Archive for December 2016

Leading From Behind – Year End

December 31, 2016

Every year has a beginning, and whatever has a beginning, has an end. Today is the last day of 20116, the year of the unthinkable. What will 2017 bring?

President Obama has tried his best to change several trajectories upon which the US has sailing when he became President in 2009. One of the more controversial was his “leading from behind” foreign policy.

After having inherited poorly thought through strategies, such as nation building in Afghanistan and regime change in Iraq, President Obama apparently concluded that, if given the chance, the State Department would employ military force in any and all foreign policy issues, and the Military (Defense Department) would gladly fight in any theater as the willing enforcer for State Department policy. After 8 years with President George W Bush, State and Defense thought there was not a world situation not amenable to the salvation of military force.

President Obama, on the other hand, could not find logical, fact based arguments supporting continued military investment in the Middle East and seriously questioned continuing any presence in Afghanistan. When the Arab Spring occurred, President Obama resisted intervention in Tunisia, Libya, and Syria.
Tunisia formed a new government with relatively minor collateral problems. Libya incurred NATO air intervention resulting in the capture and death of Muammar Gaddafi. The Libya regime change has been rocky and still pits rival tribes against each other, and each of them against ISIS-type insurgents. Syria regrettably disintegrated into an all out civil war and produced millions of displaced persons and civilian deaths. At this point it appears Bashar Assad will retain power and hopes for a Syrian regime change will evaporate.

President-elect Trump has voiced the idea of “Peace Through Strength”. No more leading from behind.  These are thinly disguised words harkening back to the Bush era where the neoconservative, chicken hawks gladly dispatch other American’s sons and daughters to armed conflicts.

These sweetly flavored words promise a peaceful American life by keeping the world’s thugs off our doorsteps. If the world were only that simple.

President Trump will experience the same “tell him what he wants to hear” briefings from the Intelligence Agencies and State Department. And as it should, the Defense Department will develop plans to achieve what it is asked.

President Obama learned to question toughly what each agency or department recommended. The open question is “WWDD”?

Insight Into Next Four Years?

December 29, 2016

President-elect Trump and many elected representatives in Congress have risen from their seats to denounce the US decision not to veto a 14-0 UN Security Counsel vote. The vote which condemned Israel’s current practice of building in the occupied territories, including Jerusalem. President-elect Trump tweeted today that things would be different after January 20th. Hmmm.

A characteristic of recent GOP Congresses and George W Bush’s Administration has been their preference to see all issues as single component issues. Complex systems invariably gave way to much easier to communicate “black or white” perspectives. So, as the President-elect sees it, Israel is our best friend in the Middle East and America should be steadfast in recognizing that. Hmmm.

President-elect Trump has spoken out many times about the mistake the Iraq War was. I wonder whether the President-elect remembers that Israel was very vocal about Iraq regime change and urged the US to overthrow Saddam Hussein. From that and a host of other preconceived notions, America got the Iraq War and the huge failure in foreign policy it represents.

There are many other complex, systems specific issues that Congress will come across. In fact the number of single factor issues is vanishingly small. Healthcare (including Medicare and Medicaid), Roe v Wade, racial and gender discrimination, religious freedom, reducing poverty, and education to name a few.

Republican stated position have been simplistic and untested. Repeal and replace is easy to articulate, but to date, there have been no fiscally sound replacement proposals which do not put healthcare out of reach for millions of Americans. With the American public fairly evenly split on abortion, actions to severely restrict abortion access will have consequences. Like many other Republican advocacies, abortion restriction impacts the poor and poverty stricken the hardest. As a consequence, breaking the poverty cycle will become orders of magnitude harder. And so on.

So, the apparent rush to assuage Prime Minister Netanyahu’s hurt feelings completely overlooks the complexities of the Middle East, not to mention the unthinkable outcome of a single State, apartheid-like solution which Netanyahu seems heading towards.

One should not lose sight of the Arab convoluted situation. The Palestinians are dependent upon deep pockets in other Arab countries. Without this money, Hamas, Hezbollah, or even the Palestinian Government’s daily business could not exist long. The PLO’s resistance to negotiation can not be a stand along decision and must reflect outside demands. The Palestinian-Israeli situation is a complex issue.

Inherently a master deal maker must consider competing issues. For the President-elect, deal making is a highly developed skill. The issue that may escape the President-elect and for sure the GOP controlled Congress is what might follow an Israeli-Palestinian one State peace. What will a united Middle East (with all its oil) possessing nuclear capability do for national aspiration?

The next Administration’s Middle East policy needs to be complex enough that it foresees a pathway to Israeli-Palestinian peace.  Or, will this policy simply be standing by America’s friend?

Can 90 US Senators Be Wrong?

December 28, 2016

CNN ran a bottom of the screen headline “90 US Senators Oppose Change in US Policy Towards Russia”. This is a signifiant number and almost assuredly is greater than the number of US Senators that accept man is playing a role in global climate change. What does it mean and is it significant?

The headline was most probably a shot across President-elect Trump’s bow. CNN did not cajole 90 Senators into taking this public position but the network was delighted to flash it across the screen. Maybe the Trumpster will begin a “tweet” avalanche.

The larger issue relates to why 90 Senators might agree on any policy. US Russian policy dates from the cold war when “containment” was the bi-partisan goal. With the fall of the Soviet Union, rather than adopt a “live and let live” policy versus Communist Russia, US policy switch to a hubris based view that Russia’s end was near. The path to this end was to entice the bordering countries (like Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, etc) to join NATO and the Common Market. The big idea was to enable these countries to thrive economically and demonstrate to Russian people how their communism system was doomed for the trash heap. Then, these experts theorized, Russia would crumble from within.

The experts appear not to have read the Catherine The Great biography by Robert K Messie. This biography reveals the deeply entrenched Russian DNA which is paranoid about threats from abroad. US inspired intrusion into these former “buffer” States set off nationalistic alarm bells. Russian conservatives and Communist hardliners have marshaled the Russian public’s support for saving Mother Russia. Hence we have seen intervention in Georgia, Crimea, and now Syria.

So much for that policy.

Thinking Americans should seriously question any US Russian policy which worries about Communism. If there is not already sufficient evidence that pure Communism does not work (compared to most democratic capitalist systems), then a new US Russian foreign policy crafted to change Russia is day dreaming.

This a long winded way of saying that the Senate would be wise to listen to what President-elect is really thinking about in terms of Russian relations. Assuming instead that the State Department is prima facia correct is a risky bet.

The world has changed. Think about it. There is the West led by the US, there is Russia, there is China, and there are a number of rogue or potential rogue nations, possessing nuclear weapons, and all with ideologies truly foreign to Western thinking. So how can the US follow a foreign policy with a singular view of Russia? How can a US Russian foreign policy not consider China and these rogue nations too?

The world has become too small for a set of specific country oriented foreign policies. There is a need for an overall US policy towards all foreign powers.  This policy must envision US values and what the US would be willing to fight about.

Peaceful coexistence ought to be the base minimum with mutual economic growth as the preferred outcome.

The world is a messy place and President-elect Trump needs to express his views too.

Whether the Trump Administration can put forward a strategic vision or will prefer a series of one-off policies time will tell. Until such time, there is no reason to be critical of Trump given the current out of date US policy.

Seasons Greetings

December 27, 2016

The PC police have steered the nation towards “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”, says those who want to take their country back.

President-elect Trump tweeted “Merry Christmas” to the delight of the “keep Christ in Christmas” crowd. I wonder whether it occurred to the soon to be President that he will be President for all Americans, some who wish each other a “Happy Chanukah” in and around December 25th.

For me, it is still a Christmas Tree. And it is Merry Christmas to my grandchildren, did Santa Claus come last night? But when it comes to card exchanges, sharing what happened this past year for me and my wife, the card is about “peace on earth” and “happy holidays”.

Anyone who has not be watching, December 25 is huge a commercial celebration where friends exchange gifts and children’s dreams are awakened. For sure, many Christians find a religious purpose, although usually in addition not in place of the gift giving.

About 70% of Americans identify as Christian. Of the remaining 30%, 23% are not affiliated with any religion. Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists are the primary groups making up the remaining 7%. So should some Christians rewrite reality and get their way about Christmas?

Happy Holidays not only signals Christmas, it also covers another year end national holiday, New Years Day. The Jewish 8 day celebration of Chanukah usually fall within this same happy holidays period too. So which greeting would seem more inclusive, Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas?

The most troubling aspect of President-elect Trump’s tweet is that from him “Merry Christmas” is just a dog whistle to the bigoted Trump supporters. Trump’s greeting calls for more “us and them” thinking.  Trump seems to want to take credit for saving Christmas (where’s the Grinch), all part of taking America back.

Israel and The Event Horizon

December 25, 2016

Yesterday the US abstained during a United Nations vote critical of Israel’s continued settlement building in and around Jerusalem. Despite strong words from President-elect Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Obama called for the “no vote” rather than issue a veto. To say this is a complicated issue is an understatement. One would hope logic and not politics underpinned the US position. Hmmm.

The first difficulty in assessing Israel’s right to annex occupied territory land is to identify which State (Israel or Palestinians) has a just claim for what land. Does one begin with the 1947 resolutions which created the State of Israel? Or does one take into account the Yom Kippur and 6 Day wars initiated by the Arab States and subsequently won by Israel? And what weight should one put on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s claim that Israel still seeks a “two State” solution to this near 70 year conflict?

Israel actions seems to suggest a preferred compromise would be an Israeli State with a minority Arab population and with Jerusalem Israel’s capital. As for the Palestinians, Israel would accept a disarmed separate State occupying the West Bank land Israel does not want, and with no right of return for any Palestinian refugees. Hmmm.

This type of two State solution flies in the face of the 1947/48 boarders as well as any year since. Israel has continually expanded its occupied territory with housing developments each year. Each year Israel asserts its preference to negotiate a lasting 2 State peace only to take over more land the next year. Does Israel have an end game in mind?

A very real complication lies in demographics. The Arab population living in Israel or even the occupied lands is growing faster than the Jewish residents. Consequently, the Israeli desire to remain a “Jewish” state and a democratic one can project its end as the Arab population outgrows the Jewish residents, and then in a democratic state, votes to change the nature of a “Jewish” State.

Given this complication, the two State solution seems like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, Israel’s behavior, building more settlements in the occupied territories and laying claim to all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, simply do not provide suitable conditions for negotiations.

For most outsiders, Israel’s actions do not appear to have been an accident. Israel appears to have a premeditated intent of changing the “on the ground” facts and claim negations should be about the rest of the West Bank. Hmmm.

Israel’s actions are not the only events taking place in the Middle East. The Sunni and Shiite worlds seem out of control and the radical elements like al Qaeda and ISIS could potentially lead to a two headed Arab world (Sunni and Shiite oriented) with only one thing in common, hatred of a Jewish State in their midst. The event horizon could suck the Arab States and Israel in a new round of armed conflicts making Hezbollah look like a beginner’s militia.

President Obama has steered a wise course denying any encouragement to Israel avoiding negotiations and instead annexing land by simply occupying it.

Come January 20th, this policy will likely change. Will Israel (and the US) get swept over the event horizon?

Charter Schools And Vouchers

December 23, 2016

Betsy DeVos has been nominated to become the next Secretary of Education. An heir to the Amway fortune, Ms DeVos has been an active campaigner for charter schools and applying them to improve educational outcomes in Michigan. Her selection seems a logical step for conservatives Republicans.

The next four Republican controlled years will features one “improvement” program after another. President-elect Trump has already trumpeted a huge tax cut and the GOP Congress has nodded their approval. This tax overhaul will liberate our growth engine and American factories will be humming again soon, Trump supporters say.

This may be viewed a highly dubious claim but what is not dubious is that the very wealthiest Americans will receive a “huge” tax reduction.

Ms DeVos boasts about the superior nature of Charter Schools when compared to Public Schools. She is likely to use her national stage to push the creation of Charter Schools across the country. What is also likely is that she will combine Charter Schools with “vouchers” so as to enable many more families to send their children to a quality education. Hmmm.

Ms DeVos’s work in Michigan focused upon the Detroit School System. According the Detroit Free Press, Ms DeVos was quite successful in setting up a large number of Charters in Detroit. Surprisingly Detroit test scores have not improved begging the question why Charters in the first place?

Charters are privately run schools which receive payment from the Public School System. Charters hire teachers for less money than Public School teachers receive and generally avoid all difficult to educate students (leaving them for the Public Schools). These are mini businesses where profit is proportional to the number of students and lower cost of salaries.

The selling point for charters is intriguing. Many are describe as “learning laboratories”, place where outstanding teachers are not held back by seniority rules or bureaucracy in general. In practice only a few nationwide meet this vision.

A second and compelling reason is segregation in the sense that in troubled school districts, Charter Schools seem safer to parents.  Charters along with parochial (private) schools appear to offer a more focused environment.

In most areas, Charters are actually a thinly disguised gambit to break teachers unions and in tern, reduce teachers pay and their political influence.  If teachers unions won’t negotiate, then the “go to” tactic is to establish Charter schools.

Unfortunately, n many situations, teacher unions are so intransigent and so blind to any change that Charters are a necessary evil. But the rush to Charters which the Trump Administration will champion is really about making “vouchers” available in every school district allowing parents to send their children to any school the child is qualified to attend.  The voucher cost would come from Public School District budget diverting funds that would have otherwise supported public education.

Why shouldn’t a parent be able to send their child to any school with a voucher equal to the per capita amount set by the school district, voucher supports will ask? What many of these voucher supporters are not saying is the school of their choice is a private school, usually a religious affiliated school. Vouchers would allow the GOP to reward the Catholic Church along with many individual “Bible Belt” churches as well as satisfy a significant segment of the Republican Party.

All this from Charter Schools which have not raised education levels.  Hmmm.

Ms DeVos, like other advocates, do not deal with what happens to Public Schools or those students not taken by Charters or Private Schools. Will public schools be the school of last resort? Will public schools just wither and die away?

Ironically, public schools were an American innovation and have been the back bone of American Education, raising the average student’s education level. What made America Great was the Public School system.

The 2016 Presidential election has been called a “change” election.  The Charter and Voucher options if they come to pass, will change public education and cement the foundations of a segmented society.  Charters and Vouchers are not part of the path to making America Great Again.

Catching “Catch 22”

December 20, 2016

If one asks others what they understand “Making America Great Again” means, what do you think the answer would be? Would it be about more good paying jobs? Would it be about returning social norms to a more conservative period? Would it be victories in foreign encounters?  Or, would it be simply a return to the “Guilded Age”?

It might very well be all of these. The phrase elicits answers which are specific to individuals. President-elect Trump has never applied any specifications to “Make America Great Again” Consequently, the phrase could mean any or all of these conditions, or none of them. As the Pied Piper-in-chief, President Trump is likely to keep moving the target and assuring everyone that we are just months away from America being Great Again.

So what is the “Catch 22” aspect?

President-elect Trump has got to begin quickly to deliver results to his base. For these Americans, good paying jobs are the goal and at the minimum is no further erosion of legacy jobs. Most probably President Trump hopes to achieve this by stimulating the economy with large tax cuts which would (supply siders predict) create demand for goods and services. As more goods and services are consumed, the economy will grow to meet this new demand. Once started, supply siders reason, the economy blossoms.

But there is a “catch 22” problem. The Republican Party’s conservative wing are mostly deficit hawks and do not support unfunded policies. Tax cuts, they feel, are wonderful but not the loss of tax revenues. While supply siders will promise that a stronger economy will “self fund” these cuts, history has not supported this concept. Cuts in other spending (read job loses) seems inescapable.

So… our conservative budget hawks see a grand opportunity to cut entitlements and slash away at government employee rolls. Hmmm.

Cutting government employees might seem related to “draining the swamp” and should be very popular with Trump’s supporters. Will that be a free lunch, that is, allowing President Trump to give large tax cuts to the wealthy while turning out thousands of federal employees?  Or, will “catch 22” make him hold up on dismissing so many government workers?

And just in case one doesn’t recall 2008 and 9, when the US economy fell into a severe recession, these same conservatives called for “austerity” measures. Not only were jobs reduced at the Federal level, but additional jobs were cut in many State governments. What these actions did together was to increase the national unemployment rate at the same time President Obama was attempting to stabilize the economy. The country was in a hole but these conservatives just wanted to keep digging.

So, what is the message?

Challenging each Federal Agency to demonstrate continued needs for their services as well as the number of employees needed to provide the services should be encouraged. Maybe there are areas where substantially less employees are needed. But wouldn’t it make sense to lay these workers off at a time when the economy is growing briskly and displaced workers could more easily find work?

The looming battle pits a GOP/Trump encouraged Administration and co-accomplice, Congress, ready to tear down all sorts of Federal programs, against the reality that there will be consequences. Rather, the GOP seems poised to do it all at once, stimulating job growth with one hand and destroying jobs with the other.   The knock-on social consequences can only be imagined at this time and appear of little interest to the GOP.

President-elect Trump now predicts 4% sustained GDP growth is just around the corner. There are concrete reasons to doubt his number, even for a short run of 2-3 years. On January 20th, the Trump era will begin. I wonder how long the honeymoon will last?