BOOM! CRASH! BAM! Are We Being Given The Comic Book Version Of The Battle Against ISIS?

I used to love to read comic books.  The story lines were simple, the action was amusing and the good guy always won in the end.  I remember when they brought Batman and Robin to the TV screen with much the same approach.  We all loved it for the same reasons.  We have often created cartoon-like characters to amuse ourselves, even when the real life characters were anything but amusing.  Take for example the TV show Hogan’s Heroes.  The German commandant and the German sergeant were always laughable in their actions and reactions.  Yet, while amusing to watch, the real life equivalents were not at all amusing to thousands of GIs held in German prison camps.  Our lives are filled with many serious challenges and humor certainly helps to alleviate some of the stress so inherent in todays fast-paced and information-overloaded existence.  Yet, we must be careful not to confuse the truth-lite, filled with caricatures and simplicity, with the whole truth, filled with real people and real consequences .  Remember, George Bush, Dick Cheney and their merry band of truth-lite purveyors told us that after our invasion of Iraq we would be welcomed as “liberators” and the war would be over in short order.  Comic books fade and turn to dust.  Truth is what we have to live with for decades and sometimes generations.

The President is being straight with us.  He is not feeding us truth-lite when he describes the brutality of ISIS.  They are the real deal.  They are true-believing fanatics whose’ tactics are filled with horror, violence and pain.  Not a single statement from any quarter has disputed this.  In fact, ISIS itself takes great pride in this reputation.  It is not the truth about ISIS that I am disputing.  It is rather the rationale for the US response to ISIS that I am questioning as well as the response itself.  Are we bombing ISIS because we fear that they will attack the US, or are we bombing ISIS because we feel an obligation to lead the fight against evil in the world?  Has the US again become Batman and Robin, fighting against all evildoers?  I use the word again because of our last Bush-Cheney-lead comic book-like adventure in the Middle East.  That was a case in which entering the battle was clearly easier than extracting ourselves from it.  In fact, it is easy to make the case that we are still confronting evildoers in the Middle East because of the Bush-Cheney Middle East adventure.  Our actions have consequences.  What will be the consequences of our current Middle East adventures?  Yet we have been spoon-fed the rational and the facts of our bombing campaign for the past several weeks.  First we started bombing in Iraq to prevent the genocide of an ancient Christian sect at the hands of ISIS.  Then we were bombing in Iraq to avoid allowing a major dam from falling into the hands of ISIS.  Then we were bombing in Iraq to support the Kurdish troops in their fight against ISIS.  Now we are bombing ISIS in Syria to attack them at their base.  Please note that the difference between the rationales for our bombing ISIS in Iraq and our attack in Syria is the difference between defensive actions and offensive actions.  It is like a series of comic books.  Each rationale has a simple good versus evil plot with the loud BOOM,CRASH and BAM of the bombs dropping on the evildoers.  We were even treated to a video presentation on Tuesday morning of the bombs being dropped on Syria.

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The rationale for our engagement keeps shifting from one week to the next.  We are told that Batman and Robin will be bringing in other fighters to join them in the battle against the evil ISIS.  So far they have joined only at an altitude of 30,000 feet as they drop bombs.  But we are told by all who are expert in these matters that bombs alone won’t do the trick.  I am concerned about what the next comic book will depict in our effort to fight all evildoers.

Are We The Proxy Warriors Of The Middle East?

By third grade we have figured out which group to align ourselves with to be safe on the playground and in the bathroom.  WE have no intention of getting into a fight and that’s why we make sure that we are associated with those who will stand up for us and throw a punch if necessary.   This isn’t rocket science.  Every kid learns that our associations are either a liability or an asset.  We all understand from childhood  into adulthood that whether we are in the workplace or on the ball field, it is best to associate with those who are willing to do what it takes to be strong and successful.  Nations have understood this concept for a very long time as well.  It became particularly prevalent in recent history with the creation of NATO and all of the similar mutual defense associations.  Basically, the underpinnings upon which these associations were created were the expectation that if any member state was attacked by a non-member state, all of the other states would come to their defense.  In truth, however, the reality was that if any member of NATO were attacked it meant that they could depend on the United States to come to their rescue.  The Warsaw Pact nations could in turn depend upon the Soviet Union to protect their interests.  This bi-polar world-order created a surprising degree of stability during its time.  However, times have changed and the world has become much more complex with multiple points of influence and interest.  It consists not only of nation-states, but non-state players as well.  The Middle East is particularly complex and defies easy understanding or solutions. While our engagement in the past might have seemed rational to some, today it belies those rational explanations.  The rules and expectations of yesterday are no longer relevant.  Today we must ask, are we willing to continue to be the proxy warriors of the Middle East?

Many years ago when I was in my teens I went to a lecture given by Marvin Kalb, then the Diplomatic Correspondent for CBS News, now the Director of the Kennedy School at Harvard.  I have always remembered a key point that he made in his presentation.  He stated that we should always understand that nations act only out of national self-interest.  If it also works for other nations with which they associate,  all the better.  But it first has to serve the interests of the acting nation.  Is this no longer true, or have we lost sight of what our national interests truly are?  Even as kids we learn that there are playgrounds that are simply not safe to play at regardless of who are friends are.  As a nation what are our obligations and priorities? Is our commitment to ideology or security?  Is our obligation first to create domestic tranquility before international tranquillity?  In Econ 101 we all learned about the natural tension created by the tug and pull between guns and butter.  Are we to place our priorities first at building a nation that provides the best quality of life possible for its citizens or are we first obligated to provide military cover for all of those who choose to associate with us?

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It may seem that I am presenting a dichotomy that is unrealistic to resolve.  You may feel that there needs to be a midpoint somewhere that can serve all involved parties.  In some cases that may be possible, but not in the current confrontation with ISIS.  I believe that we have committed all of the blood and treasure to the Middle East that is appropriate.  Actually I believe that we have spent much more than we ever should have.  Our young men have died and we have spent our national treasure as those who live in the neighborhood pledge minor involvement only after extreme coaxing from our Secretary of State. Frankly, it is their problem, not ours.  I think it is time to completely vacate the area of all American interests and citizens and wish them good luck.  Our national security is in jeopardy only because we are there. It is time for us to stop serving as the proxy warriors of the Middle East. Now is the time for the inhabitants of the neighborhood to take responsibility for cleaning up their own mess.  We have other issues that are far more important to our national self-interest.

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.