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Obama's Nuclear Challenge

By Dan Froomkin
3:05 PM ET, 04/ 6/2009


Obama waves to the crowd in Prague (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Was it good timing or bad timing?

Hours before President Obama delivered an apparently long-planned speech embracing the goal of total nuclear disarmament, North Korea's rogue nuclear regime provocatively fired off a new rocket.

Critics say it was terrible timing, calling attention to just how unrealistic Obama's ambitions are.

But it may instead be good timing, as North Korea presents something of a case study in how Bush bombast didn't reduce a nuclear threat. In this case, it arguably created it.

In his speech in Prague yesterday, Obama made clear that he foresees disarmament as the work of decades, not years. And he called for greater focus on the danger of a nuclear weapon getting into terrorist hands. But his broader argument was that, as the U.S. reduces its arsenal, it will be easier to generate a stronger international consensus against proliferation.

Michael D. Shear and Colum Lynch write in The Washington Post: "Speaking in Hradskany Square, a hilltop plaza outside Prague Castle, just hours after the launch, Obama announced that he would immediately seek U.S. ratification of a ban on nuclear testing, convene a summit in Washington to stop the spread of nuclear material within four years and advocate for a nuclear fuel bank to allow peaceful development of nuclear power."

Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "Mr. Obama said that his administration would 'reduce the role of nuclear weapons' in its national security strategy, and would urge other countries to do the same. He pointed to the agreement he reached last week with President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia to begin negotiations on reducing warheads and stockpiles, and said the two countries would try to reach an agreement by the end of the year. He also promised to aggressively pursue American ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which in the past has faced strong opposition in Congress.

"It is a strategy based on the idea that if the United States shows it is willing to greatly shrink the size of its atomic arsenal, ban nuclear testing and cut off the worldwide production of bomb material, reluctant allies and partners around the world will be more likely to rewrite nuclear treaties and enforce sanctions against North Korea and Iran."

From Obama's speech: "In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. Black market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound. The technology to build a bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build or steal one. Our efforts to contain these dangers are centered on a global non-proliferation regime, but as more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold...

"Just as we stood for freedom in the 20th century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st century. (Applause.) And as nuclear power –- as a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.

"So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. (Applause.) I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly –- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, 'Yes, we can.' (Applause.)"

Jonathan Martin and David S. Cloud write for Politico on the neocon reponse: "'Especially in light of the North Korean launch, I thought his speech was otherworldly,' said John Bolton, the conservative former Ambassador to the United Nations under President Bush. 'What is he saying about the real, concrete threat from proliferant states like North Korea and Iran? We'll take you to the Security Council. Say, there's a threat! That has had no practical impact on either Pyongyang or Tehran before and will not in the future.'"

But Martin and Cloud quote a "senior administration official" as saying conservatives "also are missing the fundamental impact America's moving away from nuclear weapons would have....

"As for the politics of appearing weak, the official suggested tough talk toward Pyongyang and Tehran by Bush proved ineffective. 'We've tried that and we made no progress [toward non-proliferation],' said the source."

Martin and Cloud point out, quite correctly, that "the rocket launch hardly qualifies as a full-on, round-the-clock international crisis. Firing off a missile has become the regime in Pyongyang's standard way of interacting with Washington whenever it wants to extract more economic aid for its tottering economy or feels it would serve its purposes to alarm U.S. allies in Asia."

Nevertheless, there is a hysterical quality to some of the coverage so far.

Rick Klein blogs for ABC News: "Whether or not the North Koreans put anything into orbit over the weekend, President Obama's perfectly executed foreign trip was launched into a different layer of the atmosphere -- one where the president's words may not matter after all.....

"With the president's trip continuing through Turkey Monday and Tuesday... this marks perhaps the best early chance for Obama to define his own doctrine. The world is watching."

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "North Korea's rocket launch is the early diplomatic challenge Vice President Biden famously warned about last fall."

And ABC's Jake Tapper blogs about how the "3 a.m. phone call" turned out to be a "4:30 a.m. knock on the door."

The Not-Bush Tour in Turkey

By Dan Froomkin
1:23 PM ET, 04/ 6/2009

Wrapping up his "I'm not Bush" overseas tour with a visit to Turkey, President Obama today decisively declared that the United States is not at war with Islam.

"I know there have been difficulties these last few years," he said in a speech to the Turkish parliament. "I know that the trust that binds the United States and Turkey has been strained, and I know that strain is shared in many places where the Muslim faith is practiced. So let me say this as clearly as I can: The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam. (Applause.) In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical not just in rolling back the violent ideologies that people of all faiths reject, but also to strengthen opportunity for all its people.

"I also want to be clear that America's relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world -- including in my own country. The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country -- I know, because I am one of them."

And, in an obvious critique of Bush policies, Obama continued: "There's an old Turkish proverb: 'You cannot put out fire with flames.' America knows this. Turkey knows this. There's some who must be met by force, they will not compromise. But force alone cannot solve our problems, and it is no alternative to extremism."

Michael D. Shear, Kevin Sullivan and Debbi Wilgoren write about the speech for The Washington Post and note the mostly warm welcome for Obama in Turkey: "The Hurriyet newspaper...carried a banner headline, in English, that said, 'Welcome Mr. President.'

"'You are in a country that is a friend of the United States,' the front page text said. 'However, you broke our hearts during the last 8 years. Now it is time to fix it.'

"The newspaper, reflecting widespread Turkish desire for better relations with the United States, carried exuberant coverage of the visit, including a photo of one bakery owner who created a giant baklava, a sweet pastry, decorated with a likeness of Obama."

Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta write for The Washington Post: "Most Americans think President Obama's pledge to 'seek a new way forward' with the Muslim world is an important goal, even as nearly half hold negative views about Islam and a sizable number say that even mainstream adherents to the religion encourage violence against non-Muslims, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll."

A Mixed Verdict on Obama's Afghan Plans

By Dan Froomkin
1:20 PM ET, 04/ 6/2009

NATO leaders were hugely supportive of President Obama's new plans and goals for Afghanistan over the weekend. But that doesn't mean they actually want their troops involved.

I have to wonder if that's not the same way most Americans would respond if it were up to them.

Edward Cody writes in The Washington Post: "NATO allies handed President Obama a broad endorsement of his new Afghan strategy Saturday, pledging the temporary dispatch of 3,000 troops to protect elections next August, new military training teams to strengthen Afghanistan's army and more civilian experts to consolidate its government.

"The promises...dramatized once again that European leaders are unwilling to follow Obama's lead in making major new commitments of troops to fight and perhaps die in a faraway war that is widely unpopular among their voters.

"At a closing news conference, Obama portrayed the outcome as a success for his maiden encounter with NATO summitry, suggesting that trainers and civilians can be just as valuable as fighters."

But in the New York Times, Steven Erlanger and Helene Cooper called it a "tepid troop commitment to President Obama’s escalating campaign in Afghanistan....

"Despite a glowing reception and widespread praise for Mr. Obama’s style and aims, his calls for a more lasting European troop increase for Afghanistan were politely brushed aside, as they had been in negotiations leading up to the meeting....

"'No one will say this publicly, but the true fact is that we are all talking about our exit strategy from Afghanistan,' a senior European diplomat said Saturday. 'We are getting out. It may take a couple of years, but we are all looking to get out.'"

Where's our exit strategy? Still nowhere to be found.

Asked at the news conference if he still believes in "American exceptionalism," Obama restated his views about American leadership and collaboration.

"Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

"And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
1:19 PM ET, 04/ 6/2009

Michael Isikoff writes for Newsweek: "A fierce internal battle within the White House over the disclosure of internal Justice Department interrogation memos is shaping up as a major test of the Obama administration's commitment to opening up government files about Bush-era counterterrorism policy." Isikoff writes that Justice department officials are pitted against intelligence officials, and he quotes a senior official saying "Holy hell has broken loose over this."

Scott Horton blogs for the Daily Beast with another explanation for the delay: "Senate Republicans are now privately threatening to derail the confirmation of key Obama administration nominees for top legal positions by linking the votes to suppressing critical torture memos from the Bush era....It now appears that Republicans are seeking an Obama commitment to safeguard the Bush administration’s darkest secrets in exchange for letting these nominations go forward."

Krissah Thompson writes in The Washington Post: "As the nation's first black president settles into the office, a division is deepening between two groups of African Americans: those who want to continue to praise Obama and his historic ascendancy, and those who want to examine him more critically now that the election is over."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post that "in its first big test," the "13 million-strong grass-roots network built during his presidential campaign...had little obvious impact on the debate over President Obama's budget, which passed Congress on Thursday with no Republican support and a splintering of votes among conservative Democrats."

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times: "Confidence is the name of the game for a new president trying to calibrate his message to match the moment, searching for a way to inspire a recession-weary country and convey hope that better times are ahead. It is a tricky balance to strike. If he sounds too gloomy, he could further depress a nation desperate for any sign of progress. If he sounds too optimistic, he risks looking as if he’s trying to pull something over on the nation, a different sort of Confidence Man."

Steven Mufson writes in The Washington Post: "The new president is setting out to change the very nature of American energy, from the way we use it to the way we generate it." Mufson describes what Obama has already accomplished -- and what is yet to come.

George Lardner Jr. blogs for Nieman Watchdog: "President Obama wanted to hit the ground running when he was sworn in, but there are thousands of federal convicts and ex-convicts waiting for him to wake up and take notice of their requests for pardons or commutations. Of all the powers granted to him by the Constitution, his authority here is complete. Yet he has shown absolutely no interest in exercising it. And no one in the media has asked him about it."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes that when it comes to Obama's pledge to bring transparency to the White House, he "has bumped up against technological hurdles, privacy concerns and the entrenched culture of secrecy that has flourished for decades in Washington and culminated under his predecessor, President George W. Bush."

Satyam Khanna writes for ThinkProgress.org about White House senior adviser David Axelrod's response on CNN on Sunday to former vice president Cheney's continued critiques of Obama. From the transcript: Axelrod says former president George W. Bush "has behaved like a statesman. And as I’ve said before, here and elsewhere, I just don’t think the memo got passed down to the vice president." Khann writes: "Axelrod also noted that Cheney’s insistence that he kept America safe flies in the face of reality. 'I find it supremely ironic, on a day when we were meeting with NATO, to talk about the continued threat from al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they’re still plotting against us eight years — or seven years later,' he said. 'I think the question for Mr. Cheney is, how could that be? How could this have gone so long? Why are they still in business?'"

Millions of Reasons to Doubt Summers

By Dan Froomkin
10:00 AM ET, 04/ 6/2009


Larry Summers file photo. (Brendan Smialowski/Bloomberg)

The latest White House Friday-night document dump had its desired effect, as it's Monday morning and there's little to no attention being paid to how stupendously beholden it turns out President Obama's top economic adviser, Larry Summers, is to the financial industry that he is ostensibly trying to rein in.

Summers, it turns out -- according to financial disclosure statements released by the White House late on Friday -- was paid $5.2 million for his part-time work for a massive hedge fund last year. He also raked in more than $2.7 million in fees for speaking engagements at such places as Citigroup, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs. For one speech alone last April, Goldman Sachs paid him a cool $135,000.

All of a sudden, Obama's expressions of outrage over the culture of excessive pay on Wall Street are a bit harder to take at face value.

And the advice Obama is getting from Summers, his economic guru, is looking very suspect.

I mean, come on: How tough are you going to be on someone who paid you $135,000 in one day?

It's become increasingly clear over the last several months that despite the Obama administration's generally progressive economic views and sporadic bouts of populist rhetoric, the White House has something of a soft spot for Wall Street. Especially when it comes to financial rescue plans, Obama and his aides have held back from applying the tough medicine that an ever-growing number of economists say is necessary.

Consider, for instance, the contrast between these two stories: Amit R. Paley and David Cho wrote in Saturday's Washington Post that the Obama administration is "engineering its new bailout initiatives in a way that it believes will allow firms benefiting from the programs to avoid restrictions imposed by Congress, including limits on lavish executive pay"; while James Doran writes in the Guardian that "Elizabeth Warren, chief watchdog of America's $700 billion bank bailout plan, will this week call for the removal of top executives from Citigroup, AIG and other institutions that have received government funds in a damning report that will question the administration's approach to saving the financial system from collapse."

Friday night may seem like several news cycles ago to our fast-moving media, but the public deserves to hear from Summers directly about how he can possibly maintain that he doesn't owe any loyalty to the financial interests that showered him with money until a few months ago and that he now seems to be protecting. Why isn't his advice inherently suspect given how he is a veritable poster boy for the Wall Street culture that Obama called a "house of cards" and a "Ponzi scheme" in which "a relatively few do spectacularly well while the middle class loses ground"? Isn't he part of the problem, not part of the solution?

And, yes, I know Obama is overseas and busy doing other things right now, but when he gets back, he needs to explain why he still trusts Summers. And he needs to directly address the concern that he has made a mistake in surrounding himself with economic advisers who come from the very Wall Street culture that is responsible for this crisis in the first place.

One of Obama's great strengths as a campaigner and a writer was his ability to explain his thought processes. Now as president, as I've written time and again, Obama needs to do a better job of explaining how he reaches his conclusions, in particular regarding economic policy.

The White House announced to the press corps late Friday afternoon that the financial disclosure statements were available -- upon request. Both The Washington Post and the New York Times published their resulting stories inside the A section.

Both led with the Summers disclosures. Philip Rucker and Joe Stephens also noted for The Post that the forms "show that many of Obama's top aides earned generous salaries, investment income and fees for delivering speeches and serving on corporate boards."

Here's the official White House statement on Summers: "'Given that Dr. Summers is widely recognized as one of the country's most distinguished economists and formerly served as Treasury secretary, there was considerable interest in hearing his economic insights from companies across various industries,' White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said."

Jeff Zeleny noted in the New York Times: "Mr. Summers, the director of the National Economic Council, wields important influence over Mr. Obama’s policy decisions for the troubled financial industry, including firms from which he recently received payments."

The Times also Web-published several of the forms, and reports that they "also shed further light on the compensation received by a top Obama aide who previously worked for Citigroup, one of the largest recipients of taxpayer bailout money. The aide, Michael Froman, deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, received more than $7.4 million from the company from January 2008 to when he joined the White House this year.

"That money included a year-end bonus of $2.25 million for work in 2008, which Citigroup paid him in January. Such bonuses have prompted political controversy in recent months, including sharp criticism from Mr. Obama, who in January branded them as 'shameful.'"

Rucker had another story inside Sunday's Post about how some top Obama "economic advisers were paid, in some cases handsomely, for their commentaries in 2008 about tax policy, government bailouts of financial institutions, global trade and the economic recession."

But the Summers disclosure has gone largely uncommented-upon in the traditional media. Mark Seibel, blogging for the McClatchy Washington bureau, seems to be the only person asking one obvious question: "Isn't this what got Daschle in trouble?"

Indeed, Obama's good friend and would-be health czar Tom Daschle withdrew his nomination as secretary of health and human services in early February not only because of his failure to pay back taxes, but also because of the perception of a conflict caused by the (considerably fewer) millions of dollars he earned from insurers and other corporate interests.

The White House's timing somehow seems to have muffled reaction even in the blogosphere -- with at least one very notable exception.

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald calls the outsized payments Summers received for speaking engagements "basically an advanced bribe. And it's paying off in spades. And none of it seemed to bother Obama in the slightest when he first strongly considered naming Summers as Treasury Secretary and then named him his top economics adviser instead (thereby avoiding the need for Senate confirmation), knowing that Summers would exert great influence in determining who benefited from the government's response to the financial crisis....

Greenwald also writes about Summers's role, while he was Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton, in blocking regulatory reform of the kind of financial instruments that precipitated the current crisis.

"Just think about how this works. People like Rubin, Summers and Gensler shuffle back and forth from the public to the private sector and back again, repeatedly switching places with their GOP counterparts in this endless public/private sector looting. When in government, they ensure that the laws and regulations are written to redound directly to the benefit of a handful of Wall St. firms, literally abolishing all safeguards and allowing them to pillage and steal. Then, when out of government, they return to those very firms and collect millions upon millions of dollars, profits made possible by the laws and regulations they implemented when in government. Then, when their party returns to power, they return back to government, where they continue to use their influence to ensure that the oligarchical circle that rewards them so massively is protected and advanced. This corruption is so tawdry and transparent -- and it has fueled and continues to fuel a fraud so enormous and destructive as to be unprecedented in both size and audacity -- that it is mystifying that it is not provoking more mass public rage."

[Update: I somehow managed to overlook this earlier. But Louise Story writes on the front page of the New York Times today with more about Summers's job at the D. E. Shaw hedge fund, including the fact that he "worked there just one day a week...

"Mr. Summers said in an interview that his experience at Shaw... gave him valuable insight into the practical realities of Wall Street, insight he is now putting to use in shaping economic policy in the White House."

Story also notes, 11 paragraphs in: "Some of his critics worry that such ties raise questions about whether the government’s ever-changing effort to bolster the financial industry will benefit Wall Street in general, and hedge funds in particular, at the expense of taxpayers."]

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:31 AM ET, 04/ 6/2009

Tom Toles on Obama's core message to Europe, David Horsey on the European swoon, Frederick Deligne on Obama's confidence, Steve Benson on Obama and the queen, Rob Rogers on Bush at home, Nate Beeler on missile tests, Mike Keefe on Obama's Afghan orders and Garry Trudeau on the Afghan riddle.

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