Sunday, November 29, 2015

Violating constitutional principles is like riding the tiger

Our founding fathers were wise men.  They established the Constitution that is as relevant today as it was in the late 18th century. It is being attacked by those who advocate ignoring the basic principles of that document because they are fearful.  Fear and hate are also powerful tools for those seeking power. We need to support the principles of the Constitution. To do otherwise is like riding the back of a tiger. It will eventually devour us as it has others.
It was not that our nation’s founders foresaw a nation or a world that would have the internet, a widespread bully pulpit of cable TV, weapons of mass destruction or firearms that would require little skill to be used as killing machines, but they drew on experiences of governance failures and the tendencies of human nature.
 Those writers of the Constitution carefully constructed a representative democracy, not a direct one that immediately reflected an ever fickle, easily spooked, public opinion.  They believed that extreme views and their proponents needed to be tempered. They had seen it all: religious wars in England and Europe. They had experienced public opinion influenced by pamphlets and rabble rousers and saw some hanging fellow colonialists who did not subscribe to the official religion of that particular colony.
 They had also witnessed the repression by kings governing by divine right, exercising power over their subjects’ lives.  So they wrote a document that made it less likely that there would ever be a king, yet left a government with enough powers to be effective.  They divided the power of federal government among three branches.  Even within the legislative branch, a more contemplative Senate put the brakes on a House more sensitive to the tides of public sentiment. They also retained some rights for the states.  When branches conflicted, they let the courts decide which act the closest to the intent of the Constitution, as they are doing now.  They amended the Constitution to protect individual citizens from being trampled by an overbearing, unfair government.
There are destructive forces today that undermine the principles upon which the Constitution was founded. For example, Donald Trump proposes registering all Muslims, forcing them to wear monitoring devices (violating more than one of the rights protected by the first Ten Amendments), and the use of torture. Others, such as John Kasich, want to set up a government agency to promote Judeo Christian values and thus de facto establishing a state religion in a nation that is multi-  and non- religious. The glue that holds such a diverse nation together is the Constitution, not allegiance to a religion’s particular interpretation of values.

Our forefathers formulated the Constitution to temper human nature’s instincts to embrace safety within the fold of like- minded groups.   It is that very human tendency to seek the leadership that is willing to throw under the bus the basic rights of individuals and the constraints of government power in the name of national security. It is only human to seek a strong man for protection, regardless of where he/she leads us. We saw it in Germany and Spain in the 1930’s and in Argentina under populist Peron in the 1950’s

A version of this was published in the Sky Hi Daily News  12/4/2015

Monday, November 23, 2015

Fear is the enemy of rational action 2017

Update Nov 2107  originally published 11/23/15
Thanksgiving is celebrated with remembrance of the Pilgrims founding their colony and surviving.  They were, after all, our first refugee/immigrants from tyranny. Other than Columbus Day, we celebrate few others who arrived later.  We forget that waves of immigrants were often met with scorn, prejudice, or rejection based on fear that they were Papists or socialists or had different traditions. Eventually we absorbed them into the American culture and they embraced our values.

 Ambitious politicians have exploited fear to fuel their rise to power, especially in times of threats from abroad.  Fear is a powerful force that is the enemy of rational action.    Unfortunately, fear sometimes caused us to commit acts contrary to ideals, laws, and Constitution.  Worst of all, because of fear, we may be led to strike out blindly only to repeat failed strategies.

To draw on Franklin Roosevelt’s oft quoted words:” We have nothing to fear but fear itself”’, we need leadership that does not deny the feelings of fear nor spooks the herd to panic and bolt over the cliff. We need leadership that addresses and reassures public concerns, and devises plausible, workable strategies weighed against possible counter-productive actions.  That is the rational approach; but we are not getting that from either side of the aisle.

We have some examples of what fear can do.  We have hung our heads in shame, as we did after our realization of the injustice we did to internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II.  Fear of weapons of mass destruction was hyped to the public by some members of the Bush administration post 9/11 to motivate support for the ill-fated invasion and occupation of Iraq.  Invasion and occupation of Iraq upset the balance of power, gave rise to Iran’s regional domination, and created a backlash that gave birth to ISIS and the new generation of 20 something terrorists behind the Paris attacks.

President Obama was highly criticized for his “tone” in response to the Paris events.  He could have reassured scared Americans by indicating he understood their fears as Roosevelt did.  He could have announced he would increase the amount and intensity of what he was already doing. His strategy mostly resembled his critics ’proposals, anyway. He did not. Instead, he played down the threat and derided his critics. That made him appear disconnected from the public and reality and he is suffering in the polls. Fortunately for him he is not up for re-election.

However, sometimes national interests or basic American values may not be in sync with public opinion. Often forgotten was that the majority of public opinion was opposed to taking in Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Pres. Roosevelt, looking at a third term run, read the polls.  Boatloads of the refugees  were turned away from the US .  We need leadership that extolls our values and applies them to current situations even if it is not momentarily popular or vote getting.

Stampeding the public  to start fascist-like registration lists of all US Muslims, or only to admit Christian immigrants in defiance of our Constitution, would fulfill the goal of ISIS, to realize  their religious destiny of a war between the West and Islam, and it would serve the terrorists as a  recruiting tool..

A version of this appeared in the Sky Hi Daily News  November 27, 2015

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The battle of the 20 something nerds has begun: ISIS v Anonymous

The battle of the 20 something nerds has begun. ISIS attacks on Paris were about that generation. The perps, thr victims, the communication technology were mostly theirs. Joining against ISIS is also an ally from that generation...a group of secret, controversial skilled hackers who work outside the law worldwide. Let them get to work. May they out-fox ISIS and do what Silicon Valley will and cannot do.

Anonymous - Operation Paris Continues #OpParis JOIN US: - Connect with Anonymous - Subscribe ● http://www.yo…

The opening salvo:
It appears ISIS may have fought back with a disinformation story aimed at discrediting Anonymous:

While I do not usually quote wikipedia, this may help us older folks  get a better grasp of Anonymous for those of us who wonder.  They are in a sense the Robin Hoods of the Internet. .

 I am grateful for my 20 something grandson who tuned me into them.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Turning away refugees because of their Syrian origina is not the first time that has been advocated, sadly. The US did it to boatloads of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

The 31 governors who recently declared Syrian refugees were un-welcome, their settlement should be unfunded, and especially Muslims should be excluded, reminded me of another ugly chapter in US history. As the Nazi's were about to close the German borders, Jews climbed on ocean liners for Cuba and then to the US...and both turned them away. Those governors, mostly Republicans, say they fear vetting is inadequate and say we ought to wait for a while to get it right first . They conveniently neglect to note that the vetting process for refugees to be allowed into the United Sates takes two years and scrutiny by multi federal agencies..

For a first person accounting, visit

Messaging and tone cut both ways for the GOP and the President

That the President delivered his remarks after the G20 meeting was indeed a missed opportunity to demonstrate world leadership.  Immediately after his vigorous defense of his strategies, he was hit for his “tone”, not for the substance of his strategy..  The problem is that the GOP does have a tone that is politically smart, but strategically empty. The President has a substantive strategy, but it is politically deficient. Both parties need to retool and show what they would do or are doing otherwise, or pointing blaming fingers.

Here is the GOP  unspoken platform so far: “ Even if the President has stated his strategy, we will  deny he has any.   We should be fearful, resent foreigners because of their religion or their language or their color of their skin, and always criticize any Presidential action whatever it is.  Instead, let us wave the American flag and threaten action, whether it worked in the past  or not or whether or not the US has the political will or ability to carry it out.”  That may be politically smart, but it does nothing to show a better ability to solve the issue they identified,  demonstrate leadership ability,  or are in touch with reality.

 If the GOP proposes more of what the administration is already doing, then they have admitted the President’s strategy is correct but he needs just to do more of it and execute it better.   If they demand the US take  world leadership, then they should not limit his ability to strike diplomatic and military alliances, even with Russia or Iran,Turkey, and NATO. The President should not be criticized for taking advantage of an opportunity.  ISIS has given him a gift, since it has given countries previously unwilling to put ISIS at the top of their enemy list, to change their priorities. ISIS may have goaded the bulls to their detriment with their having been behind terrorist attacks in Ankara,Turkey,  the Russian passenger plane,  or Paris. 

Here is the President’s  spoken and unspoken platform so far: “ I cannot reassure you that we can doing anything to assuage your fears  It is hard to combat a bomber wearing a vest;  it is going to take years for whatever I am doing to work” .  That  message is bad politics, but it may be realistic strategy.

The President  should reassure the fearful public that he is understanding their fears in the wake of the Paris attacks  and is taking  additional steps immediately  even if it is already being done , has been done, or  already is his part of his strategy. He should put his message in clear  bullet points  of positive statements.  He should not put it in context of answering GOP criticisms or challenging them.  He has done that enough. Leave that up to others in the future.. 

For example, while citing successes when the public only sees failure, say he will delay admitting Syrian refugees for a year and up our vetting game by asking for more funding and focus,  and that is in effect what is being done anyway. If he agrees with carving up safe havens  for refugees near Syria, he talks about how he would do that. Instead of touting token increase in special ops, in Syria and Iraq,  he should underline the total of special ops already involved now , what their engagement rules are, and  say we will send more, even if he had it in plans anyway. Instead of saying we have shadowed x number of Homeland Security’s identified suspected domestic terrorists, and stopped x number of plots,  he should say we are increasing manpower and techniques to disrupt or hack their communications,  even though that is his current policy on the date of the statement. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

The attacks in Paris by ISIS terrorists and the downing of a Russian airliner could be game changers, but what will be the game? What changed Friday the 13th was the realization that ISIS was not a localized land grab and a fight between them and other Muslims that did not share their ideology, but their radical movement had gone global.  They were now a threat to homelands from Russia to Turkey to Western Europe to the US.   It was also clear that the failure of intelligence services was profound and the terrorists had figured away to communicate in secret.

The G20 summit taking place in Turkey as this column is being written will be extremely revealing of any definitive change in attitudes of Russia and Turkey, who so far have not given priority to taking action against ISIS.  It is also an opportunity for Pres. Obama to take the lead in organizing action, at least so far as our Arab allies and NATO are concerned. Whatever we do, we should not make threats we cannot back up. We have done too much of that already.

What now?  The fallout will be profound on global realignment and alliances based on convenience or sympathy. Already there have been changes in attitude expressed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry, who came to an agreement for a road map for a political settlement in Syria.  While all the players have their own national agendas, it is clear that none of their agendas can succeed so long as ISIS remains a force.

The fallout will also impact the US race for president.  The real danger is that the hawks in the Republican party may beat war drums to strike out against ISIS with the same strategy and tactics that we know have failed in the past, massive troops invading and occupying the region. On the other hand, some in the GOP such as Jeb Bush advocate mostly doing more of what  the administration is already doing..

The worst reaction from the West would to condemn and create more fear of all Muslims.  ISIS fighters are motivated by an ideology that rationalizes the killing of innocents. It is a small sect of Islam and the most numbers of the victims of their barbarism have been Muslims. It is also in their ideology that this conflict is a religious war and it is a tool to recruit followers disaffected with their host country the more it appears that it is.   Anti-Islam sentiment is exactly what they hope happens. It is a way to self-fulfill their prophecy and it is a “make my day” approach.  Hawks should not fall into their trap on the battlefield or in politics. Unfortunately right wing media has already begun to gin up more anti-Islam sentiment in the US. Those who advocate only allowing Syrian Christian refugees to enter the US are feeding that perception.

What was especially disturbing about the Paris attacks was the failure of intelligence services. The line I heard in defense of the intelligence operatives was that they did not have the resources and manpower to shadow those they had already identified as radicalized and returnees from ISIS training camps, much less screen the refugees flooding into Europe. So why not fund that ability now, at least.

A version of this appeared in the Sky Hi November 20,2015

For more, search Charlie Ebdo on this site, for reasons why France was singled out by ISIS

Monday, November 9, 2015

Issues matter

Issues matter

Listening to candidates for president still left standing, those who identify the aspirations of the disaffected owe that for their top tier position in the polls.  Whether that is Dr. Ben Carson or Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, they inspire large groups of people who agree with their gripes about the economy, banking, jobs, US position in the world, and a corrupt political system. Identifying problems may be a political winner for now, but the devil is in how to fix those problems and candidates know coming clean with the how’s could be a loser.
Issues do matter. How can you evaluate whether the ideas are even plausible or the candidate has knowledge and judgement to make sound policy if we do not even know what their solutions are?  Let us heart a substantive debates on issues instead of gotcha games.  

Without a debate on the issues, simply identifying problems may be a political winner for now, but the devil is in how to fix those problems. Candidates know coming clean might turn off voting groups. That is why you see candidates relying on a remarkable personal history, an appealing personality, personal attacks, or simply ducking answers. Some propose vague concepts, or ask for friendly debate moderators to throw them softball questions. Their lure is a shiny burrito wrapper without the tortilla, beans, rice, and salsa.

Jeb Bush believes voters want more than raging against problems and he has embraced the “fix it” slogan, drawing on position papers and a record in government. His problem is making the fixes sound as sexy and acceptable as the anger mongers’ rages. Hillary Clinton more and more reveals her fixes, too.

 l confess I like to play fantasy debate moderator  so here are some  questions  I could  ask  that would force a debate on issues.  

I would aks those who advocate repealing Obamacare what they would do about the millions who can afford health insurance for the first time.  Let them go bankrupt or throw themselves onto the mercy of charity care again?  Many promise they would come up with a better plan, but do not offer one. Some propose sketchy ideas, but they fail to tell us how much their proposal would cost or how many their plan would cover. If the freedom from federal government control is their goal, and states can do it better, what makes them think states have the will or means to provide anything comparable to the coverage of Obamacare? Or will they rely on a no strings attached gift from the feds and no standards with which to comply?

Those who advocate a militaristic, interventionist foreign policy to bring the US to its greatness again need to tell us how we are to accomplish that without large numbers of boots on the ground or a repeat of failed strategies.  

Those who want to boot a sluggish economy, while opposing government  infrastructure  and education funding or want to change the tax structure, need to tell us how taking away such perks and stimulus would help the middle class.    From those who propose to make higher education free or to bring more income equality, I would ask them how we pay for it.

For more, visit

Monday, November 2, 2015

Observing Veterans Day with more prospects of wounded warriors

Observance of Veterans Day November 11 should serve as a reminder that there is a human cost to combat. On Memorial Day last May, we honored those who died. On Veterans Day we honor those who came home, including the wounded. There are those who advocate more robust military combat to stop our current threat, ISIS. Are we, the American public, ready to add another war to the list of those generating veterans and seeing  the heartbreaking  images again on TV  of wounded warriors returning home?

The US finds our forces again in Iraq, continuing in Afghanistan, and now making raids into Syria, albeit in a reduced numbers and very limited combat roles. Reality has begun to set in: more US dead and wounded can be expected.

That the American public is “war weary” is a given. Almost no politician on the left and right is advocating an Iraq style invasion and occupation. No wonder. Over six thousand US troops have returned in body bags and caskets since 2003. But the numbers who died are only a small part of the total casualties, thanks to modern battle field medicine saving lives that would in the past have been lost. Those wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq total over 18,000. Some estimate a million. What we have to show for it is war without end, the rise of ISIS and resurgence of the Taliban and post conflict governments that have failed to stop either.

A political firestorm erupted with the announcement that the Obama administration is sending fifty more special forces have been added to the estimated 3500 US troops in northern Iraq and the 10000 forces in Afghanistan.  Politicians are quick to opine whether there are too many or too few or they are jeering at broken promises and blaming premature withdrawal or parsing the definition of boots on the ground and combat, while providing no alternatives that have not failed in the past.

The only hope to limit mission creep is to bring an end to the conflicts that threaten our own security before there is no other Iraq style alternative left. Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations on recent Morning Joe (November 2)and Fareed Zakaria’s CNN GPS (November 1)  advocates realistic goals regarding Syria and Iraq, understanding that we neither have allies within Syria we can train nor the will for extensive combat ourselves to defeat ISIS there or to overthrow Assad.  Instead, we need to buy time to get Sunni tribes and Kurds in northern Iraq strong enough to stop the advance of ISIS and to reach a realization among combatants that further violence is futile. At that point a political solution of dividing Syria into ethnic enclaves might work. His approach appears to be the administration strategy.

 The hope is that while every combatant group that has its own agenda, many of Syria’s neighbors also fear an ISIS/Al Qaeda dominated Sunni control of the region. We should be applauding the US diplomatic initiative to seek a political solution in Syria, including Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiations that involve Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kurds and the sending of more US special ops to help what effective allies we have.

For more, see prior  posts of 10/19/15, Why military intervention does not work;  6/14/15, Time to Dust Off Joe Biden’s plan?; 5/9/15, Musings on differences between Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day

A version of this was published in the  November 5, 6 ,2015

Fareed Zakaria brings a different view  and makes the parallel between the Obama policy and US mission creep in Viet Nam.