Friday, February 28, 2014

Standing Up for the Ukraine

What happens in a far off and unfamiliar country matters and it's time that President Obama reassert American moral authority after the debacles in Syria, Libya and Egypt.  The Ukrainian people have, for the third time in twenty years, rejected Soviet and Russian dominance and interference in their affairs - and it's time the US play a more active role where it can to promote democratic movements.

If the Ukraine succeeds, he loses
All I've heard since the Ukrainian crisis began is that "the US can do very little in this region."  It comes from both the Left and the Right for different reasons.  The former wants a less activist foreign policy that may get us mixed up in a hot war, and the latter for more selfish political reasons: to continue to make the current White House look weak and ineffective at all levels in an election year.  As Americans we have to reject a kind of neo-isolationist tilt reminiscent of the post-Vietnam era, for as we know - as well as most around the world - when their is a vacuum of power, someone will try and fill it.  So far it's been Russia's President Vladimir Putin who has benefited from American insularism.

It is easy to point fingers at who is to blame for Ukraine's situation and the reasons for Russian assertiveness...there is plenty of blame to go around: from the Bush era naivete of Putin's motives to Obama's single-minded attention to his domestic agenda.  The international policy of the current White House is unclear except for one point: to draw down our military in the Middle East and realign our defense posture to support our trading interests in the Pacific to check the Chinese.  But as the only superpower left with the capability to build international coalitions, our responsibilities can't easily be forgotten in other regions - especially Europe, where every major conflict of the past two centuries seems to start.  

We must fight the urge to look inward and realize that our way of life depends on promoting our values around the world.  If we do not stand up for those trying to emulate our system of government which is based on human rights, tolerance and respect for the integrity of internationally recognized borders, then we deserve the world that others will create for us through brute force.  

Peace at the point of a gun never works
Putin's actions emulate the worst in history, manipulating his people to serve his private ends and the financial gain of his supporters.  A free democratic Ukraine at the border of Russia portends a true end to the remnants of Soviet-era tyranny and the kleptocracy that grew around his rise to power, and maintains his neo-fascist regime seeking to rebuild Russian hegemony in eastern Europe and central Asia.

What we can do: surely, we cannot think of a hot-war now when there are many tools to punish Russia that can easily be directed at the heart of the Putin regime - gaining control over Russian financial assets and an embargo on Russian energy exports.  Diplomatically, Obama can essentially end the G8 conference in Sochi by refusing to participate.  Yes, it's four months away, but it's a shot across the bow showing our determination and solidarity with the aspirations of the Ukrainian people.  Then there is a simple repositioning of our global military presence to ensure the current crisis does not extend beyond the region - what we think is not in our national interest will easily become one, once tanks are poised on the Polish border, or worse - refugee camps from a civil war in a country of ~40 million people.

Tyranny's answer to democracy
Mr. Obama needs to act fast as this Hitler-like strategy of invading surrounding states on the basis of "protecting the rights of ethnic Russians" must stop here.  No more lines in the sand. We may find that this may help with other movements-gone-awry in the Middle East.  Maybe not, but Putin MUST know that there is a limit and he has reached it.

The Ukrainians have paid for their territorial sovereignty by giving up nuclear weapons in a treaty signed by the UK, the US, Russia and Ukraine in the 1990s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  While the Ukraine was not allowed to be a partner in NATO, this treaty must have some kind of enforcement - someone needs to stand up with them and for them.  If not us, who else?  Are we up to the task?  Our ancestors are watching.  It's time to come together as Americans, imperfect as we are, to show the world we have not forgotten how to lead and stand for the underdogs.  There are no ambiguous groups here - the opposition represents everything the West wants in a new democracy.  We can't leave them in the cold.
We are "mutts", not "mongrels"; standing for the underdog

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Obamacare Flaws Taints Democratic Sweep in 2013

Bellwether: In 2009 the election of a slate of Republicans to the top seats in Virginia, combined with the election of Chris Christie in New Jersey,and the loss of Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts, was a bellwether for the GOP wave-election of 2010.  Democrats hoped for a similar decisive win in 2013 giving them momentum into the mid-terms of 2014, thanks to the Tea Party government shutdown in October. With a new Democratic Mayor in New York City (after 20 years) and a sweep of the statewide elections in what is now "deep purple" Virginia (stopping another decades long trend), the narrative around the landslide reelection of Chris Christie would easily be framed as "personality over party", and C2 and the Constant Reader could look forward to January, seeing a much diminished Tea Party brand struggle to maintain its death-grip on the GOP, and then, perhaps a much diminished role for them in 2015.  Well, let's stop right there...reality bites, Constant Reader.

Not today
What win?  Didn't all those things happen?  All those things were accomplished and a moderate, practical and centrist proved to be the winning tone in Virginia - why can't C2 be very satisfied?  Simple, the roll out of Obamacare was a disastrous mess.  Not only did the website crash and burn after three years of development, there are structural and unintended negative consequences as well, like the loss of coverage for perhaps millions of people who were promised they could keep their current healthcare plans.  That the president knew this and did not warn us, even if the plans were dodgy and ultimately harmful to their owners, it was a terrible abuse of our trust - and Democrats know the implications of a commander-in-chief with trust issues. 

Called an "idiot" by Vets; but she's back
The impact: Immediately the flaws in the Obamacare rollout were felt in the Virginia contest.  Polls showed a quick tightening the week prior to Election Day. Tea Party leaders canvassed the state reminding independents of the issues with Obamacare, and getting out their own reliable vote with more promises of repeal and the approaching apocalypse if one stayed home on November 4th, 2013.  Not only was the governor's race closer than it should have been - Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe and "Friend of Bill" outspent his rival, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, 2 to 1 - and the race for attorney general came down to provisional ballots counted last night, and a recount is all but certain.  C2 still calls for a sweep at the end of the day, but it didn't have to be; there was even talk of pushing the Tea Party out of the Virginia House of Delegates as well.

A way out for Democrats.  President Barack Obama never had a great relationship with congressional Democrats, but they've been remarkably loyal through all the "scandals", real and imagined, this year.  But they will understandably get a pass this time, and C2 endorses it so long as it doesn't turn into a circular firing squad or look like rats jumping from a sinking ship.  Administration official deserve this - there is extremism and there is blatant abuse of power and trust, the Obama administration is guilty of both, as well as a host of classically bureaucratic mis-steps that characterize "Big-Government" during the implementation of the Affordable Healthcare Act, a bent but not broken law that C2 still supports as a market-based solution to our inconceivably irrational and inefficient healthcare delivery system.

Cute currently homeless couple
Yesterday Bill Clinton, a firm ally of the Obama administration through the years, opened the door yesterday for congressional Democrats to step through, as the mantel of party leadership begins to pass from a lame-duck and wounded president, to the presumed front runner in 2016.  So far Obamacare has not touched the image of Mrs. Clinton and her husband has quickly moved with dispatch to ensure there is daylight between the former Secretary of State and the signature legislative achievement of Mr. Obama.  Again, C2 approves.

Leaving you with a positive note: there is a million political years between now and next November, time for repairs of websites and relationships with voters by both parties.  We were happy to see a potential for pragmatic centrism seen after the shutdown in the House and Senate, after the Tea Party's embarrassing moment of self-delusional theatrics in DC.  Moderate and establishment Republicans had finally pushed back.  Now, we look to see where that new found courage finds itself with a re-energize Tea Party that came very close to an upset in least giving Democrats and moderate establishment Republicans a black eye on election night.  We look to see where the pundits finish and where the real power lays in January, when the next round of imbecilic economy-damaging histrionics takes place.  It will likely be the last point the center can act and show its potential for governance - leaving behind a self-centered administration on one hand and a self-deluded extremist core of the other party on the hand.  We are not optimistic, but we are hopeful.  There's a subtle difference.  

Btw: Happy Thanksgiving - don't work if you don't have to, don't shop unless you need stuffing mix; do spend time with family, do thank your higher power for the things you have, do help others if you have the means.

You may feel like a turkey, but at least you aren't on the table

Monday, September 30, 2013

Reading the Tea (Party) Leafs in Virginia's State Elections for 2013 - A Bell Weather?

To the Constant Reader, whether on the Right or the Left - every year there is an election and it is your civic responsibility to participate, be knowledgeable of the issues and vote.  The ballot may include only bond measures or changes to the state constitution, but if they need to be voted on - the will affect you.  If you neglect your responsibilities as a citizen you may lose your rights.  That's a fact.

It's tough in Virginia.  Not only do we see politics three hundred and sixty-five days a year (twenty-four hours a day thanks to cable), we must vote on something major every year.  But to it's own credit, Virginia is a bell weather for the off-year elections for Congress as every odd year after the presidential elections we vote for all of our state offices.  For example, in 2009 very conservative candidates won on an anti-Obamacare line and took the top three statewide offices (Gov, Lt Gov and AG), and nearly both houses of the legislature.  

This year the Dems may make a clean sweep of things in an anti-Tea Party moment, as the GOP candidate is a favorite of Tea Party types.  Dems, and moderate Republicans are working with what they have and it's not pretty: a Democratic insider and a young unknown Libertarian who looks to make a statement in a GOP state party that was hijacked this year into using a caucus instead of a primary system to choose it's candidates.  A clean sweep would send a strong message, many hope, to the state GOP HQ - that moderation and consensus is a Virginia value, not division and hyperpartisanship.  Virginia wasn't gerrymandered like the rest of the South and many places in the North after 2010.  It provides insights as to how things might have been in formerly purple states like North Carolina, Wisconsin and Florida had Democrats turned out to vote in 2010.  

If you have time, read the article below to get more information about a below-the-belt campaigning going on right now by both major candidates, and where moderates in the state GOP stand on the issues.  It was a sad spectacle to see what was left of the moderate wing in the House of Representatives try to stage a revolt against those chanting for a government shut-down.  They required seventeen votes...and couldn't do it.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Putin's New York Times Article: Vlad the Impetuous - Where Do We Go From Here?

"Off script", aka "Goofed"

Russian President Vladimir Putin did President Barack Obama a favor.  After two weeks of confusion concerning whether to strike Syria - in response to the use of chemical weapons by President Al Assad, Mr. Putin took what most people thought to be a joke by Secretary of State John Kerry and ran with it.  Kerry stated that if the Syrians gave up their chemical weapons immediately, they would avoid a military strike.  The Russians and the Syrians said, "OK."  Gift #1.

Mr. Obama's quixotic efforts to get both international and domestic support behind a strike, exemplified by an historic request for Congress to approve of military force before, a limited military strike, became bogged down in public debate in a pluralistic society.  Polls confirmed the American public, as it pertained to Syria, and no matter how Senator John McCain laments about our inaction, are in no mood to risk ANYTHING.  Regardless of atrocities committed by the regime over the past two years culminating in the Sarin chemical attack on a neighborhood outside of Damascus, the thought of another conflict without a clear strategic interest, goal or benefit is too much for this remaining superpower.  My blog supported the administration in both the attack and the effort to get congressional support, but I have been disappointed in the rather naive manner in which the administration communicated to both Congress and the American public about this.  Enter Vlad the Impetuous. Gift #2.
It's good to be the king...for now.

Putin's cynical view of American culture were put into words and pasted in the New York Times Op-ed section, creating bipartisan outrage.  It was  an overreach to embarrass the administration and stoke frustration by the American public.  The Russian's single-minded strategy to poke the US at  every turn, as well as the United Nations, may provide the administration breathing room to gather itself together, and perhaps address the American public in a different manner.  

There are real dangers to America's interests internationally and to Mr. Obama's domestic agenda politically by using so much political capital on what should have been a minor issue this fall.  He may become a lame duck before his time domestically and irrelevant internationally if he is perceived to back down completely after so much effort and bombast concerning the use of chemical weapons - leaving the nation to dangerously drift in both arenas.  

Obama - underestimated the base?
Remarkably, the president is going to continue his media blitz (he has always relied on going directly to the American people for support, to the point of diminishing returns), and we hope that Mr. Obama has gathered fine minds around him to develop an active, rather than reactive, strategy for dealing with Syria and the elephant in the room - Iran's place in all this.  What we hope from the president will be the following:

1)  A strict deadline for negotiations with clear deliverable dates for diplomatic progress;
2)  Maintenance of a strong presence in the region to ensure the conflict is confined and our allies and friends in the region feel secure, i.e. Turkey (a NATO ally), Israel and Jordan - all of which are dealing with a massive humanitarian crisis - and keeping an eye on Iraq and its relative stability;
3)  Make clear that any further use of chemical weapons will be met with an immediate and effective response;
4)  Make clear that Syria is NOT Iran...which we hold on a different strategic level.  Our policy is clear in that regard: Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon.

There are so many things at stake, that didn't need to be if there was a quick and authoritative strike.  That point has past, and for the talking heads and politicians to dwell on them is intellectual masturbation.  What is important is that the administration to begin to act with clear purpose, using the time to gather intelligence and be proactive on the diplomatic front by threatening Putin's Russia (not Russians) with international isolation and irrelevance.  I am skeptical of the offer by Assad to sign on to the Chemical Weapons Ban Treaty and the contradictions inherent in negotiating with the regime on one hand, and arming his enemies on the other - as well as allowing Russia to be a major player in monitoring and disposing of the weapons in a timely effective manner.  If the negotiations succeed, then it will be a historic fait accompli for Mr. Putin and he will deserve a Nobel Peace Prize (hmmm), but if not, the US should be ready to act in a firm and deliberate manner when the negotiations inevitably fall apart from the weight of those contradictions.
If these were American kids...?  After the politics is done, this is what is at stake.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Gut Check for Americans

We hate history.  Most people hated history class because it was dry and unrelatable to our daily lives, especially teenagers and college students.  Most Americans can't even tell you what the effects of chemical attacks had on troops in World War I, and why even the worst dictators signed on to agreements prohibiting the use of these weapons against soldiers, much less civilians who have no training and protection against them.  Mustard gas and Sarin Gas (despite the latter's use in Japan less than twenty years ago), are things of our imagination - not our everyday existence.  I've heard statements that 100,000 people have been killed in Syria by any number of weapons, what makes chemical weapons so special?  "They are all dead just the same", they say as a howitzer shell can dismember and cause horrendous destruction and pain.  So what is the big deal?

Better men than Assad?
I repeat, guys like Mussolini and Stalin refused to use them.  Hitler used them against the Jews but didn't dare use them in the open, nor against a race he thought to be barely above the Jews - Slavs (Russians).  There is a reason: chemical weapons are indiscriminate and kill in a slow desperate fashion, with no regard for uniform or civilian dress.  Trained in chemical warfare I only viewed the affects of Sarin on a goat...I would chose a bullet, thank you.  The reason the Syrian Army used them?  To kill snipers, a big part of guerilla warfare that can stop an army in its tracks trying to roll through a heavily populated urban area of operations.  The Russians tank divisions were defeated in the Chechen capital by snipers and guerrillas moving between buildings, narrow streets and alleys - and so were the Germans in Moscow.  The Syrians know this and in my lowly opinion, were advised or  were "reminded" of these experiences by the Russians themselves. 
All we have are pictures to remind us

A chemical weapon, once used, instills terror, much like the flame throwers used in Southeast Asia at the end of World War II by the United States (yes, we are not immune to the use of terror) which are now banned as well.  They are horrible deaths that Americans, again, can only imagine as survivors of mustard gas attacks and the use of flame throwers are now gone.  Our consciences are gone.

We are at a juncture in history where the president is asking the American people and our representatives to for a gut check.  It's been a long twelve years since 9/11 and the misinformation that rushed us to war in Iraq.  Over two trillion dollars, thousands of deaths, tens of thousands maimed and emotionally spent later, the nation and the world wonder just what was accomplish and are rightly skeptical.  Now is a time that will test our resolve as a force for good - whether it is as a humanitarian force or a neo-con force for western values and democracy.  Will we pass it? Or will the excuse be, "it is peace in our time."  We don't know the Syrians, but one group aligned with the opposition closest to us is Christian...if we wait until they are gassed, what kind of message will that send to the Muslim world?  

Muslim or Christian...they are still children
The strategy must be clear and follow-on strikes pre-planned.  It is possible to be in for a penny or more without a full-scale invasion, but in the end we know that the status quo is untenable and an Assad victory unacceptable.  We must strike, but it needs to be part of a larger strategy to resolve the conflict that will enhance our own position and interests in the region.  It's gut check time for liberal and conservative libertarians as well.  Just how far do we stick our heads in the sand in the name of international institutions as dysfunctional as our own, or an ideological stance that put an end to the League of Nations and contributed to another World War.  It's Gut Check Time in America.  If the president needs the support of the American people to help him "go it alone", let's give it to him.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

UPS and Obamacare: Playing the Blame Game

UPS announced a major change in it's non-union healthcare plan related to coverage of spouses due to the impact of the Healthcare Reform Act, Obamacare if you will, requiring them to utilize their own employer's plans if they are available.  As we listen to more criticism of the president's signature accomplishment, without any realistic counter proposals mind you, we/I have something to say.  

The policy of forcing spouses who work to use their own employer's plans if they have them, is not due to anything related to the implementation of the Obamacare.  This corporate cost-cutting policy was implemented by Northrop Grumman in 2002 and other corporations before and since - well before a certain black man ran for president and proposed a system of coverage for all Americans.  It's a corporate strategy aimed at rationalization but in the end only serves to beggar thy neighbor, and causes a feeding frenzy that eventually bites back at the first companies to implement it, as Northrop Grumman found out eventually.  The benefits were short-term as other companies in the same industry did the same thing and guess what?  Their spouses, working for Northrop Grumman, ended up using Northrop Grumman's healthcare!  The savings are temporary and nominal.  But let's be clear as well, non-working spouses and families were and will, according to UPS, be still covered under the original policy.   

To blame Obamacare for this type of corporate cost rationalization is the height of I'm calling it out because I was a witness to the idiocy, and because the negatives for the employees were twofold: the families of two-earners were forced to pay two premiums instead of one that was usually at a lower cost relative to two single policies; and second, there was no guarantee that the spouses policy were as good as the one they had at Northrop Grumman.  Another unintended(?) consequence was that it was inherently biased against working women.  Although many working couples have the same income level and access to benefits, it is more likely today that the woman has a lower paying job with lesser benefits.  Consequently, this site worries that any large-scale implementation of this policy would inherently be...anti-woman.     

With Obamacare firmly in place, these spouses, again, mostly women - will be forced into the exchanges which is probably a better outcome if there were nothing at all.  But that is not the issue here.  UPS did not make this decision based upon the Obamacare's negative impact on their business.  It would have likely been done anyway and may have been under consideration before Obamacare was implemented or even passed.  This is a long-known corporate rationalization policy that was and is punitive toward working couples, and without adjustments, the taxpayer will probably pick up the bill.  Little did we know that Obamacare would be a form of corporate welfare.

A final note to the Constant Reader.  Business and capital will always find a way to make money in a free society and free markets, and why this site is at its heart, centrist.  Just as we see capital moving from country to country to find the lowest costs, eventually it may return - for example, back to the US to  take advantage of lower energy costs. Wailing and gnashing of teeth from the business community comes with any large regulation, but in the end American capitalism finds a way.  Imagine what America, heck, the earth, would be like without the Clean Air Act, and yet the auto industry cried foul on every imposition.  From installation of the catalytic converter to increased mileage per gallon and hybrids, "it can't be done without killing the industry".  This is where we, this site, believes in the market, and not the business community - two very different things.  Conservation and economy and now "cool" and Ford along with GM and Chrysler are experiencing a renaissance.  Sometimes we just need to give the market a little "push" in the right direction, which is the duty of democratically elected government and an engaged electorate.  

Monday, August 12, 2013

Small Progress for Veterans Means Renewed Effort from the Rest of Us.

Today, 22 veterans will commit suicide.  The average time to get disability benefits from the Veterans' Administration: 327 days, this is down 5% since veterans "Stormed the Hill" a few months ago.  Not good enough, we say at this site.  Iraq and Afghanistan vets use the VA 20% more than veterans of other conflicts because - more them survived - with more injuries both physical and mental and remarkably, we've found that less are surviving the peace than were killed during each war.  

As my nephew begins his journey in the military, I want to remind those who say, "Well, they knew what they were getting into", that yes, they probably do, (these kids who will operate millions of dollars worth of highly technical machinery, and yet cannot find a job when they return), but they are serving in place of - you, sir or ma'am. Or your brother, sister, father or mother. If there was a draft, one wonders if we would still be in Afghanistan or if there would have been a war in Iraq at all.  

All things to ponder as we "celebrate" the Spirit of '45, a little known holiday in August since 2007 meant to honor the service of those who fought in World War II, but also, as a member of the Greatest Generation said - a holiday meant to "reach out to future generations" that they may hold "service" up as a cherished value in America.  According to this veteran, he is disappointed that the Baby Boomers used up the fruits of their sacrifice, but also sees hope in the way younger people have tried to change the world through technology this century.  I agree with him.  

Boomers still have a chance to make more of a mark on history than as the "Me" generation, known as consumers of wealth built by the past and meant for the future.  By taking care of those whose service has given them so much in the past, now and in the future.  History judges harshly, but we are a large bunch - let's stop whining about what is, and get to working at what can be in this small area that we can all agree on.