Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Thank you Dick Cheney.

It's a good thing we have Dick Cheney around to remind us that we are at war.  Here are his comments on the arrest of Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, accused of attempting to set off a bomb in an airplane landing in Detroit on Christmas day:

As I’ve watched the events of the last few days it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war. He seems to think if he has a low-key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people, we won’t be at war. He seems to think if he gives terrorists the rights of Americans, lets them lawyer up and reads them their Miranda rights, we won’t be at war.
Echoing the comments of other Republican critics who complain that we are coddling the Christmas bomber by refraining from torturing him, and planning to try him in an American court, Dick Cheney reminds us that of course the Bush administration would never have handled such a problem in that way.

Except, wait a minute . . ., what about Richard Reid, the shoe bomber?  Just like this year's underwear bomber, Richard Reid, also known as  Tariq Raja, was arrested in December 2001 for attempting to set off an explosive device on a flight from Paris to Miami.  He was a convert to an extreme sect of Islam, he was not an American citizen, and he also claimed he was affiliated with Al Qaeda.  So how was this terrorist treated by the Bush administration?  He was prosecuted in federal district court, and sentenced to prison after pleading guilty. Richard Reid was given the rights of an American accused of a crime.  He was allowed to lawyer up.  He is serving his sentence in an American prison like a common criminal.  Aside from causing new restrictions on handling shoes and liquids in airport screenings, the incident was handled in a low key way.

Just as with Cheney's inconsistent criticism of the Obama administration's handling of its generals' requests for additional troops in Afghanistan, Cheney's real problem seems not so much about the substance of the Obama administration's policies, but about the rhetoric.  What he appears most upset about is President Obama's refusal to whip up war hysteria, his low key demeanor, his failure to succumb to fear and hate.  What Cheney seems to feel is lacking is the will to keep the country on a war footing to deal with the continuing problem of Islamic extremist terrorists, and to use the excuse of war to reduce the constitutional rights of criminals, and the privacy rights of American citizens.  Instead President Obama has committed the outrageous sins of trusting in the American judicial system, admitting an apparent intelligence failure, and reassuring Americans that they should not be unduly alarmed.  What Dick Cheney does not understand is the strength represented by that kind of response, as opposed to the fear and weakness that he continues to demonstrate.

Here is part of the White House response to Cheney's ridiculous criticisms:
To put it simply: this President is not interested in bellicose rhetoric, he is focused on action. Seven years of bellicose rhetoric failed to reduce the threat from al Qaeda and succeeded in dividing this country. And it seems strangely off-key now, at a time when our country is under attack, for the architect of those policies to be attacking the President.
Off-key is putting it mildly.  But I guess putting it mildly is all that Cheney was complaining about.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thank you Peggy Noonan.

The President must be taking so much heat from the left that he is getting some support from an unexpected source. In Peggy Noonan's column a couple of days ago in the Wall Street Journal, she went to the trouble of interviewing some Obama staffers who are sticking by the boss, and know he is doing his best. She also talked to some former Reagan administration officials who were given a private tour of the White House by Michelle Obama. They were impressed that the Lincoln bedroom is no longer available for guests.

Peggy Noonan may not agree with the President all that much, but she seems at least to appreciate his incorruptibility, and his human qualities, and she seems to sympathize with the difficulties of his political position. It would be nice if more critics on both the left and the right could give the guy some benefit of the doubt.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Two Year Anniversary

A few days ago marked two years that I have been writing this political blog. I've had a blog for my law firm for five years, but I didn't get addicted to blogging until I started blogging on politics. I started doing that on the Obama campaign website, in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses. My first very short post, on December 20, 2007, was on global warming. My second post was about health care, specifically about whether Barack Obama was more likely to get it done than Hillary Clinton. It is interesting that we are still talking about the same issues that we were talking about two years ago. It seems likely that we will still be talking about these issues a couple of years from now.

What started as sort of a diary or commentary on the campaign, became a way of communicating with other people interested in the campaign, then a partisan political tool, and later, when I moved the blog to my own site shortly before last year's election, became a celebration of the spirit of hope and change that seemed to have seized the nation.

Right now my main purpose, aside from writing about whatever comes into my head, is simple: support the president. This is still a somewhat strange persona for me to adopt, since I think of myself as something of an iconoclast, and since there has not been a president since JFK that I have spared from relentless criticism. But there seems to be plenty of criticism to go around right now from both left and right. I feel no desire to add to it, and I feel that the administration needs support more than ever. So I just try to keep the tone positive, without verging into foolish optimism or becoming a knee jerk apologist for the administration. If I feel the urge to be critical of the administration, I try to restrain that urge, or I do it in the kindest, most constructive way possible. I wonder if maintaining that point of view makes me an unreliable source, but I don't think so, since I retain my critical faculties and my legal training in precision and accuracy. I welcome dialogue with people of all political persuasions. I am excited to see readership gradually increasing. And so I plan to keep at it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Quiet Man

Harry Reid's soft voice and unassuming manner make it hard to understand how he got to be the leader. Progressives don't expect him to act as their champion. Conservatives make fun of him. A lot of people see him as weak and ineffectual. But Harry Reid, according to this story in the LA Times this morning, deserves the major credit for delivering 60 votes for health care reform. (Not just 60 votes to break the GOP filibuster, but 60 votes for the bill itself.) Somehow, through several moments when deals fell apart and all hope seemed lost, Harry Reid kept pushing to get this bill passed.

People will second guess forever whether different tactics by the White House or by Congressional leaders could have gotten a better bill passed. I don't think that can be proved. Right now it is time to celebrate that the U.S. Congress has achieved something that has never been achieved before, with both houses passing major health insurance reform legislation.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Movies are Still Black and White.

Would it not help improve the level of political discourse in this country if people had a greater appreciation of the complexities of the policy issues we are debating?  Would we not expect to tone down nasty and hateful rhetoric if people made a greater effort to understand opposing points of view?  Of course.  Unfortunately, sometimes our popular culture encourages people to view issues in black and white, us vs. them, terms, rather than to understand the ironies and nuances of the problems we need to address.  When we are encouraged to view the world as composed of good guys vs. bad guys, without many shades of gray, we are in danger of losing the capacity to empathize with people of different political viewpoints or nationality. We are in danger of seeing only a warlike solution to problems.

A case in point: the new movie Avatar. Basically it is a science fiction re-telling of the Pocahontas story.  That story offers a lot of possibilities for shedding light on current problems including terrorism, imperialism, and the need for sustainable development.  Unfortunately, the movie chooses to frame these issues in rather simplistic terms.  For example, the military commander is portrayed as a cartoonish, bull-headed, racist killer.  But what if he were a smart and sophisticated general, like a David Petraeus?  If such a commander genuinely made an effort to win the hearts and minds of the local population, but was still somehow "forced" into military action that causes death and destruction, the war would be much more tragic and multi-dimensional, instead of just asking us to root for the innocent forest people being attacked without provocation by an evil, rapacious army.

The movie also tells us that the indigenous Na'vi have no interest in any of the technology or culture brought by the humans to their planet.  Their life is meant to be perfect as it is.  But from history we know that most such populations are attracted to at least some of the offerings of their invaders, whether ships or guns or tools or medicine or refrigerators or television.  If the humans had something to trade, that would have made the story more realistic.

Then there is the cause of the war, a mineral called unobtanium (funny).  We have to assume that it must be valuable for some purpose, but the only thing the characters in the movie tells us is that it will bring the evil corporation funding the mission gigantic profits. But what if unobtanium were able to cure cancer, or save life on earth from global warming?  Then the refusal of the Na'vi to relocate their camp to allow the earthlings to mine for a material that might save their own planet would look a bit selfish.

The Na'vi are shown as spiritually pure, innocent, and living in harmony with nature.  They never fight except to defend themselves or to hunt for what they need to live.  But what if they were shown committing a few tiny acts of selfishness or barbarism?  Couldn't the audience be trusted to sympathize with these people even if they were not quite as wonderful as they are shown to be in the movie? 

I am not saying that James Cameron was wrong to make the artistic choices he did.  He certainly has a better sense of the commercial prospects of his movie than I do.  The movie I might have preferred to see could have been a box office bomb, which no one could afford to make on this kind of budget.  And even looking at the script as a series of purely artistic or moral choices, I am not saying that it was wrong to portray our civilization as the bad guys and an indigenous "primitive" civilization as the good guys.  All I'm saying is that I would have preferred to see a few more shades of gray.  But maybe we should not expect more from a mass audience movie than to shake up conventional expectations a bit, and maybe James Cameron should not be expected to water down his message that nature is good and war is bad.  (Of course in Hollywood nowadays, it is already fairly conventional to show corporations, the military and our materialistic society as evil. A truly unconventional movie nowadays would show pharmaceutical companies healing the sick or Wall Street tycoons helping the poor.) But wouldn't it would be even more interesting if none of the characters in a story could be neatly classified as either a good guy or a bad guy?

Perhaps this movie was cast in such unambiguous terms because it was aimed at children.  But children have some capacity to appreciate ambiguity.  It seems a shame to have developed such incredibly novel and ingenious movie-making techniques, in the service of a story that does not rise to the same level of originality and sophistication.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Holidays!

A year ago, who would have predicted that by this time the new administration would have saved the financial system from collapse, saved the US auto industry from liquidation, brought the economy back from the brink of disaster, got the stock market up 50%, stabilized the housing market, committed to close Guantanamo, appointed a progressive judge to the Supreme Court, passed a nearly $1 trillion stimulus bill, ended torture, got the UN Security Council to agree unanimously to reduce nuclear weapons, reached out to the Muslim world and helped empower a counter-revolution in Iran, started bringing the troops home from Iraq and committed more US and NATO forces to Afghanistan, passed health care reform legislation in the House and defeated a filibuster in the Senate, introduced energy legislation, took the US in a different direction in climate change talks, made the United States the most admired country in the world once again, and won the Nobel Peace Prize? Yet President Obama has done all of that and more.

Granted that there is still much to be done, and no one should be expected to support every single one of these accomplishments, but shouldn't we still be thrilled at this tremendous record?  Instead, on the left, the loudest voices are crying out with betrayal and anger:  Wall Street is making lots of money again.  Horrors!  Many compromises have to be made in health care legislation to get it through a corrupt and conservative Congress.  Shocking!  We are sending more troops to Afghanistan.  Shades of Vietnam!

On the right, even more anger, fear and hate.  The deficit is rising.  Disastrous!  The government is spending money.  Socialism!  The president is going around the world making friends with all kinds of governments.  Appeasement!

Wasn't the reason we elected Barack Obama last year to reduce all of this hysteria and divisiveness and bitterness and hate?  Have people forgotten that it was his message of reconciliation and inclusiveness that people of diverse political views responded to so forcefully last year?  The most disappointing failure--perhaps the only failure--of the Obama administration so far, is its failure to achieve any reduction in partisanship and rancor.  But is it the president's fault that we are still bitter and hateful?  I don't think so. I think we don't have much cause to be disappointed in the new administration, but they might have cause to be disappointed in us. Remember, WE were supposed to be the change we were waiting for.  All of us were supposed to try to reduce the level of recriminations and partisanship and corruption in our politics.  Instead of looking at politics as blood sport, we were supposed to look at it as a series of problems to be solved by listening respectfully to one another, and trying to accommodate a range of reasonable views.  That doesn't mean we have to give up any strongly-held opinions.  That doesn't mean we have to agree with one another about everything.  It just means we are supposed to try to employ a different spirit to our politics.   Sadly, I see little evidence that we have absorbed our own message. So in the spirit of whatever holiday you happen to be celebrating this season, I'd like to propose a toast to good old-fashioned peace on earth and good will toward men. We could use more of that next year.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

5 Votes for Forestalling Climate Change

No wide-ranging agreement came out of the Copenhagen talks this week, but our president managed to come home with an understanding among China, India, Brazil, South Africa and the United States that would commit these countries to emissions reductions and commit the more developed nations to significant financial support for making these changes.  This represents the first time that at least some of these nations--the fastest-growing new polluters in the world-- have agreed to start implementing emissions reductions.  It represents a tangible commitment from the developed countries.  And it seems to represent a big change in direction from the United States since the Kyoto conference.  That time the rest of the world reached some comprehensive agreements, but the United States would not commit to the process.  This time the rest of the world seemed unable to reach agreement on much of anything, but the United States took the lead in salvaging some noticeable progress from an otherwise inconclusive meeting. 

60 Votes for Health Care Reform

While I have issues with the constant carping criticisms, second guessing and negativity of the Arianna Huffingtons, Robert Reiches, the Howard Deans, and many others on the left, I suppose progressives can be forgiven for being disheartened that they have had to give up or compromise on just about everything they fought to obtain in this legislation in order to gain the 60 votes necessary to pass a health insurance reform bill in the Senate. For some people, the last straw could be the agreement to include new restrictions on people's ability to obtain insurance coverage for abortion services, in order to obtain Senator Nelson's vote. So is the bill still worth supporting?

I say yes, and this is why. When Congress passes health insurance reform, it will represent the first time in American history that we will have enshrined into law the principle that every single American has the right to decent and affordable health insurance. Previously, unless you were eligible for Medicare or Medicaid, or were a veteran, you did not have that right. Now, however poorly people may think the bill still working its way through Congress protects that right, the idea itself has finally been recognized. It will still take work over many years to make the reality live up to that promise, but it is vitally important that the basic principle finally be recognized. Everyone should be able to get health insurance, whether you are unemployed, or suffer from a pre-existing condition, or whether you have limited means. Right now, health insurance is unavailable for many people in those categories, but after this bill is implemented, it should be available. Once we are agreed on that, then the only thing left to argue about is how to protect and improve that right. In other words, people will be in a much better position to raise hell if they still are not able to find decent and affordable coverage, once they have a right to it in the first place.

I also believe that anyone who thinks it would be better to let this bill go down to defeat and hope that an opportunity will come up in the foreseeable future to pass a better bill, is just dreaming. It took 16 years from the last time health insurance reform went down to defeat for another opportunity to come up to implement reform. The next opportunity could take just as long or longer. And I think that people who want to second guess about strategy, or lick their wounds from feeling betrayed or sold out, are also wasting their time. Congress is corrupt. What else is new? Strategies can be second guessed forever. I would rather concentrate on the fact that a lot of people are doing their best to make a very important change happen.  I would rather celebrate the fact that this compromise still represents, as President Obama stated, "a major step forward for the American people."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Reciprocity in Negotiations

An op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times this morning, by David Rivkin and Lee Casey, argues that the United States should not agree to reduce its carbon emissions, unless and until developing countries such as China and India and Brazil agree to do the same. They make the valid point that US reductions would do little to reduce the overall problem as long as these rapidly-industrializing nations continue to increase their carbon output as dramatically as they have in recent years. They also argue, using the analogies of trade negotiations and arms reduction negotiations, that unilateralism is a bad negotiating strategy, because unilateral concessions lessen a negotiating party's leverage to obtain similar concessions from others. This latter point seems more debatable, at least as applied to the problem of reducing CO2 in the atmosphere.

First, the developing nations have long argued that it is unfair to demand dramatic concessions from them while the United States continues to emit far more greenhouse gases per capita than other nations.  So our refusal to agree to restrictions actually discourages other nations from agreeing to reduce own their emissions.  These developing countries also have the valid argument that all they are doing is catching up to the countries that industrialized earlier, and that it is unfair to restrict their ability to reduce poverty and modernize their economies while the United States and Europe continue to enjoy the benefits of their earlier industrialization.  Rather than giving us leverage, the US failure to recognize the problem and do something about it has actually impeded efforts to get other nations to do their fair share.

Second, unlike unilaterally reducing trade barriers, which can harm domestic industries by making it easier for imported goods to compete, efforts to reduce carbon emissions actually make our domestic industries more competitive.  Although there are short term costs to improving the energy-efficiency of buildings, to increasing our reliance on solar, wind and nuclear power, and to improving vehicle mileage, in the long run all of these investments actually save money, while they reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  So there is no disadvantage to making unilateral carbon reductions that will improve our country's economic performance.

Far from making it easier to negotiate global reductions in carbon emissions, the obstructionism that Rivkin and Casey advocate would only serve as an excuse for others to do nothing.  Instead of creating leverage for an agreement, we would be playing a game of chicken with our negotiating partners.  With global climate possibly heading off a cliff, we should not be arguing about how much others have to apply the brakes before we assist them.  We need to be applying some brake pressure ourselves while we ask others to do the same.

(beach photo from Redoubt Reporter)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What is Inappropriate for Children?

Of all the stories I read to my kids when they were pre-schoolers, Thomas the Tank Engine stories were probably my least favorite. I have been saying for years that they promoted subservience to authority figures, right or wrong. The typical story had one of the engines getting punished for challenging the better judgment of the bosses, or for agitating for better working conditions for an individual or the group. The moral of the story was generally to do what you're told, don't complain, and don't make trouble. It was not the message that someone with a rebellious streak like me wanted to encourage in my children. But my kids liked these stories, and we had this giant 400 page book containing all of them, so I dutifully read them all, just biding my time until I could get to something I enjoyed more, especially the wildly imaginative and far better written books of Roald Dahl.

Now Shauna Wilton, a political science professor at the University of Alberta, has done a study of the tv versions of a number of Thomas the Tank Engine stories, concluding that they promote a conservative ideology and a sometimes sexist viewpoint. I have already written her a fan letter. The reactions to this story which has been reported in a number of outlets, reveal some of the fault lines of the culture wars in our society. Many simply cannot see what the professor is talking about. To them, the fact that a political science professor would waste her time criticizing harmless children's stories merely demonstrates the decadence of liberal academia. Others of a culturally conservative bent might concede her point but still argue that the values taught by such stories are exactly the ones we should want to teach our children. And then there are a few people like me who always found Thomas the Tank Engine absolutely appalling.

Of course, nowadays with liberals in power, and conservatives forced to march in the street to try to get their message across, perhaps conservatives might be less supportive of conformist messages, and more encouraging of those who want to raise hell with the establishment. Perhaps we should all try to agree that it might be a good idea to teach our children to question authority at least once in a while, and not necessarily always strive to be obedient little engines.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

War and Peace

Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, President Obama was compelled to reconcile that award with his pursuit of a military solution in Afghanistan:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations - acting individually or in concert - will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago - "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak -nothing passive - nothing naïve - in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

I raise this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter the cause. At times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower.

Yet the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions - not just treaties and declarations - that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest - because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another - that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause and to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths - that war is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human feelings. Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions."

Paradoxical? Yes. Hypocritical? Maybe. Did he have a choice? It seems to me he either had to turn down the prize or try to explain the paradox. The prize still seems justifiable to me because of the change in direction of this country that the Obama campaign brought about, and because of President Obama's efforts against nuclear proliferation and his efforts to reach out to the Muslim world. The fact that we are conducting a military campaign to keep other military organizations (the Taliban and Al Qaeda) out of power should not disqualify the President from receiving the prize. These are illegitimate actors who do not respond to diplomatic efforts, and who have rejected the option of participating in the political process. Sometimes you do have to make war to keep the peace, and you do not have to be a pacifist to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Misunderstanding Science

As described in this post on Desmogblog, someone who actually took the trouble to read the entire set of e-mail messages stolen from the University of East Anglia, assures us that there is nothing in these messages to cast any doubt on the fundamental science supporting the theory that human activities are causing an increase in carbon dioxide levels, which contributes to global warming. This reader also saw ample evidence that the authors of these messages are generally conscientious, careful and dedicated researchers. Have any of the journalists who have reported on this story read all of the stolen e-mails? If not, it seems doubtful that they are providing the needed context.

The thing that everyone who went to high school should understand about science is that scientific claims can only be proved or disproved by scientific experiments.  If someone's experiment is invalid, it will be debunked when others are unable to duplicate the results, or when new data support a different result.  In other words, you can't really fake the data or the results, because if you try to do that, your results will be disproven eventually.  So if the East Anglia e-mail messages have raised any questions about the work done by any climate scientists, that still would need to be demonstrated by showing that some of their experiments are invalid, or by doing a new experiment that disproves some result.

None of that seems to matter, of course, to the climate change skeptics, supported by the fossil fuel industry, who are only too happy to pounce on a few statements in the leaked e-mails suggesting that they can't explain all of the data they were seeing, or that they wanted to present their data in a way that is favorable to the global warming theory. None of these skeptics bothers to explain how such statements could possibly impugn the work of thousands of dedicated scientists who have studied this issue, and whose published research is there for all to see, and to challenge by scientific methods. I suppose the idea is that if a few of these scientists made some over-zealous or careless remarks, that is supposed to cast doubt on all of the research ever done by every climate scientist who supports the theory of global warming.  But if we are going to throw out all of this science because we question the statements or methods of a few of their number, then we ought to treat the "science" of the climate change deniers exactly the same way. If we can find a few climate change deniers who have left out some data they can't explain, or who have distorted the work of other scientists, or whose efforts are funded by energy companies, then wouldn't we have to throw out the entire "science" of the climate change deniers as well?


I guess we would then just have to throw out science altogether, and put the issue of climate change up for popular vote.  As for the polar bears, they will just have to learn to tread water.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Peace in Afghanistan

Politically speaking, it is not a viable position simply to suggest that we pull US and NATO forces out of Afghanistan, because that implies that we don't care whether the Taliban returns to power and makes Afghanistan into a haven for Al Qaeda once again. Anyone who wants to talk about Afghanistan in a way that might be listened to has the obligation to show that a different strategy has at least as good a chance of fulfilling the objective of keeping the Taliban out of power as our current strategy. One organization that seems to be addressing this issue in those terms is CommonDreams.org, which suggests six alternatives to a troop build-up: (1) protecting civilians, (2) upholding women's rights, (3) prioritizing development, (4) addressing underlying problems (unemployment), (5) supporting civil society, and (6) advancing diplomacy.

These are constructive suggestions. It seems to me, however, that they are not necessarily inconsistent with increasing military forces. In other words, NATO and the US can increase troop levels and use those forces to drive insurgents from populated areas, and at the same time use the military and other personnel in Afghanistan to protect human rights, assist in re-development, and promote civil society and the rule of law. I understand that there is an argument that an increased presence of foreign troops may sometimes be counter-productive to peacemaking efforts, and the military needs to be conscious that their presence is often resented. And to the extent that is true, it is all the more reason why attention should also be paid to re-building and creating a stable economic and political society in Afghanistan, at the same time as the military is working with the Afghan army to improve security.

(Photo from a story about the use of units of female soldiers to interact with women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan, from LA Times blog)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

New Tiger Woods Revelations!!!

Right now the U.S. Senate is debating perhaps the most important piece of legislation in a generation, a health care reform bill that will affect almost every American.  Of course one would assume that people would be following this news very closely, and would want to participate in an informed and intelligent debate on the issues.  One would expect that the media would be devoting a lot of time to a careful explanation of the nuances of various proposed amendments to the bill, so that people can inform their Senators of their preferences.

At the same time the President has announced a major change in Afghanistan strategy, one that may very well affect the security of the United States, and that will cost us billions of dollars.  One would expect that people would want to take a serious look at the options for solving this difficult problem, and debate them in a rational manner so that we can arrive at a result that is in the nation's best interest.

Instead, however, we find that when the media covers these issues at all, they spend most of their time talking about the cheap shots that politicians and interest groups take at each other, and the procedural maneuvering either in support of or in opposition to the administration's agenda. When people talk about the substance of these issues at all, they generally don't seem to feel the need to address the concerns of those opposing their positions, but instead keep repeating their own talking points.  For example, you would think that anyone opposing escalation in Afghanistan would have the burden of proposing an alternative strategy that would have just as good a chance of keeping the Taliban out of power.  Instead, these opponents seem to think that the president could have seriously proposed telling the world that we don't care if the Taliban takes over again.  On health care, one would think that those opposing the reform legislation would have the burden of proposing an alternative that would solve the problems that everyone recognizes exist in our health care system, e.g., the gross disparities in charges for the insured vs. the uninsured, the problems of obtaining coverage of people with pre-existing conditions, the administrative inefficiencies and other high costs of our systems, etc.  But people seem to feel qualified to express an opinion without explaining how they would solve these problems at all. In general, people don't seem to feel that they need to know what they are talking about before they begin talking.

Perhaps one of the reasons we are unable to carry on an intelligent conversation about these weighty issues is that we are preoccupied with gossip and trivia.  Are we more interested in an inconsequential marital spat involving a famous golfer because the media have flooded us with salacious stories about it, or are the media just pandering to our unhealthy preoccupation with that kind of material? And did anyone who read down this far actually think I was going to talk about that? (If you did, you may have that same feeling you get after sitting through an entire news broadcast to wait for the juicy story they have been building up with a bunch of teaser promos, only to find out that the story is a great big nothing.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

No Easy Answers in Afghanistan

It's easy to second guess. It's easy to criticize. But maybe it's better just to listen and think about the best way to solve a difficult problem.

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