This is a post I wanted to do yesterday; but then decided I didn’t want to profane the Fourth by writing anything political. For at least one day a year, we ought to be able to show some unity.But I just finished reading Larry Diamond’s fascinating and disturbing book: Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort To Bring Democracy To Iraq. And it left me absolutely livid about the fact that Donald Rumsfeld is still Secretary of Defense.You should read Diamond’s book; if you don’t have time, he wrote an earlier and much briefer version of his basic argument in Foreign Affairs last fall.Diamond, probably America’s top expert on democracy-building, spent several months working for the Coalition Provisional Authority (the Pentagon-run U.S. occupation entity) in early 2004. And he came away with an indictment of the early and continuing mistakes, mostly attributable to Rumsfeld and his top civilian aides, that we and the Iraqis continue to pay for today.Most of his litany of errors is familiar, but Diamond puts them, and their consequences, together in a way that takes your breath away. Totally aside from the decision to invade in the first place (which Diamond opposed), Rumsfeld’s Big Mistake was his stubborn determination to go into Iraq with about one-third the number of troops that every military and civilian expert told him would be necessary to secure the country. As a result, Coalition troops could do little or nothing to deal with (a) the systematic looting and lawlessness that destroyed what was left of Iraqi civil authority, and paralyzed the economy; (b) a massive influx across unprotected borders of Iranian and Sunni Jihadist agents and fighters; (c) the formation of a vast array of sectarian armed militias, fueled by another bad administration decision to disband the Iraqi army; (d) a decisive erosion of Coalition credibility among Kurds and Shi’a who remember their abandonment by the U.S. to Saddam’s vicious reprisals after the First Gulf War; and (e) a security situation that made reconstruction efforts physically impossible.Aside from that Big Mistake, Diamond catalogues a bunch of subsequent blunders, including an inability to take seriously and accomodate the pro-democracy views of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, probably the most important figure in Iraq; an abrupt 180-degree shift in policy from a breezy assumption that the U.S. could turn Iraq over to exiles like Ahmed Chalabi, to a reluctance to relinquish control at all; and a consisent pattern of doing the right thing, if at all, several months too late.Even the famous “purple-finger” election of January 2005, Diamond says, carried the potential seeds of disaster, thanks to a Bush administration decision in favor of a national proportional representation system, with no provision for local districts. This decision guaranteed Sunni under-representation in Iraq’s first popularly elected government, while eliminating any incentive for the kind of inter-communal political parties that might have emerged in mixed-population areas of the country.Diamond hasn’t give up hope about prospects for the ultimate emergence of a stable Iraqi government, but has laid out an urgent series of U.S. policy changes (which the DLC recently endorsed) necessary to make it possible, including a decisive repudiation of the idea that we want a permanent military presence there.We all know George W. Bush cannot admit mistakes, though he is capable, now and then, of unacknowledged flip-flops. His single biggest mistake with respect to Iraq, before, during and after the invasion, was his and Dick Cheney’s categorical trust in Donald Rumsfeld and the people around him. I for one will have trouble expecting things to get better in Iraq until such time as Rummy walks the plank. Maybe the White House will suddenly announce that Rumsfeld is desperately needed for another job–perhaps some presidential commission on what the military should look like if and when we colonize space. After all, they’ve already found ways to offload Wolfowitz, Feith and Bolton.But any way you look at it, Rummy’s got to go, especially if this president ever intends to make something other than a very bad joke of his 2000 pledge to introduce “a responsibility era.”
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
After reading a few days worth of carping about Joe Biden’s performance, I decided enough’s enough and responded at New York:
Joe Biden has been president of the United States for 43 days. He inherited power from a predecessor who was trying to overturn the 2020 election results via insurrection just two weeks before Inaugural Day, and whose appointees refused the kind of routine transition cooperation other administrations took for granted. His party has a four-vote margin of control in the House, and only controls the Senate via the vice presidential tie-breaking vote (along with a power-sharing arrangement with Republicans). Democratic control of the Senate was not assured until the wee hours of January 6 when the results of the Georgia runoff were clear. Biden took office in the midst of a COVID-19 winter surge, a national crisis over vaccine distribution, and flagging economic indicators.
Biden named all his major appointees well before taking office, and as recommended by every expert, pushed for early confirmation of his national security team, which he quickly secured. After some preliminary discussions with Republicans that demonstrated no real possibility of GOP support for anything like the emergency $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief and stimulus package he had promised, and noting the votes weren’t there in the Senate for significant filibuster reform, Biden took the only avenue open to him. He instructed his congressional allies to pursue the budget reconciliation vehicle to enact his COVID package, with the goal of enacting it by mid-March, when federal supplemental unemployment insurance would run out. Going the reconciliation route meant exposing the package to scrutiny by the Senate parliamentarian
,It also virtually guaranteed total opposition from congressional Republicans, which in turn meant Senate Democratic unanimity would be essential.
The House passed the massive and complex reconciliation bill on February 27, right on schedule, with just two Democratic defections, around the same time as the Senate parliamentarian, to no one’s great surprise, deemed a $15 minimum wage provision (already opposed by two Senate Democrats) out of bounds for reconciliation. The Senate is moving ahead with a modified reconciliation bill, and the confirmation of Biden’s Cabinet is chugging ahead slowly but steadily. Like every recent president, he’s had to withdraw at least one nominee – in his case Neera Tanden for the Office of Management and Budget, though the administration’s pick for deputy OMB director is winning bipartisan praise and may be substituted smoothly for Tanden.
Add in his efforts to goose vaccine distribution — which has more than doubled since he took office — and any fair assessment of Biden’s first 43 days should be very positive. But the man is currently being beset by criticism from multiple directions. Republicans, of course, have united in denouncing Biden’s refusal to surrender his agenda in order to secure bipartisan “unity” as a sign that he’s indeed the radical socialist – or perhaps the stooge of radical socialists – that Donald Trump always said he was. Progressives are incensed by what happened on the minimum wage, though it was very predictable. And media critics are treating his confirmation record as a rolling disaster rather than a mild annoyance, given the context of a federal executive branch that was all but running itself for much of the last four years.
To be clear, I found fault with Biden’s presidential candidacy early and often. I didn’t vote for him in California’s 2020 primary. I worried a lot about Biden’s fetish for bipartisanship. I support a $15 minimum wage, and as a former Senate employee, have minimal respect for the upper chamber’s self-important traditions. But c’mon: what, specifically, is the alternative path he could have pursued the last 43 days? Republican criticism is not worthy of any serious attention: the GOP is playing the same old tapes it recorded in 2009 when Barack Obama (and his sidekick Biden) spent far too much time chasing Republican senators around Washington in search of compromises they never intended to make. While they are entitled to oppose Biden’s agenda, they are not entitled to kill it.
Progressive criticism of Biden feels formulaic. Years and years of investment in the rhetoric of the eternal “fight” and the belief that outrage shapes outcomes in politics and government have led to the habit of seeing anything other than total subscription to the left’s views as a sell-out. Yes, Kamala Harris could theoretically overrule the Senate parliamentarian on the minimum wage issue, but to what end? So long as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema oppose the $15 minimum wage, any Harris power play could easily be countered by a successful Republican amendment to strike the language in question, and perhaps other items as well. And if the idea is to play chicken with dissident Democrats over the fate of the entire reconciliation bill, is a $15 minimum wage really worth risking a $1.9 trillion package absolutely stuffed with subsidies for struggling low-income Americans? Are Fight for 15 hardliners perhaps conflating ends and means here?
Media carping about Biden’s legislative record so far is frankly just ridiculous. Presumably writing about the obscure and complicated details of reconciliation bills is hard and unexciting work that readers may find uninteresting, while treating Tanden’s travails as an existential crisis for the Biden administration provides drama, but isn’t at all true. The reality is that Biden’s Cabinet nominees are rolling through the Senate with strong confirmation votes (all but one received at least 64 votes), despite a steadily more partisan atmosphere for confirmations in recent presidencies. The COVID-19 bill is actually getting through Congress at a breakneck pace despite its unprecedented size and complexity. Trump’s first reconciliation bill (which was principally aimed at repealing Obamacare) didn’t pass the House until May 4, 2017, and never got through the Senate. Yes, Obama got a stimulus bill through Congress in February 2009, but it was less than half the size, much simpler, and more to the point, there were 59 Senate Democrats in office when it passed, which meant he didn’t even have to use reconciliation.
There’s really no exact precedent for Biden’s situation, particularly given the atmosphere of partisanship in Washington and the whole country right now, and the narrow window he and his party possess – in terms of political capital and time – to get important things done. He should not be judged on any one legislative provision or any one Cabinet nomination. So far the wins far outweigh the losses and omissions. Give the 46th president a break.