18 December 2013

REFLECTIONS ON FAITH

A recent survey indicated that nearly a quarter of all Americans no longer believe in God. This is still well below the level of disbelief in Europe, but the numbers have increased substantially. Although I am agnostic, I find this troubling, insofar as faith has been the source of the moral compass for most people, and it is unclear what can replace it. There are those who claim there can be a secular equivalent, based upon a humanistic philosophy, but few people are inclined towards intense philosophical reflection that will produce anything like an ethical substitute.  

Why is this problematic? As Dostoevsky wrote, “If there is no God then everything is permissible.” We do in fact live in societies where an ever-increasing scope of activity is tolerated, which is quite consistent with the libertarian nature of our institutions. We favor the general principal that people should be able to do what they want as long as they do not harm others. This leads us to strive to be nonjudgemental, no matter what the circumstances are, because a free society mandates that we be broadly tolerant. But in the absence of a set of fixed moral principles, the determination of right and wrong basically falls to the law. This has grave consequences for every one of us. If people do not behave according to some kind of internal moral restraint, it results in more and more external control. More laws are enacted to compensate for this, which paradoxically results in a situation where, on the one hand, our individual liberty is sacrosanct, but on the other hand, subject to ever more control and direction from above. In other words, if everyone, ideally,  is completely free to do whatever they please the actual result is increasingly intrusive regulation. For society to function at all there has to be some degree of behavioral restraint. The question then is whether we restrain ourselves from within, or are subject to restraint from without. 

This is symptomatic of a society with increasingly less of a common culture based upon broadly shared religious principles. These in turn, have traditionally been inculcated by the family, as the basic unit of society. But the family has increasingly been upended by a kind of atomistic individualism, which consequently has been coupled with an omnipresent state as social arbiter. Even if a democratically large majority still maintains a set of common cultural beliefs, they are constantly superseded by the courts in sustaining claims of rights infringement by any tiny minority, no matter how obscure, thus granting it a kind of equivalency with the ethos of the majority. This makes a common culture impossible along with any kind of shared moral outlook.

All of this would not be so bad if this new paradigm did not have such disastrous social consequences. Although secularization has been going on for more than a century, only now is it accelerating in the general population. At the same time we have seen a collapse in standards, our society has become increasingly coarse, if not downright vulgar, and rudeness and selfish behavior have become widespread. If there is not a strong family structure there is no shame, no no manners, and generally no restraint. If the moral basis of the family is undercut what then of civility, courtesy, manners, good behavior, and kindness? 


There is no simple solution for this dilemma, and certainly none to be had from the government, which some see as an elixir for every problem. There are certainly problems with religion, particularly in terms of the plausibility of some claims, but rationalistic criticism eludes the deep-rooted wellsprings of faith in emotions and the subconscious which must be channeled somewhere or there is nothing left but nihilism. At this festive time of year even the secular among us can feel some sense of the power of faith in the songs of the season that frequently provide an expression of it. Given the lack of any viable substitute for most people, we should not be too quick to arrogantly rationalize belief systems we do not fully comprehend and that have provided the moral foundation of our society for many centuries. 

22 November 2013

HALF-CENTURY PASSAGES AND JOHN F. KENNEDY

Fifty years ago on this day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and this fact has been much in the news. I remember the day well, as does everyone who was alive at the time. For those who weren’t, I won’t offer the sort of reminiscences that are ubiquitous at present, but rather explore some aspects of the man and his legacy, as well the experience of those decades. This compels us to consider the phenomenon of fresh memories of an event half a century ago, as well as its continued presence across that span of time. This has happened before, though not frequently. For example, both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were able to recall the American Revolution fifty years later. The Civil War was vividly etched in the national consciousness for the generations who experienced it, so that living veterans were ceremoniously reconciled fifty years later. 

We think we live in times of rapid change, but 1963 is still part of the broad national experience, whereas in 1963 the decades back to 1913 were remote, and change was far more pronounced during that period. in other words the world of 1913 is much further away from 1963 than the latter is from 2013. For following 1913 the great shocks of the century manifested themselves. Just a year later the most seminal event in modern history began, namely World War I, or the “Great War,” as it was known before World War II. The latter was but a consequence of the preceding war, if not a continuation of it. In the world of 1913 Europe was at the pinnacle of its power, while America was still a relative backwater, though emerging as a world power. The old European civilization totally collapsed as a consequence of WWI, and its repercussions are still being felt today. Its former glory was gone forever, following an unbelievably costly mass slaughter over four years of pointless war. By the end of World War II the continent was completely exhausted. 

John F. Kennedy served gallantly in the second war, and then went on to the political career we are all still familiar with. Kennedy was never a man of the left, despite subsequent claims. He was a political moderate; Hubert Humphrey was the “liberal” candidate in 1960. JFK would have some difficulty fitting in with today’s Democratic party given that, among other things, he did not raise taxes but cut them, and ran to the right of Nixon on defense in the general election. The Kennedy family “liberal” tradition really began with Bobby, when he was radicalized in the late 1960s, and then continued with Teddy. The notion that JFK was some sort of liberal is simply a myth sustained by those who have an interest in maintaining it. Another myth is the notion that somehow “right wing hate” brought about his assassination, when in fact he was killed by a dedicated Communist. Following his death endless speculation began about whether or not Oswald acted alone. The preponderant evidence suggests that he did, notwithstanding various conspiracy theories. and in truth the assassin was an early prototype of the “lone wolf” killer we have become all too familiar with in our own time. Indeed we can see how much more plausible the notion of a lone killer is today than we could back then, when it was too hard to believe that the great could be brought down by an insignificant, (but for the assassination), nonentity. 


JFK came into office after an extremely close (and possibly fraudulent) election victory, but so charmed the nation that he was very popular across the board at the time of his death. He was a very appealing man, but one wonders how he would have fared in today’s media world. Would his reckless behavior and chronic infidelity have remained secret? Or his compromised physical condition? Would his human frailty have been apparent?  In those days the press was far more deferential and protective of the presidency, in a way that is unimaginable today. It is also rare that you see anyone with his aristocratic bearing today. For he was a man of his times, a product of the years he lived, as well as his father’s ambition. He is not a transcendent figure, in the sense of being outside of time, but rather a man who was in his prime half a century ago. Some of his characteristics would not translate well today, and whether that says something good or bad about our own time, is up to the reader. 

31 October 2013

THE MAN ON THE WEDDING CAKE

The President seems increasingly clueless as to what his job responsibilities are. It is as though all the ceremonial aspects of the presidency have superseded the substantive requirements of the position, so that being president consists of photo-ops, giving speeches, and other ribbon-cutting type affairs. He remains detached from everything else, whether it be meeting with members of congress, solving problems, or otherwise dealing with the substance of things. Whenever things go wrong he says he is “angry” about them, but does little to rectify the situation, deflecting blame elsewhere, even though many of these problems originated in his own administration. He thereby absolves himself of any responsibility for Benghazi, the IRS scandal, the NSA spying revelations, fumbling over Syria, presiding over five of the six largest deficits in history, a sputtering economy, and, of course, Obamacare. It is deeply troubling that none of these things have been adequately resolved. The President may be genuinely angry about these things, but many of them, at the very least, are a consequence of who he appointed to office, including zealots who were obsessed with radical reform, based not upon empirical evidence but ideological presumptions as to the way things ought to be. As Harry Truman once said, “The buck stops here,” (in the office of the President).

But disengagement cannot be an excuse for ineptitude that is broad and consistent. One would be hard pressed to identify anything within the purview of the president that is going right these days. This is a result of some degree of competence at the superficial aspects of the presidency, i.e. ceremonial pomp, but complete incompetence at everything else. It is also unsurprising to anyone who could see through the glow of media cheerleading, given that he never ran anything in his life before. Yet he was elevated twice to what was, until he assumed office,  the most powerful position in the world, but now, at least according to Forbes, that distinction belongs to Vladimir Putin. During this presidency the US has been seriously weakened in the world, as well as at home, and it will take a lot of time and effort to undo what has transpired. 


He did belatedly, and superficially assume responsibility for Obamacare, which he and his party obviously own, but he remains a true believer in his own narrative, and is the most partisan occupant the White House has ever seen. Seldom have we witnessed more confidence with less actual justification for it. He is like the man on top of the wedding cake, peering down on all below, oblivious to the meltdown that is happening. As we witness the government unraveling before our eyes he does not shoulder all the blame, but he has done nothing to fix the damage, and too often has made things considerably worse than they had to be. What is remarkable is not that his approval ratings are at an all time low, but that 41% still view his administration positively. The real tragedy is that we have to endure years more of this presidency while the situation in the US and the rest of the world remains dangerously rudderless, at least until the next election. In the interim congress may gain more power as the president becomes more of a lame duck, a prospect that is not all that reassuring. We can only pray that no serious crises explode abroad in the meantime. What we need to identify in the time ahead, is someone who is capable of competently running things, solving problems, and working congenially with the congress in order to undo all the damage that has been done. Until that happens we can’t even think about moving forward again. 

29 October 2013

HELPING THE FEW BY PUNISHING THE MANY

The Obama administration forced through a radical overhaul of the health care system despite public opposition, and the results have been disastrous. Not only does the system not work, but it is actually causing real harm to people, particularly individuals who purchased their own health insurance. Under this dysfunctional system they are being dropped from their existing policies since their existing coverage does not conform to Obamacare, thus losing their coverage while facing steeply increased premiums. But it gets worse. Since the website does not work they cannot even get a new policy at the Obamacare “exchanges,” leaving them with no coverage at all. All of this is happening while the president promised that people could keep their existing plans under Obamacare, but he knew, it now develops, as far back as 2010, that this was not true. 

This is a sad example of the consequences of the warped thinking of the left, which demanded that the entire system of coverage for 80-85% of the population be upended because a minority did not have health insurance. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of people were satisfied with what they had, and the number of people lacking coverage was fluid; it didn’t matter, because the left-wingers cannot abide any distinctions. In other words, they insist on disrupting society if a minority (pick any one you want) is somehow allegedly not included in what prevails among the majority of the population. So we must endure continued social, cultural, and political disturbance for some misconceived sense of justice. The state must ameliorate any discrepancies, no matter what the cost. In addition, the true cost has been buried, for in order to pay for the minority in this instance, the costs for the majority must inevitably go up, bearing what effectively amounts to an additional tax. 

It is also part of the liberal delusion that they know what is good for you better than you do yourself. For the left, government is an instrument through which they can impose their policies, values, and beliefs on other people. If the government manages more of our lives and the world around us, they think it is good. For them any flaw in society can only be changed for the better by the state, usually with some costly, vast new program. This faith in government planning and supervision remains unshaken by the facts. 

To achieve such ends it is apparently okay to misinform, mislead, and even to lie to reach a desired goal.  In the case of health care, the administration was, at the very least disingenuous in its claims. Given the foreknowledge of what was going to happen to individual coverage, suspicion can only be aroused that the intention all along was to force everyone into government health care program. I cannot subscribe to the notion that Obamacare was somehow designed to fail to achieve this end, because I think the people responsible thought they were doing good. It is rather a glaring case of ineptitude, overreach, and an example of what happens when ambitions far exceed the abilities that are applied to them. No, what is insufferable here is the conceit that they still know best and the continued smugness of the administration in the face of cascading failures. 

They continue in damage control mode, while the rational answer would be to pull the plug on this monstrosity and cut their losses, or at least postpone implementation until they are presumably able to do so competently. The latter is unlikely to ever occur given the ill-conceived nature of this whole fiasco. The Democratic party will likely pay heavily  for this, having forced it through when they controlled the congress, at least in the next election. The media also have a lot to answer for as well. They have been carrying water for the administration since its inception. Only now are they beginning to report on the magnitude of the problems, although they still have not come to grips with the fundamental flaws of the whole endeavor. What we need now is some public humility, if not contrition, across the board. 


24 October 2013

GOVERNMENT FAILURE (AND PAST SUCCESSES)

Now that the dust has cleared from the partial government “shutdown” the administration’s failures are glaringly clear. This would have been apparent sooner had the standoff not occurred, which also seriously damaged the Republicans as a viable alternative to incompetent government. The best thing that party could do would be to shut up and stand back until next November, and let the magnitude of failure become clear. For the administration has lost credibility on several fronts.

The disastrous roll-out of Obamacare is getting worse and worse by the day, creating havoc in the health care industry while failing to provide the promised coverage to individuals. What was unpopular to begin with is even more so today. The Health and Human Services administration appears to be clueless with regard to implementation, and few of the President’s promises are being realized. 

The President has lost the confidence of much of the rest of the world that once provided such an enthusiastic greeting when he first appeared on the scene. The Germans, French, and other Europeans, as well as the  Brazilians are outraged over NSA snooping in their countries, particularly on government officials. The Saudis are breaking away, feeling they have been misled on policy toward Syria, i.e. drawing red lines, threatening intervention, etc. and then reversing course, while also cozying up with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Iranians. The last has rattled the Israelis, who, with their very existence on the line, have no confidence in this administration. On and on it goes as much of the world’s leadership has been alienated, and the standing of the United States has been weakened.

Under this administration government agencies have been blatantly political in their actions. The IRS has been caught targeting opposition individuals and groups, yet this agency is being charged with enforcing Obamacare mandatory coverage and fines on everyone. The SEC, under a long-time Democratic party hack is levying unprecedented record fines, while the Justice Department has been shaking down banks for billions largely for lending money to people the government forced them to lend to in the first place.

Economic growth is being severely hampered by ill-considered regulations, and stalling big projects like the Keystone pipeline. Unemployment remains high and job opportunities few. Then there was a trillion dollar stimulus that appears to have gone down a black hole. Can anyone find a single new bridge or major infrastructure project out of this?

Worst of all is the leadership failure. The President, instead of being above the fray, has been insidiously partisan in his words and deeds. Rather than the promised unity he has sown deep divisions, reducing himself to being a posturing ideologue that his affability can no longer mask.  But in all of this there are lessons to be learned. You cannot ram through radical change with no input or cooperation from the other side. Government works best when there is consensus and compromise by all parties. For it is not as though differences are unresolvable.

This president does not seem to understand that he owns everything that happens on his watch. He has said he wants to be a transformational president, like Reagan. He has been transformational in some sense, but not like Reagan, as successes are pretty hard to identify. In any case, though people often wish it, it is a different world today and we don’t need another Reagan now. What we need is an Eisenhower.

Eisenhower was a great president who has been grossly underestimated by historians and the press, based upon the false notion that he was stupid, largely because in response to questions he would sometimes mumble or say something irrelevant. But he was actually crafty, insofar as this  was his method of not dealing with things it was not necessary for him to deal with. Greatness does not always come from bold actions, but also from prudent inaction. For he always strove for consensus and letting things work themselves out. He never acted rashly, indeed he never acted unless he absolutely had to. This was also a man who held together the alliance of very different countries to achieve victory in World War II, and thus was very skilled in managing often sharp differences. As a result he was immensely popular and presided over some of the happiest days this country has ever known. The world would be a much better place today if we simply had someone like that in office.



16 October 2013

STOP THE SHUTDOWN AND DON’T DEFAULT


It is time to end the federal government impasse. One of the cardinal rules of strategy is to avoid getting involved in a war you can’t win. That is where the Republicans find themselves now. There are principled people who insist that they hold the line, but they are missing a far brighter, bigger picture. I am not suggesting that Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats, as well as the administration are not more at fault, but rather that occasionally a tactical retreat in battle leads to victory in the greater war. Since the Republicans currently do not have the votes to carry the Senate, their focus should be on winning the necessary votes in 2014. Given that the prevailing narrative is stacked against them, contributing to public disapproval, there is no dishonor in a temporary retreat, when a larger gift is waiting in the wings. 
That gift is Obamacare. The rollout has been disastrous, the Affordable Care Act is more unpopular than ever, and public ire is still growing. If it were not for the partial “government shutdown” and threatened default, the leading story in the news would now be the colossal ineptitude of the Obamacare administration. A ridiculously expensive website that doesn’t work, unexpected rising health care costs for individuals, enrollment failure, administrative incompetence, etc. would be dominating the headlines. The only thing preventing that from happening is the continuing drama of the failure of the congress and administration to reach an agreement. Yes the President himself is culpable for refusing to negotiate or discuss anything, where a more skilled politician might at least pretend to consider compromise. Yes the Senate Democrats have moved the goal posts by throwing the sequester into the mix. But being in the right means nothing if the perception of it is not there. Life isn’t fair.
Unfortunately some people are too stupid to recognize when they have a winning hand. The implementation of Obamacare is the gift that will keep on giving through 2014, and perhaps beyond. As one problem after another manifests itself, it may collapse to the point where most people realize it is unworkable. The blame for this will rest squarely on the Democrats, since they forced it through when they had a majority in both houses without any input or a single vote from the other side. That would portend huge losses in the elections next year, because they effectively own Obamacare. Consequently it makes no sense to maintain a scenario where public anger is directed towards congress and the Republicans as long as this stalemate lasts. It is time to put an end to this and get out of the line of fire, and thereby reap the rewards. 
More serious is the prospect of default, which is undermining the dollar and causing deep anxiety in the rest of the world. If the US cannot maintain full faith and credit, if it is no longer perceived as being a rock solid oasis of stability, the damage will be immense, and the international reserve currency role of the dollar will be diminished. Serious damage has already occurred, and it will take some effort to repair and re-establish confidence. On this question the President has to give something, if only to avoid going down in history as the official who presided over a disastrous default that could have been avoided. Any reasonable person can see that averting this ought to have top priority over any other considerations. 

Those trying to make the government more accountable are completely right, but brinksmanship tactics are wrong and will only backfire. Far better to let the administration sink under the weight of its own pretensions and take a sober, longer-term view that is far more likely to produce the desired objectives. 

13 October 2013

THE NY CITY COMMUNE OF 2014


After losing control of the New York City Mayoralty over the past twenty years, it was almost inevitable that the Democratic party would regain the Mayor’s office in this overwhelmingly Democratic city. Unfortunately the worst possible candidate won the Democratic party primary, a far left radical named Bill DeBlasio. Perhaps he was mistaken for an outer-borough moderate by some, since polls show a majority of the population disagrees with many of his positions. Whatever the case, any of the other candidates would have been far better for the future of the city. 

What is in jeopardy now is all the progress that has been made over the past two decades since Rudy Giuliani first became Mayor. I was never a fan of Michael Bloomberg, who succeeded him, but he was, at the very least, a competent manager. DeBlasio, who currently holds the ridiculous position of “Public Advocate,” has a long record of left-wing activism that does not bode well for running a large, diverse, and complex entity like New York City. Worse, he has been joined by several radicals elected to the City Council, with an agenda that draws on dreams of a revolutionary people’s commune. 

We in large measure have the courts to thank for this ominous prospect, by exceeding their authority and declaring the previous city charter unconstitutional, due to supposed population representation issues. There used to be a Board of Estimate which held real power, in addition to the City Council. The Board consisted of the five Borough Presidents, who actually had something to do at the time, the Mayor, the Comptroller, and the President of the City Council. By the court’s logic it was unfair for Staten Island to have the same vote as a borough with a larger population, say Queens. The trouble with this is that the boroughs predate the city, which only assumed its present form in 1898, when they were joined to become “Greater New York.”  Brooklyn, for example, was an independent city long before the consolidation, and could well have done better than in this Manhattan-centric configuration. Representation of these distinct political entities was thus a condition of the amalgamation, and provided a check, particularly on budget and land-use issues. 

One of the principle policies of the radicals is to increase taxes on the “rich,” or  “1%,” although such taxes always seems to trickle down to everyone else. I could care less about the 1%, especially since most of them are oh-so- fashionably progressive in New York City. But their liberalism will then be attenuated by the raid on their pocketbooks. If they are targeted with taxes they will simply move to one of their other houses and make that their legal residence. That means everyone else will be stuck with the bill for the lavish government expansion proposed by these candidates. 

But it is not even the radical policies that are the problem, but rather the administrative ineptitude likely to result from them. For whatever the radical designs, they will inevitably crash into established institutions, resulting in inertia. Indeed the “establishment” is already nervously on board, buying in with campaign contributions, especially from the same ubiquitous real estate interests that are ever present. Given all the weight on one side, it would take a miracle for the alternative candidate, Republican Joe Lhota, to be elected. 

Meanwhile, since the pot will have been increased, more hands will be reaching for the spoils, which inevitably will be distributed politically, resulting in the corruption and dysfunction we have seen in the past. Legislation and expenditures will once again be politically based rather than being determined on the merits. We will again start to hear terms like “ungovernable” and “unmanageable” associated with the city. Then as the political appetites exceed the available resources a downward spiral will commence. 

New York City has come a long way since flirting with near-bankruptcy in the 1970s. We really don’t need to go there again. 

20 September 2013

THE WRONG FIGHT AT THE WRONG TIME


There is an excellent chance that the 2014 elections could result in a Republican landslide, given the present unpopularity of the administration and programs like Obamacare in particular, as its phase-in disrupts the entire health care system and the coverage of millions. This is a classic case of unintended consequences, as businesses reduce full-time jobs and replace them with part-time work to avoid various mandates, along with many other negative effects. The question is what is to be done about this? 
There are many who think it is time to defund Obamacare. While this may pass the House, it is dead in the Senate, as well as in the White House, given the presidential veto. Thus there is no possibility that such legislation can succeed, at least in the present congress. The focus should instead be on winning the upcoming elections. The problem is that this action could backfire and and seize defeat from the jaws of victory. First, as stated, it is a waste of time and energy given the current political configuration, second, if there is a government shutdown resulting from an impasse it is congressional Republicans who will be blamed, not the administration. The media has already seen to this by framing the story in terms of a “threatened shutdown” of the government. Third, as more of this health plan goes into effect, more and more people are being alienated, and left to itself, an increasingly angry public will justifiably blame the administration and vote accordingly. 
It is unsurprising that that the “Affordable Care Act” is a disaster for the existing health care of millions as well as for the economy. It is a result of the typical liberal impulse to upend and entire system because a minority is not being accommodated. Over 80% of the population were satisfied with their existing health care, but because a minority was uncovered for various reasons, rather than address that question directly, they decided to redesign the entire system, to benefit this minority. In addition there is no way around the fact that the cost of care for the minority is going to be born by the 80% in higher fees, taxes, benefits, etc. 
The media are laying all of this on Republicans, and it makes no sense to fulfill their narrative. The line is that the Republicans are “divided” between “moderates” and “conservatives” on whether or not to defund the government. This is a losing proposition, even though it is a lie. Both those labeled as “moderate” in this instance as well as “conservative” oppose Obamacare. The differences are purely tactical. Is this really the right time and the right legislative process to deal with this issue?  I think not, for the reasons I cited above.  There is simply no way that the realities of the current congress can be changed, and therefore the focus should be on winning the next congress. The best strategy is to sit on the status quo for the next year, and then reap the windfall when an alienated public takes it out on the governing party. 

06 September 2013

THE WEST & THE MIDDLE EAST: SYRIA 2


It’s a crazy world we live in when one has to decide whether John Kerry or Vladimir Putin is lying about who is using chemical weapons in Syria.  Kerry testified there is ample evidence it was initiated by the Assad regime, while Putin says he has a detailed 100 page report indicating that the rebels did it. Given the murkiness of this situation congress ought to think twice before rushing into another Middle East conflict, the consequences of which cannot be known. There has been no indication of any contingencies which might result from such action. Are we really prepared for this? 

The President’s credibility is on the line, or what’s left of it, but contrary to prevailing assumptions that does not mean America’s credibility is also hanging by a thread. For what we have here is a regime of the Left such as we have never seen before, mismanaging just about every aspect of government. The administration only now has had to reach out to Republicans to get something done, who would be ill-advised to be suckered in, despite some naturally hawkish tendencies.  Do they really have confidence in the leadership of this administration at this point? Then there is John Kerry, the point man on this mission, who once falsely testified before congress that American forces were regularly committing atrocities in Viet Nam and who met with Assad several times, praising him, against the wishes of the Bush administration.  Can we trust this man now? Republicans are out of their minds if they fall in line for what is likely to be a fiasco, given this kind of leadership. Can they really still have any confidence in them at this point? 

The only sensible thing to do is to either vote against this action, and/or get out of the way and let the administration take the fall for botching this entire situation. Given its tenuous credibility, drawing red lines and then saying they didn’t, and then stating that  “the world” did; never mind that virtually no one else in the world wants any part of this mission. Action was not taken two years ago when it would have mattered. It is too little too late, and yes, action at this point would be worse than doing nothing. There is nothing to be gained and a lot to lose by doing it now. If there were another chemical attack and it was clear who did it, then action might be justified. But the UN has yet to issue a report either way, which at least give some substantive support to whoever is right. 

A wise government would be looking to get us out of the line of fire, but they instead want to jump into it. Both Secretary Kerry and President Obama strongly opposed the Iraq war, but now are pursuing a comparable policy on far more tenuous grounds. There is no coalition, no congressional support as yet, and no conclusive proof. To claim that Syria is a threat to our national security is preposterous. Just what national security do we gain when this administration has leaked like a sieve and a good portion of our national secrets have been spilled all over, and governments the world over are alienated and angry. Due to their breathtaking ineptitude they have managed to make Russia a major player again, and make Putin look like a statesman. What we really need is a congressional no confidence vote, so at least the rest of the world know it is not us taking action but an administration acting against the wishes of the people, and then somehow muddle through three more years of this lame duck presidency. 


29 August 2013

THE WEST & THE MIDDLE EAST 1: SYRIA


There is a considerable amount of saber-rattling going on with regard to Syria's use of chemical weapons against civilians.  As disgusting and horrible as such action may be, it is hard to see how the end result is any different from being killed by bombs, gunshots, or fire. Granted it violates "International Law," but it is unclear why the United States has to enforce it. The argument is that if we don't, the law is meaningless, but how and why does it fall on the US to give it meaning? Nevertheless this action might be justified if it were to take place within the framework of some kind of coherent strategy. The problem is that we do not appear to have one, nor have the consequences been thoroughly vetted. 

Do we simply lob some missiles over to send a message about chemical weapons? What happens after that in terms of retaliation? Opponents have already said they would target Israel, never mind that Israel is not instigating the attack. If they do, certainly Israel will respond to defend itself, and then we have a wider war. To think that we can shoot some missiles as a message and then walk away is incredibly naive. The message otherwise can be reduced to “it’s okay to go on torturing and killing, just don’t use chemicals.”  If it is still about restoring US credibility it is too little too late, in terms of the President's "line in the sand," unless we are prepared to go much further. 

I would not oppose military action if there were a clear strategy to produce some kind of desired outcome. But there doesn't appear to be any. The time to act in Syria has gone by. We still have not provided the opposition with adequate weapons to counter Assad's forces, which we should have done over a year ago. Now it is not all that clear who is leading the opposition, and there is a rising Al Qaeda presence on that side. As awful as Assad’s regime may be, a country dominated by Al Qaeda would be far worse, and present an actual threat to the West.

That points to another law, the War Powers Act, according to which unless there is an imminent threat to the US, congressional approval must be obtained. Those who opposed George Bush for acting aggressively should note that even he obtained congressional approval before taking military action. It is hard to argue that Syria presents an imminent threat, so what is the legal basis for such a strike? These questions ought to be debated in congress before acting. To argue there isn’t time for that is ridiculous, given that the administration has let it be an open secret that we are going to attack so there is no element of surprise and the Syrian regime already has ample time to prepare.

Furthermore, we would be involving ourselves more deeply in what is becoming an overall civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, with Iran and its allies aligned against most of the Arab states. Instead we should see this as an opportunity to get out of the line of fire, which I’ll explore more fully subsequently. Aiding one side covertly is one thing; getting directly involved in an even longer war is another.

Our priorities are also warped. If western countries are to be involved at all in this region, they ought to be stopping the continued persecution and increasing extinction of Christians in the Middle East, which we’ll also expand on next time. Right now our only strategy seems to be to punish Assad’s Syria, but not so much so as to topple the regime, which presumably would lead to chaos in the region. The problem is that “Syria” is not much of a nation to begin with. The current geography of much of the Middle East consists of provinces carved rather haphazardly out of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. This is one of the main reasons there is continuing turmoil in the area. The regime likes to pretend there is some relationship to the ancient Assyrian empire, but there isn’t any. Thus it is laughable when people in these countries question the legitimacy of Israel, given that their own countries are essentially no older in historical time.


16 July 2013

THERE IS NO PERFECT JUSTICE


I did not follow or express an opinion on the George Zimmerman case for the simple reason that I could not form an accurate judgment without access to the facts presented to the jury. I also felt that this was a local case subject to local jurisprudence and did not warrant the extensive media coverage that ensued. But since it unfortunately garnered so much attention and raised passions on both sides some analysis is in order, particularly insofar as it involves the objective of achieving justice.

There is a basic problem with the position being taken by those outraged by the verdict, particularly when shouting for justice. But this entails a preconceived notion of what constitutes “justice,” for which there could be only one possible outcome. The belief is that Zimmerman had to pay, one way or another, with his trial presumably resulting in justice fulfilled. By any standard that is what it did, but for believers in this cause only one possible outcome could be legitimate.

Now if Zimmerman had been found guilty, that apparently would have been “justice”  in their eyes, ratifying the fairness of the process.  That this did not happen hardly makes the process any less just. One cannot call something unjust under these circumstances because one’s expectations were not fulfilled.  If the jury outcome produces justice in one instance it must all do so in the other.

However, those now protesting do have good reason to be outraged, because of the miserable job done by the mainstream media. The coverage was so slanted against Zimmerman that it became, in the minds of many, a foregone conclusion that he would be found guilty. The media wanted a show trial and very nearly produced one. Going back to the beginning of this incident, by the laws of Florida the local authorities found no cause to arrest Zimmerman. This led to an outcry, still local, until the media picked up on it. An opportunistic prosecutor (there are few who aren’t) then stepped in and charged Zimmerman with murder, in what essentially became a political prosecution and it appeared as though he was a goner, having already been judged guilty until proven innocent. But the prosecution was also inept, and if there was a case to be made, they failed to make it, and the jury made its decision based upon the facts presented, with more honesty and integrity than the “system” itself.

But the race-baiters and left-wing ideologues could not let such an opportunity go unexploited and so they have sprung into action. People like professional agitator Al Sharpton, who has also been a frequent White House visitor as well as commentator on the awful NBC “news” network, are now fanning the flames. It has rekindled a sense of grievance about the system being generally unfair to the interests of black people, who are powerless when faced with it. However there is a problem with this narrative. If anyone was powerless in this case, it was Zimmerman, who had some seriously formidable institutions lined up against him. The people out for his scalp were obviously far more powerful, given that they were able to get the government to go after him, from the top down.

So since the trial did not produce the desired result, now other avenues must be pursued.  We have the racially obsessed Attorney General  Eric Holder looking to find some way to bring Zimmerman up on federal charges, such as “hate crime,” and further pontificating on race even though thorough investigations produced not a shred of evidence along those lines.  But curiously Holder is quiet about several retaliatory mob attacks that have already occurred against innocent white and “Hispanic” people that are, in fact, completely racially motivated; fat chance the “justice” department will investigate these incidents. Most legal experts doubt he has a case and thus it won’t be pursued. That remains to be seen, when the facts are subordinate to the politics. Again, the reality of who actually has power in the justice system and in terms of government influence is obviously far different from what is being claimed.  

I repeat I am not a Zimmerman supporter or sympathizer, and had no particular interest in the outcome. What I cannot abide is the reaction to this trial, the media circus, and the talking heads on all sides making arguments that diverge from the actual case. What I can predict, based on first hand experience, is that the US Attorneys will make every conceivable effort to build a case against Zimmerman, because the judgment as to whom to target and whom to prosecute is very often entirely political. It is a fantasy to believe that these people sit around and objectively evaluate cases. Political calculation, in terms of whom to go after, and which to not bother with, is a common practice, and often a self-serving one. This entire case reeks of it, and the end result is that neither Trayvon nor Zimmerman can possibly get “justice.” If a human agent can make decisions regarding the legal fate of someone in a way that would not be applied to someone else the system is flawed. For the system is imperfect, sometimes produces confounding results, and sometimes lets people slip through the cracks. On the whole, however, it does basically work to the extent that any human institution can. Much of the time it produces results that appear to be reasonably satisfactory to an outsider, and justice is served to some extent. However, as with any entity inhabited by human beings, there is fallibility and no possibility of ever achieving perfect justice. No society can ever be completely just, no matter how good it is. For, as I’ve written elsewhere, in this life, the best you can hope for is some justice.

08 July 2013

ISLAM AND THE MODERN MILITARY


The Egyptian military removed the Muslim Brotherhood government following massive protests against increasing Islamic rule, deteriorating economic conditions, and the near collapse of major institutions, which have become completely dysfunctional.  The administration once again was tone deaf when it came to facts on the ground. Thanks in part to an airhead ambassador, it has managed to wind up on the wrong side of events, a fact that was not lost on the crowds, which singled out the President and ambassador for scorn on their placards.  For despite the distress of a number of western leaders, this was not a banana republic coup d’├ętat, but part of an extra-constitutional tradition relatively widespread in the Islamic world, from Turkey to Pakistan. It is essentially based upon the premise that when civilians screw up the government the military has to intervene.

It is important to understand the context and prevailing conditions. It would be nice if western leaders stopped mouthing platitudes about democratic government and instead recognized the dynamics in play. In any modern constitutional state there is more than majority rule; constitutional protections are also included, i.e. for minority rights. One such minority consists of Christians in the Middle East, who face continuing persecution in many countries while western officials remain silent, to their everlasting shame. Religious minorities are far more likely to be protected in a secular state than under a government that is religiously oriented. Thus Muslim minorities, for example, are not persecuted anywhere in the west.

In the Islamic world it is the military that has served as the guarantors of the secular state. This model began in Turkey, which is usually cited as representative of a successful modern Islamic country. This in large measure is due to Mustafa Kemal, the father of modern Turkey, who, in a remarkable departure, began what essentially was a process of de-Islamification of the state in favor of a secular, western-style government. The guarantors of that tradition were the military, which would periodically intervene whenever civilian government rule came near collapse, at least until the present government in Turkey, which has instituted a major purge of senior military officers. They can no longer intervene even as the government becomes increasingly autocratic, resulting in the recent mass protests throughout the country. But at least the Turkish government had the good sense to backtrack and make some effort to accommodate the protestors. In Egypt the military did intervene in order to protect the secular, constitutional state, apparently with considerable popular support and no intention of wielding political power on a long-term basis.

Why is it that the military is the bulwark of a secular, modern state in these societies? The answer lies in the nature of the order that must prevail in a large scale, formal organization if it is to function effectively. That order must be rationally based, regardless of dogma. A military has to be organized to achieve its objectives based on information and facts, and to have the capacity to master sophisticated modern weapons, communications, and command systems. In addition, functions must be assigned rationally otherwise nothing works. In a backward society the military is often the only viable institution with these characteristics, and much of the Islamic world is relatively backward. That is the reason this does not apply or occur in advanced countries, where we would not want the military to act in this capacity. The underlying population structure is different when most of the citizens are middle class, prosperous, and educated and there is a vast array of rationalized institutions. The more these characteristics appear, the more a society moves towards stable constitutional government.

Large segments of the people demonstrating in Egypt are young, educated, and middle class. They were chafing under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. But if people object so strongly to religious governments, how or why do they elect them?  When there is a large, backward peasantry they tend to gravitate towards religious parties, evident in both Egypt and Turkey. The reason for this is that people anywhere tend to opt for traditional rectitude when given a choice, and therefore those claiming to represent it. Thus, when people vote for Islamist parties they are choosing what they perceive as championing the moral basis of their societies. They only become disenchanted after the religious parties, once in power, make a mess of things because of the prism through which they view the world. When rational organization becomes subservient to values, be they religious or ideological, nothing works. Basic services can’t be provided, normal business can’t be conducted, the economy tanks, and government is perceived as completely incompetent.

These are realities that have to be taken into consideration when crafting foreign policy. The situation on the ground is usually more complex than presumed and things get bungled as a result. It’s time we realize that if the preconditions of constitutional democracy aren’t there, it isn’t going to materialize. That also means we can’t impose it from above or outside if the population does not have the characteristics necessary to sustain it. The truth is that most people in these countries are more interested in a better life. Only when they have some semblance of that will they begin to strive for democratic government.