Daniel L. Feldman

Tough Ones: WikiLeaks and the Obama Tax Compromise

In National Politics on December 13, 2010 at 11:20 pm

I like to offer strong opinions. The present offering is late because I have struggled with two difficult issues the past few weeks: the WikiLeaks drama and President Obama’s compromise with the Republicans.

Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1973. He earned the enmity of Richard Nixon and the admiration of much of my generation for exposing the lies behind the continuation of the war in Vietnam.  He now argues that the Army private who leaked the State Department diplomatic records to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks deserves the same gratitude he, Ellsberg, ultimately engendered.

I am not so sure. Ellsberg’s information targeted a particular problem, using fact to undermine a fraudulent argument. The WikiLeaks documents span the range of world diplomacy. Rather than attacking a specific argument, they embarrass diplomats by exposing their efforts to influence other diplomats, when they would not have undertaken those efforts had they known they would be publicized. For example, Saudi or Yemeni government officials would probably have been afraid to let the citizens of their countries know that they offered certain kinds of assistance or encouragement to the United States. Putin and Berlusconi were no doubt unhappy that their constituents became privy to their warm personal relationship. U.S. diplomats were surely unhappy that the kind words they extended to officials of other nations – essential to the maintenance of important working relationships – were not consistent with what they thought were private assessments of those officials.

Perhaps history will prove me wrong and Assange right, but I do not believe that every aspect of government benefits from sunlight. As Brandeis said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” but certain cellular organisms play useful and positive roles. Don’t be so anxious to kill the yeast, at least until the bread is baked. Policy decisions should be public, but the process of getting there, especially in our international dealings, need not always be.

Like many Democrats I am deeply troubled by Obama’s December deal with the Republicans. Assuming the House goes along with it, they got a continuation of the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires for two more years. They also got a restoration of the estate tax at 35% instead of 45%; and for estates of over $5 million instead of for estates of over $3.5 million. “We” got 13 more months of benefits for the unemployed and cuts in payroll taxes for Social Security.  Surely there is some merit to Obama’s argument that the need to avoid severe suffering among the unemployed, and the benefits of the tax cuts to all but the wealthy, required this deal. But real leadership can require the imposition of great pain even on especially vulnerable parts of the citizenry. Obama is willing to send troops to Afghanistan, to certain death for many of them, for a longer-term objective (which I question). Was it so unthinkable to risk the loss of the unemployment benefit extension in order to stand up to Republican extortion?

I don’t know that I am right. But I think I am.

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