Friday :: Jun 4, 2004

In Search Of ... Competence


by pessimist

The resignation of CIA Director George Tenet has inspired some interesting commentary.

Republicans struggling with insecurity

The timing of Tenet's departure is stunning. There is no way it does anything other than wound George Bush, adding to the growing perception that this president and his administration are dangerously incompetent.

To the outside world, it is looking more and more as though Mr Bush cannot keep his house in order. What is more, his national security credentials - which he was hoping would safeguard his re-election - look increasingly shaky.

John F. Kerry now has the chance to press home a theme he has carefully exploited over the last few days. It is one going against conventional political wisdom: that the US is safer with a Democrat in office than a Republican.

Certainly international security is on the minds of American voters, but there are other security issues that are also of deep concern.

White House's taxing dilemma

According to the Bush administration, the huge tax cuts of the past few years - which the White House is now seeking to make permanent - will ultimately pay for themselves. The idea is that they will stimulate the economy, in turn raising tax revenues from other sources to pay off the country's ballooning federal deficits.

However, a report issued this week by an influential Washington-based bipartisan group disagrees. The Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities suggests that not only will someone have to ultimately pay for the tax cuts, but that the lower income sectors of society will bear the burden.

The report said that, through spending cuts and tax increases down the line, the result would be a transfer of up to $113bn (61.5bn) in wealth from the bottom 80% of US households to the top 20%.

The lowest 20% of earners, who get an average tax cut of $19, would end up between $177 and $1,502 worse off, depending on which method of calculation is used. Households in the middle band of income are getting an average tax cut of $647 per year, but could end up between $230 and $870 worse off, according to the report.

Households earning more than $1m get an average $136,398 tax cut, and would still end up between $59,637 and $134,877 up once the cuts are paid for. The reason for the redistribution of wealth is that the tax cuts either eliminated or weakened some of the biggest burdens on higher-income households, including estate tax, capital gains and dividend taxes, and the highest marginal tax rates.

Ron Suskind, the author of The Price of Loyalty, described a meeting in November 2002, shortly after the Republicans had enjoyed a resounding victory in mid-term congressional elections. The topic was a second round of tax cuts, ultimately put into practice last year.

According to a transcript, the president, George Bush, questioned the strategy. "Haven't we already given money to rich people? This second tax cut's gonna do it again," he reportedly said. "Shouldn't we be giving money to the middle?" Karl Rove, who masterminded Mr Bush's election campaign, intervened. "Stick to principle. Stick to principle." The president did.

Ground Control To Emperor George

The political pressure on the administration to do something about the budget deficit is immense. The Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, last month called the rising federal budget gap a "significant obstacle to long-term stability".

The International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development have, in recent months, also voiced anxiety that the size of the US deficit is a threat to the world economy. Even Conservatives in Mr Bush's own party have complained about fiscal recklessness.

The cuts being proposed for the 2006 budget are a drop in the ocean compared to the annual $300bn-$400bn deficits likely to be racked up by the government during the rest of the decade, largely due to the tax cuts.

Discretionary spending only accounts for one-sixth of federal spending and, unless the White House goes further and reduces medical aid programmes or social security, arguably the only way to really get the budget back under control would be to repeal the tax cuts.

But before any of this can happen, Bush would have to distance himself from the people who led him to believe that he could have his way with the world with impunity. He managed to push George Tenet out, but he still would have to separate himself from the incompetents more commonly known as neocons.

Can Bush Sack The Neo-cons?

Although the Bush Administration is reluctant to admit it, the United States is facing what is arguably its worst crisis since the Second World War. It is a crisis of leadership, of reputation, of military capability and of moral authority. A radical change of strategy and of high-level government personnel is urgently required, but can the embattled President George W. Bush, whose qualities of mind and character leave much to be desired, bring it about?

Few observers believe he can rise to the challenge. Newsweek this week described the Administration as 'the most foolhardy civilian leadership in the modern history of the United States.' Relations with key European countries have been strained almost to breaking point by his earlier disdain for his allies, by his cult of military power, his unilateralist policies, his dangerous doctrine of pre-emption, and his apparent indifference to basic civil rights and the Geneva Conventions.

Writing this week in Britain's Financial Times, Lawrence Freedman, Professor of War Studies at King's College, London, wrote that 'a vacuum has opened up at the heart of world politics where U.S. leadership ought to be found.' These remarks by a leading British commentator are significant because Freedman had been an early supporter of the war.

The unpalatable truth is that the Bush Administration has failed in almost everything it has touched. The war in Iraq, based on lies and incompetence, has been a catastrophe, its always doubtful legitimacy fatally undermined by the torture of Iraqi detainees. The 'war on terror' has greatly increased, rather than diminished, the threat from radical political Islam, both to the U.S. itself and to its friends, as countries like Saudi Arabia are learning to their cost.

Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at the very heart of the region's discontents, has been allowed to sink to new depths of barbarism, largely owing to Bush's irresponsible support for Israel's bull-dozing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

For all these reasons, U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world have never been so bad and Americans have rarely been so hated. The terrorists, who last weekend seized hostages in the compound at Al-Khobar, were reported to be looking for Americans to kill.

Speaking of Khobar, ...

In the walled compounds of Saudi Arabia, the expats ask: Who is guarding the guardians?

[One of our commentors in a previous thread decried that fact that a claim that the Saudi security forces allowed the terrorists at Khobar to escape was only attributable to the New York Times. The attribution list is growing.]

They went from house to house, separating Muslim from non-Muslim, coolly debating whose life they should spare and whose life they should take. And after the four young Saudi gunmen had completed their "tour of duty", 22 people, mostly foreigners, were dead. Then the security forces sent to kill them let three of them escape, to fight another day.

"It's all fudge and compromise; that's the way it always is here," Peter Kirk, a Briton who has lived in Khobar for 24 years, said. "It's hard to know if there was a cock-up or conspiracy last week, but the spectacle of helicopters landing on the roof of the apartment at 7 am when the terrorist had 'escaped' at 3am is simply appalling."

Small wonder Western expatriates in Saudi Arabia have lost all trust in the security forces.

Al-Qa'ida cells in Saudi Arabia appear to be holding off from a direct attack on an oil installation or the Saudi royal family, and most Western expatriates will delay departure until they do. Self-appointed al-Qa'ida spokesmen say on websites that the organisation is waiting to launch a full-scale assault against the Al-Saud and its economic lifeline, because the princes' "separate fingers will become an iron fist" if their rule is directly threatened.

A major attack would almost certainly result in imposition of a state of emergency, making movement of terrorists much more difficult. So better, the terrorists' spokesmen say, to let the royal family squabble among themselves over reforms as resentment grows over increasingly difficult economic circumstances. An increasingly unstable Saudi Arabia would remain fertile recruiting ground for arms, money and volunteers.

Members of the state security apparatus, whose job now ostensibly amounts to keeping the Al-Saud in power in the face of growing domestic opposition, find themselves directly in the radicals' firing line. A radical Saudi Islamist group affiliated with al-Qa'ida claimed they blew up a car last December in Riyadh belonging to Lieutenant- Colonel Ibrahim Al-Dhaleh, a senior Saudi security officer, who escaped.

The group, the Brigade of the Two Holy Mosques, also said it had tried to kill Major General Abdel-Aziz Al-Huweirini, the number three official in the Saudi Interior Ministry, shot in Riyadh that month. The statement warned Colonel Dhaleh "and those like him" against pursuing their war against Islamists in Saudi Arabia.

That is why three of the four members of the al-Qa'ida cell in Khobar got away. To have reneged on the promise of a safe getaway would have left the security forces, and the Al-Saud ruling family, fearing for their lives in revenge attacks.

And all the Bush horse's asses and all the Sheik of Araby's men couldn't keep their act together - again!

Other expats, these in Egypt, have a few things to say.

How the turmoil in Iraq has swayed the vote of US citizens in Egypt

"As an American, I am ashamed of the policies of my country and its current administration," says Julia Moore, the Texan wife of a consultant geologist for a US oil company. "It's embarrassing at this point in history to be an American because you are looked at differently, looked down upon." Heads, apparently instinctively, nod in accord.

"And it's most unfortunate that I must add," she says, pausing, nibbling her lower lip, glancing around the room to gauge reaction and perhaps, again, approval. "That the contention is justified."

"The situation in Iraq has turned sour," pitches in Kansan Patricia Howard, who moved to Egypt three years ago. "A year ago I felt differently about the US strike on Iraq. You can't look at it in the same light any more. You can't look at Bush in the same way any more either."

"I'm a Republican, I was raised a Republican, and for many months after the war I was willing to give Bush another chance. The severity of the current situation though forces one to rethink. I've rethought, and I want him out -- Lord knows the greater mess he can create with another four years in office."

"There are some foreigners that come here and can't handle it," Howard says. "For someone like myself," she continues, "The first year had me grinding my teeth. In the US I was fed with all the bad mouthing about the Arabs and the Middle East. At first you can't really get yourself to see past that. You've got to really open your eyes and lay aside those negative typecasts."

One woman is fervent in her response, positioning herself in consequence as the pillar of debate. She is one of the two women who weeks earlier expressed a somewhat hassled anticipation for the family's July return home. This time, she sets aside the inability to adapt to the taxing potholes of a developing nation, and instead focusses on the pure politics of the situation. The wife of a US diplomat, she asks her name remain withheld. "We are ABB," she says, moving forward in the sofa, straightening her back, animating her speech with her hands. "Anything But Bush," she explains, triggering an acknowledging chuckle in the room. "He turned a surplus into a deficit, he cut taxes, and used what is coming in for the war -- so there is no money. And he is the reason that all these young girls and boys are being killed and that our soldiers have behaved in such a brash manner. This war reflects acute lack of planning."

"Some people say Bush is decisive, but Bush is decisive too far," shares the diplomat's wife. "And that crosses the line into foolhardy. When you make a decision, you gather all the information you can, and then you make it. Bush doesn't, he makes it without thought."

"Virtually everyone agrees that Saddam Hussein is a bad guy and needed to be dealt with," says David Phelps, a Texan native currently in Egypt with a US oil company. "However, a unilateral invasion of a sovereign nation that posed no real threat to the US is not an acceptable way to deal with the problem. In addition, the Bush policies, in Iraq, Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East have only acted to strengthened terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda; thus increasing, not decreasing the threat to the US."

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry effortlessly wins Phelps' vote. "I think the Bush administration's policies are jeopardising the security of the US, not to mention much of the rest of the world," he explains of his choice, adding that the US invasion of Iraq fast swayed and quelled any inkling to give Bush benefit of the doubt. "My vote is very much about voting against what Bush stands for."

Perhaps unlike any other time in history, this year's US presidential election race stands not as an expression of who US citizens would like in office, but rather of who, and what, they want out. "I will vote for Kerry," shares a US diplomat who asks her name be withheld. "Because I would vote for anyone to get Bush out of the White House. Kerry was not my first choice of candidates, but as I said, I am voting against an individual [Bush], even though in truth I am solidly Democratic."

Iraq, again, has instigated further dissatisfaction for the current administration. I have always thought this administration was awful," she says. "The Iraq situation has just illustrated some thoughtless and anti-democratic behaviours that sadly do not surprise me. I don't feel any government has the right to oust a sovereign power. What? Was Saddam the only dictator in the world today that was/is committing human rights abuses?"

History professor Joseph Walwick, a Kansas City native currently teaching at the American University in Cairo, describes the Bush created havoc as a matter "beyond reason and discourse".

"In terms of my vote, I think of that as being a matter of privacy," he says. "But in terms of the current situation, the prison scandal, the whole set of problems with Iraq, I can say that it has depressed me greatly. If it's not criminal, it's criminally stupid. It reflects an administration acting without looking for a long-range solution. The goal was laudable, but was subverted by the means of attaining it. The process of achieving it was undermined."

"A Bush victory in November would serve as a mandate to continue current policies," Walwick says. "This [electoral] race is not about individuals. It could be any candidate running, the vote will be a referendum on the party in power.

"Kerry would not be a vote 'for' as much as it is 'against'. In terms of policies, one has to bear in mind that the two primary candidates are not that different, except maybe foreign policy. What is charging the people is that they feel misled."

"As Americans," Phelps shares, "We have become increasingly aware of how interdependent the world is; how the actions and attitudes of Americans can have repercussions well beyond the borders of our country."

"I think 11 September was a wake-up call for Americans," shares a four-year diplomatic American resident of Cairo. "Prior to the attack, we had felt both complacent and removed from the terrors that others felt. It [9/11] has coloured my perspective on the world in the sense that I am more sympathetic to such atrocities in other zones, and I'm clearer that the world is getting smaller, so the physical position of the US does less to protect us from enemies now than it used to. It does not make me feel less secure [as an American in Egypt]. What makes me feel less secure is the hatred towards America that the Iraq war, occupation, and now prison situation is creating. I cannot imagine a better way to support anti-American sentiment that the refusal of the leadership of the Armed Forces -- right up to the commander-in-chief -- to take responsibility for it."

Even a major Bush (mis)Administration spouse has negativity to express:

Bin Laden stars in Rumsfeld pillow talk

America's number-one fugitive isn't usually the subject of pillow talk - except for the US defence secretary. Donald Rumsfeld has admitted that his wife often needles him about the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden - often just after they wake up. "When I walk out of the bedroom in the morning, my wife frequently rolls over and says, 'Where's UBL?'" he said, referring to the spelling "Usama". Mr Rumsfeld did not reveal how he responds to his wife's teaser.

So if one is seeking competence, it is hard to justify looking at members of the Executive branch of the US federal Government. May be looking at the rejects from American Idol would be more productive - at least some of them can sing.


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