Archive for June 2009

Five To Four

June 30, 2009

The Supreme Court issued a ruling yesterday, striking down a lower court decision, that favored New Haven’s action to throw out a civil service test as grounds promotion in their fire department. The merits of the case appear to me as very complex and questionable depending upon what responsibilities one assigns to the City and the creators of the promotion rules. Affirmative action and reverse discrimination can not stand alone as clearly right or wrong without a full discussion of the overall context.

The Supreme Court’s decision, however, underscored the sharp divide that exists on the Court, and that a majority decision may carry more meaning ideologically than as a pure example of legal work. Justice Kennedy is a bit of an odd ball and seems to enjoy hearing himself speak. The remainder of the 5 Justice majority (Roberts, Scalia, Alito, and Thomas) are as predictable as a Swiss watch. In America today, this majority represents a minority of Americans.

Our system of appointing Supreme Court Justices is clear and the rules of the game indicate that a straight vote is all that is necessary for a Court ruling. While there are many who hailed the New Haven decision, and would see it as justice in the works, there are even more who question it. The message here is that Congress and State legislatures must do a better jobs of enacting laws that are Constitutional and can be decided clearly at the lower level, and not depend upon the Supreme Court for legal opinions.

Don’t Go Jimmy Carter

June 29, 2009

President Jimmy Carter was certainly one of the best intentioned Presidents but as a leader and commander in chief, he was a bust. Carter tried to fix everything and ended up fixing almost nothing while watching the economy go sour. It is very important that President Obama find a way to step away from the whirlwind he has found himself in since his inauguration. The critical issues he inherited as well as the noble goals he has set for his Administration require constant involvement but do not require constant fixing.

President Obama has a competent staff and team of advisors who are quite capable of “fixing” the issue of the day. Be it Iraq or Afghanistan, or the banks or GM. With so many issues with short time lines, President Obama and his team could easily get thinking this is real life and the President’s job is to go from fire to fire and put them out. The real job of President is to see that there are others who mostly prevent fires but are skilled and ready to put them out if they ignite.

A young and vigorous Barack Obama may be tempted to seek the spot light or accept his staff’s recommendation that he do this or that. He needs, however, the insight to ask Secretary of State Clinton or Secretary of Defense Gates to speak about Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan. He needs Secretary Sebelius to speak about health care and others to pick up the baton over GM, immigration, energy, and clean air. His gift should be the behind the scenes dialog with these officials to ensure there is a longer term vision, sensible strategies to achieve the vision, and specific measurable tactics to proceed. Obama needs to see how all these fit together and that they are consistent.

The 24/7 news cycles, however, prefer a strong President who hogs the limelight. They prefer sensational stories and the opportunity to show the President is wrong. This will sell more newspapers and achieve higher audience ratings. The principle role of the President is leadership and not problem solving. President Obama, don’t go Jimmy Carter.

Who’s Fooling Who?

June 28, 2009

Iran is a country that most Americans do not and probably can not understand. Its form of government is unlike what we know in America. Its religion is both different and its practices, especially towards women, strange and unfamiliar when compared to America as a whole. Iran is not an Arab country yet it is the force behind Hezbollah and Hamas, and a firm supporter of the Shiite majority in Iraq. The Iranian economy is struggling on top of all this.  If this were not enough to try to understand, Iran is also pursuing the costly development of nuclear weapons and one wonders why?

It is normal in the US for the government and the press to paint foreign countries and their leaders either wearing a white hat (for good guy) or a black hat (for a bad hombre). George W Bush had no trouble coloring Iran’s hat dark black. Iran was a member of the exclusive “axis of evil” club and everything Iran said or did was unacceptable. Assuming everything Bush said was true, his rhetoric and policies towards Iran did nothing to improve relations or to bring about “regime change”.

Barack Obama campaigned on a different approach promising to open dialog with the Iranians. In 6 short months, he has changed his approach and one is left to wonder why?

Lecturing Iran from far across the Atlantic Ocean is like speaking into an empty barrel.  Lecturing Iran on its internal affairs is a turn off for Russia and China whose help with surely be needed.  The Iranian government is, also, well established, and no amount of American rhetoric will cause them to sway. There is no better example of futility than to criticize a country that is not listening and does not accept your views anyways.

President Obama’s change of heart towards Iran most likely reflects intense debate within the White House. The political advisors probably worried about Obama appearing too soft or indecisive. The AIPAC supporters are preoccupied with Iran’s potential for nuclear weapons and want the US on a war footing, and not just in case. The Saudis probably saw the early positive overtures towards Iran as dangerous and potentially helping the current Shiite regime to maintain power.

Strangely the Middle East (along with Russia and China) were more comfortable with the Bush/Cheney approach. It was clear and unambiguous. It was also dead wrong and would have lead to things getting much worse in a lot of other places because Bush/Cheney were playing a one note symphony.

The damage has been done.  Obama has stepped down from the high road.   No amount of words today will recapture the chance Obama had and used initially towards Iran. It is better now for him to speak of other matters and let the dust settle. The Iranian fundamentals will not change. The country’s demographics favor young people and they want more than they are getting. The Ayatollahs are enjoying their prosperity and are not anxious to give it up (read bargaining chips). The Revolutionary Guard is getting old and is unable to deal with economic shortages (including the lack of refinery capacity) that every day people are complaining about.

What is needed now is quiet, behind the scenes, diplomacy. It is in the US national interest that Iran cease interfering in Lebanon, Iraq, and supporting Hamas. It is also in US interest that Iran stop the development of nuclear weapons and for sure, do not spread the know-how to other less sophisticated states.  (It is not necessary for regime change if measured in only America’s nation interest).  But what does Iran want? And how will we ever know if we do not speak with them.

Already President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has begun to escalate his rhetoric showing his conservative colleagues he can be tougher than President Obama. The question is “who is fooling who”?

Definitely Wrong

June 27, 2009

The Washington Post is reporting that the Obama Administration is drafting an executive order that will allow “indefinite detentions” of about 90 detainees already held at the Guantanamo Detention Facility. This is shameful and a betrayal of America’s core legal values.

The alleged executive order targets detainees that are viewed as the “worst of the worst”.  They are detainees where trial, release, or transfer to another country is out of the question. What, trial is out of the question? How can that be?

The Obama Administration is caught in a quandary. If they follow the course of a fair trial (one that you and I would recognize), they fear their cases against these “worst of the worst” would be thrown out. Why?  For some detainees, evidence was obtained using forced interrogation methods (some call torture). For others who were detained initially by other countries, the problem is hearsay compounded by torture in those countries. The point of this is that the evidence against these “worst of the worst” we can not be sure about since the evidence is questionable. Would you consent to a trial where your minister could give testimony that he heard from an unnamed source that you did X or Y?

I am personally ready to accept that these “worst of the worst” are pretty bad people, and most likely guilty of what they are thought to have done. I am not ready, however, to throw out one of the lynch pins of American justice. Indefinite detention is like pregnancy, you can’t be only a little bit pregnant.

These “worst of the worst” are a mere drop in the bucket of people whose views we do not share, who are ready to commit on a moments notice heinous crimes, and who view the United States as the source of a lot that is wrong in the world. There are not enough prisons to hold all these people nor is there enough time to see the end of the development of new anti-American people.  Think about the leaders of North Korea, Burma, Iran, or Somalia to name a few?  Indefinite detention is simply a foolish idea.

The American judicial system, while not perfect, is not a foolish idea and far more necessary for a country that has long held “freedom of speech” as core to our democracy. The slippery slope that would follow Government acquiescence to this use of indefinite detention would surely lead to other curtailments of our civil liberties.  It is only a short step to label someone protesting poverty or any government action (or lack of action) as anti-american and a potential terrorist. Locking this person behind bars indefinitely would be on the slippery slope.

It is time to face the truth. Put these detainees on trial. Let the chips fall where they may, but rest assured that the American value for a fair and open justice system has been preserved, and with it, our individual liberties.

Big Picture

June 26, 2009

We have a lot of data thanks to the 24/7 news cycle. At times we receive a lot of analysis on each piece of data.  But when one stops and thinks, one wonders what it is all about?  What we are missing is an understandable summary, sort of a “big picture” of how all this information fits together.

For example the overtures towards Russia and China are related to finding a stable way out of Iraq and Afghanistan, not a sign of weakness. Diplomatic openings with Iran and Syria are related to finding a peaceful solution for the Israeli-Palestinian situation, not an endorsement for those countries style of governance.   And all this will enable the lowering of costs we experience each year in funding a Defense Department budget that is as large as all other countries combined. Cap and trade is part of a multi-step effort to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels which in tern will gradually lessen our interest in Middle East politics. Health care reform must include the inevitable need to find a means to afford reasonable life expectancy among the top tier of first rate countries. Education emphasis underscores the need to move the American work force up the cost competitiveness curve with global competition.

In the future world (which is already at our doorsteps), America will need to remain economically strong driven by actual value creation. It must also remain militarily strong since the rest of the global community will not be sitting still. We must accomplish this a lot smarter than we are doing now.  Investments in alternate energy sources, greater skill in diplomacy (including foreign language proficiency), an education system with a bias for math, science, and engineering, and a return to the belief in “pay as you go” will place America in a position where one could reasonably expect his children to have as good or better life expectancy as they had enjoyed.

This may seem like a new thought but unrealistic. Wrong. While the United States may be the most powerful country in the world, we have everyday evidence that US objectives can not be attained simply by use of force, and are going broke in the process.   Medical care is reasonably good for most Americans but there are about 50 million who do not share in this luxury, not to mention the amazing low position America has on the world life expectancy ratings. College and Universities are plentiful but are turning out graduating class after class that can not find employment and when they do, they are deep in debt and lacking in good earning skills. All these pieces fit together and will unlock the puzzle facing America. The next generation has once again been given a lead versus all other countries. If President Obama is able to put these pieces in place, our children and theirs, will have a real chance to pass this gift onto their children.

What Is A Conservative?

June 25, 2009

Like a broken record, right wingers and Republican politicians proclaim themselves to be “conservative” as if that is good medicine. When asked what do they stand for, they reply consistently, “I’m strong on defense, fiscal responsibility, and solid conservative values, You know values like marriage (to the opposite sex), family, and my moral (religious) beliefs”. Yesterday we saw another conservative before the cameras.

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford got his 15 plus minutes of fame yesterday standing before a hurried news conference babbling, as one might after an evening of drinks, about what a tough burden his personal life choices have been. Frankly it is none of our business and given the state of politics, it probably has no bearing on how Sanford performs his job as Governor. Sanford would not be the first man to leave his family for another woman nor will he be the last. Never the less his situation begs the question, is the term “conservative politician” an oxymoron?

While I would like to think that the difference between conservative and liberal is that conservatives take small steps and liberals prefer big steps, the mixing of religious based morality has a corrosive nature on all politicians. It makes them think that the rules apply to others and not themselves.

Why should conservatives not want health care reform, or why should conservatives not be for equal rights for all citizens? Politicians, on the other hand, have always been for the direction the weathervane is pointing and normally lack the backbone to take a principled stand.

Yesterday’s events have just made it more difficult in the short term for rebuilding the Republican Party. In the longer term, however, it may have shed a light in the best direction. Republicans need to get rid of the ideas of being the conservative party and drop any pretenses of moral authority bestowed upon them by their chest thumping religious rhetoric. Without this heavy baggage, Republicans have a chance of becoming the Party of ethics and efficiency, the Party that makes the wheels of government turn productively and efficiently.

No Big Deal, But…

June 24, 2009

The morning newspapers featured, front page, lead articles announcing President Obama’s new tough approach towards Iran. The Wall Street Journal signaled “a shift in tactics”. The age of reason may not have been destined to not last too long.

In the Clinton Administration, official White House statements would be delayed until polls and the results of focus groups were in before announcing which way the weathervane was pointing. At first Americans interpreted this method as wise but over time it grew to be seen as insincere. In the “W” Administration, reactions to any and every event were already prepared and were issued at the first hint of where a bellicose statement might fit. At first Americans liked this approach too, but over time they grew to wonder what these guys were smoking. The dawn of the Obama Administration had signaled a “change” and a new approach.

The Obama Administration featured “strategists” in place of “tacticians” in key Government advisory posts. It was said that Obama was interested in both the big picture and the long term picture. Given the global nature of things today, this was a welcome change that could not come quick enough. President Obama’s initial statements that the Iranian election was an Iranian internal affairs issue and not the business of the United States was a welcomed change sending positive messages to Iran, Russia, and China.

I am not sure what people are thinking when they get all upset over the alleged Iranian election fraud or violence that followed. What else could you expect in a system that allowed the top religious leaders the right to invalidate the candidacy of anyone they do not like? Further, the office of Iran President has no clout in foreign affairs and does not control the military.  With respect to violence versus demonstrations, does anyone remember Kent State?

President Obama’s shift in rhetoric is probably no big deal since his words are strictly political. Never the less one should be at least a little concerned since politics is about compromises chosen to achieve certain goals. My guess is that President Obama does not want to provide detractors of his domestic policies (especially health care reform) a means to gain traction on an issue like Iran. The political calculation is to get this one off the front page so that empty shirts like Senators Mitch McConnell and Linday Graham have less to pontificate about. The worry is when this tactic works (as it will), will it be easy to use it again?


June 23, 2009

In Monday’s Wall Street Journal, Professor Fouad Ajami wrote a typical WSJ opinion column. It is very possible that Ajami truly believes that President Obama is naive in his dealings with Iran but I think Ajami is more worried that someone might stick with another approach (than his) towards Iran and make progress.

Ajami writes of Obama calling him a novice and built in the likeness of Jimmy Carter. Ajami says that Obama must take into account the history that has preceded today, and not believe that simply a fresh approach will be welcomed. In other words, continue to follow in the steps of George W Bush, call Iran a member of the axis of evil, and shout for all sorts of tough sanctions.

Interestingly Ajami’s position is actually a politically safe one. If the Administration calls Iran every name in the book, and ultimately Iran acts dysfunctionally (like continuing to support Hamas and Hezbollah, or militarizing their nuclear program), the Administration can say, “see, we told you they were bad and that’s why we have been tough”. On the other hand, if Iran acts more cooperatively, the Administration can easily say, “see, our toughness has intimidated Iran and they have chosen to act properly”. Win-win.

Contrary to what Ajami proposes, President Obama (with much advice from Special Ambassador Dennis Ross) is well aware of the entire Iranian situation. For example, both the Revolutionary Guard leaders and the Ayatollahs themselves are now well into running profit making enterprises that have made life quite good for them personally. This current election dispute, in a major way, threatens their nice life.

Iran’s public policies, especially those versus its neighbors, are complex and influenced by history as well as personal gain. US thinking that if we simply side with those in the Iranian streets, we will in some way help cause a Government overthrow and in its place see a democratic (or even US friendly) government, are dreaming very unrealistically.

Like so many of the other problems facing the US and President Obama, we can not be sure he will be successful in the short term. What I think we can believe is that the type of “change” Obama has brought (realism), we will do no worse than Bush/Cheney and most probably much better.

The Neoconservative Chorus

June 22, 2009

If you want to see what lies ahead if a Republican conservative is elected President again any time soon, check out the pages of the The Weekly Standard. A free press is an important part of the American way but it is not without its dark side. From this pulpit, a slice of conservatism spews out babble and nonsense. Most hideous is the notion that the American memory is so short it can not recall the exhortation The Weekly Standard lavished upon Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowicz, Pearle, and ultimately George W Bush. We have Iraq, enhanced interrogation, and a failed foreign policy to thank neoconservatives for.

It is no surprise that The Weekly Standard (as well as other leaders such as Senator Lindsay Graham) is criticizing President Barak Obama for his relatively restrained reaction to the uproar in Iran following the recent Presidential election. These right wingers believe in “shout now”, think later. They enjoy puffing up their chests, push forward their American flag emblems, and trying to shout louder than the colleagues. This crowd is lead by a cabal of chicken hawks, those who advocate military action but prefer to send the sons of daughters of other people to carry out the dirty work.

What is surprising and insightful is the theme adopted by the The Weekly Standard. This is undoubtedly the sound of more to come. They are labeling President Obama as a “weak President” ! They mistake a deliberate choice which they do not endorse with indecision. But is this a political mistake as well as sign of another try at failed policies?

President Obama continues to enjoy an over 60% approval rating even while many of the policies he is pursuing to combat other issues facing the country are not viewed as favorably. Looking ahead to the mid term elections, we could see a theme calling for the election of strong Republican leaders to compensate for a weak chief executive. Crap stinks and creme floats. This conservative strategy will soon be seen for what it is, another failed neoconservative idea.

One Third Approve

June 21, 2009

Congressional approval ratings continue to run in the gutter. Roughly one third of voters rate the job Congress is doing as good or excellent. Or saying it differently, a veto proof majority of voters disapprove of Congress’s job. I wonder why?

Most often cited is the notion that members of Congress are corrupt. I wonder whether the observation of special interest groups pulling the nose ring of their Congressman and there being an immediate turn to the direction favorable to the special interest is an indicator? Or could it be the nice clothes or fancy haircuts these $ 150,000 a year representatives and senators sport? It could be all this, but for sure it is more.

I would submit that Congress’s inability (or unwillingness) to speak to issues openly and completely portends a deep seated failure of both Congress and the voters.

Congress is stuck in the “free lunch” and “false choice” ruts, and voters are too lazy to challenge the clearly empty rhetoric their Congressman are serving up. For example, why waste time discussing health care reform without recognizing we must first pay for what we are receiving now? Why waste our time without recognizing that health care should be an expense each American knows and is personally involved in trying to control? Why should Government and most business employees receive health care coverage and those without work or between jobs must pay many times more for coverage if they can get it? Why would a government administered (fully funded) insurance program represent a risk to the overall health care system when the same private insurers are still available?

Americans can not always hear, at the very moment, politicians using “slight of mouth” trickery.  Voters often miss hearing a free lunch option (unfunded benefits) or the offer of a false choice (government insurance versus good medical care). But over time and following many repetitions of this type of rhetoric (with virtually no other useful output), the general impression forms in voters’ minds.

President Obama needs to redouble his efforts to spell out his changes, why they are necessary, and how he wants to pay (fully) for them. Public opinion polls will judge the American opinion and then we can measure the Congressional courage.