Archive for December, 2009
As world leaders gather in Copenhagen to begin negotiation on a successor treaty to the 1992 Climate Change Convention and subsequent Kyoto Protocol, I am optimistic that the corner may have been turned and the world can act in time to have a chance to mitigate the worst dangers associated with global warming.
Last October I gave a pessimistic view of what the future will be like, given the dangers of climate change. That still stands. Yet as the US moves to more aggressively combat CO2 pollution, and the EU proves that cutting emissions does not hurt the economy — indeed, it seems to help as it yields new types of research and development — I believe our chances of avoiding the worst future scenarios are improving.
First, a few things that need to be made clear. There is very little controversy about the fact that the earth is warming, and warming in correlation with a rise of CO2 levels. That is obvious. Moreover, despite efforts by some to make a minor e-mail scandal at one university involving just a few scientists out to be something big, it’s not. Nothing in that “scandal” calls into doubt the overwhelming evidence that global climate change is happening, and that humans are likely involved. In fact, it takes an ignorance of science to think that it could — most of the evidence has nothing to do with the three or four people involved there. Finally, it is also true that there are alternative theories about why the earth is warming, and many believe that the correlation with the increase in CO2 may be due to other factors, and point out that the climate science is full of uncertainties.
If you get past the politics-induced views on all sides of the issue, the question splits in two. First, is climate change occurring? The answer: Yes, with about as much certainty as possible in this field. Second, are humans to blame? The answer: it is very probable that humans are a significant portion of the cause. It is possible that humans are not a major cause.
We can quibble, but those questions seem pretty settled by science (recognizing that settled science does sometimes change — we no longer think that light waves flow through an invisible ether, for instance). The harder question has always been “what should we do about it?” There, I think, the answer is coming into view.
First, libertarians, skeptical of big government, are right to be cynical about the ability to have government action and agreements regulate us out of the crisis. The emphasis many on the left put on Kyoto or hopes for a new Copenhagen treaty ignores the limits of international law, and bureaucratic costs of regulation. Indeed, because so many are focused on arguing against the science rather than the policy, this skepticism of regulation as the solution has been understated. The skeptics lose the debate about science, but if the debate is about policy they could win some major points.
Second, fears about the economic consequences of limiting CO2 emissions appear misplaced. It does not cost jobs nor does not hurt the economy to cut emissions. In fact, if done right it can yield economic gains and ultimately will render us less susceptible to another energy crisis caused by our oil addiction. (One of the most vociferous blogs against climate change action has an author who boosts about the junkets he gets from oil companies — hmmmm, no propaganda there, right?)
The EU’s success with the Kyoto targets along with the Obama administration’s willing to use climate change as a way to jump start the economy with new technological initiatives makes me think that we may be very near the day when the developed world stabilizes it’s CO2 emissions and undertakes a rational energy strategy to overcome dependence on oil. This would address two real threats: declining oil production and climate change.
Once business comes on board recognizing that this is not only good for the earth, but also good for business, we’ll see a sea-change in attitudes about issues such as “cap and trade.” Government regulations will not have to be overly bureaucratic and tightly enforced, but can be guidelines usually self-enforced. That’s happened in most of Europe; I think once Obama gets past his early rough patch (every new President has one — though Bush the Younger’s was shortened thanks to the terror attack), this will take hold in the US.
Yet that’s not the hard part. Right now we’re at about 380 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere. Scientists seem to think that 350 is the last “safe” number, and to get there we have to decrease the amount in the atmosphere. The target now is generally to allow us to reach 450 ppm, giving us a 50-50 chance to avoid the most dire scenarios. The increase to 450 will not come from the developed world, but the developing world as it continues industrialization. China, India and especially Asian emerging markets will drive the increase.
Herein lies the real challenge. Assuming the developed world does continue its shift to a sustainable output, how can we demand the developing world, where even with economic growth material conditions lage still far behind the West, cease increasing their output? The only feasible way is through technology transfers, but that involves tricky questions of how they get paid for, if there are patent protections involved, and the potential to give developing countries an unfair advantages on the world markets. It seems, though, that these are problems that can be dealt with, especially as western energy companies, creating real alternatives to oil, start having an interest in engaging new markets.
Since none of this requires any major level of heavy handed regulation, it could well be that leaders in Copenhagen could work on a process that does not require an actual treaty. Treaties have the status of law, and in the US 1/3 of the Senate plus one — 34 Senators — can block a treaty. Given the industrial lobby against regulation, it would be hard to get 67 votes for a significant treaty. A mix of regulations, global commitments to collaborate and work pragmatically on goals to reduce emissions, create incentives for alternate energy, and handle concerns about technology transfers could be done without an actual treaty. If they do get a treaty, it could be one palatable to the Senate.
Unfortunately, so many on the “left” have defined success in terms of getting a tough treaty out of Copenhagen that it might be hard to embrace a “soft” approach of incentives and a shift in business culture. This will also never convince the died in the wool skeptics, many who embrace patently false claims like “the world has been cooling since 1998” and treat this issue as a political football. They know the result they want, and will make any argument or push any “meme” that advances that goal. For them, truth is irrelevant, power is what matters. It will also never be enough for those who want to latch global wealth redistribution onto the climate change issue and use fear of global crisis to address other political goals.
But for those who really are concerned about the future of the planet, want to see CO2 emissions decreased, and hope to cut our dependence on foreign oil, this may be the right approach. And so, with all due caveats in place, I’m cautiously optimistic — really for the first time in years — that we are on the right path.
When it became clear that the Y2K bug that everyone feared would have no impact on the new millennium, people dove into the year 2000 with extreme optimism about the future. For the next ten years illusion after illusion would be shattered, and we enter 2010 a humbled and wounded nation. Here are a few of those shattered illusions:
1. Stock market growth is permanent; anyone can get rich if they are just smart enough to invest in stocks (especially new economy ‘technology’ stocks like the dotcoms). This illusion was widespread, as people focused on ever rising stock prices, with books out predicting “Dow 30,000” or even “Dow 100,000. The Dow had zipped above 11,700, and on March 11, 2000 the tech heavy Nasdaq hit 5011. CNBC guru Jim Cramer said he wouldn’t be surprised if Nasdaq hit 8000 by the end of the year. That was the high point — by the summer of 2000 stocks were in step decline as the inevitable crash came. People suddenly had to put off retirement, and the easy road to wealth vanished. The heady go-go “roaring 90s” came to a screeching halt…at least for awhile.
2. The US has solved its budget problems and now will experiences large surpluses. Based on completely irresponsible extrapolations from the economy of the late 90s it was thought the US would pay off its debt quickly, and within a decade have surpluses of $16 trillion. The dollar reached a high of 79 cents a Euro, and people claimed that our “free market” approach was working. Capitalism and liberal capitalism was soaring! Yet as early as 2002 it became clear that no surplus was on the horizon, as government revenues didn’t meet expectations, spending increased, while the Bush administration gave tax cuts — cuts paid for through borrowing. Now debt and deficits are higher than ever, comparable to past times fo war.
3. Cheap oil was here for the duration, no more oil crises! The Economist magazine, often an early detector of false illusions, fell for this one as it had a cover story about the “oil glut.” The US produced massive numbers of SUVs, ignored warnings about the environment or oil consumption, and imported very cheap OPEC oil at record levels. Gas was often about 80 cents a gallon at the start of the decade. That changed quickly, and by 2008 oil had jumped to $150 a barrell with gas prices nearing $5.00 a gallon. It’s now down to “only” about $80 a barrel, but fears of ongoing shortages and production shortfalls should economic revival occur are real.
4. After the fall of Communism the US is the dominant unipolar power, guarantor of global stability, and a force for good in the world. After fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan, which showed the very limited capacity of the country to effectively project military power to achieve political ends, the US is no longer a feared hyper-power. The Iranians and North Koreans, hesitant early in the decade, came to mock US threats by 2006. The public turned against military options for foreign policy, and the US military became overstretched and overburdened. The suffering of US military families was immense as multiple deployments, psychological problems and strains on families mounted. The US could not shape political results in the Mideast, and was increasingly vulnerable to China, the Arab states and Europe on the economic front.
5. The real estate market is a safe investment, and a fine way to make money. Buoyed by economic policies designed to keep the economy percolating after the 9-11 terror attacks, cheap credit fed a real estate bubble that quickly “saved” the country from a recession. This bubble led to a renewed speculation, and an even starker crash when its residuals rippled through the financial sector in late 2008. Now the economy stands in deep recession, and the US appears in more trouble economically than any time since the Great Depression. This crisis has been thirty years in the making, and will not be solved quickly.
6. Barack Obama’s election marks a major turning point in American policy and will lead us to be able to solve the problems caused by the Bush-Cheney administration. Alas, blaming one administration and finding another to heroically solve the problems is the stuff of films and fantasy, not reality. The problems were not all caused by the Bush Administration, and Obama has limited capacity to solve them. As his approval rating falls, mostly due now to dissatisfaction on the left, people are coming to grips with the fact that the United States and the world are not what we believed they were on January 1, 2000. Reality bites, and it has bitten hard.
The good news is that these illusions were never true, and it was inevitable that they would shatter. The decade from 2000 – 09 was a reality check, as the United States learned that its hyperconsumerism, militarism, and belief in “the good life on the cheap” could not continue on the set course. We learned that markets are not only fallible, but extremely dangerous when unregulated. Moreover, the babyboomers are going to start retiring, taking money out of the system instead of putting money into it. The costs will break the budget, even if we can get health care under control and extricate ourselves from expensive wars. The good news is that we now can look at the past and future with a clear sense of vision.
The bad news is that there are still illusions — or delusions — being hawked by propagandists. On the right the “tea party” movement, though still small, represents a nationalist effort at scapegoating from the right (Obama is bringing socialism, climate change is a ‘hoax’, “they” are trying to change to some elitist vision “real” Americans reject). These are the same themes used by folk like Hitler and Goebbels when German illusions were shattered in WWI. Rather than confronting the problems the country faces, you aim at an enemy, and say “if only those evil liberals/socialists/pacifists would stop undercutting the war effort and believe in America, then all would be better.” Emotion is aroused, anger is kindled into a righteous rage, and the followers stop thinking. The movement becomes more important than rational reflection.
On the left, Obama tapped into a segment looking for someone to somehow fix all of what was wrong, blaming everything on Bush’s wars and tax cuts, while overlooking the structural problems caused by the way both Democratic and Republican governments led the country for the past thirty years. Obama’s campaign propaganda was just as emotion-laden as that on the right, reflecting the sense that change was coming to save the country and undo the problems of the past. When problems don’t go away people sour on the change, we yearn for those days lost in illusion, not wanting the hard work of solving real problems.
Yet, while “hope” for Obama or “rage” against “liberals” can satisfy many political voyeurs, the reality is that we now face a momentous decision. Will we actually take a close and careful look at ourselves — our culture, what we value, how we operate, how we deal with others — or will we blame others and avoid difficult choices?
Our crisis is not political, it isn’t even culture. It’s spiritual. Not in a religious sense, but in terms of values. We’re ungrounded, steeped in raw self-interest, moral relativism, a sense that image is reality, and victory means virtue. We are Rome in the end days of the Republic, losing sight of the fact that values are above both politics and consumption. Politics is not reasoned debate, but meme-construction and trying to personally assault and discredit the “other side,” often with vicious individual attacks.
This cannot be solved with a new leader, a new set of policies, or some kind of quick fix. It is neither left nor right, conservative nor liberal. It is each person opening their eyes, seeing others with a sense of love and compassion, questioning their own values and beliefs, and thinking clearly about the world as it looks today, rather than wistfully wanting to go back and party like its 1999. The first step is embracing the reality that the illusions of the past have been shattered. The second step is avoiding the allure of easy answers — a hero to change things, or an opponent upon which to blame all the problems. But it won’t be easy; change won’t come from the outside but from within. Are we up to it?
Like most people, I remember distinctly what I was doing on September 11, 2001 when al qaeda launched a terror attack on the United States. I had a sabbatical that semester, working on what would become my book on German foreign policy. That morning I was watching a History Channel special about Apollo 13, and when it ended I turned to CNN to check the headlines. They were showing the World Trade Center after the first plane hit, with the reporting still vague about what was happening.
“Holy Shit” I remember saying as I dropped down to the floor. It was almost exactly 9:00; I grabbed a Videotape and started recording. From about 9:10 until the collapse of the second tower at 10:30 I did what probably is my longest step machine work out. I knew I’d get no real work done so I let all my anxious energy in watching such events unfold go into my work out.
We had Dishnet satellite television, and at that point in time they did not yet have local Bangor or Portland stations. To get the network stations we had to purchase a package of New York locals. That meant that most of the time I was watching local New York reporting on the attacks, not the national news. That made it much more intense. They reported from the street, it was their city, they interspersed footage of the burning twin towers with reports on school cancellations and information on transportation in the city.
When the second tower fell one announcer found himself barely able to hold it together “this a horrific situation…if you are a child and you are watching this without an adult…well, I don’t know what to advise you…” You can tell that the anchors are worried that the reporters they have in the field might have been hurt or killed. That day I would watch the reports from Nina Pineda, Michelle Charlesworth, Joe Torres and other local New York reporters who were on the scene — those reporters are to me part of 9-11.
Today in our “Truthiness” Honors class, examining “myth in America” from the myth of the first Thanksgiving to the “myth of the free market” next week, we looked at the way 9-11 and the supposed conflict between Islam and the West is constructed in our discourse. Part of it was basic remedial instruction on the nature of the Islamic religion, to inoculate students from the poisonous disinformation from the Islamophobes who want to paint Islam as a uniquely violent or intolerant religion. A good chunk of the class was looking at the “mythic narrative” painted by the right of “Islam vs. the West,” and compare the caricature of Islam to the reality.
But the class started with video. It started with the first reports of the attacks. We watched as a New York local station talked with an eye witness from the first plane crash as the second plane is seen entering the screen and smashing into the second building. The announcer and witness didn’t know what happened, they thought the first plane had exploded as it was in the first building.
We watched as initial reports from the Pentagon came in. Chris Plante on CNN reported that a military officer at the Pentagon had observed a helicopter circling the building, going around to the back where suddenly there was an explosion. It was odd — no mention of a plane. This is the stuff that fuels conspiracy theories — the uncertainty and varied accounts. There were reports of a car bomb at the state department (never happened), a fire on the Washington mall (never happened), evacuations, and the announcement that air travel was suspended.
We did skip some sections (though with a three hour class we could view about 45 minutes). We then watched the first tower go down, as Peter Jennings asks in amazement…”the whole side collapsed?….the whole BUILDING?” Jennings is rendered speechless and clearly trying to hold it together as he describes the level of destruction. The New York reporting continues, scenes from the street, and interviews of people evacuating. There are eyewitness reports of people jumping from the buildings, apparently unable to take the heat and smoke inside. Nina Pineda describes people “crying their eyes out” remembering the events.
Then the second building goes. The smoke and debris are astounding. Reporters struggle to cope. You see people covered with sot and ash, walking the streets. Powerful video.
When I turn off the television, the faces of both faculty and students are filled with emotion — a mixture of grief and shock. Some have tears, a few look stoic. In the discussion that follows, it’s clear that this is a side of 9-11 that many have forgotten. The event is distant, and for most of us it’s now packaged in an historical narrative that remembers how the country and world united, only to be torn apart when we went to war with Iraq. We grapple with how this day will be remembered. Looking at our problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the economic crisis facing the country, will this event ultimately symbolize not the coming together of America but the start of a decline?
We recalled the intolerance after the fact for dissent, though one student a bit older than the rest recalls being involved in the anti-war movement early on in DC, arranging protests against war by September 24th. Others come from military families, and recall the sense of security the patriotism of the day fostered, though we all wondered about what happens when patriotism turns to nationalism.
The event also shows the power of symbolism. As one announcer said, “America has changed today, suddenly we are vulnerable…today four symbols of American might have been hit.” At one level, the damage done was moderate, and certainly much less in life and property damage than what we dished out on Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the emotive power of such an attack resonates eight years later. And, of course, we recalled that it was eight and a half years between the 1993 effort to bring down the WTC and the successful effort on 9-11. What would happen if there were another attack?
Would we fall for a simplistic “Islam vs. the West” interpretation and get lost in the romantic fantasy of some kind of civilizational ‘world war?’ Would fear and nationalism take us in a direction looking a bit like fascism, tidbits of which we saw in the frankly absurd reaction to some of the events after 9-11 — opposition to the Dixie Chicks, renaming french fries ‘freedom fries’ and calls to “bomb Mecca?” Or have the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq caused us to recognize the futility of lashing back with an ill-focused war and undefined mission — to reshape the Mideast rather than get al qaeda. Reshaping a region to your will is what you do if it is a civilizational death struggle; focusing on a precise enemy is what you do if it’s a focused and defined mission.
We reached no conclusions, except that all religions/cultures are capable of great good or evil, depending on how they are used. It would be nice of the “good” side of Islam and the West could find a way to cooperate, rather than each “bad” side escalating conflict. Cynicism and a fetish with strength and control feed fear and hate, while hope and a sense of empathy feed compassion and love. But it was good to revisit the events, and for students to connect to the event in a way they never had. In times like these, that’s important.
Afghanistan is widely known for it’s beautiful long haired dogs, called Afghan hounds. Right now, however, it is Obama being hounded by his decision on Afghanistan. The right calls the 2011 deadline a ‘sign of weakness’ and something that ‘our enemies’ will use as motivation to hang on longer. The left sees sending more troops to try to stabilize the situation as misguided and pointless. To them Obama is weak in that he didn’t have the courage to end the mission. Both left and right accuse him of playing politics with the war. Others, such as Nate Silver at Fivethirtyeight see it as political quicksand. If he breaks his promise to leave he’ll be hurt bad; if he keeps his promise he likely won’t benefit. Only a few loyalists don’t attack the policy from either the left or the right.
So what about the criticism? The criticism from the right strikes me as unrealistic at best, disingenuous at worst. It is unrealistic to expect the US to simply increase the scope of the war and continue indefinitely with a goal of defeating the Taliban completely. We can’t afford that, we wouldn’t get NATO support for such an effort (we will get modest support for this plan), and it sets the US up for a humiliating defeat down the line. I’m convinced that many on the right mistake rhetorical bravado for the realm of the possible. Anyone can talk big about victory and ‘defeating the enemy,’ but talk is cheap. Others like former Vice President Cheney, whose administration botched two wars and played a major role in driving the American economy into the abyss, have no business offering self-righteous criticism.
First off, Obama’s willingness to make a decision that he knew would satisfy no one is something I respect. He is President, he needs to focus on the policy, not the reaction. Those who charge him with playing small “p” politics are quite frankly dead wrong. He and his staff certainly knew this would be the reaction, both left and right have been telegraphing their positions for a long time. This was a politically risky choice, and Obama knows it.
A couple days ago, using a fictional conversation with Obama, I explained my take on the logic of the decision. The US needs to get out, but getting out the wrong way could make matters much worse. Getting out the right way requires the US try to pressure Karzai to make internal changes, convince Pakistan that the US takes the fight against terrorism seriously, and create an opportunity for the Afghan government to gain credibility with its people. If this cannot be done in two years and with an increase in NATO support, it is indeed mission impossible. In such a case, the US cannot stay, the war is unwinnable.
As a foreign policy analyst, I see compelling logic in Obama’s choice. The GOP desire for an open-ended commitment until “victory” is achieved assumes that victory is possible. It might not be, or it may only be possible at a cost much higher than the American people are willing to pay, or that is in our national interest to pay. Obama has defined victory as a relatively stable Pakistan alongside an Afghanistan with a functioning government. That cannot happen if the US were to simply leave as quickly as possible. It might happen with the “surge” strategy he has put into place. The 2011 deadline is important since it pressures the Afghans to take seriously the fact they’ll be responsible for their own security in short order. What Obama has done is figure out a strategy to increase the probability of success at a price he thinks the country is willing to pay, and which does not inflict real damage on the country (which an open ended Afghan commitment might do).
The criticism from the left — and the anti-war right — falls more in line with my views, so I have a bias. I think that increasing military involvement over there only means more people will die — Americans and Afghans — and likely will not affect the final outcome. I think Obama should have made the tough decision to say “this war is over, if after eight years the Afghans are unable to maintain their security, then we can’t do it for them.”
Yet that’s easy for me to say on the outside. Obama has to think of the implications of that choice, even if he agrees that we have to leave. It’s one thing to be on the outside, a critic of US foreign policy under Democrats and Republicans, and say “stop the war.” I have advocated a drastically reduced military budget and extremely few military commitments abroad for a long time. To me the military is to defend the homeland, not to try to stabilize the globe.
Yet as President, Obama has to answer those who would say “what about Pakistan, what about the likelihood of a quick Taliban/al qaeda take over in Afghanistan if we simply left? Would this help al qaeda plan a new terror attack?” What Obama did was take those concerns seriously, but also demand an exit plan. His plan is not really a surge, but a planned withdrawal. To the world it sounds like the US is simply increasing its commitment to the fight in Afghanistan. Many dismiss the 2011 start of troop reduction as a mere target likely not to be met. I believe Obama is dead serious about meeting it, and hopes to extricate the US from both of the misguided conflicts during his first term. He has decided to get us out of Afghanistan, but to do so in a way which tries to avoid worst case scenarios and at least sets up a chance for minimal success.
I hope it works. I hope that the pressure on Karzai and the Afghans forces them to make concessions and deals with opponents, and move away from the corrupt and incompetent form of government they now have. I hope the added short term muscle allows the US to make deals with mid-level Taliban and weaken that movement. I hope the time this buys creates a chance to improve the stability of Pakistan.
If not, Obama will be hounded by the excess death and cost — human and monetary — of two more years of war with more American troops involved, with nothing gained. If it does work, Obama will parade his successful Afghan policy as a triumph, hounding those who doubted him today. It’s a gamble, but one Obama makes after careful deliberation and analysis of the situation.
Mookie has published chapter 1 of a story and “tagged” me and Renaissance Guy to write a second chapter. Apparently the story is to go in different directions as different people contribute and “tag” others. I usually ignore tags and refuse to tag others because, well, that’s just me. However, in this case I’ll participate.
Chapter one of the “story” can be found here: http://mookieismike.blogspot.com/2009/11/curiosity-creative-writing-exercise.html. Renaissance Guy’s chapter 2 can be found here: http://renaissanceguy.wordpress.com/2009/12/01/creative-writing-exercise/. As I understand it, my chapter two should be different, and the story will go off in different directions (I haven’t read RG’s chapter two yet so as not to bias my own).
Chapter 2 – by Scott Erb
Detective Neil Coleman could not believe what he had gotten himself into. It started out as an investigation into allegations that a cult was involved in nefarious activities on the outskirts of town. Coleman had dealt with such issues before. Once a Satanist cult had killed a cow outside of his hometown of Trimont, Minnesota. Coleman was then a small town cop, barely 23 years old. He arrested the culprits and noticed that they themselves were horrified by what they had done. They were in their teens, and had nudged each other on to follow practices described in a cheap book on “Satanist rituals” in order to cast a spell on their school. They ultimately had to repay the farmer for the cow and spend time in juvenile detention. As far as he knew, they gave up Satanism forever.
Now Coleman was in his mid-thirties and working in Chanhassen, Minnesota, a wealthy suburb of Minneapolis. The alleged cult supposedly met in a clearing at the edge of town, near a ravine and a tunnel that ran along a river. Coleman went there originally to investigate allegations that graffiti and blood stains indicated nefarious animal sacrifices. But what he found was far different. He had walked through a tunnel, and noticed that the ‘blood and bones’ scattered there looked less like traces of a sacrifice than red paint and leftovers from a dinner. Then suddenly he found himself in the middle of a drug deal.
His instincts as a detective first led him to consider trying to make an arrest. But with seven gangsters totting weapons in a dark and secluded edge of a tunnel, he realized that would be an unwise move. Instead, he hoped they wouldn’t search him and find his badge, and put his head down and tried to walk past.
“Hey, idiot,” one of the underlings called out. “Stop right there, what the hell do you think you’re doing.”
Coleman stopped. “Hey, I don’t want any trouble, I’m just…I’m just looking for something to eat.”
One of the apparent leaders walked over to him. “Down on your luck?”
“My wife left me,” Colemand lied, “and right now I don’t even have a home. I’ll get it together. If you could spare even a little money…”
He was shoved by one of the ‘enforcers,’ who looked like he was going to pound Coleman with the butt of a gun. “Don’t fucking beg…”
The boss held up his hand to stop the enforcer, “Joey, hold back. This guy is just going through some hard times, we’ve all been there. He’s young, strong, maybe he can help us.” Joey backed up still giving Coleman a snide stare. “My name is Gordon, but most people just call me ‘boss’ — you know, like Springsteen.” Coleman managed a slight smile. “Who are you?”
“Name’s Neil…Neil Cook. I work in construction, but with the housing market on the skids, there’s not much work going on.”
“Here,” said the boss, flipping a C-note to Coleman, “this should get you something.” Coleman’s eyes opened wide — he expected a beating, not $100. “If you want more, I have some work for you. But you have to be willing to do whatever I tell you to do, with no questions asked. Can you handle that?”
“Sure,” said Coleman.
That was a week ago. Now, with back up arranged, he was to be in on a major drug deal. This was not the kind of arrest he was used to, as word was that a shipment of cocaine was coming in from Chicago, and would be distributed to some top dealers to spread to various parts of the Twin Cities. The level of planning and security astounded Coleman, who realized that if not for his luck on stumbling on a minor transfer, would have never been detected. After he got back to headquarters and made his report, they started gathering information and realized that this was a drug cartel that the Minneapolis and St. Paul police had been pursuing for months. Coleman’s discovery provided the link that could break the case open. And Coleman would be there as a ‘mob enforcer’ wearing a wire to set up a major arrest. This was the kind of thing that could mean a promotion — or death. Coleman was nervous.
The weak spot in the whole arrangement had been the tunnel entrance Coleman had investigated a week earlier. It was small and hidden. Today guards were placed around the scene, but someone could still emerge through the tunnel. Coleman, still distrusted by the boss’s other enforcers, was unarmed, and supposed to aid in carrying the merchandise to various vehicles that pulled up in an ally. The path between the ally and the clearing was about 50 meters. It was designed to assure that those receiving the merchandise didn’t know who was providing it, other than a dupe like Coleman hired simply to carry the goods. The police and FBI had to hang way back, and Coleman knew that any problem in timing could yield disaster.
Suddenly a strange mist started rising from the ground. “What the hell is that,” yelled the boss.
Coleman heard a chant. There was no way anyone could have infiltrated the area, yet it appeared that people were suddenly near the tunnel exit at the start of the clearing, though through the mist they appeared almost ghost like. A deer darted out of the mist and ran into the tunnel. The boss told his men to clear the area, and they drew their guns and ran towards the tunnel’s exit. Then, when matters seemed to be spinning out of control, two boys entered the clearing from the tunnel, staring in horror at what was happening in the mist. If there was shooting, the boys would be in the middle of it. Coleman had to think fast.
The phone rang at 6:00 AM. ‘Damn,’ I thought, nudging three year old Dana aside and reaching over him to get the phone. Luckily he didn’t wake up, though it’s the fifth night in a row he’s snuck into our bed. “Hello,” I said answering the phone.
“I hope I didn’t wake you,” came a crisp clear voice, “this is the President.”
Since our university President is a woman, I figured it was a joke. “You can’t be, the President is a woman.”
“I beat Hillary,” was the steady response. Hillary? “What, you’re the President of the United States?!”
I took the phone with me out of the bedroom and listened. “Sorry to surprise you. I read your blog regularly and find it very insightful. I suppose you get that a lot.” I don’t, but I didn’t dare contradict the President. I poured a cup of coffee and headed to the easy chair in the living room. “I am calling because of what you wrote about Afghanistan, in particular ‘Go Big or Get Out‘ and ‘Afghanistan: Mission Impossible.’ You’ve been critical of my approach. I think, though, you are misguided.”
I now was comfortable, and decided to continue the conversation since the person on the other end at least sounded like the President. Where are picture phones when you need them? The rest of the conversation went like this:
ME: OK, I obviously don’t have access to the intelligence you have, but I think that the cost to stabilize Afghanistan will be immense, something we can’t afford, and Iraq has proven that military force can’t change a culture. I can’t see any reason for to keep American troops at risk in that very wild country.
OBAMA: Look, that’s theoretical to you. To me every death is on my watch. What I decide affects soldiers and their families in profound ways. I do not take that lightly. I am going to increase troops in Afghanistan for a short period of time, but I’m not going to engage in a kind of neo-conservative social engineering project like the one that failed in Iraq. I’m smart enough to know that we can’t shape a future Afghanistan. I also am planning an exit strategy — not a timetable, but a strategy, something we lacked in Iraq. But right now we can’t simply leave.
ME: Of course we can! Nobody forces us to engage in military operations on the other side of the world. That’s a choice.
OBAMA: Please don’t patronize me. The reason we can’t simply leave — or the reason it is in our profound national interest to stay — is Pakistan. Pakistan is not on the verge of collapse, but the situation there is fluid and unstable. If Pakistan were to fall, there is a risk of regional instability as well as the possibility that al qaeda or the Taliban could get control of nuclear weapons. We can’t reshape the world as my predecessor learned, but we are still a force that can work against instability and chaos. What would it mean if Pakistan became a state controlled by radical Islamists? How would Iran react? What about India? Would our oil supplies be threatened? You think the economy is bad now…
ME: How does adding troops to Afghanistan stabilize Pakistan? I mean, I see the threat, but I worry that we delude ourselves if we think our military power can really accomplish these sorts of objectives.
OBAMA: First, Pakistan’s in a tough place with its own fight against the Taliban. If we left, they’d be able to cut a deal where they exchange peace in their own country with support of a new Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. It would be like the Soviet departure — NATO will have lost, the Taliban won, and al qaeda would claim victory.
ME: Maybe. But…
OBAMA: Hear me out. I do think…no, I know from intelligence reports that many mid-level Taliban are open to shifting to an alliance with the government, and many villages and towns support the Taliban out of fear. Yet current NATO troop forces are inadequate to turn that around, and the government there is incompetent and corrupt. Protected by us, they don’t want to make deals that might limit their power and wealth.
Now, General McChrystal’s original request was, to be blunt, unacceptable. In fact, the Pentagon gave me a host of unacceptable options, perhaps figuring that I’d be afraid to question their expertise. But while I’m not a military expert, I know an open ended commitment to Afghanistan is not feasible for this country in these economic times. So I put together experts, analyzed every option and facet of the mission, and ignored the political pressure to try to force a quick decision. Better to do it right!
ME: Well, Cheney and Bush dithered for six years on Afghanistan…
OBAMA: Exactly. What we need to do is first put up a coherent and believable resistance to Taliban to convince mid-level officials and villagers that NATO can give them an alternative. That means having increased force levels from other NATO countries too. Second, we need to focus on training Afghans to take over the mission as soon as possible…
OBAMA: It’s the only long term solution. Third, we need to draw down forces once we reach the point where the Taliban has been weakened and new political structures in place in order to maintain a backup force to any emergent terror threats and al qaeda. That will also signal to Pakistan our resolve in the region. Now, some Republicans are saying that any exit strategy only signals a lack of resolve. Yet we need to signal that too.
ME: Mixed signals?
OBAMA: No, we need to make Karzai and his corrupt government realize we’re not their protectors. Unless they make changes and step up to the plate, deal with Taliban supporters who want to change, and reform their politics, we’re gone. The Afghans have to believe it enough to force them to become responsible. If they do, the message of resolve to Pakistan will be even more intense: they’ll see an Afghan government getting its act together. If they don’t, then we’ll have contingency plans to create disincentives for Pakistan to support the Afghan Taliban or al qaeda. While we’re still there, we’ll be working on this as well. Either way, I’m convinced we’ll either be gone or have a very small force there within two years.
ME: I understand, but this has mostly been a monologue. Why did you call me?
OBAMA: Look, Afghanistan gives us no good options. I chose what I am convinced is the best of a series of options which all risk failure. And if this fails, we won’t put off the inevitable by ‘staying the course,’ we’ll pull the plug. But I want to convince the American people to support this effort. Given your criticism of me earlier, I thought maybe you could report this conversation to your blog readers and maybe endorse the plan. Given the quality of your blog I assume you have thousands or tens of thousands of hits per day.”
OBAMA: Tens of thousands, great!
ME: (I decided not to tell him that I meant just ‘tens’ of hits per day). I certainly can say that you have shown leadership here. By not just blindly accepting the military options but instead demanding they achieve your criteria, and by ignoring political pressure by those saying you were ‘dithering,’ you demonstrated you are a leader. The time you took also convinces me you put real thought into this, and consulted with a variety of experts. Still, I don’t endorse the plan. I think we should leave sooner rather than later.
OBAMA: But if we leave the wrong way, we could do far more harm than good — to ourselves, and to the Afghans.
ME: Agreed. So I won’t endorse your plan or oppose it. I trust your judgment, and believe you to be sincere in saying it’s not an open ended commitment. You have a difficult job, and are balancing many interests. I am flattered by your willingness to talk to me about this, thank you Mr. President.
OBAMA: Don’t mention it. Do you happen to have Mookie’s number? He’s in Iowa right? Important state.
ME: No, I just read his blog. He wants me to write some fiction, but my blog doesn’t do fiction.
OBAMA: That’s OK, the Secret Service can track down his number for me. Have a good day.
I finished my coffee as the alarm went off. I put down the phone and started fixing breakfast, hoping Harry Reid wouldn’t call again to bug me about health care.