Friday, July 25, 2014

Sunday, July 20, 2014

What's wrong with thoughtfulness?

On Meet the Press this morning, Senator Lindsey Graham attacked President Obama's foreign policy for being thoughtful and deliberative. Seriously. When asked about the situation in the Ukraine, Graham's exact words were: "President Obama is trying to be deliberative. It comes off as indecisive. He's trying to be thoughtful. It comes off as weakness." Such are the perils of a thoughtful and deliberative foreign policy, in contrast, say, to the thoughtless and reckless policies that most people believe characterized the previous administration. At least Senator Graham is smart enough to recognize what President Obama is attempting to achieve. And also smart enough to recognize the opportunity to score cheap political points by equating thoughtfulness with weakness.

When asked what specifically the Obama administration should be doing differently with respect to Russia and the Ukraine, Graham's answers became more revealing. First, he criticized President Obama for not calling Putin "the thug that he is." So instead of calling for a thorough investigation that will reveal exactly what Putin is, more name-calling is the suggested solution, as if we were back in high school. Second, Senator Graham criticized the president for failing to send more arms to the Ukraine to defend themselves against the Russian-supplied separatists. In other words Graham is nostalgic for the days of proxy wars with Russia that we engaged in, for example, by arming Afghanistan in the 1980's. Anybody remember how that effort came back to bite us later? Finally, he suggested additional sanctions against Russia and Putin, which is something the Obama administration is already doing.

The opposition doesn't have a credible alternative foreign policy to suggest. If they are attacking the president for being thoughtful and deliberative, that must mean that their suggested alternative ideas would be thoughtless and immature. But what these kinds of criticisms expose is the vulnerability of any administration that seriously attempts to pursue peaceful solutions as a strategy. That strategy can always be attacked as weak and wishy-washy, in contrast to the glib answers and tough talk these critics are espousing. Never mind that more militaristic approaches previously led us into Vietnam. And Iraq. And into a Cold War that lasted 40 years and verged on nuclear Armegeddon more than once. Or that by contrast President Obama's more "thoughtful and deliberative" approach has kept us out of war, and led to notable successes in reducing dangerous weapons, removing dictators, and managing conflicts around the world.

If you want a contrast to the careful policies of the Obama administration, all you have to do is look at the childish and dangerous approach to conflict being taken by Putin himself. Surely Lindsey Graham doesn't want the United States to start acting just like the thug with whom we are trying to draw a contrast?

Friday, July 18, 2014

The peace president

President Obama's statement this morning on the tragic downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet made all the right points. The president was careful not to jump to any more conclusions than are warranted by what we know so far, yet clearly made the connection between the fact that the shots were fired from rebel-controlled territory, and Russia's supplying of sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons to Ukrainian separatists, so as to point the finger squarely at President Putin. He was firm in condemning whoever was responsible, yet careful to emphasize the goal of de-escalating tensions and violence so as to prevent further loss of life.

In short, it was just the sort of speech that was bound to infuriate hawks such as Senator McCain who called the president's response to the fighting in the Ukraine "cowardly." At the same time, it wasn't the kind of speech likely to inspire the president's supporters either. What would probably stir people more might be a Rooseveltian ("day that will live in infamy") or Churchillian ("fight on the beaches") type of response to the outrageous act of violence apparently committed by these Ukrainian separatists.

But remember that both Roosevelt and Churchill made those remarks in an effort to whip up national resolve to fight and defeat an enemy that had already brought war to our shores. Our side needed to be mobilized for all out war. President Obama's much harder challenge is to stir up the desire for peace, not only to avoid a military confrontation with Russia, which no responsible person wants, but also to reduce tensions in the Ukraine, as well as in Gaza, another area of crisis addressed in the president's remarks today. To do that you have to emphasize the goals of fairness and impartiality. You have to be careful not to exaggerate threats or to accuse the enemy of anything more than you can prove. You have to give your adversary a face-saving way out of a dangerous situation.

President Obama was describing a way forward that does not involve capitulation on our side, but instead requires our adversaries to put down their arms.  Laying out a path to peace in this way is far from easy. It's shameful to call this approach cowardly. But President Obama will probably never be able to rally people around a march to peace in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, the way people might rally around a call to respond militarily.

Remember that this president has not shied away from fighting when deemed necessary. He called for an escalation of the effort in Afghanistan, and he has pulled the trigger on pirates and terrorists. But if we can obtain our objectives without the horrific costs of war, and we can induce other warring parties to stop fighting, that would represent the greatest sort of foreign policy triumph.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Six Californias?

Silicon Valley rich guy Tim Draper claims that he has gathered enough signatures to place his idea of breaking up California into six separate states on the ballot in 2016. Draper supposedly spent $4.9 million of his own money on this effort so far.  There are lots of reasons why this is a terrible idea, and also lots of reasons why it will never happen. I'm not going to get too much into those.

What I want to talk about is a pet peeve of my own, which is why some rich guy gets to put his personal project on the public agenda. I have a blog, so I get to talk about whatever I want. You don't have to read it. And I'm not forcing you to vote on any of my ideas. Tim Draper, on the other hand, is forcing me to vote on his dumb idea. (And even if I thought it was a great idea, I think I would still resent the way he is forcing his idea on the public.)

Draper might think that he is setting in motion a democratic process, that will allow the people to decide whether to support this plan or not. But as a California voter for more than 20 years, who has had to wade through countless propositions every time we have an election, my perception is that very few of these are conceived in a genuine spirit of democracy. Most are put on the ballot by special interests trying to bypass the legislature, or represent vanity projects by people like Tim Draper, who have the will and the means to use this method of gaining attention for their ideas. A lot of them are half-baked proposals of dubious constitutionality that sound good on the surface but haven't been thought through very thoroughly. I'm sure, however, that Tim Draper thinks that his plan was conceived in a pure spirit of altruism to benefit all of the people of California, and that it's just a coincidence that it also happens to allow him to remove his very own new state of Silicon Valley--the richest state in the nation--from whatever problems might be faced by the remaining five states of the new California.

Assuming we get to vote on this brilliant plan in 2016, here's how the campaign will go. Information will be diffused by pro and con forces at great expense through campaigns of television commercials and billboard ads. Both sides will present their campaigns in a selective and misleading way, and few voters will have all of the facts necessary to make an informed decision. Is this any way to decide such an important and complicated issue?

Whatever you want to say about the legislative process, and we can all agree that it is a deeply flawed process, on an issue like this one we can at least trust that the state legislature would refer it to a committee that would assemble facts and analysis in a way that would at least enable our legislators to have a reasonable idea of the benefits and costs of the plan, before they would vote on it. Since under the U.S. Constitution, the state legislature would have to do this anyway before any proposal like this could be sent to Washington where it would surely be killed in Congress by every other states' senators not keen on adding 10 more votes to California's senate delegation, it is hard to see the value of putting this proposal to a vote of the public before such a legislative process could begin.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Report from Jerusalem

Of all the times my 19 year old daughter could have chosen to travel to Israel for a birthright trip, she ended up going last week. While she was in Jerusalem, she participated in two air raids, in which she had to run down four flights from her hotel room to the mall under her hotel designated as a bomb shelter. The second time, she and her roommate didn't have time to make it all the way downstairs, so they had to huddle together in a stairwell with other guests at the hotel, waiting for the all clear signal. She's not experienced enough with rocket fire to distinguish different types of explosions, but was told both times that the booms she heard were actually the sounds of the Iron Dome interceptors deflecting the rockets before they could strike the ground. Now that she has experienced the anxiety of waiting to find out whether her building was going to be struck by a rocket, my daughter thinks the Iron Dome defense system is a great idea!

It's not exactly the experience we had in mind for her. But as she says, it has made her appreciate the struggle for survival of this small country, and also how difficult it is to understand a conflict until you find yourself in the middle of it.

Most of us are far removed from the situation, and hold only a partial understanding of the complicated historical background to this conflict. That doesn't seem to stop those of us posting snap reactions on Twitter or Facebook from holding ourselves out as experts and casting blame on one side or the other for causing all the trouble.

To those who see Israel only as the villain, I would ask what you would expect any nation to do upon being struck with barrages of rockets by a group pledged to the destruction of that nation? What would the United States do, for example, if militants in Mexico seized the city of Tijuana and began lobbing rockets into homes in San Diego? And how do you justify the deliberate targeting of civilians, and the deliberate concealment of rocket launching sites inside homes and schools? Finally, if Hamas knows that this rocket fire is going to trigger a massive retaliation in which Palestinian civilians will suffer disproportionately while Israelis will emerge mostly unscathed, don't they bear some responsibility for the deaths of their own people?

And to those who see Hamas only as the villain, I would ask whether the retaliatory bombing of Gaza is giving Hamas exactly the propaganda victory it wants. Is Israel playing into its enemy's hands by carrying out what many are viewing as a disproportionate response? How will these periodic wars help end the cycle of violence and allow Israel to live in peace?

What's horrifying about this latest spate of violence (in addition to the overwhelming worry of my own kid being in the middle of it) is not that it's senseless and tragic. It's that both sides actually have some logical reasons for pursuing violent methods. For Hamas, the Israeli bombing of Gaza may create sympathy for their cause from much of the world. For Israel, Hamas rockets provide the opportunity to gain at least a temporary increase in security by cleaning out some of the rocket bases from which attacks are being launched. But I wonder whether either side has properly calculated the longer term costs of attempting to resolve their conflict by violent means. Violence does not seem the most direct way to peace. Blaming one side or the other is also not the way to peace. And however important it may seem, establishing who is right and who is wrong is also not a sure path to peace.

The way to peace is through understanding of the other side's perspective, appreciation of both sides' common humanity, and figuring out practical ways in which people of different views and traditions can learn to live together.

UPDATE (7/17): Cora's full report in the Jewish Journal

Monday, July 7, 2014

Divided government

Polls show that public approval of Congress remains at historic lows. President Obama is still way more popular than Congress, but his ratings have taken a dip as well lately. All this negativity seems to reflect a general dissatisfaction or weariness with the federal government. My impression is that most people are fed up with Washington not so much because of the specific policy results that are or are not being achieved by our elected officials, but rather because of their inability to get much of anything done.

It's not hard to figure out why Congress can't get anything done. It boils down to simple numbers. Nothing can pass the House unless it is supported by the Republican majority, or unless the House Republican leadership is willing to put up a bill with bi-partisan support for a vote. And the Senate Republican minority will not allow most legislation to be put to a vote without 60 votes for cloture.

But when the question is placed to prospective voters whether they favor one party control of Congress and the White House or some variant of divided government, a surprising number are not troubled at all by divided government. In fact, a lot of voters seem to favor it, believing it is in line with the Constitution or something. It's mainly only partisan Democrats who think the solution is to elect more Democrats to Congress.

Is the message that American voters just don't understand the way their own government functions (or fails to function)? Or that they don't have the sense to do what is necessary to fix it, which most people in most other democracies in the world would tell you just means allowing one party or the other to assume control?

Or are Americans just manifesting the triumph of hope over experience? Gallup interprets the poll results to suggest that many people prefer divided government because they want Congress to compromise and enact a moderate agenda, fearing that complete control by one party or the other will produce legislation that is too extreme in either direction. Despite repeated demonstrations that many members of Congress consider it a betrayal of their principles to support anything that the other party might agree to, voters still continue to return those members to office, the most partisan voters demanding that their representatives never bend, while others expect them to compromise. We thereby place our own representatives in an impossible position, and then we blame Congress for a situation that we have created, and that we seem likely to perpetuate this coming November. (Remember Einstein's definition of insanity, which is to keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.) But you could also argue that it's about time for Congress to get the message that they need to try harder to reach consensus more often, even though by doing that many members will have to risk their own seats.