Oprah, Born-Again Reaganite Supply-Sider?!

Mercifully, the Onion headline is always just a satiric poke, even if marginally so, at the state of affairs. Yes, the hyperbole is that the gravitational pull of Oprah Winfrey's media empire exceeds that of legendary publishers Joseph Pulitzer or Randolph Hearst. Sure they started wars, but Oprah can get women of America -- i.e. the country's mothers, wives, and girlfriends -- to do her bidding. Oprah's omnipresence is evidenced by the namesake show, a book club that catapults authors into instant best-sellerdom, a magazine that bears the simple but all-dominating letter of O (as if the second syllable is no longer necessary), and an iconic profile that commands the affection and loyalties of female Americans by the legion. No, Oprah's latest venture is not a new reality, but actually just another entry into an endlessly tedious genre of reality television programming in the form of The Big Give . The show just ended but can gladly be described as a welcome departure from the usual voyeuristic fare in that contestants face off in Oprah's favorite form of inverse conspicuous consumption - acts of generosity. The show doesn't lack for drama - there are petty rivalries and accusations of self-aggrandizement, but generally the show does convey the joy one can derive from simply acting on behalf of the less fortunate, or even random strangers. More importantly, the show does conveys the difficulties inherent to organizing charitable gestures, even the modest ones. Choosing suitable means, raising additional funds from wealthy individuals, designing just the right presentation that raises the recipient's morale while preserving their dignity are all tall tasks for even the most kind-hearted. Secondary to the creative acts of charity but absolutely essential to the show is the individual initiative demonstrated by the contestants, a truly diverse set, ranging from a former beauty pageant winner to a successful survivor of the dot-com boom. Each individual exhibits dedication, thoughtfulness, and, rarely seen in reality programming, true humility in the face of each challenge. In the event of a "loss" (dismissal from the show), each individual's closing comments reminds the viewer the true reward has been the memory of helping his or her fellow man, not the fleeting celebrity enjoyed by reality show contestants. Of course, the centrality of the Individual in this endeavor goes unheralded and why should one be surprised... To date, Ms. Winfrey's liberal inclinations were easily identifiable from the public profile she has maintained, but this year has marked her first major political endorsement ever -- bestowing her immense prestige on the presidential bid of Sen. Barack Obama. That Oprah is a liberal is no surprise, but when observers thought Sen. Hillary Clinton, her ally in the crusade for female empowerment, would have been her logical choice, Oprah defied expectations. Apparently, the former architect of nationalized health care, famed crusader for children, and first major credible female candidate for the White House, was too moderate for her. For Oprah, Sen. Obama, the most liberal member of the Senate according to the National Journal, is her "favorite." Obama's platform espouses universal health care (depending on which liberal one asks), higher taxes on the wealthy, the re-negotiation of NAFTA, an exit from Iraq, and a summit with the president of Iran, an avowed Holocaust-denier. Declaring this "Change We Can Believe In", this die-hard liberal has captivated a nation... and the whole-hearted support of Oprah. So whither the title of this essay? One could confidently wager Oprah Winfrey has hardly had a kind word for the fortieth president or the conservative philosophy he championed. As evidenced by her activities and newly declared political fealties, her brand of liberalism can reasonably be inferred as the liberalism of a perpetually aching heart, yearning to galvanize the consciences of all those around her to "do something" for those less fortunate. Laudable yes, but when such liberalism becomes the basis for political action, it results in nothing more than the subordination of one's well-being to that of another's. If the declaration that "something must be done" for the poor, the sick, the downtrodden, then only the degree of generosity and compassion are suitable metrics for determining the scope and intent of government. Once these standards are in place, the state is then justified in redistributing your sweat equity toward those less fortunate, even though decades of evidence shows this approach will undermine their independence and their integrity. However, her show, The Big Give, is an inspiration directly traceable to libertarian conservative principles. When the Gospel of Reagan and faith in the individual was being ratified in the early 1980s, one of the principal texts was George Gilder's Wealth and Poverty, an appraisal of economic principles unabashedly proclaiming the moral superiority of "supply-side" capitalism. Directly disputing critiques of liberals castigating libertarian economic theories as merciless and Darwinian, Gilder memorably concluded, "Capitalism begins with giving. Not from greed, avarice, or even self love can one expect the rewards of commerce, but from a spirit closely akin to altruism, a regard for the needs of others, a benevolent, outgoing, and courageous temper of mind."
Unfortunately, liberals instead mistakenly conclude the inability of capitalism -- this celebration of wealth as a competition of giving -- to alleviate ALL poverty, ALL pain, ALL misery as the failings of the individual, or more specifically individuals who are "rich, " "excessively compensated," "benefiting from the outsourcing of jobs," "profiting from soaring gas prices," or "forsaking their commitment to the environment." Where libertarians recognize challenges waiting for the solutions of creative individuals, liberals see injustices in demand of government restitution. Consider global poverty. Liberals demand debt forgiveness and unconditional foreign aid, yet it has been the power of microcredit, a completely self-initiated enterprise, that has achieved greater gains, empowering the working poor while preserving their dignity. Consider New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. The incompetence was inexcusable, but so is the sanctimony with which liberals railed against WalMart for a variety of reasons, all the while it proved one of the more capable private entities in responding to the crisis. Moreover, liberals roundly condemn the Bush Administration, but never before the tragedy did anyone call the the quirky yet utterly corrupt culture to account or the city's failure to grow during the roaring 90s.
The Big Give, whether or not Ms. Winfrey realizes it, is that rare achievement -- a demonstration of capitalism at its best. Perhaps, this unintentional accomplishment is Ms. Winfrey's Big Gift to us all.

Why Did Al-Maliki Order the Attack?

On March 25th, the Government of Iraq (GOI) launched an offensive against the Shiite Mahdi Army militia under the command of radical cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr. Six days of intense fighting later, al-Sadr directed the militia to stand down; his order instructed fighters to cooperate with GOI forces, but did not accede to the government’s demand to surrender their weapons. Roundly perceived as ineffective and unwilling to confront the Mahdi Army and like militias, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki surprised many observers with this initiative. Prime Minister al-Maliki himself arrived at the frontlines in Basra to oversee operations led by the fledgling Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). While the ISF initially relied on US and British air forces for reconnaissance, Mahdi Army resistance was more robust than anticipated and eventually, US and British ground forces participated as well. The ceasefire was accomplished under the auspices of Iran, specifically the commander of the al-Quds Brigade, an organization categorized as terrorist by the US government and closely tied to the Mahdi Army and other paramilitary “special groups” operating beyond the reach of the GOI.

While the conclusion and consequences of the fighting are fairly plain to the general observer, the circumstances surrounding the initiation of the operation remain mysterious. According to reliable news reporting, US commanders only learned about the operation 48 hours before it commenced. One of the more plausible theories depicts the operation as a calculated strike by al-Maliki to strengthen the faction of fellow Shiite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim in his contest for Shia loyalties against the more thuggish al-Sadr. Nonetheless, al-Maliki’s true motivations behind the assault remain murky.

As the mediator, Iran has again gained prestige at the expense of the Americans. Indeed, commentators routinely note the primary beneficiary of the US invasion of Iraq has been Iran, and not American interests. Furthermore, in yesterday and today’s testimony to Congress, Gen. David Petraeus has identified Iran as the premiere threat to the stability of Iraq. With the removal of Saddam Hussein and the Sunni power elite, Shiite Muslims, co-religionists to neighboring Iran, have assumed the leadership of the country, but divisions do exist variously among the secularists, religious conservatives, and outright militants. Iran has extended assistance broadly and has established strong relationships with each of the Shiite factions. Iran had provided sanctuary to much of the present government leadership when they had been in exile during Hussein’s regime and now delivers considerable covert assistance to radical militias in southern Iraq in two key forms. First, the steady supply of money and weapons has sustained their fight against the central government and US forces in the country. Second, Iranian agents have helped al-Sadr emulate the example of Hezbollah in Lebanon, by establishing a state within a state in defiance of US efforts to craft a more cohesive Iraq.

Equally important, bilateral relations between Iran and Iraq have never been better. Just this past March, hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran completed a landmark visit to its former nemesis, the first visit by an Iranian president since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Tehran. Ahmadinejad held talks with al-Maliki, al-Hakim, and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. In a stark and obvious contrast to visits by al-Maliki’s erstwhile ally, President Bush, Ahmadinejad was able to travel around the country unencumbered by security cordons. Iraq is now Iran’s second largest non-oil export market and ambitious joint infrastructure and development projects are in the works.

If Iran is poised to accrue significant advantages via normal bilateral relations (to the likely detriment of the United States) in an increasingly stabilized Iraq, then why are Iranians gambling on rogue clerics and mafia-like militias? Consider the following:

  1. Iranian oil has indeed become more valuable since the US’s un-sanctioned war in the Middle East prompted China to aggressively pursue its own energy agenda, ultimately raising global demand and prices. Moreover, all consumers now pay a “security premium” as every spike in regional violence unnerves oil traders world-wide. But buttressing the disruptive efforts of Shia gangs in the Basra region is short-sighted and counter-productive; China is indicative of long-term demand growth – the security premium is marginal in this calculation.

  2. The Iranian theocratic leadership may fear greater fealty for the more esteemed Shiite scholars in Iraq, but no how much money and materiel Iran provides al-Sadr, he will never supplant Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as a revered Shia leader in the near term. Furthermore, the leading candidate to succeed al-Sistani is Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayadh, an ally and theologian in the mold of al-Sistani.

  3. Finally, the greatest fear has always been that the former guests of the Iranian regime now in power in Baghdad will invariably tilt east when the country is finally pacified and free of US troops.

So, again, what explains Iran’s dual course in Iraq?

Perhaps one explanation is the realization that US gains against Al Qaeda and reconciliation with Sunni insurgents have diminished Iranian attempts to co-opt the American sponsorship of the Iraqi leadership. If the US conception of a bottom-up, regionalized Iraq gains traction whereby the authority of the Iranian-allied Shiite central government is limited, then Iran will have missed an unmatched opportunity to achieve a tremendously advantaged position in the region. Where previously unbearable sectarian violence made neighboring Iran an attractive ally, an increasingly peaceful Iraq leaves al-Sadr and his ilk as cruel reminders of Iranian treachery. Accordingly, the only option is to support al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army so Iran can at least replicate the leverage gained by its sponsorship of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.

Alternatively, perhaps Iran is closely monitoring the course of the US presidential election. A review of major US political news will inevitably include commentary on how the divisive Democratic race has provided Republican John McCain, an ardent war supporter, with an immense opportunity to prepare for the November election. A McCain presidency may be feared by Iran as a continuation of US forces in Iraq and certain confrontation over their covert nuclear weapons program. Again, with Al Qaeda increasingly marginalized, the primary means of perpetuating the violence so despised by American voters falls to Iranian-supported militias. By encouraging al-Sadr (knowing full well the Madhi Army was well poised to fight the ISF to a stalemate), Iran ensures continued factional violence and, unfortunately, more American deaths, which undercuts the prospects for the McCain candidacy. If McCain loses, Iran is probably calculating the new Democratic president will begin the withdrawal of US forces. Given Sen. Barack Obama’s readiness to meet with Ahmadinejad, dialing up the violence in the lead up to the vote provides additional incentive for Iranians to aggravate the situation.

Finally, as an exercise in complete speculation, contemplate the following. Divining the outlook of the Iranian leadership recalls the challenge of deciphering the machinations of the old Soviet Politburo. However opaque the decision-making process may be, evidence is accumulating there are divisions among the leadership. Hard-line conservatives may have triumphed over the reformers by securing the election of Ahmadinejad, but his disastrous economic policies and bombast on the international stage has incurred the displeasure of Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the true authority in Iran.

While open factional fighting has not yet occurred in Iran (except on the part of disgruntled reformist elements), perhaps the recent fighting between Iraqi Shia factions signals a increasingly tense proxy clash between opposing elements in the Iranian leadership.

What if Ahmadinejad’s frustrations with theocrats undercutting his authority in Iran led him to advise al-Maliki during the summit earlier this month that the time was ripe for a surprise strike against the Sadrist militia, closely allied with Ahmadinejad’s enemies back in Teheran. Ahmadinejad may have not had any special knowledge of Mahdi Army vulnerabilities, but estimated an unexpected attack might secure gains against the militia and thus strengthen his hand vis-à-vis al-Sadr’s patrons.

Otherwise, no other explanations, events or trends have qualified as plausible explanations for al-Maliki’s sudden urge to take on the Mahdi Army, so encouragement from Ahmadinejad remains reasonable.

True, American counterinsurgency efforts have provided adequate space for the fragile Iraqi government to gird itself for battle, but the US has primarily leaned on al-Maliki to achieve political reconciliation, not security. The most significant intervening events in the Iran-Iraq-US triangle have been the December 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate, which dramatically undercut any belligerent talk on the part of the US against Iran, and Ahmadinejad’s historic visit in March. Indeed, at the joint press conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Ahmadinejad stated a “united, powerful, and developed Iraq is in the interests of the entire region,” a declaration in stark contrast to the role played by Iranian covert operations in league with the Madhi Army.

American counters to Iranian maneuvers are limited. Iranian covert support to the Madhi Army and the special groups is detectable but difficult to deter or prevent. The experience of the Israeli assault against Hezbollah last year and putting down the infitada in the past are stark warnings to those would suggest a unrestricted move against Iraqi militias and their Iranian handlers. If the first two hypotheses are on the mark, then the current course of action -- well-resourced and methodical counterinsurgency operations -- should be sustainted. If the last scenario is the case, then America's path is less certain.

At a minimum, American intelligence activities, both human and signals, have hopefully been augmented. Furthermore, collaboration with the Russians and Chinese is not implausible. Their relationships with Iran have been essentially opportunistic -- the PRC has already provided intelligence on the Iranian covert nuclear weapons program.

If divisions are to be exploited, then perhaps the Bush Administration and Sen. John McCain should seriously re-consider the option of re-establishing relations. A tight embrace, short of presidential summitry and under the auspices of an administration credible on national security, could enhance diplomatic, commercial, and intelligence insights. Ultimately, relations would be an advantage to the US, not Iran -- no matter the perception to observers. If divisions are minimal to non-existent, a Bush or McCain initiative could credibly be reversed by citing Iranian intransigence in Iraq, the Gulf, or in regard to transparency of its nuclear weapons program. An accommodationist approach of an Obama Administration would lack the flexibility.