Archive for September, 2015

Boehner Deserves Better


The situation is almost surreal.   A small group of Republicans want to shut down government to try to stop government funding of Planned Parenthood.  Not that Planned Parenthood had done anything illegal, but this is part of the on going anti-abortion crusade, this time fed by videos showing officials of the organization un-emotional over the sale of tissue from aborted fetuses for on going medical experiments.  There is nothing wrong with that practice either – better that than just throw it away – but for the zealots that was enough.

Never mind that if that funding was cut – 40% of Planned Parenthood’s budget comes from federal funds, mostly Medicaid – there would probably be a large increase in abortions since so many poor benefit from the contraception services the organization provides – a much more important part of their operation than abortions.  Never mind as well that the President would veto the action, and a shut down would probably hurt the 2016 Republicans as much as the 1995 shutdown hurt the GOP in 1996.  Zealots rarely give in to rational thought.

Both House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell recognized that their moral duty was to govern, and not risk the horrid effects of a shutdown over this quixotic fight.   While McConnell has most of the Senate on his side (only a whiney Ted Cruz strongly disagrees), Boehner faced a full uprising from House Conservatives, about three or four dozen who want to fight this jihad rather than compromise and govern.


And these members, as well as many conservative media sources like Rush Limbaugh and, routinely attack Boehner with a vengeance, denigrating him and calling him a lackey to Obama, all because he recognized the limits of divided government.  These people, so frothy in their fervor, don’t understand that they are not only a minority in the GOP, but a detriment to a party that hopes to regain the White House in 2016.  The Democrats have no strong Presidential candidates on the horizon, this could be a big GOP year if they don’t blow it.

Boehner had enough.

He has been fighting this fight for four years, since he became speaker (he joined the House in 1990).  He has survived despite vilification from the right wing, in large part because most Republicans respect him and know he has conservative values.   He choose to leave at a time no one expected, but which seems appropriate.

We don’t yet know when he made the decision.  I wonder if, listening to the Pontiff talk about the need to govern and compromise, he realized he needed to extricate himself from a caucus in complete disarray.  Maybe he decided that this was an appropriate ending point for his career – he has wanted a Papal address to Congress for years, starting back when John Paul II was Pope – the visit of the head of a Catholic Church that means much to him.

Boehner was emotional as the Pontiff spoke, realizing this was for him the biggest, and last major Congressional event he'd oversee as Speaker

Boehner was emotional as the Pontiff spoke, realizing this was for him the biggest, and last major Congressional event he’d oversee as Speaker

Boehner was crucified by his caucus because he wanted to do the right thing – make compromises and govern, recognizing that the Democrats weren’t an enemy to be annihilated, but a necessary part of a democracy that runs well only when there are diverse perspectives which are listened to and respected.   With inbred blogs and media pushing emotional themes and making compromise look like surrender, he was humiliated every day for trying to do the job of Speaker of the House properly.

He deserved better.   He took a lot of bullets for the GOP, he made compromises that were necessary.  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the news of Boehner’s departure “seismic” and it seems a clear indicator of the dysfunction within the majority party.  He will no doubt push the hated compromise through, doing his duty to the democracy he serves and avoiding a catastrophic government shutdown.  Already firebrand Cruz is attacking him, even as other Republicans praise his service, and former Presidential candidate John McCain expresses sorrow over his departure.

The Republicans, already wounded by the bizarre media behavior of people like Trump and Carson, have just over a year to get their act together and show Americans they are a responsible conservative party, not a group of loons wanting to shut down the government over one organization’s funding.  With Clinton’s woes, they should be in a much better position then they are.  It’s time for the majority of Republicans to take back their party from the extremists.  That would be best for the GOP, and best for the country.


It Was 20 Years Ago Today…


At about this time twenty years ago I started teaching far from where I had ever lived before.  Except a year in Bologna Italy and two years in Washington DC, I had grown up and gone to college in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and then lived for ten years earning my Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.  I taught my first class in 1989 at Minnesota, and one semester taught a course there and at both St. Olaf and Carleton College in nearby Northfield.  The year before I came to UMF I taught the year at St. Olaf as a sabbatical replacement.

As I walk through campus it strikes me how different things are, even while much looks the same.   I got my employee ID (which I should probably replace since the picture is 20 years old) at a small shack that no longer stands.  A church that sat next to campus has now become home to the Psychology department.  An old house that served a variety of functions, with special student apartments below them was replaced by a state of the art education building.  The fitness center that everyone was so proud of in 1995 now is something people hope to replace – though the programming and inside facilities have improved greatly.

The spacious fitness center doubles as the graduation ceremony venue if the weather outside is rainy.  Luckily that happens only rarely.

The spacious fitness center doubles as the graduation ceremony venue if the weather outside is rainy. Luckily that happens only rarely.

The old Honors house was replaced by a new state of the art dormitory, with a new house purchased across the street for the Honors program.  A $5 million dollar performing art center was built, serving the university and greater community.  Buildings were upgraded and refined.  But UMF retains the feel of community that I fell in love with my first year here.

Probably the most fascinating aspect of the last twenty years is the pace of change – it’s been amazing to watch the information revolution plow forward.   In 1995 I was dismayed that research papers had to be done mostly with sources like Time and Newsweek, as the library had very little political science.  Inter-library loan existed, but was difficult to navigate.   More than once I reserved a university van to haul students to Orono so they could research in a “real” library.  That was the disadvantage of being a small rural university without a lot of money – the students didn’t have the resources they did elsewhere.

The Education building, certified Green (geothermal heating/AC) replaced traditional "house" and parking lot.

The Education building, certified Green (geothermal heating/AC) replaced traditional “house” and parking lot.

All that has changed!   This week I took my first year seminar students to the library to learn how to use the state of the art library website.  From their dorm room they can order books from anywhere in the world.   Books anywhere in the U Maine system arrive in two days.   More impressively is access to data bases that go far beyond what most undergraduates utilize even at those places with research libraries.   Suddenly the disadvantage of being here is gone, students don’t even have to go to the library; they find sources, the website puts it in citation format, they can download articles, and have a world of academic information at their finger tips.   Add to that what you can find on the web – statistics, tools to analyze and graphically represent statistics, etc. – and the challenge is for students not to be overwhelmed by the wealth of information and analytical tools.

The $5 million Emery Arts Center was built connected to one of the oldest buildings on campus - the Alumni Theater

The $5 million Emery Arts Center was built connected to one of the oldest buildings on campus – the Alumni Theater

After I moved here I bought some furniture and a home computer.  I had a desk top provided by the university in my office – a Pentium 100, hardwired to the internet.  At home I spent nearly $2000 to get a Pentium 75 that had a modem so I could call in to connect with the university system via phone.  Since about 2002 the university has provided laptops, meaning we no longer need a separate home computer.  And of course, now the whole campus is wifi, even outdoors.

In 1995 some faculty members and even students still resisted using e-mail.    We were flooded with memos and papers; now it’s all via e-mail.   The computer centered buzzed with students finishing and printing out papers, or surfing the net.  Now most have their own computers.   It’s been years since I’ve required hard copy of papers – now they are submitted electronically on an educational site called “Blackboard,” where I also grade and comment.  No more gradebook, Blackboard handles everything, including a forum for class discussions.

Mantor library once focused on books.  The old building has many levels, almost like a labyrinth!  Now it's a multi-media information center with its own cafe - it has changed with the times!

Mantor library once focused on books. The old building has many levels, almost like a labyrinth! Now it’s a multi-media information center with its own cafe – it has changed with the times!

When I wanted to show a film, I’d have to request a TV with a VCR be brought to the room.  Now every room is “smart,” set up for multi-media presentations.   Powerpoint wasn’t yet in use by students in 1995, and many faculty members discouraged it in favor of traditional methods.  Now, it and other presentation software get used and our job is to help students learn how to use them effectively.

I could go on and on.   In 1995 I’d trudge to the library every week to read Der Spiegel to keep up with events in Germany.  Now my Apple Watch gets alerts from Der Spiegel.  And this doesn’t even touch how much the internet has changed everything – now it’s common if a question comes up in class to have a student look up the answer.  Information on just about anything is available on demand.

The big story that fall was the trial of OJ Simpson.   My “Politics of Post-Communist Societies” class talked me into taking them to the snack bar to watch the results of the trial.   The snack bar was full as the verdict was read – I recall being amused at how angry some of the students got!  We weren’t yet talking much about the failure to stop the Rwandan genocide the year before.  Now that case is integrated into my World Politics course, and the OJ is all but forgotten.

Those days the fear was that on line universities would overtake ‘brick and mortar’ college life.  They found their niche, but the niche had limits.  Boris Yeltsin was President of Russia, Saddam Hussein was getting impatient with weapons inspectors being in Iraq over four years after the 1991 Gulf War ended, and I was enjoying the music of break out artist Alanis Morrissette.   Bill Clinton was President, but a raucous House of Representatives led by Newt Gingrich was on the verge of shutting down the government to try to get Clinton to meet their demands.   At this point, Clinton looked like he might only serve one term as President.

As Bob Seger put it…”20 years now, where’d they go, twenty years, I don’t know…I sit and wonder sometimes, where they’ve gone…”   Though I have every intent to still be teaching here twenty years from now!


Celebrate the Iran Deal


Across the international community there is relief that the long ordeal with Iran and it’s nuclear program has finally yielded a deal to reduce tensions in the region.  It is a very good deal.

Though you might not know it by reading the American media, the deal has significant support in the Israeli security community and will give us a lot of information about Iran’s program we otherwise had no access too.  Last year hardliner Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said Iran was a year from having the bomb – now he claims this deal means Iran will have the bomb in ten years.    By his own account, the soonest Iran could get a nuclear weapon has been pushed back a decade!

Although dismissed by many on the right, the IAEA has a solid track record and has global credibility.

Although dismissed by many on the right, the IAEA has a solid track record and has global credibility.

Moreover, the opposition is built on a premise which: a) essentially dismisses the idea of any deal, even if they claim they want a “better” deal; and b) is almost absurd on it’s face.  That premise is that Iran has the elimination of Israel as a real policy goal, and would risk the destruction of the Islamic Republic to do so.  After all, Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons, at best Iran could develop a handful.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has a 36 year track record.  It supports terrorist groups, opposes Israel, and uses heated rhetoric, but the Iranians have been utterly pragmatic and rational in pursuit of their interests.   They support Hezbollah in part to assure Israel doesn’t attack them – they want Israel to know they can counter punch.  The idea they are crazy or suicidal is denied by a track record lasting over three decades.  Iran does want to have the status of being a respected regional power.   Take away that premise of the Iranians being crazy or suicidal, and the deal is very impressive.

Iran took President Bush's threat to eliminate the

Iran took President Bush’s threat to eliminate the “axis of evil” seriously.

Iran started actively playing cat and mouse with the US on its nuclear research around the time President Bush put them in the camp of the “axis of evil.”  In those heady days, the Bush White House believed that once Iraq was converted to a US ally, the US could undermine the Iranian regime and perhaps invade.   Things didn’t go as planned!

Iran’s policy was quite rational.   They wanted to assure the US didn’t invade or attack their infrastructure, so they supported Iraqi Shi’ites, who always had more in common with the Iranians than the Americans.  The posturing on nuclear energy allowed them to stoke up their population with anti-American nationalism, helping undercut the always present and relatively strong reform movement.   They paid no cost and as the US got bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, they realized American threats were impotent.

The one possible way to pressure Iran was international sanctions.  But President Bush’s unpopularity at home and abroad made building a truly effective international sanctions regime impossible.  So Iran continued to play the game, reaping domestic benefits and paying no cost.   Moreover, pursuit of nuclear energy did make sense for them to maximize oil profits and produce cheap energy.

Enter Barack Obama.   Respected by leaders across the world, Obama was able to build the kind of sanctions regime that actually could hurt Iran, even bringing China and Russia into the fold.  Suddenly, the cat and mouse game was turning against the interests of the Iranians.   By 2014 they were facing economic collapse, and the Iranian public wanted this long term crisis to end.  That helped elect a reform minded candidate to the Presidency in 2013.

The CIA has always doubted that Iran really wants nuclear weapons.   The game was in their interests, but a regional arms race would not be.  Here the opponents of the deal say we should have kept up the pressure until Iran DID collapse, and then somehow engineer regime change.   There are two problems with that: a) an Iran in collapse would suddenly become much more dangerous, like a wounded animal; and b) countries like China, Russia and many in the EU feared Iranian economic collapse more than a deal.  The sanctions regime would have fallen apart if the US was seen as standing in the way of a reasonable deal.

The deal is between Iran and the UN Security Council, which endorsed it unanimously

The deal is between Iran and the UN Security Council, which endorsed it unanimously

The timing was perfect; Iran was forced to the negotiating table, they accepted a deal that would have been anathema to them before.  In exchange the sanctions regime was lifted, and their economy rejuvenated.

If the deal’s opponents had prevailed and the US maintained sanctions and opposition to the agreement, that would only isolate the US from the rest of the world.  We learned a decade ago that in an era of globalization we need our allies.   Some say the US could threaten companies to try to force multinational corporations not to do business with Iran.  Some think we could pass a law punishing foreign companies who work with Iran and do business with the US.  No way could something like that be passed, and even if it could it would risk a trade war.   So the US gains nothing, and in fact loses influence in how the deal is enforced if it were to not go along with it (and that remains true should a Republican win the White House in 2016).

Now the key is to do everything possible to make sure the agreement is followed, and do nothing to undermine the reform efforts in Iran.   Don’t expect an “Iranian spring” against the regime; rather, the government will do as its done in the past, moderate its policies and avoid getting the public too angry – again, very pragmatic.  It would also be wrong to give more support to the reform movement; they don’t want it.  That would be used against them as they’d be painted as an American proxy.  The Iranians have to reform on their own.  Indeed, that’s what hardline opponents of the deal in Iran fear the most.

This successful diplomacy should be a step towards more effective regional opposition to ISIS, a path to stability in Iraq, and to start to undo the damage done in the first decade of this century.   It should be celebrated – not as a panacea bringing peace to the region, but as one step in the direction of improving things.   As one person used to remind me: small steps!  This is an important one.