Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"Dinner for One" -- the same procedure as every year

Dinner for One” is an old skit performed since the 1920’s on stage and made famous by its television production in 1963 starring Freddie Frinton and May Warden.

The sketch presents the 90th birthday of elderly upper-class Englishwoman Miss Sophie, who hosts a dinner every year for Mr Pommeroy, Mr Winterbottom, Sir Toby, and Admiral von Schneider – dear friends she has outlived. Her butler, James, makes his way around the table impersonating each guest. Miss Sophie decides on a variety of drinks to consume with the meal. James then drinks a toast to Miss Sophie on behalf of each guest and become a bit smashed as the evening progresses.

The crucial exchange during every course is:
James: The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?

Miss Sophie: The same procedure as every year, James!

After the dinner, Miss Sophie indicates to a very drunk James that she wishes to retire to bed, to which James responds:

James: By the way, the same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?

Miss Sophie, delightedly: The same procedure as every year, James!

James: Well, I'll do my very best!
Interestingly, while the skit and television production are little known in the U.S. and U.K., it has become something of a cult classic in Germany where it is played every New Year’s Eve and is the inspiration of numerous drinking games. Playing the video has become a tradition – the same procedure as every year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Freddie Hubbard: “I Remember Clifford” (1984)

This is Freddie Hubbard performing “I Remember Clifford” with Art Blakey and the All Star Jazz Messengers -- Benny Golson, Curtis Fuller, Walter Davis Jr, Buster Williams -- in 1984.

Frederick Dewayne Hubbard (1938 –2008) was an American jazz trumpeter. He was known primarily for playing in the bebop, hard bop and post bop styles from the early 60s and on. His unmistakable and influential tone contributed to new perspectives for modern jazz and bebop. Hubbard replaced trumpeter Lee Morgan in Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1961 and played with the group until 1966. From there he played with many small groups of his own. He made several recordings through the early 1990’s.

In 2006, The National Endowment for the Arts honored Hubbard with its highest honor in jazz, the NEA Jazz Masters Award.

Hubbard died this past Monday in Indianapolis from complications following a heart attack in November.

“I Remember Clifford” is a jazz threnody written by Benny Golson in memory of the Clifford Brown, the influential jazz trumpeter who was killed in an automobile accident in 1956 at the age of 25.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Middle East brinkmanship and the rush into the abyss

An Egyptian-brokered cease-fire was agreed to by Hamas and Israel in June of this year. However, hostilities did not end and Israel resumed its blockade of the Gaza Strip leading to widespread shortages.

In mid-December, Israel announced it favored extending the cease-fire if Hamas adhered to its conditions. Hamas, citing the Israeli blockade and border closures, ended the cease-fire and resumed rocket launches into southern Israel. Israel, in turn, retaliated with air strikes and may launch a ground invasion within the next few days.

Gershom Gorenberg has these thoughts on the lost opportunities from the six-month cease fire between Hamas and Israel:
Israelis don’t see the effects of the siege in Gaza, or the way it was maintained during the six-month “calm.” Israeli journalists have a far easier time covering Mumbai than covering Gaza. What Israelis saw during the “calm” were Palestinian violations. Israel claimed that Hamas wasn’t keeping the agreement. That was true. It was also true that the Israeli government continued hoping, against all evidence, that the siege would provoke popular uprising against Hamas rule. Hamas regarded the calm as a failure in relieving siege conditions.

When the six months ended, Hamas decided that those Israelis would only understand force. To a man with a hammer, as the saying goes, everything looks like a nail - especially to an angry man. With a little careful thinking, anyone on the Hamas side could have figured out that no Israeli politician wanted to agree to reduce the siege in response to rocket fire. That would be giving in.

So brinkmanship led to both sides rushing over the brink into the abyss. Olmert, Livni, Barak and the collected generals apparently think that Hamas will agree to reduce violence as a result of the onslaught. A ten-second exercise in trying to imagine how Hamas leaders - or Gaza residents - see the situation leads to the opposite conclusion.

It is possible that the new offensive will shatter the Hamas government. In that case we’ll have a collapsed state in Gaza, where there is absolutely no one interested in stopping rocket fire. Will Israel occupy the Strip again then? Does our triumvurate think that NATO will want the job? Outside of showing that we have a bigger hammer, what will the operation accomplish?

Outside of the hammer, actually, Hamas did have some delicate tools in its tool chest. It could, for instance, have proposed indirect negotiations aimed at a two-state solution. That would have caught Israel’s leaders totally off guard, and undermined the political rationale for the siege. I guess that no one in the Gaza leadership considered this for 10 seconds.

Then again, before the “calm” ended, Israel could have passed the message that it was willing to recognize a Palestinian unity government and end the siege. Instead, our leaders continued to follow the policy that has failed since the Palestinian elections of 2006: Trying to undo the results via siege tactics.

The people with hammers, too proud to use anything but hammers, have now swung them at blasting caps. They will argue: We need to maintain a credible military option. They forget that a military option is not credible when it cannot produce the results you want (unless the only result you want is a body count). “What did you expect us to do?” they’ll say.

We expected you to think, to be smart enough to imagine how the other side would respond to your actions, to understand that they too are prisoners of pride and fury.

Actually, we didn’t expect that. We only hoped.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Obama’s Middle East challenge

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not come about over night and will not be quickly resolved. Like the conflict over Kashmir between India and Pakistan, the Israeli-Palestinian situation has resulted in ongoing warfare and violence for decades. And given the dynamics of the politics on all sides of the conflict – the Hamas-Fatah Palestinian split and the weak Israeli leadership about to face elections – the steps towards resolution likely cannot even begin without the strong hand of a third party – i.e., the United States.

The Bush administration has put leadership on this issue on the backburner until that past few months. The little effort put forth recently has obviously been an abject failure.

The Barack Obama will face a Middle East challenge on day one of his new administration. He should avoid the mistakes of the Bush administration not the least of which was to ignore this situation until the end of his term in office. The Obama team should move quickly to try and restart the peace process and move beyond simple ceasefires and towards permanent resolution.

This is Steve Clemons’ take on the situation at the Washington Note:
Part of what is going on today with Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak's unleashing of massive Israeli airpower against Hamas offices in Gaza is a test of Obama's America. Hamas's decision to end its "lull", or temporary ceasefire with Israel, also has a lot to do with testing the U.S. and seeing what the outlines of Obama's policy will be.

Barack Obama cannot afford to allow his presidency and its foreign policy course to be hijacked by either side in this increasingly blurry dispute. Israel's actions today just created thousands of aggrieved and vengeful relatives committed to delivering some blowback against Israel.

Hamas, at the same time, overplayed its hand at a fragile time. Hamas will never play the role of supplicant or subordinate to Israel's interests -- but its resumption of violence before the Israeli elections and during a time of transition in US politics triggered a devastating responce from Israel that signficantly undermined its own interests as a potentially responsible steward of a Palestinian state.

The violence we are watching is just yet another installment in the blur of tit-for-tat violence from both sides of this chronic foreign affairs ulcer.

The US -- and the incoming Obama administration -- must move an agenda forward in Israel-Palestine negotiations that works at levels higher than the perpetrators of this violence. It's time to get this conflict out of the weeds, and time to stop allowing any actors in this drama to hijack the foreign policy machinery of governments trying to push forward a Palestinian state.

America has to get out of the role of "managing" this conflict -- and must solve it. Israel and the Palestinians have shown themselves unable to maturely end their conflict -- and short of a results-oriented strategy that puts the "Middle East Peace Business" out of business, America will be constantly tugged into this conflict and blamed for it.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Herbie Hancock: “Cantaloupe Island”

Herbie Hancock performs his composition, “Cantaloupe Island” with Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Tony Williams, and Ron Carter. Hancock first recorded the song in 1964 and it has since become a jazz standard. It is an example of modal jazz set to a funky beat.

Attacks and retaliation across the Israel – Gaza border: The cost of weak leadership

Israel has retaliated to repeated rocket attacks against its southern cities launched from Gaza. Israeli planes bombed targets across the Gaza Strip killing at least 200 and wounding hundreds more. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has come completely unraveled yet the military actions by each side against the other holds little promise of achieving any long term objectives of peace and will only deepen hostilities. The obvious solution – a negotiated resolution of differences – is highly unlikely given the weak positions of the leadership representing both Israel and the Palestinians. The United States, which could use some leverage to encourage the two sides to the table to reach a settlement, is governed by a weak and soon-to-be-retired President who has never valued diplomatic intervention anyway.

As MDC at Foreign Policy Watch sums it up:
As an outsider to the drama, perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Israel-Palestinian conflict to me has always been that nobody reasonably expects the actions of either side - this time being air raids on Gaza or rocket attacks on Israeli residences - to achieve their goal or result in a cessation of violence. At the same time, both actions - provocation and response - deepen the hostilities on both sides and with elections around the corner in Israel, the logic of domestic political competition virtually dictates this sort of action from the IDF. To make matters worse, the latest outbreak comes at a delicate time, with essentially lame duck administrations in the US (who never paid much attention to the peace process anyhow) and Israel and a Palestinian leadership fragmented to the point of virtually being two separate entities with distinct territories….
Weak leadership means more armed conflict but armed conflict that is almost guaranteed to resolve nothing. The immediate future for people living on either side of that border does not look promising.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Bush legacy: Iraq

Foreign policy during the Bush years has been consumed by the Middle East and by Iraq in particular. Iraq became the center of the administration’s “war on terror” (and not Afghanistan, the country that served as the home base for those responsible for the September 11th attacks). Yet with all the attention and resources directed at Iraq there was seemingly little appreciation for that country’s complex history and culture and clearly little thought was put into how to accomplish U.S. objectives.

The elation that followed the toppling of the dictator was short lived after it became clear the Coalition Provisional Authority had no plans to secure Iraq’s borders after abolishing the Iraqi army, had no plans to protect Iraqi citizens from common crime after abolishing the police, had no plans for real rebuilding of the country’s infrastructure, and was clueless about the tensions between the various ethnic and religious groups in a country not created by the native population but by the British in 1921 when the Ottoman Empire was carved up by the victorious allies following WW I.

The result has been intolerable crime and overlapping civil wars between various groups. A huge segment of the population – approximately 15% of Iraqi citizens – has had to flee their homes for safety elsewhere. Presently, the Kurds run the northern part of Iraq practically autonomous from the rest of the country and for the rest of the country a very uneasy peace exists between different Shia factions and between Shia and Sunni Arabs -- a peace that can come unraveled at any time.

Olivia Ward has this assessment in the Toronto Star:
Aid organizations and analysts say that more than five years after the invasion, conditions are grim and in many cases growing worse, as the country suffers widespread poverty, massive displacement, a crippling brain drain and a dangerous breakdown in infrastructure.

"Neighbourhoods are flooded with sewage, households are without water or electricity and there's the threat of spreading disease," says Jennifer Abrahamson of the British-based charity Oxfam. "We are seeing that in the last year the situation has either stayed the same, or gotten worse."

In 2007, as the surge was taking effect, Oxfam and a coalition of Iraqi organizations found that nearly one-third of the 27 million population needed emergency relief, 70 per cent lacked adequate water supplies, 50 per cent were unemployed and 25 per cent of children were malnourished.

In addition, 80 per cent of households had no proper sanitation, and 2 million internally displaced people no means of support. Forty-three per cent of Iraqis were living in absolute poverty.

The surge was aimed at salvaging Washington's Iraq operation, allowing an end to a war with growing American opposition, by quelling insurgencies that were spiralling out of control. But in spite of an impressive drop in Iraqi casualties by more than 1,000 deaths a month, as bombing attacks and fighting diminished, the trickle-down effects have been slow to materialize.

The January 2007 plan temporarily boosted troops by 21,500 to restore order in Baghdad and allow the Iraqi government to launch a process of peace and reconciliation. It was aided by an "Awakening" movement of Sunni Muslims encouraged to join U.S. troops in driving out Al Qaeda cells and by the "freezing" of the main Shiite militia, under leader Moqtada al-Sadr.

But it also brought clashes, violent death, and the virtual partitioning of Baghdad, once a city of mainly mixed neighbourhoods.

"It was the most bitter and destructive time of ethnic cleansing for Iraq," says Michael Schwartz, author of War Without End: The Iraq War in Context. "To call it a success is a staggering claim."

The 2003 invasion set off a chain reaction of bloodshed and revenge that sent up to 4 million Iraqis fleeing from their homes, as rival Sunni and Shia groups battled for territory. By the end of the surge, four years later, some 2 million people were refugees in neighbouring countries and another 2 million displaced inside Iraq.

Many of the displaced are professionals, including engineers, teachers and doctors. The brain drain has reconfigured Iraq's population, with the poorest and least-skilled remaining, and few able to repair the ruined infrastructure, or run vital services. Even skilled workers find it hard to find paying jobs.

"The government has put money into the medical system and supplies are getting better," says Jean-Guy Vataux of Médecins Sans Frontières. "But there are not enough doctors and nurses and no evidence of a massive return."

Even after the surge, Iraq's security is still so uncertain that hundreds of civilians are killed each month and aid workers can't reach people who are most in need. Women report vicious attacks from Islamists "enforcing" morality codes.

"There's militia violence, criminality and kidnapping," says Juan Cole, who teaches modern Middle Eastern history at University of Michigan. "People who left have got threatening letters even when they were outside the country. They're frightened and they're not going back home any time soon."

As the two main troop contributors, America and Britain, prepare to draw down their forces, there are fears of renewed unrest from destitute Iraqis who have become homeless in their own country.

"There can be no safe withdrawal unless the overall displacement issue is addressed," warns Joel Charny of Refugees International.

Meanwhile, there has been little success in reconciling Iraq's divided society. Kurds, who populate a relatively peaceful autonomous region in the north, are struggling for control of the key oil town of Kirkuk. The Shiite majority are at risk from opposing militias and religious extremists in their own ranks. And Sunnis live uneasily among warring groups, many displaced from their former homes.
You can read the entire piece here.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Summing up the Bush legacy

With only a few weeks left before the swearing in of the new president, it is worth considering the legacy Bush administration will be dropping into the lap of Obama presidency. Unfortunately, George Bush will be leaving the country far weaker than he found it eight years ago.

This analysis is from the L.A. Times:
As President Bush's term comes to a close, the United States has the world's largest economy and its most powerful military. Yet its global influence is in decline.

The United States emerged from the Cold War a solitary superpower whose political and economic leverage often enabled it to impose its will on others. Now, America usually needs to build alliances -- and often finds that other powers aren't willing to go along.

In the 1990s, America exerted leadership in all the remote corners of the globe, from the southern cone of South America to Central Asia. Now, the United States has largely left the field in many regions, leaving others to step forward.

Bush has been blamed widely for the erosion of American prestige. And the decline in U.S. influence is partly the result of the reaction to his invasion of Iraq, his campaign against Islamic militants and his early disdain for treaties and international bodies.


A decade ago, the U.S. might have been able to bring enough economic pressure on its own to force an end to Iran's disputed nuclear program, said Nikolas K. Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the Naval War College.

But Iran has built economic ties to China and India, among others, so the United States has to assemble a much larger group if it hopes to force Tehran's hand.

"Ten years ago, the U.S. was generally the only game in town, and it had the power to close or crack open the door to Iran," Gvosdev said. "Now other countries have more options. . . . This doesn't mean the United States is weak, but it can't unilaterally impose what it wants."

The U.S. National Intelligence Council issued a report this year, "Global Trends 2025," that notes a shift of economic power from the West to the East that is "without precedent." In 2025, the United States will "remain the single most powerful country, but will be less dominant," it predicts.

Since World War II, the United States has led by its power of persuasion, as well as its economic might. But other countries' unhappiness with the Iraq war and the conduct of the Bush administration's "global war on terror," means that the "American brand is less legitimate and its persuasive powers are compromised," said Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University and the Council on Foreign Relations.

There also has been a dwindling of U.S. influence as the administration has focused most of its energy and resources on the Middle East and Southwest Asia, leaving much less for Central and Southeast Asia, Latin America and other regions. Many are going their own way, developing new ties among neighbors.

Latin American countries, for example, are building an organization called the Union of South American Nations and a NATO-like defense alliance called the South American Defense Council. The United States, long dominant in the hemisphere, is pointedly excluded from both.

An 8-year-old group called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, with Russia, China, and four Central Asian states, has been slowly developing, in part because some members want a bulwark against U.S. involvement in the region.

Other countries are leading diplomatic initiatives that once would have been the province of the United States.

Qatar has taken the lead in brokering a deal between Syria and Lebanon, and Turkey has been acting as an intermediary between Israel and Syria.

As the United States' political standing has eroded, its economy has remained powerful. Its gross domestic product of $14 trillion a year dwarfs China's $7 trillion, adjusted for purchasing power.

Yet American influence on world economic policy is declining, too. One sign: the failure of the United States and its allies to sell a new agreement to the World Trade Organization in the face of opposition from China, India and other nations.

"The influence of the U.S. private sector is as strong as ever," said Gary C. Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "But the United States is much less able to shape world policy these days."

Many analysts expect that the economic crisis, for which the U.S. is blamed by much of the world, will convince many countries that they shouldn't emulate the loosely regulated American economic model.
You can read the entire piece here.

Monday, December 22, 2008

This economic emergency requires our full attention, our imagination, and action on a grand scale

The economic crisis the country finds itself in is far more severe than anything we have experienced since Great Depression. Consumption and investment are both taking hits which mean there is no growth. We cannot afford the luxury of allowing ourselves to be hobbled by free market ideology. Bold action will be required to salvage the system that supports and promotes our livelihoods. James K Galbraith is promoting aggressive public action building on the historical experience and surviving institutions from the New Deal and the Great Society:
The first priority must be to plug the tax gaps that are rapidly taking down state and local governments and causing enormous pressure for cuts in vital public services, and layoffs, which will only complicate further the housing crisis. Revenue sharing is the way out of this problem. This is just a matter of writing checks, on a large scale — and a bill could be enacted and on the President’s desk on his first day.

Second, capital markets for municipal and for state governments are locked up and if they’re not locked up, then they’re far too expensive. A National Infrastructure Fund could take advantage of the very low rates at which the federal government can now borrow, permitting states and localities to move forward on an entire array of “shovel-ready” investments. That too is just a matter of setting up a rudimentary structure that could be enacted and delivered to the President in a very short time.

The industrial crisis requires immediate action if the auto companies are to survive. For such cases in the future (and there probably will be some) the relevant precedent is the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, headed during the New Deal by an intrepid businessman, Jesse Jones, who saved many important companies with a combination of loans and workout plans. A new RFC would enable the federal government to assist industries– perhaps not as large, not as essential, or as threatening as the collapse of the automobile industry would be — but on a somewhat systematic basis for the duration of the crisis.

As for helping the workers who are most severely affected by the industrial aspects of this crisis, Teresa Ghilarducci, professor of economics the New School, has proposed a simple and effective step that would further the cause of universal health care: reduce the age of Medicare eligibility to the age of 55. That would take much of the cash burden of healthcare costs off of enterprises, where they don’t belong anyway. And it would provide the opportunity for many workers who would like to retire but won’t do so because they can’t afford to lose their health insurance.

The housing crisis requires mortgage abatement, a resetting of the toxic adjustable rate mortgages already being initiated through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and also a concerted effort out in the neighborhoods to restructure mortgages and to keep people in their homes. Here the historical model is the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which did this in the 1930’s — an enterprise that took about 20,000 people to manage 1 million mortgages. Essentially the same effect could be achieved today by buying back the mortgages through Fannie and Freddie and then turning them over to a restructuring facility – the present version is known as the H4H, or Hope for Homeowners program.

The point is that while you cannot effectively stabilize the price of housing, you can try to save the existing housing stock, stop the spread of blight, the abandonment of homes, and the homelessness that results from an unchecked wave of foreclosures. We will then have preserved those neighborhoods and those communities for a better day.

Further, we have to expect that the fall of the stock market and its impact on the wealth position of the elderly and the near-elderly is going to cause a substantial drop in consumption over the next few years. This is not something that can be repaired individually because people’s stock market losses cannot be made good on a case-by-case basis.

But we can support the income of the elderly population as a group. The way to do that is, for the first time in a generation, to raise the basic Social Security benefit, beyond the cost of living. That would prevent many seniors from falling into poverty and also help to preserve the purchasing power of the elderly as a whole. Today we need Social Security more than ever. We should recognize that going forward it will be a larger, not smaller, part of American retirements. The days when we thought that the stock market might someday substitute for it are at an end, and so should be talk of cutting back on this vital program.

Meanwhile, to protect the Social Security Trust Fund and put an end to talk about financial troubles of that system, Congress could simply place assets acquired under the TARP and related programs into the trust fund, as William Spriggs, professor of economics at Howard University, has proposed.

These measures, in 2009 alone, could inject $450 to $500 billion dollars of new demand into the economy. That would be enough to blunt the economic decline. We therefore need to consider tax relief to working families either directly or indirectly through remission of the payroll tax. It’s a simple, effective means to give a pay raise, and to cut the cost of hiring to employers. It would help many working families to pay their mortgages and to stay in their homes and to pay down their debts. Even if it didn’t immediately boost in total spending, it would put American families on a better foundation going forward.

What is the total size of the package we would require? News reports suggest that President-elect Obama and his emerging team are considering $600 billion, or 4 percent of GDP, for next year. This number is based on a guess, namely that the slump will not be much worse than in 1982, when the unemployment rate went up to about 11 percent. And while that might be right, we cannot be sure.

This crisis is qualitatively different from any we have seen in decades. Moreover, we have been overwhelmed, in recent weeks, by unexpected bad news. The risk of doing too little is far worse than the risk of doing too much. Action should be sufficient to deal with a larger problem, perhaps a much larger problem, than we currently expect.

If we do too little—if we spend $400 billion when $600 billion is required, or $600 billion when $900 billion would have been better—then people will say “Gosh, that didn’t work.” And by then the new administration will have run down its political capital and we may find that it can’t come back for a second bite at the apple. The program we enact in early 2009 needs to show results the first time — and that means bigger rather than smaller.

If we get lucky … and later find that economy is recovering rapidly that suddenly we’ve succeeded, we can always declare victory and pull back from spending more. A trigger mechanism might even be appropriate, to reduce tax relief if joblessness falls below five percent or revenue sharing if state and local budgets return to surplus. In my view, the chances of activating such a trigger are low.

This emergency requires our full attention, our imagination, and action on a grand scale. One hundred and forty-six years ago, the President wrote to Congress:

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered, in spite of ourselves.”

That was Lincoln, of course, on December 1, 1862.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A glimpse of how hell could look

Since 2000, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) has presented awards for photographs of children that illustrate their living conditions from different parts of the world. This year’s winner is Alice Smeets of Belgium for her photograph of a girl walking barefoot through the mud and rubbish with Cité Soleil , the largest slum of Port-au-Prince, Haiti in the background. Pigs graze on the garbage. The clear blue sky is reflected on the filthy water. The girl is wearing a clean white dress. No one knows her name.

This description from UNICEF:
Justify Full
For five hundred years misfortune and terror have reigned in Haiti. First it was colonialism and slavery, then came the dictators. After that followed chronic political instability and hurricanes. And throughout all that: hardship, distrust, treachery, poverty, dirt, destruction, illness, tyranny, oppression, persecution, death.

People live unprotected in stinking and burning waste, without work, without reliable sources of energy, without drinkable water, without clean air to breath, without money for their next meal. In the hovels the poorest of the poor resort to eating dirt simply to fill their stomachs. In a setting like this, a little girl in a white dress seems to be a frightened angel that finds itself in the underworld and nevertheless determined to fight for a little bit of beauty.

This glimpse of how hell could look, overwhelmed the young Belgian photographer, Alice Smeets, on her first trip to Haiti….
Let’s not forget this little girl and other like her around the world.

You can see the the other entries here.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Bill Ayers speaks out

Having mismanaged the foreign and domestic affairs of this nation for the better part of the past decade and therefore having nothing positive to offer the nation, Republicans were resorting to demagoguery in their desperate search for an issue to at least discredit the reputation of the Democrats’ presidential nominee. They came across Bill Ayers – a man who in middle age is a legitimate and respected educator but in youth was a participant in violent fringe politics with a miniscule group that had deceived itself in believing in its own importance in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Barack Obama was a rising politician and Ayers had been appointed by the Mayor to work on a reform plan for Chicago schools in the 1990’s. He served as co-chair of the Chicago School Reform Collaborative funded by the Annenberg Foundation (established by Richard Nixon’s billionaire ambassador, Walter Anneberg) and Obama served on the board of directors for Chicago Annenberg Challenge. In 1997, Ayers was awarded Citizen of the Year by the city of Chicago for his work. Because of their common interest in education, the paths of Obama and Ayers crossed from time to time from the 1990’s onward.

Ayers’ youthful antics were far less respectable. He played a role in the splintering of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in favor of a militant faction that favored street fighting. He participated in the “Days of Rage” riot in Chicago during 1969 and was a founder of the Weatherman organization that planted bombs as a protest against the war in Vietnam. Obama, of course, was less than ten years old living half way around the world when Ayers was involved in this craziness but the Republicans were convinced the American people were not interested in details.

Obama replied that their paths crossed from time to time because of common interest in education in Chicago and he denounced Ayers’ earlier actions. Ayers wisely did not allow himself to be drawn into the debate and kept his mouth shut. And the Republicans miscalculated – the American people were interested in the details.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Bill Ayers spoke out. Unfortunately, Ayers is unable (or unwilling) to view his past objectively by over emphasizing the importance of the Weather Underground and underemphasizing the violence and its role in discrediting the antiwar movement.

Hilzoy has these thoughts:
Bill Ayers and the Weather Underground did more than 'cross lines of legality, of propriety and perhaps even of common sense.' They were, by any standard I can think of, terrorists. As one historian says, "The only reason they were not guilty of mass murder is mere incompetence (...) I don't know what sort of defense that is."

They say they did it to end the war in Vietnam. But how, exactly, that was supposed to happen is a total mystery. It's the Underpants Gnome theory of political activism:

Phase 1: Set a bunch of bombs.
Phase 2: ???
Phase 3: The war ends!

That level of tactical idiocy is one thing when you're collecting underpants. It's quite another when you're setting bombs.

Ayers may think that there's still a debate about the Weather Underground's effectiveness. And he might also think that he "acted appropriately in the context of those times." To me, though, he's just a shallow rich kid who took himself and his revolutionary rhetoric much too seriously, helped inspire people to do things that got them killed, and helped to discredit the anti-war movement and the left as a whole.

He has done enough harm already. Now he should do the decent thing and leave us in peace.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Mumbai -- forget the "war on terror" and zero in on the terrorists

The assault upon civilians in the city of Mumbai (Bombay) last week has left India and the international community shaken. These men, whatever their motivation, had a plan and were well armed. However, their greatest weapon was fear. Ten armed men brought a city of 19 million to a standstill for three days. India must act to prevent this from happening again but they must restrain the temptation to oversimplify the threat they face and to overreact by lashing out indiscriminately.

Rosa Brooks has these thoughts:
Last week's terrorist attacks involved a handful of men armed only with guns, grenades and homemade bombs. But they killed more than 170 people, closed universities and businesses, shut down India's National Stock Exchange and did incalculable economic damage to a country that boasts the world's third-largest military and internationally respected police and intelligence services -- none of which managed to prevent the attacks.

Sound familiar?

It should. It should remind you of 9/11, when 19 men armed only with box cutters ultimately killed nearly 3,000 people. And the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 191, and the 2005 bombings on London's Underground, which killed 52. Each of these attacks involved a small number of perpetrators. Each was low-tech. Each caused enormous psychological and economic damage in addition to loss of life, and each occurred in countries with sophisticated security forces.

Get used to it.

Because the Mumbai attack should also remind you of Timothy McVeigh and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168, and the 2002 D.C.-area sniper attacks, in which two men killed 10 people and caused so much fear that for weeks people were reluctant to go to shopping centers or gas stations, and the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, in which one man killed 32 people.

The perpetrators of those attacks weren't Islamic extremists. McVeigh was a white supremacist; the D.C. snipers were a disgruntled African American Army vet and his gullible teen sidekick; the Virginia Tech killer was a psychologically troubled Asian American student. They had nothing in common except anger and a desire to cause death, pain and panic. And they succeeded.

We can't even stop school shootings by disturbed teenagers. Don't imagine we'll be much better at stopping ideologically motivated terrorists. As long as terrorists keep it low-tech and simple, they're hard to stop.

Mumbai should remind us -- again -- of the folly of the Bush administration's "war on terror." Terror is an emotion, and terrorism is a tactic. You can't make "war" against it. Even if meant as mere metaphor, "the war on terror" foolishly enhanced the terrorist's status as prime boogeyman, arguably increasing the psychological effectiveness of terrorist tactics. Worse, it effectively lumped together many different organizations motivated by many different grievances -- a surefire route to strategic error.
This is not to say to do nothing. On the contrary, something must be done but intelligent and effective responses will differ from situation to situation. The catchall phrase “war on terror” is not only meaningless but can be dangerously misleading by its oversimplification. India should learn from the mistakes of the United States in its fight against Al Qada. Do not hand a terrorist group a psychological victory by elevating their status as a threat but be relentless in pursing the guilty. And do not use this attack as an excuse to pursue other military adventures only tangentially related to this crime. The government will lose credibility in the long run and the guilty will escape to plot another attack for another day.

You can read Brooks’ entire piece here in the L.A. Times.

Monday, December 01, 2008

What is to be learned from the Mumbai and 9/11 attacks

The September 11th attacks on the United States should have taught us some very basic lessons in counter-terrorism. Seven years, two wars and billions of dollars later we are still struggling to do the old fashioned intelligence and police work to keep the public safe. As the Indians and the world community try to determine who is responsible for these horrible attacks in Mumbai, why they committed these atrocities, and how to respond, one of the more important lessons to take away from all this: Know your enemy before reacting. Anne Applebaum explains:
In the coming days, more will surely be learned about the gunmen, some of whom have been captured by the Indian police. Their weapons will be traced, their motives will become clearer, their methods better understood. Their leaders will acquire names and personalities. Still, it is worth underlining, emphasizing, and remembering this initial moment of total ignorance: If nothing else, it's a reminder of some things we learned on Sept. 11, 2001.

At that time, readers will recall, al-Qaida was widely described as something new: Unlike terrorist groups of the past, many noted that it operated not as a single, secretive organization but more like a global franchise. Groups and individuals with various agendas could come to al-Qaida for weapons and training. Afterward, they could, in effect, set up their own local branches, whose goals and methods might reflect the original, Saudi-inspired, al-Qaida ideology—or might not. Some predicted that al-Qaida would even inspire copycat movements, much as McDonald's inspired Burger King. Groups with no connection to Osama Bin Laden—and no interest in being connected to Osama Bin Laden—might imitate some of his methods and tactics. By definition, the members of such groups would be civilians, sometimes living ordinary lives. They would not be combatants, in the ordinary sense of the word. They would not wear uniforms, follow rules, or organize themselves into anything resembling a traditional army. And they could not, therefore, be fought using traditional military methods alone.

Too often, over the last seven years, it has been easy to forget this initial analysis. After all, most of our major military efforts since 2001 have initially involved rather more concrete enemies, whom we have fought in specific places, using traditional means. The initial assault on Afghanistan was in fact a proxy war, not a postmodern, post-globalization game of tricks and mirrors. The same was true in Iraq: We overthrew a dictator, toppled his statues, and set up an occupation regime.

Only later, in both places, did we find ourselves contending with groups invariably described as "shadowy," with enemies who melted in and out of the civilian population, with terrorist cells that might be connected to al-Qaida, to Pakistan, to Iran—or might not. It took some time before we understood that our opponents in Iraq were not merely disgruntled Baathists but encompassed a range of both Sunni and Shiite groups with different agendas. Only now, for that matter, do we fully understand the degree to which the very word Taliban is misleading: Though the term implies a definite group with clear goals, American commanders in Afghanistan now understand very well that what they call Taliban is also an amalgamation of insurgents, some of whom fight for tribal interests, others for money, and only some for a clear-cut ideological cause.

Perhaps the Mumbai gunmen will, like some of the Afghan Taliban, also turn out to be members of a homegrown, locally based, ad hoc organization, with its own eccentric goals and training methods. Or perhaps they really will turn out to belong to a definite group with a clear ideology, which would of course be easier all around. Surely the point, though, is that we should be well-prepared to deal with either—and wary of mistaking one for the other.
Her entire piece can be read here in Slate.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Roy Zimmerman: "Christma-Hanu-Rama-Ka-Dona-Kwaanza"

This is Roy Zimmerman performing his all-purpose holiday tune "Christma-Hanu-Rama-Ka-Dona-Kwaanza” on KPIG Radio's "Please Stand By" with host John Sandidge.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Stan Getz: “Out of Nowhere” (1960)

The Stan Getz quartet performs the Edward Heyman & Johnny Green tune, “Out of Nowhere”. This clip was recorded in Dusseldorf, March 28, 1960 with Jan Johansson (piano), Ray Brown (bass) and Ed Thigpen (drums).

Stanley Gayetzky (1927 – 1991), usually known by his stage name Stan Getz, was an American jazz saxophone player. His parents were Ukrainian Jews who immigrated to the United States in 1903. Getz started playing professionally in 1943 and became popular in the 1950’s playing cool jazz. In the 1960’s he became a central figure in Bossa Nova and Brazilian jazz.

He performs two of his most popular recordings, “Desafinado” and “The Girl from Ipanema”, here and plays with John Coltrane here.

The Thanksgiving tradition reveals more about what we have forgotten about the past than what we remember

Thanksgiving is a tradition that likely evolved from ancient harvest festivals common in agricultural societies around the globe. It was not a formal holiday in the United States but was observed by proclamation by various presidents from time to time. It was only after Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 that the last Thursday in November became the Thanksgiving Day we have observed ever since.

Thanksgiving, like Christmas, has its own creation story and that is in 1621 Pilgrims and Indians sat down together in a feast to celebrate a successful harvest. According to the myth a tradition was born. Yet, the truth is a little more complex as Karl Jacoby explains in the L.A. Times:
When Americans sit down to our annual Thanksgiving meal with family and friends, we like to imagine that we are reenacting a scene that first took place in 1621. That year, having made a successful harvest after a brutal winter that killed half their number, the 50 or so surviving Colonists in Plymouth "entertained and feasted," in the words of one, a visiting delegation of nearby Wampanoag Indians, led by "their greatest king," Massasoit.

American holidays, however, sometimes reveal more about what we have forgotten about the past than what we remember. Historical records indicate that the parties dined on venison and corn rather than on the stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie Americans have come to associate with Thanksgiving, and that the feast probably took place in the early autumn rather than November. Moreover, it is not even clear that the Pilgrims referred to their 1621 celebration as a thanksgiving. To devout Pilgrims, a day of thanksgiving was usually a solemn religious undertaking, marked by worship and, often, fasting. It was not a day spent gorging on wild deer and engaging in "recreations" with one's Indian neighbors.

Although there were sporadic local Thanksgiving days in Colonial and early America, it was not until the middle of the Civil War -- 1863 -- that President Lincoln issued a proclamation making the last Thursday in November a national holiday of Thanksgiving. Lincoln's statement suggested that thanks were being given as much for "the advancing armies and navies of the Union" as for a bountiful harvest, and the president urged special prayers for "all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged."

Not surprisingly, few at the time viewed Thanksgiving as a private, family occasion. Instead, Northern civilians donated turkey and cranberries to feed Union troops, while Jefferson Davis declared separate Thanksgiving holidays for the Confederacy.

During Reconstruction, many Southerners initially expressed reluctance at celebrating what they saw to be a Yankee holiday. And yet it was at this moment, as the recently rejoined United States struggled to reconcile its populace after a divisive Civil War, that it became useful to reinvent the history of Thanksgiving. Most Americans found it far more pleasant to imagine this American holiday as originating not during the traumas of the 1860s but rather during the more distant past of the early 1600s. To partisans of the Union and the Confederacy alike, the image of Pilgrims and Indians sitting down together to a shared meal offered a comforting vision of peace between potential rivals.

Yet this new image of Thanksgiving not only allowed Americans to gloss over the deep divisions that had led to the Civil War, it also overlooked much of the subsequent history of the Pilgrims' relations with their Indian neighbors. About 50 years after Massasoit and his fellow Wampanoags enjoyed their harvest meal at Plymouth, the Colonists' seizures of Wampanoag land would precipitate a vicious war between Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoags, now led by Massasoit's son, Metacom.

Most of the other peoples in New England at first tried to avoid the conflict between the onetime participants in the "first Thanksgiving." But the confrontation soon engulfed the entire region, pitting the New England Colonies against a fragile alliance of Wampanoags, Narragansetts, Nipmucs and other Native American groups. Although these allies succeeded in killing hundreds of Colonists and burning British settlements up to the very fringes of Boston itself, the losses suffered by New England's indigenous peoples were even more devastating. Thousands died over the two years of the war, and many of those captured were sold into slavery in the British West Indies, including Metacom's wife and 9-year-old son.

Metacom met his end at the hands of a Colonial scouting party in August of 1676. His killers quartered and decapitated his body and sent Metacom's head to Plymouth, where for two decades it would be prominently displayed on a pike outside the colony's entrance. That same year, as the violence drew to a close, the colony of Connecticut declared a "day of Publique Thankesgiving" to celebrate "the subdueing of our enemies."

Perhaps it is not surprising that we choose to remember the Thanksgiving of 1621 and to forget the Thanksgiving of 1676. Who, after all, would not prefer to celebrate a moment of peaceful unity rather than one of bloody conflict? But if our public holidays are meant to be moments for self-reflection as well as self-congratulation, we should think of Thanksgiving not as a perpetual reenactment of the "first Thanksgiving" of 1621 but instead as a dynamic event whose meaning has shifted over time.

We need not forget Massasoit's pleasant experiences dining with the Pilgrims in order to remember the more troubling fate of his son at the hands of the Pilgrims' descendants. Indeed, commemorating all the many reasons Americans have expressed thanks over the centuries allows us to come to a more complete and more honest understanding of our history. For while we cannot change events in the past, we do have the power to decide what we wish to be thankful for now and in the future.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The foreclosure crisis

Communities crushed by the foreclosure crisis are dealing with hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of abandoned and deteriorating houses. As local governments scramble to grapple with the problem, Congress, who bailed out Wall Street to the tune of $700 billion, has provided little relief. Four billion dollars has been set aside by Congress to help communities buy up and repair foreclosed houses, but will it be enough? According to Mary Kane in the Washington Independent:
Places hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, like Prince William County, are dealing with hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of abandoned and deteriorating properties like the Irongate townhouse — the damage left behind by the subprime mess. Unlike banks, insurance companies and others that have gotten a piece of the $700-billion rescue bill to help with their credit crisis problems, cities and suburbs are mostly on their own.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Politicians in Washington crowed this summer about helping homeowners with a mortgage rescue bill that included $300 billion in guarantees for refinanced mortgages and $4 billion for communities to buy up and repair foreclosed houses.

But since the program launched in October, the Federal Housing Admin. has received only 42 applications to refinance mortgages. That’s a far cry from the 400,000 or so homeowners expected to avoid foreclosure with the lower payment loans.

The issue is that the program is strictly voluntary for lenders. Congress could have made taking part in it a condition of getting money from the Treasury rescue plan — but it didn’t. In an effort to address this omission, government officials announced last week they would make it easier for borrowers to qualify for the loans, in order to draw more applicants.

The idea behind the mortgage rescue bill during the summer had been to combine those refinanced mortgages with the $4 billion for foreclosed properties, and make a dent, on the ground, in the foreclosure crisis, according to Danilo Pelletiere, research director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Instead, foreclosures grew at record levels. Refinancings faltered. Now there’s just the $4-billion piece.

Communities have to finish their plans for the money by Dec. 1. The U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development is going to approve the proposals, and give out the funds in February, at the earliest. By contrast, the Treasury bailout plan was approved in two weeks.

“There is no question that you are throwing a small amount of money at a very big problem,” Pelletiere said. “The way this thing has panned out is that it’s a really small amount of help. It really looks pretty wimpy.”
(The video clip above is from the American News Project.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Who is to blame for the disaster in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

Who is to blame for the disaster in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? There is plenty of blame to go around including not only the actors on the scene but the international community that does nothing. Humanitarian rhetoric flows from the international community but effective intervention does not. In the meantime, death and destruction spreads. Erin A. Weir of Refugees International has these observations:
Violence re-erupted in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the evening of October 26th and the redisplacement of tens, and then hundreds of thousands of people began.

By Wednesday, October 29th, the untrained, unpaid, uncontrolled Congolese military had abandoned their post and were actively terrorizing the population in Goma and throughout the province.

By the end of the week the world had caught on to the disaster. Foreign ministers and senior diplomats flooded into Goma, and with them the international press corps. The hand wringing and finger pointing had begun in earnest.

And who was to blame? Laurent Nkunda and his rebel forces were certainly first in line, as well as their backers in Rwanda, and the weak and ineffectual Congolese army. Most worrying though was the failure of the UN forces themselves. Why had “the world’s largest peacekeeping force” failed to protect the people of Congo?

The answer, now three weeks into this crisis, should be abundantly clear to anyone paying attention. For all the expressions of concern and support, for all the press conferences from the “front lines” of the DR Congo, the member states represented on the UN Security Council have persisted in doing absolutely nothing.

Long before the violence reignited, the UN Mission in the DR Congo (known by the acronym MONUC) had been requesting additional troops and other resources in order to carry out the many complex responsibilities that the Security Council has placed on their shoulders. With the high-profile of this most recent crisis, and the very public attention that it has received from the highest echelons of power, one might be led to believe that this time the politicians in Washington, London and Paris, might actually come through with the material and – more importantly – the political support that MONUC needs to get the job done.

Unfortunately, true to form, the most powerful members of the Security Council seem content to just be seen to be paying attention, and are not at all bothered by the total lack of any concrete action. Of course, the crisis is not entirely off their radar. The Council has, after all, penciled in a slot to discuss these matters… on November 26th, mind you, a full month after the crisis began. They very well may authorize reinforcements on that date, but it will take four to five months to get these forces on the ground. This, it seems, it what they meant when, in an October 29th statement, the Council promised to “study expeditiously” the matter of additional resources.

The trouble is that having failed to reinforce MONUC before the crisis ignited, the simple addition of troops after the fact is not going to cut it. MONUC forces need reinforcement, but they also need some time to regroup, and the hundreds of thousands of displaced and terrorized people in North Kivu need to see an ounce of stability so that they can begin to rebuild the lives that have been ripped to pieces in the last three weeks. UN deployments, however effective, take time, and time is not a luxury that the world can afford in North Kivu.

Angola, the Congo’s southern neighbor, has offered to enter the breach and fight alongside Congolese forces as they have done in the past. But this risks even more involvement of other regional actors like Rwanda, which is less inclined to fight on the side of the Congolese government. As bad as the situation continues to be in North Kivu, the prospect of a fully fledged regional war is far worse still.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Atheists in foxholes

The Christianization of the military is something which should worry Americans. American soldiers and sailors represent the United States, not one religion or another. The military is an instrument of foreign policy and national defense not a religious sword that exists to pry open other nations for the sake of spreading the gospel. Nothing positive has ever come about whenever the armed forces of other nations come under the sway of particular religions and there is no reason to believe the United States military is any different.

Yet, stories abound that officers and enlisted personnel are targeted by evangelical Christians and American armed forces are becoming more hostile to Americans who don’t share belief in their particular form of Christianity. This has led to litigation by soldiers who face retaliation for not being lockstep with evangelical Christianity.

Does this organized expression of Christianity have a long tradition in the American military? Not really, according to Jonathan Herzog in the Washington Independent:
So there are atheists in foxholes after all.

Last week, on the eve of Veterans Day, the Secular Coalition for America and the Military Assn. of Atheists and Freethinkers held a news conference in Washington to present an open letter to President-elect Barack Obama. Citing a report that found 21 percent of those in the armed forces identifying themselves as atheists or having “no religion,” the groups called on the new administration to pursue a military policy more open to nonbelievers.

The action follows on the heels of a much-publicized legal case involving atheism and the military. Jeremy Hall, 23, a U.S. Army specialist, grew up a Bible-reading Baptist in rural North Carolina. But his faith in God did not survive the battlefields of Iraq. Since disclosing his atheism, Hall claims he has become a target of insult and scorn — labeled “immoral,” “devil worshiper” and, curiously enough, gay — by fellow GIs and superior officers. But the pith of his complaint runs deeper than personal insult.

In his lawsuit, filed in Kansas last year, Hall and his co-plaintiff, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, accuse the military establishment not only of prejudice against nonbelievers but of blatant favoritism toward Christianity. As the suit challenging the place of religion in the armed forces lumbers toward a constitutional showdown, Hall and the Secular Coalition for America have sparked a national conversation about one of the military’s least discussed shibboleths.

The battle lines are already drawn. Critics depict Hall’s complaint as a campaign to destroy the spiritual foundation that the nation’s military has depended on for centuries. (“His right to spew his lying hot air cannot be allowed to decrease the morale of soldiers in combat,” writes one Christian blogger.) Meanwhile, the latest crop of best-selling atheists grant Hall some form of secular sainthood.

U.S. martial leaders have long prayed before and after battle: George Washington at the close of the Revolutionary War; George Dewey after his victory against the Spanish fleet at Manila; and Dwight D. Eisenhower on the eve of D-Day. Chaplains have also been key components of U.S. fighting forces, from the ragtag colonial militias to the highly professional units of today.

So when Americans learn that soldiers are being evangelized on military bases, that religious materials are often circulated among troops and that depictions of Washington kneeling in prayer are ubiquitous in military circles, they might likely see all this as an organic part of a venerable tradition.

But these incidents are anything but organic — and not nearly as deeply rooted as one might imagine. In fact, they are largely the residue of a forgotten footnote to U.S. military history during the late 1940s and 1950s — a time when civilian and military leaders attempted to imbue the armed forces with religious zeal and purpose.

At issue today, however, is not the place of religion in the military. Rather, it is the official sanction that government gives it. While this matter is given special weight by those who see America in the midst of a modern holy war against terrorism, it has precedent in the nation’s last great quasi-religious crusade — the battle against atheistic communism.

More than 60 years ago, when the Cold War was menacing but still unnamed, U.S. leaders faced the luckless dilemma of picking their own poison. If they demobilized the military after World War II, as their predecessors had done after previous wars, the Soviet threat might become unmanageable. But maintaining a large standing military would betray a national principle. It was considered profoundly un-American to maintain a powerful armed force in a time of peace. According to a long line of patriots, from Samuel Adams on down, standing armies threatened liberty and smothered virtue.

Added to this dilemma was a spiritual wild card. While Americans today would probably define communism as a political or economic philosophy, decision-makers in the 1940s and 1950s viewed it as a quasi-religion. It had prophets and prophecy, missionaries and martyrs, and a belief in the ultimate perfectibility of mankind through inevitable historical process.

National-security analysts fretted over the almost “messianic” devotion of Soviet citizens. Military leaders worried that physical force alone might be insufficient in the emerging Cold War. “Over and over again, gigantic concentrations of physical power have gone down in defeat before a lesser strength propelled by conviction,” warned one brigadier general in 1949. “The Goliaths have perished at the hands of the Davids.”

President Harry S. Truman decided to run the risk of America maintaining a sizable standing military. But to many, his cure looked worse than the disease. In 1938, only one in five servicemen was younger than 21. Ten years later, they made up more than half the military and accounted for 70 percent of all enlistments. America’s new standing army was regarded as puerile, impressionable and naïve.

Military leaders wondered if they stood on the verge of creating a potential Frankenstein monster. Their plan needed a fail-safe. So they decided not to pull the plug on their monster — but to give it a soul instead. To this end, religion became indispensable.

Military leaders vigorously blended the martial with the sacred to foster virtue and create spiritual warriors immune to the siren songs of communism. In the Fort Knox Experiment of 1947, the army toyed with the idea of simultaneously running new recruits through a physical and religious boot camp. When this proved too blatantly unconstitutional for Army-wide adoption, the “Fort Knox methods” lived on in the Army’s commitment to develop the spiritual side of its troops.

Truman thought so highly of this mission that, one year later, he created the President’s Committee on Religion and Welfare in the Armed Forces, the first presidential commission devoted to religion. Its members designed campaigns to encourage soldiers to attend church; to urge local religious groups to invite servicemen to their congregations; and to revitalize the military chaplaincy.

While the military brass had no stomach for mandatory religious services, it did authorize, beginning in the late 1940s, various “character guidance” programs run by the reorganized chaplaincy. New recruits attended a minimum of six hours of chaplain lectures on such topics as the sacredness of marriage, the relationship between democracy and religion, and the dangerous faith of communism. All other personnel had to attend similar lectures once a month.

Among other things, soldiers learned that in the Cold War, the United States, a “covenant nation” due to its reliance on God, confronted the “demonic nation” of the Soviet Union. In a contest between God and Satan, military leaders bet on the home team.

This was tame compared to the religious programs of the newly independent Air Force. Under Maj. Gen. Charles I. Carpenter, the Air Force project consisted of lay retreats, on-base preaching missions by religious groups and the confiscation of obscene materials.

Carpenter also believed in the power of religion to solve the personal problems of Air Force personnel. Consider one case cited by a U.S. Air Force report. A military surgeon reported treating an airman suffering from a nervous breakdown. The diagnosis: neurosis stemming from religious confusion. The prescription: a session with the base chaplain, who set up a “systematic plan” of religious treatment.

Nor did Carpenter stop there. In late 1948, he struck a deal with the Moody Bible Institute of Science, an evangelical organization devoted to repairing the damage done to religion by Darwinism. Soon, airmen across America and throughout the world were watching films like “God of Creation” and “Duty or Destiny.” The Air Force even provided the representatives of the Moody Institute with a fully crewed B-25. By 1951, nearly 200,000 Air Force personnel were watching Moody films each year.

Nonbelievers like Hall must have existed in the 1950s, or, at the very least, troops uncomfortable with the idea of religious training. But few spoke up. It took a 1962 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to end the 15-year period of officially sanctioned military sacralization.

In the wake of Engel vs. Vitale, the Supreme Court ruling that deemed prayer in public schools unconstitutional, the Washington director of the American Civil Liberties Union brought grievances of “religious indoctrination” directly to Army Sec. Cyrus R. Vance. Vance responded quickly. In March 1963, he ordered Army chaplains to create a new, secular version of character guidance — outside chapels and without sermonizing. The other services did the same.

As long as the United States remains a religious country, there will be religion in the military. And while the outcome of Hall’s lawsuit is uncertain, it has sparked a worthwhile conversation about faith and the uniform.

Understanding why the military was allowed to craft its own religious imprimatur 60 years ago takes no large stretch of the imagination. During an era when the truly religious could not be communists, the truly irreligious could not be Americans. This axiom rang particularly true for those on the front lines of the Cold War.

Those lamenting Hall’s lawsuit today should consider this slice of military history. From Puritan dreams to evangelical rallies, religion has remained a constant force in our national journey — the military’s in particular.

But the official sanctions afforded it have been anything but constant. Few today realize just how much of the military’s current positions toward religion, far from being longtime American attitudes, are merely vestiges from the Cold War era.

Those cheering Hall’s case should appreciate the extent to which the military has grown more secular over the past few decades. Where once the U.S. Air Force supplied airplanes to evangelists, it now officially insists that commanders “not take it upon themselves to change or coercively influence the religious views of subordinates.”

During the struggle against atheistic communism, comments like those of the Army’s Lt. Gen. William Boykin — who in 2004 called the war on terror a battle against “Satan” — were not only common but celebrated. Today, they are decried by the command structure, including President George W. Bush.

Throughout history, the Davids have sometimes slain the Goliaths. But more often, the stronger, better-equipped force prevailed — with or without the blessings of the Almighty.

Maybe this is what Hall means when he says that while he doesn’t believe in God, he does “believe in Plexiglas.” Whether he wanted to or not, Hall may have stumbled on the ultimate form of “coming out” in the military, and this may require the consideration of military leaders, an appreciation for the military’s religiously sanctioned past and perhaps even a decision from the next commander-in-chief.

If nothing else, it would give a new meaning to the policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Afghanistan: It’s still winnable, but only just

David Kilcullen is a former Australian Army officer who now advises the United States Department of State on counterinsurgency. In 2007 he served in Iraq with the Multi-National Force on the staff of General David Petraeus. He is currently a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

George Packer interviewed Kilcullen regarding the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan:
The White House briefed both campaigns on Afghanistan before the election. Apparently that’s how little time we have to turn things around. So how bad is it?

It’s bad: violence is way up, Taliban influence has spread at the local level, and popular confidence in the government and the international community is waning fast. It’s still winnable, but only just, and to turn this thing around will take an extremely major effort starting with local-level governance, political strategy, giving the Afghan people a well-founded feeling of security, and dealing with the active sanctuary in Pakistan. A normal U.S. government transition takes six to nine months, by the time new political appointees are confirmed, briefed, and in position. But nine months out from now will be the height of the Afghan fighting season, and less than a month out from critical Presidential elections in Afghanistan. If we do this the “normal” way, it will be too late for the Obama Administration to grip it up. I think this is shaping up to be one of the smoothest transitions on record, with the current Administration going out of its way to assist and facilitate. That said, the incoming Administration has a steep learning curve, and has inherited a dire situation—so whatever we do, it’s not going to be easy.

It sounds like you’re proposing classic counterinsurgency strategy: a combination of offensive and defensive military operations, political and economic development, and diplomacy. Isn’t that what we’ve been doing these past seven years? Have we just not been doing enough of all these? Or do we need to change strategy to something fundamentally new?

Well, we need to be more effective in what we are doing, but we also need to do some different things, as well, with the focus on security and governance. The classical counterinsurgency theorist Bernard Fall wrote, in 1965, that a government which is losing to an insurgency isn’t being out-fought, it’s being out-governed. In our case, we are being both out-fought and out-governed for four basic reasons:

(1) We have failed to secure the Afghan people. That is, we have failed to deliver them a well-founded feeling of security. Our failing lies as much in providing human security—economic and social wellbeing, law and order, trust in institutions and hope for the future—as in protection from the Taliban, narco-traffickers, and terrorists. In particular, we have spent too much effort chasing and attacking an elusive enemy who has nothing he needs to defend—and so can always run away to fight another day—and too little effort in securing the people where they sleep. (And doing this would not take nearly as many extra troops as some people think, but rather a different focus of operations).

(2) We have failed to deal with the Pakistani sanctuary that forms the political base and operational support system for the Taliban, and which creates a protective cocoon (abetted by the fecklessness or complicity of some elements in Pakistan) around senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders.

(3) The Afghan government has not delivered legitimate, good governance to Afghans at the local level—with the emphasis on good governance. In some areas, we have left a vacuum that the Taliban has filled, in other areas some of the Afghan government’s own representatives have been seen as inefficient, corrupt, or exploitative.

(4) Neither we nor the Afghans are organized, staffed, or resourced to do these three things (secure the people, deal with the safe haven, and govern legitimately and well at the local level)—partly because of poor coalition management, partly because of the strategic distraction and resource scarcity caused by Iraq, and partly because, to date, we have given only episodic attention to the war.

So, bottom line—we need to do better, but we also need a rethink in some key areas starting with security and governance.


On the Pakistani sanctuary, this seems to be the cancer in the bones of Afghanistan, and no one has a good answer. Both air power and special-forces incursions have drawn the wrath of the Pakistani government and people, but their efforts, as you say, have been weak at best and two-faced at worst. Our diplomats and development workers are being systematically targeted, and there’s a question how well we can spend $750 million in the northwest. Is there a way to clear out this sanctuary, that doesn’t cause the problem to metastasize?

You’re right. Pakistan is extremely important; indeed, Pakistan (rather than either Afghanistan or Iraq) is the central front of world terrorism. The problem is time frame: it takes six to nine months to plan an attack of the scale of 9/11, so we need a “counter-sanctuary” strategy that delivers over that time frame, to prevent al Qaeda from using its Pakistan safe haven to mount another attack on the West. This means that building an effective nation-state in Pakistan, though an important and noble objective, cannot be our sole solution—nation-building in Pakistan is a twenty to thirty year project, minimum, if indeed it proves possible at all—i.e. nation-building doesn’t deliver in the time frame we need. So we need a short-term counter-sanctuary program, a long-term nation-building program to ultimately resolve the problem, and a medium-term “bridging” strategy (five to ten years)—counterinsurgency, in essence—that gets us from here to there. That middle part is the weakest link right now. All of that boils down to a policy of:

(a) encouraging and supporting Pakistan to step up and effectively govern its entire territory including the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas], and to resolve the current Baluch and Pashtun insurgency, while

(b) assisting wherever possible in the long-term process of state-building and governance, but

(c) reserving the right to strike, as a last resort, at al Qaeda-linked terrorist targets that threaten the international community, if (and only if) they are operating in areas that lie outside effective Pakistani sovereignty.

During the campaign, McCain talked about transferring the surge from Iraq Afghanistan. We’ve discussed the military side. On the political side, is there any possible counterpart to the Sunni Awakening in Afghanistan—perhaps local Taliban disenchanted with foreign influences on their leadership? Should part of our political strategy be to talk to Taliban leaders who might be prepared to negotiate with us?

Well, I doubt that an Anbar-style “awakening” is likely in Afghanistan. The enemy is very different from A.Q.I. and, in any case, Pashtun tribes have a very different makeup from Arab tribes. So even if an awakening happened it would likely play out differently from Iraq. Rather than talking about negotiations (which implies offering an undefeated Taliban a seat at the table, and is totally not in the cards) I would prefer the term “community engagement.” The local communities (tribes, districts, villages) in some parts of Afghanistan have been alienated by poor governance and feel disenfranchised through the lack of district elections. This creates a vacuum, especially in terms of rule of law, dispute resolution, and mediation at the village level, that the Taliban have filled. Rather than negotiate directly with the Taliban, a program to reconcile with local communities who are tacitly supporting the Taliban by default (because of lack of an alternative) would bear more fruit. The Taliban movement itself is disunited and fissured with mutual suspicion—local tribal leaders have told me that ninety per cent of the people we call Taliban could be reconcilable under some circumstances, but that many are terrified of what the Quetta shura and other extremists associated with the old Taliban regime might do to them if they tried to reconcile. So, while an awakening may not happen, the basic principles we applied in Iraq—co-opt the reconcilables, make peace with anyone willing to give up the armed struggle, but simultaneously kill or capture all those who prove themselves to be irreconcilable—are probably very applicable.

You spoke of Iraq’s effect in draining our energy and focus away from Afghanistan. President-elect Obama has made it clear that he plans to alter the balance significantly. But, as you say, he doesn’t have much time. If you had his ear, what would be your basic advice?

Well, I don’t have his ear, and I don’t envy the pressure he must be under. But if I did have his ear, I think I would argue for the four major points we discussed above. First, the draw-down in Iraq needs to be conditions-based and needs to recognize how fragile our gains there have been, and our moral obligation to Iraqis who have trusted us. As I said, we don’t want to un-bog ourselves from Iraq only to get bogged in Afghanistan while Iraq turns bad again. Second, our priorities in Afghanistan should be security, governance, and dealing with the Pakistan safe haven—and we may not necessarily need that many more combat troops to do so. Third, the Afghan elections of September 2009 are a key milestone—we can’t just muddle through, and the key problem is political: delivering effective and legitimate governance that meets Afghans’ needs. And finally, most importantly, this is a wartime transition and we can’t afford the normal nine-month hiatus while we put the new Administration in place: the war in Afghanistan will be won or lost in the next fighting season, i.e. by the time of the September elections.

The situation in Afghanistan is dire. But the war is winnable. We need to focus our attention on the problem, and think before acting. But we need to think fast, and our actions need to involve a major change of direction, focussing on securing the population rather than chasing the enemy, and delivering effective legitimate governance to the people, bottom-up, at the local level. Do that, do it fast, and we stand an excellent chance of turning things around.
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