Archive for November 2014

Thanksgiving Perspective

November 28, 2014

Yesterday was Thanksgiving 2014. It’s a toss up over which is the biggest and most important US holiday, Christmas or Thanksgiving. Commercially, Christmas takes the prize, at least in the minds of most businesses. For college students, Christmas offers the charm of a longer break from the class room. Judging, however, from Thanksgiving travel options, buses, trains, and planes are book solid and tend to cost the most of anytime during the year. Hmmm.

Probably the biggest advantage of Thanksgiving is that it is secular. Christmas comes with the baggage of christianity and does not resonate with non-christians as much as with those with other religious affinities. Most younger people have made already the transition to Santa Claus and scratch their heads why some parents argue vehemently about putting a manger on the town square.

Thanksgiving is suppose to be a time when all Americans pause and give thanks for their good fortunes. Being with family and enjoying good food and drink is considered one of the most important activities on Thanksgiving. And one does not need to read many newspapers to recognize how well off compared to billions of other people living elsewhere in the world. These less fortunates find themselves with disease, hunger, and some with outright war. For most Americans, they have so much more to be thankful about than their peers around the world.

If, however, Americans reflect upon the Washington DC political climate or the partisan world at State level, there are big questions about what there is to be thankful about. Each party incessantly reminds Americans about how their government is failing them, and how much better it would be if they were in power. Thankfully Thanksgiving is a time when most Americans can step back from the negative leadership Democrats and Republicans offer.

No better example could be found than than attending a Thanksgiving Parade. In Philadelphia, like New York there is a magnificent parade featuring marching bands from cities distant from Philadelphia. These high school marching bands show visibly what young people can do cooperatively when provided decent leadership. The music is thrilling and the precision band movements evoke a strong feeling of “can do”.

Of course no one knows what lies ahead for these student musicians. Some may turn into dysfunctional political partisans like those we see in Washington. Others may get a bad break or waste a wonderful opportunity. But, my guess is that far more will learn from their band experience the power of working together and what individual effort can accomplish if they work hard.

Marching bands need no religious anchor so no one needs to argue over their own personal frailties. Marching bands bring pleasure to both the participants and those looking on. And no amount of rationalization can talk up a poor performance, especially if the marching band had not worked at practiced.

Maybe a good lesson for everyone.

The Case For Afghanistan

November 24, 2014

President Obama has announced the complete withdrawal of US combat troops from Afghanistan by 2016. Unfortunately it appears that one of the phased withdrawal steps due by January 2015 will not be met. The President has agreed to allow US troops to conduct further operations in coordination with Afghan forces. Hmmm.

The decision to withdraw completely almost assuredly will set up an analogous situation in Afghan as we have just seen in Iraq. The Taliban will gain ground and continually threaten major Afghan cities. If the US has withdrawn, its capability to confront Taliban forces will severely strained.

A bigger risk, however, will not be on the battle field but at home in the political world of the 2016 Presidential election. Once again, the GOP will label Democrats as soft on defense and ineffective as leaders. Hmmm.

Afghanistan represents a difficult piece of culture and geography. From the days of Alexander the Great, each successive invader has had difficulty deciding when to leave.  What’s in it for the US to remain?

One advantage, some say, if the US keeps a sustainable Afghan force, is this presence would require an overall military size helpful in responding to flare ups other places in the world. The support infrastructure to maintain an Army in Afghanistan could also support a more rapid deployment of US troops to other locations in Asia or the Middle East, for example. And with a growing Chinese presence and a rejuvenated Russia, maintaining US military strength is a strong argument.

We must be careful, however, if any of our political or military leaders suggests that staying in Afghanistan is necessary to complete the Afghan transition to democracy. While Afghanistan does not present the Middle East “Sunni-Shiite conflict”, Afghanistan presents its own set of obstacles.

Afghanistan is a relatively recent State which has been cobbled together from dozens of ethnically different groups. The idea that modern Afghanistan can be anything other than a loose confederation of tribes for the foreseeable future is just dreaming. Poverty, corruption, and tribal jealousies will rule the day. The reason to remain in Afghanistan does not include helping to birth a democracy.

The rub in the “being ready for other contingencies” argument is an statement the US cannot make publicly.  More to the point, it will not sell well on the Sunday talk shows.

Another damaging aspect will be the budgetary considerations. How can the US support a continued war while cutting domestic spending?

Former President Johnson once said he would not be the first US President to lose a war when referring to a Vietnam withdrawal. President Obama may see that same writing on his history wall.  While leaving Afghanistan is inevitable since connecting it to US national interests any longer is too much of a stretch, President Obama may be thinking, “not on my watch”.

The case for Afghanistan is for the Afghanis to decide. We went there in hot pursuit of al Qaeda and removed the Taliban government because they tolerated al Qaeda presence. It is not our position to tell the Afghan people what type of leaders they should have. If religious conservatives like the Taliban, so be it.

The risk, of course, will remain that ISIS or al Qaeda or some other look alike will return. But frankly, a residual force of 14,000 will not be much of a deterrent anyways.

What say Chuck Hagel?

Something More To Worry About

November 23, 2014

There is no doubt that ISIS represents one the worst movements in the world today.  The only question is whether ISIS is more or less diabolical than Muarmar Kadaffi or Saddam Hussein were? Or, are the people who have died at the hands of ISIS any more dead than those who died as a consequence of some stupid Sunni or Shiite blowing up themselves (and anyone nearby)?

Is the pursuit of martyrdom the catalyst for all this inhumanity?  Maybe but there is a more basic cause.

Poor and uneducated people all over the world (and throughout history) are the pawns of those seeking power and wealth. In the Middle East and through out the Muslim world, the common person is the potential target of others who seek to improve their personal position.

  • First rule, blame everything that is wrong on someone or something else.
  • Second rule, emphasize that a supernatural being (god or allah) is on their side and will reward the loyal follower.

Simple rules and universally applicable.

Al Qaeda stressed the Paradise awaiting its warriors, especially the 7 virgins due each suicide bomber. Now ISIS has moved up scale. They are operating more similarly to a normal government (not out of some cave) with a traditional military branch and field fighting.

ISIS has also found that marketing (symbols like their black flag) can extend their reach. Most experts, however, predict ISIS will be defeated if they choose to engage in traditional armed conflicts. Hmmm.

So why is there something more to worry about.

There are reports that the ISIS black flags (like the Under Armor logo) are showing up in Pakistan. Why is this a worry?

Pakistan has most of the ingredients an insurgency needs,like wide differences between the rich and the poor. Most Pakistanis are dirt poor and uneducated. Government officials, on top of that, are prone to graft and corruption and seem to be indifferent to providing basic public services. Hmmm.

So what is the worry?

Pakistan also has the bomb. Were a ISIS like insurgency take hold, the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could be put in jeopardy. From an ISIS perspective, their efforts toward power and wealth could take a big jump forward. With the bomb, the West could no longer kick sand in their eyes and lesser powers like Afghanistan or Iraq would be hard pressed to defend themselves from Pakistani inspired uprisings.

What does this mean?

Currently the focus is upon defeating and dismantling a group that calls itself ISIS. The playground is Syria and Iraq. The rhetoric captures ISIS as a group of people as opposed to a business model. The West would do well to see ISIS is fundamentally a business model and not a collection of people.  A business model could suddenly jump to another land like Pakistan.

What if the Taliban rebranded themselves as ISIS?

Framing ISIS as a group of people, however, makes it easier to explain and convince other Americans that their government is protecting the homeland. Regrettably, ISIS is much more than a group of people. It is a business model which at its core seeks to change who is wealthy and powerful.    And, best of all, a business model is far more portable.

Business models can be beaten with other models which work better. The West’s efforts towards defeating ISIS with guns needs to augmented. When ISIS or any other look alike group’s approach can be shown as more costly to the people it is trying to win over, then progress can be made on eliminating the extremist groups to seek to pray upon dirt poor and uneducated.   Hmmm.

Boehner – Does He Mean What He Says?

November 22, 2014

The immediate aftermath of President Obama’s announced immigration reform changes has boggled the minds of any logic driven person. John Boehner has been particularly indignant in his criticism, almost to the point of stammering. Obama has “poisoned the well”, “stuck his finger in the eye of the people’s House”, and “hurt the office of President itself”. Well why hasn’t the House already taken action?  Hmmm.

It is true that Boehner is in a tough spot. He uttered remarks weeks ago aimed at discouraging President Obama from taking this action. So to just let the issue pass would not be the signal Boehner would want to send.

Boehner also has some odd caucus members. This group endorsed shutting down the government and has recommended impeaching the President. This group’s views while out of step with most of America are well received in their home districts. Boehner’s problem, how to keep these (dare I say) extremists in line?

The plain facts are that the Senate passed a bi-partisan compromise immigration reform bill in 2013 and the GOP controlled House never brought the bill to the floor of discussion or vote. The House (or as Boehner says, the People’s House) chose not to act upon immigration reform. So does Boehner mean that the President needs to wait until the House is ready to act, or does he mean the President needs to wait until Boehner can get control of his extremist faction?

Those who claim that the President does not have the Constitutional powers to take these executive actions are mistaken. The House does have, however, the option of “defunding” the government agencies charged with enforcing Obama’s executive actions but that may prove far more difficult than it sounds.

The House has regularly said they wished to pursue immigration reform in a series of independent steps. The President has said “pass a bill” and replace the need for his actions. The GOP now finds itself in a tough spot. If it passes a piecemeal size reform bill, then President Obama can leave in place those parts of his order that the GOP bill does not cover.

If the House does pass a comprehensive bill, then the President must decide whether it is fair enough to sign and not veto. If he signs, this would represent real progress.  If the President vetoes the bill, then until a new bill is presented his executive orders remain in effect.

If, on the other hand, the House “hoots and hollers” and does nothing, Hispanics will have another chance to express their views in the 2016 Presidential election. Hmmm.

From Simply “No” To “What”?

November 20, 2014

President Obama will spell out his intended “executive actions” today in a speech in Las Vegas. Many GOP members, especially those potential 2016 candidates, are frothing at the mouth with statements equating Presidential executive orders as “sticking a figure in Americans’ eyes”. Hmmm.

When many of these same GOP leaders are not redefining Constitutional powers, they are, in addition to immigration, critiquing the President’s Middle East policies. Have you heard? “The President did not act soon enough in Syria and now US options are limited.” Or, how about, “ISIS cannot be eliminated with airstrikes alone”.  Or, “the US should never have left Iraq”.

The GOP has other subject such as creating jobs and growing the economy.  How about, “approving the XL pipeline will create jobs”.  Hmmm.

Let’s think about these positions.

Clearly on any path to reforming the immigration mess will be documenting all those who are here now and ensuring they are paying their taxes.  (If we can’t secure the borders now, why does anyone think we could deport 11 million residents?

Suppose the President recommends tonight such an documentation approach by executive order, could not the GOP controlled Congress pass a more comprehensive bill defining by law which undocumented could be given papers? Could not the GOP controlled Congress pass legislations with appropriate funding (supported by new funding) which would “seal the borders”?

on other issues, could not GOP leaders spell out their recommendations for the Middle East? Could not these leaders defend any accusations that reentering the Gulf States was akin to Vietnam? Could not the GOP explain why America was better suited to solving a centuries old schism between Shiites and Sunnis?

Interestingly, the one issue where the decision is basically immaterial with respect to all the popular arguments, that is building the XL or not.  The XL will neither create new jobs nor will it destroy the environment.

The GOP has chosen a populous, short sighted reasoning to justify their XL position. The GOP’s emphasis upon creating new jobs overlooks what a glutted oil market will do to the booming new jobs in the Dakotas or in many of the other fracking States. A glut of oil has already lowered the price of oil/gasoline and at some point near $70 per barrel, many of the current US oil producers become unprofitable and certainly at that point no wise investor will risk spending more of his money.

The GOP is caught in the transition from the party out of power where just saying no is enough to the party in power where their actions will have consequences. Not much to cheer about yet.

Immigration Fight?

November 18, 2014

President Obama appears to be preparing to face off with GOP congressional leaders over immigration reforms. We have an estimated 11 million undocumented residents and political leaders cannot seem to find common ground upon which to decide what to do with this number.

Some sources reduce this situation to simply denying Democrats new voters were these 11 million to be somehow naturalized. Others speak mightily about the rule of law and these 11 million have broken the law and should be deported. Hmmm.

There is no single story which describes how each of the 11 million got here. In general most came to the US for employment reasons (economic hardship at home). Often a family member was here first and helped the newcomer find employment and housing. Most of the 11 million are Mexican and almost all the 11 million are good workers who perform tasks that American citizens cannot do as well or will not do at the same wage levels as these undocumented will.

Logic does not seem to work in trying to discuss undocumented residents. Who can support free and unfettered entrance to the country including our social support systems? Similarly, who can deny that most of these undocumented perform valuable and necessary work? Who can say that language is an issue, especially for those who come when they are young or have children while here? And it could be  simply fear, Hispanics make up about 16% of America’s population now and there are plenty more of them still in Mexico and nearby Central American countries.

So why again does there need to be a political fight?

The GOP has interpreted the 2014 midterm election results as a clear mandate to govern from their perspective. That means no immigration reform. The fly in the ointment is that the GOP also wants to be seen as capable of governing. The more sensible GOP minds realize that shutting down the government or just grid lock does not inspire the public.

President Obama, however, has said he will use his executive powers to make some reform unless Congress acts. To that promise, GOP leaders have been breathing fire. Why?

Why did not Senate “soon to be leader” McConnell and House Speaker Boehner just say, “hmmm, we will have to see what the President does and then we will decide whether further action is needed?”

The President certainly cannot legislate law. In fact it is the duty of the President to execute laws passed by Congress. Eleven million residents, however, are far too many to find, apprehend, and deport. Hence the President could by order direct his resources to concentrate upon criminals and not divert time and attention towards seeking to find productive undocumented. From the President’s perspective, the GOP could take its time and later make up its mind about immigration reform when it got around to it.

There is, of course, another explanation for the President’s promised action and the GOP’s promised reaction. Each side has calculated that there is little they can agree upon because the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is too far away from the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Whatever.

Immigration reform is an important issue. This 11 million undocumented issue needs to be resolved wisely.   What if the 11 million were mostly from Mali, Liberia, or Nigeria? Or what if these 11 million were mostly form North Africa or the Middle East? Mexicans are hard workers with religious and social values very similar to most Americans. If there was one group of immigrants besides Europeans the country should want, it ought to be Mexicans one would think.

I wonder how this “fight” will turn out?

Smooth Words, Not Necessarily Sincere Words

November 17, 2014

Former General Michael Hayden and former Director of the NSA is making the rounds of talk shows. He’s articulate and comes across as a considered voice in the midst of strong hawk and dove messages. It pays, however, to listen closely for he tends to slip in hawkish opinions like sliding a knife between another persons ribs. Hmmm.

General Hayden is now a favorite for talk shows featuring ISIS commentary.  He delighted in discussing the situation the US finds itself in Syria.   US perspective sees ISIS is the greatest enemy. Next would be the pursuit of forces loyal to Assad. The most preferred fight group is the Kurdish insurgents. Interestingly, General Hayden points out that Turkey sees this preference in the opposite order.

Hayden sighs and says if the US had acted sooner, it could have had more options. Hmmm. What does he mean?

Hayden has just taken a swipe at President Obama’s decision to not arm Syrian insurgents. The President maintained that the overall situation was so volatile it was difficult to separate insurgents who might be viewed reasonable from the likes of ISIS.

Hayden muttered the disclaimer “if there were any insurgents we could have worked with” after having boldly intimated the President should have acted sooner.

Life is full of those situations where if X had happened, our strategy Y would have been perfect. In reality, X could have happened but did not happen, and it turns out that in that case Y is a very poor option.

Consider the plan to train and equip the Iraqi military. After years of training and billions of dollars in equipment, when ISIS advanced on their Western positions, the otherwise disgruntle Army units deserted and fled… leaving the expensive US supplied equipment behind. ISIS, in their own way I’m sure is thanking the US for leaving them so much useful equipment. Hmmm.

Senator John McCain has also long been a proponent of picking the insurgent factions “we can work with”. McCain never loses an opportunity to criticize President Obama for not following McCain’s recommendations. How did McCain get so smart?

Hayden and McCain represent one approach to foreign policy. Punch the other guy in the nose first and teach him whose boss. President Obama favors a quite different approach which emphasizes the lack of clarity most foreign situations possess. As events develop, much more is learned. As learning increases, foreign policy tactics can be refined.

The Iraq invasion and occupation should be proof enough that act first, think later does not produce the best results.