Greater Krueger National Park

Greater Krueger National Park
An image from a recent trip to South Africa. Clcik on the image for more on this trip.

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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Donald Trump and the "Muslim Problem"

I have been thinking about the fact that Mr.Trump has reinvigorated the birth certificate issue and I am tending toward making it another reason why I do not support him in his bid to be the Republican candidate for President of this country. I have stayed away from this issue ever since some on the hard right attempted to make it a part of the campaign against President Obama last time around, fearing that to engage it would give it legs. It is a very dangerous issue not just for the President, but also for this country. Unfortunately, it now looks like it is going to reemerge in the 2012 electoral campaign. I find that most unfortunate.

There is no doubt in my mind that Mr. Barack Hussein Obama was born in Hawaii and thus is qualified to be our President. There is also no doubt in my mind that his father was a follower of the Muslim faith. My assumption is that the birth certificate states that the child's religion is Muslim. It is also my presumption that the adult Obama saw his association with Islam as a child to be detrimental to his political career. As an adult, he has made repeated statements to the effect that he is a Christian, and I see no reason to doubt him on that score. He has a long and very public record of having been associated with Reverend Wright's church. That association opened another can of worms, but it too is understandable, given his work within the black community in Chicago.

Please understand that I do not want Mr. Obama to be our President, but my reasons do not relate to the word that his parents wrote on a piece of paper in his infancy. Neither do they relate to the fact that he attended a Muslim school in Indonesia as a child. In fact, I agree with him that the Muslim's evening call to prayer is a beautiful sound. I think that he made a serious mistake when he tried to cover all of this up because it raises questions about his core values. That is about the only part of this that does concern me, but my main opposition to him is for the bad things that he is doing to this country as President.

When I first heard The Donald raise the issue with the ladies on The View, I assumed that he just got his mouth out ahead of his brain, but the fact that he is continuing the campaign makes it clear that it is a calculated part of his bid for the Republican nomination. I note too that he is loud and clear that he opposed the Ground Zero Mosque and agrees with Bill O'Reilly that America has a "Muslim Problem." I believe that this is an effort to appeal to the current visceral fear of Islam that is alive and well in the body politic. This is not what or who we need to lead the conservative cause in 2012.

We do not have a "Muslim Problem" in America just because a large number of very dangerous radical Islamic terrorists are attacking us. If that were to be true then we do indeed have a "Christian Problem" when Christian idiots shoot people in schools, post offices, and super markets. Heck, some of them even cite the bible when they kill people, just as the radical Islamists cite the Koran. That there are large numbers of Americans that are unable to distinguish between our true enemies and those that are not is depressing enough, but that we have people who want to lead us into more of that kind of lunacy is dangerous.

The Continuing Resolution

If it is true that Vice President Biden and John Boehner have agreed to $73 billion in cuts to the non-existent present year budget, I say that is good enough. I know that the Tea Party is calling for $100 billion, but the idea that conservatives would shut the government down over $27 billion is ridiculous. Everybody in America understands that the previous Congress failed, for the first time in the history of this country, to even propose, let alone pass, a budget. Everybody knows that because of that dereliction of duty we are presently forced to run our government a few days at a time with continuing resolutions. Everybody knows that our debt is currently running in the trillions of dollars because of Obama's profligate spending. That should be enough to turn the Democrats out in 2012. Why shut down government and thus give them sufficient ammunition to further confuse the real issue facing our country?

Stop and think about it - please. It is true that $27 billion is an awful lot of money, but as a fraction of our national debt it is invisible and will not save us from anything other than the pyric victory of doing what some conservatives promised in order to get elected. If you do the math, and depending on the particular astronomical number you use for our debt, it is somewhere in the vicinity of .0018%. I am a conservative, and hawkish on the debt problem. I want to actually cut spending and start reducing the national debt. We will not do that by insisting on a cut of $27 billion. We have much bigger (and more difficult) fish to fry before we get our fiscal house in order. And no matter what we do right now, it is going to take us a lot longer than one continuing resolution to accomplish fiscal sanity. We desperately need to elect a conservative senate and, if at all possible, a conservative president in just under two years time. Let's not let anyone, least of all Howard Dean, succeed in painting conservatives as being unreasonable.

I do not believe that we can avoid a fight with the Democrats, but this $27 billion is not where we should be drawing lines in the shifting sands of Washington. The real fight will commence as soon as Paul Ryan unveils his new budget. He has promised to address entitlements in that budget and lay out a road map to solvency in the future. Assuming that his proposals are as good as I hope they are - that is the place to fight the good fight and win, lose, or draw, frame the election of 2012. We must remember that the problem is much too big to be resolved in one or two years. We need a conservative government in place after 2012 for at least four years and, preferably, for eight years. If we do not get that, a victory over $27 billion will not do much except prove that we are not any more serious about this stuff than are the people running the show at the present time.

I am not naive enough to believe everything that politicians on both sides of the aisle are saying right now, but I am not sure exactly where the kabuki play starts and stops. It is politically useful for the Tea Party to continue to howl for $100 billion and to bad mouth the House leadership for "caving" to the Vice President. It is even useful for people like Michelle Bachman to vote against the $73 billion compromise as long as the Republican whips have ensured that they have enough votes to pass the compromise. That provides Tea Party representatives cover with the people that elected them without giving the Democrats the substantive issue of shutting down the government. Assuming that John Boehner is able to pull that off, I say he is doing his job and deserves our appreciation. Unfortunately for him, the real fight starts next month when the new budget is officially unveiled. That will be one that books will be written about and will decide whether we go the way of Southern Europe or maintain our position as the most powerful economy on the planet.

When we do the movie, Jimmy Stewart should probably get the Boehner role.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Trump and the Birth Certificate

I admire Donald Trump's success in real estate and agree with some of his frustrations concerning our present economic situation. I find some of his criticisms of the current administration to be right on target, but I do not believe that Republicans should continue to attack President Obama on the birth certificate issue. It is not that I am satisfied that the President was born in the United States as required by the constitution.  All things being equal, I would like to see that issue cleared up.   I admit that I share Mr. Trump's curiosity as to why the President has seen fit to spend millions of dollars to thwart that clarification.

My opposition to making this such a political issue, at this point in time, is that it is helpful to Mr. Obama's reelection campaign. I presume that from here on out, we will ask this question of all of our presidential candidates as a matter of course, and that is as it should be. By raising it now, we are energizing the President's base support and that is not an intelligent thing for conservatives to do. Elections are, unfortunately, partly a test of voter intensity on left and right. Whoopi Goldberg's point that we have never asked white men to show their birth certificate is not relevant in absolute terms, but it is extremely relevant in gut political terms. Why is it in the conservative interest to stimulate the political left?

I have long ago gotten over the fact that the American public did not ask enough questions of this man before we elected him. Among other things I am flabbergasted that we elected an individual to office that could not have gotten a job in the United States government that required a security clearance. His questionable associations with radical thinkers and activists would have raised too many questions. The birth certificate issue comes far down the list of my complaints about the decision to select him as our president, but the fact is that we elected him. We will not defeat him at the polls by poking a stick in the eye of his base supporters - even if it is deserved.

If, repeat if, we elect a better person to lead this country it will be because we make the case on the political issues that divide us. The key thing to keep in mind is that the middle of America is where that decision will be made. The so-called independent voter aligned with "weak" Democrats and Republicans will decide who our next president will be. Libya will be part of that debate, as will a number of other things, but President Clinton's oft-repeated political slogan highlights the principal issue - "its the economy stupid." Although we are currently focused on radiation in Japan and air strikes in North Africa, the most important thing looming on the near horizon is the dogfight over the budget.

Before I leave the subject of Mr. Trump's reported consideration of running for the office of president, let me make a heart-felt plea. Please do not. Like a similar request that I make of Mrs Palin and Mrs. Bachman, Mr. Trump is too divisive to be able to govern us effectively. I continue to think that we should draft Chris Christy. He is certainly smart enough to give Mr. Obama a run for his money in any debate, and more importantly he is right on the principal problems facing this country at the present time.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Libya - a legal approach.

The United States, France, and Great Britain managed to get a resolution passed in the United Nations that called for a no fly zone. This was indeed an impressive diplomatic accomplishment and I would very much like to learn how it was done. Whatever magic was applied, the coalition obtained abstentions rather than opposition in the crucial Security Council vote from Russia, China, India, Brazil and Germany. Now, however, there is a rising tide of concern about the way in which the coalition is implementing the UN resolution. Coalition aircraft are attacking government ground units even when they are in retreat. We already have special operators on the ground with Gaddafi's opposition and are considering arming the rebels. Libyan government spokespersons are asking how those actions are consistent with the terms of a no fly zone. Coalition spokespeople take the position that they must destroy the Libyan capability to harm Gaddafi's domestic opponents else they are not protecting civilians in the long term. The inescapable logic of this rationale is regime change - something about which we continue to equivocate.

This type of debate is analogous to the litigious nature of our approach to problem resolution here in the United States. President Obama, a former law professor, has assigned the United Nations the authority to sanction military action. He has obtained a judgement from that international body and is in the process of implementing it. As questions arise, he quibbles with the words in true lawyerly fashion. There are a number of substantive problems with this approach. The ten members that voted for the resolution included the United States, France, Great Britain, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Lebanon, Portugal, South Africa, Nigeria, and Gabon. This is not an impressive list of international supporters. In addition, the United States, France and Great Britain managed to get a favorable decision in support of a no fly zone from the Arab League. The Arab League is composed of a number of regimes that are under attack by their own people thus weakening the authority of that body. In addition, it is important to note that the coalition failed to get the support of the G8 even though the United States, France and Great Britain make up more than a third of that organization.

Another problem that I have with this policy is that President Obama saw fit to seek the authority of the United Nations, but he did not see it necessary to more fully discuss this action with the American people or our elected representatives in Congress. He did not act unlawfully here, but in my view he should have done more to seek public and congressional support before he acted. I am sure that he will argue that he did not have time to do more before he had to take off on his Latin American trip, but I would argue that he did have time and should have postponed his trip for a variety of reasons including the need for a more fulsome discussion here at home.

It may well be that the United Nations will someday take over responsibility for determining what is right and what is wrong in international affairs, but we are not yet at that point. In order to get there we would have to subordinate our own sovereignty to that of the United Nations. The idea that the UN is seen by anyone to be a real authority in this world is naive. There is no question that it is a useful forum to organize coalitions, but it is not the final authority to decide much of anything - certainly not the fate of Gaddafi. In the real world that authority comes from the weight of the coalition assembled and the determination of the members to accomplish a specific goal. We do not have a formidable coalition and we have not clearly articulated our goal. At best, we look confused. At worst we look like lawyers playing with guns.

The world is, unfortunately, still a morass populated with good and bad actors. Much as we wish it were not true, there are few, if any, real legal limits to the old adage that might makes right. The United States wants to do the right thing in Libya, but we are going about it too tentatively. In my view, we should have decided what needed to be done regarding Gaddafi a long time ago. If we decided that he had to go, we should have discussed this with our allies and developed a plan to accomplish it without requiring conventional military action. Among other things, this would have resulted in far fewer Libyan civilian casualties and would have cost much less in lives and treasure. Such an action would have also included a post Gaddafi plan that would have guaranteed British and French oil interests and might even have started the country on the road toward real democracy. Granted, we would have been criticized for illegally interfering in another sovereign country, but I see that as inevitable. Certainly the present approach is generating a great deal of serious criticism and I expect more to follow.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The role of social media in Libya.

How much and what kind of a role does social media have in the revolutions presently going on around the world? I believe that Facebook and Twitter do indeed have an important tactical importance - they make it easier for like minded people to coordinate their activities. They also help in recruiting support for the revolution internally and abroad. Social media was not, however, the cause of any of these revolutions any more than was the telephone or the radio. The technology evolves, but the basic cause of revolution remains the same - discontent with the status-quo.

Once a revolution gets under way, the regime is in serious trouble, even if it succeeds in putting the current rebellion down for the time being. The only way to eliminate the threat entirely is to remove the discontent which is at the heart of the matter. For the same reason, it is not enough to just topple the existing regime. If the successor government does not do the things necessary to convince the population that the underlying causes of discontent are being acceptably addressed, a new rebellion will begin to smolder.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have successfully toppled governments that were unacceptable to a large portion of their people and are now attempting to find their way toward creating governments that hopefully will be able to address the basic problems facing those countries. The problems that these revolutionaries face are enormous. The organization of their new government is very important and it is understandable that they are now primarily focused on that challenge. Who will sit in which governmental chair and how will he or she be selected? We can expect that all elements of the populace will be interested in that subject - including people who have objectives that we do not like.

In today's global economy, whether we like it or not, what happens in one part of the world impacts all parts. It is safe to predict that the turmoil that currently exists in the Middle East and North Africa will continue to give us very real problems no matter what form of government emerges from these chaotic revolutions. The principal reason for this is that endemic poverty in the region ensures the discontent that fosters revolution. Poverty is by no means the only cause, but, combined with unfulfilled aspirations, it is the root cause.

Today, we are bombing one faction in Libya in support of another faction. This is an attempt to apply a tactical solution to a strategic problem. It might or might not temporarily improve our tactical situation in the region, but it does not address the strategic challenge. Neither will much of anything that we do with either Twitter or Facebook. I am all for championing democracy, but if we want to protect ourselves from an ever more dangerous world we must deal with poverty throughout the world including right here in our own country. In order to accomplish this we must understand that we can not just throw money at the problem. We have to find ways to make that money effective. Until we do that we will continue to have to bomb people more than we like.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Libya - humanitarian ineffectiveness

I continue to believe that President Obama was genuinely horrified by Gaddafi's efforts to kill all of his domestic opposition and genuinely wants to stop him for humanitarian reasons. The President did not think it through and has bungled the effort. In order to accomplish that goal, one would have to remove Gaddafi from power. Louis Farrakhan has a point when he asks President Obama "who the hell do you think you are?" A lot of folks in the international community have the same question and we need to carefully consider our answer. Does the United States have the right to decide which regime is legitimate and which is not?

Our own civil war comes to mind and I suppose that an outsider might accuse President Lincoln of having ordered the killing of far more people than Gaddafi. When is it ok for us to decide when we should intervene in the domestic affairs of another sovereign country? Our interventions in Viet Nam, Afghanistan, and Iraq are also relevant to this discussion. The world is not a high school debating class. Morality does not often enter into these types of decisions. The reality is that in order to effectively intervene in another country's affairs one must bring as much of the rest of the world along with you as possible. Sometimes you need specific assets and always you need moral cover. This is one of the aspects of our adventure into the Libyan desert that has not been handled well.

Another problem that faces us is that inexperienced civilian leaders that have never been in conflict do not often understand the limitations of weapons of war. Anyone who thinks that air power alone can accomplish political objectives should stop a moment and really think about our aerial campaigns in Viet Nam, Bosnia, and Iraq. I will argue that those campaigns destroyed massive amounts of equipment and infrastructure but did not change our opponents' minds. It is even worse in this case, because apparently Secretary of Defense Gates was trying to talk Obama out of this stupidity. That an inexperienced community organizer would ignore his Secretary of Defense is inexcusable, ignorant, and one more excellent reason to vote this man out of office. If, as is rumored, Secretary of State Clinton supported this stupidity, I say shame on her.

We are now entering a phase of this adventure where Gaddafi's troops are in close combat with their less well armed opponents. Reportedly, in spite of President Obama's promise not to insert Americans on the ground, we have special operations personnel in Libya trying to help the revolutionaries. (Why this is not boots on the ground I don't know.) Certainly Gaddafi knows this so why do we continue to deny it? My guess is that we fear that it would be offensive to some of our vacillating allies as well as devastating to Obama's image at home. I am sure that the brave men that have been inserted with the revolutionaries are being asked for more modern weapons to defend against Gaddafi's troops. If we say yes, that is mission creep. If we say no, are we really being true to our humanitarian instincts?

We should also ask ourselves what Gaddafi is going to do next. My guess is that he will attempt to continue the Hatfield-McCoy feud with America that has been going on for decades. He bombs a nightclub in Berlin killing a couple of Americans, we bomb Tripoli killing his adopted daughter, he bombs the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, we invade Libya. It is now his turn. My guess is that he has assets and money outside of Libya and will use them to hurt us if he possibly can. I wonder if the President factored that into his decision. If he did and did not see the necessity of physically removing this tinhorn dictator from power he made a decision that imperials American interests and probably American lives as well. If he did not think it through then this is one more reason why he is incapable of fulfilling the responsibilities inherent in the position he holds.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Libya - What Now?

President Obama has repeatedly stated that our military intervention in Libya is for humanitarian reasons. He has equivocated as to whether we intend to remove Gaddafi from power, but I presume that he wants to do so. He has refused to be drawn into a discussion as to why we intervened in this particular humanitarian crisis when there are so many others active at any given moment in time around the world. Some of his supporters point out that Gaddafi was behind the Lockerbie tragedy and that makes the difference. The President has mentioned it in passing, but has not made it the principal cause for his decision. I continue to believe that he reluctantly acted in Libya because of pressure from our European and Arab allies.

Using military force for humanitarian reasons is a dicey proposition. Using it halfheartedly as we are trying to do in Libya is ridiculous. There is a very good chance that fewer people would have been killed if we had left things alone in Libya. Granted, they would have mostly been members of tribes not loyal to Gaddafi, but the total number of people killed would probably have been less than will be the case after we get through trying to manage the revolution with missiles and fighter planes. We must face the fact that we have taken sides with a disparate group of tribesmen that we know nothing about because we don't like the guy in charge of the country. We see blunt military intervention as being better than targeted clandestine action against Gaddafi the individual because it can be cloaked with a legal rationale developed in the United Nations.

Now we face a number of practical problems in that far off place. Gaddafi, at least to this point in time, shows no inclination to call it quits. (His worldwide unpopularity makes it difficult for him to quit even if he wanted to do so.) His military units are continuing to attack everywhere that they can. By closing with the revolutionary forces inside of populated areas wherever possible, coalition air assets are much less effective. They can be used to cut off resupply and occasionally pick off a tank or an artillery unit, but they are far less effective in stopping the very personal killing that is surely going on between the various antagonists. The unfortunate example of Americans reportedly shooting revolutionaries attempting to help our two downed airmen is, unfortunately, an excellent example of how difficult it is to tell friend from foe when you are flying above them.

How all of this ends is, of course, not known. We apparently do not even know how we want it to end. I presume that after spending huge amounts of money and after the people on the ground get tired of killing each other, things will quiet down a bit. Then what do we do? Removing Gaddafi opens the door to possible anarchy which would benefit Al Quaida, whether the revolutionaries are already allied with Bin Laden or not. We clearly do not need another Somalia, nor would that outcome be consistent with our humanitarian concerns. My guess is that Secretary Gates was correct when he warned that Libya could be a tar baby. (Not a particularly sensitive comment, but probably an accurate one.)

Now talk to me about how this impacts our fiscal situation.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

President Obama and Libya

The Libyan situation is a royal mess. We don't know anything about the people we are trying to help and we don't know how we are going to get rid of the one guy we know we don't like. We are arguing with our allies about pretty much everything including the objective of our military campaign, the command structure, and the rules of engagement. Worse yet, we still have to discuss and craft the exit strategy. It is a clear case of an amateur president attempting to wing it with tomahawk missiles and F-15 airplanes.

Here at home, the president is not doing any better. The left is criticizing him for about everything from immorality to failure to consult with congress. The right is increasingly critical of his ineffectiveness. Individual critics span the spectrum from Senators John McCain and Richard Lugar to Louis Farrakhan and Michael Moore. Democratic representatives Dennis Kucinich and Maxine Waters are questioning the constitutionality of the president's actions. Pundits are questioning the political wisdom of the Libyan decision and are suggesting that it could come back to bite him in 2012.

About the only place that there is euphoria is in the beleaguered cities that Gaddafi's military are pounding. Understandably, the revolutionaries that are left alive are happy to see the devastation that is being unleashed on the government's tanks and artillery positions. Equally understandably, they are attempting to take advantage of this to press their attack. It will be interesting to see if the allies continue to provide air cover for their attack. Clearly, the French want to do just that, but President Obama is adamant that we only want to stop Gaddafi from killing his own people.

Internationally, Turkey, China, Russia, and the Arab League are increasingly worried about the situation.  Vladimir Putin has branded it as a crusade and several well-meaning Europeans have thoughtlessly used this politically loaded term in describing it.  We can be sure that Al Quaida will do everything in their power to amplify those comments.  The fact that Libya has the largest oil reserves in North Africa will also be used to explain why the West has acted in Libya rather than in any of the other countries undergoing revolutions.

It remains to be seen how all of this will impact our relations with the people living in North Africa and the Middle East. I fear that it is probably not going to play well in the long run. Much will depend on the end game of the military campaign and the events that follow. For those folks who like the ultimate result, President Obama will be a hero. For those who do not, he will remain a villain. Here at home, I do not see how it can help his popularity with anyone. As for me, I continue to think of him as a dilettante out to lunch in South America.

When we make the movie, only Peter Sellers could do the role justice.

Monday, March 21, 2011

We are not as smart as we think we are.

The current situation in North Africa and the Middle East illustrates the complexities of international relations in today's world and the limitations of our power and influence. There are public demonstrations against regimes going on in virtually every country in the region. Some of the governments are friendly to the United States and some are not. Our leadership does not really know much if anything about any of the amorphous groups opposing these regimes yet we feel compelled to pick and choose who we support and who we oppose. President Obama, commenting on the situation, tells us that we should not fear change, but given his definition of change as it applies to the United States, I do not draw any great comfort from his statement.

In Tunisia, our leadership not only did not see it coming, it was over before we understood what was going on. In Libya, we are applying military force to change a regime that we don't like. In Bahrain, we are standing by while our allies apply force to maintain a regime that we like. In Syria, we watch hopefully as regime opponents tentatively challenge a regime that we don't like. In Yemen, we see our military assistance being used to sustain a regime that we like. In Iran, we stand by and wring our hands while religious zealots kill opponents of a regime that we not only don't like, but actually fear. In all of these countries, our leadership knows very little about the people involved and have very few levers to influence the outcome - yet the whole world looks to us to "do the right thing." There are a lot of problems facing us in today's world, but I suggest that one of them is technology.

As technology has improved over the years, we have applied it to improve the efficiency of our government. Today, our president is somewhere in Latin America eating dinner with some foreign leader. Our Secretary of Defense is in Russia eating dinner with another important foreign leader, and goodness only knows where our Secretary of State is. We have military men and women engaged in combat in several difficult places and a lot of civil unrest going on in a lot of fairly important places, but no worries - we have secure video conferencing. The president and his top lieutenants can get together anytime they so choose. With all of this travel, our leaders actually believe that they understand the situation in the various countries of interest to them at the moment. With video conferencing they think that they are in control of things. Both assumptions are incorrect.

Before all of this technology was developed, we had a system in place that provided a better flow of information than currently exists. It was by no means a perfect system, but it was better than what we have today. In every country of the world there were embassies that provided a flow of reporting that in most cases accurately analyzed the political/economic/ security situation in that particular country. These embassies provided the principal contact with our country and the ambassador was usually quite influential. Overall, our leaders had a better understanding of small out of the way places like Libya than we do today. As technology improved, it was increasingly possible for ambassadors and embassies to be bypassed whenever Washington so wished. By the time that Vietnam and Henry Kissinger came along, the State Department had been eviscerated and the embassies were beginning to be routinely bypassed all over the world.

Overly centralizing the management of foreign relations is one of the reasons that we are in the situation that we find ourselves today. It is by no means the only reason, but it is an important one. My guess is that in some obscure lock box somewhere in Washington there are obscure reports written by line Foreign Service and Central Intelligence officers that are very relevant to the problems that we face in these obscure little places all over the world. It is too bad that none of our leaders know that they exist let alone have factored them into their decision making. When things get hot in a particular place the line foreign service officer is pushed aside so that the big boys can get in and take care of things. That frequently results in a less than sophisticated set of remedies.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Presidential Travel Junkets

One of the characteristics of this administration that I worry about is the propensity of it's leaders to travel around the globe on goodwill junkets. I am not opposed to travel, but there is an awful lot going on right now, and efficient as the modern airplane command posts are, I think that it would be far better for a lot of reasons if our leaders would stay closer to home. It would be fascinating to see Secretary Clinton's travel history, but I would not be surprised if it showed that she was out of the country far more than in it. President Obama must be setting records of a sort as well.

Right now, President Obama is in Latin America with the stated objective of improving our relations with those very important countries and increasing our trade opportunities in the region. Those are important objectives and a presidential visit can help accomplish those goals, but it is not a critical element in the process. I would rather see him stay in Washington where he can have more frequent face to face contact with the men and women who are attempting to deal with a multitude of issues vital to the future of this country. Libya is not the most important of those issues, but it is illustrative of the problem. Decide to intervene militarily in a country that we know very little about and take off to visit with folks in Brazil.

Today, Amr Moussa, the Head of the Arab League, criticized the military operations that he had earlier supported because it killed the civilians that he wanted to protect. The French Foreign Minister has indicated that the objectives of the current military operations do not necessarily include the ouster of Gaddafi. Secretary Clinton has said that it does. The President has obfuscated on the issue. Clearing this kind of confusion up is important and can not be consistently accomplished without adequate staffing and careful coordination. Public exposure of important officials forces them to comment with or without that staffing. Worse yet, this is only the symptomatic side of things. More important is the disconnect between the principal and the staff on the substance of the issues. Do we really know what we are trying to do in Libya? Unfortunately, I think not.

In addition to Libya, the flying command post and the President are dealing with a bewildering array of challenges stemming from the recent disruption of the third most important economy in the world and how that impacts our own economy as well as our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran's efforts to obtain nuclear weapons and delivery systems, Israel and Palestine, world hunger and starvation, and on and on. And then there is our domestic agenda. Our system of government requires our president to be the ultimate decision-maker on all of these issues. There are twenty four hours in a day. The amount of time available for careful consideration and intelligent decision is severely limited. It should not be wasted on travel of marginal value.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Libya - Mr. Obama's Iraq?

President Obama has decided to support a United Nations edict designed to oust Gaddafi from power in Libya. It is too soon for us to know how he came to this decision, but here is what I think took place. I believe that he did not want to get involved in any of the North African and Middle Eastern revolutions that have been going on since the end of last year. I believe that he wants to focus on his policy of domestic change inside this country and probably believes that it is wrong for America to continue to play a dominant role in international affairs. I believe that he feels that it is in America's interest to have other countries pick up more of the responsibility for international stability. (See previous post.) In order to accomplish this, he feels that it is important that America not be too aggressive in taking the lead in situations such as exist in Libya today.

My guess is that there were some pretty hot and heavy exchanges in the White House during the past few weeks as more and more Libyans were annihilated by Gaddafi's mercenaries. I suspect that a number of Middle Eastern allies as well as both France and Great Britain were putting pressure on Washington to "do something." I presume that it was pointed out to the President that Gaddafi was behind the Lockerbie tragedy and thus was an enemy of America. Understandably, Secretary of Defense Gates was probably advising caution given the fact that we are currently engaged militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq. All of the financial folks in Washington probably pointed out that we were broke and even limited conflict is expensive. Various Middle Eastern experts probably advised against "another war in a Muslim country." And certainly there were a number of liberal supporters of the president who advised against "going to war" on purely morale grounds. I'm not sure what finally convinced him to act, but it is clear to everybody that he really did not want to do anything.

President Obama's speech casts this decision as a humanitarian action designed to protect the Libyan people against a horrible dictator bent on denying them their human rights and killing them rather than debating with them. This will probably make a few in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the region ask questions as to how they qualify for a no fly zone, but I suppose that the president feels that is Secretary Clinton's problem, at least for now. The president's speech also made it clear that we would not put American soldiers on the ground in Libya. Instead, we would support others with our unique assets. No one outside of Washington knows exactly what that means, but everyone speculates that it will be air and naval support of French and British and Arab military efforts. There is some minor confusion as to whether we will insist on Gaddafi giving up power, but I presume that will be cleared up in the very near future. President Obama indicated that we were not interested in going beyond stopping the current mayhem, but that is easier said than done. We don't even know who the revolutionaries are, but Mr. Gaddafi claims that they are tools of Al Quaida. Sorting that out will be interesting and probably difficult - especially for well meaning folks who don't know the first thing about who is who in Libya.

Now the situation gets complicated. Libya's foreign minister announced an immediate cease fire, but apparently Libya's army, led by Gaddafi's sons, continued to attack revolutionary positions so French airplanes took to the air. I can only imagine that things on the ground are really ugly and very confused.  
How do we stop Gaddafi's military actions inside populated areas with air power without killing the civilians that we are trying to protect?  I presume that, with enough ordinance, Gaddafi's tanks and artillery will be silenced, but I suspect that person to person killing will continue for some time to come as old scores get settled with knives and guns and clubs. I also guess that eventually Gaddafi will either be killed or otherwise eliminated from the decision-making process. What will be our role in what comes next?  It is pretty clear that we have very thin international support for this action. The United Nations decree is marred by the number of important countries that let it pass without supporting it. The Arab League's support is useful in the developed world, but much less so on the Arab Street where the various members face a rising tide of opposition from among their own people. 

Domestically, here in the United States, it is only a matter of time before critics of Mr. Obama draw comparisons of his action in Libya with Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq. Although there are obvious differences, in both cases we attacked a sovereign country without ourselves being attacked. In North Africa and the Middle East, no matter what we do, our actions are going to be used against us by our enemies. There is nothing that we can do about that fact of life, but we have to cope with it as best we can. Personally, I believe that if we were to go this route we should have acted far more quickly. By delaying the decision, we projected weakness and that encourages our enemies. Now that we are engaged, I hope that we will pursue Gaddafi's destruction as vigorously as possible, but I worry that we will attempt to do the minimum necessary - thus ensuring prolonged ineffectiveness. I do not believe that America has the option of fading back into the pack. I believe that we are stuck with world leadership and we should lead - for better or for worse.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Gaddafi and School Yard Bullies

President Barack Obama has recently announced a campaign against school yard bullies in America. At the same time he is being criticized by many Americans for dithering, a la President Carter, with regard to the crisis in Libya. Indecision is indeed one of the possible explanations for his actions or lack thereof, but there are other possible explanations.  

It is all a guessing game at this point, but I currently lean toward the thought that in all of his recent Middle Eastern and North African policy decisions the president is focused on giving up the role of world leader. Instead, he is attempting to deal with any and all violence through multilateral action, and is probably frustrated by the unresponsiveness of our European allies. Previous administrations facing similar challenges decided to lead and encourage allies to assist as best they could. President Obama appears to reject that approach and is, instead, endlessly discussing the situation with leaders in Geneva and the United Nations.

If I am right, it does not bode well for the Libyan rebels, whoever they are. Gaddafi's military currently appears to be gaining the upper hand and may even succeed in putting down the rebellion, but win, lose, or draw, a lot of people in Libya and in the rest of that part of the world see President Obama's policy as being helpful to a hated dictator. It will be easy for our enemies to explain to the man on the Arab street that this is because America needs Libya's oil more than it wants democracy.

Those readers who have read my previous posts know that I admire many of Mr. Obama's objectives and abhor most of the policies that he has fashioned to attain those objectives. If I am correct in my guess about the rationale for his policies in North Africa and the Middle East, this is another such instance. America should expect more help from the rest of the developed nations in dealing with international issues, but hanging Gaddafi's opponents out to dry is not the way to go about obtaining it.

Even more important than the fate of the Libyan rebels is the issue of America's proper role in the world. Libya is another in a long series of indicators that Mr. Obama is uncomfortable with the mantle of world leadership. I honestly believe that he is consciously working to reduce the importance of America. I am intellectually uncomfortable with that policy and more than a little angry. Our president should understand that there are bullies in the international school yard as well as here at home.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Income Redistribution

We are in the midst of a fight over the budget, but the real issue is income redistribution. In Madison, Michael Moore said it best - "Wisconsin is not broke." What I presume that he meant was that there was still plenty of money in rich people's pockets - they just don't want to contribute what he considers to be their fair share to the common good. Conservatives deride Moore's words as being patently (to them) untrue and quote horrendous financial statistics that support their position in the public union debate. As is so often the case, we are talking past each other and not addressing the real issues that divide us. Media coverage of the events in Wisconsin unfortunately reinforce stereotypical positions. Liberal leaning media outlets point to huge crowds demanding their "rights," while conservative leaning media outlets emphasize union intimidation, illegal activities, and "irrational" statements by people like Moore.

I support the concept of right-to-work for private enterprise unions and favor doing away with public employee unions altogether. I also support free enterprise and oppose the welfare state and excessive income redistribution. This puts me squarely in the camp that Mr. Moore dislikes and I am comfortable being there. At the same time, I do not believe that it is useful to deride Moore or any of the other outspoken critics of Governor Scott Walker. I suggest that they have a legitimate point of view that must be debated on it's merits if we are to move forward. I grant you that to do so would further complicate an already complicated discussion, and I freely admit that I do not see it happening, but that does not change anything - it is something that needs to be done. Not to address this issue of income redistribution squarely means that this nation will not do the things that it needs to do to remain competitive in the global economy and thus sustain a good life for all of us.

We should ask ourselves why so many people in this country favor legislation that requires the public sector to pay for more and more of the cost of staying alive in America. It is not an easy question to answer, but not to understand it and answer it, is to ignore what is dragging us down and hurting all of us - including the very rich and the very poor. If I am right, the events in Wisconsin are symptomatic of a larger problem which is not being addressed. Instead, we are debating marginal solutions that risk being overturned if (when?) the other side of the argument achieves a victory at the polls. To me, today's union rallies in Wisconsin look an awful lot like the Tea Party rallies of yesterday. The demeanor of the crowds is certainly different, but the depth of feeling seems to be about evenly matched.  Come to think about it, we are not talking past each other, we are yelling past each other.

PS: To deride Michael Moore as a crack pot is a mistake. He clearly holds views that are very different from what has here-to-fore defined "main stream America," but he is no loon. He is a formidable communicator in communication systems that traditional conservatives still do not understand. The really frightening thing to contemplate is this last point. It just may be that traditional American values are in decline, in part, because we don't know how to effectively pass them along to the new generation.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Are there tribes in Libya?

America prides itself on being well educated, technologically ahead of the rest of the world, and more involved in international events than any other nation on earth. It is all true, but it is also inadequate to meet the needs of the twenty-first century. As an example, the United States of America suffers from a lack of understanding of the world of Islam (and I freely confess that I am as guilty of this ignorance as are my fellow Americans). I would argue that the reason for this is to be found deep within our national psyche.

A long time ago, while a foreign service officer, I volunteered for duty in Vietnam. When I reported to my supervisor, his first question was if I spoke French. I said that I did, but very poorly, and went on to explain that I was studying Vietnamese. He dismissed my interest in Vietnamese by explaining that all of the important people that I would be dealing with spoke French. With a few important exceptions, that mentality continues alive and well in this country. As a people, we are so caught up with Charlie Sheen and Lynda Lohan that we have no time to be curious about far off corners of the world until they explode in our faces.

Ask why we are interested in what is going on in Libya and you will be given a laundry list that includes the price of gasoline, but does not express much of a real interest in the people of Libya. Let's assume that we decide to become more involved in that far off place. Who do we send that even knows which tribe is which, let alone understands their interrelationships. Most Americans are aware that one or another Greek or Roman once occupied parts of North Africa, but we are probably unsure of which one favored what. Ask the average American who the leader of Oman is and you will receive a blank stare. If you persist, you will be asked why that is important. If we so choose, we can relatively easily establish a no-fly zone in Libyan airspace, but I doubt that we will be able to influence the people that we will be protecting - even if and when we find out who they are.

A long time ago, I watched young American fighting men patrolling Vietnamese villages and saw first hand the problems that arise when the soldier and the people do not understand each other, particularly when the Viet Cong returned to those same villages in the evening and sat down with the village elders for long conversations. The threat that we face today will not be effectively deterred by bullets. It will be won or lost in the conversations. Please remember that we won every major battle in the Vietnamese war, but we did not win the war.

We are facing similar challenges in Afghanistan, and even though our military are capable of defeating the Taliban in every battle. we are not able to even participate in the conversations - let alone be persuasive. What is more, the vast majority of the American people do not really care. Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, and the rest, are irritants in our daily lives not something that is of real interest to our people. Unless we, as a people, get genuinely curious about our world we will continue to be dealing ineffectively with tactical problems that confuse and frustrate us. Today, Congress is commencing an investigation of Muslim radicalism in America. Unfortunately, that is probably necessary, but it would be far better if America got really curious about Islam (beyond our fascination with Sharia Law) and made a genuine attempt to understand it.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Spending and Inflation

Last August, Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, initiated a plan designed to prevent prices from falling and to invigorate the stock market.  The economists call it "quantitative easing."  Like all of these macroeconomic things it is very complicated, but basically it involves the Treasury issuing bonds to finance our national debt and the Federal Reserve printing money to purchase those bonds.  Mr. Bernanke set a target of $600 billion for this program and has been authorizing billions of dollars every month to support it.  It is currently thought that the program, will run out of money in June of this year.  The economy has responded pretty much as Mr. Bernanke predicted.  The stock market has improved, a double dip recession has been avoided (at least to this point in time), and deflation has been avoided.

We now have another problem looming before us - inflation.  Energy is costing more in this country and so is food.  International problems in North Africa and the Middle East as well as seasonal price fluctuations are contributing to the problem, but the principal source of our inflationary pressure is the massive increase in the money supply which has been necessitated by the prolonged spending spree that this country has been engaged in for at least a couple of administrations.  (There is plenty of blame here for both Democrat and Republican.)  As we print more money to pay our increasing debt, we reduce the value of our currency and thus worsen the problem.  Critics liken Mr. Bernanke's quantitative easing to Mr. Bernie Maddoff's ponzi scheme.  (There are indeed unfortunate similarities.)

When the value of our money declines, the market tends to ask for more of it when we go to buy something.  Things become more expensive, savings become less valuable, borrowing becomes more difficult, etc., etc.  We have inflation.  Mr. Bernanke is an intelligent economist.  He knows this and is attempting to balance things as best he can.  He is currently fearful that if he pulls back on quantitative easing and allows interest rates to rise it will have an adverse impact on the stock market, the housing market, and job creation.  It is a valid fear.  At the same time, he has to worry about the very real danger of inflation or, worse yet, stagflation.  Stagflation is what the academics call an economy that simultaneously has high unemployment and inflation - pretty much the worst of all outcomes.

Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, is talking about the possibility of raising interest rates.  Mr. Bernanke has to be thinking about it as well, but he clearly does not want to do it.  Some economists are even talking about another round of quantitative easing.  For me, the problem is clear, as is the solution.  We are spending too much money.  We must stop the spending in order to cure the problem.  Quantitative easing and all of the rest are tactical measures designed to try to manage the problem.  We are at the point where we can not think tactically anymore.  We must address the fundamental problem.  We must cut spending.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Unions are complicated

I completely understand the union movement's concern with events in Wisconsin and the other states where the public unions are under pressure to give up some of their collective bargaining power.  I believe that they see this as a threat to the union movement across the nation in both the private and the public sector and I think that they are correct.  I believe that most conservatives, myself included, favor right-to-work legislation that would substantially reduce union influence not only in the economic sector, but also in the political life of America.

This is a very difficult issue for America.  There is no question but that unions have been vital in improving the living standards of workers in America, and I know for a fact that my own life is better because of their efforts.  At the same time, I also see that public unions, in particular, have attained political power that is being used in ways that are unintentionally harmful to our country.  As we debate this important issue, we all must remember that no one in the union movement is intentionally attempting to harm this country.  They are instead fighting for what they believe their charter calls for them to do.

Unions were formed to protect the rights of workers and to better their standard of living.  They have done a very good job in fulfilling their mandate and their ability to insist on their collective bargaining rights has been a principal way in which they have accomplished this.  It is understandable that they do not want to see that tool diminished in any way.  In the public sector, the system is inherently flawed because politicians seeking votes are unmindful of the future economic cost of their decisions and comparatively stable union leadership has a distinct advantage.  In my opinion, public sector unions were a flawed concept from the get go, and should never have been established.

Unfortunately, we have public unions in a number of states and they are politically very influential at both the local and national levels.  Political union dues are a source of massive amounts of money that is used to support the election of politicians that are favorable to union interests - usually Democrats.  We, on the conservative side of the fence, don't much like this, but there is nothing illegal about it.  Not withstanding this fact, many conservatives demean union leadership ascribing to it motives that are harmful to the national interest.  I do not see it that way.  Granted, there has been and still is corruption in the union movement, but unfortunately that is also true of many conservative organizations as well.  I see everything that the unions are doing in Wisconsin as being consistent with what they believe is necessary to continue to protect the interests of their members.  Some of their tactics are stupid, shortsighted, and perhaps illegal, but union objectives are consistent with their charter.

In retrospect, I believe that Governor Walker has made a tactical error in attacking the collective bargaining issue at this time.  I hope that he wins his fight, but I think that it would have been better to insist on the fiscal elements of his budget reform and leave the issue of collective bargaining to another day.  On the other hand, he has at least started the debate that is necessary to deal with this divisive issue and that is a good thing.  Here again, my hawkish friends will not agree with me, but I believe that he ought to back off temporarily on collective bargaining.  Announce something to the effect that, because of the disruption caused by the unions and the irresponsible actions of the Democratic legislators, he will postpone consideration of this aspect of his budget reform bill for one year in order to give the people of Wisconsin time to fully consider what is at stake here.