Thursday, December 31, 2009


Everyone has no doubt heard the details of the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to set off an explosive hidden in his underwear. His arrest has reignited the debate about torture and 'enemy combatant' status as well as the usual run of crass political opportunism.

Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, who is currently running for Governor, wasted no time in getting his voice out there. How did he respond to this incident? Was his first action to commend the passengers and crew who subdued the bomber? Was it to tout or even question the way the Homeland Security system reacted to the incident? Nope. He just saw an opportunity for a quick buck. He posted a statement that said, in part:

"There is still a war against the American way of Life; on Christmas morning, it came right here to Detroit. I understand the real and continuing threat radical jihadists pose ... But I need your help! ... Please make a most generous contribution of $25, $50, $100 or even $250 to my campaign. ..."

No, this is not a joke. A sitting US Congressman, running for Governor has used the attempted murder of some 300 Americans as a way to increase his campaign contributions. For this alone I can only hope he loses the election. This is an example of the most base of political actions. It demonstrates that this person cares far more for his own political career than for the people who elected him. In my opinion this is pathetic and unworthy of a member of the US Congress. He should feel shame. Sadly this is just the latest action Congressman Hoekstra has taken which clearly demonstrates his lack of fitness for his elected office. This includes a statement he made after the Ft. Hood shooting, where he appears to have divulged information on a classified surveillance operation in his rush to ensure his name was in the news. And this man is the ranking Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee! It boggles the mind.

As always, please let me know what you think by clicking the Comment link below and leaving your thoughts!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Non-Workings of the US Senate

Here's a great article by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post on how the US Senate works, or rather . . . doesn't. It's an interesting read. Here's an excerpt:

"To understand why the modern legislative process is so bad, why every Senator seems able to demand a king's ransom in return for his or her vote and no bill ever seems to be truly bipartisan, you need to understand one basic fact: The government can function if the minority party has either the incentive to make the majority fail or the power to make the majority fail. It cannot function if it has both.

In decades past, the parties did not feel they had both. Cooperation was the Senate's custom, if not its rule. But in the 1990s, Newt Gingrich, then the minority whip of the House, and Bob Dole, then the minority leader of the Senate, realized they did have both. A strategy of relentless obstruction brought then-president Bill Clinton to his knees, as the minority party discovered it had the tools to make the majority party fail.

Unfortunately, both parties have followed Gingrich's playbook ever since. According to UCLA political scientist Barbara Sinclair, about 8 percent of major bills faced a filibuster in the 1960s. This decade, that jumped to 70 percent. The problem with the minority party continually making the majority party fail, of course, is that it means neither party can ever successfully govern the country."

Full article: After health care, we need Senate reform

As always, please let me know what you think by clicking the Comment link below and leaving your thoughts!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Senate Health Reform Bill in Tatters

The Senate health reform bill has now reached the point, after weeks of debate and compromise, where even some of the biggest supporters of health reform are now calling for it to be scrapped in favor of trying to create something under the less comprehensive Reconciliation process. A few nights ago Howard Dean, a long time reform proponent, finally threw in the towel on support of the Senate Bill, saying that continued attempts to appease conservatives have striped the bill of most of its benefits leaving mostly gifts to the health insurance industry it was meant to reform. This can be blamed on many. There are the Republicans who never even pretended to care about health reform of any kind, no matter who proposed it or what it involved. Add in the Conservative Democrats who do nothing but give speeches and bask in their moment of notoriety and power who are seemingly determined to protect insurance companies against the slightest check to their power. And don't forget the far right conservatives who have fought this every step of the way with absurd slogans about the Government between you and your doctor, completely ignoring that we've had profit driven insurance companies in this exact role all along. Does anyone really think a company beholden to investors and Wall Street is more compassionate? Do you really think Cigna's CEO is going to lose any sleep over your lack of health coverage as long as he gets his million dollars in bonus money this year?

Last night on Countdown, Keith Olbermann gave an editorial about the current health reform bill being considered in the Senate. It was somber, direct and unfortunately accurate. I highly encourage you to read the text and/or watch the video:  Olbermann: Ruined Senate Bill Unsupportable

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Case for a Withdrawal Plan

Since President Obama announced his policy for going forward in Afghanistan, there have been a few questions about the withdrawal schedule. At first the Administration was firm that this was a serious and solid schedule to begin pulling troops out. Then, within a few days, statements from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense have begun to water this down.

Then came Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' surprise trip to Kabul at the beginning of the week. Gates spoke about the planned withdrawal of US troops, as outlined by the Obama Administration. But in contrast to this, President Karzai stated that, only with a "maximum effort", could Afghanistan hope to completely take over its own security in 5 years. And he then stated that it would be at least 15 to 20 years before they would be able to actually bankroll their own military and police force. That's right, 2015 before they can provide their own security. And they will need outside financing for their armed forces and police until at least 2025! I can't help but wonder if Karzai discussed his take on the timeline with the Obama Administration, prior to this.

I fully admit that I am no expert in the state of the Afghan military and police. I am also aware that it takes more than just learning to shoot, as some pundits have ignorantly stated, to make a good military. What is needed is a military and police force that is 'nationalized'. In other words, one that has allegiance to the nation first and foremost rather to a province or tribal system. It also must attain a state of discipline and dedication within the ranks, beyond that usually seen in that part of the world. But 5 years just to take over the basic management of their own security? That's after some 7 years since the Karzai government took power. This seems to me, a very long time. Then add in that they can't even pay for it until 2025 or maybe longer. I don't even want to consider how much this will ultimately cost America and NATO,  in lives and money.

This underscores why we need a solid schedule. It needs to be made clear to Karzai and his government that America and NATO will not just hang around forever. Karzai needs a deadline. Without one, he will have no pressure to move forward quickly. Think about it, right now America and NATO are providing most of the money and the primary security force for Afghanistan. What is Karzai's motivation to step up and take over? I'm sure he'd like to not have us meddling in his politics, but I'm also sure he's happy for the elite military and seemingly endless flow of cash. I know if I was in his place, I'd certainly be in no hurry for that to change.

Setting a timetable isn't a matter of giving up or "surrendering", as the simplistic among us like to repeat ad nauseam.  It's a matter of being fully aware of everyone's motivation in this.  It's simple psychology.  If Karzai has the expectation that the US and NATO  will continue to militarily and financially sponsor his Administration until he is 'ready', then he's got no motivation at all to rush. As long as the benefits of our presence outweigh the complications, it's in his best interest to keep us around. It is only after Obama's plans for the future in Afghanistan that we find that Karzai has an expectation of troop support for the next 5 years and for us to continue to pay for Afghanistan's own military for another 15+ years. Clearly there is a huge disparity between US and Afghan expectations.

We set and do everything we can to stick to a withdrawal plan, so the Afghans know the clock is ticking. We need to keep pressure on Karzai so he will actually want us to step away. We need to make sure there are enough strings attached to the money we are pouring into his administration that he will actually start weighing the pros and cons of our support.  As long as it's in his best interests for us to stay, Karzai will never declare that Afghanistan is ready to stand on its own. Why should he? America and NATO will be footing the bills and doing much of the fighting. And whenever there are civilian casualties or an outcry about methods he can always blame it on us. We need to setup an exit strategy and make sure the Afghans are fully aware that we intend to use it whether he's ready or not.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Tuesday night President Obama gave a speech at West Point Military Academy in NY, the subject being the plan going forward for Afghanistan. The gist of the new policy is an increase of 30,000 troops, beginning in January. However, it also sets a planned date for the beginning of withdrawal in July 2011, a break with the policies of the previous Administration, and standing Conservative doctrine, of pledging to stay till we have 'won'. Another major change from past years is a pledge to fund the Afghan war in the light of day, using standard Congressional appropriations rather than in the shadows with special funding bills, as the previous Administration preferred.

As expected, this plan, which doesn't promise everything either wing of the political spectrum wanted to see, is getting mixed reviews from both Liberals and Conservatives. Republicans, such as Senator McCain, liked the troop increase, yet were upset at the time table for withdrawal. The Liberals like a time table, but think it's time to start pulling out now rather than increasing troop levels. This may be a case where, if both sides are only 50% happy, then it might just be the right course.

So what was my take? Well, I admit that I've been leaning towards beginning a withdrawal now. Technically, we already accomplished what we set out to do in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida was kicked out of their safe havens, being killed, captured or forced to scatter. We dismantled the Taliban run government which openly harbored and supported terrorists. And we helped the Afghans setup a new government. What else can we really do after 8 years? We're dealing with a government that has major problems with corruption and even the taint of election fraud, something we can't fix ourselves. I worry about us becoming the region's mercenary army and I worry a great deal about the state of our military in general. We are wearing the edge off our armed forces and leaving them tired and ragged. By the time this influx is completed we will have committed the vast majority of our available armed forces to Iraq and Afghanistan. Think about that. If another crisis arose in the world, we would be virtually incapable of dealing with it without yanking troops away from the current wars. We are over extended and over committed, and that makes me very uneasy.

One thing that I really did like about this speech was that Obama did not fall back on the old, tired talking points of fear and unquestioning patriotism. He laid things out in an organized manner that didn't rely on bullet points. It was refreshing for a President to talk to me like an adult, rather than a child who should just let the grownups deal with these complicated matters. It's the difference between 'explaining' a policy decision and 'demanding' obedience. It was a good speech and seemed to me to do a good job of outlining the situation, the Administration's plan and how it would be implemented. While I may not be in full agreement, I do accept that I am not in possession of all the facts and classified details. What he is planning does sound reasonable, as long as we do stick to a planned withdrawal.

This brings up the Conservatives' biggest gripe. Though they got almost everything their little olive drab hearts desired, you could hear the indignant cough when a withdrawal schedule came up. Senator McCain punched this point solidly when asked for his response, following the speech. "What I do not support, and what concerns me greatly, is the president's decision to set an arbitrary date to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. A date for withdrawal sends exactly the wrong message to both our friends and our enemies." I am unsure how to take this statement from a military veteran.  The theory seems to be that if we set a withdrawal date, the insurgents will just hang back and wait until we leave. This is mush minded drivel. An insurgency cannot, by its very definition, pull back and wait. If they do that, then the Afghan government and the NATO advisers will have time to make serious gains with the Afghan people and make it more difficult for the Taliban to gain support in the future. They have to keep the pressure on or be edged out of the equation. What I see as the biggest advantage of setting a timetable is that the Afghan government knows it has a deadline to consider. President Karzai will be on notice that the US military will not be there to watch his back forever. It will light a fire under his administration to make sure its military forces are ready to take over when we leave. I realize this isn't a simple thing for Karzai, but I feel he needs to be shown in no uncertain terms that if he wants to keep the militant Taliban factions from overthrowing his regime, then he better get busy! This is what it all comes down to, here and in Iraq. We got rid of the autocratic, extremist government and helped them setup a new one. Their responsibility is to get their ducks in a row so they can police their country. Yes, we are worried about Taliban militants and the remnants of Al-Qaida from regaining strength and safe havens. But the only reason that's an issue is because the Afghan government can't secure their own territory. A professional and trained Afghan military will do a much better job against the militants than we would, because it's their country and their people. I'm a little tired of Americans dying on the other side of the planet so Hamid Karzai, and his alleged drug running brother, can relax and enjoy the Presidency. So, yes, I think a deadline is just what is needed.

There were a number of things the President said that resonated with me. The one that I thought was most important was, "As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests." Read that line again, as I think it's a very important statement. It bears on one of the major talking points that the Conservative Hawks constantly harp on: Victory. This is the same thinking that kept us in Vietnam for so long. The idea that we stay until we win. No matter what. I don't even know what they would consider victory. This isn't Europe, 1945. There will be no articles of surrender or treaties formalizing capitulation. Bin Laden will not walk out of the hills and lay his Kalashnikov at the feet of the NATO commander. Neither the Iraqi or Afghan wars will end with a victory parade through Baghdad or Kabul, with adoring locals chanting their love of America. Let's be very clear, 'Victory' in Afghanistan is a stable government that can keep the country's tribal, extremist elements in check. Honestly, that's all we can realistically hope, much less expect. Anyone who is holding out for an American style democracy, with a secular, non-political, professional military is dreaming. This region is nothing like Europe or America. We cannot keep thinking that we can twist and hammer it into a mirror image of a Western democracy. It may happen, to some degree, eventually but it will not be because the West forced it. It will be because the Afghan people WANT it that way.

He made two other statements while speaking of American security that jumped out for me. "And we can't count on military might alone.  We have to invest in our homeland security, because we can't capture or kill every violent extremist abroad.  We have to improve and better coordinate our intelligence, so that we stay one step ahead of shadowy networks." Then, a few sentences later he continued. "We'll have to use diplomacy, because no one nation can meet the challenges of an interconnected world acting alone." As I've said many times, we cannot operate as a one nation vigilante. We must work with other nations and use non military means to fight these extremist elements. In a time of insurgencies and terrorist strikes, Infantry Divisions are of limited use. When we are threatened, this is not the time to withdraw and cower behind the serried rows of drones, tanks and APCs. It is a time to tend to alliances and cultivate good relations where feasible. Nobody wants to help a bully, but they will help a friend.

In the end, this policy is not exactly what I would have chosen, but it seems to offer a plan to do what we have to do, yet shows us the light at the end of the tunnel. The withdrawal date is, I believe, necessary to ensure the Karzai government understands that America is not their private security force who will be there till they get around to securing their own country. It's been eight years, the clock is ticking.  Another thing, everyone needs to wake up to the strain we are putting our military through. This must be more than an abstract awareness.  These are our fellow Americans and they deserve more than being ground down in tour after tour as we wait for some event we can hang a 'victory' flag on. Our fighting forces are not limitless and we need to stop pretending that they are. And finally, the 'hawks' among us have to stop focusing on this nebulous idea of 'Victory' or 'Winning' at all costs. Only a fool makes statements like that, outside of a Terminator movie. This is the real world. We must look at things as they are, not as we wish them to be. I know it's very American to focus on winning, but this isn't a Western where we meet the bad guys at high noon, gun 'em down, and ride off into the sunset. Real life is messy. And it doesn't get much messier than this.

Link to video and transcript of speech:

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

When Will He Shut Up?

Imagine, if you will, an alternate history of the G.W. Bush Presidency. Where Al Gore continually makes speeches and takes interviews where he repeatedly accuses President Bush of "weakening" America and "emboldening our enemies"? Going so far as to make these sorts of biting criticisms immediately prior to a major Presidential speech on national foreign policy. How do you think Vice President Cheney would have reacted? Shocked? Angry? I think we can be sure he would have had some serious things to say on the patriotism of a former VP undercutting the sitting President in such a direct manner.

And yet this is exactly what Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been doing to the current Administration since leaving office. Every chance he gets, he accuses Obama of making major mistakes or opening the nation to terrorist attacks or showing weakness. Hell, he's probably spoken up more in the last 11 months than he did the entire 8 years he was in office! I'm not saying he has to disappear from view, though I certainly wouldn't mind. But this has gone way beyond policy differences. And to throw lawn darts at the President immediately prior to a speech to the nation on the prosecution of military operations is astounding. What is wrong with this man?

The constant railing about how the Administration is making America more open to terrorist attack is especially despicable. It comes off, not as a warning, but as covering his historical butt. He seems to be intent on making sure that he's on the record with this drivel so that if there is ever another attack on US soil, that he can jump out of his wheelchair and cackle "I told you so!" The real kicker is that, to my knowledge, the Obama Administration has done nothing to change anti-terror policies. Aside, of course, from rescinding support for torture. Arguably an UN-American policy from the start. Yet Cheney acts as if Obama reversed everything, from the top down. There are times I actually wonder if he secretly hopes for another attack, just to vindicate himself.

There is legitimate concern and then there is, to put it bluntly, being an ass. Cheney crossed that line within weeks of leaving office. At least show the Obama Administration the basic, boilerplate support that any President deserves. You know, the same respect Cheney and Bush always demanded! Funny how a shift in perspective changes things. If you have a constructive critique, go ahead. But this constant cawing of "Doom, Doom, Doom!" is pathetic.

Forgive my directness, but it is way past time for the Former Vice President to sit down, ruminate on his glory days and shut the hell up!