30 November 2009

Obama's Fateful Mistake: committing more than 30K additional troops in the Graveyard of Empires

I have made clear here before my strong belief that there is no winning strategy, and no compelling national interest, justifying American presence in Afghanistan. I simply do not buy into any of the arguments that sending in more troops will have any positive effect whatsoever; quite the opposite. Andrew Bacevich has written about this, as have numerous others with direct experience in the region, including Robert Baer. In a nutshell, there is no way to "win" this war, and there is no longer any realistic casus belli based on suppression of radical Islamist terrorism. The Taliban is not al Qaida, as everyone who knows the region admits, and there is no significant threat of attack on American territory from Afghanistan. Our relations with Pakistan, a nuclear power with 165 million people, are of far greater import, and are only being made worse by continued American military action in Afghanistan.

Of course, one can always focus on the differences, but this escalation is very disturbingly reminiscent of Vietnam, circa 1965, with the same beltway/Pentagon vision of a plan that can't work, and prospects for ever-increasing demands from the military for more and more escalation, until eventually the total failure of the policy becomes so onerous and so manifest that the people will demand that the plug be pulled.

One big difference: in 1965 the majority of the public still supported the president's getting America more deeply involved in a war with no coherent US interests at stake. This time, they don't. So, although fewer American lives are likely to be lost, in some ways the situation is worse from a political viewpoint. I see this as a very dangerous and potentially devastating mistake on President Obama's part, which may very well sink his presidency, unless this apparent policy trend is reversed soon.

With each passing month, it becomes clearer. Withdrawal is the only reasonable option. General Petraeus himself acknowledged that there is no Qaida in Afghanistan. There is also no opportunity to bribe Sunni tribesmen to stop cooperating with those attacking us, as there was in Iraq. (The so-called "surge" had very little to do with it, and some of the money came from Saudi Arabia; but in any case there's just nothing comparable in Afghanistan). This is a very poor, tribal country, where we have already spent far more than the GDP of the country propping up narco-gangsters and corrupt pseudo-government officials (just like in Vietnam), and waging a war that can never be won. The only effect has been turning a population that once welcomed us against us. This has happened already.

President Johnson agonized over Vietnam, and he worried that the American people would stop supporting the effort, which of course they did, eventually. Bill Moyers recently broadcast an entire hour of Johnson's taped conversations from that formative time, and the parallels with the present dilemma jumped out. President Obama should pay attention to the fact that the American people already have withdrawn majority support for this war. This is not a minor consideration: our country has no business fighting wars the people do not support.

Which brings me to another point. Congress has no business continuing to tolerate the Executive making the decision as to whether war will or will not be prosecuted. President Obama is acting with Congressional authorization, as far as it goes. But it is time for the Congress to take its constitutional responsibilities seriously and direct that this war be brought to a close. The framers gave the warmaking power to Congress for a very good reason. If there is one overriding lesson to be learned from the entire postwar era, it's that giving the Executive de facto power to wage war is a huge mistake. It makes no difference whether the presidency is Republican or Democratic; carte blanche authorizations to commit or engage U.S. troops or war materiel abroad must not be forthcoming going forward: every decision to commit to military action beyond a brief emergency window must be under the control of the legislative branch. This is what our constitution requires, and the longer we tolerate deviance from it, the less our government resembles the representative system the framers of the Constitution intended.

This war is heading for nowhere but disaster, at a time when far more pressing needs present themselves for attention from our limited resources here at home. We must bring this fiasco to an end. The President should ask Gates, Mullen, Petraeus and McChrystal for a realistic plan to extricate us from this country as soon as humanly possible consistent with protection of American lives and reasonable conservation of resources. Any of them who fail to comply or publicly obstruct the president's intentions should be summarily dismissed. I think particularly McChrystal (who unquestionably lied about the Pat Tillman affair and was insubordinate in publicly calling for troop increases before a decision was made), should be eased into retirement as soon as practicable anyway.

What else can we do? We can and should ask the Saudis to step in and offer financial aid to their fellow Muslims, and contribute to humanitarian aid for a time. We can try to convene a U.N. sponsored Peace Conference, and enlist the aid of countries in the area, including China, in offering development aid to Afghanistan. We have done a lousy job, due mainly to corruption both of contractors and the so-called government there, at building schools, hospitals, and economic infrastructure, which are the very things that could bring the people of that unfortunate country out of the desperate poverty and universal unemployment that makes them see the Taliban as a better option. Other countries may have greater success in offering to fund and carry out development projects, which we can support to some extent. But regardless of the success of such an effort, we must announce the intention to withdraw, and carry it out in an orderly and reasonably rapid manner. Ultimately, the building of a nation in Afghanistan is not our responsibility. Moreover, given the lack of support for the effort here at home, is not a good enough reason to maintain a military presence in that country any longer than is necessary to bring that very presence to an end.

UPDATE 12/1;   In a nine-minute Special Comment on 11/30, Keith Olbermann expressed views similar to mine.

20 November 2009

Lou Dobbs's coming political career

Report: Lou Dobbs mulling run for the White House or Senate.

I think Lou Dobbs's career will make Harold Stassen look like a Lion among Politicians. I predict 4-5% vote in whatever election he foolishly runs in, and an abrupt and permanent end to his career almost before it begins.

McCain predicts success. Oh oh.

Reports: McCain predicts "success" in Afghanistan in 18 months, if only Obama OKs more troops.

Why, WHY, would anyone take seriously anything John McCain says about foreign policy or military prospects? Can anyone's record of accuracy in making such predictions be worse, other than, perhaps, Dick Cheney's? or Donald Rumsfeld's?

16 November 2009

Cheney 2012! (!)

I offer as Exhibit A in proof that the entire Cheney family is completely divorced from reality the report that daughter Liz (tell me again why anything she says is news?) floated a trial balloon on (where else?) Fox News to the effect that Pops may run for President in 2012.

Earth to Cheneys: Pops's approval rating remains in the teens. He remains the most unpopular vice-president ever. (And for very good reason).Yes, worse than admitted bribe taker Spiro Agnew.

I hope he does run. A little public humiliation is good for the soul. Oh, wait, soul and Dick Cheney are kind of mutually exclusive, aren't they?

13 November 2009

Thoughts on Afghanistan

Discussing Afghanistan with a friend in an e-mail exchange, I wrote this:
I'm not big on invasions and wars in general, but do you realize that if the US had, in December, 2001, chosen to set up a "Occupation Government of Afghanistan" modeled on the Occupation of Japan from 1945-51, we could very well be leaving right now, having transitioned to a stable sovereign parliamentary government and a grateful population? Instead of installing an arch criminal whose brother is a drug kingpin as a "government," while switching focus and resources to an entirely unnecessary war in Iraq. Remember? They were ecstatic when the Taliban was overthrown and Qaida expelled. Sure, things could have gone wrong, but we didn't even try. Afghanistan is a really poor country. Only $50B GDP. Even if the US had just paid every adult over the age of 20 $1500 a year in cash to grow wheat and barley, not opium, and do whatever else they were already doing, we would have spent far less than we have, and the Taliban would have no foothold, because the economy of the country would be starting to function.

Oh well, I always was a utopian dreamer. But it's totally clear to me that sending in more soldiers will only make the situation worse, keep US involvement there longer, cost more, and make the world and even the US itself a more dangerous place. (And, of course, cause huge suffering and loss of life). It will increase the number of young Muslim men from the Mahgreb to Indonesia who are convinced that we are waging the 10th Crusade against their religion and civilization. (Which I'm not totally sure isn't true; check out Mikey Weinstein's http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org/voices.html ).

12 November 2009

Afghanistan Options and Gen. McChrystal

It's being pretty widely reported that President Obama is demanding revisions to the "options" presented to him for changing the course of the Afghanistan war, in the wake of the strongly worded public disagreement by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry (a former military commander) with the request by Gen. McChrystal for more troops.

First, I gather from what's been reported that orderly full withdrawal is not one of the options being presented to the President. I have to ask, why the hell not? Even if you disagree with that course, it must be considered, since the whole rationale for our being in Afghanistan has come under widespread question. The option to pull the plug and get out just has to be one of the possible courses the President gives consideration to. (I've made clear that this is the option I think best for our country).

Second, I gotta ask: why the hell hasn't McChrystal been fired? He was openly insubordinate in giving a policy speech in London. Any high level military officer who presumes to do an end run around the chain of command and tries to pressure decisions by the President should be cashiered immediately and ignominiously.

11 November 2009

Yet another disgusting comparison of the President to Terrorists

This report of a comparison by a State Senator from Colorado Springs, CO of Obama to terrorists hijacking Flight 93, is so disgusting that it appalls me that someone like this can hold elective office in this country.

I have relatives in Colorado Springs, with whom I generally disagree politically. I certainly hope they have enough just plain decency to vote this thoroughly objectionable human being out of office permanently.

10 November 2009

Four Options for Afhghanistan ?

It's now being reported that President Obama has narrowed the options for going forward in Afghanistan to four options. I sure as hell hope one of those options is to draw down and subsequently withdraw from the region altogether, concentrating instead on a diplomatic strategy with Pakistan. And that this is the option he chooses.

It's become crystal clear to me that there is no compelling US interest in Afghanistan. Period.

It also can hardly be clearer that Afghanistan has a huge potential, even an overwhelming likelihood, of becoming and remaining throughout the President's term(s) of office a catastrophic quagmire, comparable in many ways to Vietnam. 

05 November 2009

GOP Reform = No Reform

How can that mentally deficient idiot John Boehner keep a straight face? The CBO report says the Republican's ridiculous health care "reform" bill will reduce the deficit by less than the Democrats' bill, will insure very few if any people not currently insured, and will not reform any of the abusive practices (rescission, pre-existing condition exclusion) that have caused this crisis. Good, goin' Repubs. Introduce a reform bill that reforms exactly nothing.

What I don't understand is how can they, or their Fox News cheerleading section, expect anyone to fall for this claptrap?

03 November 2009

Some provisions I'd like to see in a New Constitution

I have offered a Modest Proposal (admittedly utopian), for a Constitutional Convention to rewrite our Constitution to make government actually work for the people. Here's a laundry list of provisions I'd like to see. 

  •  Preservation of the basic structure, with three branches of government, a President serving no more than 2 four-year terms, and two houses of Congress, House and Senate, elected for 2 years and for 6 years, respectively, as at present, and a court system consisting of a Supreme Court and subsidiary courts subject to regulation, establishment and organization by the Legislative Branch, as at present. The New Constitution will preserve everything in the old constituiton that isn't explicitly changed, the existing amendments to the old constitution will be incorporated into the main body of the document except where moot or superfluous due to new provisions
  •  Direct popular election of the President (ending the Electoral College system)
  •  Explicit and specific provisions to ensure fairness in vote-counting and election rules nationwide, both Federal and other jurisdictions
  •  Automatic runoff in all elections (national and local) where a candidate fails to garner 50%+1 (possibly incorporating or permitting "second choice" voting enabling the run-off and election to occur simultaneously)
  •  One senator per state, with the same number -- the other half -- of the Senate elected by proportional representation by population, except that all Senators to be elected at large within each State entitled to that number of Senators by population
  •  Limited Debate in both houses of Congress by explicit constitutional requirement; no filibuster
  •  An end to gerrymandering, affecting not only House Districts, but all state government districting as well, by imposing a rational mathematical scheme to ensure unbiased representation by population, to prevent incumbent bias and control of government by special interests; the executive charged to faithfully execute this requirement, including through use of the justice department to sue the states where necessary
  •  Term limits for Congress: 2 Senate Terms; 5 House Terms (this would also have the effect of removing most of the disadvantages and bias of the Seniority System); with or without, as the Congress may decide, the right to run again after sitting out a certain period (with loss of all seniority)
  •  Term limits for judges, including Supreme Court Justices: ten years, with one term only; no reappointment (this in recognition that judges are not elected, and have a great deal of arbitrary power; no one should hold this power indefinitely)
  •  A New Bill of Rights, in part modeled on that of the European Union, that guarantees voting rights, employment assistance, health care, non-discrimination on the basis of sex, race, age, sexual orientation, religion, immigrant status, or ethnicity; workplace safety, clean environment, compliance with the Geneva Conventions (including no torture or coercive interrogation): this spelled out, not incorporated by reference; rules of evidence, no surveillance of citizens or legal residents without court order (including electronic surveillance), habeas corpus. Freedom of Information and access to information. Modification to the 2d amendment to allow localities to ban assault weapons, handguns, etc. Non-citizens present in the United States or subject to US legal process shall have enumerated due process rights and may not be held without judicial process. Complete separation of Church and State explicitly enumerated, with public education prohibited from presenting religious viewpoints as fact; freedom to worship or not to worship as citizens see fit; no public prayer or religious ceremonies in public institutions, with a carefully crafted exception for cultural displays of religious art or symbols in public places without the intent to promote any particular religion; right to old age security; right to collective bargaining; and other fundamental rights, in addition to the rights currently enumerated (and clarified to account for changes in technology, etc)
  •  Congress or the States may tax property or income of non-profit organizations or religious institutions, at their discretion
  •  A statement of principle whereby the US will not engage in preemptive war, or attack or invade other nations except in self-defense, and shall not seek territorial expansion by force
  •  War powers clarified: the president may not commit US troops or war materiel to hostile action or presence on foreign soil for more than, say, 45 days for any reason without a Declaration of War or other specific authorization, which if passed by both houses of Congress, must be renewed at least every 180 days
  •  A statement of principle whereby the nation will support and promote self-determination and democracy by peaceful means, and not act to assist (financially or militarily) dictatorships, nor states which the Congress, or if the Congress makes no such finding, the President, shall find do not adhere to generally acceptable standards of human rights and self-determination and representation of all citizens
  •  A statement of principle whereby the United States must cooperate with other nations to preserve a habitable world, but must also conduct its trade policies to give priority to its own peoples' welfare
  •  Explicit rules of economic democracy, to prevent corporations or other organizations (including labor unions) from buying and selling influence, and subject them to ultimate control, as chartered entities of the several states, to serve the public interest (as was the case before laissez-faire court decisions in the 19th Century); Congress to have the power to revoke the charter, or prohibit the activities, of any interstate or multinational corporation for unlawful conduct or conduct found by the Congress to be "not in the public interest."
  •  Statement of Principle that the Congress shall set public policy in general substance, and not delegate "proper" powers of the Legislature to the executive branch or agencies
  •  Explicit changes to Article II drastically restricting the power of the President to ignore the law, or to act outside of it; explicitly stating that any statements appended to laws signed by the president shall be deemed surplus and void of effect
  • Presidential veto preserved, but no line item veto 
  •  A statement of principle that it is a legitimate purpose of the Federal Government to promote the welfare of the citizens of the nation, and to regulate finance and commerce to prevent injustice or unfair advantage
  •  Detailed Clarification of the powers now appropriated to the Federal Government under the Commerce Clause
  •  A new provision to make it easier for states with more than a certain percentage (say 6%) of the population of the country, as established by the Census, to split into two states, if that state's own electorate or representatives shall decide to do so, according to each such state's own laws, without requirement for approval by the other states or by Congress
  •  Explicit rejection of the notion that political money equates with political speech; enabling and requiring, but not specifying the details of, real public financing and spending limits on election campaigns
  •  Provision that the Congress may impeach the president or any official of the executive, including any military officer, or any Federal judge, for any reason or no reason, but with a fairly high hurdle to actually do it; essentially the system now in place apart from the grounds
  •  Explicit restrictions on legal requirements for supermajorities, to those few spelled out in the constitution • these to be specifically and explicitly applicable to the States as well as the Federal government, so that State governments are ensured functional representative government too
  •  Federal Referendum, but not Initiative or Recall
  •  Any bill that fails to pass both houses, but receives at least 45% of the vote of both houses, shall, on motion receiving that same margin, be submitted to the people as a Referendum; with certain exceptions, notably no declaration of war or authorization for military action by referendum
  •  Referenda, when passed, become law, and are not subject to presidential veto
  •  No law enacted by referendum may be repealed or amended within ten years, except by at least 55% vote of both houses, subject to presidential veto 
  •   Provision to make it slightly (not too much) easier to amend the constitution or to call another Constitutional Convention
  •  Ratification of the new constitution shall be by referendum to the people; if simple electoral majorities of 2/3 of the states adopt the constitution, it is ordained. 
  • The constitution would prohibit secession explicitly, but might make provision to permit any state that did not wish to join the revised union to withdraw rather than ratify. (This could create logistical nightmares, but would be worth considering at least). 

Yet another letter to Reid about Lieberman off the reservation

Dear Sen. Reid:

I've written about this before, but it bears repeating. Sen. Lieberman is WAY, WAY off the reservation on the public option.

If he follows through with his whining threat to vote against cloture on the final bill, he MUST suffer the consequence of losing his committee chairmanships, in particular Homeland Security.

If this is made perfectly clear to him in advance, it may influence him to support the Democratic party, for once. If not, then he is no Democrat and should not be entitled to the privileges appurtenant to "caucusing" with the Democrats. It can hardly be clearer than that if he votes to kill this historic opportunity, the most important reform of President Obama's first term in office, he is for ALL intents and purposes a Republican, not a Democrat. If he were to openly declare himself as such, he would lose his privileges. This vote, if he follows through on it, AMOUNTS TO THE SAME THING as declaring himself a Republican.

This man may be a friend of yours, but he is no longer a Democrat in any meaningful way. Gov. Dean and Sen. Harkin are right: if he fails to follow the unwritten rule requiring him to support YOU on this critical procedural vote, he must suffer the gravest consequences possible.

I sincerely hope that the very real threat of those consequences will cause him to change his mind, but that threat MUST BE REAL, and must be followed through on if it fails to change his vote, to show others that there are consequences to sabotaging not only the agenda of the party but the clear will of the majority of Americans. In this case, it is particularly disgusting for Sen. Lieberman to take the position he is taking, in view of the fact that over 2/3 of his own state constituents disagree with his stance on this issue.

Thank you.

02 November 2009

Dysfunctional Government: My Modest Proposal

I live in a state, California, which is paralyzed by probably the worst Legislative Institutional Blockage in American History, thanks in large measure to the preposterous rules requiring 2/3 votes for tax or budget changes. These all date to what I believe is the single worst law ever enacted in the United States, in this case a ballot proposition changing the State's constitution, 1978's Prop. 13. Former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg has proposed a State Constitutional Convention to effectively repeal the worst provisions of this damaging law, and to make other needed changes in the way California is governed. (Incidentally, it is not the 1% ad valorem property tax cap provision which is so harmful; it's the provisions for supermajority requirements for both initiative and legislative votes to raise any taxes, or to pass a budget, which are so crippling).

Which brings me to my actual topic. I regard the dysfunction that has gradually settled over the U.S. Senate, with its effective supermajority to pass any affirmative legislation, and its gross institutional bias in favor of the party of No!, as comparable to the blockage which has paralyzed California. To me, while there are other serious institutional problems in our government, this one is so bad, and so harmful, that it alone justifies the ultimate solution which I have come to believe is necessary. And since this solution is sweeping and all-encompassing, it would give our generation of Americans the opportunity to make historic reforms to our entire system of government, for the benefit of all Americans.

Our country is being gravely harmed by the inability, despite a strong majority on all levels, to pass meaningful reform legislation that actually works. I offer the mess that is the drawn-out process for enacting Health Care Reform, as proof by example. After months and months, and countless hours of stupid debate and nonsensical media ranting and raving, mostly about side-issues and non-issues (as in, lies about what the bills would do), it looks like the entire effort will result in a pitiful, not-even half measure. Dennis Kucinich decried, Is this the best we can do? Because if it is, it isn't good enough. 

He's right, of course. It isn't nearly good enough. And not because the majority of Americans don't support robust and efficient reform. They do, and the polls prove it. It's because of the institutional dysfunction, primarily in the Senate, which makes it easy to block any action, but requires near impossible majorities to accomplish anything. Other countries don't have this problem. In most European countries, where the majority votes for something, it becomes law. A party that can only muster 20 or 30% to call themselves adherents could never block reform. But here, they can, because they can effectively prevent the Senate from acting on legislation.

This has been played out over and over, as instead of rational and efficient legislation, we end up with stupid, ineffective, inefficient, and counter-productive government on every level. No Child Left Behind, but no funding. Medicare Prescription Drug Reform, but no ability to negotiate prices, and one of the most confusing and irrational schemes ever for actually providing the benefit (the "donut hole.") Not to mention the institutional bias that makes ridiculously wasteful military industrial spending virtually impossible to oppose, due to the power of regional and corporate interests to impose their priorities, regardless of what the electorate wants or thinks. Next on the Agenda? Watered down and ineffective financial re-regulation, and inadequate and ineffective Climate Change Legislation. Count on it. If anything is passed in either area, it will not be enough, will not be rational or efficient, and will not reflect the demonstrable will of the electorate.

Examples of the essentially dysfunctional nature of the Legislative Branch in general, and the Senate in particular, are virtually endless. 

My Modest Proposal?

I believe the only way around this historic paralysis is to finally do what Thomas Jefferson assumed we would do once in every generation or so: we must revise the Constitution by holding, for only the second time in our history, a National Constitutional Convention. 

I think it's safe to conclude that a proposed constitutional amendment to change the way the Senate is constituted, and change its rules by Constitutional provision, could never get the support of 3/4 of the State Legislatures required to enact a constitutional amendment. They would be too determined to preserve the undue influence they now have.

But maybe, just maybe, as the harm to our economy, our ability to effectively provide the kinds of services that most people in the world regard as the very purpose of government, and our standing in the world, all deteriorate progressively, it will become possible to prevail in a political movement for a National Constitutional Convention.

I used to be opposed to any such notion, thinking the tripartite government, with its various checks and balances, that our 18th century forbears created, was so valuable, and so protective of our rights, that we could not risk losing it. But it seems to me, that system has largely failed. Our rights are not being preserved. The Bush administration effectively abrogated many of them, and even the Obama administration has been slow to see to their robust restoration. Moreover, the system just doesn't work. Look at the way health care has gone: it's a total mess, despite strong support from a large majority in almost every state.

Of course, it's risky. Special interests control politics very effectively in this country, and we could, one might argue, end up with a sort of fictitious democracy, with oligarchy institutionalized once and for all. But I have enough faith in the force of the will of the people, who will demand fairness and functionality, to believe that wouldn't happen. And I have come to believe that our system of government, our military/industrial/Congressional complex, as Dwight Eisenhower warned, and in particular the institutional flaws that make it possible, are in fact so very bad, that whatever emerges from a full scale Constitutional Convention is unlikely to be worse. The reality is that we have oligarchy now, with government by and large bought and paid for by special interests.

I think it's possible to raise the consciousness of the people, so to speak, till they demand that the system of government itself be changed, so that the will of the people is more effectively reflected in the output of, in particular, the Legislature, and so that such dangerous concepts as Dick Cheney's theory of a "unitary executive" are disposed of once and for all. Moreover, many of the rights and principles that have evolved since 1789 as essential elements of the "American Way," but which are not explicit in the Constitution, could be made so. Further, some of the more dubious and harmful elements of our political system, many of them derived from questionable judicial precedents, such as the concept that Corporations are persons without particular responsibilities to act in the public service, could be changed to make our whole political/economic system work more effectively to not only create prosperity for all, but with essential fairness and equity as hallmarks of the law on all levels.

I will post further on this topic as time goes on.