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.