Sunday, September 21, 2008

MADE IN THE SHADE OF NO TOWERS

(as published in the Bangkok Post)

US FINANCIAL CRISIS

A meltdown 'in the shadow of no towers'
PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM


The Bush years will be remembered for many definitive events, but perhaps none so grave as the two black Septembers that now bookend his presidency.

First there was the September 2001 attack from without that the Bush administration was warned about but failed to thwart, busy as he was gathering sagebrush and playing cowboy on his ranch. Even forgiving that lapse, malicious plans were hastily laid that very month for an unprovoked attack on Iraq. Sense of vigilante justice aroused and seemingly out of control, Mr Bush went on to attack the wrong country. A million lives later, including some 5,000 American dead, 50,000 wounded for life, the war rages on. Civil liberties diminished, US prestige was at an all time low. A trillion dollars down the drain.

Then there was the collapse from within, again in September, again Wall Street a ground zero. And what is the response of those most responsible for the mess? What is the response from the extremely rich who made the economy unravel due to unmitigated greed empowered with lax oversight, deregulation and cronyism?

Do what we say or else.

We are told with frightening effect that the world's biggest economy was within a few days of collapse. If true, it is reminiscent of the bureaucratic sclerosis and insider mismanagement that led to the demise of the Soviet Union. We are told that the $85 billion rescue package bailing out AIG, plus $200 billion more for Fanny Mac and Fanny Mae, are mere band-aids, not enough to do the job. What's that horrendous sucking sound? On top of all that, another $700 billion of tax money going down the drain?

Twin mega-disasters on the watch of one man. One in his first September as president, the other in his last. The first took down the Twin Towers, the second disaster took place, to borrow a phrase from ace illustrator Art Spiegelman, "in the shadow of no towers".

The Bush administration is nothing if not nervy. They have the nerve to ask taxpayers to foot a questionable trillion-dollar bailout of Wall Street on top of a questionable trillion-dollar war.

That's asking a lot, especially when the asking is being done by "deciders" with no sense of shame or accountability.

Would it be too much to ask for the Bush administration to show some accountability for its mistakes and resign en masse?

What ever happened to honour? Whither responsibility?

It's about time ordinary Americans got wise to being conned. In this time of crisis, Republicans are taking care of business as usual, taking care of the big guys at the expense of the small, and spouting noisy populist rhetoric while quietly maintaining their affluent base. The Democrats are only marginally better, expressing the hope that a modicum of relief might be directed at ordinary people losing their homes, wondering if there might be some upper limit to the multi-million bonuses the wizards of the financial world pilfer to reward themselves.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a Bush appointee of Nixon-era Pentagon and White House vintage, says no. No time to think about ordinary Joes, even while acknowledging the country desperately needs their help. "It pains me tremendously to have the American taxpayer put in this position," says Mr Paulson, former aide to John Erlichman, asking for a trillion dollars in exchange for a three-page proposal.

In demanding, without due diligence and democratic process such an astronomical sum, in demanding further that it come not from the reckless, profligate gamblers who caused the problem but from the hard-earned money of ordinary working Americans, in demanding market discipline below without throwing struggling families as much as a few breadcrumbs as top Democrats are demanding, Mr Paulson shows himself to be icily on par with Messrs Rumsfeld, Cheney and other Nixon-era appointees of George Walker Bush.

After bluffing and boasting his way into a taxpayer-supported war against Iraq to the tune of a trillion dollars, Mr Bush sometimes claims to feel the pain, at least when addressing teary-eyed widows and fatherless children, though his mind is unwavering, his faulty positions non-negotiable. His jogging speeds are down but his golf game is good.

"We need this to be clean and quick," says Mr Paulson, echoing Mr Rumsfeld, the man with a simplistic plan for a little war on the Euphrates.

Why should we believe any of these slicks in suits? Why should we believe these tricky dicks in high office? Why should we trust any appointee in an administration of truth evaders and unapologetic greed? Their track record is abysmal, their stubborn selfishness legendary. They plunder national wealth; send other people's kids to war, green light torture, arbitrary arrest and surveillance, yet demand get-out-of-jail-free cards. Quick to put themselves above the law and beyond the reach of subpoenas - they want what they want on their terms. Is there only one solution to the financial crisis? The Bush administration says give us the money or else, once again using fear to win trust.Oh no, you don't. Not you. Not again. There's got to be a better way.

Philip J Cunningham is a freelance political commentator.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

SAMAK FALLS FROM GRACE

Thailand Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who showed no sign of bowing to the popular protest and intense media criticism mounted against him in the past few weeks, was eventually tripped up by a technicality and forced to resign.

To see a divisive and controversial leader step down on a technical charge related to pocketing modest cooking show fees is less than satisfactory and raises questions about the sense of proportion and even-handedness of the judicial process. On the other hand, even Samak and his supporters saw in the technicality a face-saving ploy that would allow him to immediately be re-nominated by his party and resume his position as prime minister afresh after an interim of a few days, perhaps after demonstrators had finally dispersed.

But while intense protests culminating in the PAD takeover of the ceremonial Government House, combined sporadic student protests, and continued pressure from the opposition might have been something the overly-confident Samak was uniquely gifted to ignore, his party could not ignore accumulating social pressures, civic strife and the deleterious effect the political standoff was having on the economy.

Thaksin Shinawatra, the unusually wealthy and unusually influential former prime minister now in the UK, was said to support Samak's re-instatement as prime minister according to Thai newspaper reports. But in a sure sign that Thaksin's stock has dropped significantly ever since he skipped bail and absconded to Britain, his nominee did not get the nod.

So Samak was, in the end, felled not by his opponents but by members of his own party who could no longer muster up the enthusiasm to support a divisive figure in the face of widespread opposition.

In this indirect sense, the protests and chorus of voices calling for Samak to step down had a positive effect, not so much to remove the unpopular prime minister, which was said to be the main goal of the protests, but to make it harder for him to be re-appointed.

So far the PAD has not yet shown the wisdom to let well enough alone, clean up the grounds of Government House and go home. Instead, the protests continue, rain or shine, creating solidarity and resentment, with a momentum of their own. But to what end? Where do things go from here?

Only time will tell, and time is running short.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

TIME FOR THAI PM TO STEP ASIDE

BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM (Bangkok Post, September 4, 2008)

The time has come, Mister Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, to step down for the good of your country. I say this not as a supporter of the righteous protestors who demand you resign, they have much to answer for themselves, nor out of malice towards you. I am an admirer of your plucky style, as much as I am critic of your sometimes prejudiced words.

You are proud and sometimes virulent in your nationalism, so I will not advise you to look at my country, America, with its very own very flawed version of democracy, as a model. But you might look to Asia for inspiration.

Not to Burma, the least democratic of your Asian neighbors, certainly not to paramount dictator Than Shwe. Although you reportedly admire the cruel and vain Burmese dictator because of his apparent devotion to Buddhist ritual, we have come to understand that sort of incendiary comment as Samak-speak, a trademark random comment that manages to shock and enrage, rock the boat and assault the intellect, only to fall harmlessly by the wayside because you are not taken seriously as an intellectual. Yet your silver tongue has the power to inspire and incite and you have built a solid career on this talent.

We only met once, when you were running for mayor. I was impressed that a man of your fame and stature would visit the predictably unsympathetic venue of the Bangkok Foreign Correspondent’s Club at all, but the fact that you did so completely on your own, no aides, no assistants, no personal secretary, not even a driver, truly impressed. You just walked in and started talking.

On the other hand you disappointed when you summarily dismissed the topic of your involvement in the bloody crackdown of October 6, 1976 by turning the question on the questioner, who happened to be me.

“You, when you come to Thailand?” you challenged, as if a foreigner who had the temerity to ask such a question could be ridiculed for relatively recent arrival in the country.
“In the year 2514, khrap,” I answered in Thai. Stating the year 1971, when I first arrived as an exchange student, bought a rare interlude of silence from the silver tongue.
“You been here long time, you speak Thai well.” ("Phut thai taekchan", was the exact phrase I believe)
“Aren’t you ashamed of October 6?”
“No.”

And that was that. I still admire your pluck and tenacity and accept that, for whatever reason, talking with you about October 6 is not going to be constructive. Similar journalistic exchanges took place in the past year upon your ascension to Prime Minister. I could only note with wistful nostalgia your deft ability for turning questions back on the questioner.

But enough of that: there’s too much going on in the present to dwell in the past.

You are between a rock and a hard place, Mister Prime Minister. For inspiration, I suggest you look to the most democratic of your Asian neighbors, Japan.

You, a prime minister hanging in by a thread, were scheduled to fly to Tokyo and meet Japan’s prime minister, also hanging in by a thread. That meeting was of course cancelled because of unrest in Bangkok, but in the interim, your Japanese interlocutor resigned.

You have political karma that enables and inhibits you.

Since Thailand’s Government House has been occupied by your political opponents, an understandably annoying development that might have caused a less confident leader to resort to more extreme measures, you have been uncharacteristically calm, almost unruffled in your public response. Despite your unwillingness to talk about it, the shadow of October 6 does hang over you, in the positive sense that you want nothing of the sort to happen again.

There’s less bravado and more nuance in your recent presentation of self as prime minister, suggesting a swift, self-corrective learning curve. Under ordinary circumstances you might grow into the role, though it could also be argued you reached the natural peak of your abilities as a mayor and should be content with that.

The necessary humility and willingness to compromise, inherent to being an effective prime minister at a delicate time such as this, does not mix well with your brash, populist style, nor that of your ambitious patron-in-exile, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Japan’s Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, a political blueblood and veteran party stalwart of considerable skill, knew better than to fight the inevitable. When it became clear to him that he could not serve his country as he might like to because of unfavorable deadlocks, logjams and impasses in his own party and Japan’s parliament as a whole, he quietly resigned.

“Sorry for causing so much trouble with this abrupt announcement,” said Mr. Fukuda, stepping down with grace and good manners that have characterized his career.

Each person has his or her own style and no one would expect you, Mr. Samak, to follow the mild-mannered Mr. Fukuda to the word. But there are lessons that can be drawn from the Japanese cultural penchant for humility and dignified resignation in the face of intractable difficulty.

Sometimes the best way forward is to step aside.

pc