Saturday, August 31, 2013

Comments on Pres. Obama's decision to let Congress have its say over Syria

President Obama’s announcement Saturday to allow Congress to debate and vote on military action in Syria was probably dictated by a variety of practical considerations.  It may have come as a surprise, but looking back on the events of the week, it probably made sense.
It was clear that he did not get the international backing , a coalition of the willing he had hoped. The vote opposing military action  in the British parliament was very instructive . His liberal wing was not enthusiastic or supportive.  The body of evidence that could have been convincing was not presented publicly until Friday and judgment calls and policy decisions on both sides of the Atlantic were being made without knowing the full facts or the proof presented either publicly declassified or the more secretive information .  The UN inspectors’ report would not be ready for over a week, though the administration had already dismissed what they found as simply verifying that chemical weapons had been used but not by whom.  As expected, a UN resolution was a dead end thanks to Russia’s committed support of Assad.     The parameters, the purpose of any strike were still ill defined in the minds of many  in spite of powerful statements by Secretary of State John Kerry and the President’s Rose Garden press conference Saturday.
 The G20 meeting in Russia, September 5, 6,  was looming and the timing was getting very close.  Perhaps that conference in St. Petersburg would also give Pres. Putin and Pres. Obama a chance to come to some agreement on a UN resolution  since they both seem to come to the same conclusion that replacing Assad would result in  giving  more strength to Russia’s and the US’  common enemy…Al Qaeda and its clones and affiliates. That agreement  is a distant hope, but we can dream, can’t we.
Polls were showing that the American people wanted Congress to check in and give their seal of approval to any military action, and in fact  a Sen. Obama had already long ago advocated that Congress be consulted before launching military action. Many in the military had already expressed their misgivings, but the President is their Commander in Chief and good soldiers have always done as asked.  Remaining is the question  if Congress did vote against involvement or set unreasonable conditions, would Obama ignore them, since he made it clear he was committed to a military strike. He does have 60 days to launch a military attack without Congressional approval, though there are some restrictions  based upon the degree of  threat to national security.
There are some domestic political advantages to Democrats for throwing the ball to Congress. The Pres. needs time to bring along his own party and he needs time to make his case to the American people.  It is clear he has not yet  done so, given the polling  results.   There are many in Congress who do not want their vote on the record, especially those Republicans who are traditional foreign policy hawks  with primary races in districts where Tea Party and Libertarians have expressed disapproval of intervention, even limited.  While the Democrats are somewhat divided, the Republicans have a very large gap between the hawks of a Sen.  McCain and the isolationists.  That same divide between traditional pro business Republicans and upstart Teapartiers exists in other issues on social and economic issues  along the same lines.  Adding a fundamental disagreement over Syria to the existing divisions might further weaken Republicans and make it easier for the Democrats to hold onto their seats in 2014.  
What will be interesting is to see whether House Minority Leaders Nancy Pelosi, already announced in favor of limited strikes in Syria, can convince her Congressional  caucus in the House to go along with the President. However, first assessments by knowledgeable pundits indicate the Senate may back the President and return to Washington before the summer break  and the House has a chance to debate and vote. 
Whether or not our national interest is at stake will also be a  case Pres. Obama has yet to make convincingly to the public.  I for one do buy the argument that if we, or someone does not put a foot down on the use of chemical weapons now, we will have given the green light for others to use them in the future because they no longer fear repercussions.  Other bad actors could indeed believe they could use nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, too, with impunity and that would make this world much more dangerous.  This is a sophisticated argument to make to an electorate which is not very attuned to the chess game of international power players.
What our European allies ought to be doing now is to charge Assad with  war crimes for using chemical weapons and to  bring the case before the court in the  Hague or other internationally recognized tribunals.  That would at least get the ball rolling on condemning such actions with repercussions, much as it has done in the case of the Bosnian Serbs and the Khmer Rouge.
Whatever action is approved should be attached to an ultimate goal.  If not regime change, then perhaps negotiations along the line of the Dayton Accord that ended the bloodshed in the Bosnia conflict might be the best outcome. The least impressive outcome would be to degrade Assad’s delivery systems and air power and to leave it at that,  nothing more. Depending upon how extensive this action may be, the intended or unintended consequences could be either to level the playing field enough for both sides to want to  seek negotiation  or to  tilt the civil war in the direction of the rebels, an outcome  that may be even worse than an Assad dictatorship. We must be very careful what we wish.
 The way it looks at this time with many reluctant to get involved, Assad thinking he is off the hook, and even those moderate rebels in Syria who had hope they would get Western assistance be extremely disappointed,  that goal does not appear to have a prayer in hades.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Lessons from the Balkans and formulating a policy toward Syria

 Pres. Obama appears to be contemplating some sort of military intervention in Syria   in response to reports of a large chemical  weapons attack on civilians and increasing bi partisan pressure to take act. Whatever military action is taken, it should be effective enough to force the parties to the negotiating table instead of just a hand slap or a penalty for bad behavior. However, invasion and occupation should not be the objective, either.
As the time of writing,  Pres. Obama  is waiting for a UN report on whether  the Assad regime, or the rebels were the perpetrators and he wants to  assemble   an international  coalition, preferably with a UN resolution. . However, Pres. Obama is correct in making certain it was  the Assad regime  that used chemical warfare against civilians. That is a hard  lesson we learned from our blunder into the Iraq war.
We should  have learned much more from our excursions into conflicts  in the past twelve years.     From Afghanistan and Iraq we learned boots on the ground, occupation  and nation building cost us too much in blood and treasure and worked not so well. 
The President is also  seeking the cover of international law that defines the limits of our  goals and creates widespread international approval. It is counterproductive to advancing our national foreign policy and  interests  if we appear as the world bully and sometimes an ineffective one, at that. There is  help with military might, and a greater sense of world outrage at the kind of tactics the Assad regime appears to have employed if we get a large body of other nations to join us.
The Syrian civil war most  resembles the Balkan wars of the 1990’s which also involved a civil war between and among groups affiliated by religion.  Hatred erases many constraints on civilized  human behavior   We were able to level the playing field sufficiently  in Bosnia  by instituting no fly zones, strategic supplying of weapons to the extent  the warring parties saw further killing and battle as futile. The Dayton Accord ended the Bosnian conflict,   the bloodiest  war in Europe since  World War II.   NATO air strikes during the  Kosovo conflict  later caused regime change in Belgrade .  The cost of our own blood and treasure was quite small.
While Syria is indeed a larger scale of a  religious  driven version of the Bosnian conflict, it also has some differences:  The Assad regime has an effective air force making a casualty free enforcement of no fly zones less likely.  Missile strikes carefully targeted to avoid civilian casualties may be a better option.   Neighbors such as the Saudis and Iran  are already involved , which could expand the conflict to a general middle east conflagration.  Al Qaeda- like combatants have infiltrated the Sunni opposition and arms supplies will certainly fall into our enemies’ hands.
Knowing this, then why should we risk intervention in Syria? The reasons are pragmatic and moral.  We can always expect combatants to be casualties, but the nature of war changed in the 20th century.  War was no longer limited to trenches and marching armies; killing and terrorizing civilians became the dominant tactic and technology provided the means to do it on a massive scale.
 The massacres of Srebrenica  in the Serbian drive to ethnically cleanse Bosnia rightly motivated much of  the rest of the world to intervene. We could not tolerate another holocaust in Europe.

 The use of  chemicals or any of the  other many tools in the civilian mass  killing toolbox need international controls that rise above just verbal condemnation, inspectors, economic sanctions, or back door arms supplying.   The    destruction of civilian life as a tactic must be stopped  unless  others in the future believe they, too, can use such  inhumane practices  without severe repercussions. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013


 Listening to political talk this Sunday morning, I could not resist compiling  a list of the GOP’s  top  five horse feather absurdities about Obamacare.   Here they are in no particular order.
1.       “Obamacare has failed”
       The logic escapes me.  The most fundamental  parts of the law that insure 30 million left out of the system now  have not even  been implemented in full yet. Only the consumer protection measures for those already insured are in effect.  Enrollment in the exchanges, the programs  by which insurance will be made affordable for  30 million uninsured,  will not  begin until October and will only become functioning after Jan. 1, 2014
2.       “ Obamacare will hurt jobs because everyone employed will have their hours cut to 29  per week in order for business to avoid having to provide insurance”
It did not happen in the one lab test, the Massachusetts system, after which Obamacare was copied.
Under Obamacare, businesses with less than 50 employees are exempted from mandates to provide employee insurance. .Part time employees  will  be able to get affordable health insurance through the exchanges, anyway.

3.       “The GOP has a plan to replace Obamacare” . That is not  the current line uttered most by the GOP; the GOP party line is just to kill it.  However   Sen. Ted Cruz  (R-TX)laid out his replacement  plan on Sunday morning CNN talk:
                “Separate access of jobs  from insurance”.    Great idea.  Obamacare already goes a long way to doing it because if you  switch  jobs, you will not lose access to affordable health care. It is available  through the exchanges. 

“Cross state insurance competition will bring down rates to affordable levels”. That  is a farce.   If you buy insurance in another state, you will very likely run into the same insurance company, perhaps operating under a different name but owned by  Blue Cross, United, or the other few national conglomerates. Insurers are  not subject to anti trust laws, leaving them  free to set prices and  coverage  across state lines. Profit driven, they can continue  denying those with pre-existing conditions,  using more than 20% of premiums for overhead, setting life time caps on benefits, and charging high co pays,  all  practices Obamacare forbids.

Consumers buying insurance in another state would be at the mercy of regulators in that state, with little  recourse to  to dispute their denial of coverage or outrageous anti consumer practices..

Nothing ever proposed  by the GOP has provided  a fundable  method to subsidize those 30 million who cannot afford insurance now nor is there any independent study showing cross state purchase would lower rates enough for them to afford it.

The only free markets in health care are the Obamacare  exchanges which give Colorado consumers, for example, side by side, apples to apples, gibberish free comparisons and a choice of  over 500 plans from 18 providers.

4.       “The president should be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors”
What for? For using his executive authority to delay implementation of two sub provisions of Obamacare by one year at the request of business?

5.       “Obamacare will diminish the quality of our health care system just as national health has done elsewhere”.
The system  to which the GOP proposes to return, ranked the US near   the bottom by any measure… around 29th of  the industrialized nations, and  all except us   provide coverage  for everyone.
It is hard to see how  health care would  be diminished by  Obamacare that requires co-pay free annual checkups and cancer screening or  provides thirty million uninsured the same coverage as the already  insured. Those   30 million now  go without preventative care and  use   emergency rooms when they are too sick to treat themselves.  In return they receive  bills that they cannot pay, leading many to   bankruptcy .

Monday, August 19, 2013

The tweaking vs the killing seeking: the battle over Obamacare

Obamacare has become a battle of the tweaking   vs the  killing seeking.    President Obama bowed to pressure from businesses to give them more time to implement Obamacare, much to the ire of consumer advocates, and the GOP gleefully piped  that was more  evidence the whole law was a failure so kill off the whole law, even the consumer benefits. In fact, now  the full roll out of the law will happen by 2015, not 2014,  but the exchanges to cover the uninsured and most of the other consumer protection provisions will be operational  in 2014, with many already in effect now.
Recently,  Obama tweaked the law to make it easier for businesses to adjust their insurance programs and for the rollout to go more smoothly .  First,  he delayed by one year the penalties associated with the  mandate for employers to provide insurance  and next, he delayed for one year the implementation of a provision that required employer provided insurance to put a cap on excessive copays.  
The delay of the co-pay cap provision was frankly disappointing, but not fatal.  The outrageous out-of-pocket  requirements  of some  current employer insurance is one reason that even those who are insured end up in bankruptcy or lose their homes.
The disappointment Is that it will be an extra year  before victims of excessive co-pays  will be protected; the good news is that relief will kick into gear in 2015.  If the Teaparty GOP had its way, that protection would be repealed. In their crusade to kill off the law or knock the props out it by defunding the ability to implement it,  unpaid medical  bills would  continue to plague many.
It is also disappointing that the employer mandate to provide insurance was delayed a year.  Most large employers already provide insurance, but for those who do not,  their employees will have to wait one more  year. However, those employees who will continue to be uninsured  will still be able to get insurance they can afford through the exchanges that can subsidize their premiums based on  their income level.  If they succeed in killing health care reform, the GOP would leave those employees who do not get insurance now with no insurance whatever forever.
The most recent GOP disinformation line is  that young adults are going to get screwed by their mandate to buy health care.  Inclusion of healthy youth in Obamacare is a  necessity to make coverage of pre-existing conditions economically feasible by  increasing the insurance pool. Not including young people would make coverage of pre-existing conditions too expensive to provide.
What the GOP is proposing is to eliminate the requirement that those up to 26 can stay on their parents’ insurance. What about those whose parents do not have insurance themselves or will be reaching 26? So many younger workers in Grand County fit that description.
The independent Annenberg www. called “hooey”  a GOP legislator’s  claim that young people making  $14,000 a year would be stuck with a big tax bill or be unable to afford insurance. In states like Colorado that expanded Medicaid to cover 122% of poverty level, those working poor would be eligible  for Medicaid.  In those states that  did not expand Medicaid, their cost of insurance would be subsidized or they would be exempted from taxes by a hardship clause.  Those making too much for Medicaid still will get a subsidy based upon income and be eligible for cheaper catastrophic insurance.

 Stung  by charges that they have no replacement plan, all the GOP could offer  recently was to replace   Obamacare with the free market system, offering  no way whatsoever  to fund what  unregulated insurers  choose not cover.  That is an ideological statement,  not a plan. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Obama takes Obamacare on the attack, putting the GOP on defense

Pres. Obama  kicked  the issue of what he himself called” Obamacare” into higher gear  when he answered a question posed by the media in an August 9  press conference. His response became an attack on the GOP’s  central   campaign platform  for  2014 midterms: to defund Obamacare and shut down the government if they do not get their way.  Obama charged,   the idea that you would shut down the government unless you prevent 30 million people from getting health care is a bad idea. “ With that answer, he put the GOP on the defensive, a change from his own prior defensive  reliance on simply enumerating   health insurance reform benefits. The Democratic Party’s  job is now to run with the ball he has given them and to take this new, more aggressive approach  to  the public discourse.
 If Obama and his supporters continue to put the GOP on the defensive, the GOP will be unmasked  for what it really is.  It is  an ideologically fixated party that protects a   health care system that leaves too many with no access to good health care, and screws those already insured with anti consumer practices that have made inability to pay  health care bills the number one cause of personal bankruptcy.   The GOP’s Tea Party wing   will  also now have to defend their threat to close down the government, a tactic the GOP  tried once before that caused them to lose the next election cycle.
By stating  his health care reform  benefits in terms of what health care consumers would lose if the GOP succeeded,  Obama has a better chance to help the public  understand  the law’s benefits. So far just listing benefits of the law has been a failed strategy.  However, enough of Obamacare has been implemented for those 85% already insured by their employers for Pres. Obama to  make a  good case. He can and did  charge that the  GOP wants to  eliminate protecting consumers  from insurers that use  excessive amounts of premiums for  administrative overhead or stop  protecting them  from denial of insurance because of life time caps or pre-existing conditions.  The GOP will now  have defend their proposal to delete   such  popular provisions as  keeping young adults on parent’s policies, or copay free cancer screening, annual checkups  and contraception.   
The right wing media is full of claims that Obamacare is already a failure,  a bit premature since the implementation of the provision that would give a way for the uninsured to buy affordable insurance through exchanges has not even happened and will not begin until October, when consumers can begin to sign up.
 What will happen before the November 2014 midterms is that enough states will have successfully implemented Obamacare to show the potential  of success to other states who have done all they can to sabotage the program by refusing to expand Medicaid and/ or failed to set up their own affordable market place insurance  systems.    That explains why the Tea Party is focusing on defunding at this time , hoping to knock out the ability of states to succeed by taking away their  ability to finance implementation.  The Tea Party fears Obamacare’s success.
That there are some improvements that could be made in the law is indisputable. For example, the small number  of businesses butting up to the  50 employee threshold level and do not already offer insurance, may reduce their full time workforce. There are proposals that have been made to solve the issue,  but the GOP Party of No  refuses to even consider any legislative tweaks in favor of just killing off the entire legislation. Therefore, the President has been making his own tweaks whenever he can do it administratively.
Obama is  onto something. His  approach  of going on the attack by painting the GOP into an anti consumer, unreasonable corner may well  be a winner.