The Pasty Little Putz, Friedman and Kristof

MoDo and Mr. Bruni are off today.  The Pasty Little Putz is all up in arms about “All the President’s Privileges.”  He huffs that with President Obama in the White House comes a sudden shift in Democratic views about the limits of executive power.  The Moustache of Wisdom ponders “The Rise of Populism” and says that a recent trip to Europe raised the question: if everyone’s following the polls and Twitter, etc., who’s leading?  Mr. Kristof is in Tehran.  In “Not-So-Crazy in Tehran” he says Iran is a much more complex country than many in the West realize. A bit of humility and nuance is needed in responding to the country’s bluster.  Here’s The Putz:

When George W. Bush was president of the United States, it was an article of faith among liberals that many of his policies were not just misguided but unconstitutional as well. On issues large and small, from the conduct of foreign policy to the firing of United States attorneys, the Bush White House pushed an expansive view of executive authority, and Democrats pushed right back — accusing it of shredding the constitution, claiming near-imperial powers and even corrupting the lawyers working in its service.

That was quite some time ago. Last week the Obama White House invoked executive privilege to shield the Justice Department from a Congressional investigation into a botched gunrunning operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The previous week the White House invoked powers that President Obama himself had previously claimed to lack, unilaterally revising the nation’s immigration laws by promising to stop enforcing them against a particularly sympathetic population.

Both moves were entirely characteristic of this presidency. Obama campaigned as a consistent critic of the Bush administration’s understanding of executive power — and a critic with a background in constitutional law, no less. But apart from his disavowal of waterboarding (an interrogation practice the Bush White House had already abandoned), almost the entire Bush-era wartime architecture has endured: rendition is still with us, the Guantánamo detention center is still open, drone strikes have escalated dramatically, and the Obama White House has claimed the right — and, in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, followed through on it — to assassinate American citizens without trial.

These moves have met some principled opposition from the left. But the president’s liberal critics are usually academics, journalists and (occasionally) cable-TV hosts, with no real mass constituency behind them.

The majority of Democrats, polls suggest, have followed roughly the same path as the former Yale Law School dean Harold Koh, a staunch critic of Bush’s wartime policies who now serves as a legal adviser to the State Department, supplying constitutional justifications for Obama’s drone campaigns. What was outrageous under a Republican has become executive branch business-as-usual under a Democrat.

On domestic matters, the liberal silence is even more deafening. It was conservatives who pointed out the dubious constitutionality of Obama’s immigration gambit. Among liberals, it was taken for granted that the worthy ends were more important than the means.

Two forces are at work here. One is the intersection of power and partisanship, which produces predictable hypocrisies when one side passes from critiquing authority to embodying it.

These turnabouts can be quite startling. A progressive Web site noted the irony of liberal opinion’s shift on Gitmo: “Under the leadership of a President who campaigned with the promise to close the facility but reneged, support for the detention center may be at its highest level ever.”

But these turns are not always a bad thing. Sometimes it was the original partisan critique that was overdrawn, and sometimes power educates rather than corrupts. If the view from the State Department looks different from the view from Yale Law School, it isn’t necessarily the State Department that’s wrong.

What’s more perilous is the extent to which these sudden shifts reflect something unique to constitutional debates — namely that arguments for constitutional limits tend not to sway people who don’t already have a political incentive to support them.

Partisan about-faces are inevitable, but they’re arguably easier on constitutional matters. Change your mind on immigration, and your constituents may well revolt. Change your mind on whether a president has the power to do things on immigration policy that your constituents already support, though, and only your partisan critics and the occasional law professor will care.

This is why it’s so remarkable that our constitutional order has lasted so long, given the perpetual incentive — common to both parties, and all three branches of government — to abandon its safeguards in order to push a particular agenda.

Today those incentives are strongest for Democrats — visible in their support for Obama’s more dubiously constitutional forays, and also in the widespread liberal attempt to explain his struggles by casting him as a Gulliver tied down by an antiquated system of government.

Conservative pundits have noted that similar explanations were proferred to explain the failures of Jimmy Carter. That in and of itself isn’t proof that they’re wrong. But it suggests the possibility that some of the ways this president has been baffled, legislatively and perhaps soon in the courts, reflect the genius of our constitutional system rather than its failings. It’s a system that often lacks principled defenders, but that’s designed to defend itself.

It really sucks when the weapons you cherished and used over and over and over again come back to bite you in the ass, isn’t it Putzy?  Karma’s a bitch.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

Traveling in Europe last week, it seemed as if every other conversation ended with some form of this question: Why does it feel like so few leaders are capable of inspiring their people to meet the challenges of our day? There are many explanations for this global leadership deficit, but I’d focus on two: one generational, one technological.

Let’s start with the technological. In 1965, Gordon Moore, the Intel co-founder, posited Moore’s Law, which stipulated that the processing power that could be placed on a single microchip would double every 18 to 24 months. It’s held up quite well since then. Watching European, Arab and U.S. leaders grappling with their respective crises, I’m wondering if there isn’t a political corollary to Moore’s Law: The quality of political leadership declines with every 100 million new users of Facebook and Twitter.

The wiring of the world through social media and Web-enabled cellphones is changing the nature of conversations between leaders and the led everywhere. We’re going from largely one-way conversations — top-down — to overwhelmingly two-way conversations — bottom-up and top-down. This has many upsides: more participation, more innovation and more transparency. But can there be such a thing as too much participation — leaders listening to so many voices all the time and tracking the trends that they become prisoners of them?

This sentence jumped out from a Politico piece on Wednesday: “The Obama and Romney campaigns spend all day strafing each other on Twitter, all while decrying the campaign’s lack of serious ideas for a serious time. Yet at most junctures when they’ve had the opportunity to go big, they’ve chosen to go small.”

Indeed, I heard a new word in London last week: “Popularism.” It’s the über-ideology of our day. Read the polls, track the blogs, tally the Twitter feeds and Facebook postings and go precisely where the people are, not where you think they need to go. If everyone is “following,” who is leading?

And then there is the exposure factor. Anyone with a cellphone today is paparazzi; anyone with a Twitter account is a reporter; anyone with YouTube access is a filmmaker. When everyone is a paparazzi, reporter and filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure. And, if you’re truly a public figure — a politician — the scrutiny can become so unpleasant that public life becomes something to be avoided at all costs. Alexander Downer, Australia’s former foreign minister, remarked to me recently: “A lot of leaders are coming under massively more scrutiny than ever before. It doesn’t discourage the best of them, but the ridicule and the constant interaction from the public is making it more difficult for them to make sensible, brave decisions.”

As for the generational shift, we’ve gone from a Greatest Generation that believed in save and invest for the future to a Baby Boomer generation that believed in borrow and spend for today. Just contrast George W. Bush and his father George H.W. Bush. The father volunteered for World War II immediately after Pearl Harbor, was steeled as a leader during the cold war — a serious time, when politicians couldn’t just follow polls — and as president he raised taxes when fiscal prudence called for it. His Baby Boomer son avoided the draft and became the first president in U.S. history to cut taxes in the middle of not just one war, but two.

When you have technologies that promote quick short-term responses and judgments, and when you have a generation that has grown used to short-term gratification — but you have problems whose solutions require long, hard journeys, like today’s global credit crisis or jobs shortage or the need to rebuild Arab countries from the ground up — you have a real mismatch and leadership challenge. Virtually all leaders today have to ask their people to share burdens, not just benefits, and to both study harder and work smarter just to keep up. That requires extraordinary leadership that has to start with telling people the truth.

Dov Seidman, the author of the book “How” whose company LRN advises C.E.O.’s on leadership, has long argued that “nothing inspires people more than the truth.” Most leaders think that telling people the truth makes that leader vulnerable — either to the public or their opponents. They are wrong.

“The most important part of telling the truth is that it actually binds you to people,” explains Seidman, “because when you trust people with the truth, they trust you back.” Obfuscation from leaders just gives citizens another problem — more haze — to sort through. “Trusting people with the truth is like giving them a solid floor,” adds Seidman. “It compels action. When you are anchored in shared truth, you start to solve problems together. It’s the beginning of coming up with a better path.”

That is not what we’re seeing from leaders in America, the Arab world or Europe today. You’d think one of them, just one, would seize the opportunity to enlist their people in the truth: about where they are, what they are capable of, what plan they need to get there and what they each need to contribute to get on that better path. Whichever leader does that will have real “followers” and “friends” — not virtual ones.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

When I decided to bring two of my kids with me on a reporting trip to Iran, the consensus was that I must be insane. And that someone should call Child Protective Services!

That anxiety reflects a view that Iran is the 21st century’s Crazy Country, a menace to civilization. That view also animates the hawks who believe that only a military option can stop Iran.

Look, I have no illusions about Iran. On my last trip here, in 2004, I was detained and accused of being a spy for Mossad or the C.I.A. I’ve talked to people who have been brutally tortured. I think that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capacity and that, if it were to deploy those weapons, this would be a huge and possibly fatal blow to global antiproliferation efforts.

But we need a dollop of humility and nuance, for Iran is a complex country where we’ve repeatedly stumbled badly. For starters, consider for a moment which nation assisted Iran the most in the last dozen years. Not Russia, not China, not India. No, it was the United States under President George W. Bush. First, we upended the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran’s enemy to the east, and then removed the Saddam Hussein government from Iraq, Iran’s even deadlier threat to the west. Look at the Iraq-Iran relationship today, and it seems we fought a wrenching war in Iraq — and Iran won.

Now we may be heading for another war — perhaps triggered by Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear sites — and this might well help the ayatollahs as well by igniting a nationalist backlash that would bolster their rule.

On my road trip across Iran, the regime seemed on the defensive, its base corroding. In Mashhad, I interviewed a grand ayatollah, Sayid Muhammad Baqer Shirazi, and he didn’t want to talk about politics at all. That seemed to me an acknowledgment that the regime now sometimes embarrasses even the mullahs who created it.

Americans think of Iran as a police state, but that overstates its control: Iranians are irrepressible. While interviewing people on a lovely Caspian Sea beach, a plainclothes policeman bustled forward. At first, I thought that the young woman I was interviewing was in trouble for criticizing the regime — but, no, her sin was rolling up her sleeves.

The policeman shouted at her. She shouted at him. Neither was intimidated. Finally, she covered her forearms a bit more, and he accepted a truce.

The confrontation was a reminder that Iran is a complex and contradictory country, in ways that don’t register at a distance. Iran imprisons more journalists than any other country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, yet it has a vigorous Parliament and news media with clashing views (within a narrow range). Some ethnic Turks seek to secede and join Azerbaijan, but the country’s supreme leader is an ethnic Turk. Iran’s regime sometimes embraces anti-Semitism, yet Parliament has a Jewish member.

Iranians gripe about their government without worrying about being overheard, yet participants in protests are tortured, gays can be executed and the Bahai religious minority endures mind-boggling repression. Iranian women constitute almost 60 percent of university students and hold important positions in the country, yet, under a new law, a woman can’t even go skiing without a male guardian.

My daughter dressed primly in a head scarf and manteau because the police sometimes haul off women who are insufficiently covered (not foreigners, usually, but still). Iranian women we met spent their time helpfully rearranging her scarf.

“She has much better hijab than most girls these days,” one matron told us approvingly, even as she tugged it over a few escapee strands of hair.

Elsewhere, young women told my daughter to be more revealing. “Come on, you’re young,” declared one young woman, and she pulled the head scarf back so that it covered almost nothing. “Show it!”

We sometimes think that Iran’s leaders are impervious to public opinion, but women’s clothing reflects social pressures that have led them to back off in some areas. Women are still required to cover themselves, but many women in Tehran do so with gauzy, come-hither scarfs rigged to blow off in the slightest breeze.

Hard-liners shudder, but they have long since given up flogging women for bad hijab. In some areas, the regime can evolve.

We can’t do much to nurture progress in Iran, but promoting Internet freedom, shortwave news broadcasts and satellite television all would help. A war would hurt.

Our long-term aim should be the kind of “grand bargain,” however unlikely, that some Iranian officials floated in 2003 to resolve all issues between our countries.

Iran looks childish when it calls America the “Great Satan” or blusters “Death to America.” Let’s not bluster back or operate on caricatures. And let’s not choose bombs over sanctions and undercut the many Iranians who are chipping away at hard-line rule in tiny ways — even by flashing their hair.



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