Thursday, June 5, 2008

Society's Fraying Moral Fabric?


How people could just stand and watch, with nobody coming to at least divert traffic or to make sure the victim didn't move his head (if he were conscious, or regaining consciousness), is beyond me. I hope this doesn't represent where our culture is heading.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Iraq War - Congressional Enablers

I dug up Congressman Paul's speech to the House in Sep. 2002: Questions That Won't Be Asked About Iraq. If his fellow Congressmen and Senators had taken the time to answer Paul's questions before rushing blindly to approve the force authorization lest they appear weak on national defense, we wouldn't be in the quagmire we find ourselves in today, nearly six years later.

Though the Democratic party has been keen to paint the war as a Bush/Republican error, the American people have not been fooled, and they have dispensed punishment on one of the Democratic enablers of the war, Senator Clinton. As with many in the Senate and the House, her vote was not the result of diligent investigation into the evidence underlying the pro-war arguments (she didn't read the NIE report; she defends herself by saying that most haven't read the report, but rely on the summary or speak with others for this info - but most others weren't contemplating running for President as she was!). No, her vote was the result of a political calculation - anticipating a Presidential run in 2008, she wanted to appear strong on defense. Very few of our elected representatives had the courage to stand up to the White House, the war hungry mainstream media, and not least, the blind bloodlust that swept this country after 9/11.

There is a lesson to be learned here. Wars should not engaged in reflexively. The best defense we have against a rash decision to go to war, even when we are all enraged by an attack on our soil, is already built into the Constitution, i.e., to require a formal declaration of war by Congress. Such an declaration would require war proponents to lay out their case clearly, and allow time for investigation of the evidence supporting the pro-war case. Importantly, it would also force our Congressional representatives to own their decisions, which will increase the likelihood that they will ask the tough questions before voting for war. As an aside, this does not in any way prevent the President from immediately responding to attacks on our soil.

An authorization of the use of force, as we had in Iraq, is much easier for a Congressperson or Senator to approve, because it allows him/her to say "Well, I merely authorized the use of force, but it was up to the President to use that force authorization wisely". It allowed our reps to stand up and give blustery speeches, but at the same time, should things go horribly awry, to argue that their authorization was misused by the executive branch - and hasn't Senator Clinton done exactly that? Didn't Senator Kerry do exactly that?

Though these "hedged" positions have caught out both these Senators in their Presidential campaigns, many others have not been taken to task for the abdication of their responsibilities, and more importantly, we have not abandoned this extra-Constitutional notion of force authorization. Though it seems ridiculous that we need a law that requires us to force the Congress to abide by the Constitution, it seems that is exactly what we need to make sure we don't bypass the Constitutional safeguard against blind rushes to war. How many times do we need to make the same mistake before we do something about it? The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution allowed President Johnson to escalate the conflict in Vietnam into a full-fledged war. It would seem that until we force our reps in Congress to own their decisions via formal declarations of war, we are at the mercy of war-mongers, the media, the ambitions of politicians, and not least, our own bloodlust.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Iraq - Can we win? Can we afford to stay?

By most measures, the Iraq war has been a huge foreign policy blunder, exacting a huge cost in terms of American wealth and lives, and providing very little return on that investment. In fact, if the goal was cheaper oil, the war has been a spectacular failure. Prior to the escalations in tensions leading up to the March 2003 invasion, oil was ~$30/bbl. Now it's ~$120/bbl. To be sure, there are lots of reasons, in addition to reduced oil production from Iraq, and increased Middle East instability engendered by the war. Certainly one of those other reasons is the dollar's devaluation, and one could easily argue that the Iraq war played a large role in that devaluation - the government has been unwilling to fund the war and the rebuilding effort with cuts elsewhere. Turns out the federal government isn't much different from the overleveraged US consumer - spending money it doesn't have.

OK, so here we are in 2008. What do we do now? Some Americans want us to stay the course and win in Iraq. What exactly constitutes winning anyway? A stable government that can defend itself from internal attacks? What about internal attacks supported by external sponsors (e.g., Iran)? We haven't seen anything from the Iraqi military that shows their ability to fight successfully without American support on the front lines. There are reports that the training is inadequate, that their weaponry is inferior, etc.

I'll offer that there is a bigger problem. The Iraqis know that the Americans will leave. And they know that once the Americans leave, the government may be overthrown. As long as there is a risk that plays out, why would an Iraqi soldier want to piss off the guys who are going to decide his fate? In fact, the Iraqis know this story all too well. During the Gulf War, America encouraged the Shiites and Kurds to rebel. They did, and the rebellions were brutally crushed by Hussein, and we didn't protect them. Oh sure, we had a no-fly zone, but that was limited to fixed wing aircraft. So Hussein just used helicopter gunships. The lesson they learned is that they cannot rely on America to protect them.

Need another example of the risks facing the Iraqi soldier? Look at Vietnam. After the NVA and VC captured Saigon, thousands of South Vietnamese suspected of collaborating with the Americans were executed. Some of the various factions fighting the Iraqi government aren't even waiting for the US military to leave. Through their sources in the military, they are obtaining the names of soldiers and threatening their families.

So what's an Iraqi soldier to do? Fight for this new government, knowing that its main backer is leaving eventually, and that the very guys he is fighting could be taking over. Plus, run the risk that his family is executed at any time. Or, does he fight half-heartedly, just trying to collect a paycheck, and deserting at the first sign of danger to himself or his family.

Don't think we're leaving if McCain is elected President? Think again. We are fighting a war we cannot afford to fight - I'm speaking in financial terms - unless we are willing to face very deep cuts in the government's spending domestically and increased taxes. We've been having our cake and eating it too since the war began, but we've paid the price in terms of the dollar's value. I think once Americans are faced with the harsh reality that spending in Iraq means less spending domestically (the alternative is a banana republic currency), we will choose spending domestically.

OK, so maybe you agree that we cannot fight indefinitely, but perhaps we can crush the insurgent groups in the next year or two? Not gonna happen. Here's the basic problem We are fighting on another people's homeland without a strong moral justification. Just as Americans would rebel and never fully accept a government that was propped up by an invading power, the insurgents (both Iraqi and Arabs, who view occupation of any Arab lands by infidels as justifying jihad) are willing to die for their cause. We are not willing to die for our cause; that begs the question of what exactly our cause is? Hmmm, does that remind anyone of a certain war in SE Asia? Speaking of which, we learned, or should have learned, that lesson in Vietnam. From a military perspective, the US and SVA were absolutely annihilating the NVA and VC, but that didn't stop North Vietnam. Even after the initial peace in 1973, the North continued to attack, risking a resumption of US bombing, and after this never materialized, they were able to overrun the South. And if we didn't figure it out then, we had an opportunity to learn from the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan. Even without a contentious media back home to deal with, the Soviets, who were presumably less constrained in their military tactics, couldn't defeat the Afghans and Arab insurgents. The bottom line is that a foreign power's military superiority is no match for people who are willing to die to expel that foreign power (assuming the foreign power doesn't resort to eradicating the civilian population).

Unfortunately, this will very likely end the way Vietnam ended for us, where we were flying people off the roof of the US embassy hours before the NVA rolled into town. We'll by flying people out of the Green Zone, weeks or months (if the Iraqi army puts up a fight) before the government is overthrown. And I don't think it makes much of a difference who is President. Obama or Clinton will get us out sooner. McCain will get us out a little later and a little poorer.

Hillary - understanding the sniper fire lie

Though the story broke in March, I can't shake the Bosnia sniper fire lie. Why? Because the only way I can understand that lie is to accept that Hillary Clinton has, at least briefly, lost touch with reality.

Humans lie. And politicians, because they are under much more scrutiny than the rest of us, are often forced to lie to preserve their image (not that that makes it morally justified, but at least we can understand it).

Obama's claim that he hadn't heard some of Rev. Wright's more controversial remarks until only a year ago is pretty clearly a lie. Even if he or his wife/kids weren't in church the weekend after 9/11, fellow parishioners surely would have informed him of some of those comments. But when faced with the question of whether he had heard those comments years ago, and continued to attend Rev. Wright's services, Obama was cornered. Tell the truth and torpedo your presidential campaign, and maybe your congressional career. Or lie. Bill Clinton was faced with similar situations regarding his extramarital affairs during his years in Arkansas and Washington, most notably with Monica Lewinsky: tell the truth and be destroy/tarnish your campaign/career/presidential legacy. Or lie. Both Barack and Bill lied, and understandably so, given that they were cornered.

That's one of the things that bothers me about Hillary's Bosnia lie. She didn't do it because she was caught in a compromising position. She did it presumably to enhance her foreign policy experience or perceived courage, or both. It wasn't a "defensive" lie, it was an "offensive" lie.

OK, well politicians routinely embellish their accomplishments to get more credit than they deserve. But this wasn't an exaggeration. There were no shots fired. There was no perception of imminent danger; if there was, they could have held the greeting ceremony indoors instead of out on the tarmac. There were lots of people on the tarmac, including the little girl who was reading her poem, and importantly, Chelsea Clinton. If Hillary perceived any danger, even if she were brave enough to stand around on the tarmac for the ceremony, do you think she would have permitted her teenage daughter to stand next to her? This was no inflated claim. This was a wholesale fabrication.

So if you accept that (1) she wasn't cornered into a "defensive" lie to preserve her career/campaign, and (2) her claim went far beyond the zone of embellishment and into the realm of pure fantasy, then if you want to understand her as a person (which seems rather important given the job she is asking us to give her), you have to ask yourself why she did it.

She says she misspoke. I call bullshit on that. One, unless you were in actual combat, or perhaps a civilian who was actually shot at (like the victims and would-be-victims of the DC snipers), you don't forget if and when you were shot at. And for damn sure you don't forget if and when your child was shot at! Two, she made this sniper fire claim not just on March 17, but on Feb. 29 in Waco, TX and on Dec. 29 in Iowa. But I can understand her lie about misspeaking - she was cornered; if she told the truth, her campaign would be finished instantly.

OK, so maybe it was a lie to improve her credibility along the lines of foreign policy, bravery, toughness, etc., and she is just a cold-blooded, calculating liar. But this would be an enormously risky gambit, given that the odds of getting caught were extremely high: she was accompanied on the trip by a television crew and reporters. Wouldn't at least some of the reporters and military personnel at the scene speak up? And wouldn't somebody hearing/reading the claim wonder: "Why don't I remember reading any articles about the First Lady being shot at back in 1996?" So this explanation for her lie just doesn't add up. She may very well be capable of calculated "offensive" lies to further her agenda, but she is not stupid. If she wanted to make up stories to enhance her candidacy, she could do so about things that are difficult to clearly disprove (e.g., helping bring peace to Northern Ireland). It simply is not rational to lie about an occurrence that is so easy to conclusively disprove.

If, despite the foregoing rationale, you believe she intentionally lied, then you must conclude that she is simply too stupid for the Presidency. I.e., repeatedly making a wholly false claim that she wasn't forced into, and that was highly likely to be proven to be false beyond the shadow of a doubt, isn't exactly the mark of an intelligent person is it? Her supposed gamble on this story makes some of W's gambles seem positively shrewd by comparison.

So, if you agree that her claim wasn't an accidental misstatement, and that she's not an idiot, then there seems to be only one explanation left. She thought she was telling the truth. When initially questioned about the discrepancy between her recollection of the visit and Sinbad's recollection, she dismissed Sinbad as a comedian (another link and another one).

From the WSJ article in the second link [emphasis mine]: She gave reporters more details of the trip. “Part of the reason we were in the C-17 is because part of it is armored,” Clinton said. “I was moved up into the cockpit. Everyone else was told to sit on their bullet proof vests. We came in in an evasive maneuver. Those of you who have been on a C-17 or C-130 know that one of their great characteristics is that they can take off very quickly and they can maneuver agilely to avoid incoming fire. There was no greeting ceremony and we were basically told to run to our cars. Now that is what happened.

If she had told a calculated lie in her earlier speech, then surely, at this point, with reporters presenting Sinbad's version of events, she knew the gig was up, and she would claim she misspoke. After all, although Sinbad is a comedian, the fact that his recollection was materially different was bound to send reporters digging further, and she would have known that this further digging would reveal the truth. So when confronted with Sinbad's version of events, why didn't she abandon ship??? It was only after further evidence corroborated Sinbad's story that she says she misspoke. After all, even a delusional person will snap out of the delusion when they see video footage abundantly demonstrating the falsity of their claim.

So it would appear that she has had a break with reality. Yes, this seems improbable, but we have arrived here by eliminating the explanations that seem even more improbable/borderline impossible. And that is why this particular campaign lie has been bothering me. Even though she is usually composed and "with it", I think she is capable of delusional episodes. For this reason alone, I cannot support her candidacy.

She's asking you to support her for the Presidency. As a citizen, you owe it to your country to understand a candidate before supporting them. If you can understand her sniper fire story in a way that does not question Hillary's connection to reality AND that does not disqualify her candidacy in your mind (e.g., irrational/stupid behavior), I'd love to hear it.

And please don't mistake me for some shill for Obama or McCain. I don't think either of them has the right prescription for what ails this country.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dollar Trivia

What is the US Dollar backed by (i.e., what does the government store for each dollar in circulation)?

1. gold
2. silver
3. a combination of gold and silver
4. nothing

Think about this for a few seconds before scrolling down.

If you chose a, b or c, you fall in the 95+% of the population (my somewhat educated guess) that believes this myth. Ask your friends, or forward them this post - they'll probably guess a, b, or c as well. Congressman Ron Paul has noted that even members of Congressional finance committees believed this myth until he disabused them of their false notion. The dollar is not backed by anything. Well, I suppose in some ways it's backed by the will of the federal government and the Federal Reserve to preserve the dollar's value, but as I'll discuss in another post, it's pretty clear that the powers that be are in favor of a depreciating dollar.

That this myth is so widely subscribed to begs the question of "why". Why is it that most Americans don't know this most basic fact about their currency? It used to be backed by precious metals, but we got off the gold standard a long time ago. But there has been virtually zero education of today's public of the dollar's true nature. And, as it turns out, it's not in the interests of almost anyone who matters for Americans to be made aware of this.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rev. Wright - madman or the voice of many?

So this Rev. Wright thing has become a real shitstorm for Obama. Amazingly enough, every opinion piece I've read has dismissed Wright as a lunatic, without further inspection of what he is saying. In my earlier post, I commented on Wright's 9/11 statements.

Here, let's talk about some of the other stuff, which I'm sure most of white America thinks is sheer madness. How about the suggestion that AIDS was engineered as way of killing blacks? Crazy, right? Well, imagine if your ancestors were dragged over to this country to be slaves and were freed only hundreds of years later. Oh, but it turned out freedom didn't mean much as the South instituted sharecropping. That lasted until well into the 20th century. And it wasn't until the Civil Rights Era that meaningful legislation barring racial discrimination was on the books. And let's not forget about the Tuskegee experiments - imagine if your grandfather was a subject in that study. Does Wright's comment about AIDS seem so crazy now?

What much of non-black America doesn't get is that many blacks place very little trust in the government. And after the black experience in this country, I don't blame them. Perhaps if the rest of us were a little less trusting of government, we could have avoided the Iraq war.

But nevermind that. And nevermind why Wright's seemingly crazy statements resonate with black Americans. The rest of us can't relate to what Wright is talking about, so he must be a fringe lunatic.

Obama gets what Wright is saying - that's why he's been in Wright's church for twenty years. That's why he's been bringing his kids to that church. But Obama also gets that he's not gonna be able to explain it to the rest of America (not that many Americans would accept it if he tried), so he's doing the only thing he can do - run like mad away from that crazy Rev. Wright.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Rev. Wright and America's Chickens

Rev. Jeremiah Wright is in the news again, probably much to the dismay of the Obama campaign. The nation's uproar over Wright's comments strike me as predictably silly (see here for more of Wright's sermon following 9/11).

Oh, the pundits were so upset about Rev. Wright's 9/11-related comments. Wright suggests that American foreign policy precipitated the 9/11 attacks. President Bush said "America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world." Which do you think seems more reasonable?

Those who dismiss Rev. Wright as a crackpot fail to notice the size of his congregation. And choosing to ignore why there is so much anger in black America is exactly the same type of reflexive action many adopted following 9/11, when they ridiculed those who suggested we try to understand why we were attacked. Sorry, sticking our collective heads in the sand is how we arrived at this mess in the first place.

They say Wright is anti-American. He served his country in the military and now serves his Chicago community. Is he less a patriot than President Bush or VP Dick Cheney? Neither of those men served in the military (Bush's National Guard experience has been well documented, and Cheney applied for and received five draft deferments until we was too old for the draft), and the only community they seem to be serving these days are their oil buddies and military contractors. In a firefight with real anti-American forces, who would you rather have in a foxhole with you - Cheney or Wright?

They say Wright is offensive. What's more offensive: Wright's comments to his congregation or the government's exaggerations and fabrications to American citizens to build the case for a war that has exacted a tremendous cost in terms of our national wealth, American lives, and America's standing and influence in the world?

Americans, think for yourselves. Don't outsource your critical thinking to the politicians and the pundits.