Archive for May 2014

Wrestling With The Wind

May 30, 2014

President Obama has been criticized by partisan groups and opposition politicians with various epitaphs, all of which say “failure”. What most critics allege simply do not conform with reality, or lack the credibility of what they would differently. That does not, however, lead to the conclusion that his Presidency ranks along side Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln’s. At least not yet.

Candidate Obama spoke passionately of fixing what had gone wrong with the Bush Administration. Policies like the Patriot Act where librarians could not reveal government searches of their records, or enhanced interrogation methods, a euphemism for torture, or indefinite detention without charges, or the invasion of a sovereign country, or the establishment of an off-shore gulag called Guantanamo Detention Facility would be gone, candidate Obama said.

How could the US have strayed so far from its historic past, he wondered?

The words “over reach” have been used to describe the Bush foreign policy, but how exactly was President Obama to get control when he inherited two wars, numerous assaults on individual liberties, and the largest economic recession since the great depression.

In the cold and turbulent environment of the Oval Office, President Obama quickly learned how difficult it was to actual steer the ship of State. At the highest levels of government there are men and women of strong opinions. Outside of government there are many more groups also holding strong opinions. A President Obama, like President Bush, has had to make decisions in this environment.

The President told the 2014 graduating West Point class that US foreign policy would be focused upon defeating “terror groups”. This was somewhat disappointing to hear since it sounded so much like “war on terror”, a meaningless phrase.

For countries such as Japan, the Philippines, India, and most of Europe, I wonder what they understood this to mean considering the ambitions of Russia and China?

I think the President was trying to say “the US is stepping back” (from over reach) and “will strike out only against organized global terror organizations”. No more invasions and occupations of sovereign lands, no more over reach. Hmmm.

President Obama has (as does any President) the daunting task of defining a sensible US foreign policy. If you listen to political opponents, President Obama’s approach is too hands off and unclear in terms of what the US is willing to commit. When these critics are asked what they would do, they have either offered internally inconsistent responses like show military force but would not commit feet on the ground, or they simply bluster about moving military assets threateningly close to where ever the hot spot might be.

Fortunately, the President recognizes how nuanced the world is and how a cautious approach is justified on that basis alone. I believe he see another reason which is even more fundamental. Foreign policy makes sense only when built upon a clear statement of national interests and goals.

Politicians huff and puff about restoring the American Dream or building the economy so there are jobs for everyone. Worthy goals.

Collectively these same politicians, however, cannot agree upon how to balance the budget, even while the infrastructure continues to decay, education lags behind world standards, and healthcare costs soar.

If a nuanced approached is viewed as appeasement, this is probably not an acceptable answer.  Just as poor an option is “act now, think later”. Events since the invasion and occupation of Iraq should demonstrate that military involvement brings far too many unanticipated and unintended consequences.

The President’s West Point speech did not nail the subject and offer total clarity on what US foreign policy will be. I think the President was “buying time”.

He felt, I think, he needed to dress up his “leading from behind” approach in some broader context. I hope he realizes the connection between consensus on domestic policy and articulating foreign policy. Without agreement on what the government spends and how it raises the money to cover those costs, the ability to finance foreign involvement will be questionable. Even more to the point, why will Americans care about any foreign land if they feel excluded from the American dream?

Then again the lack of consensus on domestic matters can only support a non-specific foreign policy.  Maybe President Obama understands this better than most.

 

The War Industry

May 28, 2014

Yesterday, President Obama made it official and public. He announced that he was open to US troops remaining in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014 providing a “status of forces” treaty could be signed. The nominal 10,000 troops would continue a training mission and assist on fighting al Qaeda remnants.

A sigh of relief could almost be heard from the Pentagon. The President went on to say these troops would, however, be withdrawn by the end of 2016 and the US Afghan page would be over.

This sounded like vintage Obama negotiations. “Lay out your preferred position first and then let your opponents shoot at it”.

As with his Afghanistan “surge” where the President announced (reluctantly) a surge in troops in Afghanistan while at the same time announcing a troop reduction against a future time line, the President, in essence, said to his military and civilian hawks advisers, you get your way for this much time and then I get mine.

This morning the nay sayers were out in force questioning how anyone could set a date for withdrawal. “Why not wait and see what happens” these supporters of an indefinite Afghan presence are saying.

Certainly, there is a case to be made for staying longer. It’s called Iran and China, and maybe Russia. Keeping a presence with eyes and ears in Afghanistan would allow the US to react to any future unknown provocation.

Seem reasonable?

What we must not forget is the ability to react with the 10,000 troops will also be with other people’s children. The Bush era “chicken hawk” mentality never seemed to realize that their personal Vietnam War deferments which avoided for them military service, ought to have disqualified them from so easily sending others into harm’s way.

The utter foolishness which got us into Iraq and allowed the Afghan stay to extend so long is just what President Obama is trying to prevent. Those who point to dangerous possibilities in a dangerous world are not prophets, they are opportunists.

The world will never be without risks and imminent dangers in the eyes of those who favor a strong forceful US presence. Events of course could lead President Obama to revise his timetable.

While remaining longer in my opinion is undesirable, I would trust someone who was set on getting out to make that decision far more than one who recommended “an indefinite stay and only if the sun shined, getting out.”

Thank You For Your Service

May 26, 2014

Today is Memorial Day, and across America, villages and towns celebrate past wars and those who took part.

With most of my generation, the most important of those wars was World War II, and by definition, veterans of that war (now few in number) set the standard for service. Their sacrifices clearly, we think, deserve our thanks.

But what about the Korean War, or Vietnam, or the mighty invasion of Grenada? And more recently, what about Kosovo, Afghanistan, or Iraq?

The spirit of Memorial Day would suggest a hearty thanks to Vets of all these wars. But what does one mean when one thanks someone else for their “service”?

With WWII, most people recognize that the world was at war. Had America lost, we would be living in very different conditions than we are. We might be reading in German or Japanese. In addition, WWII was for everyone. All citizens who were fit and able, and of a certain age were drafted if they had not already volunteered. Everyone had “skin” in this war. And most everyone knew someone else who served, and unfortunately most everyone knew someone who had died during action.

Korea and Vietnam also employed the draft, and it was most likely the each American knew someone at that time who was serving. There were differences, however. Korea and Vietnam both represented no danger to the US mainland. Even more significantly, both wars ended in a “tie” or “a strategic withdrawal”, not the unconditional surrender associated with WWII.

Do we still thank people for a not winning?

Grenada, Iraq, and Afghanistan fall into a different category. These wars were fought with an all volunteer Army.  That means that not all Americans needed to participate.  Hmmm.

Grenada was a minor happening and could have been handled with the Los Angeles Police Department if the Pentagon had provided transportation.

Iraq and Afghanistan, however, fit the size and scope of Vietnam or Korea, but these wars’ outcomes will be seen as less clear cut. There is no question the US military prevailed on the battle field. Unlike Korea where US forces deadlocked at the 38th parallel and no winner emerged, or Vietnam where irregular Viet Cong troops would melt away into the jungles only to come back again someplace else.In Vietnam, militarily the US could have stayed as long as it wanted but Americans at home said “enough is enough”.

Iraq and Afghanistan were both wars where military superiority was clearly on the American side. The Iraqi and Afghani’s hearts and minds are a different question. In both countries, feelings seemed to range from “leave me alone” to an overwhelming fundamental Islamic interest in returning to the 15th century.

In WWII, Europe was returned to the path of democracy and human rights. The future is entirely speculative for Iraq and Afghanistan. Should we offer thanks for a mission not accomplished? Hmmm.

War throughout history seems to have followed a similar script. Someone like a King, President, or rebel leader takes charge of a force of soldiers. Kings, Presidents, or rebel leaders call the shots, the soldiers slug it out, some getting killed or wounded. Kings, Presidents, or rebel leaders think up noble reasons for making war. Soldiers slug it out sometimes never coming home.

On my score card, the Korean War was necessary and the outcome was as good as we should have expected. Vietnam was far less certain and backing the South Vietnamese was clearly the wrong choice if our goal was to contain Communist China. The Vietnam War costs in terms of lives lost, money spent, and damages to the environment puts it into the unnecessary column.

Grenada was a joke.

Iraq and Afghanistan should be viewed as fool’s errands. The initial invasion of Afghanistan in hot pursuit of al Qaeda, of course, was completely justified. The stretching of this hot pursuit into a Dom Quixote 12 year journey may have been noble but fits no definition of being in the US national interest. With regards to Iraq, there can be no better definition of fool’s errand.

The question. What does one say to an Iraqi or Afghan War vet?

For any enlisted person, I will gladly thank that person for their service since they did not choose to make these wars.

For the officer corp, it depends. Those who remain “gung ho” and spout virtues about winning these wars or wanting still to remain engaged in either or both countries, I respectfully decline to thank them for their service.

Will The Hypocrites Please Stand Up

May 23, 2014

If there had been any doubt about rampant hypocrisy in Congress, it was erased yesterday. The House voted in a special authorization for military spending over $600 billion. The amount exceeded that requested by the Defense Department and flew in the face of previous calls for reductions in Government spending by these same representatives.

This spending, unlike any laws aimed at the social safety net, can be directly connected to votes and campaign donations in various States. The Defense Industry is good money spent, these legislators apparently think.

There are legitimate concerns, of course, about what military posture the US should maintain as we enter the 21st century. The lawlessness found in much of Africa, the nationalistic ambitions of China and Russia, and the inherent instability of the Middle East all pose potential threats to the US by disturbing established flows in international commerce.

What should the world’s policeman do?

For those who decry the role of world’s policeman, please reread the recent happenings in the Ukraine and Crimea. Or, try reviewing the Chinese bullying of Vietnam. And tell me about Iran, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, and Libya.

So those who advocate for a strong military, in addition to rewarding a wide variety of supporters (read votes), could also have serious concerns about the future.

This vote by itself may not be the best bellwether predicting hypocrisy. One must look further, say to these House members’ campaign speeches and advertisements to get the clear smell of the hypocrisy.

How can the US cut healthcare (repeal Obamacare), adopt block grants for Medicaid, replace Medicare with vouchers, and put forward across the board cuts in most other safety net programs, insist upon remaining the world’s policeman?

For those who hold this position (raise defense spending, cut social ones), one can safely view them as hypocritical.

I’m afraid, however, the ugly truth is that, like it or not, the US must remain the world’s policeman.The US, however, must get smarter at it and undertake these duties far more efficiently.

Defense Department spending is by design inefficient and costly. Major defense projects are intentional segmented as that as many States can participate. The roles of the State Department and the military are poorly coordinated resulting in a balance that favors guns far more than diplomats.

And wasteful and fully useless engagements like the invasion and occupation of Iraq or the 12 year presence in Afghanistan must be avoided in any future policemen role. Maintaining the present US military footprint, in a more cost effective manner, would be prudent in view of the instability one can see in the rest of the world.

US military might could allow economic and cultural interactions to actually keep the peace.

The other side of the US domestic conundrum is a budget deficit.  This deficit has fueled this drive to reduce the social safety net spending.   But what if we attacked health care costs?

US healthcare spending approaches $3 trillion. On a per capita basis, this is about twice as much as two dozen other modern countries, and these countries produce equal or better health care outcomes. If the US could adopt a national healthcare system like Germany’s, this cost difference alone could eliminate our $700 billion budget deficit and put another $3-500 billion in US citizen’s pockets.

With such compelling economics, why isn’t Congress racing to implement these changes? The answer, while complicated, at the end of the day would require current participants in the doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, and drug suppliers to reduce their revenues by $1-!.5 trillion.

That would represent a lot of campaign donations, need I say more.

Just one word… hypocrisy.

Raise Foot, Aim, Shoot

May 22, 2014

Appealing to ones political base, is just that. This type of rhetoric, tell them what they want to hear, is seductive because the base will normally give back money and votes. But what if the political base in question is on a dead end path?

America finds itself today with two parties appealing to unsustainable “base” demands.

For example, Medicare, Medicaid, and even Social Security are on paths which financially the Country cannot afford… at least as the laws authorizing these programs are currently constructed. Speaking to one base that “we must shrink the size of government (a euphemism for just cutting benefits like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security)” will simply put the cost of these programs someplace else without impacting the need. Or speaking to the other base, “we can’t cut Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits or else we will break our nation’s promise ( an euphemism for there can be no cuts in these programs because I am counting on that group’s votes).  Both speeches are going no wheres.

The mid term elections will provide us with a new round of “base speech appeals”. We will hear speeches for a woman’s right to choose and others against. It is unlikely we will hear any speeches about how we can make abortions rare.

We will hear rousing demands for “sealing the borders” and others calling for immigration reform with a path to citizenship. We will not hear about creative ways to deal with the special situation involving Mexico. If these great workers and family oriented people were able to come and go freely (thus eliminating many undocumented residents), the largest piece of immigration reform could be removed. Instead the US will spend insane amounts of money with no prospects of achieving results.

In some areas, we will hear both sides talk about faith and how it important it is to them personally. It is unlikely we will hear anyone questioning the practice of some parochial schools to require their teachers to promise not to speak or practice such things as living with someone of the same sex or cohabiting with the opposite sex unless married.

Nor will we likely hear anyone speak out that it is incompatible with modern life for a University (Bryan) to demand of its teachers that they must accept and teach that Adam and Eve were magically created by god, and that we are biologically descendant from them (complete rejection of evolution).

There is no need to denounce the old political bases. Rather there is an urgent need to focus upon real problems facing the country, the State, or the locality. Job growth, pot holes, and hungry children are completely independent of religious views.

Healthcare (Medicare and Medicaid, plus any costs associated with the Affordable Care Act) presents a fundamental question for Americans, should every American have access to basic healthcare?

If the answer is no, end of discussion.

If the answer is yes, then the rich discussion of what constitutes “basic” care, what should it cost, and how should it be paid for would make for great election background material.

The GOP’s mouth is watering with the prospect of gaining total control of Congress. In 2012, a similar chance went down in smoke because too many GOP candidates spoke to their “base” and not the total electorate.

Will be see a repeat where the GOP lifts its foot, takes aim, and shoots?

Why Not Lead This Time From Behind

May 21, 2014

This week the Justice Department announced charges against 5 Chinese military officers. The charge, fraud by computer theft. The victims, major US companies and one labor union. The question, why now?

It has been long rumored that Chinese groups had been hacking into US computer networks. It was also reasonably well known that a number of individual Chinese living in the US had engaged in theft of US intellectual assets and then tried to smuggle them back to China.

So why these public charges and why now?

Intellectual property does not carry the same value in China and Korea as we are used to in the US. It is not unheard of for Chinese and Korean firms to buy blueprints from reputable sources in order to build a factory. Subsequently, they will replicate those factories without any compensation to the blueprint’s architect. In their ethical system, once intellectual property is in the public domain, it is free to be used. Hmmm.

But these Justice Department charges are different. These refer to official government employees acquiring information and transferring this know-how to quasi-private sector companies. The assumed goal of this theft appears to be to provide competitive advantage to Chinese companies. To the American psyche this is two against one, unfair.

The greater question about US action is why these indictments? There is no chance of ever arraigning these individuals. In the world public opinion court, the US complaint will fall on very deaf ears, thanks to the Snowden-NSA leaks. And in the real world, business in China does not follow the same rules as doing business in Pennsylvania.

(A short reflection on how the European Powers trampled over Chinese rights with forced trading agreements should provide some understanding on where the Chinese might be coming from.)

If in fact the Administration was just firing a shot across the bow, “knock it off” so to speak, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Russian President Putin arrived the next day for a State visit and will leave with a $400 billion energy deal. It would seem that if the US were trying to unite once again Russia and China, these charges were a step in the right direction. With China acting up in the South China Sea and Russia making moves against Eastern European lands, I would have expected a far more strategic move by the US. Divide and conquer would seem as relevant as ever.

On the other hand, what if these charges were highly influenced by domestic policy issues? What if pro-NSA factions within the US government wanted to turn attention away from the personal privacy issues raised by Edward Snowden? What if these Pro-NSA forces were just fine with a wedge between the US and Russia or China? What if pro-NSA fans wanted the spot light off NSA spying? In government, most things are not what they appear to be.

The beauty of these Justice Department charges are that they have legal merit even if they are impossible to press. While the news media ponders the greater impact upon US-China relations, the NSA-types smugly will go about their business as if Edward Snowdon had never existed.

What a situation for the President to lead from behind.

 

GM Lessons

May 20, 2014

General Motors has hit a few big bumps in the road recently. The company has been charged in Federal Court as well as the court of public opinion with covering up for 10 years an ignition defect linked to 13 deaths. How could any company but the most sinister try to get away with something like that?

Any needless death is one too many most would agree. Consider, however, there are over 30,000 deaths each year attributable to automobile accidents. Do the math on the probability of 13 over 5 years.

Automobile accidents happen for a wide range of reasons. Linking the ignition to the cause of any death is not straight forward. In this situation, the smoking gun was the failure of air bags to deploy.  This could happen if the ignition had turn off. Hmmm.

One needs to know more about GM to understand how 10 years could have past.

Consider, however, that GM is composed of regular, although talented, people. GM strives for excellence in each of its disciplines or functions. So GM tries to have the best engineers, the best sales and marketing people, the best finance and logistics types, and the best lawyers. GM then works to make a team out this collection of “bests” and align these teams around the support of certain car brands.

Sounds straight forward but it turns out to be much harder than one might think.  Each GM employee has their own life aspirations and plans.  Usually earning more is a central part of these plans.  Do what the boss asks.

Another real life factor facing GM in its chosen business is the behavior of people not part of the corporation. Over the years GM has learned that authorized dealers will charge GM as much as possible for any work they perform under warranty or recall notice. With the size of the US and the number of cars involved, it is impossible for GM to verify each claim. GM’s reaction has been to not trust field reports.

Even more feared than repair facilities is plaintiffs lawyers. Lawyers specializing in product liability and personal injury make fortunes at the expense of GM. While most of us would argue that if GM was at fault they should pay, many of the settlements’ sizes boggle the mind.

So the stage is set. Engineers can easily diagnose a major black and white problem. Parts fail or they don’t.  What do engineers do if parts seem to function as designed?  What do engineers do when other conditions like crashes are involved?

When a car is mangled in a crash, analyzing the parts post the crash is difficult and always suspect.  Was the part was defective or had the crash rendered the part defective.

Considering the current ignition issue, it appears GM engineers suspected that the ignition switch design on certain models, could under certain situations, did “not perform according to design”. The term “not perform according to design” is the preferred language which GM’s lawyer community insisted upon.

From GM lawyers perspective, ignition switches were not a problem and were not defective. Why this double speak? Subpoenas and depositions drive fear into the modern corporation. The written or spoken trail can be taken out of context by industrious trial lawyers and used to beat down the reputation or integrity of the GM witness.

So, GM like most other large corporations attempts to train their subordinates to use as neutral and non-inflammatory language as possible. The obvious question might be does this neutered language also make it more difficult for senior management to recognize a real problem from a nuisance?

The situation GM finds itself in is common to all large corporation. GM being so big and well known, issue like this one, makes the front page news much quicker. So what is GM to do?

Who knows?

The most common corporate reaction is to eliminate the “few bad apples” who caused this problem and assure the public there will be no repeat.

Another popular reaction is to change the product complaint handling procedure, eliminating any loop holes.  Assure the public it is unlikely thee will be a repeat, but in the odd chance there was, the issue would be caught quickly.

Or, do what is most natural in big organizations, deny there was anything wrong and attempt to minimize any financial settlements without admitting guilt.

From my experience, these types of product failures and the stone walling that follows are most associated with overgrown bureaucracies where one discipline tries to gain more internal power at the expense of another (finance over business, or legal over engineering, etc), and top management prefers the “managing business” to the real business of satisfying customers.

It will be interesting to see how Mary Barra deals with the root problem, the GM infrastructure.