Dignity Lost

A number of you inquired as to why I have not written in this blog for quite some time.  Thank you. The not so simple answer is that the news, social discussions, and just about everything else is consumed by our current presidential campaign.  More specifically, but not solely, it is consumed by the antics of the Republican nominee Mr. Donald J. Trump (R-Mar-a-Lago).  This is both depressing and scary. However, I thought that with the saturation of campaign news, there was little to nothing that I could add of substance so I wrote nothing.  However, after the events occurring yesterday in Washington D.C., I cannot help but write about it.  Mr. Trump’s performance (because, indeed that is what it was) summed up everything that is wrong with his campaign.  More on that in a minute.

There are a number of things I do not understand about both candidates.  I probably never will. However I think that history will not treat those of us voting this year well.  Among the many things that puzzle me is the glaring discrepancy between the “opaque” and “secretive” world of the Democrat’s nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the “open” and “straight forward” candidacy of Mr. Trump. What did I miss?

Secretary Clinton is under attack for her emails.  Not for what is in them, but for the fact that she used a different server and some of the material in them was deemed classified.  I cannot and will not defend her use of the server or anything else related to the issue.  I will say, however, that in my personal experience dealing with high-ranking members of the federal government, military and civilian, Republican and Democrat, I have seen similar activity.  I did not condone it then — indeed I tried where I could to keep it from happening — and I don’t condone it now.  But let’s be realistic. (I could also get into a nuanced discussion about why it happens.  I could also discuss how the State Department has a tradition of over classifying cables and other documents to get people to read them.  If it isn’t marked “Secret” or higher, no one will read it because of the sheer volume of material generated daily.  But that discussion will be for a different day.)  But let me repeat. I have heard little to no criticism of the contents — of actual decisions being made as revealed in those e-mails — just that they exist.

Likewise, I have heard significant criticism of the Clinton Foundation.  Mainly that the Clintons have “gotten rich” off the work done by the foundation.  Again, I have heard no criticism of the work that they do or how the money is distributed, just that if it involves the Clintons it must be crooked.  Too much money involved for it not to be.

Secretary Clinton released fifteen years of her tax returns.  Likewise much information has been released about contributors to her campaign and to the Clinton Foundation.

Secretary Clinton also put out information on her health that most physicians said was complete in giving a snapshot of her current health.

For Secretary Clinton, it is all out there — the good, the bad and the ugly — all of it is available for anyone with an interest to read it and crunch the numbers, review the decisions, see how it happened.

Compare that to Mr. Trump who, other than a synopsis of his health data — which several physicians say is incomplete in portraying his current health, especially given that one of his five deferments from the Viet Nam draft involved his health — has released nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  Zero.  No tax returns.  No information on the donors to his foundation.  No information on how that money is spent.  No information on how he funds his foundation.  The small amount of information that is available screams out to me that we need to know much more about all of it.

Apparently, he has not contributed to his own foundation in nine years.  Apparently, he has used foundation money to buy personal gifts for himself, including a portrait of himself for $20,000 and an autographed Tim Tebow helmet for $10,000.  And he really helped out the charity he charged $250,000 for the use of his mansion for one night.  He has already been fined by the IRS for making a political contribution from his so-called charitable foundation to the campaign of Florida’s Attorney General. He also held a fund-raiser for her.  It was then such a surprise that she decided not to investigate Trump University even though many citizens of her state complained that they were ripped off.  Talk about “pay for play!”  The list goes on.  And yet, Mr. Trump continues to take us for chumps and refuses to reveal any private information that every other candidate, including his own Vice Presidential nominee, has already done.  Shame on us for letting him get away with it.

More troubling are his business connections.  A recent issue of Newsweek magazine delineated the extent of his foreign business dealings and the fact that many of those deals could be made or broken by decisions he will make should he become the president.  There are serious conflicts of interest at play. And yet, there are calls for the Clintons to dissolve their foundation and nothing about Mr. Trump divesting himself of his business interests.  Why is that? He said that should he get elected, he will put his business into a “blind trust” run by his children.  That is not a blind trust and he knows it.  A blind trust is when a third-party — not a relative, not a former business partner — that has no monetary interest in the success or failure of the enterprise runs it.  Accordingly, he would have to sell all of his business interests around the world and turn the proceeds over to someone else to manage for him in order to make it a blind trust.  It will never happen.  I am not necessarily arguing that he should sell it all off, but I am arguing that we the voters should have a clear and unfiltered view of the consequences of our votes.

(A slight pause for a tip of the hat to intrepid reporters, usually print journalists, who are out doing the good ol’ fashioned drudgery of hitting the pavement, asking questions and tracking down records.  We may not know as much about either candidate if there were not people ready to do so professionally.)

So Secretary Clinton is devious and hides stuff but Mr. Trump does not?  That may be his ultimate con job on the American people.

All of this came together for me yesterday and reinforced what a tragic mistake it would be for Mr. Trump to become our next president.  First, he scammed most of the cable news channels into covering his “major announcement” live, and then stood them up for nearly an hour.  Then, he used the opportunity to advertise the “greatness” of his new hotel in the Old Post Office building, a landmark building in Washington D.C. that is now emblazoned with his name.  Finally, his “major announcement” was that “President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.”  Wow. Just wow.  After five years of a racially based slam on our duly elected president, Mr. Trump walks off without another word. Except for the most unbelievable part of all.  According to him, it was Secretary Clinton’s fault that the whole birther movement began and he, The Donald, was able to finally fix it. No matter that the appropriate birth certificate was shown years ago and oh by the way, since his mother was an American citizen, Barack Obama would also be an American citizen no matter where he was born.  As usual, Mr. Trump takes no responsibility for his own actions and falsely blames any problems on someone else. The usual traits of a great leader.

Here is why this is the Trump campaign in a nut shell.  His primary purpose for the “news conference” (no questions were taken from the press) was to tout his new hotel. Yet another display of his ego and the fact that his desire to make money off of any and all opportunities is his number one priority.  Not the country.  As an after thought, he also included that our president might actually be an American. With malice of fore-thought he then blamed it all on Secretary Clinton.  A bold face lie that has been debunked so many times we do not even have to pretend that it could possibly be true.  Given his demeanor and the whole atmospherics around this “huge” announcement (some have come to call it his I’m-a-hostage-and-they-are-making-me-say-this statement) he was clearly giving a wink and a nod to his birther supporters that he may have to read the script to get elected but we all know that President Obama really isn’t “one of us.”

This is why I am baffled that so many people still support Mr. Trump.  I have said before that I am no fan of Secretary Clinton, but given the choice between the two, there is only danger ahead if Mr. Trump is elected.  Although I generally disagree, I get the arguments about how she cannot be allowed to appoint Supreme Court justices, or that we need to shake things up, or that the economy is recovering too slowly, or a dozen other arguments that cause people to hold their collective noses and vote for Mr. Trump.  But there is far more at stake. As the conservative columnist Michael Gerson stated more eloquently than I can in an opinion piece last week, Mr. Trump is giving validation to racism in America and unleashing the worst parts of our society. The birther issue is just a sample of the un-American and un-Constitutional issues Mr. Trump espouses. Michael Gerson points out that in his words and actions Mr. Trump gives main stream support to racially tinged extremism that in turn validates the positions of white nationalists.

Time and again in conversations with those who claim that they will vote for Mr. Trump I hear something along the lines of “I don’t agree with everything he says, but…” and then go on to disavow his extreme statements and actions but give a reason to vote for him.  “I don’t agree with 30% of what he says, but we cannot have Hillary Clinton in the White House” is a common refrain.

Here’s my problem.

The 30% (I would say it is more like 80%) that people say they disagree with Mr. Trump about are exactly the things that make us the country we are.  We cannot have a functioning economy for all, we cannot have a fair judicial system, we cannot address difficult issues like immigration, we cannot function as the United States if at the heart of his campaign is a dark and dangerous refrain of “us” against “them” and a disregard for the values and traditions of our nation that make us already great.

Mr. Trump will leave a lasting legacy behind. Unfortunately, it will be one of hate and a nation that lost its dignity.


Yet Another Sad Day For Our Country

“This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, in a house of worship, or in a movie theater or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. To actively do nothing is a decision as well.”

President Obama 12 June 2016 following the largest mass shooting in the history of the USA, this time in Orlando.

How Far Can We Drive the Country to Ruin?

Justice Antonin Scalia died sometime during the night Friday, reportedly of natural causes. Whatever one thought of his very conservative view of the law — based on what is often called an “originalist” view, or one where the original words as written are the law, not what the intent might have been or changes in community standards might be — he was also reported by those who knew him to be brilliant, funny and a good friend.  I extend my condolences to his family and friends who are surely reeling from the shock.  Although I rarely agreed with his votes or opinions, one can still recognize his innate kindness and abilities.

Unfortunately, such understanding of individuals as individuals, and their inherent abilities, does not extend to the Republicans in the United States Senate.  While one might understand the opinion of those on the campaign trail vying for the presidency — all of whom think that they will one day be president and should have the ability to appoint a Justice to the Supreme Court — I do not understand the majority leader of  the Senate claiming that the president has no right to appoint a replacement for Justice Scalia. Only an hour or so after the announcement of Justice Scalia’s death, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) announced that “this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”  Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) echoed Senator McConnell’s call to wait until the next president is sworn in.  This is significant as Senator Grassley is the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and can prevent a vote on a nominee within the committee and thereby prevent the entire Senate from voting.

I point out that a divided Senate confirmed Ronald Reagan’s nomination of then U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Scalia to the Supreme Court by a vote of 98-0.  Things were not perfect in the Senate then, but it was still the era where if a nominee was eminently qualified, like them or not, the president’s pick was his pick.

This unprecedented and outrageous stunt announced by Senators McConnell and Grassley has many ramifications and probable consequences.  One can only surmise that the personal animosity towards President Obama is so strong, that all of those Senate Republicans who espouse following the Constitution as their guiding light seem to have missed the part about the Supreme Court.

First, let’s simply look at the calendar.  If a new president knew exactly who his or her nominee was going to be and announced it the day that he/she is sworn in as president on 20 January 2017, and assuming the modern average of about 67 days for confirmation hearings and votes, we would still not have a new Justice until roughly the end of March or early April 2017.  About 13 or 14 months from now! Talk about the slow wheels of the legislative process.  It is also unprecedented in our nation’s modern history.  Not to mention that it leaves many important cases coming before the court this year susceptible to a 4-4 tie vote.  More on that later.  If this happened in September, then it might be reasonable to wait, but it is only mid-February, with about a year left in office for President Obama.  Is he to do nothing until next January?  Does he have no right to execute his office under the Constitution? It would be unprecedented for a sitting president to abdicate his Constitutional powers to the demands of the legislative body and turn over his power to appoint justices to the Senate. The Senate’s job is to “advise and consent” to presidential nominees, not to hijack presidential powers.  Let them work with the White House and see if there is a compromise candidate for the court.  Let each branch do what it is designed to do.  Senator McConnell and other Republicans argue that elections have consequences.  I agree. We elected President Obama to do a job.  Twice.  He should do it.

Second, the Senate Majority Leader’s announced plan to block any nomination from the president presumes that the individual is not qualified, merely by the fact that President Obama nominates that person.  And they do not know who the nominee will be.  I sincerely hope and expect that the president goes ahead with a nomination and decides to “leave it to the American people” (the catch phrase of choice for so many of the obstructionists) to see who is following the Constitution and doing their job. And it’s not exactly like the Senate calendar is jammed or packed with other pending legislation.  Take a look and it is apparent that the Senate has plenty of time to fairly proceed with the process. (You can find the proposed calendar here.  Note that being in session doesn’t mean they are actually working as most come in from their home states on Tuesday morning and go home on Friday.)  To block a nomination when the nominee is unknown makes no sense. Hold hearings.  Vet the nominee.  Find out how qualified that person may be and then vote. Making demagogic pronouncements within an hour of the loss of a Justice is ridiculous.

Third, there is a presumption in the Republican Senator’s actions that the next president will be a Republican.  Perhaps.  The next president could also be a Democrat. Does the Senate think that it will just wait another four years for another presidential election to fill the vacancy?

Fourth, the practical impact of not filling the vacancy for over a year could be tremendous and further divide our already politically divided country.  A 4-4 tie vote in the Supreme Court leaves lower court decisions in place.  This has many possible consequences.  The Supreme Court is set to make many important decisions in the upcoming year with scheduled cases including ones impacting abortion, The Affordable Care Act, one-person one-vote, affirmative action and a host of others.  We the people may not like what those lower cases decide and want the Supreme Court to weigh in.  In a 4-4 tie they have no impact.

More importantly, many Supreme Court cases are taken on because lower courts often pass down conflicting judgments.  For example, if the U.S. Ninth Court of Appeals (the western U.S. including California) hands down one decision, and the Eleventh (the southeast including Florida) hands down a conflicting decision, which is the rule of the land? One nation of law-abiding citizens is no longer the case as the “law of the land” is different depending on where one lives.  One function of the Supreme Court is to pull disparate court decisions together for a unified interpretation of the law. Such a scenario of conflicting opinions is not out of the realm of possibility when it will be over a year before the Supreme Court is at full strength.

I am many things, but I am not a political strategist.  However it seems to me that the Senate Republican’s strategy to stonewall the president on nearly everything, but especially on the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice could backfire.  Congress is already considered by many of us to be doing nothing to help the American people.  Prognosticators say that depending on who the two major party nominees are, that Republican control of the Senate could be in jeopardy.  It seems to me that if the voters do not see their Senators doing much of anything for a year, coupled with a few of the lower court decisions becoming the law of the land in a series of 4-4 votes in the Supreme Court, that some are going to take it out on their sitting Senators, especially in “blue” or “purple” states where Republican incumbents will be challenged by strong Democrats in the fall.

We will see how things actually unfold.  I am not optimistic that the Senate will move forward and conduct the business that we elected them to do.  Now not only will we have a divided legislative process, but the complete lack of cooperation between the Senate and the president will be exacerbated by a potentially hog-tied Supreme Court.  Hog-tied only due to the personal animosity towards the president, which apparently takes precedence over actually doing their job.

It will be a long, poisonous year.  I comfort myself in knowing that in our history we have been through some extremely divisive internal crises (Civil War anyone?) and come out the stronger for it. I hope that we enter 2017 with a new sense of purpose.  It is a shame that we will have to waste an entire year first.


Well Isn’t That Special

To few people’s surprise, the Republican Party won big in Tuesday’s election.  What was a surprise to most of the “3Ps” (politicians, pundits and personalities) is how easily they won and by such wide margins.  While the word “historic” is passed around, it isn’t quite as historic as it is made out to be, but significant none-the-less.

This is the third president in a row (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barak Obama) that had the Congress flip completely during their tenure (going from full control of one own’s party to full control by the loyal opposition).  That to me is significant in a number of ways.

Perhaps foremost among them is the possibility that fewer and fewer people are voting “straight tickets” anymore.  That is, voting only for one party regardless of the issues.  To some degree I question my conclusion here, as there are some states, especially in the South and the Northeast that are increasingly deep red or blue states.  But there are also significant numbers of “purple” states that change from one party to the other based on the particulars of that election.  That gives me hope.  One would think that more and more Americans vote on the issues and finding the best people to lead our country rather than just voting ideologically.

Many analysts see Tuesday’s votes as a repudiation of President Obama and the Democrats.  I am not as sure about that as they are as I see a subtle difference.  While many Americans are disappointed in the president, and legitimately disagree with some of his decisions, I think the vote is more of a reflection of the general dissatisfaction that the electorate now holds, particularly with respect to the economy.  To me the vote was one based on the premise that the party previously in control — the Democrats symbolized by the president in the White House — is not getting the job done.  The results are based on a framework of “let’s give the other guys a chance to make it better.”  In other words, change for change’s sake as a means to shake things up and to see if something positive can result.  So yes, it was a vote against the president and Harry Reid and the rest, but that does not necessarily translate into a vote for Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and company.  As a nation we are willing to see what they can accomplish, but if they don’t move the ball forward they will be in trouble in 2016 as another backlash is likely to occur.  This time against the Republican controlled Congress.

Of course if they succeed they will be in a much stronger political position and the country should also be better off.  I am sure that there will be some serious behind the scenes discussions in the Republican caucus to get the disruptive Tea Party types — who are by their own statements unwilling to compromise on anything, an antithetical position to take in governing — to sit down.  If not to be quiet, at least to let the process move forward.

Ironically, one could argue that Presidents Clinton and Bush did some of their most productive work after their party lost control of Congress.  Perhaps the same will hold true with President Obama.  In my mind a divided government forces compromise or nothing is accomplished.  Fortunately President Clinton and President Bush did not have to deal with Tea Party conservatives or disruptive liberals. Not that there weren’t ideological differences that interrupted the workings of government from time to time (think Gingrich vs. Clinton and the government shutdown), but in the end they figured out how to make it work.

Both parties need to reassess the events of the last four years and learn that cooperation on common issues of concern is a far better way to govern.  Hopefully (and I am hopeful), both parties will avoid the easy lessons learned about why the vote went the way it went and look closer.  They must realize that the outcome is a reflection of a willingness to try anything to get rid of the status quo of gridlock and bitter partisan politics.

To the super conservatives that say this gives them a mandate, all I can say is, “well isn’t that special.”  To the moderate Republicans and Democrats that want to get things done, I say go for it.

Why Is This Necessary?

On Tuesday President Obama reported on the State of the Union to a joint session of Congress and to the American people.  It was his fifth since being elected (traditionally the first speech given by a president, when it occurs, is an “annual message” rather than the “State of the Union” since they just took office days before the speech, so this is his sixth such speech).  Following his speech, the Republican Party offered their rebuttal to the president.   Why is this necessary?  Why does the party not holding the presidency always have to have “equal time” to present their political viewpoint when the president’s speech is fulfilling an official obligation of the office?

Article II, section 3 of the United States Constitution states that “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”  (Of course the founding fathers could never imagine that the president might one day be a woman, since women did not get the right to vote until 1920, thus the “he” reference concerning the president.)

The Constitution does not say anything about the party or parties not in power having the obligation, or even the right, to follow what is a Constitutionally proscribed event with a requirement of their own.  This has been ongoing for years, for both Democrats and Republicans, and has been a staple of televised State of the Union addresses since 1966.  But why does it have to continue?

Indeed, the president does not even have to make a speech to a joint session of Congress to deliver his message.  As many of you may know, George Washington did so, but starting with Thomas Jefferson, most presidents sent an annual letter to meet the requirement.   Woodrow Wilson revived the custom of actually speaking before a joint session, and it was solidified under Franklin Roosevelt in its current form.

My question remains, however, as to why the “other” party must be given air time on national television to give a scripted rebuttal to a speech that they do not directly address, as the rebuttal is written prior to the original speech being delivered.

This year there was not even a unified rebuttal.  The “official” Republican response was delivered nearly immediately after President Obama finished by Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) in English.  A nearly identical “official” speech was given by Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FLA) in Spanish.   (I am sure that the choices were merely a coincidence and had nothing to do with the perception that the Republicans have lost voters among women and Hispanics in recent years.)  Additional “rebuttals” were given by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT).  Senator Paul’s speech was “his own” (and pre-recorded) — coincidentally he will undoubtedly run for president in 2016 — and Senator Lee’s response was the “official” Tea Party position.

It all makes for great political theater and provides employment for the various analysts and strategists employed by the networks, media outlets and political campaigns.  So in that way, I guess that makes them all “job creators.”

I just wish that all that “speechifying” was useful.  Can’t they actually talk to each other?

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.”

What About Syria? (Part Two)

What a difference 72 hours makes.  In many respects nothing fundamentally changed, but like so many complicated issues, this one got even more complicated.

I doubt anyone, especially Prime Minister David Cameron, expected the British Parliament to vote against action in Syria.  In my view, this was an internal political move rather than a repudiation of the alliance with the United States or an acceptance of the Syrian use of chemical weapons.  They have been, and still are, mad as hell about the United Kingdom’s involvement in Iraq, and the way that it was sold to them, and they”aren’t going to take it anymore.”  I doubt that Thursday’s vote is the final word from the British about their involvement or lack of involvement.  As further information becomes available to them and to the world about what occurred in Syria (and may occur again) it would not surprise me to see them come on board in the end.

I am surprised by President Obama’s statement today (Saturday).  I have not yet had the opportunity to fully digest it.  None-the-less I find it confusing for him to say that the United States is going to take military action against Bashar’s regime — and my interpretation of his words is that we are definitely going to take action — but then seemingly leave it up to a vote by the Congress.  It is all backwards.  If even only for appearances sake, he should make the case for military action, rally Congress for support and an open-ended resolution to use “all necessary means” and then announce a strike or other military action.  And oh by the way, he has now given the appearance of providing Congress veto power over his already announced decision to take military action.

While I understand that there is not necessarily a definitive timeline to act, the traditional statement that works best in these circumstances is something along the lines of the United States “will take action at a time and place of our choosing.”  President Obama left me with the impression that “we’ll get around to it.”  To me, if the case is as compelling as it increasingly appears to be, and ten days have already elapsed, then I don’t see why he is waiting for Congress to return to Washington at the regularly scheduled time (9 September) to get going on this.  Call them back to Washington now and get on with it.

Of course I may be reading more into this than is there.  Perhaps consultations will be sufficient and he won’t wait until they return to Washington to have a debate and a vote on the issue.  Additionally, waiting another ten days (or more) may have the side benefit of giving the Administration time to continue to build its case for action and to bring more international support to the equation.  So, maybe there is some method to the madness, but I still wonder if the President is getting very good advice on how to put this all together for the country’s consideration.

On top of all that, as was demonstrated in the United Kingdom, there remains a very deep distrust of “evidence” of WMD and its persuasiveness for taking action.  Personally, I do not see this as being the same — either in scale or in terms of what has happened — as the events in Iraq leading to Gulf War II under President George W. Bush.  I think that by invading Iraq we took our eye off the ball (Afghanistan) and went after Saddam because that Administration thought they saw an opportunity to get rid of him “easily.”  Nothing in warfare is as easy as it looks.  Regardless, those events, and the justification for going to war in that case, have poisoned the well this time around.  No one wants to get fooled again.  However, I believe that this time around what we see is what we get — Bashar’s regime used chemical weapons, probably Sarin gas, against its own population and killed approximately 1400 people.  He may well do it again.

As I noted in my previous post on 28 August, I still do not have a clear idea of what the President intends to accomplish with a military strike.  I support a strike.  Like it or not future deterrence depends on demonstrating a willingness and capability to act as we say we will act.  I am not a war monger.  I have serious reservations about any military action and very great concerns about what will come of this particular action.  Once underway, there is always the chance for things to go awry.  But in this case I believe it is important to do something that demonstrably holds Syrian leaders accountable, I just do not yet understand what the President has in mind that accomplishes that goal.

Many current and former military leaders are expressing serious concerns over the use of force in Syria.  Primarily, this is because there is still no full explanation of what we want to accomplish and, as I’ve said before, what is it exactly that we want to see as a result of the military action.  In my view, we probably cannot do much more than degrade the WMD capability of Syria and also send a message to those responsible that their personal well-being is in danger if it happens again.  I think the critics fear both what happens if we take “too much” action and equally fear what happens if we take “too little” action.  As with Goldilocks, we need to get his one “just right.”

So far the President has said that Bashar crossed a red line and that we therefore need to do something about it.  That is a political statement that does not translate to military action.  The arm-chair strategists are nervous because they don’t know what is that the President wants — “what do you want us to do?”  I say this only a bit  facetiously, but let me  give you an example.

In the lead up to Gulf War I, President George H. W. Bush said following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that “this will not stand.”  Got it.  As military planners, it was necessary to take that statement and put it into concrete terms that the forces that had to go out and do something could understand and work towards.  In this case it would “not stand” because the goal was to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait and restore the legitimate government (the one that existed before the invasion) of Kuwait.  It was not to over throw Saddam or occupy Iraq or bring democracy to Iraq or a number of other unrelated actions.  It was a clear and precise formula for what needed to be done and everyone could clearly understand what things would look like when it was over.

It is easy to pick targets and talk weapon systems and the like.  Some people consider it fun and others make a lot of money talking about it on TV.  That stuff is relatively easy for those in the know but it has no relevancy to the bigger picture.  What is important is the mission and the end state.  Figure that out and the tacticians and military commanders on the scene know what targets to hit with what weapons.  Let the professionals do their job.   But to do it well, they need to know what we want it to look like in the end.

It does not appear to me that the hard stuff has yet been addressed.  I hope I am wrong, but we are still waiting to hear what the end state should be.  How do we know when we are finished?

I am also sure that Congress, which apparently cannot take anything seriously during its five week vacation that takes precedence over the well-being of the country, will make it even muddier.

Let’s get on with it.

Is This A Turning Point?

Even though it has been over two weeks since the jury acquitted George Zimmerman of second degree murder and manslaughter in the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, the discussion about the trial continues in a variety of ways.

I do not intend to discuss the pros and cons of the trial process or what the jurors subsequently said of their deliberations or any of the legal issues at stake.  The bottom line (or lines) remains the same.  A young man is needlessly dead.  The trial was, by all accounts, fair and conducted in a professional manner.  The verdict stands.  Two families’ lives have been changed forever.

What I initially struggled to understand was the role that race may or may not have played in the emotional reactions that followed the trial.  Followers on both sides were passionate in their reactions, but clearly this touched a raw nerve in the African-American community.  And I didn’t quite get it.  I got that some people disagreed with the verdict and thought (rightly or wrongly) that Mr. Zimmerman “got away with murder.”  That would definitely create an impassioned reaction.  But the intense reactions across nearly the entire political and socio-economic spectrum of African-Americans told me that there was more to it than that.

What helped me to understand why the African-American community saw this as one more time that the justice system let them down came from an unlikely source — the President of the United States.  President Obama’s unexpected remarks at the White House on 19 July was my “now I get it” moment.  I thought his remarks were fair — he didn’t question the trial or its outcome — and helped to put into perspective what many African-Americans experience in their daily lives and, as he said, the context within which those reactions are formed.  In my view, he did it in a facts-of-life kind of way without placing direct blame on one portion of America or another.  He also acknowledged that statistics show that young black males are more likely to have some contact with law enforcement, sometimes due to their own actions, but also sometimes because of where they happen to be or who happens to see them.

So back to the question at hand — is this a turning point in the discussion about race in our country?  Can we move forward from this and have a real discussion about the causes of the intense feelings on both sides of the issues?  Actually talk and more importantly, listen and see where common ground exists?  The answer:  a weak “I don’t know.”  I’m not particularly convinced that this will be a turning point — or at least a turning point where anything dramatically changes.  Things are changing — as the President and others rightly pointed out — and changing for the good of all Americans.  But that doesn’t mean that the work is finished.

Discrimination in this country exists.  It is unreasonable to pretend that it doesn’t.  Everyone of us likely has  been discriminated against at one time or another — it’s basic.  Life isn’t fair.  It may have been racial discrimination, or gender based discrimination, or maybe based on religion, or perhaps our social or economic status.  It happens.  It doesn’t make it right — it just is.  And that may be where some of us come from when we claim that other groups are “playing the race card” or are being “politically correct” or “over reacting” or whatever.  We think we know what’s going on because of our own experiences.  But to state the obvious, we don’t know unless we’ve lived it.  As someone close to me pointed out, subtle discrimination plays out in quiet and perhaps even (sometimes) unconscious ways.  The problem is not necessarily what happens or who it happens to, it is a matter of the frequency that an individual experiences discriminatory behavior.  How is it conveyed that they are “not one of us?”  This, I believe, is the point of the President’s remarks, the “context” that he talked about.  It’s not that it happened to him, it’s that it happened a lot and over and over.  It was a fact of daily life and it altered his (and others) behavior in ways that most of us have never experienced.

And now I get it.  Or at least I get it a little bit more.