Quick Thoughts for a Friday

Another busy week in the news.  I hope to expound on these topics in the future but thought that I would get some quick thoughts down in the interim.  Here we go:

  • Syria.  Events continue to percolate in our continuing effort to bring the Syrian regime to account for its August use of chemical weapons on its own population.  Frankly,  diplomatic efforts have gotten further than I anticipated that they would in this amount of time.  The next key step will be to actually pass a United Nations resolution under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter.  This is what will put the teeth into any effort to bring the chemical weapons under international control should the Syrians back off.  The Russians had objected  to any strong resolution to make Syria comply but it appears there may have been a diplomatic compromise.  We will find out next week.  I am still of the opinion that no action would have been taken on any front if President Obama had not threatened, and continue to hold open the possibility, of military action.
  • Budget Battles.  As we all know, the right-wing of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives continues to threaten to hold our economy hostage if there is no bill to defund the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.  As predicted, this afternoon the Senate passed a Continuing Resolution to keep the government operating into November.  It is unclear what will happen as the bill returns to the House.  Probably, they will not meet the deadline of midnight on 30 September but I don’t think they will miss it by much so that the impact will be minimal.  Or seem to be minimal.  As I’ll explain below, it is already having an impact.  The reason that it will pass is that Speaker Boehner will promise a similar showdown over the raising of the debt limit in mid-October.  The current impasse will seem minor compared to what we are likely to see over that issue.  Yet to be determined is whether or not the Congress can actually pass a bill that sets up a long-term management plan for the people’s money.  Since 2007 the continual use of Continuing Resolutions is the primary method that Congress chooses to fund  the government rather than using the appropriation and authorization bills.  This year the Continuing Resolution keeps spending at or below last year’s funding and includes the sequestration that resulted in furloughs of workers, limited hours for government agencies and severely limited the ability of our Armed Forces to meet their training and equipping requirements.   So, even if they pass the short-term Continuing Resolution by 1 October, they will not have solved any of the fiscal problems we face now and in fact, they just exacerbate them as we move forward.  They should be so proud.
  • Federal Government Workers.  Consider the plight of government workers.  So far in 2013 they have been publicly vilified by certain politicians, had their pay frozen for the last three years, furloughed via the sequestration which impacts their take-home pay, threatened with more time off with no pay if the Continuing Resolution does not pass, and experienced a shocking violation of the safety of their work place with the murders in the Navy Yard last week.  In addition they must do more work with fewer people as the government continues to shrink but the requirements mandated by Congress have not abated.  Please remember that these are not faceless bureaucrats.  They are regular people working hard on important issues.  They really do work hard.  Of course, there are a few dead beats.  There are dead beats in almost any work environment.  However the vast majority, the vast majority, of people working in the federal government are working long hours trying their best to do the right thing.  Many are beginning to re-think their dedication as they continue to be vilified and used as pawns in a political game.  These are real people, not some theoretical “they” that can be played with without consequences.  These same people have to pay rent, get their kids to school, fix the family automobile and deal with the same frustrations of life in the 21st century as do the rest of us.  Different visions of what the government should or should not be are legitimate issues for discussion.  Vilifying dedicated public servants is not.
  • Entitlements.  Lost in the brouhaha over the federal budget is the fact that several other important pieces of legislation sat in the House without action.  Among these was the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps.  The House Republican leadership stripped the SNAP funding out of the farm bill passed last summer by the Senate in a bipartisan vote.  Traditionally, the SNAP funding was part of the farm bill.  It actually may be a good idea to separate the two as special interests were quite effective at getting what they wanted when the two were linked.  However, the House action stripped nearly forty billion dollars from the program over the next ten years.  Nice.  If there is a country on Earth that should not have hungry citizens it is the United States.  Part of the motivation for stripping funds is that allegedly too many people take advantage of the program.  Does this happen?  It is most likely that it does.  Will stripping forty billion dollars from food stamps stop fraud?  Most likely it will not.  What the bill does do is restrict who is eligible for the assistance and limit the amount of time that they are allowed to receive benefits.  It also puts new requirements on the states (the individual states actually control the distribution) which will require increased government workers to implement.  I suppose that helps with job creation, but seems ironic from a number of Congressmen that want to reduce government.  Here is the tough question that no one has yet resolved in my mind.  Most Americans agree that there should be some kind of social safety net for our citizens — Social Security, Medicare, SNAP, WIC, and others.  Most Americans agree that there is some percentage of the population that are dead beats — no matter what you try to do to help them, they just do not get it and never will.  So the magic question is where to draw the line?  How do you legislate out the dead beats without hurting those people who have legitimately fallen on hard times and need a hand while they strive to get back on track?  Given the state of the economy over the last five years, there are a large number of people in that latter category.  Let’s not cut them off to score political points.

There is a lot going on in our country.  Many of these events underscore for me, yet again, that votes count and elections have consequences.  I hope that our so-called leaders in the House and Senate figure out that the vast majority of Americans are disgusted by their inability to reach some common sense decisions.  Quit manufacturing crises — there are enough to deal with without shooting ourselves in the foot.

Okay, I guess I wasn’t that quick after all.

How Long Do We Have to Put Up With This?

There go my men and I must follow as I am their leader.  — John Boehner

Speaker of the House John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) did not actually say those words, or at least there is no record of it.  But it seems to be his motto.  He has demonstrated little to no control over his party in the House of Representatives.  The latest lack of leadership revolves around the upcoming end of the fiscal year and the need to fund the government or shut it down.  Right behind that by about three weeks we will face default on our national debt if the debt ceiling is not raised.  This development seems to be yet another impending manufactured crisis in the continuing efforts of about forty right-wing Republican Representatives determined to destroy our national economy if they do not get their way.  “Looking out for the middle class” indeed.

Speaker Boehner understood that the legislation passed in the House yesterday is not the way to make sure that the government continues to operate effectively.  He knows that the Senate and the President will never go along with his plan to delay and/or de-fund the Affordable Health Care Act otherwise known as “Obamacare.”  He tried to maneuver legislation that will give the malcontents a chance to vote once again to eliminate Obamacare but in a way that the Senate could then easily overcome and everyone could move on.  But no, that wasn’t good enough for those trying to hijack our country and so Speaker Boehner backed down and moved legislation nearly guaranteed to keep us tied up in knots once again.  He even pretends now that it is a good idea.

There are several things to remember about this “fight” as they call it.  First of all It is a manufactured crisis.  The Affordable Care Act is duly passed legislation found Constitutional by the Supreme Court (with five of the Justices avowed conservatives) and a national election where Obamacare was a primary issue.  In case nobody noticed, President Obama was re-elected and the Democrats retained the Senate.  Let me put a finer point on that.  The president was re-elected in a national election.  Any member of Congress, including the Speaker, was only elected by a small fraction of the electorate.  On top of that, the House has voted at least forty times (almost too many to count) to repeal, defund, delay or otherwise disrupt the legislation.  This they have time for but they cannot seem to find the time for getting on with the business of actually running the country.  Throw on top of that the refusal to consider other significant pieces of legislation passed in the Senate with bipartisan support and they really do have a terrible track record.  I suppose that the only thing that matters is that they demonstrate their commitment to obstructing the Obama administration at every turn whether or not it is a good idea and whether or not it hurts the majority of Americans.

Oh, and by the way, the bill they passed is only a continuing resolution to mid-December.  There will still be no 2014 budget or appropriations.  They “need more time.”  This after being on vacation for five weeks in August and September and coming after several attempts by the president in the spring to work with Republicans to avert a crisis and to get things moving again.

Oh, and by the way, sequestration remains in force under their continuing resolution which all agree is not the way to reign in government spending.

Speaker Boehner spoke of “victory” after the vote.  The only “victory” was by the recalcitrant gang of forty and their allies outside the government such as Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth that have intimidated moderate Republicans in the House.  I could go on about the growth industry supported by these groups and the immense amounts of money that come their way when the conflict continues, but that will be a post for another day.  I will merely say that they have no real interest in resolving these issues because that’s what they thrive on.

Not-with-standing the real politics behind the scenes, and I do understand how a Speaker of the House gets elected by the majority party, there should still be an occassional reminder to Speaker Boehner that he is Speaker for the entire country, not just a radical wing of his party.

I am also tired of these guys (and a few gals) who claim to speak for all Americans.  As the Speaker said, “We had a victory for the American people, and frankly we also had a victory for common sense.  Our message to the United States Senate is real simple.  The American people don’t want the government shut down and they don’t want Obamacare.”  Well, maybe he got it half right as most of us do not want the government to shut down.  Note that he says the “American people” meaning every American.  Not “most Americans” or “many Americans” or even “my constituents that are Americans” or any other modifier.  Every American.  How dare he or anyone else say that?  How conceited to think that he or his party speaks for every American.  He may mean those that voted for him and that’s legitimate, but the facts just do not support the assertion that everyone wants Obamacare eliminated.  Note also that they have not proposed any replacement for bringing health care to those that need it.  Just get rid of what was passed three years ago.

This is outrageous to me.  Saner minds, including I’m sure Speaker Boehner, must know that their bill will go exactly nowhere.  However, it is not clear to me how this will get resolved.  If the malcontents do not get their way on the continuing resolution (an actual spending bill by 30 September is now out of the question) they have threatened to default on the national debt.  Thanks guys, I’m sure that will help the economy to recover.

Oh, and by the way, raising the debt limit is required to pay our nation’s bills.  Bills that we are already committed to based on legislation already passed in the House and Senate.  This is not new spending.  It’s paying the existing bills.

To be clear, I do think that we should take a hard look at spending, programs and where government can be trimmed or modified or improved.  Likewise I’m sure that there are ways to improve the Affordable Care Act and that there will be blips along the way that need to be rectified.  Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs have been improved through bipartisan efforts.  It should be the same for this program and for government spending on the whole.

There is no moral equivalency here.  Suggestions to compromise fall on deaf ears because there is nothing to compromise about.  The hostage takers will not negotiate or compromise.   I understand that Democrats don’t get everything right.  The president doesn’t get everything right.  Not all Republicans are trying to bring down the government.  There are some good people on both sides of the aisle that could fix some of these issues in a meaningful way.  It is not happening because of the group of Republican crazies in the House (and lately two or three in the Senate).  No one will stand up to them from within their own party for fear of losing their job.  From where I sit, those people may as well lose their job because they are not doing it.  If they are unwilling to stand up for what they believe to be right, then they should leave.

To me Speaker Boehner has decided that it is more important to remain as Speaker of the House than to do the right thing (he wouldn’t lose his seat in the Congress as he is popular in his home district).  He could have put forward a bill to solve the “budget crisis” that would have passed with bipartisan support.  But he also knew that those in his party that want to hold the country hostage would probably have brought him down as Speaker.

Here is what will probably happen, although increasingly I am finding that I should get out of making predictions.  But, I will give it a try anyway.

The Senate will pass a bill that is a continuing resolution that keeps spending at about current levels but that will try to move some money around to lessen the impact of the sequestration.  A few Republican Senators will try to derail it.  This slows down the process so that the bill passes with only two or three days until the deadline and then goes back to the House.  Another round of publicity speeches will take place as they continue to rant against Obamacare and the administration.  This will further slow down the process so that the “compromise” that passes the House and Senate sometime early on the morning of 1 October will be the spending levels that we have now including sequestration.  It will be temporary so that we can do all of this again in late December or early January.

All concerned will take a break for about one day and then the hostage taking will continue anew over raising the debt ceiling.

How long do we have to put up with this?

What a Week

There was so much to write about this week that it was overwhelming.  Unfortunately, much of what occurred is sad or troubling.  It was a bit much to take in all at once.  However, I plan to address many of the issues as the days pass.  A few quick thoughts:

  • The shootings at the Navy Yard in Washington DC were horrific and troubling on many levels.  Besides the personal aspect of my having been in Building 197 many, many times, one must ask how many more mass shootings are there going to be before we as a society decide to make our citizens safe and secure?  It will not be by arming more of our citizens.  I’m troubled that some in our society are calling these shootings the “new normal.”  There is nothing normal about it.
  • I am dismayed at the continued dysfunction in our Congress thanks to a minority of about forty House Republicans that seem to think that their way of thinking is the only correct way for Americans to think and are willing to hold our country hostage to get what they want.  I also wish they would quit telling me what I want as in “the American people want to get rid of Obamacare.”  None of those people asked me about it.  I happen to think it is a good idea.
  • Within the first three days that it was on sale, “Grand Theft Auto Five” had over a billion (yes, with a “b”) dollars in sales.  I’m not one of those that fears the end of civilization as we know it because of video games and other aspects of our culture, but one can’t help but wonder why such a cruel, violent, misogynistic game would be so popular.  And no I’ve never played it.
  • The new Apple i-phone also arrived this week.  I am not sure why people had to stand in line to buy a phone that appears to be only marginally different from what already exists, but that is up to them.  With the controversy over who is collecting what information on all of us, it seems counter-intuitive that those buying the phone are excited about coughing up their fingerprint to use it.
  • Nina Davuluri, Miss New York, won the 2014 Miss America crown.  She is the first woman of Indian descent to win.  I did not see the pageant, and I’m not even sure I knew that it was on, but I heard the news about it not because of reporting on the event, but rather I heard about it from reporting about all the nasty postings on social media regarding her ethnic background.  Most of the postings were just plain ignorant, but it continues to reflect the worst aspects of our society.  Ignorant or not, many of the racist posts, if reflective of a noticeable slice of America, makes me understand just how difficult it will be to solve many of the problems facing our country.

There were of course some positive things happening this week.  College football is underway again, for example.  I know there are significant problems there and one day I’ll address them, but for now I choose to enjoy the excitement and camaraderie of a beautiful fall day and losing oneself in an endeavor that has no bearing on the crisis of the day.

I also continue to appreciate the freshness that Pope Francis is bringing to the Catholic Church and the pastoral, big tent message he is sending.  Putting people in need above the church hierarchy is just the message many in that hierarchy needed to hear.  It will be interesting to see how he continues to convey his message of humility and faithfulness.  I seriously doubt that there will be any significant doctrinal changes in the months and years to come.  However a continued message that all are welcome is in itself a significant change.

I trust that the coming week will bring better news.


Why, Thank You Mr. Putin

If you have not seen it, please read Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in today’s New York Times.  It is always nice to have a Russian explain democracy and the will of the international community regarding international law to American citizens.  He must have learned about it at the KGB Academy.  Interesting that he understands American freedom of the press, even if he inhibits it in his own country.

This only reinforces what I wrote about in my previous post.  Mr. Putin is trying to poke us in the eye over Syria and this is just one more example.  He is trying to make Russia look good (and stronger) at the expense of the United States.

Based on the comments I’ve seen coming out of Congress, Mr. Putin may actually provoke the very thing he purports to want to save us from doing.

My favorite line from his piece is this:  “We are different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Why thank you, Mr. Putin, I never would have known that.


Getting This Right

The twelfth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11 is a strong reminder that national security is a serious business.  As we pause to remember those we lost that day, we should also try to re-focus our efforts toward the Middle East and specifically in Syria.  We need to get this right.

In essence, yesterday our national leadership called a time-out to re-group and to re-assess our policy and our ability to move forward in enforcing international law by holding Bashar al-Asad accountable for his use of sarin gas.

I do not think the president made as compelling of a case in his speech on Tuesday night as I had hoped that he would do.  The speech probably just reinforced the opinions of those that support action and those that oppose it.  No minds were changed.  It did, however, provide an opportunity for a face-saving decision to let Congress postpone a vote on whether to support the president’s request for a military response to the Syrians.  Whatever the outcome, and events are outpacing my ability to keep up with them, our actions (or lack of action) cannot lead to a decision to just let things slide under the guise of supporting international diplomatic efforts in the hope that the problem will go away.

As the experts have quickly pointed out elsewhere, the practical problems in implementing the Russian proposal to turn the Syrian chemical weapons over to international inspectors are enormous, if not nearly impossible.  It would be difficult to do a credible job in a timely manner in a perfect world, and Syria is certainly not a perfect world.  I agree that the United States and other nations, through the United Nations Security Council, should pursue the proposal, but I doubt that it will succeed.  Already the Russians have threatened to veto a British and French resolution that would implement the turnover, but with the proviso that it has to be on a specific timeline and if that timeline were not met, military force would remain an option.

The United States can only accept a resolution that is specific, time sensitive, and that retains the option of military force in the future.  Both the carrot and the stick need to be present to get the Syrians moving forward.  Indeed, the carrot will probably be viewed as weakness and only the stick will get their attention.

Beyond what should be a natural American moral stance that it is actually our job to enforce crimes against humanity when no other nation is capable or willing, there is a bigger picture.  This developing story has significant ramifications for future United States policy.

With Russian involvement, and given the mentality of some non-western cultures, this is also a test as to which nation has the influence and wherewithal to accomplish its goals in the region.  Despite their public pronouncements, the Russians did not come forward with their proposal in an altruistic effort to curb Syrian chemical weapons.  Russia stepped in to stop the United States in an effort to show to our friends and enemies alike that we no longer have the will to get involved in the Middle East (or elsewhere) if it involves the use of military force.  The message will be that a “redline” means nothing.  The Russians are trying to convey that post-Iraq, the United States is no longer willing to go the extra mile.

If the diplomatic efforts drag out for weeks or months, the game is over.  The United States and its allies need to craft a resolution that tests Russian and Syrian willingness to do what they say and then press them if (when?) they back away or dissemble or otherwise try to change the playing field.  The Syrian regime must suffer real consequences or the United States will be viewed as unable to influence world events or to back up its threats.

War is a serious business and should never be undertaken lightly.  I was a critic of American involvement in Iraq in 2002 before the decision to go the following year.  It hurt our operations in Afghanistan and we invaded for the wrong reasons.  Syria is not Iraq.   However, I think that the Obama administration has thus far been a bit flat-footed in its efforts.  With this Russian proposal the scenario is reset and there is a chance to get back on our toes and to get ahead of events in order to shape what happens rather than just to react.

The end of America as we know it will not occur if we do not act in Syria.  Serious questions remain as to what military action is appropriate or wise.  But it is also clear that as events have thus far unfolded, American credibility as a world player is on the line and that if we are unsuccessful in this endeavor, we will bear the repercussions down the line.  If in the end there is no real accountability for Bashar, and the world perceives that the Syrians stood up to us and the Russians forced us to back down, then within a year we will see further tests of our resolve in other parts of the world.

Let this sad anniversary be a reminder that there are nasty people in the world who wish to do us harm.  We cannot look away.

What about Syria? (Part Three)

“Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”  — Oliver Hardy

It is hard to know where to begin as events continue to unfold concerning possible United States military action against the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad.  The bottom line is getting significantly obscured in all the political rhetoric within our country and without.  To me, however, it is still necessary for the world — and as the leader of the world, for the United States — to take action against Bashar’s regime.

As I write, I think of all the things that have gone wrong in the way that we’ve approached this case and how we may be able to rectify the many mistakes.  But in the end, that is all water under the bridge.  The real question is “what happens now?”  There are many questions that cannot be answered and thus create an aura of doubt about the feasibility of taking action.   Not to be cavalier, but it is also possible to be stymied  by over-thinking all of the issues and questions.  As a mentor of mine used to say it becomes “paralysis by analysis.”  Continuing to press for every conceivable scenario and pushing to eliminate all of the risk may even be a strategy by some of those opposed to military action.  To them, too many unknowns means we should not take action.  However, if that was the basis for all decision-making, then few things would get accomplished, especially in a context such as this one.  That is not to say that planners should not be trying to answer all of those questions.  As I pointed out in my first post on this subject on 28 August, there must be a plan B — branches and sequels as they are known to planners.  These are important when the operation is a success (the need to seize the initiative and to take advantage of unexpected opportunities when they arise) and they are critical if the operation is less successful (how do we still accomplish the mission while lessening or eliminating the problems standing in the way).  Keep trying to get the answers, keep working on contingencies and “what ifs” but at some point it is time to act.

I am not sure exactly why President Obama made the choice to get Congress involved in the decision to act.  Much has been (and surely will be) written about whether or not it was necessary, supports or undermines the Constitution, or jeopardizes the chances for success.  My own view is that it was not necessary.   Significant precedence exists for the president to initiate military action without a vote from Congress.  Indeed, in his own administration he took action in Libya, and on a much larger scale than anticipated here, without it.  Clearly, a president should consult with Congressional leaders, provide them with a rationale, share intelligence leading to the decision and otherwise include the legislative branch of Congress.  A vote, however, creates an entirely different dynamic and significantly complicates the issue on many levels.

Foremost among those complications is that the nature and ramifications of what was going to be a relatively (if there is such a thing in warfare) straight forward, short duration operation achieving tactical surprise if not operational or strategic surprise have changed.  The public, our legislators, anyone discussing the issue now talk about “going to war.”  We were never going to war with Syria and the vote in Congress is not a declaration of war.  But merely talking in those terms raises the stakes to a level not in the original concept.  (At this point, let me say I do not and will not gloss over the dangers of combat.  When bullets are flying, those on the scene don’t care if we are technically at war or not, they are in danger.  I remember Beirut in 1983 where the Reagan Administration would not authorize hazardous duty pay — commonly referred to as combat pay — because of fears it would trigger the War Powers Act.  We were not amused.)

The “Goldilocks Solution” I referred to in my 31 August post becomes increasingly difficult to achieve (not too little, not too much, but just right).  However, we must still try.  Politicians that argued that President Obama does not understand or believe in “American Exceptionalism” are now arguing that the United States should not be out front in holding Bashar accountable for his violation of international law.  Really?  We are the world’s leader militarily, economically, and in this case most importantly morally or we are not.  We cannot have it both ways.  To me this case is all about demonstrating that we are serious when we say that certain actions are totally unacceptable and that we will not stand by and let them happen.  Deterrence does not work if there is no consequence for the action being deterred.  Our nation is a leader in putting a moral force behind international law and therefore we must act.

Continued references to our involvement in Iraq under President George W. Bush are not relevant in this case.  It is wholly different.  I have not heard of a single member of the House or the Senate say that the evidence of Syrian use of chemical weapons (probably Sarin) is false or shaky or insufficient.   When the president addresses the nation this Tuesday, I hope that besides laying out the moral arguments for our involvement that he also includes the facts of the case — the surety that caused him to embark on this course in the first place.

Whether or not to act and if so in what manner is not a trivial discussion.  It is a weighty decision and I appreciate that members of the public and the Congress have legitimate concerns.  They should ask the hard questions.  To me, it seems that most of the opposition to military action falls into roughly three categories.  Some merely oppose anything that this president puts forward.  Period.  Thankfully, in this case I think that number is very small.  Others oppose military action because they feel that it would not do any good or merely “make things worse.”  I appreciate this line of argument but I think it naive.  What could be worse than what is already going on and will go on.  Could things get worse?  They could.  Will they get worse if we don’t act?  They will.  A third group, and in the Congress right now I think the largest group, feel that we do need to do something, but are not convinced that we will achieve our aims by taking military action.  This is where the Obama Administration must make its case.  To be sure, I do not think that they have made it to date.  Secretary of State Kerry has been the most eloquent in delineating why now and why in this way.  So far I have been unimpressed by General Dempsey (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) and Secretary of Defense Hagel. As the experts, they should be able to make the case with a clearly stated, straight forward mission statement and define the intent.  Why are we doing it and what do we accomplish?  I haven’t seen them do it, although they are getting closer with the aim to “degrade and deter” future Syrian use of chemical weapons.

There is a lot riding on this decision, and not just for those that must go in harm’s way.  I think our credibility as a nation is at stake and non-action will come back to haunt us in the future as other bad actors feel emboldened to create mischief.  Our past history demonstrates that foreign leaders can badly miscalculate the meaning of the contentious American brand of democracy.  Should this happen again with North Korea or Iran or even Syria (again) we will rise to the occasion as we have so many times before.  But it will be at a much greater loss of lives and treasure than would have been risked had we acted now instead of later.

So what will happen?  I don’t know.  My best guess is that the House will vote down the resolution and the Senate will pass it.  If that is the case, the President will go ahead and act.  If both the House and Senate vote down the resolution, the President will not act.

Either way between now and the beginning of October with so many domestic and international issues pending for our legislators to resolve it is going to be exciting.  Or as Bette Davis said in the movie All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”