David Bromwich: The leader Obama wanted to become and what became of him

Doesn’t this just say it all?  After Majority Leader Harry Reid went the ultimate mile for the president, loosing the “nuclear option” on the Senate to wipe out Republican filibusters of a bevy of log-jammed presidential nominations, and after the Republicans — the president’s proudly disloyal opposition — had fumed to their hearts’ content, Obama still couldn’t get his nominee to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division confirmed.  The culprits in a Congress where, from the White House point of view, evil has been every shade of Republican turned out to be seven disloyal Democrats.  Despite a “sustained closed-door effort” by Obama and his aides, they voted the nominee down.  Think of it as a little parable for the Obama presidency.

Meanwhile, in foreign policy, the din has been thunderous when it comes to Vladimir Putin and events in Ukraine.  Denunciations of the Russian president have rung from every quarter in Washington.  Sanctions against individual Russians have been issued with broader sanctions threatened and Secretary of State John Kerry has led the way.  But so far it’s been a Charge of the Lite Brigade.  Kerry actually had the chutzpah to say of the Russian troops sent into the Crimea, “You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped up pretext.”  And the former senator, who had voted for the invasion of Iraq (to deal with Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction program), did it straight-faced.  Had the situation not been so grim, it would have been pure stand-up.  

The poor people of Ukraine are, of course, caught in the ring with global heavyweights and wannabes.  And the action’s been hot and heavy.  For one thing, the White House seems to have leaked German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private suggestion to the president that, in a conversation they had, Putin had been “in another world” — i.e. deranged.  (It was assumedly a good way for the White House to depth charge her relationship with the Russian president.)  As for Putin, if he’s crazy, by all accounts he’s crazy like a fox. He’s managed to go to “war” with what’s left of the Red Army and as the leader of a far more ramshackle state than the Soviet Union without a shot so far being fired.  He’s been punching visibly above his weight.

Thematically true to the Obama era, Washington has no less visibly been punching below its weight.  Its theme, widely announced, has been to “isolate” Russia, particularly economically.  Even as Republican congressional representatives were clambering aboard the Good Ship Sanctions (while continuing to denounce the president), the Obama administration hasn’t been able to rally those who actually matter: its European allies.

Yes, they’ve all said the right words in the rhetorical war that’s been underway, but in a fashion new in the trans-Atlantic relationship, even Great Britain has balked at Washington’s urgings to impose real sanctions on the Russians.  And no wonder: unlike the U.S., the Germans and others have significant trade relationships with that country and rely on it for natural gas supplies, none of which are they eager to imperil.  Here, too, for all the sound and fury signifying little, Obama seems to have been trumped by Putin.

The president’s inability to get much of significance done, no matter the topic, has become legendary.  In this, he may be the perfect symbol of our age.  His is a presidency in a time of decline.  As TomDispatch regular David Bromwich indicates today in a sweeping character portrait of the man we’ve never quite come to know, he’s had an uncanny knack for embodying the waning of American power.  Whether at home or abroad, it seems as if that power is somehow mysteriously draining out of Washington.  As Bromwich suggests, the president’s words can still soar, but the actions he proposes show a remarkably consistent inability to leave the ground. Tom Engelhardt

The voice
How Obama became a publicist for his presidency (rather than the president)
By David Bromwich

Like many days, March 3rd saw the delivery of a stern opinion by President Obama. To judge by recent developments in Ukraine, he said, Russia was putting itself “on the wrong side of history.” This might seem a surprising thing for an American president to say. The fate of Soviet Communism taught many people to be wary of invoking History as if it were one’s special friend or teammate. But Obama doubtless felt comfortable because he was quoting himself. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,” he said in his 2009 inaugural address, “know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” In January 2009 and again in March 2014, Obama was speaking to the world as its uncrowned leader.

For some time now, observers — a surprisingly wide range of them — have been saying that Barack Obama seems more like a king than a president. Leave aside the fanatics who think he is a “tyrant” of unparalleled powers and malignant purpose. Notions of that sort come easily to those who look for them; they are predigested and can safely be dismissed. But the germ of a similar conclusion may be found in a perception shared by many others. Obama, it is said, takes himself to be something like a benevolent monarch — a king in a mixed constitutional system, where the duties of the crown are largely ceremonial. He sees himself, in short, as the holder of a dignified office to whom Americans and others may feel naturally attuned.

A large portion of his experience of the presidency should have discouraged that idea. Obama’s approval ratings for several months have been hovering just above 40%. But whatever people may actually think of him, the evidence suggests that this has indeed been his vision of the presidential office — or rather, his idea of his function as a holder of that office. It is a subtle and powerful fantasy, and it has evidently driven his demeanor and actions, as far as reality permitted, for most of his five years in office.

[Read more...]

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Obama has bungled his negotiations with Putin

a13-iconFred Kaplan writes: The most startling thing about the crisis in Ukraine is how horribly all the actors have played their hands.

First, the Ukrainian parliament, after stepping up to power, drastically overstepped its bounds, dissolving the courts and ousting President Viktor Yanukovich by fiat rather than through legal processes of impeachment—thus giving Russian President Vladimir Putin the sliver of an excuse to declare the new leaders “illegitimate” and to intervene under the pretense of restoring “order.”

Then, Putin went overboard, not merely bolstering the security of Russia’s naval base on the coast of Crimea (an autonomous republic of Ukraine that once belonged to Russia) but mobilizing 30,000 troops to occupy the entire enclave. This was unnecessary, since Putin already, in effect, controlled Crimea. It may also prove stupid, as the move’s violence has further alienated Ukrainians, raised suspicions among Russia’s other ex-Soviet neighbors, and roused resistance from otherwise indifferent Western nations.

Which leads to President Obama, who has responded to the aggression by imposing sanctions—a cliché of foreign policy that usually has no effect, but in this case will almost certainly make things worse.

Sanctions only work (and, even then, rarely) when they are universal, when they truly hurt the regime being targeted, and when they coincide with—or prompt—political change. Russia fits none of these categories. Too many European nations are too dependent on Russian gas supplies or bank deposits to make sanctions bite or endure. None of the sanctions under discussion are knockout blows; no conceivable sanctions would compel Putin (or any Russian leader) to surrender Ukraine. And regime change in Moscow is hardly on the horizon.

This crisis will be settled by making things somehow right with Ukraine—keeping it secure from further encroachments and ensuring that its government reflects the will of its people. The path toward both goals runs through the upcoming elections in May. And neither goal can be accomplished—no free and fair election can take place—without Russian involvement. [Continue reading...]

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Obama knew CIA secretly monitored intelligence committee, senator claims

The Guardian reports: A leading US senator has said that President Obama knew of an “unprecedented action” taken by the CIA against the Senate intelligence committee, which has apparently prompted an inspector general’s inquiry at Langley.

The subtle reference in a Tuesday letter from Senator Mark Udall to Obama, seeking to enlist the president’s help in declassifying a 6,300-page inquiry by the committee into torture carried out by CIA interrogators after 9/11, threatens to plunge the White House into a battle between the agency and its Senate overseers.

McClatchy and the New York Times reported Wednesday that the CIA had secretly monitored computers used by committee staffers preparing the inquiry report, which is said to be scathing not only about the brutality and ineffectiveness of the agency’s interrogation techniques but deception by the CIA to Congress and policymakers about it. The CIA sharply disputes the committee’s findings.

Udall, a Colorado Democrat and one of the CIA’s leading pursuers on the committee, appeared to reference that surreptitious spying on Congress, which Udall said undermined democratic principles.

“As you are aware, the CIA has recently taken unprecedented action against the committee in relation to the internal CIA review and I find these actions to be incredibly troubling for the Committee’s oversight powers and for our democracy,” Udall wrote to Obama on Tuesday.

Independent observers were unaware of a precedent for the CIA spying on the congressional committees established in the 1970s to check abuses by the intelligence agencies.

“In the worst case, it would be a subversion of independent oversight, and a violation of separation of powers,” said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s potentially very serious.” [Continue reading...]

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Obama: The U.S. may soon be unable to defend Israel from international isolation

n13-iconJeffrey Goldberg writes: When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the White House tomorrow, President Barack Obama will tell him that his country could face a bleak future — one of international isolation and demographic disaster — if he refuses to endorse a U.S.-drafted framework agreement for peace with the Palestinians. Obama will warn Netanyahu that time is running out for Israel as a Jewish-majority democracy. And the president will make the case that Netanyahu, alone among Israelis, has the strength and political credibility to lead his people away from the precipice.

In an hourlong interview Thursday in the Oval Office, Obama, borrowing from the Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel, told me that his message to Netanyahu will be this: “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?” He then took a sharper tone, saying that if Netanyahu “does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach.” He added, “It’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible.”

Unlike Netanyahu, Obama will not address the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group, this week — the administration is upset with Aipac for, in its view, trying to subvert American-led nuclear negotiations with Iran. In our interview, the president, while broadly supportive of Israel and a close U.S.-Israel relationship, made statements that would be met at an Aipac convention with cold silence.

Obama was blunter about Israel’s future than I’ve ever heard him. His language was striking, but of a piece with observations made in recent months by his secretary of state, John Kerry, who until this interview, had taken the lead in pressuring both Netanyahu and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to agree to a framework deal. Obama made it clear that he views Abbas as the most politically moderate leader the Palestinians may ever have. It seemed obvious to me that the president believes that the next move is Netanyahu’s. [Continue reading...]

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The West’s puny response to Ukraine crisis will not deter Putin

o13-iconSimon Tisdall writes: Barack Obama has sternly warned Vladimir Putin there will be “costs” for Russia if it continues or expands its military intervention in Ukraine. But the American president did not specify what these costs might be, and this toothlessness, in a nutshell, is the dilemma now facing the US and its allies. Putin does not fear the west. On the contrary, he is once again forcefully demonstrating his deep contempt.

The idea that the US, Britain or France – the only western countries with sizeable, readily deployable, experienced combat forces – might respond militarily to Russia’s invasion of Crimea cannot be taken seriously. Putin surely calculates there will be no such challenge, as he did, correctly, in Georgia in 2008, and thus moves his troops and tanks in Crimea – and possibly eastern Ukraine – with impunity. Obama, whose presidency has been dedicated to ending wars, not starting them, has shown he has no appetite for new armed confrontations, in Syria or elsewhere.

Even if Obama did want to pursue a military option, he would be hard put to make it credible. US forces in western Europe have been cut back repeatedly. The US sixth fleet, headquartered in Naples, is a considerable weapon. But to make any sort of impact in Ukraine, it would have to deploy into the Black Sea via the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, a move that Turkey would find highly objectionable, and which Russia would regard as a direct threat. [Continue reading...]

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Karen Greenberg: Obama’s commandments

Think of us as having two presidents.  One, a fellow named Barack Obama, cuts a distinctly Clark Kent-ish figure.  In presiding over domestic policy, he is regularly thwarted in his desires by the Republicans in Congress and couldn’t until recently get his most basic choices for government positions or the judiciary through the Senate.  For the most minimal look of effectiveness, he has to rely on relatively small gestures by executive order.  In the recent history of the American presidency, he is a remarkably powerless figure presiding over what everyone who is a media anyone claims is a riven, paralyzed, even broken government structure, one in which the Republicans are intent on ensuring that a Democratic president can do nothing until they take the White House (which is almost guaranteed to be never).  What this president wants, almost by definition, he can’t have.  He is, as Guardian columnist Gary Younge wrote recently, a man who’s lost the plot line to his own story and has been relegated to the position of onlooker-in-chief.

But keep in mind that that’s only one of our two presidents.  The other, a fellow named Barack Obama, flies (by drone) like Superman, rules more or less by fiat, sends U.S. missiles to strike and kill just about anyone, including American citizens, anywhere in the distant backlands of the planet, and dispatches the country’s secret warriors (whether from the CIA or the special operations forces) wherever he pleases.  He can, with rare exceptions, intervene violently wherever he chooses.  He can (by proxy) listen in on whomever he’s curious about (including, it seems, 320 German business and political leaders).  He rules over what former Congressional insider Mike Lofgren calls the “deep state” in Washington, a national security apparatus that is neither riven, nor broken, nor paralyzed, with only the rarest intercessions from Congress.  In this world, Obama’s powers have only grown, along with the “kill list” he reviews every week.

Admittedly, in his actions abroad from Afghanistan to Libya, his moves on the global stage haven’t exactly proven to be brilliant coups de théâtre.  Many have, in fact, been remarkably boneheaded.  But no one ever claimed that Superman’s superpowers included super-brain-power.

Think of this White House, then, as the schizophrenic presidency, one half remarkably impotent, the other ever more potent.  The conundrum is that they both inhabit the same man.  And if they add up to anything, as Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and TomDispatch regular, makes clear today, it’s long-term bad news for the country and the planet. Tom Engelhardt

The Five Commandments of Barack Obama
How “thou shalt not” became “thou shalt”
By Karen J. Greenberg

In January 2009, Barack Obama entered the Oval Office projecting idealism and proud to be the constitutional law professor devoted to turning democratic principles into action.  In his first weeks in office, in a series of executive orders and public statements, the new president broadcast for all to hear the five commandments by which life in his new world of national security would be lived. 

Thou shalt not torture.

Thou shalt not keep Guantanamo open.

Thou shalt not keep secrets unnecessarily.

Thou shalt not wage war without limits.

Thou shalt not live above the law.

Five years later, the question is: How have he and his administration lived up to these self-proclaimed commandments?

[Read more...]

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Obama sees limited options for cyberwar in Syria

n13-iconThe New York Times reports: Not long after the uprising in Syria turned bloody late in the spring of 2011, the Pentagon and the National Security Agency developed a battle plan that featured a sophisticated cyberattack on the Syrian military and President Bashar al-Assad’s command structure.

The military’s ability to launch airstrikes was a particular target, along with missile production facilities. “It would essentially turn the lights out for Assad,” said one former official familiar with the planning.

For President Obama, who has been adamantly opposed to direct American intervention in a worsening crisis in Syria, such methods would seem to be an obvious, low-cost, low-casualty alternative. But after briefings on variants of the plans, most of which are part of traditional strikes as well, he has so far turned them down.

Syria was not a place where he saw the strategic value in American intervention, and even such covert attacks — of the kind he had ordered against Iran during the first two years of his presidency — involved a variety of risks. [Continue reading...]

As a commenter at the Times says, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

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What the hell is Barack Obama’s presidency for?

o13-iconGary Younge writes: A few days after John F Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson sat in his kitchen with his key advisers working his first speech to Congress. It was the evening of Kennedy’s funeral – Johnson was now president. The nation was still in grief and Johnson, writes Robert Caro in The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, was not yet able to move into the White House because Kennedy’s effects were still there.

He had been a hapless vice-president; now he had to both personify and project the transition from bereavement to business as usual. In the midst of the cold war, with Vietnam brewing, the Kennedy administration had been trying to get civil rights legislation and tax cuts through Congress. There was plenty of business to attend to. Johnson’s advisers were keen that he introduced himself to the nation as a president who could get things done.

For that reason, writes Caro, they implored him not to push for civil rights in this first speech, since it had no chance of passing. “The presidency has only a certain amount of coinage to expend, and you oughtn’t to expend it on this,” said “one of the wise, practical people around the table”. Johnson, who sat in silence at the table as his aides debated, interjected: “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for.”

“First,” he told Congress a few days later, “no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honour President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” Over the next five years he would go on to sign the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, launch the war on poverty and introduce Medicaid (medical assistance for low-income families) and Medicare (for seniors). That’s what his presidency was for.

Barack Obama has now been in power for longer than Johnson was, and the question remains: “What the hell’s his presidency for?” [Continue reading...]

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Record U.S. gun production as Obama ‘demonized’ on issue

n13-iconBloomberg reports: U.S. gun makers led by Sturm Ruger & Co. and Smith & Wesson Holding Corp. churned out a record number of firearms in 2012, government data show, continuing a trend of robust production during Democratic presidencies.

More than 8.57 million guns were produced in 2012, up 31 percent from 6.54 million in 2011, according to data released this week by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which has been tracking the statistics since 1986.

Almost as many guns — 26.1 million — were produced during Democrat Barack Obama’s first term as president as during the entire eight-year presidency of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, the ATF data show. [Continue reading...]

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Obama plays water-guzzling desert golf courses amid California drought

n13-iconTime reports: President Barack Obama traveled to California on Friday to highlight the state’s drought emergency at two events near Fresno, calling for shared sacrifice to help manage the state’s worst water shortage in decades. He then spent the rest of the weekend enjoying the hospitality of some of the state’s top water hogs: desert golf courses.

Vacationing with DVDs of his favorite television shows and multiple golf outings with his buddies, the duffer in chief played at two of the most exclusive courses in the Palm Springs area. On Saturday, Obama played at the Sunnylands estate, built by the late billionaire Walter Annenberg, which features a nine-hole course that is played like 18 holes. The following day he golfed at billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s 19-hole Porcupine Creek. On Presidents’ Day, Obama hit the links at Sunnylands once again.

The 124 golf courses in the Coachella Valley consume roughly 17% of all water there, and one-quarter of the water pumped out of the region’s at-risk groundwater aquifer, according to the Coachella Valley Water District. [Continue reading...]

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Peter Van Buren: The divine right of President Obama?

Imagine this: a president and his top officials as self-professed assassins — and proud of it, even attempting to gain political capital from it.  It’s not that American presidents have never been associated with assassination attempts before.  At a National Security Council meeting, Dwight D. Eisenhower personally ordered the CIA to “eliminate” Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, then feared as a future “Castro of Africa.”  “After a dead silence of fifteen seconds,” Tim Weiner tells us in Legacy of Ashes, his history of the CIA, “the meeting went on.”  And of course, the Kennedy brothers were directly involved in at least one of the many Agency attempts to kill Fidel Castro, while the CIA of Lyndon Johnson’s era mounted a massive assassination program in Vietnam.  Still, in those days, something dark and distasteful clung to the idea and presidents preferred to maintain what was called “plausible deniability” when it came to such efforts. (In 1981, by Executive Order, President Ronald Reagan actually banned assassination by the U.S. government.)

Now, top officials connected to the White House proudly leak details about their ongoing efforts to use drones to assassinate obscure suspected terrorists in the backlands of the planet.  They take pride in comparing their activities to a religious calling.  They want the public to know that they and the president spend significant time and effort on such “targeted killings.”  The most recent case to see the light of day is the prospective assassination of an American citizen and suspected “al-Qaeda facilitator,” evidently in the tribal borderlands of Pakistan.  When it comes to this possible future assassination, they seem eager to emphasize via leaks the care they are taking in preparing the way.

In the process, they have produced legalistic documents so secret that they can’t be shown to the public, though their existence and import can indeed be publicized.  These justify to their satisfaction the killing of Americans without what once would have been considered “due process” or any role whatsoever for the actual legal system.  The president and his top officials are ready at a moment’s notice to discuss in public, with a legalistic turn of mind and a finicky attention to bureaucratic detail, whether such killings can properly be carried out in the U.S. as they are abroad, or whether the angels of death should be the U.S. military or the CIA — as if this were of any legally binding import. (Congress, in turn, has been balking at appropriating money for the military to take over more of the CIA’s drone killings.)  No less striking, the media is by now almost instantly bored with such reports, which prove, at best, to be minor one-day ripples in the vast tide of the news.

And in the face of all this, Americans seem to exhibit a remarkable lack of interest.  The transformation of the White House into a killing machine?  Whether any of this has anything to do with legality?  More than 12 years after the 9/11 attacks, it’s evidently just everyday life in America.  That the president is our assassin-in-chief and that drones are acceptable weapons of choice in such killings are givens.  It’s also a given that, in the name of American security, anything goes as long as it’s wrapped in an exculpatory, feel-good legalistic package, even if it bears no actual relationship to what Americans might once have called legality.  Today, Peter Van Buren, ex-State Department whistleblower, TomDispatch regular, and author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, explores the deep derangement of all this and what it means in the building of a “post-Constitutional America.” Tom Engelhardt

Drone killing the Fifth Amendment
How to build a post-constitutional America one death at a time
By Peter Van Buren

Terrorism (ter-ror-ism; see also terror) n. 1. When a foreign organization kills an American for political reasons.

Justice (jus-tice) n. 1. When the United States Government uses a drone to kill an American for political reasons.

How’s that morning coffee treating you? Nice and warming? Mmmm.

While you’re savoring your cup o’ joe, imagine the president of the United States hunched over his own coffee, considering the murder of another American citizen. Now, if you were plotting to kill an American over coffee, you could end up in jail on a whole range of charges including — depending on the situation — terrorism. However, if the president’s doing the killing, it’s all nice and — let’s put those quote marks around it — “legal.” How do we know? We’re assured that the Justice Department tells him so.  And that’s justice enough in post-Constitutional America.

Through what seems to have been an Obama administration leak to the Associated Press, we recently learned that the president and his top officials believe a U.S. citizen — name unknown to us out here — probably somewhere in the tribal backlands of Pakistan, is reputedly planning attacks against Americans abroad. As a result, the White House has, for the last several months, been considering whether or not to assassinate him by drone without trial or due process.

[Read more...]

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Obama pressured over drone policy amid reports U.S. citizen targeted

n13-iconThe Guardian reports: The Obama administration came under renewed pressure to disclose the legal grounds for its drone programme on Monday, amid reports that another US citizen accused of plotting attacks against Americans for al-Qaida overseas is to be assassinated.

Legal experts and civil liberties campaigners urged the White House to explain the basis for a potential strike against the suspect, alleged to be an active “facilitator” for the terrorist network and already responsible for deadly attacks on Americans.

Senior US officials were reported by the Associated Press to be weighing the benefits of killing the man against the likelihood of international condemnation and domestic criticism for targeting an American who has not been not charged with a crime. The Washington Post said it had confirmed the story.

Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) National Security Project, said the Obama administration “continues to fight against even basic transparency” about how it justifies the executions of thousands of people under the programme.

“The targeted killing of an American being considered right now shows the inherent danger of a killing programme based on vague and shifting legal standards, which has made it disturbingly easy for the government to operate outside the law,” she said.

Citing several US officials, the AP reported that the man was accused of planning further strikes with improvised explosive devices. He was reported to be hiding, well guarded, in a remote part of a state unwilling to allow US operations on its soil and “unable to go after him”, prompting speculation that a strike would mean the drone programme being extended into a new country, such as Libya. [Continue reading...]

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Why does America send so many stupid, unqualified hacks overseas?

o13-iconJames Bruno writes: When hotel magnate George Tsunis, Obama’s nominee for Oslo, met with the Senate last month, he made clear that he didn’t know that Norway was a constitutional monarchy and wrongly stated that one of the ruling coalition political parties was a hate-spewing “fringe element.” Another of the president’s picks, Colleen Bell, who is headed to Budapest, could not answer questions about the United States’ strategic interests in Hungary. But could the president really expect that she’d be an expert on the region? Her previous gig was as a producer for the TV soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. She stumbled through responses to Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) like, well, a soap opera star, expounding on world peace. When the whole awkward exchange concluded, the senator grinned. “I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees,” McCain said sarcastically.

For the purposes of comparison, Norway’s ambassador to the Washington is a 31-year Foreign Ministry veteran. Hungary’s ambassador is an economist who worked at the International Monetary Fund for 27 years.

The resumé imbalance, of course, owes to a simple fact: The United States is the only industrialized country to award diplomatic posts as political spoils, often to wealthy campaign contributors in an outmoded system that rivals the patronage practices of banana republics, dictatorships and two-bit monarchies. [Continue reading...]

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Letter to Obama from an American held in Cairo’s Tora prison

Mohamed-SoltanMohamed Soltan, an American citizen who is a 26-year-old graduate of Ohio State University, moved to Egypt last year. In August he joined a sit-in at Rabaa Square in Cairo to defend what he considered the norms of American-style democracy.

Soltan was shot in the arm when security forces broke up sit-ins at Rabaa and another square, killing nearly a thousand people. “He was recovering from surgery to remove the bullet when the police raided his home and arrested him. His family, which is collecting signatures on a petition calling for his release, has released the following text of a letter Mr. Soltan wrote to President Obama from a cell in Cairo’s Tora Prison on his 26th birthday in November.”

Dear President Obama,

Last week, I underwent a procedure to remove two 13” metal nails that were placed in my left arm to help support and repair the damage sustained from a gunshot wound I suffered at the hands of Egyptian security forces. The bullet that punctured my arm was paid for by our tax dollars. I was forced to undergo this procedure without any anesthesia or sterilization because the Egyptian authorities refused to transfer me to a hospital for proper surgical care.

After the nails penetrated the skin at my elbow from below, and ripped through my shoulder muscle from above. The doctor who performed this procedure is a cellmate. He used pliers and a straight razor in lieu of a scalpel. I laid on a dirty mat as my other cellmates held me down to ensure I did not jolt from the pain and risk permanent loss of feeling and function in that arm. The pain was so excruciating, it felt like my brain could explode at any given point. I was finally given two aspirin pills almost an hour later when the guards found my cellmates screams for help unbearable.

I share these details here because my mind drifted to 2007 as I stared at the ceiling of my cramped cell after surgery. During your first presidential campaign, I was moved by your message. I was so passionate about everything you represented. Finally, “change we can believe in.” I saw you, as many Americans did then, a true civil servant looking to put the disadvantaged first, and to pioneer a new model of governance. I felt I was part of the making of a great chapter in my country’s history. You were someone I wanted to stand behind, someone I wanted to support, so I volunteered and worked for your campaign in Ohio, a crucial swing state. As an O.S.U. student, I went door-to-door, made phone call after phone call, urged people to join the movement that would revolutionize American politics. It was time to go back to a government “for the people, of the people.”

Now as I sit in this crowded cell, I can’t help but ask myself, was I naïve to think you were a departure from the norm? [Continue reading...]

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The White House and the aristocratic institution of unpaid internships

Michael Lind writes: What do you call an employer that refuses to pay its workers any salary at all? Answer: The White House.

President Barack Obama has called for an increase in the U.S. minimum wage. And yet his administration expects hundreds of young people each year to work at the White House for an hourly wage of zero.

According to a White House website, White House interns are expected to work “at least Monday-Friday, 9 am-6pm.” Nice touch — “at least.”

In return for a full week’s worth of work and possible overtime, the White House provides its interns with no pay and no housing help. The latter is significant, because the Washington, D.C., metro area has among the highest costs in the U.S.

The problem with the unpaid internship program, which Obama inherited from previous Oval Officers and which has continued, is not sweatshop exploitation — it’s blatant class discrimination. [Continue reading...]

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In keeping grip on data pipeline, Obama does little to reassure industry

The New York Times reports: Google, which briefly considered moving all of its computer servers out of the United States last year after learning how they had been penetrated by the National Security Agency, was looking for a public assurance from President Obama that the government would no longer secretly suck data from the company’s corner of the Internet cloud.

Microsoft was listening to see if Mr. Obama would adopt a recommendation from his advisers that the government stop routinely stockpiling flaws in its Windows operating system, then using them to penetrate some foreign computer systems and, in rare cases, launch cyberattacks.

Intel and computer security companies were eager to hear Mr. Obama embrace a commitment that the United States would never knowingly move to weaken encryption systems.

They got none of that. [Continue reading...]

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