Saturday, December 12, 2009

The war on ignorance

Winston Churchill frequently asserted that if Hitler prevailed, the world would descend into a new dark age. Growing up in the aftermath of WWII, it seemed clear that--at least if we avoided nuclear war--civilization would advance. Seeing the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's and '70's, the War on Poverty--not a success, but a step forward--the first astronauts, landings on the moon, victories over polio and childhood leukemia and the advent of the computer age, I never lost that belief.

Surely I did not believe, until well into middle age, that a central struggle of my life would be a war against ignorance. That, however, is what we face now and for the foreseeable future.

For what, after all, are al Qaeda, the Taliban and other fundamentalist Islamic sects that want to drag Muslims back to an age that would have seemed retrograde to the Moors of medieval Spain? And let us not pretend that the West is any less besieged by ignorance. Those who would treat evolution and creationism as equals, who dispute overwhelming evidence of humanity's contribution to climate change, who deny the Holocaust--they, too, are apostles of ignorance. Such people are perfectly entitled to their beliefs, so long as they do not try to force them on others. But saying that does not change their stance as those who exalt some given truth over evidence, who deny that humans can, through thought and effort, learn great truths, and who in so doing reject one of the great qualities of our species.

Like all wars that may justifiably be called just, this struggle has been forced on us. The consequences of defeat are terrible to contemplate.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What needs to be said

You may have seen House Republicans braying that the recent report suggesting that women don't need regular mammograms before age 50 is the beginning of health-care rationing.

It's the old Republican dodge: never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.

What the Democrats need is someone--it would be nice if it were President Obama, but he can't the the only spokesman for truth, justice and liberty--to sand up and say, "You talk about rationing? I'll show you rationing. Herb Green died a lingering, painful death because his insurance company delayed covering his bladder cancer. Joe and Mollie White's daughter, Susie, died at age 2, because they couldn't afford medical insurance. Rationing? We already have rationing. It's carried out by health insurance companies."

Why don't we hear things like that?

Waarrms the cockles of me heart

Never thought I'd live to see this: The Ku Klux Klan is going to picket the Ole Miss/LSU football game this Saturday.

It's not the 1960's any more. Turns out--we weren't watching--that the university has had several black student-body presidents.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The true nature of the man

CBS' Sunday Morning featured a commentary by James Gordon Meek, of the NY Daily News. He happened to be at Arlington National Ceremony on Veterans' Day, when President Obama visited the graves of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meek's observations and experience give us a good picture of the man who occupies the Oval Office. It's well worth reading.

Terror Trials in the US

A great friend of TONE, The LighthouseKeeper, asked my opinion of the decision to try the leading terror suspects at Guantanamo in federal court in New York City. What follows is a slightly edited version of my response:

Seems to me that if I were a potential juror I'd offer the view that were I the judge, I'd probably dismiss the case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (the guy who was waterboarded 183 times) for prosecutorial (i.e., government) misconduct. But as a juror I think I'd be able to judge guilt or innocence. One of the problems the defense will have is that the guy freely admitted, indeed apparently boasted or his role in 9/11. That's 2800 killings.

I do have some question about whether these guys should be tried as criminals. I don't do criminal law, but it seems to me that we don't have a good dividing line between war and crime. The British did not execute American rebels, and in those few instances on the frontier when rebels (and their families) were massacred, we consider that behavior criminal. The North did not execute Confederate rebels, apart from spies and the like. We did not--as least as a matter of government policy--execute Aguinaldo's rebels or the Moros in the Phillipines. Or captured Indians. So, when does an act of war deserve to be treated as such and not as crime? I think there ought to be a principled dividing line, and I don't know that there is.

I have no doubt that the people to be tried believe that they are in a political/religious/military (put those in whatever order you choose) struggled against us. How should we repond?

Being against capital punishment, I would have a hard time bringing in a death sentence. On the other hand, as I told a federal judge who was at a conference I attended recently, these are the kind of cases that might cause me to question my premises.

As for trying these people in the civilian system, I'm all for it. Again, it's not clear to me--although it may be in the law--where the dividing line between civil and military courts lies, but I lean toward the civilian. Especially for an act like 9/11 that was perpetrated in the US, not in a zone of military operations or occupation. I think expressions of fear about terrorist attacks on the US as a result are overdrawn and not worthy of us. We're in a fight that we didn't choose; would that all fights were those we don't choose. But we cannot cower.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Oy, gevalt!

Two Republican county chairmen in South Carolina write to the local paper that Sen. Jim DeMint (R, Dixie) in his opposition to earmarks is like "the Jews who are wealthy got that way not by watching dollars, but instead by taking care of the pennies and the dollars taking care of themselves."

That clang you hear is their tin ears banging together.

I haven't run into that one as part of the stereotypical view of Jews, and it seems to me that at least its more favorable--if no more accurate--than the more common canards thrown around by anti-Semites and the insensitive. Coming from a couple of political leaders, though, it's mighty dumb!

At least one source ascribes the thought to Ben Franklin, who while a wise man, was not Jewish. (My office is about a block from Old South Meetinghouse, which was across the street from where Ben was born, and in which he was christened that very day in 1706.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A note to readers

I just posted a lengthy piece on Afghanistan, entitled (perhaps confusingly) "The real lesson of Vietnam." Unfortunately, it was so long that it took me a week to produce, although the reader may well wonder why. Blogger assigns dates to posts as of the first saving of a draft, so this piece appears dated October 11, rather than today. Sorry about that. In any event, feel free to take a look at let me know what you think.

Thank you.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A victory for common sense and straight dealing

A Massachusetts Land Court judge has reaffirmed his decision last spring that lenders could not sell foreclosed properties where they couldn't show who owns the mortgage.

The case has sent shivers through the Bay State's real estate and banking communities, and has had ripples nationwide. (Some federal bankruptcy judges have made similar, and even more favorable, decisions that kept homeowners from losing their properties to foreclosure.)

The problem arises out of the razzle-dazzle of the housing bubble, where mortgages were sliced and diced, packaged, sold and re-sold. In the process, such old-fashioned concepts as ownership (not to mention honest dealing) were conveniently ignored. Now that the chickens have come home to roost, the people who thought to profit from the financial manipulations that led to the bubble are weeping, wailing and gnashing their teeth.

Interestingly, the story linked to above focuses on the difficulties the judge's ruling poses to re-selling, rehabilitating and recycling properties already foreclosed on for new use. That may well be the immediate effect, but upstream the decision will reduce the number of foreclosures and, likely, to increase lenders' willingness to restructure loans.

Gee, I wonder why he doesn't go there

I hear that Mississippi Republicans are angry that President Obama will not be visiting their state when he goes to survey the recovery from Hurricane Katrina in a short visit to New Orleans.

Hmm, now why wouldn't he want to go to a state that gave him the smallest percentage of the vote of any of the states last year?

Is this the message they wanted to send?

Walking by the Kenneth Cole shop on Newbury Street in Boston I noticed a fabric panel that is the only window decoration. Repeated in shades of gray and black is the message, "You'll be on a video camera more than 20 times today. Are you dressed for it?"

Is that really what they want to say? Maybe not. My first answer to the question was, "Guess I better buy a hoodie and a ski mask."

Monday, October 12, 2009

A worthy goal

Here's a thought: The most important challenge in peacemaking might not be the Middle East, but the conflict between India and Pakistan.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The real lesson of Vietnam

The conventional wisdom--indeed, the virtually unchallenged view--is that the US lost the Vietnam war. Permit me to differ: In grand strategic terms, the United States achieved its goal in Vietnam.

Dubious? If you think about it, what was the reason for the United States to get involved in Southeast Asia? It was more than denying South Vietnam to the Communists. The object was to keep South and Southeast Asia from being dominated by forces hostile to American interests--at the time, that meant Communists.

That goal may seem outmoded, even quaint today, but at the time it made good sense. The idea of an aggressive Communist movement that sought to control Southeast Asia was not just the currency of American ideologues. It was espoused by Communists themselves. Though largely forgotten, in the 1960's, Mao and his acolytes preached an aggressive form of Communism that sought to march across the Southeast Asian littoral, jump the straits of Malacca and control the Indonesian archipelago.

Could that have happened? In September 1965, there was an attempted pro-Communist coup in Indonesia. The army reacted with an anti-Communist offensive that essentially wiped out the Communist Party of Indonesia (and killed perhaps 200,000 Indonesian Chinese). At the time, I was a college junior, and was taking a course on the politics of Southeast Asia with Prof. Donald Hindley, whose specialty was the Communist Party of Indonesia. (His work on the subject--which quickly became of mainly historical interest in the early fall of 1965, is still available on Amazon.) Hindley, an Australian, was no particular friend of US involvement in Vietnam, but he declared that if American forces had not been involved there, the Indonesian army would have sided with the plotters--in essence, that the island nation would have been dominated by the Communists.

The ideal of an international Communist movement that would in its terms liberate the people of South and Southeast Asia remained current following the setback in Indonesia. For one thing the idea of an international movement appealed to a set of allies who would have been far less involved had the struggle involved only over Vietnam. In the 1960s, there were skirmishes along the Indian-Chinese border, and movements in Burma, Thailand and the Philippines that were anti-American (or, in their terms, anti-imperialist) and pro-Communist. (The Philippines had fought a Communist insurrection in the 1950's; it continued at a lower level into the next decade.)

Ultimately, as we know, Communist forces prevailed throughout Indochina: South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In large part, that was due to forces over which the United States had little control, principally the failure of the South Vietnamese to erect a regime that could offer a sufficient counterweight to the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies. Yet the end of the Vietnamese War in 1975 was the end of armed conflict in Southeast Asia for thirty years, until the Islamist violence of the Twenty-First Century. Communism never expanded further.

What happened? There is no simple explanation; the Communist attempt to undermine the Thai establishment faced substantial cultural and economic obstacles. The slogan, "Peace, land and bread" that worked so well in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia had little appeal to the Thais, who had all three. Similarly, Burmese--beset by their own problems--never took up the Communist cause in great numbers, and Chinese attitudes toward ethnic rebels in the north of Burma did not help the Communist causes.

But one factor was time: the Communist regimes of 1975 were not the same as the ones that had preached world revolution in 1965 and 1966. Nixon's trip to China signaled and intensified that nation's move into the world community. By the time that Nixon's plane touched down in Beijing, the stresses of China's alliance with North Vietnam had exacerbated traditional frictions and suspicions between the two peoples. The burden of ten years of war against the Americans, following shortly after almost a decade of combat against the French had sapped North Vietnam's appetite for conquest. Conflicts among Indochinese Communists also surfaced; it was the Vietnamese that overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. And the failures of the Communist model were becoming more apparent.

That is the true lesson of Vietnam: Things change. The passage of time leads to situational change, and such change justifies, or even demands, reassessment of the situation.

Changes over time are not always favorable. The South Vietnamese government's inability to become more efficient and responsive contributed mightily to its collapse. The failure to acknowledge that led to the death and wounding of thousands of Americans. At the same time, as suggested above, larger shifts worked in favor of America's larger interests.

The point is, it is vital to recognize and acknowledge that time does bring changes.

And that is one of the prime failures of American policy in Afghanistan. The war being fought now is not the war that we entered eight years ago. Then, we were supporting an apparently beleaguered Northern Alliance against a Taliban that dominated all but a small corner of the country and provided a unique safe base for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Now we support a corrupt narco-state that battles a movement based at least as much on tribal loyalty, selfish interest and opposition to the corruption in Kabul as upon Islam. Al Qaeda has several other safe areas in which to organize and train, and its main base is universally acknowledged to be in Pakistan.

(We should also note that the first Afghan campaign did not involve American combat troops on the ground, but special forces operatives and air support for the Northern Alliance; the collapse of the Taliban did not result from an American invasion, but from mainly homegrown opposition.)

True, the Taliban remains a brutal movement, but not more so than the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, the Janjaweed in Darfur or any number of other movements that seek victory through untamed violence and terror. If we don't send combat troops in against those agents of death, why do we continue to battle in Afghanistan?

Perhaps the best answer to that question is that we need to continue fighting the Taliban, because it is spearheading an assault on the Pakistani state, and we cannot afford to have that nuclear-armed power become a fundamentalist Islamic nation. (There is little danger that Pakistan would actually fall to the Taliban and its armies, but it could disintegrate to the point that the security of its nuclear weapons and facilities would be seriously compromised.) There is also the fact that, having made a commitment to the people of Afghanistan--at least the ones who actively or nominally support us--we cannot abandon our role in the nation without substantial damage to our position around the world.

But if we know what we are fighting against in Afghanistan, what are we fighting for? The Times had an article about Joe Biden's change of heart over the war in which he recognizes how matters have shifted. An enthusiastic supporter in 2001, he has come to realize that the government in Kabul has lost most of its claim to our support. Tom Friedman, who still has not acknowledged his error over Iraq, nonetheless gets it just right on the hollowness of the Afghan regime, and the impossibility of succeeding there if the government does not reverse course at once:
I am not sure Washington fully understands just how much the Taliban-led insurgency is increasingly an insurrection against the behavior of the Karzai government — not against the religion or civilization of its international partners. And too many Afghan people now blame us for installing and maintaining this government.
(We should also be aware of the danger that we are failing in Afghanistan because we do not recognize that the Afghan people do not have our standards and may not want to be governed by them. What to us is simple corruption may be tribal loyalty to those involved. Narcotics trafficking--increasingly seen as a menace in the country, as more Afghans become addicted--is based on the need to survive in a harsh agricultural environment. A centralized army is not congruent with Afghans' tradition of dispersed fighting forces. And parliamentary democracy is not necessarily a comfortable fit in Central Asia.)

Yet we should also recognize that the changes time has brought have not all been in one direction. Unlike 2001--and due in large measure to the incompetence of the Bush administration, Pakistan is now a central front, perhaps the central front, in the war against the Taliban-al Qaeda alliance; there are many more al Qaeda operatives in that country than there are in Afghanistan. So far as al Qaeda is concerned, it need not rely on Afghanistan or Pakistan for a secure base, as Somalia and Yemen also provide opportunities for the network to operate with little or no interference.

At the same time, the appeal of al Qaeda shows signs of weakening among Muslims, all too many of whom have been its victims. Any campaign based on suicide bombing consumes its adherents and is bound to fail. More important, moderate Muslims are finding their voices to oppose the extremism of al Qaeda and its ilk. This is entirely expectable; militant fundamentalist movements typically have a limited life. The war on the West that made bin Laden and his disciples world figures is proving an insufficient attraction to make their extreme strand of Sunni Islam dominant, and so more and more of the movement's energies are aimed at their fellow adherents.

What, then should we do in the theater named Pak-Af (or Af-Pak)? I could easily pontificate (see above), but I do not pretend to have the answers. Well, I do pretend to have the answers, but I am sufficiently aware of the limitations of my knowledge not to post them here. However, it is clear that on the military and political fronts we need major changes in the Afghan government, and that without them sending additional troops will be useless if not actually harmful. Americans tend to prescribe the changes that should be made in the Afghan government (rooting out corruption is high on the list), but we should consider whether we are taking a realistic view of the way that Afghans view government and the state. Trying to build a western-style democracy may be almost as much of an invasion as sending in troops. We should consider whether we cannot induce reform that Afghans will find familiar and comfortable. Rebuilding the nation's infrastructure is also vital, as well as a fine means to "win the hearts and minds" of the Afghan people. Or at least to convince them to support our friends by giving them jobs and thus a stake in the government. Here again, the use of foreign contractors may well the counter-productive. Wherever possible, Afghans should be employed in the building of their nation.

Above all, modesty and honest are called for. We must understand and acknowledge that we cannot "save" Afghanistan. We should admit that we pursue our interests in Afghanistan, and that those interests may not always be seen as the same as those of the Afghan people. We should declare that our goal is to prevent our enemies from having free rein to attack us. Above all, we should make it clear that we have no interest in permanent bases in or permanent occupation of Afghanistan, but rather that we look forward to the day when that nation can stand on its own. If we do that, we have a good chance to join the growing tide of anti-extremist Muslims to contain and neutralize those who want to harm us. That is all we can hope for.

Friday, October 09, 2009

What planet does he live on?

A couple of days ago, the Supreme Court heard arguments on a huge cross that stands on federal land in the Mojave Desert. Most of the justices seem to have concentrated on the somewhat abstruse question of an attempt to transfer the land on which the cross is located in order to avoid the effect of a court decision declaring the monument to violate the First Amendment. But not Antonin Scalia. He went right after the question of whether putting up a religious symbol on federal property violates the Constitution's ban on establishing religion. When a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Foundation suggested that Jewish veterans would not wish to be honored by a cross, the Oracle of the Right observed, "The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead."

Huh? Or, perhaps, "Duh, uh." Or even, as we used to say in my family, "What does that have to do with the price of hog bristle in Ethiopia?"

Yes, Mr. Justice, the cross is the most common symbol in cemeteries in the United States. Most Americans are at least nominally Christian. That was true when the First Amendment was written; indeed, it was more true then, when there were far fewer Jews and virtually no Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Confucianists, Baha'is or other adherents of minority religions than there are today. But that did not stop the Founding Fathers from stating that the federal government shall not establish religion. What part of that did you miss, Mr. Justice?

Obama the unifier

His critics--having nothing constructive to offer--criticize the award of the Nobel Peace Price to President Obama, but those who say he has not done enough to warrant the honor fail to note that he has, after less than a year in the Oval Office, succeeded in unifying widely disparate groups. The American Right and the Taliban, for instance. How many people could do that?

As Jim Farley said of an earlier Democratic President, "We love him for the enemies he has made."

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The view from Paris, II

That's Notre Dame, my favorite church, in the background, from the Square R. Viviani--where the modernist sculpture and front right resides.

You don't have to be Catholic--or even Christian, to love Notre Dame.

Memo to General McChrystal

Last week, General Stanley McChrystal, our top officer in Afghanistan, was quoted as saying that he could not support a scaled-down American effort that would focus on hunting down al Qaeda operatives with missiles and special forces troops.

Memo to General McChrystal: When the President, the Commander-in-Chief, says: "Jump," your only response is, "Yes, sir. How high?"

George W. Bush greatly overstated the commander-in-chief's responsibilities and authority, but we do have civilian control over the military and that ought to mean that serving officers make their views known freely to the President and the Secretary of Defense, but that they not speak their personal views about military issues to the public at large. Indeed, even their communications with Congress concerning defense policy should be heavily circumscribed.

There has been a regrettable tendency for high-ranking officers to speak out on matters that should be kept in the chain of command. Testimony before Congress, interviews and speeches such as General McChrystal's last week have become means for commanders to influence defense policy. That may sometimes be seen as a victory for democracy, but it is inimical to a rational command structure and, by undercutting presidential authority, gives the military more power than it should have. That may be a hard argument for liberals to support after eight years of George W. Bush, but it the problem there was not the command structure but the American people's choice (well, the Supreme Court's choice in 2000) for President.

If President Obama decides--as he should--to cut back or at least not increase the number of troops in Afghanistan, General McChrystal's option is to resign. Then, once he is a civilian, he can criticize the administration to his heart's content. I hope that's one of the messages that the President delivered to the General when the two of them met on Air Force One on Thursday.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The view from Walter Cronkite

My lovely and courageous daughter Hillary favored me with Walter Cronkite's informal autobiography, A Reporter's Life for my birthday, and I brought it along on our trip. It's a lot of fun if at times ahistorical: Cronkite expresses astonishment that Hitler trusted Stalin in the Nazi-Soviet pact (why is it not the German-Soviet pact or the Nazi-Communist pact?) of 1939, which allowed Germany room to start WWII, when it was Stalin who was the trusting one, right up until Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941; Cronkite also suggests that the US breaking of the Japanese code provided advance warning of the Pearl Harbor attack--my reading suggests that the Japanese maintained almost complete radio silence about the mission and that American intelligence, though believing an attack on American possessions to be likely in early December 1941, had no firm data showing a raid on the Hawaiian Islands.

These lapses notwithstanding, many of Cronkite's insights cast light on details of our national life from the 1940's forward.

"Cut short as it was, the Kennedy administration left little that was noteworthy for the history books, but his charm, his style--personal and political--and his rhetoric captured the hearts and the imaginations of a generation of Americans to a degree unmatched by any other occupant of the White House in this century [the book came out in 1996], and I'm not forgetting the great popularity of the Roosevelts, Franklin and Theodore."

To which I would add that the great achievement of Kennedy was to build on the growing frustration that followed the passivity of Americans after WWII to inspire great things like the Peace Corps, capitalize on and advance the Civil Rights movement, and lead to the cultural phenomenon that was the '60's. Kennedy's inspiration permitted not only the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but also set the stage for something that was not, as far as I know, thought of during this life: Lyndon Johnson's tragically short War on Poverty. Although that effort was the idea of LBJ, without the acceptance of activist government that his predecessor advanced, the attempt to eradicate poverty would never have got started. And even in our time, Barack Obama profited from the memory of those of us who remember JFK; many times when canvassing, I told voters that Obama reminded me of no political leader since Kennedy, to be met with a nod or knowing smile.

Another interesting observation:

"Dwight Eisenhower expressed to me his total frustration in dealing with the government bureaucracy. He was appalled that his direct orders had a way of disappearing into thin air without action ever being taken."

This comment is surprising, because it exactly confirms what Harry Truman said during the transition from his administration to Eisenhower's: "Poor Ike. He's going to sit here and issue orders, and then wonder why nothing happens."

More from an American in Paris (for too short a time) later.

The view from Paris

The lovely Diane and I are in Paris for the next week, so here's the view:

As I have my notebook (from which I write this), I'm getting my news from the States, so my world view may be more from home than here. But Paris is still a great place to be.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Confusion? What confusion?

A standard meme in the MSM is that Americans are confused over the health care debate. Another is that support for the public option has weakened. Uhm, no. A CBS News/NYTimes poll asked,

Would you favor or oppose the government offering everyone a government administered health insurance plan--something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and over get--that would compete with private health insurance plans?

Those in favor: 65%
Opposed 26%

And, those figures have not changed much since July, and even in June (when the "debate" was just getting underway), were not all that different.

So, maybe the confusion is over why the media is saying that support for a public option has weakened, and over why "Medicare for all" is not on the table.

Oh, and maybe people are also wondering why the MSM is not reporting the feelings of the American people.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

When they talk about sportsmanship

and about how you play the game being the most important thing, this is what they mean.

America unsafe!

Incredible but true department: There's a shortage of bullets in the go0d, old, US of A! How can Congress be wasting time on small issues like healthcare and climate change when there aren't enough bullets to put in our guns? Where's their sense of priorities?

Years ago, my brother suggested that we control the size of the magazines in guns: no law-abiding citizen needs more than 4 bullets. And the comedian Chris Rock has a great routine about how we should make the cost of bullets prohibitive.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What does "lose" mean?

General McChrystal is warning that without more troops, we could lose the war in Afghanistan.

Many acute observers have observed that no one seems to know what victory in Afghanistan would look like, but has anyone defined defeat in that war? Clearly, the present NATO forces--even much reduced forces--can prevent the Taliban from establishing a regime in Kabul. Indeed, western forces can deny the enemy control over any of Afghanistan's major cities. What, then, would it take for the Taliban to win and for us to lose?

The most likely outcome in Afghanistan is probably no "outcome" at all--that is, a prolonged standoff. Frustrating (and potentially expensive) as that might be, it might not be a bad result. If history is a guide, the wave of Muslim fundamentalism will crest (indeed, may already have crested) and then recede. Then will the extremism of al Qaeda and its ilk weaken and its natural opposition, moderate Islam, regain authority. If the west exercises sagacity, and is able to edge Afghans along toward a government that has some relationship with its people beyond treating them as cattle and victims, those developments might lead, in the long run, to a return to the kind of nation that Afghanistan was before the convulsions of the past thirty years.

Culture shift?

From today's NYT:
“There is so much talk of primarying Chuck Grassley now,” a well-known conservative, Bill Salier, said on an Iowa radio show. The senator’s seniority means “absolutely bupkis if what you do with that power is work with Max Baucus to try to advance socialized medicine.”
Bupkis? Bupkis from an Iowa conservative? Why do I think that Mr. Salier doesn't know that bupkis is Yiddish for nothing?

Or maybe this is 21st Century America. After all, you can get a bagel (though not a good bagel) in all corners of the country.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Why I love Joe Biden

Yeah, he's often a loose canon, but I love Joe Biden, because he always speaks from the heart and with less calculation than any politician I've seen in a long time. Here's his take on the GOPhers strategy for 2010, as he related it to a fundraiser in Arizona:
It's not that Republicans are bad guys. This is just the bet they've made. They're going to put their chips on movement in the 35 seats in the House that have been traditionally Republican districts and trying to take them back.

If they take them back, this the end of the road for what Barack and I are trying to do. This is their one shot. If they don't break the back of our effort in this upcoming election, you're going to see the things we said we're for happen.
OK, troops, you have your marching orders.

(By the way, I love that he uses the President's first name. He's done it before so I don't think the White House has been all over him to always say "the President." It's great to see the person in the Oval Office be humanized, even just a little bit.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Random thought

I was in the "natural food" section of our local supermarket, where I noticed a lot of "gluten-free" foods.

What I need--and what I think would sell better--would be a line of "glutton-free" foods.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


The answer to our question is 7. Seven Republicans crossed over to vote for the resolution rebuking Joe Wilson (R-CSA) for heckling President Obama last week. They included Bob Inglis, a fellow South Carolinian, Joseph Cao of Louisiana and Walter Jones of North Carolina.

What's more surprising is the list of Democrats who voted no, which included Bill Delahunt (MA), Dennis Kucinich (OH) and Jim McDermott (WA), pillars of liberalism. And five Democrats, including my own Barney Frank and Elliot Engel of New York voted present. Obviously, the division over the resolution was more complicated in the House than it appeared in the media.


House Democrats will introduce a "resolution of disapproval," citing Joe Wilson (R-CSA) for calling President Obama a liar during the President's speech last week. (Such a resolution would be less serious than formal censure.)

Astoundingly--at least I think it will astound anyone who has read at all about the history of the House and Senate--this has become a partisan issue. Wilson has said he won't apologize to the House, in the well of the House, as is traditional when a member transgresses the customs of the body. Apparently, the Republican leadership thinks it can win points by approving of his boorishness.

Then again, why should we be surprised?

It will be interesting to see if any Republicans break ranks on this one, taking the decorum of the body to be more important than partisanship.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Who are we for?

There's no problem telling what we're against in Afghanistan, but what are we for? There was a long time when we might have said the Afghan government, perhaps more as an expression of a developing Afghan polity than the specific regime, so it might have been better to express it as support for the constitution. But that time has passed. So, what is there left for us to support? I don't see it. If you can think of something, please let me know.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Public be damned

Dahlia Lithwick on the argument about limits on corporate political speech before the Supreme Court yesterday.

Am I the only one who thinks that the right-wing justices want to reverse the 2008 election?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Cat blogging

My friend the Lighthousekeeper, reminds me that we haven't done cat blogging for a long time. So, here's Miah with Feather, her favorite toy.

(c) Jonathan J. Margolis, 2009, all rights reservcd.

The moral imperative

In his speech tonight, will the President change the terms of the debate by making the case that healthcare is a moral issue, not an economic one?

Now you tell us

Sheryl Gay Stolberg in today's NYT:
While the month of August clearly knocked the White House back on its heels, as Congressional town hall-style meeting exposed Americans' unease with an overhaul, the uproar does not seem to have greatly altered public opinion or substantially weakened Democrats' resolve.
Funny, that's not what we've been hearing for the last month.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

More socialism!

Some pretty subversive stuff:
Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if Labor had not first existed. Labor is superior to capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

Abraham Lincoln


From President' Obama's speech to schoolchildren this morning:
Now I’ve given a lot of speeches about education. And I’ve talked a lot about responsibility.
I’ve talked about your teachers’ responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn.
I’ve talked about your parents’ responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don’t spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox.
I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.
But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.
And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.
Subversive, right?

The President's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said that the Right's attack on the speech was part of "the silly season." Mild ridicule isn't going to work with these people and, more important, it isn't going to work with the mainstream media, which follows the false grail of "balance," and acts as conduits and enablers for Fox and its allies.

It's time for Mr. Obama and his people to take on the dissemblers on the Right, to call them out for the liars and hypocrites that they are, and to drive a wedge between the wingnuts and the "respectable" members of the Republican Party for whom politics is only about power and not at all about what is good for the country.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Afghan mess

In 2001, when the vast majority of Americans supported a war in Afghanistan, I had my doubts. Unlike most US citizens, I knew a little of Afghan history--not enough to speak with any authority, but enough to know that Afghanistan had been a graveyard of armies and the end of many colonial ambitions. Aside from the Soviet failure in the 1980's, I had read of the First Afghan War, in which a British army occupied Kabul but was forced to retreat to India; only about forty men made it back to a British garrison. I was, therefore, gratified when the Taliban regime collapsed with hardly a push from western forces, to seeming jubilation among most Afghans. From what I saw early on, Hamid Karzai seemed like an inspired choice to lead the nation; in this view I was undoubtedly influenced by his having living in the US for some years and having a number of siblings--one of whom had an Afghan restaurant that I had visited several times--also in the US. And word of other members of the Afghan intelligentsia and political class returning from the west seemed to open a window of hope.

Last year, I agreed with Barack Obama when he argued that Iraq was a war of choice and Afghanistan a war of necessity. Afghanistan, after all, was where al Qaeda had based in 2001, and its agents were still centered close to the Afghan-Pakistan border.

But things had changed by then, and they have changed more since, and the changes have not been good.

Indeed, just now we are faced with what, to us liberals, is an almost unimaginable situation: from present indications, the unnecessary, imperialistic war in Iraq is likely to have a better outcome than the justified conflict in Afghanistan.

What happened? Principally, we lost the battle of time. As is widely known, due to Bush's bungling and incompetence, we let bin Laden and his minions escape from a trap at Tora Bora, to escape to Pakistan. The US was then unwilling or unable to get the Pakistanis to round up the remnants of al Qaeda before they could reorganize, and remnants of their Taliban allies were allowed to obtain safe haven across the virtually invisible border. To the apparent surprise of American officials--and those in the Afghan government, apparently--the Taliban did not accept their defeat or even marginalization, but started a new struggle to return to power. For a long time, American and Afghan officials compounded their errors by all but ignoring the new insurgency.

The Taliban could not have revived their threat had the Afghan government showed minimal competence. It would have helped had the Bush administration kept its focus on Afghanistan and supplied copious amounts of development aid and attention to the development of an effective civil society. None of that happened, of course. Hundreds of billions of dollars went to Iraq and relatively little to Afghanistan. The early promise of 2001-02 faded. The Afghan regime failed to develop into an effective government; instead it descended into factionalism (not surprising given the country's intense tribalism) and corruption. Karzai, whom I had described as a treasure, turned out to be weak in developing a modern system and, although he may not be personally corrupt, increasingly tolerant of corruption among those around him.

So we have come to the point where the Taliban are resurgent and the US-backed government in Kabul an ineffective representative of tribal factions who are mainly motivated by profit and personal advantage. The last straw was the presidential election, in which rampant corruption overshadowed all else; although Karzai was expected to lead the first round, the wholesale vote stealing has robbed him of any legitimacy among those who do not support him (and probably among many who do). (A vision of what might have been came in some of the lower-ranked candidates--members of the political and educational elite--who stood for real reform and whose candidacies were motivated by patriotism rather than individual interest.)

Where to go from here? Tom Friedman says that General McChrystal's new plan for Afghanistan
involves additional troops to create something that does not now exist there — a reasonably noncorrupt Afghan state that will serve its people and partner with America in keeping Afghanistan free of drug lords, warlords, the Taliban and Al Qaeda. His plan calls for clearing areas of Taliban control, holding those areas and then building effective local, district and provincial governments — along with a bigger army, real courts, police and public services.
If Friedman is right, the general is calling for the United States to replace the Afghan government in a substantial portion of the country--the portion in which the Taliban is strongest. Perhaps that would work, but it sounds like old-fashioned colonialism to me, and it didn't work in Afghanistan even when colonialism was in fashion. (Friedman does not subscribe to McChrystal's plan; he properly notes that it is such a substantial change in direction that it deserves a thorough debate.)

On the other side of the Times editorial page, Nicholas Kristoff describes "The Afghanistan (sic) Abyss." He relates the concerns of a group of American security and intelligence professionals with experience in Afghanistan (one the former CIA station chief in Kabul) who believe that we are heading for disaster. As these experts say, in a statement,
Our policy makers do not understand that the very presence of our forces in the Pashtun areas is the problem. The more troops we put in, the greater the opposition. We do not mitigate the opposition by increasing troop levels, but rather we increase the opposition and prove to the Pashtuns that the Taliban are correct.
Kristoff's sources have much the better of the argument. Their logic not only accords with normal human experience, but particularly with Afghan experience.

Kristoff suggests not a precipitous withdrawal, but a lighter footprint: "[T]raining the Afghan forces and helping them hold major cities, and ensuring that Al Qaeda does not regroup. We must also invest more in education and agriculture development, for that is a way over time to peel Pashtuns away from the Taliban."

Such a change in policy would encounter ferocious resistance from the American right, even though George Will has said that we should simply withdraw from Afghanistan. The Republicans would undoubtedly smell blood in a chance to paint Obama as a wimp. It would require real political courage for the President to choose a course that would give the GOPhers such an opportunity.

Let's take a moment to think about what would happen if the US were to pull back in Afghanistan. We can keep the Taliban from controlling Kabul and the other major cities. We can give the Afghans a chance to build their own nation, free from Islamic radicalism. (Afghans traditionally followed moderate forms of their religion.) Our commitment, at a much lower level than it is now, would have to be long, and the eventual outcome highly uncertain; there is a high probability that the Afghans cannot, and perhaps do not want, what we consider an effective civil society.

On the other hand, what if we were to win in Afghanistan--whatever "winning" means? Would we eliminate the threat from al Qaeda that led us into the country to being with? No. Bin Laden and his cohorts have ong since moved on, and their movement has metastasized. In other words, we cannot achieve our original war aim. Is there, then, another goal that justifies a massive further investment of our blood and treasure? If you see one, let me know, because I don't.

(I'm going to stop here, even though I have hardly mentioned the threat and problem of Pakistan, which poses a much greater danger, and perhaps a greater challenge, than Afghanistan.)

Like a bad movie

You-Can't-Make-This-Stuff-Up Dept.

From Kevin Drum: "When the fire chief of Jericho, Arkansas, finally got fed up and went to court a few days ago to challenge his second traffic ticket in as many days, the town's entire 7-man police force showed up for the hearing. And then shot him."

The AP story that was the basis for Drum's post has this delicious quote: "You can't even get them to answer a call because normally they're writing tickets." What makes the statement even better is that it does not come from some disgruntled civilian, but from the chief investigator of the county sheriff's department.

You'll be glad to know that the town's entire police force has been fired and the local judge has resigned. But they're still looking for the receipts from all tickets that were written.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Follow me!

We've added a Follower gadget. Just go down to the bottom of the page and hit the Follower button!

What are we doing?

The Times reports on blatant fraud in the Afghan election--a district where no one voted, but almost 24,000 votes were delivered (literally) for Hamid Karzai. CBS says that the Taliban is taking a significant part of American reconstruction aid, through an office that they run in Kabul itself.

So, why are we in Afghanistan? Allegedly, to prevent the Taliban, who pose no threat to the US and have never posed a threat to the US, from taking over the country. Because the Taliban are allies and protectors of al Qaeda. But with Somalia still lacking any semblance of government, and Yemen in danger of falling apart completely, and Pakistan sheltering the terrorist network's leadership, how important is Afghanistan? More to the point, how much longer can we ask our servicemen and women to risk death and disfigurement on behalf of a regime that can't or won't see beyond the hand held out for a bribe?

Why not maintain just enough troops and planes in Afghanistan to keep the Taliban from a complete victory while we wait to see if the Afghans can build some semblance of a state?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Hard to believe

World War II started 70 years ago today, when Germany invaded Poland.

How much things have changed since then, and how little.

Blowing his own horn

A group of very nice letters about Ted Kennedy in today's Times, one of them by a person very close to my heart.


Today is the first day of meteorological fall.


Monday, August 31, 2009

Give me back my Tea Party

We've been seeing and hearing a great deal about "tea parties"--gatherings of citizens who are mad as hell and not going to take it any more. With its typical lack of critical analysis, the mass media have omitted to point out that the self-described tea partiers are the antithesis of the Americans who took to the streets of Boston on the night of December 17, 1773.

Those who carried out that first Tea Party were not protesting against government, or even against taxation. They were agitating for democracy. They did not cry "No taxation!" but "No taxation without representation!" They stood for principle--representative government--not policy.

Those who are protesting now are not arguing for democracy. Indeed, they argue against the results of democracy. For these are the people who lost in 2008. Their complaint is not that they have been deprived of representative government, but that they are in the minority. They object not to a lack of freedom, but to the result of free choice. They are perfectly entitled to their anger and to protest, but they are not the true descendants of the patriots in Boston that winter night in 1773.

Health care insanity

Not enough attention has been paid to the astounding irrationalities of our healthcare system. Consider:

I read recently about a woman who, suffering from aggressive cancer, went into a clinical study for a new treatment. The trial was so successful that it was stopped before it's scheduled end. The woman in question could afford the new drug's cost, but some in the trial had to exhaust their resources to pay for treatment, and some could not afford full treatment.

Think of this: In the United State, you can die if you participate in a drug trial that is too successful.

Another example: The lovely Diane and I picked up dental insurance, even though the maximum benefit is only twice the annual premium. Why would we make such a financial commitment? Because my dentist's office manager pointed out that the dentist charges the insurance company less than he would charge me if I do not have insurance. And even if we have to pay the balance--because the insurer pays less than the amount charged--we'll pay less than we would have without insurance, and so the real value of the insurance is much greater than appears.

So, there you have it: we have a system that charges those who have too little to afford insurance more than those who are insured.


A place in history

In all of the weekend's remembrances of Ted Kennedy, Chris Dodd's comment stood out:

"John F. Kennedy inspired our America. Robert F. Kennedy challenged our America. Ted Kennedy changed America."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Saying goodbye

A few minutes ago, I left my office and went down to the street outside to watch as Sen. Kennedy's cortege went by. It was a short procession and moving rather rapidly for such an event in the city's streets. Fortunately, the sidewalk in front of my building was not heavily packed, so I was able to stand at the curb and get a glimpse of the hearse, flag-draped coffin inside, and the cars and a bus holding the family that followed. The Kennedy family graciously had the windows down in the cars, so that they were able to sense the affection, even love, of those on the street. As the procession--still out of my line of sight--approached the corner of Court and Tremont Streets, the people who could see it began to applaud, and I found myself joining in. And so we said goodbye to Ted with a soft patter of hands.

They are saying on television that it is the end of Camelot, that never again will the Kennedy Compound in Hyannisport be the center of a major news event. Very likely, that is true--that this is the final act of the Kennedy family as the closest thing that we have had to royalty. Yet I prefer to think of the things that the family has done: the civil rights, immigration, labor and healthcare legislation that they were instrumental in bringing to reality, the Special Olympics, and above all the spirit of citizenship, service and friendliness that characterized, and still characterizes them.


Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R, KS) says the GOPhers are looking for a "Great White Hope."


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Brother Who Mattered Most

Richard Lacayo of Time on Ted Kennedy, "the Brother Who Mattered Most." "[A]s the Romans understood, there can be Emperors of no consequence - and Senators whose legacies are carved in stone."


For all those whose cares have been our

concern, the work goes on, the cause endures,

the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

I never really thought the cancer would get him. He was Ted Kennedy, after all, and it was merely cancer. I guess larger than life wasn't large enough in the end.

Perhaps other nations think of legislators the way we revere some few of our senators, but it seems unlikely. Ted Kennedy walked in the shoes of Webster, Clay and Calhoun and perhaps a few others; Hubert Humphrey comes to my mind. He did things for people--ordinary people. (I was tempted to write, "people very different from himself," but from what I know of him--and I never met the man--I don't think he saw himself as different from the rest of us.) He was great in his accomplishments and great in his heart. He started from a privileged background, but had many obstacles to overcome, some of his own making, to become the giant we think of today.

We'll miss you, Ted.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

They just don't learn

From the NYT:
President Hamid Karzai seems poised to declare an overwhelming victory in Afghanistan’s hotly contested presidential election, even as allegations of fraud by his main opponent threaten to undermine the credibility of the vote.

The president’s finance minister, Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, claimed Monday that Mr. Karzai had garnered 68 percent of ballots in Thursday’s election, quoting figures from election officials that he said had been provided to the cabinet.Such a showing would make a second round of voting unnecessary.
Apparently, they imported vote-counters from Iran.

How dumb do they think we are? How dumb do they think the Afghan people--that is, the ones who haven't written off the government entirely--are?

Just yesterday we heard reports that the western military commanders in Afghanistan are preparing to ask for more troops. As regular readers will recall, this page has long supported the Afghan war as necessary or at least justified. But in the end, as everyone recognizes, the Taliban and their terrorist allies (which allies are the reason we are in this, and the only justification for putting American and other NATO troops in among the warring parties) can only be defeated by the Afghans. If the Afghan people do not reject the Taliban, the country will only be a graveyard for foreign troops.

And it should go without saying that the only way that the people of Afghanistan will back the central government is if it presents something worth supporting. That means, as a first step. making serious inroads on corruption, cronyism and incompetence.

Apparently, there is no appetite for serious reform in the Afghan government. It's time for the US to tell Karzai (whom I welcomed early in his term) some home truths: that if he and those around him are not going to get on the stick and put the welfare of the nation above their own fortunes, the US will leave him and his cronies to their just desserts. As a first step in that lesson, no more troops until government improves.

Update: According to AP, fragmentary official returns give Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah (the former foreign minister) about 40% each. Returns are to be reported over the next few days.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Keeping our eyes on the ball

I heard someone (I think it was a Republican officeholder) say that we all agree that we want everyone to have health insurance.

Isn't what we REALLY want (or ought to want) if for everyone to have health care?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The surprise

It strikes me that the big surprise about the Republicans is how stubborn they are. They lost control of Congress in 2006. They lost the White House and got scalded in congressional races in 2008. Yet they maintain the same lock-step, hard-right, ideologically-driven attitude that got them where they are today. They are like Fouche's description of the Bourbon kings of France: "They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. That can't be smart, or good politics.

Democrats, from the White House down, should remember that. Bipartisanship is fine, but it takes two to tango. If the GOPhers can't remember that they are very much in the minority, and negotiate in good faith from that position, forget them. Why hold progressive policies hostage to the troglodyte faction? Let the Grand Old Party slide further into irrelevance while the nation marches forward.

Barney Frank takes on the health care Nazis


(It's been all over TV and the 'net, but I couldn't resist putting it here in case you haven't seen it.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

A disgrace

The news media report that oldsters are angry. Specifically, they are angry about healthcare reform.

Now you might think that people who have benefited from Medicare would be up in arms at the idea that people would try to deprive other Americans of the high-quality that older citizens enjoy. And I'm sure that many seniors are making that point. But, at least according to what we read, it seems that most of these angry oldsters are outraged at the idea that the benefits of government-administered health care may be extended to younger citizens.

I suppose that I should not be surprised that older Americans show the same narrowness, ignorance and selfishness that characterize much of the electorate, but it is disheartening to realize that so many of them seem to have successfully resisted learning the lessons of their experience.

The best argument

It strikes me that the best argument in favor of healthcare reform with a public option lies in the raucous town halls that we have been seeing spread across our television and computer screens. Yes, there is great ignorance and meretriciousness displayed, but think about this: if there's a problem with Medicare, you can write to your congressman/woman. If enough people feel the same way, or if the situation is egregious enough, changes will be made. That's politics: even the most entrenched representative ultimately has to listen to the voters.

Now, try writing to the president of your private health insurer and see where THAT gets you.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Ve vas only folloving orders

On the day that the Obama Administration released for memos from the Department of Justice that justified torture and read like something out of the Nazi archives, the President also announced that no CIA employee will be prosecuted for such crimes as waterboarding, repeatedly dousing prisoners with cold water, depriving detainees of sleep for up to eleven days, or other brutal and degrading acts.

Why no prosecutions? Because the interrogators were following interpretations of the law that were binding on them.

I thought we settled this issue at Nuremburg: it is no defense to say that you followed a lawful order.

And none of the Justice Department memos required the interrogators to torture; they merely offered a fig leaf for practices that the Agency voluntarily carried out.

The President was closer to the mark--although still wrong--when he said, “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”

This was a political decision, taken to avoid prolonging the deep divide between those who believe that what the United States does is, per se, right and those who believe that if we aspire to lead the world, we Americans must show that we really are better than our adversaries.

The Bush Administration subverted the Constitution and traduced our legal traditions. Expiation for the nation's sins is not necessary just to cleanse our consciences, but to help us regain our moral ascendancy over those who have declared themselves our mortal enemies. This, in abjuring prosecution for crimes against humanity, Mr. Obama is not merely wrong morally, he is making a serious political mistake as well. The President should have listened to Dean Acheson.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Not one cent for tribute

Some thoughts on curbing piracy, principally in Somalia, but applicable, I hope, to wherever the scourge is endemic:

As in so many of our problems, the essential question is whether we have the will, not the means. We may not be able to eliminate piracy, but we can surely reduce it to a manageable annoyance if we exercise the will to do so. For instance, one idea that's been bruited about is to go in and clean out the pirate havens on the Somali coast. But whenever that is brought up, someone is sure to murmur, "Blackhawk Down." While the deaths of 18 American soldiers in Mogadishu was an unspeakable tragedy for them and their families, in the scale of war that firefight was a minor engagement. It became a major embarrassment for the United States not because of any intrinsic factors--although it did reveal a want of planning and command response--but because we, principally President Clinton, permitted it to become so.

Fortunately, we can probably curb pirates around the Horn of Africa without having to go ashore. Here are a few approaches:

It's not just business: Stop permitting shipping companies and insurers (or anyone else) to pay ransom for ships and crews. The problem goes beyond the individuals and the ships involved. Misplaced feelings of sympathy, and the desire for corporate profit, only make things worse. If shipping companies, their agents or insurers pay ransom, provide that the ships in question will be forfeited and sold, with cargo, in a prize court. Shippers and insurers will try to find third-party fronts so that they can keep paying ransoms--it's cheaper and easier than resisting--so efforts will have to be made to keep them from getting away with that.

Convoys: Convoys worked in both World Wars and they would work off Somalia. True, they would be inconvenient, as ships would have to wait for the convoy to assemble and then travel at the speed of the slowest vessel. On the other hand, given the nature of the threat and today's military technology, escorts could offer almost complete protection. Fortunately, convoys through the seas off Somalia would not have to be as large as those in the Atlantic during WWII, because they get much more complex as the number of ships grows.

Guards on Shipboard: We should have squads of Marines and/or sailors on board vessels traveling through the threatened areas. Think of 12 to 15 men (and possibly women) armed with a couple of machine guns, some shoulder-fired missiles and assault rifles. Pirates have threatened merchant ships with automatic rifles and RPGs. I think it's safe to say that a TOW missile would do a lot more damage to a pirate skiff than an RPG can do to a 15,000 ton ship. A recent story said that 20,000 ships pass by the Horn of Africa each year. That is a large number, but it comes down to around 55 per day. A few battalions of Marines, stationed on Amphibious Assault Ships, could rotate squad-sized units on and off ships passing through the lower end of the Red Sea, off the Horn of Africa and the southern border of Somalia. Not all ships passing through would have to be given armed guards for them to be a powerful deterrent. This kind of duty, by the way, is exactly what marines have been doing for hundreds of years. It's a lot more in the Marine tradition than slogging through Fallujah or Tora Bora. Other nations that have naval vessels patrolling of Somalia should be asked to contribute to the guard force. (I am resolutely against private armed forces on ships. If there are any core government functions, law enforcement and national defense are among them. Privatization has an even worse record in those areas than in others.)

Broaden the Military Response: The Amphibious Support Ships mentioned above can dominate a large area. They carry helicopters, Harrier aircraft and small seacraft. Unfortunately, the latter have been landing craft, which are relatively slow. For anti-pirate patrols these need to be replaced with fast, maneuverable boats that can match, or even outrun and out maneuver pirate craft. Some of the larger commercially-available RIBs can probably be outfitted with machine guns and in any event can carry sailors or Marines armed with the kind of light weapons that the pirates have. Better would be the kind of high-speed patrol boats that the Coast Guard employs.

Prosecute the Pirates: Pirates captured by US forces should be prosecuted in US courts here in the United States. The prospect of long prison terms in the States would be another strong deterrent to turning pirate, even though the food in our penitentiaries is probably more plentiful and of better quality than what a lot of the pirates are now getting. The French are already prosecuting pirates that they have captured.

Many authorities have pointed out that the real solution to piracy off the Somali coast lies in creating a working state in Somalia. True. But that could take decades. The steps that I have outlined can be taken the next few months, some in just a few weeks. They would be relatively inexpensive (by the standards of military operations), require relatively few resources (though now than we have dedicated now), and would as a side benefit provide valuable experience for the kind of small-unit actions that our military is likely to see a lot more of in the next few years.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

We always knew it

The NYT had an interesting story in its Science section yesterday, pointing out that socially-compelled sharing of resources (i.e. taxation) is not only nearly universal among humans, but also exists in many other social species. As the writer, Natalie Angier, put it, "It turns out that giving up a portion of one’s income for the sake of the tribe is such a ubiquitous feature of the human race that some researchers see it as crucial to our species’ success."

What does this mean? That Republicans are not only bad for the nation, they threaten human existence! Take that, Newt Gingrich.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Did you spot the howler?

Our unplanned hiatus (I've been too busy and/or lazy to post) meant that we did not answer the question in "Can you spot the howler?" Time to catch up.

The passage in question, from Scott Turow's Ordinary Heroes (a book I recommend highly, despite the howler) was:
"The C rations are terrible," she said. "They are the best thing the American Army brought with them." She actually hugged her green pack of Luckys to her breast. "In Vichy, the women were banned from buying cigarettes altogether. Martin says that is why I had no choice but to join the resistance." She laughed at herself.
The key to this is that the action takes place in October 1944. But Lucky Strikes had lost their green packaging in 1942. All Americans who had reached maturity by WWII knew that, because one of the most famous advertising campaigns of the time was, "Lucky Strike Green Has Gone to War!" By 1944, any cigarettes in a green Lucky Strike pack had long since gone stale.