But Mr. President, If That Doesn’t Work, Then What?

Any of us old enough to remember the steady mission creep that characterized the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War can’t help but cringe as we watch the President speak about our limited and almost antiseptic strategy to eliminate the threat posed by ISIL.  It seems that his plan is predicated on a strong commitment and success of others, yet to be named.  To his credit he didn’t make ISIL out to be the most threatening scourge the world has ever seen.  He did, however, attempt to place them within the context of the war on terrorism.  I applaud him in his effort to diminish the hysteria that has been ramped up over the past couple of weeks by both politicos and press.  At the same time, he did call ISIL what it is.  They are a threat to the Muslim, Christian and minority religious populations in Iraq and other middle eastern countries.  They are brutal, genocidal and amoral.  Their goal is to terrify and control populations and to expand their sphere of influence.  While they do not pose an imminent threat to our nation at home, they do pose a threat to American interests abroad.  This is a valid rationale for implementing a strategy to degrade and defeat them.  But Mr. President, if your stated strategy doesn’t work, then what?

BOMBER

To say that the middle east is incredibly complex and defies rational thought is an understatement.  Imagine that what the President is attempting to do is thread a needle twice using the same needle.  He is trying to get Sunni Arab nations to commit to supporting and participating in a ground war against ISIL, a Sunni Muslim group.  He is further trying to get the Free Syrian Army to fight against ISIL, an anti Assad group, while also fighting against Assad.  To make things a little more interesting, he is trying to get the newly constituted Iraqi Army, under Shia control, to go after ISIL in Sunni controlled areas of Iraq, while the Sunni populations of those areas have, based on recent history, little confidence in the Iraqi Army.  If this all sounds counterintuitive and confusing, it should.  To further complicate the situation, you can’t discuss the middle east without the overlay of the 1300 year war between the Sunnis and Shias or the Israeli/Palestinian dispute.  Finally, I know through my own personal experience that I won’t expand upon  here, that the middle eastern mindset regarding negotiation and agreement is sort of “now you see it, now you don’t”.  What was agreed to yesterday is forgotten today.  Based on all of the above I think it is valid to ask, “Mr. President, if your strategy  doesn’t work, then what?”

It has been interesting to note that the polls over the past couple of weeks have increasingly supported military action by the United States to destroy ISIL.  It is true the action being discussed has been limited to expanding American bombing into Syria, but  the numbers seem to indicate a greater acceptance by Americans to engage in this battle.  While there is still an overwhelming objection to “boots on the ground”, do you really think it would be difficult to move public opinion in that direction?  If the President made the case that ISIL is at our very doorstep and could strike America at any moment if not stopped, do you think it would take much to push Americans over the edge in that poll?  We are at the nexus of “911 syndrome” v. “Vietnam syndrome”.  It consists of our great fear of being attacked at home again verses a fear of a multi-year entanglement fruitlessly costing America and Americans dearly.

I find our current dilemma unsettling.  I am not accusing the President or his administration of not being honest with us.  I believe that he sincerely trusts that his strategy will work and wants to avoid placing Americans in harm’s way on foreign soil once again.  But still I must ask, “Mr. President, if your strategy doesn’t work what then?”

 

Who Do You Trust To Deal With ISIS?

As I sat down to write this blog post I was torn and conflicted.  I cringe at the very mention of the beheadings that have occurred. I find that act to be so reprehensible and barbaric.  My first reaction is to want retribution for those lives that were taken so needlessly.  But, at the same time, there is a little voice that keeps asking, “are we being drawn again into a war that will end badly?’  Sadly, I simply don’t know.  Yet, there is no shortage of those who will tell us what we should be doing.  There, are as always, experts who are only too happy to tell us what is really going on.  But who really has the answer?  Who should we trust?

Over the last few weeks we have been surrounded by news of ISIS.  I say surrounded because it is literally all around.  It is on Twitter, YouTube, all newscasts, all news feeds and in the punditry.  This group and its exploits have seemingly met the criteria to become a new international scourge.  I say this not in an effort to diminish ISIS’ horrific behavior.  They are surely ignoring  all acceptable international standards of warfare.  Yet, they are not the first group to act barbarically towards their real or perceived enemies.  History is filled with such examples.  However, today’s media environment seems to magnify and enhance ISIS to a level never before confronted by the Western World.  Given this new media reality, it is difficult to separate fact from hype.  That is of particular concern given our most recent history in Iraq and the unstoppable drive to invade to rid the world of another scourge.    Will we look back on our actions against ISIS, whatever they turn out to be, with the same sense of regret and feelings of betrayal that accompany our discussions of Iraq?  Again, who should we trust to tell us the truth and lead us in the right direction?

There is little doubt that today’s rapid-fire and ever-present media creates a new environment for presidential decision-making.  When we compound that with “shoot from the hip” congressional comments from candidates who have no responsibility for policy implementation, the President finds himself under great pressure to respond.  While we have all been appalled by the barbaric executions of two American journalists, we hope that our leaders act based on a complete understanding and appreciation of how those actions will impact on our nation now and tomorrow.  We do not want a leader that is reactive and emotional, but rather one that is pragmatic and purposeful.  This isn’t to say that President Obama can deliberate forever.  But deliberation and careful consideration of consequences of any action is what was sorely lacking in our last leader.

barack-obama-inauguration-2

President Obama has often been criticized for his seemingly slow and excruciatingly deliberative style.  There are those who view this as indecisiveness and weakness.  The Neocons of the Bush years are drooling over the opportunity for America to again show its muscle in the Middle East.  There are calls from all sides for America to take the lead and rid the world of its latest scourge.  But the President is listening not to those who will gain politically or economically from such a commitment, but rather to a war-weary nation.  Balancing the need to deal with ISIS with the need to respond to the many other pressing issues confronting our nation is the responsibility of only one man.  All of the other voices  seeking attention have personal agendas.

Again, I come back to the question of who do you trust to make the right decision?  If it is President Obama, make sure that he has all of the support he needs in your vote in November.  I fear for our future both domestically and internationally should the GOP take charge in both houses.

 

Political Principle v. Political Expediency

I can remember times in our recent past when it seemed that our country was coming apart at the seams.  The years of demonstrations, sometimes violent, related to the struggle for civil rights, tore at the very fabric of our nation.    The Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 brought into focus the great gulf that existed in this country regarding the Vietnam War.  It is a fact that we have a long history of struggle by one group or another for what it perceived as justice and equal rights.  During all of those tumultuous years it felt as though this country was incredibly polarized.  The term “generation gap” was an effort to explain the cultural and social upheaval that seemed to be overtaking our nation.  It was reflected in our music, our clothing, our language, our entertainment and our politics.  But most importantly, it was based on a set of principles that created the underpinning for that political and civil action.  Certainly there was disagreement regarding the methods utilized to achieve success.  Nowhere was this more apparent than in the contrast between the tactics of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers.  Yet, while the tactics were different, the goals of social justice were the same.  The principle was the same.  The most important fact about those years is that the actions taken by those in power, whether we agreed with them or not, were based on principle and long-held beliefs.

There is no doubt that America is again incredibly polarized today.    There is major disagreement on gun control, abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration, health care, America’s role in the world, economic policy, taxation and an endless list of additional issues.  Yet, this is nothing new.  The right to disagree and debate is fundamental to what is America.  It is what distinguishes us from countries around the world.  It is what illuminates that “beacon of freedom”.  Why then does it feel so different from the struggles of the past?  This isn’t to say that the battles of the 60s and 70s were joyous.  People on both sides put their bodies and souls into those battles.  But what was different is that it felt as though the fight was “for” something, not just “against” everything.  On the one hand there were those trying to press for change, while on the other hand there were those fighting against change.  What is important here is that on both sides the actions were perceived as affirmative, not negative.  On one side change was perceived as good, while on the other side the status quo was perceived as good.  Neither side was against the other just for the sake of saying “no”.  The GOP has turned this behavior on its head.   It has become clear that in the Congress of the United States of America during the past nearly six years the GOP is saying “no” to everything.  They have adopted the value of political expediency, voting “no” on issues they would have supported under a GOP President,  just because Obama wants them to vote “yes”.   What is amazing here is that they are saying “no” to issues on which there is a positive consensus among Americans of all political stripes such as gun control and immigration.  They are also  saying “no” to issues that impact on individual economic security such as unemployment insurance and minimum wage increases.  Finally, they have shut down the government, and are threatening to do it again,  just to guarantee non-action.

just_say_no_geek_zps271e0ed6

Certainly, the behavior of the GOP is playing to its base and seems  designed to be politically expedient.  To actually debate the issues facing the Congress might bring into focus some of the fissures that surely exist within the party.  While it has behaved monolithically , as demanded by the leadership, there are surely differing opinions within this group.  However, it is most expedient, according the to leadership, for the Party to be the “party of no” to score the points necessary to win the midterms and in their dreams in 2016.  Principles and values are of no importance to the GOP.  Even if their inaction hurts Americans, in their mind, the means justify the ends. Where have we heard that before?  If Democratic inaction at the polls allows them to win the Senate and increase their majority in the House in the midterms, be afraid, be very afraid.

 

We Need Beauty Both Inside And Out

Last week I had the opportunity to again visit our nation’s Capitol.  While I have been there before, it never ceases to impress me with its beauty and majesty.  The dignity of the Lincoln Memorial and the impressive stature of the Washington Monument seem to watch over this city of hope and dreams.  As we visited the usual sights I loved seeing them through the eyes of my grandchildren who were seeing them for the first time.   Visiting the Vietnam Memorial and the new tribute to MLK were reminders of the cost of being who we are.  The displays at the Air and Space Museum illustrated our nation’s bold adventurism.  However, the highlight of our visit was our tour of the Capitol.

Last Friday, due to the generous efforts of a family friend, I found myself standing in the well of the Chamber of the House of Representatives.  I was part of a very private VIP tour of the Capitol consisting of my wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren.  The six of us were taken behind signs that stated in bold letters, “NO TOURS BEYOND THIS POINT”.  As I stood in the chamber of the “Peoples’ House”, I looked up to the podium from which the President delivers his State Of The Union Address and at the podium behind it where the Speaker Of The House and Vice President sit during that annual address.  I looked up at the Gallery to the left of where the President stands and could see the seat reserved for the First Lady.  I looked out at the seats on which our Representatives sit as they listen to and participate in debates and vote on legislation.   We were surrounded by the symbols of power and authority as we visited the Speaker’s Office and Conference Room, and his private balcony and reception room. We visited all of the caucus rooms and  leadership offices. We found ourselves in the middle of the Capitol Rotunda enveloped in the art that depicts our proud national history and the statuary representing each of the 50 states. We were reminded of the national leaders who lied in state in this great hall upon their death.  To me, the most poignant was John F. Kennedy. We saw busts of Washington and Lincoln and felt truly in touch with our history. As I stood in this special place two conflicting feelings fought for dominance. First, I was in awe of standing in the Chamber where so many important words have been spoken and so much important legislation has been enacted.  I could feel the breeze of history on my cheek.  However, my second and competing feeling was one of frustration and disappointment. The wheels of legislative and national progress were no longer turning in this chamber.  They had come to a stop against the clutter of petty political self-interest and polarizing partisanship. I wondered if this Chamber would ever again live up to its proud legacy.National-Capitol-Building-Washington-DC

As we are aware, Washington is left to the tourists during the sultry days of August.  Anyone who can, gets out of D.C. during these hot days. It seems then, that what we are seeing is the shell of our national Capitol, while the substance has absented itself. There is no shortage of beauty to see in that shell, yet if one tries to get beyond that shell it is empty and is lacking.  We are seeing the symbols of our past greatness. They are beautifully displayed in statuary, art and documents.  The buildings are stately and dignified, yet, aside from tourists and security guards, they are empty. Is the physical emptiness that is so apparent in August symbolic of the emptiness that seems to exist during the other months of the year?  Is our national Capitol in a coma, unable to do anything substantive, just merely exist?

The beauty that we saw on our tour of Washington can be brought back to life. The greatness of our institutions can be reawakened and revitalized. But in order for that to happen we must illustrate our demands by electing those who share our vision of what we can become. For the sake of our children and grandchildren we have no choice. We need to make the midterm election of 2014 pivotal and make Washington beautiful again, both inside and out.

The Myth Of The “Undeniable Truths”

For decades we accepted two undeniable truths in American politics.  First, the GOP was better at dealing with national security issues.  Hence at times of potential international unrest it was important to have a Republican in the White House.  Second, the GOP was more astute at dealing with the national economy.  Thus, if we wanted to preserve economic stability and prosperity it was important to have a Republican in the White House.  It is, however, a fact that neither of these so-called undeniable truths is true.  All we need to do is look at the years since the end of World War II to see the inaccuracy of these truths.  This isn’t to say that there was never a time of economic growth and stability or national security under a Republican President.  It is, however, a fact that we more often saw this country economically wanting and facing national security crisis under GOP leadership than under Democratic leadership in the White House.  Just compare the Clinton years to the George W. Bush years to see one glaring example.  The truth is that neither party has a lock on either issue.  To accept and present these as “undeniable truths” is to overly simplify the world and “dumb down’ the complexity of the world in which we live.  However, that is precisely the goal of the GOP.

The national security “tag team” of McCain and Graham have worked very hard to present the Democratic party, and in particular President Obama, as hapless and ineffectual in the world of national security and international relations.  They have been joined over the past couple of months by the self-appointed guru of national security, Dick Cheney.  Together, they have second guessed and criticized every move the president has made in this area.  The GOP boys choir  has happily chimed in to add tempo and bulk to this effort.  You can hear them perform on the Sunday morning talk shows, on that purveyor of fact and truth, FOX News and of course on talk radio.  They do this with a straight face despite the fact that virtually every national security issue confronted by President Obama is a result of the naive and inept policies of the Bush Administration.  I am well aware that that are those who say that Bush has been gone long enough so that we need to view what is happening now as wholly owned by Obama.  These are the same people who deny climate change and still prefer women to hold the place they had in the 50s.  Give me a break.  To ignore how we got here is nonsense.  However, the GOP is working very to hard to get us to believe all that is wrong in the world is a result of Obama’s policies.  It is the only way for them to reclaim the “undeniable truth” about who is stronger on national security.

The outstanding leadership of Boehner, Ryan, McConnell and Cruz effectively slowed the economic growth of our country.  They have worked hard to slow job growth, minimum wage increases, renewal of unemployment insurance, a jobs bill, an infrastructure bill or anything else that would stimulate the economy.  They, of course, have done all of this while blaming the president for “his” slow job and economic growth.  They did this not for the good of the country or of their constituents.  They didn’t block these efforts because they fervently believed them to bad for the country.  They did this for one reason and one reason only.  They wanted to convince the American people that President Obama and the Democratic party were ineffectual, and worse, detrimental to the economic future of the United States.  Of course, once again we can always depend on the GOP backup singers to chime in when asked to add their “expertise”.  The voices of FOX News and talk radio predictably joined the song of doom for the American economy.  They desperately want to reclaim that “undeniable truth” about the GOP and American prosperity at any cost.

vote

Unfortunately, it is also an undeniable truth that midterm elections do not bring out other than the most fervent party loyalists.  It is therefore important that the Democrats work very hard during this midterm election to replace this “undeniable truth” with fact. It is up to us to vote to ensure that this country is led based on fact and not myth.

 

Quiet Enough To Hear A Pin Drop, But The Echo Is Still There

Here we are in the midst of summer.  The fireworks of Independence Day are a memory and the cookouts of Labor Day are still weeks away.  Schools across the country are silent  and deserted-looking.  But while you can hear a pin drop around them, you can still hear the echoes of the activity that took place in them only a couple of months ago.  You can hear the echoes of laughter from the playground where friendships were formed that will last a lifetime.  You can hear the echoes of learning that took place in the classrooms where teachers felt this great sense of satisfaction as they saw in the eyes and faces of their students that they were really learning what they were being taught.  We are well aware that all schools are not equal across our country.  Yet, despite these challenges, we await with hope and anticipation the coming school year when students across our land will return to continue to learn.  In Washington D.C. there sits atop a hill the shining white dome of the Capitol.  Inside we see the now silent and empty chambers, offices and hearing rooms.  Here too we can hear a pin drop.  But we can also hear the echoes of activity from the past year.  They are the echoes of divisiveness, accusations and obfuscation.  As we look toward the return of congress to these hallowed halls, we do so with little hope that things will change and that the work of the nation will get done.  But, the real question for us is, will we allow our expectations to become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

As I have watched the Congress since 2008, I find it impossible not to become angry and frustrated.  The pointless and vindictive hearings followed by pointless and vindictive press briefings followed by nothing is a pattern created by those who seek only to frame issues and discuss problems, but do nothing about them.  I need not point out the little this congress has accomplished or the bushel of false accusations bandied about as if they had merit.  There are two noteworthy accomplishments worth mentioning, however.  First, they have been able to put aside action on  issues such as immigration, gun control, raising the minimum wage, unemployment insurance and many more to take the time to try to repeal the ACA more than 50 times.  No congress in history has even come close to this incredible achievement of so blatantly pandering to the base.  To put the icing on the cake, just so we would remember them with the fondness and adoration they so richly deserve, they were able to find the time to approve the crucial and meaningful act of suing the President.  Yet we are being told by all of the pundits and pollsters that this group of model legislators will be rewarded by reelection and a larger majority.  To make matters worse, these same prophets of doom are predicting that the GOP will win a majority in the senate.  They tell us that the midterm election in a president’s second term does not go well for the party in the White House.

The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we are going to accept this great wisdom as fact, or are we going to break the mold and change our future?  The assumption is that this midterm election will be a low-turnout election and the base will determine  the outcome.  It is expected that the large youth, Latino and African-American voting groups that we saw in 2012 will sit this election out.  They think that Independents and women who were both crucial in the victory of 2012 will not make the effort to vote this time around.

empty voting booth

The polling booths today are empty and silent.  I hear the echoes of elections past when we all made the effort to control our own destiny.  I look with hope and anticipation to the upcoming election when I hope we will all do the same and prove the pundits wrong.

Breaking The Code Of GOP Behavior

Mothers have an uncanny ability to read the code of their baby’s cry.  They can determine from the cry whether their baby is tired, wet or hungry.   It is unusual, but sometimes the cry is a mystery.  The baby is well rested, dry and fed.  Upon further and careful investigation the mother breaks the code of the new cry.  The diaper pin (some of you might be a little young to know what those were) has come open and is jabbing her baby. With guilt and remorse the mother closes the diaper pin and watches with relief and joy as her baby stops crying and smiles.  The GOP has been crying for almost six years now and neither the Democrats nor the pundits have been able to break the code of their cry.  Their behavior seems erratic, irrational and self-destructive.  They are ignoring the onslaught of a demographic doomsday, the negative polling numbers for their congressional inaction and the conventional wisdom that continues to portray them as the party of “no”.  They have ability to reverse this behavior, but seem unwilling to do so.  Is the GOP truly self-destructive and crazy?  Yes they are crazy, but crazy like a fox.

crying baby

As political observers we have been conditioned to believe that the ultimate prize sought by any political party is the White House.  We have always believed that if a party seems incapable of achieving this lofty goal it is a failure.  This failure then leads to an inevitable purging of party leadership and a new-found direction for the party.  In fact, we have seen this occur in both the Democratic and Republican parties in recent decades.  We should therefore logically expect this to occur in the Republican Party preceding the next Presidential Election.  But it won’t.

These expectations and presumptions are based on a false premise.  It is a premise that the Republican-controlled House is standing on its head.  The premise that the Presidency is the most powerful position in the government of the United States has been proven false for five and a half  years now.  It is a fact that the Party that controls the House and even more so if they also control the Senate, controls the government of the United States.  If that party also controls a majority of state legislatures and state houses it makes them a very formidable force.   All we need do is look back at the past five and half frustrating years to see that this statement is true.  The only real legislative victory that Obama can point to is the ACA.  While on a national level we can point to success, on a state by state level that is very questionable.  Most states have refused to create exchanges and many have refused to participate in any expansion of Medicaid benefits.  The number of failed legislative initiatives is astounding.  I need not list them here.  It is also unnecessary for me to explain why they failed.  Who is more powerful in this instance, the President or the Congress?  While legislative control is obviously of major consequence, approval of Presidential nominations is critical.  I am not only referring to cabinet appointments, but more importantly Supreme Court Justices.  The party that controls the Senate impacts greatly on this process and has the power to shape the Court.  I need not enumerate the many critical issues at stake here.  Who is more powerful in this instance, the Senate or the President?  Foreign policy has traditionally been the purview of the President, but in recent years the rule of thumb that “politics ends at the shore” has clearly gone by the wayside.  Thus, even in the realm of foreign relations the President’s power has been compromised.

So, what does all of this have to do with breaking the GOP code of behavior?  It’s quite simple.  They don’t want to win the White House.  They want to control the Senate and the House and as many state legislatures and state houses as possible so that they can control the future of this country.  To achieve this all they need to do is keep their base happy and get them to the polls.  The demographics make it clear that they can never again be a national party.  However they don’t need to be.  All politics is local,  remember?