Dispatches from the front lines in the war for America’s soul

The war for America’s soul continues on many fronts.  Are you engaged, or watching TV?

  1. Ruthless yet Humane“, Christopher Hitchens, Slate, 4 May 2009 — Why Obama cited Churchill on torture.
  2. Nickel and Diming“, John Dickerson, Slate, 7 May 2009 — Obama shows that he too believes we are fools.
  3. Stressing the Positive“, Paul Krugman, op-ed in the New York Times, 8 May 2009 — Obama allows the opportunity pass to reform the financial sector.

Note that these excerpts show no clear “good guy-bad guy” dichotomy in this conflict.


(1)  Ruthless yet Humane“, Christopher Hitchens, Slate, 4 May 2009 — Why Obama cited Churchill on torture.  Excerpt:

He didn’t get the attention he deserved for it, but President Obama was very cleverly fusing liberal principles with an appeal to the basic conservative values of “Old Europe” when, in his 100th-day press conference, he used Winston Churchill to justify his opposition to water-boarding and other “enhanced methods.” He told his audience that, even at a time when London was being “bombed to smithereens” and the British government held hundreds of Nazi agents in an internment center, there was a prime-ministerial view that torture was never permissible.

It would be reassuring to think that somebody close to Obama had handed him a copy of a little-known book called Camp 020: MI5 and the Nazi Spies. This was published by the British Public Record Office in 2000 and describes the workings of Latchmere House, an extraordinary British prison on Ham Common in the London suburb of Richmond, which housed as many as 400 of Hitler’s operatives during World War II. Its commanding officer was a man named Col. Robin Stephens, and though he wore a monocle and presented every aspect of a frigid military martinet (and was known and feared by the nickname “Tin-Eye”), he was a dedicated advocate of the nonviolent approach to his long-term guests. To phrase it crisply—as he did—his view was and remained: “Violence is taboo, for not only does it produce answers to please, but it lowers the standard of information.”

To give you some of the flavor of this prohibition, I ask you to consider the case of the German agent codenamed “TATE,” who was parachuted into England in September 1940, at a time when almost all of continental Europe was under Hitler’s control and when neither the United States nor the Soviet Union had entered the war against Germany. Taken to Camp 020, TATE stubbornly maintained that he was a Danish refugee. An external interrogator unused to the rules of Ham Common was exasperated by this initial stubbornness and “followed TATE to his cell at the close of that first interrogation and, in flagrant violation of the Commandant’s rigid rule that no physical violence should ever be used at Ham, struck the agent on the head. The incident led, on immediate representations by the Commandant, to the instant recall of [the offending officer] from the camp.” One blow to the head at a time when undefended British cities were being blitzed every night, and the brute was out of there for good.

For more information about torture see these posts:

(2)  Nickel and Diming“, John Dickerson, Slate, 7 May 2009 — Obama shows that he too believes we are fools.  Perhaps our leaders are correct.  Will we prove them wrong?  Excerpt:

Even before President Obama stepped to the lectern this morning to announce that he was cutting $17 billion from the federal budget, a fight was raging. The president and his aides argued that the cuts are significant. Only in Washington, they said, would people think $17 billion was not very much money. Press secretary Robert Gibbs even offered to take skeptical reporters onto Pennsylvania Avenue to ask regular people if $17 billion was a lot of money.

But members of the press—and anyone else, for that matter, who has spent any time studying the federal budget — know that $17 billion in a $3 trillion budget is, in fact, a small number. Relative to the overall budget, $17 billion is just 0.5 percent. And Congress isn’t likely to embrace all of those cuts, while Obama is also expanding programs elsewhere, so the $17 billion figure is not even a net reduction. Last year President Bush proposed cutting 151 programs for $34 billion in savings. “This creates this veneer of fiscal responsibility when the budget is moving rapidly in the wrong direction,” said Robert Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group.

Other relevant posts on the FM site:

(3) Stressing the Positive“, Paul Krugman, op-ed in the New York Times, 8 May 2009 — – Obama allows the opportunity pass to reform the financial sector. Excerpt:

I won’t weigh in on the debate over the quality of the stress tests themselves, except to repeat what many observers have noted: the regulators didn’t have the resources to make a really careful assessment of the banks’ assets, and in any case they allowed the banks to bargain over what the results would say. A rigorous audit it wasn’t.

But focusing on the process can distract from the larger picture. What we’re really seeing here is a decision on the part of President Obama and his officials to muddle through the financial crisis, hoping that the banks can earn their way back to health. It’s a strategy that might work. After all, right now the banks are lending at high interest rates, while paying virtually no interest on their (government-insured) deposits. Given enough time, the banks could be flush again.

But it’s important to see the strategy for what it is and to understand the risks. … what worries me most about the way policy is going … {is} my sense that the prospects for fundamental financial reform are fading.

Does anyone remember the case of H. Rodgin Cohen, a prominent New York lawyer whom The Times has described as a “Wall Street éminence grise”? He briefly made the news in March when he reportedly withdrew his name after being considered a top pick for deputy Treasury secretary.

Well, earlier this week, Mr. Cohen told an audience that the future of Wall Street won’t be very different from its recent past, declaring, “I am far from convinced there was something inherently wrong with the system.” Hey, that little thing about causing the worst global slump since the Great Depression? Never mind.

Those are frightening words. They suggest that while the Federal Reserve and the Obama administration continue to insist that they’re committed to tighter financial regulation and greater oversight, Wall Street insiders are taking the mildness of bank policy so far as a sign that they’ll soon be able to go back to playing the same games as before.

So as I said, while bankers may find the results of the stress tests “reassuring,” the rest of us should be very, very afraid.

Originally published at Fabius Maximus and reproduced here with the author’s permission.