Fearing Fear Itself

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away.

Buffalo Springfield – Somethings Happening Here Lyrics

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4038 known as the Security Against Foreign Enemies Act (SAFE — get it?  They are so clever.) The bill effectively keeps Syrian and Iraqi refugees out of the United States.  Arguably, it doesn’t automatically stop them from entering, but it puts in place restrictions that virtually guarantee that they cannot come to the United States.  I, for one, feel no safer. I am much more concerned about taking my family to the movies and being blown away by an American with a semi-automatic weapon.

Among the reasons that I am very disappointed in the House rush to “do something” and to claim that it makes “every American safer” is that I find it laughable that they think this has any practical impact other than to make life more difficult for those fleeing oppression in Syria and Iraq.  There are many reasons that I think this bill is ineffective.

  • All but one of the perpetrators and supporters of the attack in Paris were Belgian and French citizens with Belgian and French passports.  Only one may have been Syrian — officials say that he is unidentified and that a fake Syrian passport was found near him.  He is believed to have come through Greece with the refugee flow, but could just as easily be Libyan, Egyptian, Afghani or a number of other Middle Eastern nationalities.
  • The House did not hold any, any, hearings on the bill, did not allow any amendments (contrary to Speaker Ryan’s promises when he took office that all bills would follow “regular order”), and there was no, none, nada, consultation with the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, Justice Department, FBI,  CIA or the Director of National Intelligence.
  • Any terrorist from any nation who as an individual is not on a watch list can enter the United States on a European, Asian or many, many other national passports without any problem.  The SAFE Act does not change that.  Perhaps there should be a comprehensive evaluation of our passport and visa policies rather than a knee jerk reaction that has no practical impact in stopping other terrorists from entering the United States.
  • It makes us look weak and ineffective to our enemies in the Middle East.  Rather than demonizing people fleeing oppression and religious persecution (thousands more Muslims have been killed by ISIS for their religion than have Christians) Congress should be debating the appropriate military actions necessary to secure the homeland. Inducing paranoia in our citizens by claiming a massive threat when the likelihood of an attack from Syrian refugees allowed into the United States after 18-24 months is about non-existent and certainly less than the danger posed by thousands of gun deaths in the US every year.
  • Congress should be debating the request from President Obama made last February to authorize military actions against ISIS and other terrorists in the Middle East.  Somehow Congress cannot get around to acting on that because no one seems to be able to agree on what should be done and for how long.  But the President must do something!  Even though we do not know what that might be that he should do.
  • A cynical interpretation would be that Congress knows the President will veto the bill.  When the inevitable terrorist attack occurs in the United States, from whatever faction, the blame game will begin that the president “allowed” it to happen.  To me, combating terrorism should be the last place that we play politics.
  • I could go on, but unfortunately, most Americans seem to be glad that we are now soooo much safer with the passage of H.R. 4038.

Adding to the hysteria are our leading Republican candidates for President.  For President.  It is difficult for me to type that.  Mr. Donald Trump over the last few days has said that as president, he may be forced to:

  • Close all mosques in the United States.
  • Create a data base holding the names and presumably addresses of all Muslims in the United States.
  • Require all Muslims in the United States to carry an identification card that has their religion identified on it.
  • Require all Muslims in the United States to pin a red crescent to their chests whenever they venture out in public.  Okay, I made that last one up, but why not take a page out of history and do that?  It is a logical fourth step in line with his proposals.

Meanwhile among his many informed statements, Dr. Ben Carson, second in line as a possible Republican candidate for president, likened the Syrian refugees to dogs.  I wonder if this analogy was deliberate because one of the greatest insults in the Middle East is to compare one to a dog.  Perhaps he is trying to fuel more hate and anger in the Middle East?  Perhaps he is trying to help gain new recruits for ISIS?  I cannot know what his intent was, but I am afraid that he did not have a conscious intent.  I think it is just another example of an individual that is brilliant at what he does, basically a good man, but that is out of his comfort zone and has no clue when it comes to understanding what it is to be President of the United States.  Words matter and as president, they matter a lot.

As for those presidential aspirants that argue we should only let in Christian refugees, why stop there? Why not only allow in Christians with blond hair and blue eyes?

Look.  I am not naive.  We need to take a good hard look at our security procedures, intelligence capabilities, social media skills, passport policies and a host of other measures to ensure that we are as safe as it is possible to be.  We need to stop them in their tracks.  However, this is isn’t our first rodeo and since September 11, 2001 our security professionals have become very adept at keeping us safe. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. Congress should really be spending its time doing what it is supposed to be doing — that is providing oversight to the federal agencies tasked with keeping us safe and making sure that all that can possibly be done, within the Constitution, is done.  They should also oversee improvements in our security posture that can be attained as technology changes. We need to adapt to the changing environment and the changing tactics of our adversaries.  What we should not be doing is going off half-cocked with ineffective measures that do nothing to improve our safety but do a lot in making our enemies look better than they really are.  Not to mention challenging our basic freedoms as citizens of the United States.

We Are Playing Right Into Their Hands

Sad.  Outrageous.  Horrifying.  Anger inducing.  Numbing.  These are some of the feelings I have had, just as I am sure many of you share, following the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday.  Horrible. Unfortunately, I have similar reactions to the politicians in our United States who either have no clue as to what they are talking about, or are purposefully using this tragedy for political purposes.  Those same politicians accuse others of “politicizing” a tragedy following a mass shooting when they speak out for gun safety laws and yet they have no problem politicizing a tragic terrorist attack.  Their comments are to me nearly as terrifying as the attacks themselves.

There are several issues at play here, and a twitter post or sound bite will not reflect the complexities of the situation.  First and foremost one must remember that the purpose of terror is to create fear and a resultant over reaction that causes us to change our way of life or to take some action that meets the terrorists’ long-term goal.  Make no mistake, despite some statements to the contrary, the terrorists have a clear purpose and a clear goal beyond just taking as many lives as possible.  This is one area where the reckless statements by some running for president play right into the hands of the terrorists.

Additionally, one must understand the strategic goals of these particular terrorists who appear to be associated, if not directly controlled, by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Creating the “caliphate” or fundamentalist nation that they have declared is not an end unto itself just as the terrorist attacks are not an end.  Their vision — and we must understand them from their perspective not ours — is to cause the apocalyptic battle of the West versus the caliphate.  In other words, they really, really, want the United States and European forces to invade their territory in order to precipitate the clash of civilizations.  They believe that the result will be cataclysmic and result in the end of the world as we know it and establish a world dominated by them.

This is an important point and necessitates taking the long view.  This is a clash of ideologies.  This is a clash of world views.  This is a clash of civilizations.  I make those statements with no sense of drama or over reach.  It is a fact and one that the arm-chair quarterbacks and “bomb them to the stone age” activists do not understand.  If every member of ISIS was killed on Wednesday in their caliphate, the terrorists still would have attacked on Friday and others would come in to take their place.  This is a long war that will not be resolved solely by military action.

Am I saying that no military action is necessary?  No.  We need to take military action and we need to take the fight to ISIS.  What I am saying is that such action is necessary, but not sufficient. Clearly ISIS established their ability to reach beyond the caliphate.  The bombing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai, the bombings in Beirut and now the attack in Paris are certainly ISIS efforts to show that forces that oppose them will be attacked.  However, since we are also dealing on a psychological and ideological level, there are other aspects to those attacks and it very well may be that they are also a result of what the president observed last week prior to the attacks.  Not directly related as in retaliation or defiance, but that the facts are related. He said ISIS is “contained.” While this remark is getting shrill ridicule from presidential aspirants, he may be right.  The caliphate is shrinking geographically, the number of recruits seems to be dwindling, and more nations are joining the fight against them.  Under that circumstance, ISIS leaders would need to demonstrate that they are still strong and provide more fodder for gaining recruits. Additionally, without going into a history of the western world, the ISIS ideology and their pronouncements are reflective of their perception that Europe squashed the spread of Islam in the Eighth, Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, to name a few of the ideological underpinnings of ISIS and jihadist culture in general.  This is in essence revenge for historical defeats and a demonstration that the war to spread Islam is not over.

I want leaders that understand just how complicated the resolution of this mess will be and in this piece I have only touched the tip of the iceberg of all that is in play.  I want sober leaders, not emotional, uninformed individuals that over-react, or worse, pander for political purposes.  I want leaders that have emotions — which one of us does not react with emotion to events in Paris — but that do not act emotionally. Sending the men and women of our Armed Forces into harms way should not be a knee jerk reaction.  And once again, for all our sakes, just stop it with talking about “boots on the ground”!  That has no meaning and tends to show one’s lack of understanding of how the military works.  Do they mean combat troops?  Advisors?  Logisticians?  Intelligence capabilities?  Marines? Army?  What do they mean?  We must also never forget that by using the term “boots on the ground” we take out the human aspect.  Somehow saying “boots on the ground” removes the obligation of our leaders to understand the consequences of sending our fellow citizens into a situation where inevitably some will be killed and seriously wounded with the consequential impact on their family and friends — not to mention the loss of our nation’s future leaders.  These decisions should never be taken lightly or out of some misplaced desire to show how tough they are.  Nearly all the proposals I have seen from the flock of presidential wannabe’s are amateurish at best, or fraught with danger to our nation at their worst (with the specific exception of Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina whose proposals I am not 100% in agreement with, but at least he has a sober and thought-out plan.) By the way, none of those folks will be in office until about 14 months from now.  It is sure a lot easier to say what should be done than to be the person responsible for actually making the decision. They show their ignorance when they do things like point to the “massive French response” and say that we should do the same.  The “massive” response is twelve (count them, twelve) aircraft bombing shacks in the desert.  The United States and coalition does more than that on a slow day and have been for over a year.  ISIS will not be defeated from the air.  No fly zones make no sense either, as several have proposed, because ISIS has no aircraft.  A no fly zone will bring us into direct conflict with Syrian aircraft (which we may want but such a decision should not be made in the heat of emotion), and with Russian aircraft (we are not fighting the Russians).  I could go on, but you get the idea.  We definitely do need to step up the military pressure on ISIS, especially on the ground, but we need to realize that it is easier said than done and we need to make sure we know what we are doing. Military experts always ask “what is the next step?” and “what is the end game?” and “what does it look like when we are successful?” — none of those specific questions have been answered by advocates of a bigger U.S. military effort and their plans have only very non-specific terms.

I am most bewildered, flabbergasted and profoundly disappointed by the calls from Republican candidates for president and the twenty-five (at last count — twenty-four Republicans and one Democrat) state governors who say that they will “outlaw” Syrian refugees, or indeed any Muslim refugees from settling in the United States.  It is doubtful that they have the legal authority to “outlaw” refugees, but more troubling is that they even propose it.  This is perhaps more dangerous to the future of the United States than the attacks in Paris.  It would also be a tremendous victory for ISIS should we “outlaw” Muslims in the United States. It proves their narrative that the West is “against” Islam.  ISIS also does not want to see those refugees leave their caliphate.  It ruins their narrative and gives them no basis to govern.

Most troubling are the cheers for the leading Republican candidate Mr. Donald Trump when he calls for a “deportation force” to round-up 11 million people from their homes and force them out of the country. Enforce immigration laws, certainly.  Work towards some form of comprehensive immigration reform, certainly.  But round-up 11 million people by force?  Really?  In the United States?  Over the weekend he went several steps further by declaring no Muslim refugees should enter the country — and oh by the way, when he’s president he will have those already legally here deported — but he also said that if he were president he would “strongly consider” shutting down mosques in the United States.  So much for the Constitution.

Even more troubling is that Mr. Trump was not alone in his demagoguery.  Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Ted Cruz said we should only allow “Christians” into the country.  As if we have a litmus test on religion as to who can come into the country.  Bye Bye Constitution.  Governor Chris Christie said he would not allow any refugees into the country, “even for orphans under the age of five.”  Nice.

Clearly they do not remember the glorious chapters of our nation’s history such as rounding up Native Americans and forcing them onto reservations or rounding up Japanese Americans and placing them in internment camps, or refusing to allow Jewish refugees into the country in the late 1930s.

It also belies the facts.  Safety is a concern, obviously.  Should they have looked into the issue more closely, instead of just shooting their mouths off for the sake of some votes, they would see that the situation for refugees coming into our country are vastly different from Europe.  Light years different. Europe is being inundated by refugees leaving the Middle East.  We are not.  Unless they can swim the Atlantic Ocean refugees allowed into the United States are carefully vetted, consist almost entirely of families with women and children, and take about 18 months from the beginning of the process until they arrive in this country.  They should also know that so far, all but one of the Paris attackers was from France and Belgium.

I might also point out that refusing to take in refugees does not make us any safer as anyone with a valid passport that is not on a watch list can get into the country.  Do these politicians want to stop all foreigners from coming in to the country?  Some apparently do.  Senator Rand Paul introduced legislation yesterday that prevents anyone from roughly 30 countries that have a “high risk” of terrorism or significant jihadist movements from entering the country (which would include France, by the way) and imposes a 30 day moratorium on anyone from any country entering the United States until the government verifies that no terrorists can enter the country from anywhere on earth using a passport. So much for the world economy when all movement is shut down.  I suppose that the specifics of how that works is similar to what my old calculus books used to say, “the proof is left to the reader.” Or better yet as they say on “Monday Night Football” — “c’mon man!”  All of which ignores actions such as those of Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City where he killed 168 people and wounded over 600 others.  An American, a military veteran, and a Christian.

We do not need amateurs and demagogues leading our nation.

Should we increase our intelligence activities, be super aware and learn to operate in the new reality of life with terrorism in the 21st century?  Of course.  Do we need to re-think our anti-ISIS strategy and consider increased military involvement?  Of course.  However, I have serious problems with the politicization of the issue and the glaring lack of specifics from most candidates.  And most of what I have heard proposed plays right into the hands of the terrorists.  Besides, it is un-American.


A Road Map For Success

Today President Obama signed a two-year budget deal passed by the House and Senate last week in a bipartisan deal to get the nation through and beyond the election of 2016.  Indeed, it is called the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.  It accomplishes several things.  Foremost among them is that it suspends the nation’s debt ceiling until March of 2017, taking that issue off the table until after the next president is sworn into office. Additionally, it provides relief from the Budget Control Act of 2013. That is the bill that set spending levels for domestic and defense programs that many thought were too severe.  It has become known as the “sequester bill”  putting arbitrary limits on spending.

This is a good deal — not perfect for either Republicans or Democrats — because we would have hit our debt limit tomorrow (3 November) with the distinct possibility of a major financial crisis as a result. It also provides for increases in defense and domestic spending above the sequester limits. Perhaps more importantly, it provides a two-year deal that will finally give some stability to military and other planning and allow for more long-term investments, rather than living weeks or months at a time on Continuing Resolutions (CR) that may or may not be held hostage for political reasons each time they come up for renewal.  The CRs provided the ever-present opportunity to threaten a default or a government shutdown should certain minority demands not be met.

There are of course other provisions in the 144 page bill addressing a number of issues, but perhaps the most important of the other provisions is a fix for Medicare to keep premiums from rising drastically and a provision to keep the Social Security Disability Insurance trust fund solvent through 2022.

It also shows that members of both parties in the House and Senate can work together and actually accomplish meaningful results.  To me, this reinforces my belief that many of our nation’s problems can be solved with moderate Republicans and Democrats working together to compromise on important legislation rather than letting the extremes of either party hold the rest of the body hostage.

From a political standpoint, this may be the last gift from the former Speaker of the House John Boehner to the rest of us.  Given his imminent retirement, he was freed from having to negotiate with the Freedom Caucus — the group of 30 or 40 Tea Party conservatives in the House — and could get sufficient bipartisan support for it to pass.  The Senate recognized a solution when it stared them in the face and ignored objections by Senator Ted Cruz (R – Texas), another Tea Party favorite and Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky).  Both are running for president as “outsiders” and condemn the leadership of both parties in Washington.  I suppose the bill gave them another meaningless grand standing opportunity to make it look like they are “standing up” to Washington when they knew full well that the bill would pass anyway.

While this is a major milestone — even as one might argue that doing the nation’s most basic business should not be a “milestone” — there are obstacles ahead.  It is too early to sing kumbaya as we all hold hands around the campfire.

The new Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) has promised to use the Hastert Rule in bringing bills to the floor of the House.  The Hastert Rule is named for the now disgraced (he is on his way to jail) former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois).  Basically, it is a “majority of the majority” rule whereby a Speaker will not bring a bill for a vote if it is not guaranteed that the majority of the party will vote for it. Speaker Boehner often invoked this same rule.  What it does, is give groups such as the Freedom Caucus inordinate power within the House of Representatives to veto any legislation that they do not like, regardless of the ability otherwise to get a majority of the Representatives to vote for a given bill.

Speaker Ryan may be a new face and a respected leader.  I hope that he is able to get the House working again.  Unfortunately, he seems to have already tied his own hands by promising over the weekend that he would  continue to use the Hastert Rule, thus again inordinately empowering the minority of Tea Party Republicans in the House.

Another reason to keep from breaking out in song is that the deal is not done.  The bill that President Obama signed today is really only a framework for work yet to be done.  Because the legislature and White House could not reach a deal prior to the start of the new fiscal year, the nation’s business is currently conducted under a Continuing Resolution that keeps things going only until 11 December this year.  The CR is based on the sequester spending caps and there are some in the House and Senate that believe those caps should stay in place regardless of the just concluded compromise. As we all know from our civics classes, the budget is meaningless until the Congress passes Appropriations Bills (to say exactly how much money goes where) and Authorization Bills (allowing the government to actually spend the money).  Normally those are passed in 12 individual bills to fund each area of government (Defense, Education, Homeland Security, etc.).  Given the time remaining (and the propensity for Congress to take weeks off for holidays such as Thanksgiving), it is likely that there will be an omnibus bill (all of them rolled up together in one big bill) to cover the ability to spend money to the new budget guidelines.  This will give those that oppose the agreement more time to undermine it, especially by adding amendments to the bill that have little to do with the subject at hand but are used because they know that the overall bill needs to be passed and thus their individual proposals get little scrutiny.  There is also the possibility that some of those amendments may be “poison pills” added to scuttle the agreement totally.  One example would be to add a rider totally defunding Planned Parenthood.  That would open up a new debate that could cause the 11 December deadline to pass and result in shutting down the government after all.  There are some presidential candidates that think that would be a very fine idea.  Only time will tell on how skilled House and Senate leaders are in moving forward.

For all us political junkies, last week there was further cause for hope that maybe the House could act in a bipartisan way for the good of the country.  Many Tea Party members in the House (and Senate) want to eliminate the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im Bank).  Most moderate Republicans and Democrats see the bank as important to American commerce and small businesses.  Without going too far into the arcane rules of the House of Representatives, moderate Republicans utilized a little used rule to set up a petition, signed by enough Republicans and Democrats to force a vote on a bill that was previously held from the House floor by Speaker Boehner and the rest of the leadership as a “bone” to the Freedom Caucus.  The measure to restore the Ex-Im Bank passed on a vote of 313 to 118, (within the Republican Party the vote was 127 for and 117 against), demonstrating again that the majority can work together to accomplish common goals when the full House is able to cooperate. After debate, the Senate is also expected to pass the bill.

I hope that these two accomplishments are more than a mere flash in the pan but are instead a positive sign of things to come.  It does demonstrate that there is a road map that can lead to success when compromise is not considered a dirty word and our leaders work together to move our nation forward.