Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Feb 15, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news.

Hi, everybody. Welcome to our weekly discussion. Let's get started.

I am rather encouraged to see the so-called mainstream media doing its best to call out all the politicians on the budget games they are playing. ABC news had a great piece last night showing what the federal budget really is and how tiny the part the President and the Republicans are fighting about really is. And CNN had Alan Simpson on last night with both he and Spitzer/Parker saying that the politicians have abdicated all responsibility by refusing to deal with the enormous part of the budget that includes entitlements and defense as well as the necessary changes to be made on the revenue side. But my question is whether any of this is going to matter since the lobbyist cash that controls our government likes things the way they are. Will we ever see oil subsidies and farm subsidies eliminated? Real changes to the tax code to fix the loopholes that allow giant companies to pay no taxes? I hope the media will keep pounding home the message that neither party is serving the "people" but rather are serving their corporate masters.

I think everyone agrees that someday we will have to make these big adjustments -- but not quite yet, apparently. There's a school of thought that says we need a more serious fiscal crisis to create the conditions for long-term solutions. I hope that's wrong.

All that said, however, there's a good argument to be made that even if both parties were ready to restructure our national finances in a way that makes sense, now wouldn't be the time to do it. The recovery is still fragile -- and growth is an essential element of any long-term fix. But could we develop a plan now for action when the economy is more robust? I don't see why not.

So if any member of the GOP expresses any skepticism about the outcome in Egypt, "conservatives don't love freedom"? How is that different than the intolerant partisan nonsense of Michael Savage? Why are you one of the many partisan pundits on either side who seeks to lower the tone of debate by regularly dehumanizing those who dare not share their views? Shame on you for your divisive rhetoric.

I didn't think it was divisive, I thought it was accurate. I covered South America in the years right after nations there emerged from the nightmare of long, brutal military dictatorships, almost all of which had been backed by the United States. I developed an aversion to dictators and a love for democracy. I hope most Americans share this bias.

Why do you say, " It is unlikely that . . . a government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood, if it came to that, would necessarily be more dangerous or hostile than the Mubarak regime"?

I say that because the state-run media under Mubarak were often viciously anti-Israel, in a bigoted way; because Mubarak, while he kept the peace treaty, visited Israel only once in 30 years; because he was often prickly and anti-American in international forums; because he allowed the digging of those tunnels into Gaza through which Hamas is supplied with rockets... People act as if Mubarak were some sort of paragon in terms of support for Israel and the West. My colleague Jackson Diehl wrote an excellent piece on this last week.

For all your talk about if the GOP loves freedom, its equally as easy to make an argument that the Dems really don't back up their womens rights arguments overseas. I realize that unfortunately the issue of abortions is a non-starter, but i have not heard the left speak out about other woman's rights. For example not being allowed to travel by themselves, being forced to wear burkas and other indignities. Where is the progressive voice for looking to really improve this area , as opposed to just replacing a secular dictator, with new religious leadership.

If you're saying it's inevitable or even likely that Mubarak will be replaced by religious leadership, I disagree. You make an excellent point about women's rights, but it's difficult, isn't it, to then conclude that this justifies keeping an oppressive dictator in power even if he is broadly rejected by his people, men and women. It could be compellingly argued, for example, that women in Iraq had more rights and freedoms under Saddam Hussein (until the end, when he feigned religion for political reasons).

Just supposing that a large number of people were opposed to, say, not President Mubarak, but lets say, George Bush or Barrack Obama, and they demonstrated at a central place in Washington, lets say the National Mall. And they made it a campgrounds of sorts to say that the government should go, that they want a different democracy. Would we be as charitable or as willing to "give in to the people's demands", the demands of only the vocal minority (even though it may, in reality, a majority), or to the "prodding" of foreign envoys who say to the U.S. president "you really need to leave..." Just asking.

You ask, "Would we be as charitable..." -- and the crucial word is "we." If the situation in this country were analogous to that in Egypt under Mubarak, you and I and practically everyone we know would be in that hypothetical crowd on the Mall. And we'd be eager for foreign support, although your mypothesized Mubarak-style dicator wouldn't appreciate meddling from abroad.

Senator Hatch said at the CPAC confab this weekend that his vote for TARP was a "mistake", but admitted that it helped prevent another Depression. Other GOPers get in a froth about the defict, but seemingly have no problem cutting taxes that increase the deficit. Romney supports efforts to have the health care law ruled unconstitutional based on the individual mandate that is a central part of the law he signed as Governor in Mass. My question is there some training class where these politicians learn to keep a straight face while saying stuff that they can't really believe?

There must be something in the water at CPAC. Seriously, Mitt Romney has quite a problem, doesn't he? I don't see how he gets around the fact that "Obamacare" is nothing but "Romneycare" writ large.

Obviously the cases of Egypt and the Palestinians are very different. Nevertheless... We certainly saw an "unfortunate" election (at least in terms of short-term US and Israeli interests) when Palestinians voted in Hamas a few years ago. Why do you discount out-of-hand the possibility that something similar *could* happen in Egypt?

Well of course anything*could* happen. But I believe it's unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood would win power in a free and fair Egyptian election (note, for what it's worth, that the group has pledged not even to seek the presidency); and I believe it's unlikely that even if the MB were in power, it would emulate Hamas.

Just another example of how this is not the GOP of yesteryear or even of Reagan. That any democracy movement in the Mid-East (of which there have been so many examples!) must have an Islamo-fascist outcome is ignorant of each state's situation. I was in Egypt recently and the Western influences (look at the dress of the protesters) is palpable. But really, that the Iranian population is again rising up again obliterates the right wings assertion that Egypt must become another Iran. Iran isn't the Iran they think it is.

In some ways, Iran is the most "modern" and "Western" of all the countries in the Middle East, especially if you look at the urban middle class.

If President Obama is so in love with it, why did he ignore the protesters in Iran last year? The truth is I believe Presdient Obma only sided with the Egyptian street once it lookws like they could win. It was cynical, not principled.

In 2009, the administration believed it would be counterproductive to trumpet support for the pro-democracy protesters in Iran. I think that was a reasonable calculation. The regime couldn't charge that all the unrest was being agitated by the Great Satan.

That said, the Egypt situation was different. I believe the administration's initial caution was based on the calculation that Mubarak would surely survive. That was wrong as a matter of eventual fact, but I believe it was also wrong as a matter of initial policy. We were an ally of Egypt, not an enemy. We had strong ties to the Egyptian military. Nationalistic attacks on the U.S. for meddling weren't going to save Mubarak.

The conservative mantra has been: Obama Is Always Wrong. Therefore there must be something wrong with the way he handled Egypt - even if it appears, from what we've seen so far, that the result is a historic opening for democracy in the world's most troubled region. Headlines from a few years back. The liberal mantra has been: Bush Is Always Wrong. Therefore there must be something wrong with the way he handled Iraq - even if it appears, from what we've seen so far, that the result is a historic opening for democracy in the world's most troubled region.

Let's see. In Egypt, we lent our voice to those calling for freedom; we used our contacts with the military to warn against a crackdown; we did our best to convince Mubarak to go. Several hundred people were killed in the uprising. In Iraq, we invaded the country and occupied it for seven years. More than 100,000 Iraqis and more than 4,000 Americans were killed.

Sorry, but I do see a difference.

Excellent column Gene. What's with people like Bolton? I noticed even your colleague Mr. Krauthammer wrote about his support for democracy but pledged at the same time to keep parties like the Muslim Brotherhood from participating in government. Seems to me democracy and free elections are like being pregnant, you either are or you are not.

That's exactly right. We can't take the position that we should actively work to deny democracy to  some people because they might elect leaders we don't like.

Unfortunately for US Taxpayers, the Founding Fathers weren't insightful enough to require in the Constitution that if Senators or Representatives vote to cut taxes or increase spending, they must make equivalent spending cuts or identify specific new revenue sources -- not hollow rhetoric or endless borrowing -- to fund the Federal Government. This is a simple concept to state but one most politicians don't have the moral fiber to address when voting in Congress.

The Founders knew that nations needed to borrow. One of the first big political fights in Congress -- won by Washington and Hamilton -- was for the federal government to assume the debt burdens that the states had run up during the revolutionary war. Jefferson and Madison weren't too wild about this, but there was nothing exotic about the idea of deficit spending -- when necessary. The government was no model of fiscal rectitude during its early years.

What hopes do you see that a new Egyptian government will desire there are more important things to concentrate on that fighting with Israel and will seek to uphold the peace treaty?

Egypt has no territorial claims against Israel. The army leadership -- which, as a practical matter, will be powerful in the post-Mubarak era, whoever gets elected -- has guaranteed that the peace treaty will be upheld.

Yes, I know the budget's in a mess. But how much of this is real, and how much accounting? How much of this is because Bush put the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan off the budget, and Obama put them on the budget? Combined with the economic downturn and resulting lower tax revenues, won't this all come close to righting itself once the economy improves and the wars are over?

The wars are a big contributing factor, and a growing economy will surely shrink the deficit as a percentage of gdp. But the big problem is the rising cost of medical care. Medicare and Medicaid have to be fixed. (Everybody seems to want to talk about Social Security as the problem our officials won't tackle, but it isn't a problem at all at least for the next decade, and in any event it's relatively easy to fix -- without slicing and dicing benefits. Medical costs are the real long-term problem.)

The answer is simple - 10th amendment. Just because a state can do something doesn't mean the feds can.

Is that you, Mitt? If so, somehow I don't think that answer goes over well at CPAC...

If an arm of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood were allowed at the negotiating table in Egypt, wouldn't it be analogous to when an arm of the outlawed Irish Republican Army was allowed at the Northern Ireland peace talks? Also, since the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda are strong enemies of one another, wouldn't it be in the US's best interests to validate the Muslim Brotherhood, by the logic that our enemy's enemy is our ally?

1. Kind of.

2. Yes.

Since you reported from Latin America for many years, what similarities (analogies) do you see between Egypt now and those Latin nations' effective establishment of democracy (e.g., Chile, Argentina, Brazil)?

A detailed answer will require some time and space, so maybe I'll do a column on this subject. I do think there are some parallels and lessons.

 

And with that, folks, my time is up for today. Thanks so much for contributing to at lively hour, and I'll see you again next week.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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