Friday, December 24, 2004

The Invisible Man and the Hidden Agenda, Part I

The Invisible Man

At its annual convention in June 2000, a controversial Muslim organization, the American Muslim Council, presided over by Abdurahman Alamoudi (we will get to him shortly), presented one of three awards for service to the Muslim community to Grover Norquist. Mr. Norquist is the head of the anti-tax organization Americans For Tax Reform, and an admittedly avid right wing, ultra conservative. Over the years, he has become one of the most dominant and influential Republicans in Washington with some maintaining he is second only to Karl Rove, President Bush’s chief political advisor, in terms of his power to create, influence and help implement fundamental conservative policy decisions. Despite his celebrity and prominence amongst fellow conservatives, most Americans have never heard of Grover Norquist, thus the "Invisible Man" appellation.

Mr. Norquist, with degrees from both Harvard College and Harvard Business School, while still a young man in 1981, first made a name for himself, as executive director of The College Republican National Committee. According to that organization’s website, while in that position, "he oversaw the transformation of the committee into a conservative grassroots powerhouse for the Reagan administration." It was also during that early period that he met and developed friendships with many of the conservatives serving in today’s Republican Party, including a close relationship with Karl Rove. He has also established a literal "seat of power" within Washington.

Here is a description of his activities as described in the September 6, 2004 issue of The New Republic: " In the early 90’s however, Norquist took the lead in combining these organizations [such as the Christian Right, the Moral Majority, the National Rifle Association, and anti-abortion groups] into a functional coalition. In 1993, he brought together representatives of anti-tax property rights, second Amendment, Christian conservatives, and other groups that wanted to see the Clinton administration fail. Norquist initially called the assemblage the "leave-it-alone" coalition. Later it became the "center-right-coalition." With the Republican capture of congress in 1994, Norquist, working closely with Gingrich, Armey and DeLay, pressured the Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business to send representatives to the meetings. Norquist’s coalition has now grown to several hundred groups and meets separately in 46 states as well as in Washington." The article sums up, "Norquist’s coalition represents the triumph of Southern conservative ideology. The participants at the meetings combine the economic individualism of the property rights and anti-tax movement with the social conservatism of the religious right." Because the meetings are "by invitation only", they have become the hottest ticket and most sought after gathering in Washington since attendance implies acceptance into a most eminent and singular group—not to mention the implied influence, and networking potential.

According to the magazine Mother Jones, the hundred or so attending these weekly meetings are the conservative Republican power elite—"lobbyists, congressmen, senior White House and Senate staffers, industry leaders and right wing policy wonks." Usually, seated next to Norquist (who acts as master of ceremonies) is Khalel Saffuri, who in 1998 left the position of lobbyist and deputy director for the American Muslim Council, to help Norquist establish an organization known as The Islamic Institute. Although this move by Norquist may sound a bit strange and off key, as the saying goes, "there was a method to this madness." It illustrates Norquist’s genius for organization and is a testimony to his inventive abilities. He sensed that by creating an organization of this nature, he could develop a nation-wide alliance with prominent Muslims, who, impressed with his close ties to the White House, would form a Republican voting bloc. As a further incentive to Muslim groups, he intimated that their support for Republicans could alter U.S. policy in the Middle East.

In order to accomplish his primary goal of inducing American Muslims to vote for Republicans—aiming specifically for the presidential elections of 2000—Norquist sought seed money to fund his new venture. He turned to a prominent Muslim named Abdurhaman Alamoudi, the prime mover behind the American Muslim Council, the American Muslim foundation, and a number of other U.S. based Islamist sympathizing/supporting organizations.

Alahmoudi provided two $10,000 checks to Norquist and subsequently paid $50,000 to his lobbying firm, Janus Merrit Strategies. A Washington Post article maintains that Norquist’s Islamic Institute also received funding from "a secretive group of tightly connected Muslim charities and businesses based in Northern Virginia [and] used to funnel millions of dollars to terrorists and launder millions more—a number who are currently part of "the largest federal investigation of terrorist financing in the world."

Norquist and Saffuri assiduously (and according to Norquist, successfully) courted Muslims into the Republican fold. Norquist actually stated that the Muslim vote won the election for Bush in 2000, although the numbers he quotes are widely disputed. For example, Michigan, the state with the largest Muslim population voted for Clinton. Nevertheless, according to The New Republic, "Norquist quickly set about turning that supposed electoral influence into legislative influence. Soon, Saffuri began regularly appearing at the White House accompanying imams and heads of Islamic organizations to discuss faith based initiatives and concerns about law enforcement persecution of Muslims." Norquists’s close relationship to Karl Rove seemed to be paying off.

It wasn’t until after 9/11 that suspicions arose regarding the true function of many of these Muslims and their organizations that were being welcomed by the White House and other Republican officials—all facilitated by Norquist’s recommendations. In addition, Norquist had lobbied for the appointment of one Suhail Khan to a White House position where Khan helped Muslim outreach. Norquist became visibly upset when it was discovered that Khan’s father, a prominent West Coast cleric had twice hosted an al-Qaida operative, and Khan was ousted. However, the real controversy over Norquist’s relationships began to simmer over the questionable activities of two organizations including Alhamoudi’s American Muslim Council. The other was the Council On American Islamic Relation (CAIR). Both claim to represent the interests of American Muslims, but now have been sharply criticized for supporting terrorists organizations like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and al-Qaida. According to the Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, both represent the "extremist Saudi, Wahabi brand of Islam" that views jihad against Western civilization as a primary goal of Islam. Yet, both organizations received numerous audiences in the White House since September 11th.

As late as December 2000, CAIR continued to publicly claim that the September 11 attacks were implemented by Israel. Working with the American Muslim Council, as well as the Islamic Institute, was Sami Al Aram, the president of The National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom (NCPPF). That name should be familiar to most Floridians. He was the now infamous professor at the University of South Florida, who while under suspicion for some time for advocating radical Islamist concepts, and accused by some of being a terrorist, was not immediately fired, but was ultimately suspended. Before his suspension, Aram did gain access to President Bush, primarily as a result of Norquist’s intervention, as well as Aram’s close association with the AMC. Once again, Norquist’s faith was shattered and his judgment certainly faulted, when Aram was finally charged and indicted as such in July, 2004.

In the past, when Norquist was questioned or confronted about the dubious nature and background of many of the individuals or organizations he advocated, he would accuse his critics of bigotry and prejudice against Muslims. Like others of his ilk, he could not, or would not admit mistakes. Does that sound familiar? However, topping Al-Aram’s indictment was the arrest of his original benefactor, Abdurhaman Alamoudi. On October 15th, 2003. Alahmoudi was sentenced to a maximum penalty of 23 years in prison. After pleading guilty to immigration fraud and illegal business dealings with Libya, as part of his guilty plea, he acknowledged taking part in an unsuccessful Libyan plot to assassinate Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The New York Times stated that Alahmoudi, "As president of the American Muslim Foundation had extensive access to senior United States government officials [obviously thanks to Grover Norquist] and contacts among prominent Muslims across the country."

There was no mention of the award Alahmoudi made to Grover Norquist four years ago; no indication that he helped found Norquist’s Islamic Institute; nothing relating to Alahmoudi's former deputy being head of that organization. I can find no recent articles commenting on whether Grover Norquist’s reputation has been sullied because of these new revelations. In fact, I can find no recent articles that even mention the name Grover Norquist. Is there some kind of conspiracy that deliberately shields him (and his Bush/Grove relationship) from criticism for insinuating fundamental Islamists into the very heart of the U.S. government, in fact into the very top echelon?

While Grover Norquist apparently still presides as the virtual Washington king of right wing conservatism at his weekly meetings, paradoxically, he remains the Invisible Man.

Part II gets to the financial implication of Norquist’s influential role as a tax hating radical—a role he cherishes.

The Invisible Man and the Hidden Agenda, Part II

With the re-election of George W. Bush and the strengthening of the Republican Party's hold on Congress, this article takes on increasing relevance-as does the influence and power wielded by the subject of Part I of this series, Grover Norquist.

In a recent book by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber titled, Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing Is Turning America Into a One-Party State, the authors comment on the highly effective political organizing strategy of the conservative coalition that brought the Bush administration to power [again]. The authors reflect that the Republican Party's hard right views politics as literally a "war by other means" and point out that figures such as conservative activist David Horowitz, House majority leader Tom DeLay, and Bush advisor Karl Rove have promoted this philosophy. Horowitz coined the above phrase. He also states, "In political warfare you do not fight just to prevail in an argument, but to destroy the enemy's fighting ability…In political wars, the aggressor usually prevails…You cannot cripple an opponent by outwitting him in political debate…You can do it only by following Lenin's injunction: 'In political conflicts, the goal is not to refute your opponent's argument, but to wipe him from the face of the earth.'"

It is ironic that a political party supposedly composed of ultra patriots would fall back on a failed and discredited form of government (Communism) to provide the means by which to conduct a successful political campaign. Yet, it would seem that Lenin's statement does indeed resonate with the strategy that won the recent election for the Republicans. It is, therefore, not too surprising to learn that The Wall Street Journal calls Grover Norquist "the Lenin of the Republican Party." In fact, it has been written that Norquist has a large portrait of Lenin hanging in his living room, and he has called himself a "market Leninist."

It is equally ironic and most puzzling that despite Norquist's close association with, and strong advocacy for, several radical Muslim activists (now in jail or awaiting trial), and his strong support for a number of highly problematic fundamentalist Muslim organizations, his reputation has remained intact. Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan Defense Department official, a long time friend of Norquist and now a well known conservative columnist (whose Center for Security Policy organization was once housed in Norquist's offices), wrote a scathing diatribe a year ago criticizing Norquist's close ties to radical Islamists. Observing the fact that Norquist was emerging from a most sordid situation unscathed, he cited as a prime example that, "At a black tie dinner on November 5th, 2003, nearly 300 conservative activists and politicians gathered at Washington's Mayflower Hotel to recognize a prominent fixture in their community: tax-advocate and conservative coalition-builder Grover Norquist." Gaffney went on to say, "Most in the audience were surely unaware that the effect of their tribute-if not its organizers' intended purpose-was to provide urgently needed political cover for a man who has been active on another, far less laudable, and in fact, deeply problematic front: enabling a political influence operation to advance the causes of radical Islamists, and targeted most particularly at the Bush administration."

It is important to understand and appreciate Norquist's position and the enormous influence and authority he commands as one of the foremost architects of the Republican Party's plans and objectives. Some call him the "field marshal" of the Republican Party. (It is also mystifying that despite his celebrity status within the top levels of the Party, he is still virtually unknown to the general public. Thus the appellation of "Invisible Man.") His primary goal (unfamiliar to and ignored by all but his close associates) can be best summed up in his own words: "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty five years, to get it down to size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

Norquist, using his tax free organization Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) as a base of operations, freely admits he wants to abolish not only most agencies of the federal government such as the Internal Revenue Service, the Food and Drug Administration, the Education Department, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He also seeks to emasculate institutions that serve as a safety net against economic misfortune for most Americans, like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

E.J. Devine, a columnist for The Washington Post writes, "What would President Bush do with a second term? Let's take him at his word. Bush is engaged in a bold (and if you disagree with him, a dangerous) project to dismantle the social advances of the New and Fair Deals, the New Frontier, and the Great Society. He wants to throw more risk on the individual, free corporations and employees from regulation that protects employees and consumers, and reduce the government's role in providing retirement security."

To accomplish these goals, Norquist has already begun to implement a strategy first described and named by David Stockman, President Reagan's Director of the Office of Management and Budget. The process is termed "starving the beast"- the beast in this case being the federal government. Mr. Norquist obviously agrees with Milton Friedman, one of the world's most accomplished economists, who has stated that the most effective method to limit the size of government is to reduce revenue, and the best way to accomplish this is to lower taxes. His simplistic example states, "I believe there is one and only one way parents control spendthrift children, cutting their allowance. For government, that means cutting taxes." (What Norquist has ignored is Friedman's adjunct that, "A long term tax cut isn't a long term tax cut at all unless it's accompanied by a long term spending cut. It's essentially a deferred tax increase on the future.") Norquist's zeal for cutting taxes is closely related to his real goal of reducing the size of government. Here is how he rationalizes his position: "Every time you cut programs, you take away a person who has a vested interest in high taxes and you put him on the tax rolls and make him a taxpayer. A farmer on subsidies is part welfare bum, whereas a free-market farmer is a small businessman with a gun." Norquist visualizes the "ideal citizen" as a "self-employed, home schooling, IRA owning guy with a concealed-carry permit [who] doesn't need the goddamn government for anything." On a more academic basis, Norquist explains his theories as follows: "The economic goal is to reduce the tax rate on labor and capital and reduce the disincentives to savings, investment and work."

While there is substance to these beliefs, the larger question is, to what degree is the American public willing to see traditionally accepted, federally sponsored programs, institutions, and activities reduced or eliminated in order to accommodate significantly lower taxes? For that matter, can the public be sold on a complete restructuring of the entire tax system, probably through some sort of a flat tax or a consumption tax? Based on strong inferences from the newly elected administration, these changes are under way.

In order to solidify the doctrine of tax minimization/elimination, and as further evidence of his influence and power, Norquist developed the idea of a "Taxpayer Protection Pledge." The pledge requires signers to oppose all income tax increases and cuts in deductions that are not offset by declines in marginal tax rates. (Note that a concomitant agreement to limit spending by the same amount of money lost to tax revenue declines that result from tax cuts is not included in the pledge.) As further evidence of Norquist's power, not only has President Bush signed this pledge, but by now, it is probable that the majority of the members of both the House and the Senate have also done so. Brookings Institute scholar, William Gale, contends that the pledge "adapts a 'starve the beast' approach to controlling federal finances-attempting to cut off revenue increases as a way of forcing reductions in spending.

Then there is the "lucky ducky" argument. Here is how Paul Krugman, the (admittedly liberal) Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University, described this debate in The New York Times over a year ago in an op-ed piece titled "The Tax Cut Con": "to starve the beast, you must make voters hate the government. There's a danger that working class families might see government as their friend: because their income is low, they don't pay much in taxes, while they benefit from public spending. So, in starving the beast, you must take care not to cut taxes on these 'lucky duckies.' (Yes, that's what The Wall Street Journal called them in a famous editorial). In fact, if possible, you must raise taxes on working class Americans in order, as The Journal said, to get their blood boiling with rage." (Do you sense echoes of Lenin here?)

Consider this evidence: Every piece of tax reduction legislation so far enacted by this administration, plus others that are projected, acts as a revenue inhibitor; the administration's disregard for the enormous current budget deficits and the apparent willingness to accept what many consider to be catastrophic future deficits; the eagerness to adopt every piece of spending legislation without a single presidential veto even being threatened; and Vice President Cheney's statement than "deficits don't matter"-every one of these factors could be considered a tactical move to achieve the strategic goal of a "starve the beast" doctrine.

Mr. Norquist is a man of great conviction, at least when it comes to tax policy. (You can form your own opinion regarding the level of his principles based on his efforts on behalf of radical Muslims.) He certainly is entitled to his opinions and he must be admired for his forthrightness in stating his case. Assuming the above conclusions are correct, less admirable, however, is the failure of the Bush administration to acknowledge the existence of, and the efforts to, implement the "starve the beast" doctrine. The closest it has come to publicly recognizing its policy implications was in August 2001. At that time, President Bush referred to the huge budget surplus that was clearly vanishing as "incredibly positive news" because it would put Congress in a "fiscal straight jacket."

Many believe in the principle of a "small government" that infringes to a minimum degree on the individual and his/her affairs. As do all Americans, this element of society has a perfect right to promote and advocate their cause. However, the question must be asked whether a sitting administration has the justification to embrace what many (perhaps most) would consider to be a radical doctrine, promote and enact legislation to advance that doctrine, but then conceal the ultimate goal from the American public. Is this what the Bush administration has been doing? Has it adopted the "starve the beast" doctrine as a hidden agenda and kept it a secret for the past four years? If so, shouldn't a radical strategy of this nature be the subject of debate?

Grover Norquist who, if not the creator of the concept, appears to be (within the top echelon of the Republican Party) the facilitating architect of the starve the beast doctrine, and therein lies the convergence of the invisible man and the hidden agenda.