Friday, August 30, 2013

We won't get fooled again.

It is said that generals are always fighting the last war. And the public also tends to draw lessons from the last event that seems comparable to our current situation. Everyone has indelibly etched on their minds the case of Iraq and its illusory weapons of mass destruction. The only reasonable positions left on that fiasco are to argue either that we never should have attacked Iraq in the first place, or that we should have handled the aftermath much differently. Given that disaster, what are we to do about Syria? How do we prove that we have learned something from history?

In this case, we may find that the evidence that Syria used chemical weapons against its own people is irrefutable. Just because we got it wrong about Iraq doesn't mean we are wrong about Syria. In fact, the intelligence community's experience with Iraq probably makes it more likely that we are right this time. In this case, we are also not in danger of provoking a civil war, for the simple reason that there has already been a civil war going on in Syria for the past two years. The plan is merely to exact punishment on the Syrian government for crossing a red line. Of course there are risks involved in taking action, but again, our experience in Iraq probably makes it more likely we will avoid becoming embroiled in a civil war in that country.

 The simple fact is, as Humphrey Bogart explained at the end of The Maltese Falcon, that when somebody kills your partner, you're supposed to do something about it. It doesn't matter what you thought of the guy. That translates, in international law, to when somebody uses chemical weapons, you're also supposed to do something about it. It doesn't matter if you don't like the rebels much more than the government. The government of Syria has still crossed a line, and it would be bad business all around to let them get away with it. That doesn't mean we would be going to war against Syria if we initiate military action. We should be pursuing a peaceful resolution of that conflict as strongly as ever. What a military strike against Syria would instead represent is a penalty, of the kind that a referee inflicts in a game, when one team violates the rules.

And just because the British Parliament has already blocked that country's involvement in any military action against Syria does not absolve the US of responsibility to take some action. By drawing the wrong lessons from history, Britain is likely to look foolish twice. The British public wants to avoid the humiliation of following the US lead into an inadvisable war in Iraq. That might cause them to suffer a different kind of humiliation by shamefully standing by while another government commits a gross violation of human rights and international law. We need to evaluate this case on its own merits, and find a path to do what is right and necessary.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Back to school

Wayne LaPierre owes an apology, or at least an explanation, to Antoinette Tuff, the Georgia school employee who successfully talked down a gunman who entered her elementary school with an assault rifle and some 500 rounds of ammunition. Remember it was NRA spokesman LaPierre who responded to the Newtown shooting by advising us that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun was to rely on a good guy with a gun. That's right, he said that more guns is the ONLY way to stop violence. Antoinette Tuff instead showed that engaging in an hour-long empathetic dialogue with a dangerous gunman might be an equally effective way to stop a bad guy with a gun. In fact, her method could be a more effective way of preventing violence, as no one was harmed in the incident.

Tuff's interview is a textbook explanation of how to calm down a disturbed individual. You do that by listening carefully to he is saying, and by telling him, as Tuff explains, that she understood what he was feeling. Then she started sharing some of her own stories, and establishing a personal connection with him by noting that her mother's maiden name was the same as his, and that she remembered his previous visit to the school. Here was a person determined, as he said, to end his life and take many people along with him. Tuff assured the gunman that he did not have to die that day, and that he might have something to live for, and he agreed to surrender peacefully.

Few people would deny that guns have their uses, and most people agree that armed security is appropriate in some situations. What we need to be wary of, however, are people who claim that the only way to respond to violence is with more violence. There are lots of other ways to deal with violence, and many effective means of resolving conflict that do not require force. We need to study those methods. Listening to Antoinette Tuff tell how she did it would be a good place to start.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

What the opposition stands for

Have the Republicans finally boxed themselves into a corner on healthcare? As President Obama pointed out in his press conference on Friday, it seems that the one unifying principle of the Republican Party these days is making sure that people don't have health care. It used to be that pretty much everyone thought that being without insurance was a bad thing. Not only does the lack of insurance expose families to bankruptcy in the event of a catastrophic accident or illness, but hospitals also charge people without insurance much higher rates, and the lack of insurance also makes people less likely to seek medical attention when they need it. And apart from the sympathy that even Republicans feel for the uninsured, there is the free rider problem. Because a lot of healthy people choose to take the chance of going without insurance, that increases the cost of premiums for the rest of us. When some of these uninsured get sick and have to resort to emergency rooms and charity hospitals, the rest of us end up paying for that also.

It used to be that pretty much everyone, Democrats and Republicans, thought these problems deserved a serious solution. Republicans' unrelenting opposition to the Obama administration's efforts to fix the problem, however, has led them to actively embrace employers who do not want to provide their employees with health insurance (thus foisting the cost of their care on the rest of us), to campaign to urge young people to go without insurance (putting them at risk, and again imposing the cost of their care on the rest of use), and in many states controlled by Republican legislatures, unconscionably to turn down billions of dollars in expanded Medicaid coverage, which will leave many low income citizens without coverage, and force hospitals to provide care without any expectation of reimbursement. So-called conservatives who claim to favor fiscal responsibility and individual self-reliance now find themselves, for political purposes, advocating policies that will make it harder to balance state budgets, and that encourage the uninsured to act irresponsibly.

As a political strategy, this seems short-sighted. The politics of resentment rarely obtains a majority. As public policy, however, you just have to shake your head and wonder. When the political logic of Republican opposition takes the party to the extreme of actively trying to keep people from being able to obtain affordable health insurance coverage, that goes way beyond an "every man for himself" ideology. We're now in the realm of pure spitefulness. That kind of sabotage not only hurts people who are being encouraged to do without insurance, but also increases costs for all the rest of us. That kind of opposition is just designed to make the system collapse, instead of trying to make it work, for the sole purpose of trying to blame the people who tried to make the system work, for the system's collapse. This opposition will fail, however, because enough people are trying to make the system better that the saboteurs' efforts will be seen for what they are.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


Thursday, August 1, 2013