Friday, January 13, 2017

A Couple of Questions for James Mattis

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis made two statements that would benefit from further examination and elaboration.
In documents submitted to lawmakers prior to the hearing, Mattis identified Iran as “the primary source of turmoil” in the Middle East. “Its policies are contrary to our interests.”
Turmoil is a rather broad term.  For national security reasons, I would like more definition.  What actions constitute "turmoil"?  What form do these actions take.  What American interests are at risk from these actions?  What risks to our allies' interests and how are those interests aligned with ours?  are the specific risks to the United States?  To our allies?  What are our options for mitigating those risks?

Simply casting Iran (a nation which has its own claim to exceptionalism) as the "primary source of turmoil" no more useful to creating effective American diplomatic and military policy than are Iran's own denunciations of the US as "the Great Satan" for developing its own policy.  Futher elaboration is essential for Americans to understand what our leaders are doing with tax (or borrowed) dollars and, most importantly, the casualties that often result from our actions.  So, give us more and let us discuss it as informed citizens.
Repeatedly, the nominee made reference to the need to improve military readiness, blaming years of budget cuts for an erosion to technology and manpower.
Mattis identifies a single cause for erosion:  budget cuts.  Along with those budget cuts the multiple wars the US is fighting are also a big source of that erosion.  Personnel, ordnance and equipment get chewed up in war.  If we weren't fighting all of those wars(*) and garrisoning the world the military would not be eroding.  So again I ask why?  To what purpose? How do these wars, special operations and empire of bases contribute to American and world security?

We've been doing this sort of thing since World War II and while it may have been sustainable in the past these days must be evalulated in terms of America's  21st century economic prospects and national priorities.  Even if Congress was inclined to tap this country's vast and concentrated wealth, Americans may well find that other needs, like infrastructure or a cost-effective health care system may well be a higher priority.  In order for us to make that decision, we need complete information if we are to make good use of the funds we do allocate to the military.

That brings me back to my questions about Iran, General Mattis.  I can ask you the same questions about each war and about American interests in each region and each country.  I'm sure that your new position can offer a lot of answers to these questions.  But remember that you will need real justification and explanations not just platitudes and catchphrases.

(*)  NPR identifies Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Lybia.  The US is also active in African wars and in Yemen.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017


“I win an election easily, a great ‘movement’ is verified, and crooked opponents try to belittle our victory with FAKE NEWS. A sorry state!”
Donald Trump, responding to reports that Russians may have gathered potentially compromising information about him. 
Um...Donald, you did not win an election easily. 

You prevailed in a rigged election.  You get the keys to the castle but don't ever think you earned them legitimately.   


Monday, January 02, 2017

You Call That A Mandate?

The sacking of the New Deal begins tomorrow. I can't change that fact that Republicans now control the federal government but I will dispute their claims to a mandate.  Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2.8 million votes while winning  the Electoral College.  Repbulicans won the House of Representatives with a total margin of 3 million votes--51 percent.  but ended up with 57 percent of the seats through creative gerrymandering in Republican- controlled states.

These results do not consitute a Republican mandate but rather a deeply divided nation.  Nevertheless, Republicans will not be shy about claiming their complete control of Congress and the presidency as justification for enacting all of their libertarian free-market wet dreams.    

Republicans may have the institutional power but they have nothing that resembles a legitimate mandate.  All the more reason to resist at every turn.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Favorite Reads of 2016

Of the books I read this year, these are the ones that stand out.


The Relic Master, Christopher Buckley (2015)

In Europe at the dawn of the Protestant Reformation indulgences and relics were the coin of an all-too-temporal Catholic culture. The tale is knowledgeable about life, events and personages of the era. The plot is full of twists and turns, weaves fictional and historical characters, and provides enough suspense to keep the reader fully engaged. An easy, informative read.

Friend of Mr. Lincoln, Stephen Harrigan (2015)

Set in 1830’s Illinois, the story is based on Abraham Lincoln’s early career as lawyer and aspiring politician. Many of the characters are, like Lincoln, based on real persons while others, like Cage Weatherby, are fiction. The two sets of characters blend in with each other and key facts of Lincoln’s life in this seamless historical fiction. The Abraham Lincoln of this story is raw, uncertain about many things and clueless about women. What he is not clueless about is politics as an all-encompassing endeavor. He he is constantly in action on behalf of the Whig party and even at this early age sees a need to make a mark with his life. Stephen Harrigan creates the story with lively dialogue, interesting characters and good descriptions of frontier Illinois.

Peace-Keeping, Mischa Berlinski (2016)

Fiction. Set in Haiti in the years leading up to the 2010 earthquake, Peace-Keeping, centers on Terry White, a laid-off sheriff's deputy now serving with a UN mission in Haiti and a local judge with whom he becomes associated. White is instrumental in the judge's decision to challenge a long-term incumbent. The plot is pretty simple but what gives this story its power is the history and context that Mischa Berlinski provides by way of background and setting.


Non-fiction. David Gessner examines the works of two iconic western writers--the staid, establishmentarian Wallace Stegner and the radical Edward Abbey—and examines their influence on how America views its western lands. Although worlds apart in their personas and attitude toward the larger society, both writers understood and appreciated the limits that arid western lands imposed on the humans who attempted to wrest a livelihood from those lands. Gessner also includes interviews with the many writers and thinkers influenced by both men. His literary biography is no hagiography. Gessner paints a complete picture of each of his subjects and does not ignore tStegner’s cultural conservatism or Abbey’s misogyny and racism. But he also recognizes their contributions to how we understand our relationship with our arid western lands.

A review of the music that accompanied the American forces to Vietnam. Bradley and Werner follow the zeitgeist of the war as expressed in the music from its early optimistic days to the final collapse of the American military in the war's later years. Written with great understanding of the social context of the war, We Gotta Get Out of this Place demonstrates how music expressed the hopes, frustrations and divisions among the soldiers and American society at large. Three chapters focus on the experience of music and the war. The fourth chapter examines how music was brought to the war zone. The fifth chapter expands the discussion into how veterans have used music to make their transition back into civilian society. The book is laced with first person accounts that add a stark reality to the broader discussion.

Illustrates the full range of experiences and feelings about the Vietnam War. The 138 interviews take the reader beyond the usual focus on leaders and presents the the war in all its diversity. There are plenty of the usual suspects but equally important are the stories of the families, Vietnamese on both sides as well as Americans, who were affected by the war. A few interviewees still cling to the idea that America could have bested the Vietnamese Communist but most, even the hawks, have come to see the war's futility. Each of the oral histories are compelling but the stories told by the children searingly describe how war changes lives forever, even for the survivors.

Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain's Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour, Richard Zacks (2016)

In 1895 at age 60, deeply in debt and honor-bound (at wife Livy's insistence) Mark Twain began an extended trip around the world telling stories from the works that had made him the America's most prominent writer. Although he had amassed a fortune from his books and articles, he lost his fortune, along with his wife's inherited wealth and was dogged by creditors. He was saved by a combination of his own talent and the friendship of H.H. Rogers, a founder of Standard Oil and one of America's richest men. The plan: Twain would travel and lecture, earning fees and gathering material for a new book while Rogers would negotiate debt repayment and publishing deals. All complex and all presented in an easy to understand narrative. Richard Zacks provides plenty of background on 19th century publishing, Twain's disastrous investments and family life in the Clemmons household. Sources include letters and excerpts from Twain's notebook that never made it into the book. The Mark Twain of Chasing the Last Laugh is at times charming, irritable, cynical, clever, excited, sad and at peace. He is a person fully fleshed out.


Monday, December 19, 2016

Missing The Forest

Hilary Clinton blames her loss to Donald Trump on FBI Director James Comey's bombshell letter about new emails and Russian interference in Trump's favor.  She makes a valid point, along with other Democrats.  In a close election, which this one was in several key states, just about any unfavorable intervention is likely to affect the final result.  So Clinton's conclusion is not incorrect.

It is, however, beside the point.  With Donald Trump as a candidate, the election should have never been close.  That is where Democrats and all of the other "if only..." counterfactualists err in blaming Clinton's loss on outside interventions.  Those interventions may have made a difference at the margin but their impact was only possible due to Clinton's flaws as a candidate and a poorly run campaign.  Democrats chose to run an establishment candidate with a serious deficit of trustworthiness in a year where the electorate was clamoring for change.  Even so, Clinton won the popular vote but failed to win the vote according to America's baroque eletoral college system.

The point of all this is that blaming external factors for Clinton's loss is a sure path to continued irrelevance for the Democratic Party.  It will continue to be the only likely avenue for progressive social, economic and foreign policy to be presented to the American electorate.

One opportunity to steer the Democratic Party in a more effective direction is to encourage Democratic National Committee members to select a new Chair who will support organizing in all 50 states rather than relying on its "Blue Wall" and a few swing states for winning national elections.  Aside from abandoning no part of America to the Republicans, the 50 state strategy will ensure that Democrats reach out to the dispossed American workers who made Donald Trump president.  The band of incorrigible spitballers at Mock Paper Scissors have provided a set of resources for making your voice heard at this critical time.

Make your voice heard.  Our backs are against the wall.

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Thursday, December 08, 2016

Going Rogue

Donald Trump called climate change a "Chinese hoax" and vowed to undue Obama Administration's efforts to rein in US greenhouse gas emissions.  He might have had an "interesting" meeting with Al Gore but Trump's choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency is clear indication that he will keep his promise.  Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt is a long-time foe of the EPA and a strong supporter of the fossil fuels industry who has challenged EPA regulations intended to promote US compliance with the Paris climate change agreementPruit is by no means alone; Trump's short list for environmental and energy positions tilts heavily toward industry and climate change deniers.

So when Trump says that climate change is a Chinese hoax, I will take him at his word (Rule No. 1 for survival in an autocracy) and expect him to turn the US into a festival of fossil fuel folly.  I do not expect the US government to make any appreciable effort to contain US greenhouse gas emissions during a Trump Administration.  I think it likely that we will backslide.

Since the US is the second largest greenhouse gas emitter after China, our lack of progress in the next four or eight years will be a serious barrier to the world's efforts to halt climate change.  Given the threat climate change poses to the the world, I would not think it unreasonable for future generations to view the United States as a rogue nation whose policies threaten other nations.  Would they be able to invoke the right of self-defense against the US?

Beacon on the hill?  A model for other nations?  No so much anymore, I'm afraid.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Elections Have Consequences

Like much of the world I was caught flat-footed by Donald Trump's victory.  I followed the polls which were pretty much in lockstep agreement that Clinton would win.  The actual results varied quite a bit, to say the least.  Reading the summary of the Washington Post's electoral post-mortem, it is clear the the Clinton campaign made some strategic errors.  Combine that with the depressive effect of a negative campaign and deliberate voter surpression in Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin and Clinton was completely ambushed.  What bothers me most is that the Democrats did not get out their vote.  All throughout the campaign I kept hearing about the impressive GOTV effort that the Democrats had ready to go.  In the end, not so much.

The day after Election Day was a rough one as the reality of President Trump forced itself into my head constantly.  I was smart enough to go for a walk in the forest and watch the sunlight filter through the trees after a morning shower on what turned out to be a pretty fall day, even if Donald Trump was going to become the 45th President of the United States and much of what I have worked for during much of my life is at risk of dissolution under a Republican-dominated federal government.

On Satuday I attended the Western Washington Fellowship of Reconciliation fall workshop on movement building.  The day was a good antidote to my post-election fear and depression.  Sixty to 75 people attended and we spent the day figuring out how to network on issues that are important to us.  FOR has been around for 100 years and has a long history of organizing in support of peace and social justice.  We will certainly need a LOT of that in the next four years.  I am pleased to live in an area that has such a strong commitment to those issues.

Probably my biggest disappointment about Trump's election is that the United States will become even more of a rogue nation regarding climate change.  Unlike most of the world, the US will become even more steadfast in its commitment to fossil fuels and will blithely continue to pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere even as the rest of the world looks for alternatives.  We lost eight years under George W. Bush, made some tenuous and limited progress under Obama and can expect those hoped-for (because they are far from certain) gains to disappear.  In the meantime, a threat that even the Pentagon recognizes as an "immediate risk" to the nation will continue to grow.  America's legacy in the 21st century may well be the loss of the world as we have always known it.

In the 1930's the rogue nation was Germany which threatened its neighbors with its expansionist ideology.  It took World War II to end that threat.  I wonder if a world threatened with rising sea levels and  consequent massive population will find that it needs to act against this century's rogue nation.