Sunday, January 17, 2016

Where Does Obama Belong in the Presidential Rankings Sweepstakes?

 Who was the better president, Franklin Roosevelt or George W. Bush?


The question is ridiculous, of course, because by every reasonable measure, FDR has to be seen as vastly superior to GWB. We are willing to concede, however, that there are those, so partisan, and so hostile to “government,” that they would actually prefer Bush.

Which is to say, evaluating presidents is a somewhat tricky business, though it is one that I find irresistibly interesting.

Wikipedia has a handy chart with which they lay out the rankings of our 43 presidents, using as data the judgments of different organizations that have attempted to evaluate them in the past. In other words, it’s a kind of “poll of polls.”

According to this poll of polls, Barack Obama comes in at number 17 of the 43 presidents who have held office. (As you may know, Grover Cleveland complicates presidential rankings by having been voted into the presidency in 1884, then voted out of office in 1888 and then regaining the White House in the 1892 election, thus becoming both our twenty-second AND our twenty-fourth president. So Barack Obama is our forty-fourth president, even though he is only the forty-third person to serve in that office. So annoying. Thanks a lot, Grover.)

But back to Barack. Number 17 out of 43 isn’t right. That would put him just behind Ronald Reagan (15) and James Monroe (16), and just ahead of Grover Cleveland (18 and 18. Again with the dual administrations!).

Barack (as I like to call him these days) is much better than this. I mean, is it realistic to say that Harry Truman (Number 6), Dwight Eisenhower (Number 9) and Woodrow Wilson (Number 7) did so much more for the country than Obama did? In my opinion, no.

Wilson, the last leading Democrat who bought into the Confederacy mythology, is already starting to lose traction and I anticipate that he will be downgraded in future polls. Truman was a good man in many ways, but he blundered badly when he cut our alliance with Ho Chi Minh and threw American power against the anti-colonial movement Ho represented. Thirty years and 58,000 dead Americans later, it became clear just how disastrous Truman’s decision was, especially since all Ho Chi Minh wanted was to be a neutral figure, friendly to the U.S. in Asia just as Tito had been in Europe.

Eisenhower’s sins were worse than Truman’s in that he cranked up the anti-Vietnamese independence forces by backing colonial France in the 1950s. Then he completely undermined the friendly relations we had had with the Iranians by sponsoring a coup against Iran’s democratic government in 1953. We have been paying for this CIA blunder ever since. I’m not alone in my views on this being a blunder. When former CIA director, Porter Goss, was a guest speaker in my class, I asked him if he thought the CIA coup that overthrew the Iranian government was a mistake, and he said, “In hindsight, yes.”*

Eisenhower also backed the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Guatemala.

Both Truman and Eisenhower had their positive accomplishments, of course, but neither of them did as much in the face of as much resistance as Obama has done. Truman desegregated the military, for one thing, and Eisenhower established the Interstate highway system.

Obama, on the other hand, saved the economy when it was in free fall in 2008-2009. His stimulus package not only stanched the hemorrhaging of jobs that began under President Bush, but it also saved America’s auto industry with well-placed government loans. It’s worth remembering that the beginning of The Great Recession of 2008 was very similar to the beginning of The Great Depression of the 1930s. The difference in the way the Recession turned out, as opposed to the Depression, is, above all, a result of the actions taken by the Obama administration. This alone should earn him a lot of credit in the presidential rankings game.

The other big thing that Obama did was expand medical coverage to millions of Americans who had previously been too poor to afford it. Republicans hated him for doing this. Ted Cruz in particular said “Obamacare” was a bad plan because people would come to like it and then it would be impossible to get rid of it. One of Ted Cruz's very few honest statements.

But other Republicans hated it simply because Obama implemented it. Since the plan was based on Mitt Romney’s program in Massachusetts, it is hard to see it as a form of “socialism” or “government takeover,” but that is how the GOP described it. In fact, a more socialistic plan would have been better, but the Affordable Care Act was the best Obama could manage politically in 2009, so that’s what we’re going to have to live with for a while.

Another major accomplishment of his is the drawing down of our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the Bush administration lied about WMDs in Iraq as a device to justify the invasion, and, since the occupation authorities directed their efforts at promoting profit-making opportunities for American corporations instead of with an eye to the best possible outcome for the Iraqis, the invasion and occupation of that country turned into a colossal disaster. The ISIS leadership that now terrorizes the Middle East and beyond is made up of the very same Iraqi government and military officials that President Bush’s policies pushed into the margins as his underlings fought to make Iraq an investment paradise for American oil companies.**

Bush’s blunders and his and Cheney’s duplicity about Iraq require a book-length treatise, but let’s just say, as almost everyone now acknowledges, this, like Eisenhower’s Iranian coup, was a disaster with long-term negative consequences for the United States.

Obama has been criticized for being so anxious to extricate our forces from Iraq that he allowed a very bad situation to get even worse. There may be some truth to that, but, it is also true that the agreement that led to the withdrawal of American forces under Obama in 2011, was signed by Bush, and was held to at the insistence of the Iraqi government.

Afghanistan is also a mixed story, given that Obama has kept troops there longer than he wanted to.

But in general I would give high marks to Obama on military matters, first of all because he is careful to think issues through, and always looks for a way to accomplish the most with the smallest possible commitment of military force. His forcing of Bashar al Assad to give up his chemical weapons arsenal without firing a shot is one example of this. Getting the Iranians to drastically downgrade their nuclear program is another.

People like Bush, Cheney, McCain, Cruz and others in the GOP think that hitting a problem with a big, violent military punch is the best answer to every problem. Or, in Eisenhower’s case, when you don’t like a government, send in the CIA to overthrow it. Obama is much more inclined to use intelligence and finesse, resorting to violence in the most limited possible way and only as a last resort – as he did in the elimination of Osama bin Laden.

Obama’s approach to international relations is orders of magnitude superior to the mindless belligerence we hear from so many Republicans. And really, miles ahead of Eisenhower – who, remember, has been ranked as number 9 on our presidential poll of polls.

One result of this is that Obama is respected much more than many of his predecessors on the world stage, particularly more so than was George W. Bush. In the Republican bubble, Obama is believed to have made America weak and disrespected, but some international polls by the Pew foundation tell a different story.

So where does Obama belong? Every expert seems to agree that Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and George Washington are the top three presidents, usually in that order. Thomas Jefferson is generally regarded as number 4 (Declaration of Independence; Louisiana Purchase), and Theodore Roosevelt number 5 (national park system, anti-corporate trust busting). I am inclined to put Obama at number 6, ahead of both Truman and Eisenhower as well as Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson (Number 8, but a brutal slave-owning, spoils-system-promoting, Indian abuser) and James Polk (Number 10, but a slave-owning, Mexican-War promoter).

Obama, of course, is not without his flaws. My main criticism of him is that he let Wall Street and the other financial finaglers who wrecked the economy in 2008 get away scot free. Maybe President Bernie Sanders will take care of that problem later on.

And what does the American public think of Barack Obama? Today his approval rating is at an unimpressive 45% or so. But this is not too significant, given that presidents are typically rated low at the end of their administrations, except when they are victims of assassination. When Truman left office, his rating was much lower than Obama’s is now. So, I expect that within a decade, Obama’s rating will rise and he will wind up being placed in the top 10. He may not get to Number 6, where I would put him, but I bet that by 2026 he will be rated as Number 10 or better. If there is any justice in this world, he certainly will be.


*For a thorough account of the CIA coup that destroyed Iran's democracy in 1953, read Stephen Kinzer's All the Shah's Men.

**For a good readable account of the politically-motivated actions of the Iraq occupation administrators, read Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Few Words about Ted Cruz

At the Republican debate last night, Senator Ted Cruz said, “[P]olitical correctness is killing people.”

I’m sure that what the senator actually meant to say was, “Bashing political correctness is a useful device for assholes like me to appeal to the bigots in the electorate.”

OK, maybe not. Maybe he really meant what he said, even though what he said was bull hockey, if you know what I mean. 

In case you don’t know what I mean, what I mean is bullshit.

If Senator Cruz is really hostile to political correctness, he is hostile to a general sensibility that says it is a bad idea, even unethical, to disparage people using racist epithets and to otherwise promote negative stereotypes. If you think people shouldn’t be treated with racist or ethnocentric contempt, you too believe in political correctness.

Naturally, some people take the idea of universal respect for people too far and use political correctness as a way to strike a moralistic pose or to pat themselves on the back. Shame on them. But shame, even more, on people like Ted Cruz, who obviously practice political correctness themselves while striking a moralistic pose suggesting they are dead set against it.

Of all the people in both parties now running for president (all 1,674 of them), Cruz is the worst. He is undoubtedly an intelligent man, which makes him that much more odious. He, more than any of his rivals, reminds me of Richard Nixon. People who listened to Nixon’s White House tapes have reported with disgust that every staff meeting seemed to be focused on how to advance his, Nixon’s, political interests. Never was the issue of what’s good for the nation brought up. I imagine that if we could hear Ted Cruz’s thoughts, we would be similarly struck by their repugnantly selfish and utterly unethical qualities. The man just seems to breathe a raging, narcissistic ambition.

He has been called out for his declaration that if he were president he would “carpet bomb” ISIS. This is a lie. Nobody in the American military believes that carpet bombing is an appropriate or effective tactic. Cruz probably knows this, but in his inimitably sleazy way, he broadcasts his commitment to carpet bombing as a way to sound tough. “President Obama is such a wimp that he refuses to carpet bomb ISIS and kill hundreds of thousands of civilians, but I will!”

When Cruz was called on his carpet bombing claim during the debate, he tried to double-talk his way out with this gem: “[I] would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops.”

News flash, Senator Cruz, the ISIS fighters are in the cities.

Imagine for a moment that Ted Cruz were a decent, honest man.

I know, I know, but just try.

With his intelligence and his superior debating skills, he could bring a lot to a presidential campaign. But instead, he insults us with a well rehearsed, thoroughly dishonest series of sound bites, many of which he himself does not believe, but which he has calculated might attract naïve voters to his cause. Gross.

But, you ask, doesn’t every politician do this? Well, except maybe for Bernie Sanders, I think they all do it to some extent. But Cruz is special because that is all he does. So now I find myself watching with fascinated horror to see just how high the Republican electorate is willing to lift this duplicitous poser. May the Force protect us.

(Thanks to Salon for the picture.)

Saturday, November 14, 2015


The world is no stranger to depravity. Nazism has only been dead for 70 years and it was a mere 35 years ago that the Khmer Rouge murdered about 25 percent of Cambodia’s people. Now the leaders of Daesh (aka Islamic State, IS, ISIS, and ISIL) are guaranteeing that they will be remembered, long after their extinction, as members of the World’s Gallery of Scoundrels.

I’m settling on the name Daesh here partly to honor our friends in France who suffered so grievously in yesterday’s massacre. About a year ago Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister, said that we would do well not to use the term “Islamic State” since “it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists.” The “Daesh cutthroats,” Mr. Fabius argued, are, in any case, a terrorist group rather than a state.

I don’t intend to quibble over such niceties as what constitutes a state, but I believe knowing something about how Daesh operates is worthwhile. An insightful analysis about its inner workings can be found in a recent article in Der Spiegel that my friend Rachel shared with me. I think that the most important points that this article reveals are (1) that Daesh was established not by religious fanatics, but by an angry Iraqi who had worked, until 2003, as an intelligence officer for Saddam Hussein, and (2) that Daesh has conquered extensive territories by first infiltrating them and then using Gestapo-like techniques to subordinate their populations.

The man behind these very carefully designed techniques was killed in January 2014, but not before he set the apparatus in motion that has led to Daesh’s successes in Syria and Iraq. He went by numerous aliases, including Haji Bakr, and he had been, before the US invasion, a high-ranking intelligence officer in Saddam Hussein’s air defense force. Der Spiegel was able to describe the inner workings of Daesh because the death of Haji Bakr resulted in his detailed plans for conquest and control falling into his enemies’ (and Der Spiegel’s) hands.

These plans revealed that many of the most fanatic fighters in Daesh are foreigners. Of course it’s common knowledge that thousands of young men from around the world have traveled to the Middle East to join Daesh, but Der Spiegel notes that the fanaticism of these foreigners often surpasses that of the Syrian and Iraqi fighters because the foreigners have no emotional investment in any local populations and little contact with the people of Syria and Iraq except through their acts of violence.

Those who have paid attention to Daesh’s expansion are familiar with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi who, like Haji Bakr was radicalized by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Al-Baghdadi was held at Camp Bucca, a U.S. facility, for four years because of his ties to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). When he was released, he became a leader in AQI, but later joined Daesh and eventually assumed the position of Daesh's Caliph, or supreme leader. Der Spiegel leads me to believe that al-Baghdadi is useful to Daesh mainly because his genuine religious fanaticism gives the organization a public image that helps obscure its secular ruthlessness. This ruthlessness owes more to the Saddam Hussein School of Terrorism and Thought Control than it does to anything in Islam.

In fact, the non-Islamic features of Daesh help explain its conflict with al Qaeda. The latter organization is clearly motivated by a fanatic version of Islam, and a number of its leaders have pointed accusing fingers at Daesh, not just for its brutality (which al Qaeda can all but match), but for its lack of authentic religiosity.

Almost everyone in the world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, agrees that Daesh must be destroyed. Not only France, but Turkey and Lebanon have suffered horribly at its hands. And so, apparently, have the people of Russia who lost 224 compatriots to what appears to be a Daesh-inspired bomb on board an Airbus over the Sinai.

The only question is, how should we go about killing this foul beast? Cooperation between NATO, Russia, Iran and Middle Eastern Arabs (including those Syrians whose behavior has not made it impossible for us to work with them) is essential. A full scale invasion by foreign armies strikes me as a very bad idea for a number of reasons. For one thing, let’s not forget that the leaders of Daesh, both al-Baghdadi and the late Haji Bakr, emerged in response to just such an invasion.  President Obama’s argument that Daesh can first be systematically degraded and then destroyed makes sense. And this process cannot be a strictly American or foreign-driven one, but must involve local people as its most prominent participants in order for it to be successful.

Showing great promise and impressive courage in this regard are the Kurds who both saved Kobani from a Daesh attack, and who now are in the process of retaking the city of Sinjar. Reports from Sinjar indicate that a number of Daesh fighters fled in the face of the attacking Kurds and their Yazidi allies. This is good news in that it means, first, that these fleeing fighters are not inspired by a fanatic sense that martyrdom is a reward to be enthusiastically sought, and, second, it aligns with current reports that Daesh is running short of voluntary manpower and is having to draft locals to fill its ranks.

I believe we are seeing the beginning of the end of Daesh, but the elimination of this blot on humanity is bound to be a bloody affair. In the meantime, how sad it is that good and blameless people, like those who died in Paris yesterday, have to suffer so tragically while this monster still manages to hold on to its loathsome life.