much higher test scores.
These changes have served the country's military well, providing a corps of African American and Hispanic officers that, while still well below the percentage of enlisted men, form a critical mass. "We now are producing graduates that look and feel more like our country and our Navy and Marine Corps," says Col. Vetter, a 30-year Marine veteran.
This is more than a look good or feel good position, says Gen. Christman [Dan Christman, retired superintendent of the Military Academy]. "We are training our cadets for an army that operates around the globe in a very diverse environment with a huge mixture of cultural, religious and ethnic balances. It is very important that our young officers appreciate the diversity in our own society and the environment that he or she will operate in overseas." Former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger is not exaggerating when he warns if the courts end affirmative action, it would be tantamount to "a constitutional straightjacket that is very harmful to the military."
Colonel Jones merely makes the point that academic credentials are not the only pertinent criterion for admission to West Point. The statistics cited above suggest that, by and large, his institution has succeeded in making unprejudiced admissions decisions based on applicants' total qualifications. That is not at all an argument in favor of affirmative action.
General Christman's argument is, with all due respect, a rote recitation of multiculturalist clichés. The idea that the makeup of West Point classes has any impact on a future officer's ability to lead effectively in Bosnia or Afghanistan has too little plausibility to require refutation.
Colonel Vetter offers a superficially more credible defense of preferences. Perhaps it is good for the morale of the troops if the men who lead them "look and feel more like our country and our [enlisted] Navy and Marine Corps". On the other hand, many successful armies have been notable for the wide gulf between the leaders and the led. The officers of the 19th Century British army had very little in common with Tommy Atkins, and the force did none the worse for that. The insistence that the officer corps ought to mirror the country's ethnic composition has political rather than military roots.
Still, it is not inconceivable that the Armed Forces are, in present circumstances, made more effective by having a conspicuous cadre of black and Hispanic officers, whether or not they are individually the best qualified for the jobs. That is a question that serving military men can judge better than I (though they aren't likely to be permitted to express their judgements freely in a climate of political correctness, one in which, for example, no public office holder would dare refer, as I just did, to "military men").
That brings us to Mr. Hunt's third proposition, that the military and civilian spheres are interchangeable. The quotation from Walter Dellinger, the Clinton Administration's chief legal advocate, cleverly uses the possibility that there may be a sound military rationale for some racially motivated military decisions as a shield for everybody's racial preferences. The implication is that, in order to preserve West Point's or Annapolis' ability to admit a few more minority applicants than would get in on pure merit, we must allow the University of Michigan to engage in bias that borders on the grotesque. That is another instance of the familiar liberal confusion between a constitution and a suicide pact. The Armed Forces are not the realm for equity, but that does not mean that we should allow race and ethnicity to hold sway elsewhere in our nation's life.
Moreover, whatever "need" the service academies may have to engage in racial preferences arises from the fact that other universities are doing the same. The strong bias of upper tier schools in favor of minorities depletes the pool of young blacks and Hispanics who would otherwise be able to compete on equal terms with whites for places at the academies. As many others have noted, the real effect of racial preferences in university admissions is not to make college education more widely available to minority students but to place them at institutions where they will mostly perform below average or fail completely.
It would not be hard to find an implicit racism in Mr. Hunt's approach to affirmative action. He writes about the supposed benefits of "diversity" to white students and predominantly white institutions, without ever addressing whether it has a detrimental impact on its intended beneficiaries. Maybe it doesn't, but shouldn't someone who cares seriously about the interests of blacks and Hispanics give the question some thought?
The column's final paragraph is a sneer at President Bush, one that is repeated tiresomely in left-wing circles:
Unfortunately, that [the alleged benefits of "diversity"] seemed irrelevant to George W. Bush, as does the affirmative action, as a legacy, that got him into Yale 38 years ago, and carried him through much of his life.
The facts here are wrong. When George W. Bush entered Yale (the same year that I did), the university had, much to the displeasure of many Old Blues, just eliminated virtually all alumni preferences. (They were partially restored some years later.) "Dubya" may not have been the brightest bulb in the Class of 1968,  but he almost certainly got in on merit, not his father's and grandfather's coattails. As for the larger point that Mr. Hunt is insinuating – that, so long as society tolerates any bias at all, it must accept bias on racial grounds – Glenn Reynolds recently delivered the definitive refutation in reply to a complaint that "the folks who seem most upset by affirmative action don't seem terribly concerned about preferential treatment for children of alumni".
You hear this all the time. But I think it's a bogus comparison. The reason why we have laws against race discrimination, rather than laws demanding strict meritocracy in all things, is – or at least so I thought – that race discrimination is much, much worse than merely favoring alumni.
The logical implication of statements comparing racial discrimination with legacy preferences for alumni is that racial discrimination isn't uniquely bad. But is that true? But for an accident of history, might Martin Luther King have been leading marches against legacy preferences, or athletic recruiting? I don't think so.
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