Archive for March, 2012

Male and Female

Watch that Youtube video.   It’s only a couple minutes long.  It’s a powerful poem by Lauren Zuniga to the Oklahoma state legislature concerning their efforts to force women to get ultra sounds or other things before having an abortion.

This post isn’t about abortion or the Oklahoma legislature.   What this poem really symbolizes is how little empathy and understanding we men often have for the life experiences of women.

Men often complain about how mistreated they are, especially white men.   They complain that affirmative action leads to reverse discrimination, that women get better treatment and that somehow white males are victims of a wave of political correctness.  That’s utter nonsense.   Not only are white males still disproportionately wealthy and powerful, but very few ever suffer reverse discrimination.   Sometimes if a woman gets a job males wanting the job will all think that it should have been them, but in the world of discrimination and victimization, white males suffer very, very little.

But it’s deeper than that.   The reality of how different life is for men than women really hit me when I was in grad school, working late in the computer lab at the University of Minnesota.  It was 10:30 and a female student was getting ready to go, and asked if anyone else was leaving.  Someone was, in ten minutes or so.   She asked if he could walk with her to the parking ramp.   Simply, she didn’t want to be alone on that walk.

That concern would never have occurred to me.   I would walk home, sometimes through sketchy sections of downtown, pretty late at night.  I was young, had long hair and figured I’d just blend into the scenery.   A woman would not have that freedom.   Things I took for granted were often due to my male gender.   Sure, I could be assaulted or mugged, but the risk was different, and perceived very differently.

When it comes to public policy issues such as abortion, aid for dependent children, food stamps, child care, health care for children, etc., it’s much easier for men to take a very abstract perspective on these issues.   Dismiss such aid as coming from “hard working taxpayers” to “loafers.”   To accuse women having kids just to get welfare money.   That happens, but rarely.   It isn’t as real to us because no matter how progressive or forward thinking we are, males usually are not the ones that have to deal with unwanted pregnancies and trying to raise children alone.   Men can still disappear.  Or as in the poem above, men can assault and get away with it, paying no consequences.

One hopes that perpetrators of violence and disrespect end up feeling karmic retribution.

But for women, these issues are real.  If she has a child her life is forever changed, and she may not be able to give the child the care and attention it deserves.   Adoption is an option, but even that comes after a life altering episode.  Suddenly she’ll have to deal with issues like how to have a career, what to do about child care, how to feed the child properly, how to get adequate health care.   And while the Rush Limbaughs of the world might sneer that “that’s the consequence of having sex,” it’s a consequence that men can quite often evade.

And when the man does get caught and is forced to pay child care, the tables get turned.  Suddenly that’s not fair — the woman could have had an abortion, why should he have to pay for years because of one mistake?   A lot of women must shake their head at such a complaint and think “welcome to our world.”

So if you oppose abortion, support expanding health care to all children, support food stamps, after school programs, free day care, and efforts to help such women get real careers.   Make it as easy as possible for women to go through the trauma of having their lives turned upside down.   Make it easy for the children to have quality opportunities.   Have a huge infrastructure of support available, disconnected from religious organizations with side agendas.

Even if all that were to get done, we men have to avoid the arrogance of talking down to or about women who are in these circumstances.  That’s why Rush Limbaugh’s comments were far more vile than Bill Maher calling Sarah Palin a “cunt.”  Calling politicians offensive names is common, but attacking women for having to deal with difficult circumstances men like Rush easily evades is disgusting.   For men to accuse women of wanting to avoid the “consequences of sex” is obscene given how easily and often men avoid those same consequences.

None of this is meant to say that women are oppressed and downtrodden.  The overall situation now is so much better than a generation ago, women have real opportunities and discrimination has been declining.   And certainly there are aspects of life where being a woman is easier than being a man.  But on issues like abortion, birth control, rape/sexual assault and all sorts of issues involving children, schools and health care, we men have to be far more sensitive to the very different experiences of women.

And it’s not just men either.   Some women can be even more judgmental if they either never were in such a situation or if they fought through such circumstances — they may think ‘if I can do it, so can they.’   But life doesn’t work that way; context shapes individuals as much as innate character and life experiences are diverse.  It’s easy to stand on the side lines, abstract the issues away from their human meaning and then judge and pontificate. For some people, that can create a sense of self-righteous pride.   But it’s a misplaced delusion.

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The Failure of the Free Market Experiment

What's wrong in America

The last thirty plus years have been an experiment in lowering taxes, cutting regulations, and weakening both unions and the social welfare system.   The result is graphically clear above – a massive shift of relative wealth and income from the poor and middle class to the very wealthiest of society.

The experiment proves that the illusion that markets are magic and, if left to their own devices, will give the best possible result is wrong.   This deregulation and market fetish has led to the biggest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression (which was also proceeded by a belief in markets and inactive government) and a country that risks become a shadow of its former self — weaker, more divided, and in risk of long term economic decline.

It’s time to be forceful and clear about the lessons of the last thirty years, and reject the free market fetish that many on the right engage in.  They get seduced by ideology, a overly simplified economic theory that makes it sound as if all would be great if only the government was less active, taxes were minimal, and social welfare programs were cut.

Numerous fallacies support such ideological delusions.   One is the notion that the poor are simply leaches.  It’s a self serving and incorrect belief, but one that can be used to justify a lack of concern for the many people struggling in our economy.  If, instead of seeing them as humans trying to make it in rough times they can be dismissed as lazy parasites who simply live of taxpayer money, then there is no need to be concerned about them.   That kind of dehumanization of others has been the tool of many ideologies — the Communists about the kulacks, the Nazis about the Jews, the Hutus about the Tutsis, etc.  This case may be more benign — a “let them eat cake” response rather than a desire to eliminate them — but it’s still a false, dangerous propagandistic trend.

The problem is power.  The free market myth has a hidden assumption.   There is a belief that everyone is an equal player in the game, everyone is a free agent, able to make choices and act.   If that were true, then the result of these interactions would be due to the choices made.   Moreover, there is an assumption that people have good information upon which to act.   However, if information is false, imperfect or manipulated, and if there are power differentials, then the market easily gets warped to serve the needs and desires of those with power (wealth) and more information.

Thanks to inside info and power, the benefits of increasing productivity went to investors, not workers, as this chart shows. Their investments went to fuel bubbles not create jobs.

A classic class is the housing bubble and resulting derivatives market that led to the crisis in 2008.   Some on the right wrongly claim the crisis came from trying to get poor people into homes (it didn’t — that is a clearly and obviously false argument), but it’s clear to anyone who looks at the evidence that the crisis was caused by big banks turning mortgage debt into bonds that they sold (and then repackaged and resold) on the market.    Dervivatives begot dervivatives and soon the market was awash in what the banks knew were dangerous junk bonds – albeit with a AAA rating.

After deregulation the growth in derivatives trade skyrocketed, and led to the housing bubble and economic breakdown in 2008

Here’s a classic example of market fail.   The banks knew what was in the bonds.  But their money and clout got the ratings agencies to rate these AAA.   Then the banks sold bonds and credit default swaps to investors even though they knew the investments were dangerous — e-mails and phone logs prove that.  Hence wealth gets increasingly transferred to the already wealthy — a redistribution of wealth which has no ethical rationale.

Even before that, back in early 2000 I was part of an e-mail correspondance group that included a very wealthy connected individual.  In January he wrote that we should all dump our stock, especially tech and dot com stocks.  The insiders are all abandoning the market, he said — something’s about to go south.  The insiders know.

This shouldn’t be controversial.   The evidence is overwhelming that markets left to their own devices simply create a very powerful, wealthy class that dominates and rigs the game.   That’s why the graph looks like it did — less regulation, less taxation and more emphasis on the market alone warped the US economy.   Moreover, it made it easy for high debt to grow (private debt grew faster than governmental) and banks to avoid controls that used to limit such behavior.

From a comparative perspective, the evidence is equally strong.  The states faring best in this crisis are those who kept more regulation on the market and maintained social protections.   The best performing economies are from Scandinavia and Germany.   They seemed to growing more slowly during the bubble years (leading some Americans to claim that their regulatory approach harmed growth), but it was more that they avoided the worst aspects of the bubble and emerged more in tact.   Yes, due to globalization they aren’t immune to the crisis, and deregulation and bad policies in Ireland, Greece and Italy impact all of Europe, but Germany and Scandinavia prove that regulation, a strong social welfare system, strong unions and more equality does not weaken capitalism or hurt the economy — quite the contrary!

Before taxes and transfers the distribution of income as measured by the GINI index (used by the CIA as the best method of measuring relative equality) shows the US about average - .00 would be perfect equality, 1.0 would be one person with all the money.

Yet in this country class war from the right continues.   Paul Ryan’s budget shifting even more money to the wealthy while cutting assistance to the poor is a stark and to me comically absurd example of not learning from history.  It doubles down on the mistakes of the last thirty years, closing eyes to reality in order to smoke the drug of ideology.

After taxes and transfers the US has improved equality very little (there isn't much redistribution), but almost every other state has -- consider Germany which was worse than the US before taxes and transfers, but much more equal afterwards.

The evidence is powerful.  2012 needs to be a year where President Obama, and responsible Republicans and Democrats halt this flight of ideological fancy and take a pragmatic approach that recognizes that the country is strongest when government policy is used to try to combat the impact of power and information on the market.   The goal isn’t to equalize outcomes, but to create true opportunity for everyone, and counter the advantages power, wealth and inside information provide to a small elite.

Occupy Wall Street was a start.  It changed the conversation and got a lot of this information out there, even to people who don’t like protest movements.  The impact of OWS could be profound, especially if they reignite their efforts this summer to get the word out about how warped our economy is, and how this is a result of a false belief in market magic.   Deregulation, tax cuts, and cuts in social welfare programs have led us to where we are today – on the brink of collapse.

I think this message is starting to get out, and it has to be a theme of the 2012 campaign.  The country seems ready to turn around and reject the grand thirty year experiment in deregulation, tax cuts and free market ideological fantasy.  It’s time to change course.

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Paul Ryan: Class Warrior!

Class warrior Paul Ryan, fighting for "Team Wealthy"

If you had any doubt that class war was being waged in America, doubt no more!   Paul Ryan’s proposed GOP budget was a direct assault on the poor by the rich, cutting programs that benefit the poor by $5.3 over ten years, while giving tax cuts to the wealthy worth $4.3 trillion.    He promises that he can get the GOP House to pass his budget — something that could give Democrats real fodder in the House campaigns this summer!

What’s perverse and audacious in this effort is that he is trying to make it sound like he’s actually helping the poor.   Dana Milbank points out the “Orwellian euphemisms” in Ryan’s rhetoric.   From Milbank’s column:

Ryan’s budget outline omits specifics about how much he would take from programs. Instead, it provided a string of Orwellian euphemisms. The budget “repairs the safety net” by allowing the states to award public assistance to fewer people — “those who need it most.” Financial aid for college would be slashed — er, “put on a sustainable funding path.” And the Ryan plan would give workers “the tools to thrive in the 21st century” — by killing off various job-training programs.

Ryan would cut Medicaid by a third and ship the remnants to state governments to handle. Or, as the congressman described it: “We also propose to strengthen Medicaid by empowering our states.

What makes this class war instead of a bold initiative to cut spending is that so much of the money “saved” doesn’t go to deficit reduction but instead to tax cuts.   The claim is that this will grow the economy more and wealth will “trickle down,” much like the right claims happened when Reagan cut taxes.   Rather than go over all the lists of what is cut, how is hurt and all that — articles delineating that are ubiquitous — there are four clear reasons to reject Ryan’s approach.

The blue box shows the huge spike in total debt during the Reagan years, hyperstimulating an economy already benefiting from a recovery and lower oil prices.

1.  The Reagan years were driven by debt, not tax cuts.   The 1980s saw economic growth, but that growth was due to declining oil prices and a massive increase of both governmental and private debt.   Government debt soared from 30% of GDP to 60% by 1990.  Private debt grew as well, meaning that the country was partying on borrowed time.   It was like the early stages of someone who borrows their credit card to the max and then takes out new credit cards to make payments.  For awhile you’re living on top of the world, but then reality bites.  Reagan economics were voodoo economics because it was deficit spending in a boom.

2.  Tax cuts harmed the economy and worked against investment.   Those who argue for tax cuts rest their case on a myth — a belief that has been shown false, but still lives on in the ideological heart of some on the so-called right.  The myth is that these new tax cuts provide money that will be invested and create jobs here in the US.    However, that doesn’t happen on a scale that helps the economy; perhaps it could have back in the 60s when economic affairs were state-centric, but in an era of globalization the rules have changed.

Money from tax cuts goes to four different places:  a) some money is used to consume goods and services — that can help the economy, but much of that spending is for foreign produced goods and oil; b) some money gets invested overseas, c) a lot of this money helps create bubbles and ‘unreal’ investments out of a desire for ‘something for nothing,’ and d) a small fraction gets invested at home in businesses that create jobs.    During the dot com bubble and the real estate bubble low taxes fed two consecutive bubble manias as people were less concerned about long term “real” investment and more interested in playing the casino.   It seemed it was a casino where everyone won!   Easy money!

When the bubbles burst, that money was gone.   It would have been far better to tax and use much of that money for infrastructure or business loans/aid.   Instead, the misguided belief that tax payers know best how to spend their money (the two bubbles show that proposition to be decidedly untrue) brought us to a crisis that just about took down the world economy — and still could!

Ryan's cuts will harm states already hurting

3.  States will be devastated.  States right now are seeing their deficits grow due to increased medicaid and medicare costs.  State budgets are being pushed to the brink across the country.  If the feds simply cut that spending and claim they are “empowering the states” (but not enriching them!), then state governments will be forced into massive layoffs.   This will hurt the poor the most (such cuts always do), but could severely damage state economies.   Ryan’s plan is an attack on every state budget, and should get the opposition of every Governor, Republican or Democrat.

It's hard to blame children for their poverty - and they can't "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" without education, health and a stable environment

4.   The human cost is immense.   Ryan’s budget is a fantasy of ideology.  It’s not built on practical observations or the use of real world wisdom.   He has a theory and extrapolates the theory into a budget that would intensify the problems of the poor while adding to the wealth of the rich.   It’s a grand experiment on the basis of an ideology.

Ideologies appear persausive.  They simplify reality and then set up internally consistent propositions based on the definitions and assumptions of that theory.   Ideologies can never lead to truth, they simply provide one interpretation of real world evidence.  Ideologies are always simplifications — the world is too complex to be captured by any human theory.

Ideologues always put humans second to their “ism.”  The “ism” promises to solve all problems, if only people would embrace it. While Ryan’s ideology isn’t as dangerous as the utopian fantasies of Mao or Pol Pot, it is similar to the kind of thinking Marxists engaged in, just with different base assumptions.   Any time you put theory above people you’re putting fantasy above reality.

In this case, the ideology must already be doubted for the three reasons above.  Taking from the have nots and enriching the haves is not only immoral, but could lead to social breakdown.   It would push us towards a third world kind of economy and ultimately Ryan’s fellow class warriors on the right might find that they’ve awoken a sleeping giant — the potential class warriors amongst the poor and middle class.   In an ironic twist, adopting Ryan’s plan might put us on a path to a socialist revolt!

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Victims?

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales has been identified as the soldier who went on a killing rampage in Afghanistan, perhaps dooming the US mission there.

A soldier goes on a rampage and kills 16 Afghan civilians, causing outrage and anger among the Afghani people.   How would we like it if a foreign soldier killed innocent Americans?   Shocked, we are quick to point out that the entire military can’t be judged by looking at a ‘bad apple,’ and that Bales doesn’t reflect the attitude of most American soldiers.

True.  Bales is 38, the father of two (ages 3 and 4), and on his fourth tour of duty, two of them in Iraq.    His family said he was not a mean, aggressive or angry man.  He hadn’t wanted to go to Afghanistan this time; the constant tours interrupted his life.   Apparently he was in a strong marriage that showed tension due to his absences.  He was injured more than once, one concussion that could have possibly caused brain damage.   The day before the rampage, he saw the leg blown off a friend of his.   Before the rampage, he had been drinking heavily.

This makes me immensely sad for both him and his family.   I write that without meaning to show any insensitivity to the Afghan victims; their deaths are tragic.   Families have been torn asunder by these killings – children had their lives cut short, the pain to those remaining is immense.

However, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is extremely common amongst soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, as we in Farmington learned last year when a local man apparently confronted police with a desire to be killed.  When soldiers are sent back over and over, facing immense pressure and hardship, even a strong, ethical person can crack.   Add alcohol, perhaps a brain injurty (and PTSD is itself a kind of brain injury), and a man who could have had a life as a successful family man with a career in the military faces a very uncertain future.   He probably will only know his children indirectly as they grow.  Although he must accept responsibility for his actions, his mental health was a victim of war, stress and government policy. Think of all those who suffer and don’t get and often don’t seek help.

A sad face

On Wednesday in the nearby town of Jay, Frank Smith took a man hostage at the Verso paper mill, holding him most of the day.  He released the hostage at about 3:30 and gave himself up a couple hours later.   I stopped at the Hannaford grocery store in Jay that day and saw about 20 logging trucks parked in the parking lot as they couldn’t make their deliveries to the locked down mill.

I don’t know the details of Frank Smith’s case.   Comments left by readers in the article I just linked give a clue.   Despite working there almost 25 years he was apparently fired for a minor infraction, spraying a co-worker who had sprayed him with a hose.  Moreover, there are a few comments that the mill treats employees like disposable tools — after all, with high unemployment, there is an excess of people wanting to work.

If so, that’s appalling.   You don’t fire a 50 year old in this economy — especially not in central Maine — unless you have to.   To look at this as hard discipline would be perverse.  Discipline him, but recognize that firing a man in his position is may destroy his finances and cause severe disruption to his life.   Now, most fifty somethings who lose their jobs can handle it, just like most in the military can handle PTSD without going on a killing spree or wanting death.   But if you have the right mix of circumstances, such things can cause a downward spiral.   And don’t forget – it only takes a moment of bad decision making to change life completely.   You can do good things for years and one mistake can destroy all that.

Jason Russell, whose work on Invisible Children and Kony 2012 have garnered attention, was detained in San Diego.

The last case is that of Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, who was detained by police because of strange behavior, charges of public masturbation and vandalism.   However, the police did not arrest him, they decided that what he needed was medical care and sent him to the hospital.   The Invisible Children network put out this statement:

“Jason Russell was unfortunately hospitalized yesterday suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition. He is now receiving medical care and is focused on getting better. The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday. Jason’s passion and his work have done so much to help so many, and we are devastated to see him dealing with this personal health issue. We will always love and support Jason, and we ask that you give his entire family privacy during this difficult time.”

In this case it’s clear that a man’s passion and effort to help the victims of children and war will find his personal reputation and even his cause harmed by an incident that seems out of place with who he is.   While some conspiracy theorists have suggested powerful people wanted to destroy him, it’s likely given the statements that he had a mental health issue (from the description it could be bipolar disorder).

Are these three men victims too?  Victim is perhaps the wrong word.  They are symptoms of something wrong in our culture, a kind of human expression of the danger of pushing people to the edge in a society that has become so individualistic that people are left to fend for themselves emotionally.   When mental health is the issue — as it is in all three of these cases, apparently — we don’t forgive or understand, at least not in society at large. .

But whether it’s the soldier pushed over the edge, the fired worker whose life now seems hopeless, or the activist whose mental illness threatens to derail his work and reputation, I can’t help but think that all of us could end up in a similar place given the wrong circumstances.  As a society we need to learn to be more understanding and less judgmental.

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Santorum vs. Obama in 2012?

Could this be the matchup for November?

Tuesday night Rick Santorum, who Mitt Romney said “was at the desperate end” of his campaign, won primaries in Mississippi and Alabama to keep what George H.W. Bush called “the big mo.”   On the map the race looks close; the delegate count shows Romney with a strong lead.

Right now Mitt Romney has 498 of the 1144 delegates needed to win, Rick Santorum trails with 239, Newt Gingrich has 139 and Ron Paul only 69.   Moreover, despite Santorum’s successes on Tuesday, Romney actually increased his delegate lead by solid wins in Hawaii and American Samoa.   If you read the pundits the writing is on the wall, Mitt will be the Republican nominee.

Not so fast.

One thing we’ve learned in primary season is that races can shift on a dime.  We’ve seen state polls vary radically within a few days, it’s too early to say everything is set in stone.   Another thing we learned, however, is that math is indeed the language of God in terms of counting delegates.   In 2008 Hillary Clinton ended the primary season with a string of wins but couldn’t overcome the delegate advantage Obama racked up early on in caucus states.  The first lesson gives Santorum hope, the second gives cause to suspect Romney’s going to get it no matter what.

Despite a strong comeback, Hillary Clinton could never overcome the delegate math in 2008

Romney’s math includes a few “winner take all” states, including delegate rich California (172 delegates) and New Jersey (50 delegates).   Yet California’s recent polls suggest a lot of possible drift in the race.  Romney’s best poll shows Romney just over 40%, others have him just over 30%.   If Gingrich becomes a non-factor and Santorum keeps momentum going, one could imagine an upset for Santorum — and suddenly the math is on Santorum’s side.   In New Jersey Romney’s also not getting much over 30% with Santorum close.  A shift of momentum to Santorum could cause an upset there.

Playing with CNN’s interactive delegate counter (note: if you do, they have a major glitch – they have California as proportional representation when it’s winner take all, so adjust for that), and assuming Gingrich declines, Santorum and Romney split following general expectations, if Santorum pulled off upsets in California and New Jersey, the final delegate total after the primaries could be:  Santorum 1032 to Romney 904.   Gingrich would have 177 in that scenario, and if he threw his support to Santorum it would mean Santorum gets the nod.

However, if Santorum is on a roll where he wins California and New Jersey, other states now seen as likely Romney could switch, and it’s conceivable Santorum would have enough delegates going into the convention.

How likely is this?   In a different year I’d say very unlikely.   Republicans want to win, and I think most doubt Santorum could pull it off.  He lacks organization, his views that play so well to the GOP base turn off independents and he has a host of quotes and soundbites that would come back to haunt him.   Romney isn’t a super candidate, but he looks the part, is organized, well practiced, and his weaknesses in the primaries could become strengths in the general election.  After he’s the nominee, the thinking goes, being considered “not conservative enough” will help rather than hurt him.

This year, I don’t know.   It’s been such a roller coaster that momentum matters.   Moreover, Romney voters are unenthused; few people say “Mitt’s got the vision and plan to lead us to greatness, he inspires me!”   Most say “he’s probably the best we have to go against Obama.”  Santorum isn’t a golden tongued orator, but he can inspire, and seems to speak from the heart.   Mitt speaks from a script – and the script varies depending upon the audience.  Consider the primaries on Tuesday.   Romney did very well where he was supposed to, but voter turnout was very low.   People wanted to go vote for Santorum, they didn’t really care enough about Romney.

That’s a profound weakness for Romney, one that won’t go away in the general election.   To unseat a sitting President is difficult, even when the economy is bad.   You hear claims like “no President has won re-election when the unemployment rate is over 7.2% since FDR,” but that’s a umeaningless factoid.  The “N” is too small!    The only Presidents not to win re-election since then are Ford, Carter and Bush the Elder.   N = 3.  In each case you can find a host of other reasons for the loss.  In each case the opponent was an inspiring outsider.

Romney fails to arouse passion, he doesn't inspire

The ball’s now in Romney’s court.  He’s got the lead and he can either try to sit on it and watch the math roll his way, or he can up his game and try to give a positive message rather than simply showering negative ads on the other.   He has to find his inspirational voice, or risk going into a brokered convention as a damaged and flawed candidate who couldn’t seal the deal, and found himself stymied by the most unlikely of GOP Presidential candidates – a guy who lost big in his last run for the Senate.

In such a case the answer in Tampa might be “none of the above.”   In other words, if you thought the Democrats provided primary excitement in 2008, things could be even messier on the GOP side in 2012.

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Leave Afghanistan Now

Tom Hanks and Charlie Wilson - Hanks played Wilson in "Charlie Wilson's War"

One of the better foreign policy movies is Charlie Wilson’s War, a story about how a relatively obscure Texas Democratic Congressman helped guide the US towards funding the largest covert operation in history.   To be sure, it ended up covert in name only, as it was clear to everyone by the mid eighties that US support was fueling the Afghan mujahideen in their battle against the Soviets.

The film is delightfully entertaining and demonstrates how some of the inner workings of DC politics and bureaucracy can impact policy.  In the public eye the President takes the lead, but rarely is it that simple.   The film also shows the dangers of blow back.   The mujahideen, or “soldiers of God” were fiercely anti-Communist.   There’s a scene in the film where the Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chair Doc Long is giving a speech in Afghanistan, telling the people that they would win because it is good vs. evil, and God is on their side.   Seen now in the light of 9-11, it the exuberant reaction is eerily frightening.    Yes, this was a movie, but CNN’s Cold War series also shows then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski saying essentially the same thing in 1980.

More poignant is the fact that in hindsight its obvious that the side we were supporting turned against us.    It’s clear that while Pakistan was helping us beat the Soviets by funneling weapons to the rebels, they were choosing the most extremist groups to fund, ignoring others like the fighters of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was more moderate.  Massoud, a leader of a group called the “northern alliance” got virtually none of the weapons and was himself assassinated on September 9, 2001 to try to disrupt the anti-Taliban forces just before the 9-11 attacks.    In fact, the Taliban itself was a creation of the Pakistani secret police, the ISI.

The Koran burning incident was called the "worst US PR disaster in the entire Afghan war." It held that title for about a week and a half.

In most foreign ventures the US tries to get by “on the cheap.”   It’s politically and economically costly to send troops and  personnel into diverse conflicts, especially when it’s not clear why the conflict is important.   Look at what happened in Vietnam and Iraq, after all!

Even in Afghanistan in 2001 the US tried to outsource most of the fighting to the Northern Alliance, allowing them to defeat the Taliban.   The US seemed not to really get all the rivalries and intricacies of Afghani culture and politics, for soon the US pushed off responsibility for stabilizing Afghanistan to NATO and shifted attention to Iraq.   That’s where the neo-conservative dream of the US transforming the region and spreading democracy went up in flames.

As Iraq was becoming increasingly critical, Afghanistan was slowly disintegrating.   It started with stories of a Taliban resurgence, growing corruption, and a lack of control of most of the country by the central government in Kabul.  By the time the Iraq war had finally been ended Afghanistan became the dominant security problem.   President Obama tried to solve it in typical US fashion – on the cheap.

The "situation room" where President Obama worked with his advisors to try to find the right course of action in Afghanistan.

Rather than leave or go in big, he opted for a smaller force designed to train the Afghans so they eventually could handle their own affairs.   After some major fighting to try to put the Taliban off balance, the effort shifted towards an advise and assist role.   But we are still there.

The argument for staying is that we need to avoid neglecting Afghanistan like we did after 1989.   We need to make sure that if the Taliban does become part of government, it will be a reformed Taliban.   We need to have boots on the ground to act in the name of counter-terrorism thanks to residue al qaeda and Taliban operatives who still dream of hitting the US.

Any good the US presence can do is rapidly undone by images like this - a child shot by an American soldier (her grandmother is with the body).

None of those arguments are persuasive.   All could be done through covert operations, information sharing, and the usual counter-terrorism methods.    It’s likely that a total withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan in 2012 instead of 2014 (about 90,000 are there now) would not alter the long term course of the country.   In fact, it might even help.

Consider two recent incidents: violence caused by Koran burnings by the US military, and a rogue soldier who went on a rampage and killed at least 16 civilians.   The cost of these incidents is immense.   It does more to push people away from a pro-US position than anything the Taliban could do, and undermines both the safety of the troops and the potential success of the mission.  Arguably it makes those who work with the US look like collaborators with a foreign occupier.

At least 16 Afghan civilians were killed by an America soldier who apparently lost control. To me, that soldier is also a victim of the war -- what kind of life might he have had if not for being put in these circumstances?

The US has been in Afghanistan for over ten years — longer than the Soviets were there.  The famed “killer of empires” hasn’t brought the US down, at least not yet, but it has proven itself again unconquerable.  60% of Americans now say the war wasn’t worth fighting.   Originally anger at Osama made the war immensely popular, President Obama called it ‘the good war’ in the 2008 campaign.   Now, people want out.  It’s a drag on US policy, the military, and our efforts to win hearts and minds in the Islamic world.

There will be a lot of pondering on what went wrong, could things have been done differently, were we wrong to choose war in 2001 or whether or not we misread and misplayed Pakistan and other regional powers.   While President Obama’s caution about leaving too quickly is understandable — and certainly based on military advice, since this is one President who listens to his advisers — it’s time to extricate ourselves from this situation.  Osama bin Laden is dead, al qaeda is in shambles, and the world is a much different place than in 2001.   It’s not fair to our military personnel to keep them in a fight that will have no clear end, and which has already caused hardship and harm to many military personnel and their families.   It’s not in our national interest to let this conflict continue to drag the country down.   Time to come home.

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President Obama: One of the Greats?

This image is taken from the Washington Monthly which has a story The Incomplete Greatness of Barack Obama.   I’ve been puzzling my liberal friends and annoying/shocking my conservative buddies by repeating my prediction that President Barack Obama will likely be remembered as one of the great Presidents in US history.

Liberals believe that Obama has somehow not been strong enough, some claim he’s been “GOP Lite.”  He caved on the debt ceiling, extended the Bush tax cuts and hasn’t stood up to the GOP.   They see his efforts to make deals with Speaker Boehner as having been weak and foolish.  To many on the left Obama is a militarist who has continued US policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, doing what he needs to to curry favor with the Pentagon.   Moreover, he’s too close to Wall Street, having used advisors like Summers, Geithner and other “insiders” instead of embracing radical reform.   Instead of pushing change, he’s trying to be liked by Republicans who want only to destroy him.

Republicans think Obama has been dangerously radical, weak on defense, and unfriendly to business.   They see the modest compromise ridden health care reform the Democrats see as sometimes worse than doing nothing as some kind of radical dangerous burst of socialism.  Sometimes the criticism is bizarre.   Newt Gingrich warns that Obama has been “pretending” to be reasonable for four years in order to slam his agenda down our throats after his re-election.

The often bizarre beliefs his opponents hold about him is indicative of Obama being a transforming President - when the country is in transition, many people don't like it!

In short, the extremes of each party have tended towards seeing anything not in line with their perspective as bad.  They are in two parallel universes, showing the depth of the partisan division over Obama’s Presidency.

Given tea party noise, continuing unease about the economy and the partisan divide it’s easy to miss all that the President has accomplished.  That list of fifty accomplishments is pretty substantive, and beyond what most Presidents do in their first four years.  Now some on the right might think some of these accomplishments are mistakes — policies we shouldn’t have engaged in.   But that’s a different issue.   In terms of getting things done, Obama has been an effective activist President.

Rather than put together an argument about why he may be destined for greatness, I’ll channel an historian from the year 2050…hold on, turning out the lights, starting the seance…OK….

“Why do we consider President Obama to have been one of America’s great Presidents?  Well, in 2008 the United States slipped into a severe recession caused by thirty years of deficit spending and current account deficits as the country binged on cheap consumer goods produced elsewhere and bought with borrowed money.  Many said the US was in collapse, and predictions ranged from complete breakdown in authority to a weakened state groveling to the Chinese to keep them from dumping dollars and treasury notes.   Two dubious wars had divided the country, harmed the economy, tarnished America’s image and seemed to symbolize US decline.

President Obama came into this horrible situation and arguably prevented the Great Recession from becoming a depression.  Forging a compromise heavy on tax cuts to help please Republicans, the stimulus package of 2009 helped save the US and arguably the globe from a spiraling depression.   Obama also continued President Bush’s policy of rescuing the credit markets with the Troubled Asset Relief program, which also staved off depression and prevented a banking collapse.

His first years were rough, even as he engineered major changes like a health care reform program that over time has cut US health care costs and which now enjoys immense support.  He supported the civil rights movement of that era by ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” carefully bringing the Pentagon on board to undercut opposition.  In foreign policy he not only patched up relations with the rest of the world (being more popular abroad than at home during his first term), famously getting along with leaders of diverse views, but he also took a stance for freedom, helping push out dictators in the Arab Spring.

When the global economy turned around his second term, his popularity grew, and many now credit President Obama with saving the US from decline as a superpower.  He recast US policy as one of working with like minded states to pragmatically solve problems, beginning the alternative energy cooperative that has allowed a smooth shift from fossil fuels to alternatives in a way that did not bring about a feared oil catastrophe.   As one biographer put it, ‘President Obama is a major reason why ‘peak oil’ became simply a transition, not a disaster.’

His shift of emphasis from hard power to soft power, as well as limited American involvement won support at home from a public weary of middle east wars, and caused other countries to recognize the need for cooperation – America isn’t going to do it alone. It paid dividends when diplomatic pressure forced Iran to give up its nuclear program and gave room to Iran’s dissidents who ultimately forced the clerics to move towards a truly democratic and modern Iran.  Obama’s shift also turned the US into a kind of hero to the Islamic world, credited with helping end the regimes of Mubarak, Gaddafi and Assad.   Without a mix of US pressure and support the Saudi Royal Family would have never ceded power without a fight.

Historical causality is often hard to label.   Things had gotten so bad by 2008 that perhaps any leader would have become great, the times can make the man.   But President Obama’s pragmatism, willingness to compromise, and recognition that the US could no longer say “we lead, you follow” helped guide the US from its unipolar moment to its position of multipolar cooperative shared leadership.   It was in his second term that the initial plans were created to recast the power grid, restructure the American tax code (which had become byzantine in its complexity by 2008) and ultimately put the US on a path of sustainable success…”

Bringing about "change you can believe in" doesn't happen overnight.

The reality is that President Obama took charge at a time when the country was in transition, and at this point, if you see above the noise and uncertainty, there are real signs that we’re making progress.   We’re not only starting to restructure the economy but recast our role in the world and set up policies with an eye on a very different future than the world of the 20th Century.

Yes, his foes will never accept that — many still hate FDR, and no one denies his greatness.  But President Obama is in the midst of a transformative Presidency, starting the country on a new direction.   That is a recipe for greatness.

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