Archive for September 2014

The Grenada Syndrome

September 29, 2014

A little over 30 years ago, the US invaded (put feet on the ground) a tiny Caribbean country and placed a notch on its belt. Grenada, the object this invasion, help restore US military (and government domestic policy) confidence following the humiliating bombing of a Lebanon hotel housing over 200 marines. Sometimes using military force on clearly smaller and less able countries serves a greater purpose. Hmmm.

The US has now begun using air superiority to punish ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. So far the going has been relatively easy. There have been several missions which our leaders label as “successes”. Shouldn’t that be enough?

Given the Sunday talk shows and the CBS “60 Minutes” interview with President Obama, early successes do not seem to be enough. There is almost a visceral sense that the US needs to put “feet on the ground”. While no one says it, this groundswell for “feet on the ground” is really about putting other Americans’ sons and daughters in harms way. Why?

The most prominent argument is that if the US does not kill ISIS in Iraq and Syria, they will kill Americans here in the US. Hmmm. Pretty scary, wouldn’t you say?

Hand guns kill about 50,000 Americans each year and automobile accidents take another 30,000. Are senior Government officials thinking that the ISIS threat will rival these two controllable cause?

Let’s suppose our leaders are worried about ISIS staging a US land attack with a kill of multiple thousands. Why do we think ISIS would be successful and not one of a dozen other terrorist groups and/or dysfunctional States also out on the world stage?

Said differently, if ISIS is defeated, why shouldn’t we expect some other group to take their place and pose the same type of threat?

With national politics favoring a “Grenada Syndrome” response, its is very important for the President to resist and think clearly. President Obama needs to play the greater game of how the US can best coexist in a world of “haves” and “have nots”, where the “have nots” are willing to act irrationally.

The President, most importantly must remember that the Middle East in not the only game in town, and probably not even the most important.

I Wonder Why?

September 28, 2014

In November, Pennsylvania will hold its Governor’s election along with the mid-term Congressional Representative’s race. Most of the attention, however, is focused upon the Governor’s job. Will incumbent Republican Tom Corbett retain his position or will Democrat challenger Tom Wolf prevail?

If polls are any indication, Corbett ought to be looking for his next job. I wonder why?

Try four simple positions.

  • Education. In 2010, Pennsylvania was still in the throws of recession and tax revenues had fallen. On top of lower tax revenues, a one time “Federal stimulus” grant had not been replaced so balancing the Pennsylvania State budget would require new or increased taxes. Corbett’s campaign pledge of “no new taxes” (sound familiar) meant he would need to create a budget on less money than his predecessor. Hmmm. Result: cuts of over $1 billion in State aid to education.
  • Voting Rights. Following a GOP nationwide script, with the Governor’s support, the Republican controlled legislature passed a “voter photo ID” law aimed at guarding against voter fraud. Despite the fact that there were no instances of voter fraud, the new law required Pennsylvanians to present an authorized photo ID in order to vote. The Governor maintained his support claiming the law was “constitutional” rather than necessary.
  • Gay Rights. Again following a conservative national campaign, the Governor staked out his position in opposition to gay marriage. He supported the State’s ban on same sex marriage providing a familiar argument that same sex marriage was like the marriage of a brother and sister. Subsequently Courts struck down the Pennsylvania law.
  • Healthcare. Oh, and yes once again like other GOP Governors, Corbett refused to expand Pennsylvania’s Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The usual reasons were provided (too costly, there was a better way). To date, Pennsylvania’s Medicaid roles have not been expanded despite the demographic need.

With the election a little over a month away, Governor Corbett is grasping at campaign positions that might revive his chances. His opponent is a little known business executive who has simply promised to do better. Corbett’s ploy is “tell us how”.

The truth of the matter is there is no evidence that Wolf could or would be a better Governor. Corbett, however, chose some very short sighted goals and voters have concluded he is a mean spirited person.

For sure Healthcare and Education are complicated issues. Opening the checkbook and simply doling out money may not be the right answer. Turning ones back and not sincerely trying to find genuine compromise makes for an uncomfortable bed to sleep in.

Voter Photo ID and opposition to gay marriage are, on the other hand, straight forward unkind and discriminatory positions. In a closely divided red-blue State, it should be no surprise that swing voters will pile on the Wolf bandwagon.

Eric Holder Won’t Be Around

September 26, 2014

Attorney General, Eric Holder, announced yesterday his resignation as the top US law enforcement official. News reports characterized House Republicans’ feelings as “good riddance”. Social and Human Rights advocates praised him and lamented the loss. Hmmm.

The AG is a cabinet level position who heads the Department of Justice as well. Holder was responsible for well known departments such as the FBI and the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), lesser know activities such as the Office of Privacy and Civil Liberties and Office on Violence Against Women, and a lot of territory in between.

The AG is also the nation’s top lawyer and represents the US before the Supreme Court.

In practice, the Department of Justice runs day to day under the leadership of long term professionals, presumably outside the influence of political parties. Hmmm, maybe mostly.

Since DOJ could not possible enforce all laws or prosecute all who violate statutes, the Attorney General must exercise judgement on what matters he/she will commit resources. Hmmm. For front page issues like immigration enforcement or marijuana use, the Attorney General must be in lock step with the President. As such, there is clearly a political component to the job.

For other matters such as the infamous ATF’s gun running task force (Fast and Furious), the buck stops with the AG whether he likes it or not.  He must take the heat for operations gone wrong and pour oil on the partisan politics.  (Holder did not excel at this function.)

It will take time for historians to properly assess Holder’s tenure. My guess is that in time a fair assessment will conclude that matters such as the decision to refer 9/11 conspirators to military tribunals after having first announced trials in civilian courts was a mistake and due to faulty political pressure. To date no trials against these terrorists have taken place.  Holder’s first decision to try terrorists in civilian courts will be seen as correct.

In summary, my guess is that Eric Holder will be viewed as decent, honest, and person of high integrity who knew what should be done but succeeded in getting his way only part of the time. We should remember there were no Wako’s, no torture memos, no new restrictions upon gays or women.

His record may been seen as only average but it is difficult to image how anyone in the near future will be able to perform better.

Labels Are Everywhere But Mean Little

September 25, 2014

It is particularly quiet in Washington these days. Most Congressional members are in their home districts wooing their constituents before the November election. The stakes for this election are high for Republicans because unbelievably the GOP has a very good chance of getting control of both houses. Their strategy is “say nothing now” or “don’t break into jail”. Hmmm.

In individual local elections, however, each candidate must differentiate themselves so that voters can choose. In some places, “I’m conservative” is enough. For others, “I’m fiscally conservative but moderate on social issues” is more daring. And of course there are one issue candidates who bet their chances on immigration, abortion, or lower taxes, for example.

Labels… they are the short hand of the political world.

Little has changed from the last election (2014) with respect to labels and real problems. The Federal budget is still unbalanced (although at a much lower level) and the underlying problem of reconciling tax revenues with Federal spending is still hopelessly deadlocked.

Political rhetoric continues to speak past the underlying spending causes (Defense, Medicare, Medicaid) and the tax revenue generation necessary to afford these programs.“Conservative”, “Fiscally conservative and social issue moderate”, or labels such as “progressive”, “liberal, or “economic growth” proponents do not predict how to resolve this imbalance. Hmmm.

The “defense budget ($600 billion)” presents an open ended spending opportunity and begs the question of what global role the US should play, and whether that role should be proactive or reactive. Given a proactive or reactive choice, the cost can be determined and appropriate taxes enacted.

Medicare and Medicaid budgets combine for about $800 billion in expenditures which are offset by $300 billion in direct tax support. These health related expenditures contribute about $500 billion to the deficit. Solve this imbalance and the deficit practically disappears.

In theory, one might think that a “conservative” ought to favor more direct taxes (revenue that could only be spent of these two programs. Surprisingly, “conservatives” tend to want to cut these benefits instead of paying for them. The fiscally conservative, socially moderate really gets compromised. What other spending could be cut?

Consequently, these politicians usually end up, along with progressives and liberals, desiring to “grow” the economy and generate more tax revenue without raising taxes. Hmmm.

With an aging population and national medical spending which is 2x the rest of the modern industrial world, Medicare and Medicaid cost excesses are not going to go away. Any serious politician knows that.

Conservatives, fiscal conservatives/socially moderates, and Progressives/liberals ought drop their labels and distracting rhetoric. Focus needs to be placed upon fundamental healthcare costs and putting in place tax policies which will cover the costs of Medicare and Medicaid generated by future recipients.

If you hear “repeal Obamacare”, you will be hearing a “dog whistle” for cutting benefits for those who can least afford the healthcare cuts.

The path, regardless of party, for balancing the budget, drives directly through US healthcare delivery. If I hear any candidate with this message, I will pay attention.

Children At Play

September 23, 2014

Bureaucracies are great fun, if you have a sense of humor. None are funnier, in a sad way, than the Federal bureaucracies.

Case in point, the Secret Service has provided us a cynical chuckle.

The Secret Service has been known as the agency where its agents are prepared to “take a bullet” to protect the President. Valor, honor, and integrity are their watch words, or so we thought. Recent events have cast the service in a different and more confusing light.

First, agents were sent home following a “drinking” and “shake down” of local Columbian prostitutes. Senior officials tried to make like the issue was the prostitutes and waving their “no-no” finger, pronounced the agent’s behavior as unacceptable and inconsistent with the Service’s mission. Hmmm. (What about fitness for service?)

Second, about two years later, after being warned about drinking and duty, three agents went out on the town in Amsterdam. One agent had such a good time that he collapsed in the hotel hallway and had to be put to bed. The agents were sent home.

This past week, saw the inexplicable. Someone scaled the 7 foot White House fence along Pennsylvania Avenue and proceeded to run across the lawn and enter an unlocked door. No damage was done but one cannot help but think “what if”?

The Secret Service response to what amounts to a dereliction of duties was to propose establishing “check points” several blocks away from the White House. One can only surmise that government officials are seeking a diversion. Let citizens get mad about being searched (under the name of security) while the Secret Service is let off the hook for not having performed as was presently expected.

Where were the dogs whose task it is to catch anyone sneaking over the fence? Where were the Secret Service Agents who are authorized to shoot such intruders? And why do we have a seven foot fence if there is not secondary lines of defense?
When any organization begins to behave in ways inconsistent with its mission, the best advice is to go back to basics. The mission may have become too routine for the current cadre or the long hours (when nothing happens) and frequent trips have dulled the responsiveness of the agents.

Clean house by bringing in new agents and transferring current agents to other government branches.

Oh, and yes begin with supervision and senior management.

Is It Time For The Bill?

September 22, 2014

Americans for sure, and maybe most other people around the world, have a peculiar characteristic. Americans can get all excited about some issue and show great indignation. How could this or that condition be? Why have we not fixed it already?

This incredulity comes forward when the bill is presented and payment is due immediately. Hmmm.

The uproar about ISIS provides an illustrative example. The barbaric behavior of ISIS has been amplified by many self interested public officials. The news media, always in search of a “good” story, has piled on, telling and retelling the beheading tales whipping the public into a willing majority. “Destroy ISIS!” Hmmm.

To make the sale for US military intervention, our politicians have concocted a plan which presumably does not entail US ground forces. Somehow we are lead to believe that high tech aircraft will suffice. Hmmm. (I guess these planes do not ever develop mechanical problems.)

Under Congressional questioning, however, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsy, told Congress that under certain circumstances he could foresee the need for “troops on the ground” and under those circumstances he would not hesitate to recommend troops to the President. Hmmm.

The White House reiterated, in response, that troops would not be returning to Iraq.

Last week, Army Chief of Staff, Ray Odierno, said he was concerned about the size of the Army and whether it had not already been shrunk too much. He was concerned whether the Army was large enough to anticipate all the global hot spots. Hmmm.

Both of these men, IMO, spoke both the truth and what there were really thinking.

That is not the point. They were opening a can of worms and exposing the “free lunch” American mentality.

Military actions take lives and cost money.

Telling the American people (or worse remaining silent) that fighting ISIS or preparing for other global conflicts won’t involve American military deaths is one issue, but omitting what Americans should be paying in taxes is quite another.

Currently no Congress members want to go on record as favoring military action and paying for it. Rather, Congress members prefer to put the cost on the credit card (national debt) or, cut spending other places to offset the expense. Hmmm.

So, putting ISIS, or even the Ukraine, in perspective, our leaders are implying that seniors or those requiring Medicaid or other welfare safety net benefits need to foot the military bill. Hmmm.

Whether the US should engage in military action in the Middle East or any other global spot is a question beyond my pay level. Justification for military action (read spending), however, must include what it will cost and how it will be paid for.

Americans can make that type of judgement. Whether the public gets it right or wrong, it is how our government is suppose to work.

A Ship With A Broken Compass

September 18, 2014

The recent weeks beginning with the release of the second Ray Rice video has revealed a National Football League which is operating on the high seas of national sports with a broken compass.

The NFL ship at times seems rudderless, but in truth its rudder works fine, it is just that NFL bosses can’t set a sensible course. Hmmm.

Ray Rice (wife beating) and Adrian Peterson (child abuse) have been en ensnared in a conflicted NFL justice system. The league and the individual teams were surprised when the media reported the incidents initially. The league and the teams went into “damage control”. How could they minimize any public affairs damage (which might translate into economic damage)?

These incidents have been a boon to supporter dedicated to end domestic violence. With a national stage, these groups have damned Rice and Peterson without necessarily any knowledge of them or the entire situation surrounding each incident.

For example, Rice married the woman he had struck and together they have given money and time to charities in the Baltimore poorer areas. Peterson was being present with his son, and as such stands in sharp contrast to too many African American fathers who are absent in the lives of their children.

The US has laws and courts to assess whether specific charges are transgressions of the law, and to meter out appropriate punishment. It certainly could be that both Rice and Peterson violated laws which should carry with it jail time. That verdict belongs in the courts, not on the playing field.

The NFL never the less has found it necessary to run a parallel “court system”. Standing before cameras, the NFL professes its abhorrence of these acts and sanctimoniously says that behavior has no place in the NFL. These players cannot be part of the NFL until they have spent some time in the penalty box (suspension, behavior treatment). Hmmm.

I wonder why the NFL trains cameras on pass receivers and line men who are poised to sack the quarterback and then replays the biggest and harshest take downs until the next week’s killer plays are ready.

American law has long held that someone is innocent until proven guilty. The NFL apparently feels it can act when the tide of public opinion might reduce the barrels of money flowing in.  Proof: a comment from a advertiser. Hmmm.

Domestic violence, unfortunately, is just the tip of the ice berg. The NFL is populated with real people, many who find it difficult to leave violence to the playing field. There is also a long history of celebrity entrapment where someone seeking fame or money (or both) entraps a player in some compromising situation.

Sorting out “he said, she said” is simply not straight forward. Again, however, there are courts to settle these cases. The NFL is not needed.

At this point, it would appear

  • The NFL has no internal moral compass and its apparent loss of clear cut rules on socially unacceptable or criminal behavior is no accident.
  • Players are just tools of labor and expendable on a whim.
  • The NFL has a low opinion of the public and demonstrates this each time it reacts to some interest group or large sponsor.

The NFL will get through this controversy and adopt a set of conduct standards which will spell out acceptable behavior. If, however, the NFL continues to adjust its conduct standards given the next politically correct group’s preferences, the NFL will lose its way and decline from the number one entertainment spot.

Whether Roger Goodell will continue as the commissioner is irrelevant. The Owners, who are a big portion of the problem, will most likely fire Goodell if there team value decreases, and not whether Goodell leads them successfully through this transition phase.

Hmmm, not much of a compass.

Joy In Moscow and Beijing

September 17, 2014

All foreign and domestic policy rest upon an underlying “self interest” economic framework. The elite classes in most powerful countries support governments which follow policies which in turn steer more money towards these individuals. The quid pro quo is that in return for this economic favoritism, the elite class will employ the masses and will support the government. Hmmm.

From this perspective, one must attempt to view the global political world as a complex set of interactions driven by each nation’s economic self interests.

World leaders almost never, however, frame issues in these terms preferring instead to talk about growing their economy, developing other less well off countries, or bringing “freedom” to a repressed nation. When push comes to real fighting, many other causes are summoned, mostly around nationalistic values.

The world stands today at a dangerous fork in the road.  Neither path is glamorous but one of the paths is likely to be more dangerous.

Who would have thought a tired old marketing plan (from the middle ages), delivered by an insurgent Muslim absolutist group, could pose such a threat? ISIS represents the bogeyman and is portrayed as a world terrorist threat. So worrisome is this group, estimated as large ad 30,000 irregulars, that a coalition of Western and Middle East countries have pledged to “destroy” ISIS.

Oh, but there is a catch. None of these countries wants to commit ground forces. Hmmm.

Yesterday, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before Congress that under certain circumstances, he would recommend to the President the use of US ground personnel. This has been widely interpreted as the precursor to a US military return to Iraq and probably an invasion of Syria. Hmmm.

His Congressional testimony has also provoke a range of reactions. Sensing the uncertainty of the American public (in an election year), Congress members are careful in their response. One sane position has been to call for a vote on authorizing military action while repealing the two previous authorizations (2002 and 2003) which provided authority for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The simplest reason for a new authorization is that sooner or later Americans will be killed in action and Congress needs to be held accountable.

Lost in this paranoia about ISIS is that the entire Middle East is economically insignificant and with its religious, educational, and gender handicaps, unlikely to become important for generations. Middle East problems need the help of Middle East countries to resolve.

More important for the US, is the need to be cooly watching and reacting to Moscow and Beijing’s global initiatives and their relationship to our national interests. The US perspective ought be wide enough to comprehend the well being of the Americas as well as for the US alone. Can you imagine the US reaction if one day we woke up to a Chinese military base being welcomed by the Honduran Government?

There is of course no prescription for how to make relations between the US, Russia, and China better. And using military force against these nations should be not even a consideration. This post’s point, rather, lies in the folly which results from over concern about the Middle East and taking ones eye off the real targets.

With the potential that Washington is gradually slipping back into a middle ages fight with inconsequential forces, there must be joy in Moscow and Beijing, at least in the Board rooms of their biggest companies.

Finding An Eye In The Needle?

September 15, 2014

ISIS has provoked a lot of talk but not a whole lot of action. NSA seems to be everywhere listening to the world’s communications, yet the where abouts of ISIS lot leaders seems a mystery. Political leaders, domestically as well as internationally, condemn this group and call for its elimination, yet no one seems to want to put “feet on the ground”. Hmmm.

Secretary of State, John Kerry, breaking all frequent flyer records, has signed up some 40 nations to fight against ISIS, but none seem anxious to commit ground troops. I wonder why? Even Humpty Dumpty, the rebuilt Iraq, seems luke warm to taking on ISIS even though almost half of Iraq is occupied by ISIS. Why this ambivalence?

Common sense tells us that it is always better to let the other guy do it, especially if it is a dirty job. Finding the “other guy” is the problem. And in the Middle East where absolute insanity reigns with the hatred between Sunnis and Shiites and the indifferent self interest of the oil rich countries leaders sets the table for non-cooperation.

President Obama appears to be on another planet if one listens to people like Lindsay Graham or John McCain. Both Senators, staples of the mindless Sunday morning talk shows, scoff at the idea of no US ground forces against ISIS. I guess a perpetual state of war with extremists is their view of the future.

The Middle East has long been characterized by ignorance, poverty, and enormous class differences. The public was been kept in line with State handouts and a boot on their necks. Nothing fancy, but when rigorously enforced, these policies have worked.

Removing Saddam Hussein, of course, took the stopper out of the bottle. And the entire region began to shift. With well intended but totally naive (or simply ignorant) responses by western powers has brought on significant disturbances in Libya, Egypt, and finally Syria. Rather than bringing democracy and freedom to these lands, just another set of despotic rulers have emerged.

The common person is no better off and arguably living in worse conditions.

One can justifiably criticize George W Bush, aka Dick Cheney, but in 2014, the damage is already done and revisiting egregious policies sheds little light upon what to do now. Considering the experiences which resulted from these policies, however, is very worthwhile.

As a consequence, one is lead to the conclusion that the authoritative Egyptian Government under President al-Sisi should be supported and not undermined. A similar conclusion might be reached with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In a sick way, it is unfortunate that former Iraq President Saddam Hussein is not around to take back the reigns of government (he would put troops on the ground).

Instead, the West must work through Iran to guide the new Iraqi (Shiite) Prime Minister.

All these leaders already have troops on the ground and a vested interest in the outcome.

From a distance, it certain looks like President Obama is trying to find the eye of the needle with his response to ISIS.

End Game, What’s That?

September 13, 2014

President Obama’s speech this week on the US intended actions towards ISIS received generally satisfactory reviews (meaning GOP leadership did not say “no way”). One criticism voiced by many pundits was “what’s the end game”? Hmmm.

When former President George W Bush went into Afghanistan in pursuit of al Qaeda, no one asked the question “what’s the end game”. When almost unbelievably, Bush then invaded Iraq without finishing up in Afghanistan, no one asked “what’s the end game”?

Brief history has now shown that that question was telling in both cases in which the US has wandered and come away with a dim view of our efforts.

Now it is more than fair to ask the same of President Obama, “what’s the end game”?

My guess is that President Obama cannot answer that question in 25 words or less. I am not sure the President see ISIS as part of the “same game” as his critics do.  The President best be careful because there are many in Washington who mistakenly think there is a peace keeper role, not to overlook nation building, for the US in the Middle East.

Post World War II when the world’s economic distribution was so much in the US’ favor, there were sometimes both a humanitarian and self interest reason to meddle in other countries’ affairs. Today the US remains the wealthiest country in the world but the advantages has dramatically narrowed.

The US must be clear when it sets expensive foreign policies in motion.

I have heard pundits say the President never wanted to make this speech in the first place. He made it, they say, due to political reasons… the mid term elections. If that is accurate, then most likely this “war” against ISIS will play itself out in 2015.  We can hope.

Americans should be alert, however. Events can change and before we know it, military actions aimed at ISIS could spread into “feet on the ground” and suddenly a focus on a new “enemy”. Murphy’s law – work expands to fit the resources available.

Americans should also be mindful that while President Obama seems averse to military engagements, he has not been as adamant about protecting individual privacy. There is nothing, through out history, any better a pretext for taking away individual liberties than a foreign threat, real or imagined.

Most of us assume ISIS is a relatively weak opponent, stronger than Grenada but weaker than Hussein’s Iraq. The US should “win” these military engagements with ease. So why should we care?  Hmmm.

What could be next? Would we invade Syria (to ensure we eliminate all other radicals)? Or would Israel convince a US President to use a base in Iraq to attack Iran’s nuclear capability (to rid the world of a menace)? Or, would the US be bound to the Middle East, what about Africa? There are plenty of radicals and outrightly nasty people there. And, and, and.

A simple answer to the question of what’s the end game might be, “Using air power (and other clandestine policies, like supporting Assad), eliminate the top lSIS leaders and render their insurgent forces incapable of occupying or controlling any geography inside or outside Syria… and then disengaging”.

If the US is not careful, it will find out that there are no end games in the Middle East.