City of Brass

I’m not a big fan of the “100 day honeymoon” period for new presidencies – if anything, the tone on day one is probably predictive of the entire term. In that regard, I don’t have a lot to complain about yet, as Obama has moved swiftly on executive orders to undo many of the most egregious policy abuses of the Bush Administration.

By the same token, however, it isn’t too early to start asking how the Obama Administration will be held accountable for its actions. Open government is not what I mean – it’s great that the White House web site will post Obama’s executive orders and draft legislation for public review, but that doesn’t replace active oversight of the Executive Branch by the Legislative branch. It is worth remembering that of all branches of government, Congress, not the President, is the one closest to being the true will of the People, and the system of checks and balances demands that Congress have the power to keep the Executive in check.

Now, under the Bush Administration, there was essentially zero oversight. The lack of any meaningful check by Congress (even during the final two years with a Democratic majority), couple with the ideological extremism of the Bush Administration officials, led to all sorts of abuses, such as warrantless wiretapping, vindictive outing of CIA agents, ignoring congressional subpoenas, using signing statements, and much more, all under the rubric of “executive privilege” and national security.

It is laudable that Obama has moved to undo much of the damage, amounting to willingly ceding the raw power of the presidency that Bush amassed (a remarkable thing in and of itself!). But relying on the goodwill of the President is not a solution; what is needed is an enforcement so that he can not unilaterally redo what he has undone. Or, for that matter, his successors cannot either.

In other words, Congress, fortified with a stronger Democratic majority, must now resume its watchdog role over the Executive. However, it is easier said than done, when Congress is the same party as the president, and there is such an urgent need to make genuine progress rather than be stuck in pointless obstructionism and legislative gridlock (as surely would be the case were the GOP to be in control). A Newsweek article gives an idea of how gingerly the various Congressional committees are moving forwards with respect to their watchdog duties:

Dingell, the cantankerous chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was pushed out by Rep. Henry Waxman,
who as head of Oversight and Government Reform conducted aggressive
headline-hunting probes into alleged malfeasance by the Bush
administration. But with Obama in the White House, Waxman is expected
by congressional aides to use his post largely to pursue health-care
and environmental legislation. The new oversight chair is Edolphus Towns,
74, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who is not known for his investigative prowess,
or even his attendance. He missed some hearings on the financial
bailout and was conspicuously absent for Waxman’s grilling of pitching
ace Roger Clemens, whom Towns had greeted in a friendly photo op a few
days earlier. (An aide said Towns missed the hearings due to shoulder
surgery and the flu.) In comments last week, Towns pledged “vigorous”
oversight of the bailout and said he’d be on the lookout for “waste,
fraud and abuse.” So far, he’s identified one issue he definitely wants
to investigate: why there’s no playoff system for NCAA football. The
aide said Towns will be a “conciliator, a coalition builder,” not a

Other committees that historically
conducted aggressive investigations, including the House and Senate
banking committees, are proceeding gingerly when it comes to questions
about the incoming Obama administration. Bill Duhnke, the Republican
staff director for the Senate banking committee, told NEWSWEEK that the
panel’s Democratic majority, led by Sen. Chris Dodd, flatly refused a
GOP request to summon Geithner to a pre-confirmation hearing.
Similarly, Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate
Judiciary Committee, complained that the committee’s chair, Sen.
Patrick Leahy, refused a GOP request to subpoena witnesses to testify
about Attorney General-designate Eric Holder’s involvement in the Marc
Rich pardon.

It’s ridiculous to expect that Congress be overtly hostile towards Obama, though that will be the argument that Republican partisans will make. What is needed is for Congress to balance the need to support the President’s agenda and mandate for bold, sweeping action in the face of so many crises, with the need to ensure that the action is optimized for maximum beneficial effect. And, in the unlikely event that Obama tries to overstep his bounds, Congress needs to be awake enough to notice – and act accordingly.

In many ways i think the present situation is ideal. A Dmeocratic president for the vision and agenda, a Democratic majority to ensure that things are moving forwards, and a Republican minority that can play a devil’s advocate role. I am actually hoping that the Democrats do not reach 60 seats in the Senate, so they are forced to look across the aisle for support.

UPDATE: There are at least ten Democrats who might cause the White House some  concern over the nextfew years, thankfully – including the vice president! 🙂

UPDATE: This is troubling – in at least one case, the Obama Administration has supported the unitary executive arguments of the Bush Administration. Is Congress paying attention?

The Belief-o-Matic quiz here at Beliefnet is a really interesting resource that I think deserves some attention. I took the quiz, as did several others at Talk Islam (muslims and non-muslims alike), and we are discussing the results from the perspective of comparative religion. I think that the evidence supports the Abrahamic contention that Islam and Judaism are much closer, especially in terms of belief about the nature of God. This ties into the earlier discussion about the term Judeo-Christian, which in my opinion tends only to be used by Christians anyway, usually when trying to co-opt Judaism’s heritage for some transient polemical aim.

Here are my results:

1. Sikhism (100%)
2. Reform Judaism (96%)
3. Islam (96%)
4. Orthodox Judaism (96%)
5. Baha’i Faith (88%)
6. Jainism (66%)
7. Liberal Quakers (62%)
8. Unitarian Universalism (57%)
9. Hinduism (50%)
10. Liberal Christian Protestants (48%)
11. Mormons (45%)
13. Eastern Orthodox (37%)
14. Roman Catholic (37%)
15. Mahayana Buddhism (36%)
16. Jehovah’s Witness (35%)
17. Orthodox Quaker (34%)
19. Conservative Christian/Protestant (31%)
20. Secular Humanism (28%)
21. Scientology (28%)
23. Nontheist (21%)
26. Taoism (11%)

I find my 100% score for SIkhism fascinating. I tried to avoid marking the social issues (homosexuality, pacifism, etc) as important, in general, because I felt those were personal interpretation and not doctrinal. That may patrially explain it, but I don’t know enough about Sikhism to be sure. Still, the tight grouping of Islam and Judaism is readily apparent, with the various Christian faiths ranking much lower (and those, interestingly, with Buddhisim mixed in).

Incendiary Dutch politician Geert Wilders will be brought to trial for comparing Islam to Nazism:

Geert Wilders made headlines in March 2008 for his short-film Fitna, which juxtaposed shots of the 9/11 attacks on the US with quotations from the Quran, the text Muslims believe to be divinely revealed.

In 2007 he had called for a ban on the Quran and compared Islam to Nazism.

On Wednesday, Amsterdam’s appeals court ordered his prosecution,
overruling the public prosecutor who had previously decided against a
criminal trial.

summary of the court’s decision read: “The court considers this so
insulting for Muslims that it is in the public interest to prosecute

“The court also considers appropriate criminal prosecution for
insulting Muslim worshippers because of comparisons between Islam and
Nazism made by Wilders.”

I’m no fan of Wilders but this is indeed an affront against free speech. It should be noted though that the West’s own tradition of free speech is a recent invention, and almost entirely an American one. Europe has never been a bastion of free speech, with Holocaust denial laws (see the case of David Irving), bans on hijab, and opposition to mosque construction are just a few prominent examples of the double standard when it comes to “protected” speech for Jews and Christians, but not for muslims. 

Personally, I would prefer to see all restrictions speech dropped – the best answer to bad speech is more speech, not less. As an American, we can criticize by comparison, but there is nothing profoundly or inherently anti-Western about silencing Wilders. Calling it dhimmitude is an excercise in denial; when the same self-styled defenders of Western ideals call for abolition of all speech laws in Europe, then we can take them seriously.

I am a huge fan of the China Rises blog written by Tim Johnson, Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers. Johnson has a great catch about how Chinese censors reacted to the following paragraph in Obama’s speech:

“Recall that earlier generations faced down communism and fascism not
just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring
convictions. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit
and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of
history but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench
your fist.”

There’s a YouTube clip of Chinese coverage that shows the censors in action. Reuters also has a report on the censorship.