High Crimes and Misdemeanors

In principle, the decision by House Republicans to strip the food stamp program out of the current farm bill is not a bad thing. In practice, it may not be so bad either.

For the past 40 years or so, agricultural subsidies and supplemental nutrition programs (food stamps) for poor people have been joined at the hip, the idea being that combining the two, otherwise unrelated, initiatives could help win bipartisan support for an omnibus bill that contained something for every constituency: farmers, agribusiness, advocates for the poor, etc. The problem with such an approach is that it embodied the worst of interest-group politics, legislative back scratching, and pork barrel giveaways. No liberal legislator would vote against subsidies for rich sugar or cotton or tobacco farmers for example, if it meant cuts to the food stamp program. No Florida conservative would vote to cut food stamps if it also meant cuts to subsidies for his or her rich, sugar-growing constituents. Everyone got pretty much everything they wanted, and no serious policy debate ever occurred. So separating the two makes profound sense. But encouraging a serious policy debate is the last thing on House Republicans’ minds.

In drafting and voting on a pure farm bill, House Republicans have laid bare their hypocrisy by showing, in black and white, the hollowness of their claims to budget-cutting rigor. It turns out that it’s not government spending per se they object to: as long as it benefits the wealthy, they are quite okay with it. Indeed, in drafting the new farm bill the House Republicans rejected all calls to cap or eliminate subsidies to wealthy individuals and corporations. [click to continue…]

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I am not a great fan of Jeffrey Sachs, the former Harvard development economist now Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, whose main claim to fame is having administered shock liberalization to the Bolivian and Russian economies in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively. Though his prescriptions did put an end to Bolivia’s hyperinflation, neither Bolivia nor Russia is a paragon of economic dynamism, and the main beneficiaries of his Russian experiment were the soon-to-be oligarchs who snapped up state-owned companies at a fraction of their real value. Nevertheless, Sachs, writing in yesterday’s Financial Times, has neatly identified the culprit in the U.S. fiscal sequester, which went into effect at noon today. It is not the Tea Party, nor even the House Republican leadership, but Obama himself, counterintuitive as that may appear. [click to continue…]

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After watching from the sidelines for nearly two years, many of the world’s political and opinion leaders are now calling for the West to supply arms to the Syrian rebels. British Prime Minister David Cameron has spoken  of a “strategic imperative” to act, at least in part to prevent extreme jihadist groups from eclipsing more moderate factions. Foreign Affairs  has published an article by Michael Bröning with the Orwellian subtitle  “Arms for Peace,” which similarly argues that the moderate rebel contingent is the only party to the conflict that does not have a reliable supply of arms and money from the outside, since the Russians continue to supply the Assad regime and most of the Qatari and Saudi funds go to more radical groups.

Although no Western power has yet – officially, at least – supplied arms to the rebels, the idea seems to be gaining currency in both Western and Arab capitals, especially in the wake of the December conference in Marrakech, which declared the Syrian National Coalition “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” For those who remember the U.N. declaration declaring the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, this too has an Orwellian tint. With the death toll in the conflict standing at an estimated 60,000 it is tempting to conclude that it is time for some kind of intervention: supplying arms at a minimum, but potentially declaring a no-fly zone over portions of the country to protect rebel-held territory from aerial attacks. But it would be a terrible mistake.   [click to continue…]

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Now that Presidential campaigning is on at least temporary hold until after the Christmas holidays, we have a new reality show to follow. It’s a good thing, too; the entertainment value of the Republican traveling circus had been in steady decline as the more flamboyantly interesting pretenders fell away one by one. Michelle Bachmann, the diminutive spitfire with a demonic gleam in her eye. Herman Cain, the pizza mogul with a catchy fiscal formula and a flood of sexual harassment charges. Newt Gingrich, the onetime history professor who lectured TV reporters on their intellectual shortcomings and blamed the abandonment of his cancer-stricken wife for another woman on the stresses of “trying to save the country.” Sex-obsessed Rick Santorum in his sweater-vests.

It will take some time to fully parse the complex relationships, sexual and otherwise, involving Generals Petraeus and Allen, buff military reservist and biographer Paula Broadwell, and socialite Jill Kelley, who narrowly avoided foreclosure on her imposing Tampa home having spent the mortgage money on entertainment for the McDill Air Force Base officer corps. It’s hard to imagine this not becoming a made for TV movie or even an ongoing reality show, a combination of “Real Housewives,” “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” and “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” the steamy Carson McCullers novel set in a southern military base, made into an even steamier movie with Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor.

The idiocy of destroying one, and possibly two, distinguished careers over an extramarital affair (possibly two), involving no improper relationships with subordinates or sexual harassment, and unlikely to have entailed any breach of national security, seems wasteful in the extreme. David Petraeus may not have merited the near-universal adulation he received, but he is unquestionably a talented and dedicated man whose service to his country should not have been cut short by the kind of peccadillo to which powerful and famous men are especially vulnerable.

A couple of remarkable bits of information have leaped out of the voluminous media coverage of this set of interconnected events. The first, and most troubling, is the revelation of the ease with which law enforcement agencies can read our e-mails pretty much at will. The government needs no search warrant, only a court authorization or subpoena, to access e-mails stored for more than 180 days, and it can do real-time intercepts of social network traffic. The difference is that a search warrant requires probable cause, while a request for a court order need only state that the information is relevant to an ongoing investigation. This is more than a semantic distinction, and something that goes to the heart of the deliberate erosion of our civil liberties, often without our knowledge,  in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

But the thing that most impressed me is the report of the 20,000 to 30,000 pages of “inappropriate” e-mail exchanges between General John Allen and Ms. Kelley from 2010 to 2012.  According to Slate magazine 20,000 pages, if printed on 8-1/2- by 11-inch paper, would form a stack 6 feet four inches high. We don’t yet know anything about the content of these e-mails, but their quantity is staggering. By way of comparison, the Penguin edition of Samuel Richardson’s 1747-48 epistolary novel Clarissa, one of the longest novels ever written, counts a mere 1,534 pages. Most of the English translations of War and Peace, possibly the greatest novel ever written and also one of the longest, run to about 1,400 pages. By the time the Duke University Press publishes the 46th and final volume of the collected letters of the Scottish Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane Walsh Carlyle, which include 70 years of correspondence with such luminaries as Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Stuart Mill, and Ivan Turgenev, as well as with each other, the series will amount to some 20,000 pages. I don’t mean to suggest that whatever General Allen and Ms. Kelley had to say to each other was of any less enduring interest than Thomas Carlyle’s exchange of ideas with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but it does raise a question similar to the one on everyone’s mind when Wilt Chamberlain in his 1991 autobiography claimed to have had sex with 20,000 women: how in the world did they find the time? For now, neither Gen. Allen nor Ms. Kelley is saying. Let’s hope the People magazine exclusive or the TV movie will enlighten us. And we can wait for Duke University of someone else to publish the correspondence to find out what they were talking about.

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The official visits to Paris during the first week of July by three African heads of state raised more questions than answers about the Africa policy of François Hollande, the newly-elected French President. On July 2 it was President Alpha Conde of Guinea, on July 5 Ali Bongo, President of Gabon, and on July 6 President Macky Sall of Senegal. Presidents Conde and Sall came to power through elections generally recognized as free and fair, but the 2009 elections that brought Bongo to power, succeeding his late father Omar Bongo, who had served as Gabon’s President for 42 years, were widely thought to have been rigged.

This series of visits came as something of a surprise, François Hollande having promised to put an end to “Françafrique,” the web of political, economic, and military links between France and its former African colonies, links that maintained France’s sphere of influence and allowed it to continue to think of itself as a world power. In the words of former President François Mitterrand, Without Africa, there will be no history of France in the 21st century. Françafrique, though it came to have a negative connotation, had already been official French policy since the founding of the Fifth Republic by Charles de Gaulle. [click to continue…]

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