Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Friday, November 05, 2004
 
Okay, a brief break from a discussion of tactics. Let's talk substance. How does Bush hit the ground running in the next few months? How does he set himself up for a successful second term?

I'm going to follow the same ground rules I did with the convention acceptance speech I wrote: the advice I give Bush is advice I think he *could* accept, realistically, and that I think he *should* accept, but I'm not predicting he *will* accept it.

So, with that basic ground rule in place, here are 10 pieces of advice for Bush. First five and staffing-related or domestic-agenda related. Second five are foreign-policy and diplomacy related.

1. Break up the neocon clique. No, don't conduct a purge. The neocons have some things right and some things badly wrong. But what they have most wrong is the conviction that they have everything right. They can't be permitted to continue to control one organ of American foreign policy - Defense - and conduct an internal war against their ideological enemies in other departments. Nor, for that matter, is it any longer acceptable to have the State Department effectively AWOL, unable or unwilling to advance the diplomatic agenda laid down by the President.

Bush has got to reorganize things. He's got to get someone at the NSC who is an honest broker and can act as a counter-weight to Cheney. He's got to get someone at State who shares Bush's larger diplomatic vision. And he's got to break up the neocon clique at Defense, and put someone in charge there who can consolidate what Rumsfeld achieved and correct what he messed up.

So: don't fire Paul Wolfowitz (the best of the neocons, by far) and don't promote him at Defense. Rather, move him over to State. Even, potentially, to the top job.

What, I hear you cry? Promote the guy responsible for the Iraq debacle? Are you mad?

No, I'm not mad. More to the point, I'm not getting even.

Look: people like to forget this, but taking out Saddam was bi-partisan, broadly-supported American policy. We almost fought a war to oust him in 1998. We made "regime change" national policy in 1999. John Kerry, in late 2001 as the Afghan campaign was winding down, said the real question was how do we shift and start taking action against Saddam Hussein. Blaming the neocons for our current mess is a bit too simple.

I blame these guys for, basically, three things: (1) believing Ahmad Chalabi; (2) taking that belief to the bank, and thereby concluding that we could plan a war that would *only work* under rosy scenarios; (3) shutting out all contrary information and cherry picking the information that did exist to make their case for war.

But, like I said, I think they got a few things right: (1) they're right that there's a fundamental, deep pathology in the Middle East, and that simply managing that pathology has gotten very expensive; (2) they are right that keeping nukes out of the hands of terrorists is a paramount priority; (3) they are right that it is crucial that we appear the strong horse rather than the weak horse in dealing with the Middle East.

A purge of all the neocons would be counterproductive. We've got to separate the wheat from the chaff. Richard "Iraq is the tactical pivot" Perle and Doug "stupidest f---ing guy on the face of the earth" Feith are the chaff. Paul "hard to imagine [we'd need more troops post-war than to conduct the war]" Wolfowitz is the wheat

(Aside: anyone read the New Yorker profile of Wolfowitz? It confirms what I've been saying for a while: Wolfowitz was so strongly in favor of the Iraq war in part because he felt terribly guilty about the end-game in 1991: the betrayal of the Shiites, etc. Steve Sailer has a line, that one reason he's so pissed about Iraq is that he used to be able to say, "America doesn't start wars; we finish them" and now he can't. Well, he should realize that for Wolfowitz in particular, the Iraq war of 2003 *was* finishing a war, not starting one; it was finishing a war left unfinished in 1991. This also answers the "well, why don't we invade everyone" question: we invaded Iraq in part because we felt *responsible* for the situation there, which was the result of our *prior* war in Iraq. We don't similarly feel responsible for Robert Mugabe.)

So, if Wolfowitz is the best of the lot, and we're not going to fire him, what can we do with him? I suggest sending him to State for three reasons. First, it gets him out of Defense. We need to get new blood in there. Second, a neocon is needed at State for the same reasons that realists are needed at defense. Finally, State is where Wolfowitz's talents could get best use. His background is in diplomacy, his original posting being in Indonesia and his expertise in Asia generally. And Asia is going to be more important in this second term than it was in the last.

If we move Wolfowitz to State, to replace Powell, what other moves do we make?

Bush needs someone at NSC to replace Rice, who probably wants to go home. Her replacement should understand the military and diplomatic side of foreign policy, should have credibility with the President, and should be a counterweight to Cheney who is, effectively, a second National Security Advisor. One good candidate: Richard Armitage. He's tougher than his current boss, Powell, and the boys from State need a win if they're going to have Wolfowitz running their department. But I don't know what Bush's relationship with him is like.

As for Defense itself, I do think Rumsfeld has reached the end of his useful life. He's getting old, he's made his point, he's made some important mistakes, and he's alienated other parts of the government and (to some extent) other governments unnecessarily. If Rumsfeld was Rudy Giuliani, time has come to bring on someone more like Michael Bloomberg: someone who will carry on the same essential program but less caustically and with a greater managerial focus. Someone who will consolidate and continue progress on transformation but who has more appreciation for the grunt side of soldiering and the unfortunate necessities of modern warfare in the age of failed states.

If I had to put it in military personality terms: we've had enough of a fighter jock at Defense. But we don't want to take a step back and bring in an Old Army guy. What we need is a Marine.

Suggestions?

2. [Don't worry: the rest of the bullets are shorter.] Get a credible economic team in place. Look, let's not kid ourselves: Bush's economic policy guys have about as much markets credibility as my grandmother. Yeah, I know, Bush likes guys who make things, not pin-striped bankers. But John Snow is simply not taken seriously by anyone - on Capitol Hill or on Wall Street.

Bush has very big plans, supposedly, for reforming the tax code and for reforming Social Security. To push these plans through, he'll need somebody with credibility.

My own suggestion is: Roger Ferguson, Vice Chairman of the Fed. He's a classical "fresh water" economist, so that's good. He's a Greenspan protégé, which is good on a number of levels - political, ideological and in terms of likely base-level intelligence. He's written good things about the two most important priorities of our economic policy: to increase the domestic savings rate while continuing our strong recent record of productivity growth. And, while there's probably no legitimate reason to mention this, I will anyway because I think Bush cares about this sort of thing: he's black. And if Bush is going to lose Rice and Powell, he'll probably be looking for more "color" to add to the cabinet. Just saying.

Apart from Treasury Secretary, Bush needs someone of Larry Lindsey's quality back as his chief advisor. Feldstein is apparently being considered for the new Fed chair. If he doesn't get it, he'd be an obvious choice.

3. Bring back the Spirit of '86. I'm very skeptical of Bush's talk about reforming the tax code, because all his tax bills so far (especially the most recent one) added complexity and uneconomic loopholes to the law. Bush seems to think that any cut in taxes is a good thing, and this is not true; uneconomic loopholes are net losers for the economy in three ways. First, they encourage uneconomic allocation of resources. Second, they produce waste spending on lawyers and accountants who make it possible to shift assets in this way. And third, they naturally trade off against higher marginal rates on income, which are the worst broad taxes economically speaking. The Spirit of '86 is to go the exact opposite way: cut rates and broaden the base.

Personally, I favor a tax code based on taxing consumed income. Charitable donations and productive investment would be deducted from income. Net income could then be taxed progressively. Such a reform would encourage savings and investment by individuals, which is the only way to truly achieve economic security; would encourage higher savings in aggregate, which would address our most dangerous economic imbalance (or dependence on foreign capital); and would be much more politically doable than a shift from income to sales taxes because it would preserve transparent progressivity. As part of such a reform, I'd eliminate the estate and the corporate income tax, and tax all income at the individual level equally - whether that income was from wages, rents, investment or inheritance. I've written about this a number of times before; here's one place.

I think Bush would actually be pretty favorable to such an approach, but whether through inattention or lack of understanding or from having drawn the (wrong, in my view) conclusion that the most important question is the direction of tax levels rather than the structure of the tax code, Bush has gone in a very different direction: the code makes more distinctions, and more bizarre distinctions, between kinds of income than it did before Bush came into office, and more pork is disguised as tax cuts than before. So I hope he really does make a change and doesn't just make his existing tax cuts permanent and call it reform.

If Bush does want to seriously reform the tax code, I have two bits of advice. First, it might make sense to do Social Security and taxes together, because both would be structured as ways to encourage savings. Indeed, Bush's proposed Social Security reform amounts to a cut in the payroll tax, because part of that tax would no longer go to transfer payments but rather would become an asset owned by the individual taxpayer. And besides being mutually-reinforcing, both proposals will have to go through the same committee. Plus, Bush probably has a short window to try to push this stuff, before the 2006 elections start to dominate the calendar. So it might make sense to do both together.

Second, Bush needs some high-profile Democrat support. Bush should heavily court the most plausible Democrat supporters of each bill - Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh should be at the top of the list. The fact that the tax bill will (or should) be revenue-neutral on a static basis (and hence, hopefully, revenue positive on a dynamic basis) should make it much more possible to get Democrats on-board. I say Bush needs Democrats not because he needs to "bring the country together" or because he doesn't really have a "mandate" or whatever but because Bush is going to be asking people to sacrifice their per pork deductions and wrinkles in the code, and if he's trying to do that *and* pass the bill on a partisan basis, it'll never go anywhere. GOP Senators and Reps will be too worried about giving local opposition ammunition for 2006.

4. Get a serious manager in charge at Homeland Security. Does anyone think Tom Ridge has made this cobbled-together department functional? No one I know. Ridge clearly wants to leave, to start running for President in 2008. (Good luck; I don't think he has a chance.) Bush is going to be tempted to try to get someone like Giuliani in the job, but I think that would be a mistake. He needs someone more like Bratton: a professional, a manager, a CEO. Someone who can fix broken systems and processes and inspire the troops, not someone who can win public support as a politician. The department has massive public support. Now it has to get working. Again, I don't have any real names in mind. Any suggestions?

5. Nominate Clarence Thomas for Chief Justice. It seems very likely that the first retirement from the Court will be Rhenquist, and that retirement could be imminent. Bush should seize the initiative in a creative way, and get two back-to-back victories in short order, by nominating Thomas to replace him, and then picking another judge who is conservative but not unacceptable to moderates - a Michael McConnell, say - for the empty slot.

Why do this? Why go through two fights for one seat? Four reasons.

First, Thomas would be an excellent Chief Justice. He has a good judicial temperament, which is surprisingly rare. Scalia, his supposed partner in crime (they actually disagree about the average amount) is increasingly caustic, even bitter in his writings. It is impossible to see him uniting the Court. A nominee from outside would be just that: an outsider. Thomas is already a known and respected quantity to the other Justices and his opinions have been sober, even restrained. He's young, so the other Justices would know he'd be around a long time, which, I think, would incentivize everyone to work together. (After Thomas, I'd say the Justice with the most judicial temperament is Breyer, so I'm really not talking about ideology here.)

Second, he's the Justice most in-tune with Bush's own philosophy. Thomas' jurisprudence is rooted in natural law, the notional that the Constitution, while it should be construed strictly, must be read in light of some underlying principles, and these are, essentially, the idea of natural right as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. That's not quite the same thing that Scalia thinks, but it is probably close to what George W. Bush would think, if he thought about such things.

Third, he's not Anthony Kennedy, the worst possible choice of those currently on the Court. Kennedy wants that Chief job *so bad*, but he would be terrible. Kennedy manages the extraordinary feat of being both a liberal activist *and* a conservative activist, depending on the case and the issue; the only continuity in his opinions is that Anthony Kennedy knows best. O'Connor is also highly idiosyncratic, but she's more restrained in her opinions; she doesn't re-write the Constitution on a whim, she just wants people to ask her permission before passing a law that someone might get upset about.

Fourth, the politics would work out very well. Who, precisely, is going to vote against Thomas for Chief? He's already on the Court! How can you say he's unqualified to run it? Bush thereby gets a win that pleases his base with very little risk. Then he appoints someone acceptable to the base but who's also acceptable to moderates - again, I think Michael McConnell would be an excellent choice - to fill the empty slot, and gets another easy win. With two victories under his belt, and his base happy, Bush should have more political capital to spend in the future and more lattitude in choosing the replacements for other Justices who may retire - O'Connor, Ginsburg, Scalia and Stevens are all possibilities.

6. Go to Asia. Kerry had a real point that the Bush years have seen a real upsurge in anti-Americanism. But the picture is more nuanced than that. The Europeans are pissed off for a long list of reasons, some legit, some not, but many of the legit ones are actually structural; they reflect real changes in our interests. Outside of Europe, anti-Americanism is much more complicated. The Middle East is, of course, a special case, but we are not universally reviled, for example, in Asia. And Asia is going to be very, very important, not just in the next four years but for the next forty. It is much bigger than Europe, more economically dynamic, is more unsettled politically and has numerous regional rivalries. It contains the most plausible future rival for American influence, regionally and globally - China; the world's biggest Islamic nation - Indonesia - which in turn controls the arteries through which flows much of the trans-Pacific trade; and on the periphery sits one of America's staunchest allies - Australia. We are the only honest broker from the outside who can mediate the dangerous potential disputes in the region, and we are also overwhelmingly dependent on the region for capital. And I haven't even mentioned Taiwan or North Korea. Bush should take a big Asian tour, visit Japan, South Korea, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, Vietnam - with John Kerry! - if he can think of a good excuse, even extend the trip a little bit westward to take in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Bush would be delivering several messages: that Asia matters; that we care about America's image abroad, and our relations with other states; that our foreign policy is not a one-dimensional focus on terrorism; and that Europe's pretensions to being the center of the universe and the arbiter of the global "community" of right-thinking states are just that: pretensions, and empty ones at that.

7. Go to Latin America. Bush promised a Latin focus in his first term. For understandable reasons, we didn't get it. But we're no longer dealing with benign neglect; the region is starting to fall apart. Time to get some new focus south of the border. I think Bush should have three priorities, plus one overriding imperative.

Bush should make it a high priority to expand the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Chile, El Salvador and Colombia should be top targets for inclusion. Bush should make it clear that he's not trying to build an exclusionary trading bloc, but that countries that have reached a certain level of economic development, with a certain degree of respect for property rights and so forth, and which trade a lot with America are natural partners, and that free trade with such partners serves both parties and the world at large. This is something our friends in Latin America want, and we should reward them; plus it is truly in our own economic interest.

Bush should offer visible, vocal and substantive support to the government of Colombia. They are fighting the good fight in their own war against terrorism, and they are increasingly under threat from their volatile neighbor to the east, Venezuela. They have been an ally of ours, and we should show ourselves to be an ally to them.

Bush should openly court the friendship of the President of Brazil. Brazil is making a real bid to be the regional hegemon, and to that end Lula has tried to tie Argentina ever tighter to Brazil economically and to forge relations with Venezuela's Chavez. Chavez is a real problem, but Lula is a popular politician and not nearly as bad as some on the right make him out to be. Bush should work overtime to demonstrate that we want to be friends with countries that stay on the democratic path. It's not inconceivable, as well, that Lula could be helpful in dealing with Chavez. In any event, I think this would be a very low-risk gesture that could very much pay off.

Finally, the "overriding imperative." Bush has to sit down with Vicente Fox and have a little chat. "Vin" he should say, "last year I proposed an immigration plan that you said was perfect; gave you exactly what you wanted. Well, that plan almost killed me. I can't help you if you don't help me. If you want a guestworker plan of some kind, you have got to do whatever can be done to get people to stay in Mexico. Whether it's developing the south or finding jobs in northern Mexico for internal migrants, you have got to help reduce the incentives for people to migrate to El Norte. And you have got to do more to prevent criminals from escaping over the border into the USA. If you give me this cover, I'll try to get you what you say you need. If you don't, I can't risk my Presidency over this. And the alternative to my approach is much more punitive for Mexico, as you well know."

8. Have a chat with Arik. As long as we're sitting down and having confidential chats, Bush should have one with Ariel Sharon. It wouldn't be terrible if he had that conversation in Jerusalem, but I've already got Bush doing a lot of travelling. "Arik," Bush should say, "you've been through a lot. And we've stood with you through a lot. Your fight against terrorism and our fight against terrorism are one and the same. I'm not under any illusions that without Arafat suddenly peace is going to break out, and neither are you. We both know that peace is not going to come between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, until there's a real change in the culture, a renunciation of anti-Semitism, and the acceptance of Israel in the region. But we both know as well that no such change is possible while Israel is ruling millions of Palestinians, and that the longer Israel holds on to the territories, the harder it will be to establish a Palestinian state separate from Israel, and the more likely it is that Israel will be transformed into an unstable bi-national state. Arik, I've given you a lot of diplomatic cover for a withdrawal from Gaza, supporting Israel's right of self-defense and maintaining that any map of a Palestinian state reflect facts on the ground that have changed since 1967. We're not going to back down from our commitments. Now it's time for you to deliver on yours. I need you to fulfill your commitment to withdraw from Gaza, on schedule and without equivocation. I'm not asking you to do anything you haven't already promised to do. I'm asking you to fulfill your promises. And if you can't do that, I need to know that now, and you need to know that there will have to be a consequence."

Why do I think Bush should have such a chat? Because I believe Ariel Sharon wants to do exactly that - withdraw from Gaza. It will only help him internally for the folks to his right - like Bibi - to know that Bush considers Israel to have made a commitment. Bibi's not a fool; there's a limit to how far he'll push things for electoral advantage. He's not going to jeopardize relations with America. At least I hope not. The purpose has nothing to do with relations with the Arab world or Europe; if Bush advertises such a message, it would backfire, because Sharon can't look publicly like he's surrendering Israeli interests to American pressure, and the objective is to get out of Gaza, not to win debating points in Paris.

9. Convene a conference on Islam and Democracy. Okay, this is a bit of a hokey PR stunt, but it's important anyhow. I think we should all take it as inevitable that Islam is a rising force; the question is the character of the Islam that will rise. I've said before that I'm optimistic that the AKP in Turkey will prove a positive development in the long run, albeit a negative development for Turkish-American relations in the short run. Bush needs to get out the message that we're not trying to install puppet regimes througout the Muslim world, or that our friendship and peaceful relations is dependent on subservience to America. If the regimes of the region take a hard line on terror and don't threaten our interests, then we don't mind if they develop along the lines they prefer culturally and politically. If it can be articulated as *consistent* with Islamic values, I suspect democracy will, in the long run, prove popular. A few points about the conference. It should take place in the region, not in America. (Tunisia would be an excellent location.) It should prominently feature non-Arab Muslims - Muslim leaders from Indonesia, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, etc. We should move heaven and earth to get Sistani to come. Bush's Secretary of State at a minimum should address the conference, if Bush doesn't do so himself. But it should not be sponsored by America; any vetting we do of participants (and we should do that) should be very behind-the-scenes. I know this sounds like a really hokey idea, and I'm as skeptical as everyone else about the whole project of transforming the Middle East. But it's not black and white, and some effort to move that part of the hearts-and-minds agenda is certainly worthwhile.

10. Expand the Proliferation Security Initiative. This is the germ of Bush's effort to contain the spread of nuclear arms, and Bush needs to build on it. We need to offer real carrots to states who allow their nuclear facilities to be effectively run by foreigners charged with preventing proliferation. Bush should probably convene a commission headed by former Senator Sam Nunn and current Senator Dick Lugar to make recommendations on this; they know a good deal about the issue from their work on the post-Soviet states. The P.S.I. is basically all sticks, and that's good, and we need to get even more cooperation from other countries to tighten the cordon. But we also need carrots.

That's my list. I think that's enough for the first few months.