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A Light Fickers

Posted by Bob Kohm on September 20, 2013

This has been a week of hopeful words from unexpected sources, words that give succor to the soul but arouse unease in the intellect.

From Pope Francis I we hear words of hope, words that say that the Church has buried itself for far too long in doctrinal small sightedness which has made cynical the flock. A religion founded on the principles so well expounded in the tale of the Samaritan– tolerance for difference, kindness in the face of prejudice, the universality of the human condition and the amelioration of its woes– has submerged itself in fights over the denial of earthly rights and heavenly rewards to people over matters pertaining to their love and its physical expressions. From John Boehner we hear rumblings that the nihilistic campaign being waged by the Tea Party isn’t what is right for America, that being elected to govern does not equate with mothballing the government. From as unlikely a source as the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, we hear words of conciliation and mutual respect in a call to welcome Iran back into the community of nations as a full fledged partner, and end to, as he refers to it, an age of blood feuds.

Three disparate sources, one overarching theme– reconciliation. It is impossible for people of hope not to be at least momentarily inspired by words such as these coming in a time as divisive as the one we now populate. Our minds, those cynicized organs so conditioned by the events of the past quarter century to ignore hope in favor of a darker coalescence of possibilities, for a moment lighten as we glimpse that flickering ember and wonder if it can be kindled into a generator not necessarily of heat but still of  tactile reality. The possibility can’t be denied, if even out of sheer desire for it to be real.

The reasons to think it is not real are, sadly, easy to enumerate. Francis is at the helm of a vast doctrinal bureaucracy heavily invested in the teachings of the previous Pontiff, Benedict, whose march to undo the moderatel influence on the Church of John Paul II and John XXIII became the hallmark of his pontificate.

Like the legendary grey men of the permanent British Civil Service, those doctrinally orthodox Cardinals, Bishops and functionaries understand that they will outlast the temporary leadership of their nominative leader; Benedict’s labors to restock the Curia and its various functional apparatuses with younger men are rewarded in that way. They know that they must publicly toe the line drawn by their Pope, but will they rush to enact his decrees or let them linger under study, under “timely” implementations and half hearted directives to the pastoral network, playing the waiting game in hopes of a new, older direction from the next Pope?

Francis and “His” Curia

I discussed yesterday with an old friend, a man of faith, character and intellect, whether the Pope’s words were actually aimed at the doctrinal staff or rather lower, at the grassroots network of parish priests and the faithful. Upon reflection I believe my friend to be correct, that Francis is trying to do an end run around his governing structure and enact change from the bottom by seeing his message preached from the myriad pulpits, thus forcing the Bishops into acceptance and then the structure all the way back to those supposedly closest to the Pope’s direct control in Rome. It strikes me as a desperate play by Francis, although not a hopeless one– my main hope in it is that he acknowledges that the system is broken and that he cannot fix the damage by decree, but must invest his power in the organizationally powerless and ask them, through faith and numbers, to right what is wrong with the Church.

Mr. Boehner faces a problem similar in theme if different in mechanics. Boehner finds himself the nominal leader of a Republican caucus not only badly divided but acting in a manner that is nearly unprecedented in the leadership structure history of his party, While the Democrats have always been a somewhat fractious coalition, earlier of Northern liberals and Dixiecrat conservatives and later of Blue Dogs, liberals, moderates, fiscal conservative/social liberals and various and sundry other ideologues practicing vaious and sundry different ideologies, the GOP has been a much more rigid, lockstep caucus. In the years since the Eisenhower Administration, with the slight aberration of the Gingrich speakership, the GOP in Congress has existed under the tight control of their Speakers and Minority Leaders with strong and able whipping by the lower leadership. It has reliably supported their core themes (at least in the way they’ve been somewhat misleadingly packaged)– lower taxes, smaller government, fiscal responsibility measures, the curtailment of the social safety net, opposition to abortion and the extension of civil rights, sometimes with the abetment of the fractious Democrats and sometimes without. The “Hastert Rule”, which stated that no bill be brought to the floor unless it met with the approval of the majority of the Caucus, seemed absolute.

The brashness of that lockstep record emboldened the Boehner/Cantor leadership to overplay their hand at the close of the first decade of the new century, legitimizing and deploying the proverbial war elephant of the Tea Party Republicans as a force they hubristically thought they could control and whose dynamism they never fully understood. War elephants, as I’ve written in the past, are funny things from a historic perspective– massive, intimidating juggernauts that can scare the enemy off of the battlefield, yes, but more often than not they proved to be unreliable forces of nature as apt to trample their own lines into dust as they were to scatter an opposing army. The elephantine presence of the Tea Party electees of 2010 has done precisely that to Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor’s leadership in the House and to a slightly lesser extent Mr. McConnell’s leadership in the Senate.

That leads us to the horns of Mr. Boehner’s dilemma this week– a caucus so out of control as to be characterized by its own members as being on a legislative kamikaze mission to hole the hull of our government. Mr Boehner has made a very poor secret of his attempts to rein in the caucus and to get them to focus on governance rather than on the destruction of the same– his sometimes tiresomely bellicose verbiage has moderated to calls for governmental foresight and moderation. Even speaking as someone who shares very little governing philosophy with Mr. Boehner, I respect his desire for moderation and sanity displayed this past week despite the typhoon of immoderation his previous actions have unleashed. I hope that he can somehow restore the genie to the bottle by force of will and backroom deals among the more pragmatic members of his party, but that hope is again, as is the case with Pope Francis’ hope, limited by the empirical evidence before us to the contrary. It is hard to undo a system that is behaving in a manner so optimally that it has subsumed the governors placed to control it.

Last is the letter delivered to the American people and to the world by newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. In a world set reeling by actions coming from the Middle East since the mid 1960s, what words could be more welcome than those calling for a legitimate peace from one of the nations that have so greatly fostered that reeling instability? Rather than suing for peace, President Rouhani asks for something even more intellectually appealing– and end to the “zero sum game” of lingering Cold War thinking, a new compact founded on a return to (or perhaps, truthfully, a novel) respect for the needs of other nations in the pursuit of the “win-win” scenarios that we all know are possible if the principals would moderate their definition of “wins” away from the absolutism of Berlin or the deck of the USS Missouri. An eminently rational appeal from a nation reputed in the West to be the home of irrationality, a land who sacrificed its children in the 1980s as human minesweepers and who has suckled nascent terrorist movements until they were ready to leave the house and wreak havoc internationally has a seductiveness of the mind almost too tantalizing to ignore.

Is this a deliverable promise–  or even premise– from an Iranian President, however? Is it a simple ruse to take advantage of American war weariness to further complicate our effort to deny Iran nuclear weaponry? Is it a truthful statement of Rouhani’s personal desires but ultimately a meaningless gesture as it is the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, in whom all power is really vested by his control of the theocratic infrastructure, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and, especially, the nuclear apparatus?

In Rouhani, again we see the problem of a putative ruler who may have no control over his supposed domain– a rump ruler, a ruler in name only. In the cases of Boehner and Francis I, the issue is those whom they supposedly represent and speak for; in the case of Iran, it is those whom exist on a plane above the public face of the ruler. Same problem, different ladders. Can the conciliatory words of Rouhani, even if they are delivered with sincerity in the man’s heart (an open question), really amount to anything when Khameini’s IRGC and its al-Quds terrorist network are openly waging war in Syria in support of the Assad regime? Is it possible that, like Francis, Rouhani is trying to inspire the Iranian people to see a better path and institute change from below, perchance by a reinstitution of the Green Revolution that we saw in 2009-2010, a revolution that the US didn’t materially support despite our clear interest in doing so? Could Rouhani be seeking US support for its resurgence? A possibility.

We live in a world where institutions are breaking down and a trend towards anarchy is emerging, a problem illustrated, I believe, by this week’s hopeful words. The superficially unifying theme behind them is reconciliation, yes, but perhaps another darker unification emerges upon consideration of them as an interlocked whole rather than as discrete conversations– the recognition by our leaders that their leadership is in jeopardy and with it so too are our societal institutions. Are the leaders calling on the led to, in effect, dispose of the middlemen– the power of the institutions that have gone rogue, the power of the Curia and its apparatus, the Tea Party, the Iranian Supreme Leadership– in an effort to save not only themselves but their societies as they are currently defined? If so, what are the ramifications of these grasps at newly ethereal power?

I’m tempted to see these as the penultimate gestures from leadership– a rational, constructive and coalition based approach to restoration of the societal norms we’ve become accustomed to over the past centuries. Should they fail, the tumult of the ultimate gestures to retain power– gestures we’ve seen throughout history’s darkest times– seem to be likely as the leaders of our institutions all retain executive powers that they will surely try to use to maintain their power.

Are our societies so flawed that we should allow them to go through a period of painful redefinition at the hands of middle men, or should we hope for an enlightened leadership emerging from those who were perhaps responsible for those middle men attaining so much power in the first place? We’ve seen “middle men” take power so many times in so many nations in the personage of the ambitious Colonels, but this is a different scenario; this time it’s not a jumped up military officer looking to take power but maintain the institution, it’s a fundamental dismantling of the institution by the “Colonels” that is sought, perhaps not unlike the tumult of the move from Feudalism to Limited Constitutional Monarchy or Imperialism to Mercantile Democracy.

The world contemplates change subconsciously this week in the guise of hopeful words that hide situations redolent of the loss of faith. A flickering light burns, but whether or not to nourish the ember to fire– and what we feed that fire with– is becoming the central question of our time.

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Posted in American Politics, Christianity, CongressCritters, Cultural Phenomena, Economy, Foreign Affairs, History, Iran, Middle East, Religion, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Saudi Intervention in Bahrain Presages Widespread Economic and Security Disruptions

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 14, 2011

Reports have emerged already from reliable sources (such as Stratfor) that Saudi forces may have already entered Bahrain in support of the besieged government and that Omani forces will enter today as well.

I cannot emphasize enough how important this development could be for America and the world– please do not discount this development because the media is not reporting on it adequately due to the news overload from Japan and Libya; frankly I suspect that this is happening right now in part because of the saturation of the news cycle as Saudi intervention has been rumoured to be ready to go for three weeks now.

Why is this so important? There are two major reasons. First, Saudi and GCC military intervention tells us that there is the real possibility of the Shi’a rebellion succeeding, a major problem as it is being financially and politically backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and representing the long feared first action of Iran on the Western side of the Gulf. As Stratfor points out, Saudi and Omani intervention becomes a very apparent threat to an Iran that is feeling particularly belligerent these days. I would add to that that while Iran cannot really project any land power across the Gulf, it is not without reason to suspect that they might try overt air or naval action or, much more likely, might wage a large scale, thinly covert terrorist wave campaign sponsored by the IRGC and targeted at Saudi and Omani ol targets as well as against the US 5th Fleet which is based in Bahrian. America is economically vulnerable right now and a crippling strike on oil distribution or production facilities or even the renewal of something like the “Tanker War” of the 1980s, the mining of the Straits or even the announced “closing” of the Straits would be a direct attack on our economy; if gas is already heading to $4 based on Libya, what would it go to if the Persian Gulf oil flow was interdicted, and what would $7-10 gas do to our economy? It’s got to be a seductive idea to the Ayatollahs– flexing Iranian muscle against the Saudis to possibly establish an Iranian puppet connected to the Kingdom by a causeway while damaging the Americans and making a long term rise in oil prices inevitable. America’s options will be limited– we can’t afford a general war with Iran and doing anything meaningful to Iran will further exacerbate the oil crisis, we’d be limited to tactical actions like going after Iranian naval assets.

Second, Saudi intervention to put down one of the “popular” revolts sweeping the region makes the possibility of internal instability in the Kingdom much more possible than it appears to be right now. I don’t really need to go into the huge global repercussions of internal strife in the Kingdom which threatens or limits production and distribution.

Should either of these situations come to pass– and one happening makes the other much more likely to happen as well in a cascade– other actors will come into play, notably Venezuela. Chavez will be unable to resist the chance to further screw the US by messing with his own oil production to exacerbate our difficulties at a time when his fortunes are starting to fade. Japan is totally reliant on the Gulf for its oil and is obviously already in a chaotic state and in a little reported (in the West) but very active confrontation with China over the Spratly Islands, which has flared badly over the last six weeks– what impact could there be on that situation, even moreso because of the petroleum/natural gas reserves suspected to exist there?

If I’m right, this intervention could be the start of a bad spiral extending globally over the coming months. It might present dramatically over the next few days or it could unfold slowly over the next few weeks, but be assured that there will be very negative ramifications of a Saudi/GCC intervention in Bahrain.

Posted in American Politics, Events, Foreign Affairs, Iran, Islamists, Middle East, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Problem With War Elephants

Posted by Bob Kohm on September 15, 2010

War elephants enjoyed a short vogue in the military history of the Mediterranean World , most famously in Hannibal’s Crossing. The very smell of the snorting, thrashing mountains of military might scared the hell out of even seasoned battle horses and caused outright panic amongst tightly ordered battle-lines from Sicily to Persia. Elephants held the potential to be a tremendously powerful weapon in an era where victory depended on maintaining a common front, but for all its power it had a major problem. The problem with the war elephant was that it was a danger to everyone on the field, not just the army putatively controlling it– war elephants released on the battlefield were as likely to inspire panic or trample holes through friendly lines as they were those of the enemy.

Ring a bell?

The GOP, party of the elephant, has for the past two years deployed to political battlefields its own snorting, thrashing mountain of militancy and might– the Tea Party. With the end of the 2008 campaign, it became clear that there was an undercurrent of serious dismay in American politics that the newly out of power GOP needed to tap into in order to regain political traction. After an orgy of disparagement against then-Governor Palin by the RNC regulars, it similarly became apparent that Ms. Palin had an uncommon staying power on the battlefield and that she would not be easy to corral. The logical thought was to energize and, more importantly, weaponize that staying power by connecting it to the undercurrent of anti-government feeling that was already present. The Republican War Elephants had been enlisted.

When the 2009 Congressional Session broke for its traditional summer recess, the GOP released its war elephants onto the battlefield. Across the nation the usually dull array of town hall meetings were set and held in home districts, but with one difference this year– they would be discussing an extremely expensive health care bill that had been demagogued by Sarah Palin and others in the newly emerging Tea Party movement as “socialist” and “unAmerican”. Into this fray were spurred the elephants, trampling headlong into town hall meetings nationwide, shouting down the speakers, panicking the supporters of the plan and the general populace with bellows of “Death Panels”. While the elephants were upon the field no order could be maintained, no line could hold. It was impossible to refute them for the sheer fact that their energy and their volume drowned out any response either in the meetings or in the media.

At the time, the war elephant looked the perfect weapon for the RNC. They made the mistake that so many generals from the Persian Wars to the Punic Wars had made before them– they thought that they could control their elephants. As we’ve come to see, they were wrong.

The 2010 midterm elections are the most critical battlefield the GOP has fought upon in more than a decade, facing the prospect of continued Democratic rule for the next six years if they fail to make an inroad into the President’s party’s control of the House & Senate. It is a year where a disciplined assault on the Democrats should produce large scale wins for the Republicans and, indeed, it appeared that the GOP was on course to precisely that goal in the spring. Bad things started happening, though– first in isolated incidents in places like Nevada, but then more frequently in spots the nation over. The war elephants of the Tea Party continued to break loose upon battlefields where their use was never intended and the panic they spread reached far beyond the Democrats in the lines and struck deep into the heart of the GOP establishment. Over the past few days we’ve seen Republicans all but abandon their hopes for a Senate takeover with the elephantine demonstrations of the Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint endorsed O’Donnell campaign in Delaware, culminating in the destruction of the GOPs party line in last night’s primary. New York GOP stalwart Rick Lazio was trampled into paste by Carl Paladino in the Gubernatorial Primary. In New Hampshire and even more chaotic battle of the elephants has broken out, with Jim DeMint backed Ovide Lamontagne still looking as though he might defeat Sarah Palin backed Kelly Ayotte in a case of elephants crashing into each other and giving the Democrat, Rep. Paul Hodes, bolstered hopes of picking up the retiring and oh so establishment Judd Gregg’s seat. With Sharon Angle off in the deserts of Nevada explaining why Social Security should be dismantled and Rand Paul continuing to be a gaffe factory (albeit a poll leading one) in Kentucky, the unpredictability and, more importantly, uncontrollability of these elephants unleashed by the GOP may prove once again why uncontrollable beasts are so dangerous to bring onto the battlefield; they are the embodiment of the law of unintended consequences.

Posted in American History, American Politics, Cultural Phenomena | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Fighting the Next War, Part II

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 25, 2009

The F-22, which the Air Force has alleged to be the fighter that could not be shot down, has been destroyed on the ground by the American Congress, two days before the news broke that the F-35– the Joint Strike Fighter– is at least two years behind schedule and won’t enter the production phase until at least 2016.

It’s been a bad week for the Air Force.

Where does this leave American air power as we head into the second and third decades of the century? Not in a particularly good place in the short term but, if the Air Force brass can get their heads around it, in a very good position for the mid to long term.

In the first part of this article I touched upon the F-22 suffering from many problems, the most critical of which was timing. Not only was the insanely expensive F-22 up for review during a financial crisis, but at a time in which unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) have been constantly in the news for their outsized role in the Afghan theater of the war. Every week we see stories of Reaper or Predator strikes against targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan and hear the virtues of this style of aerial combat– extremely long loiter times, no American pilots in danger or captured in sketchy places in the event of a shootdown, reasonably stealthy… and relatively cheap. If these drones work so well in the air-to-ground role, what can they do for air supremacy?

The idea of taking the human pilot out of the cockpit holds several advantages, not the least of which is taking the risk of dead American pilots off the table. From an aircraft design standpoint, removing the pilot, cockpit controls, life support system and ejection seat is a dream for the weight savings, allowing greater loiter time, greater deliverable payload and overall cost savings.

In modern fighters, the pilot is always the weakest link; fighters can pull far more Gs than the pilot can tolerate without losing consciousness. While it is true that could make UCAVs incredible dogfighters, that isn’t nearly as important in modern aerial warfare as is the fact that the higher G load the aircraft can handle, the better chance it has of avoiding  advanced SAMs You also eliminate the problem of limited mission duration by taking fatigue, food, and discomfort out of the equation. From a mission planning standpoint you can take greater risks; although these planes will be expensive, they will also be more disposable as you aren’t losing pilots when you lose airframes. It’s politically a lot easier to send a fleet of robots against a highly defended target than it is to send someone’s kids to do the job.

There are significant downsides to UCAVs in the air supremacy role; the control systems would be extremely complex, especially if any autonomy is expected. Active control systems are potentially subject to interference and jamming, and the technology to actively control these aircraft in the split-second environment of aerial combat may not even be possible due to broadcast lag time, demanding the aforementioned complex autonomy. When you take humans out of the loop, you also have the problem of the computer choosing incorrectly and destroying the wrong targets or making other mistakes. The “creepiness factor” of robots killing humans is going to inspire a Russian, Chinese and Iranian campaign amongst lesser developed nations to outlaw these things, and it is undeniably going to gain traction as America will likely be the only ones deploying autonomous systems like this for several years.

The biggest problem facing the move to UCAVs, though, isn’t technological– it’s oh so very human. The biggest obstacle is the revulsion with which UCAVs are viewed by the Air Force, which of course is run primarily by fighter pilots whose entire identities are invested in the fact that they have piloted high performance jets. Ever have a conversation with a fighter pilot? They talk about flying a fighter the way a 17 year old boy talks about sex– it’s the ultra-idealized, be all and end all of human existence. They cannot, for the most part, conceive of, first, a computer doign their job in the cockpit and second, of not spreading their profession to a next generation of fighter pilots. That’s a problem when these men and women are the ones who need to set strategic and tactical policy for the Air Force and as well as making the research and procurement decisions about future aircraft.

The Air Force has run up against a wall every bit as imposing as the limits of a human to withstand Gs– the potential of the next generation of planes has outstripped the costs that Americans are willing to pay for them. A plane that can cruise at supersonic speeds rather than only sprint at them, that can engage a dozen targets simultaneously while being nearly invisible to radar, that can maneuver like no plane before it– those are the features of the F-22. So is the $361,000,000 price tag per plane, for a plane that is designed to operate in units measured in multiples of 12. The next plane up, the F-35 JSF, is rumored to be significantly less capable int he air-to-air role than advertised and is getting very expensive itself; if its primary role is to be that of an air-to-ground attack plane with a secondary air-to-air capacity, then one has to question the wisdom of buyign it when UCAV technology has already been demonstrated to handle that role very well.

This week we’ve heard the Air Force make the argument that to deny the F-22 is to fight the last war rather than the next as the F-22, while useless in Afghanistan could be a huge difference maker in a more symmetrical war against a major power. The reality may well be that procuring the F-22 and F-35 may indeed be the move rooted in the last war, as technology has eclipsed the need for the human pilot in the cockpit; the Air Force may finally, unwillingly, be dragged into that realization by the White House quaterbacked drive that ended the F-22’s procurement cycle.

Posted in American Politics, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Fighting the Next War, Part One

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 21, 2009

America has a nasty habit when it comes to maintaining our military– we fight, throw all of our economic and industrial might into the battle… and then destroy the military created the day after the armistice is signed.  The ugliness of this cycle has, of course, become greatly magnified during the era of industrial-technological warfare; with the drawdown post-World War I setting us up for WW II, the post-WW II drawdown enabling the North Koreans to launch their war in 1950 and push the Americans all the way to Pusan within roughly 5 weeks. Drawdowns occurred even in the Cold War settings that followed Korea and Viet Nam, always returning America to a dramatically weakened strategic position than it was in during the war.

The reasons for this are clear– in a democratic society war fatigue runs high and the will of the people to be reminded of war after the fact is low, leading to demands for a “peace dividend” and for tremendously reduced military spending. This is, of course, a sensible response– unbridled military spending during peace time can be ruinous, but in the course of American history we have traditionally overcompensated for this sentiment and cut back to the point of fundamental weakness with relation to our global responsibilities.

As the most active portion of the ill conceived and strategically unsuccessful “War on Terror” comes to a close with the shuttering of the Iraq Theater, war fatigue is running particularly high at the same time America deals with a financial crisis that makes spending on military systems particularly painful. The situation is further complicated by the traditional dual impetus to reduce military capacity coming at a time of transitional technology, in which robotic systems seem nearly ready to displace traditional man-in-front systems.

Into this maelstrom flies the F-22 Raptor, a tremendously advanced aircraft with no clear role in the current war and a pricetag that represents the cost of ten to fourteen F-15s, the current American fighter in the air superiority role that the F-22 seeks to fill.

The Obama Administration’s stance on the F-22 is clear– we don’t want this thing. The Congress is divided between fiscal responsibility and the fact that suppliers for the F-22 project have been strategically salted throughout the most important Congressional Districts in the nation, making the vote tough for key Congressmen and Senators. The Air Force sees the design potential of the aircraft and wants many, many more. The other three services see the Raptor as the usual platinum plated Air Force toy– good only for air-to-air combat and useless in the close air support role that has been so incredibly vital to the Marines & Army in this and the past several wars. They may have a point– since 1991 and Operation Desert Shield/Storm, through Somalia and Kosovo and the WoT, the US Air Force has made fewer than 25 air-to-air kills against jets of an enemy air force, all of them in 1991 in the air war phase of Desert Storm. In that same time, over 10,000 missions have been flown against targets on the ground.

Oddly enough, that disparity makes, for both sides, the most militarily compelling argument over the F-22. The President, the members of the DoD not wearing blue suits, and the budget conscious can point to the scarcity of air-to-air combat and make the seemingly rock solid case that an incredibly expensive air superiority fighter is unneeded; the Air Force can conversely claim that we have fallen into the trap of falling the last war rather than preparing for the next against a more symmetric adversary against whom the F-22 would be a key to American victory over China, Russia or (in a stretch) Iran. “Fighting the last war” is a phrase loaded with meaning to military planners and historians, an indictment of the thinking that what worked last time will prevail next. The Maginot Line is an oft-cited example of fighting the last war; the French built a huge line of fixed positions that mimicked the trench system of the First World War in the hope that it would secure France from Germany; Germany on the other hand had prepared for the next war by developing mobile operations featuring tanks and trucks that easily outflanked the Maginot Line. It’s a damning accusation.

Later today the Congress will issue an up or down vote on continued funding for the F-22, and the vote counters are hard at work trying to figure out the balance between self interest, military necessity, financial prudence and technological advance. Running Local will be back after the vote with Part Two of the story.

Posted in American Politics, Obama Positions, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Painted Painted Painted, Painted… White?

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 16, 2009

The Rolling Stones saw a red door and wanted to paint it black. Steven Chu, US Energy Secretary and Nobel prize winner, saw a black roof and he wants to paint it white.

Either way it’s no colour anymore.

While Jagger’s nihilistic anthem grew to become one of the theme songs of the Vietnam War, Chu’s hopeful musing may grow to become a touchstone of the greening of America. You see, Steven Chu is smarter than you, me… well, pretty much everyone this side of Steven Hawking, and sometimes it takes genius to perceive and promote the obvious. We all know that dark colors absorb heat– it’s why we wear white in the summer– yet we seem to have forgotten that when we made our rooftops and roads black or other dark colors.

Duh.

In a speech a couple of weeks ago, Chu pointed out that if (admittedly unrealistically) we all painted our roofs and roads white the carbon impact would be the same as removing all the world’s cars for eleven years. No cap and trade gyrations, no 17,000 page House Bills alleging to set a roadmap to saving the environment whole similarly saving ExxonMobil’s shareholders any undue pain, no laws enforcing the use of hu-manure in our landscaping to limit nitrogen fertilizer production. Just white paint, leading to a 10-20% reduction in electricity bills in a standard building while also killing off the “heat island” effect that those of us who live in large cities know all too well and reflecting solar radiation back into space, leading to an overall atmospheric cooling.

It seems so easy that it can’t really work, right? Yet there exists a large and ever growing body of research that Chu drew on in his comments that shows that not only do white roofs work, but they work better than initial estimates ever dreamed they could.

This dichotomy, the exquisitely simple answer for the dauntingly complex problem, is something that Americans are loathe to accept. We all complain about the complexity of life, the unneeded red tape of bureaucracy, the burying of common sense under layer upon layer of sophistry, yet when a simple idea comes along that can make a real impact we are conditioned to laugh it off or at the very best give it a shrugged, “Huh, that’s interesting… but what’s the catch?”. That, to me, is one of the most interesting challenges we Americans face as a society, this reverence for simplicity and common sense but our out of hand rejection of it when it appears.

It emerges so many times, just in the energy debate and in forms from the everyday to the grandiose. We are falling over ourselves to buy impractical and unsafe miniaturized cars in an effort to reduce carbon footprint… yet we won’t take a train or bus to get to work. We want vehicles that use less fuel, but instead of insisting upon real research into petroleum-free cars and trucks we have stalled out on this hybrid vehicle temporization which allows us to feel good about the direction we’re going in while actually stalling the progress towards the destination. A friend of this blog has for years been saying that what we need is an energy “Manhattan Project”, bringing together the best minds in a crash program to actually make an impact on energy problems… yet we spend even more money than that would take in uncoordinated fits and starts in a million directions that aren’t mutually supporting.

I won’t bother you with yet another call for a return to common sense– we’ve heard it a million times from some of the the least sensible people out there and we ignore it every time, perhaps because we have heard it a million times from some of the least sensible people out there. What I will do, though, is ask you to share with someone else (or with the comments section of this entry… hint hint) at least one of those dumb ideas you’ve had, the one that you say, “Nah, that couldn’t be right” but that keeps popping into your head. Forget how geekish it sounds, that it could be (hell, probably is) fundamentally flawed in some way, whatever. A Nobel Laureate is pimping the wonderfully non-complex idea of painting our rooftops white and using light colored cement for roads because it would make a huge difference in energy usage; can your ideas be much simpler or more obvious than that?

We laugh off so many ideas that seem unworkable because they aren’t nearly complex enough to mesh with our incredibly complex society; perhaps it is time to stop laughing and paint it white.

Posted in American Politics, Environment, Obama Cabinet | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Killing the Assassination Story

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 14, 2009

Something isn’t right in Langley, on the Hill, or in the newsrooms. Amidst the sturm und drang of the latest CIA-Congressional blowup over no-oversight covert ops the story has started to emerge that the program in question was centered on hit teams finding and then taking out al Qaeda leaders in the Middle East and South Asia. That’s all very dramatic… but is it all that believable?

Hit teams and assassination programs are the stuff of spy novels and Tom Cruise movies, but drones are the stuff of this war and that’s the major problem I’m having with the “revelation” that the entire imbroglio is over an assassination plot. What would make Dick Cheney order the CIA to withhold information from what at the time the order was given was a galvanized, Republican Congress when the groundwork was already being laid for the not terribly covert Predator program, which was acknowledged to be operational in 2002 but which may have been in action even before that?

To my mind, nothing. Yes, Dick Cheney did some fairly stupid stuff with connection to the intelligence community– Valerie Plame, anyone?– and him ordering the CIA to withold information from the Congress isn’t that far a bridge to cross in terms of believability, of course. Still, to issue that order almost immediately after 9-11, when you could’ve gotten a Republican Congress (or a Democratic one, for that matter) to stay quiet about, oh, a massive program of snatching suspects from both friendly and hostile nations, spiriting them away to foreign nations to be tortured into giving up information and then dumping them in Cuba– that doesn’t add up, even with Dick Cheney’s penchant for bloody mindedness.

This strikes me as an attempted deception– someone picked a spy novel premise that seemed to them like something the public would suck up while being just appalled enough to say, “Oh that CIA, they’ve done it again!” It’s damage control 101– when you are going to get tagged with something you really don’t want to be tagged with, admit to something embarrassing– people stop looking because they themselves can’t stand to be publicly embarrassed and can’t understand that you would willingly embarrass yourself to dodge the greater bullet. People look away when they see something embarrassing, and that’s precisely what the CIA wants to have happen here– they want us to look away.

In the end I have no idea what this program was, if Congress or even the President know what it is at this point, if it involved assassination or something else, or if Cheney even ordered it covered up. It could be a huge issue borne of post- 9/11 excess or it could be a tempest in a teapot conjured up in the Speaker’s office to draw attention away from some of Nancy’s recent foibles. I am confident, however, that this wasn’t all about some silly plot to set up hit teams to pursue al Qaeda leaders and hide them from the Congress. Hit teams to go after Saudi Royals funding al Qaeda?

Now that would be a story worthy of hiding from Congress.

Posted in Afghanistan, American Politics, CongressCritters, Intelligence (and lack thereof) | Leave a Comment »

Mermaids and Centaurs and Minotaurs, Oh My!

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 14, 2009

Sam Brownback (R-KS) is, has been, and always will be one of my favorite Senators. Aside from a name evocative of a juvenile underwear joke, Brownback is so conservative and moreover so consistently goofy about his conservatism that he makes even serious DC conservatives cringe in amused horror. To understand how Brownback is seen by intelligent people in DC, you have to view him as the Republican Yogi Berra– you sit there just waiting for him to open his mouth because as soon as his lips start moving you’re going to hear something unbelievable. Today, though, we have a Brownbackian gem of staggering proportions.

Senator Brownback’s conservative Christianity has moved him to enter a bill which specifically defends us from the horror– horror– of mermaids.

Senator Brownback has never seen a crusade against science and technology that he couldn’t get behind, from space exploration to genetic manipulation of seeds to, and this is key to today’s mirth, stem cell research. While many principled conservatives have issues with embryonic stem cell research based on their opposition to anything even remotely tinged by abortion or even in vitro fertilization, Senator Brownback has picked a doozy here– he’s going on the record opposing stem cell research because it might be used to create human-animal hybrids… like mermaids.

Of course, his trail on this particular bit of inanity (insanity…?) was blazed by another guy who is getting a reputation for being a bit, uhm, outside the box, Bobby Jindal. Jindal jammed a similar anti-Mermaid bill through the Louisiana legislature earlier this year, making sure that the Bayous of Louisiana would never give rise to the dreaded manigator.

The scariest thing about this kind of legislation isn’t the time wasting aspect of it– I mean, really, Senators, nothing better to do while the economy is in a shambles?– it’s the fact that it will be viewed as a logical and needed step by many of Brownback’s, shall we say, less worldly constituents. That the good people of Kansas (and Lousiana…) see anti-Mermaid legislation as a cornerstone of keeping America a god fearing and holy land is a sad point amongst the undeniable humour of Brownback’s latest crusade.

Posted in American Politics, CongressCritters, Cultural Phenomena | 1 Comment »

Using the Media

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 13, 2009

CNN has the breathless story– the Franklin Park Zoo, Boston’s only zoo, will have to euthanize its animals due to budget cuts made by Governor Deval Patrick. The horror!

This is far from the best media manipulation I’ve ever seen, but it is the most bald-faced I’ve seen in a while. The background story is that the Franklin Park Zoo was originally granted $6,500,000 in the Massachussetts budget for the upcoming year, which Governor Patrick slashed to $2,500,000 due to the ongoing economic crisis. Far from being singled out, the cuts to the payments to the zoo are accompanied by state budget cuts to services for children and families, elder services, education, agriculture, environmental protection, almost $200,000,000 in cuts to health care services, etc.

Enter Joyce Lineham, wife of ZOONewEngland CEO John Lineham, who works in PR. Suddenly we don’t have a budget crisis, we have Governor Patrick personally sticking the syringe of deadly chemicals into the gorilla’s butt. The budget shortfall for the notoriously in the red zoo wasn’t a reason to do some extra fundraising or improve business practices, it was now a reason to close the zoo and kill the animals that couldn’t find other homes.

Patrick successfully called the bluff, and ZOONewEngland released a statement on Saturday saying that they misspoke and that what they meant was that the state would have to care for the animals… rather than ZOONewEngland holding them hostage with a gun to their head.

Bad budget times bring out the worst in many agencies and enterprises reliant on state funding, but this one is about the worst manipulation I’ve ever seen, targeted as it was not at the Governor so much as at parents who have been explaining to their children all weekend long that the Governor isn’t going to kill their favorite monkey or lion.

I would expect the Linehams to be seeking new employment within the next 12 months, and for the Franklin Park Zoo to continue to receive visitors for decades to come.

Posted in American Politics | Leave a Comment »

A New York State of Mindlessness

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 9, 2009

Unless you’re a New Yorker or a hopeless political geek, you probably have no idea what’s going on in America’s most dysfunctional capital, Albany. Suffice it to say that New York is making governance in Minnesota, Florida and California look rational.

After decades of GOP control of the State Senate and Democratic control of the State Assembly, the dynamic went out the window with a slight Democratic majority taking the Senate after the last election. While many Dems were thrilled, I cringed a bit; you see, the State Senate is where New York’s Democratic Party puts its red headed stepchildren. If you can raise money but can’t put ten words together to make a sentence, Congratulations! You’re going to run for State Senate! If you’re from an important political family but flunked out of a public high school… we have a Senate District for you! Basically, and with a very few exceptions, the Democrats have used the Senate as a dumping ground for idiots as they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that there’s nothing less newsworthy, nothing more obscure than a Democratic State Senator. They’ve always been buried in the minority in a legislative body where majority members with years of seniority have absolutely no influence on what the Majority Leader is going to do; it makes the Gingrich-led GOP Congress of old look positively democratic.

Here’s where the problem comes in– when you take the majority after such a long drought, the radioactive waste that you surreptitiously dumped in the Chamber is still around and now– the horror– has become relevant and has access to the press. All of a sudden you have guys like Hiram Monserrate, a former corrupt cop and current corrupt Senator under indictment for felony assault on his girlfriend suddenly becoming the most important politician in New York State government.

To make a painfully long story short, the Democratic Majority Leader, Malcom Smith, maneuvered his way into the post by holding the Senate hostage in what, at the time, was one of the more bizarre scenes in Albany’s sordidly comic political history. Two of those held hostage, the aforementioned corrupt cop (known in the New York tabloid press as “The Thug”) and Pedro Espada (similarly known as “The Thief”) engineered a coup by which they put a Long Island Republican in as Majority Leader, deposing the hated Malcom Smith, possibly illegally. This set off an amazing spectacle– Senators locking themselves in the Chamber and in their offices, important laws being allowed to expire because the Senators couldn’t all get together and achieve a quorum to vote on them because it would’ve led to enormous political procedural problems, name calling, sit-ins, sessions held on the lawn in front of the Senate, just a god awful mess that even seasoned New York political observers, used to the most bat shit crazy behavior in the world, couldn’t believe.

Now, New York State’s simpering dolt of a Governor, David Paterson, has wandered into the fray. You may remember Governor Paterson’s emergence as Governor when former Governor Elliot Spitzer got himself nailed for nailing a $3,000 per hour hooker in DC and resigned, making Lieutenant Governor Paterson the new Governor. The “Lieutenant Governor” post is beyond insignificant, by the way– generally Lt. Gov’s only make the papers when they take a swing at someone on stage (yes, that happened) or when their persona of a politically schizophrenic academician causes them to get dumped from a ticket. The post is so insignificant that there is no provision in the New York State Constitution for replacing a Lieutenant Governor, leading to the current chapter in New York’s political tragi-comedy– David Paterson, with no legal authority according to his own Attorney General (and, to be sure, Gubernatorial Primary Opponent) Andrew Cuomo, has appointed a crusty old-school New York politico by the name of Richie Ravitch to be his Lieutenant Governor with the intention of him somehow breaking the Senate deadlock even thought the NYS Constitution seems to make clear that being unelected Ravitch could have no vote… even if he was legally occupying the Office of the Lieutenant Governor… which apparently he is not.

You can’t make this stuff up– a wildly unpopular governor illegally appoints a Lieutenant who can’t do what needs to be done from the office to a legislative body that would have been dismissed by the principal if they tried to pull this crap when they were the fourth grade Student Council. Oh, did I mention that when a Republican walked through one of the Democratic rump sessions in the Chamber  on his way to the Coke machine the Dems marked him “Present”, declared that they had a quorum and started pasing legislation willy-nilly that the Governor then vetoed because said Republican Senator, a most unpleasant alleged human being by the name of Frank Padavan, managed to put together his longest conversation in years and informed the Governor in two sentences (and, knowing Frank, 117 grunts) that he just wanted a Coke, not to upend (reupend? re-re-upend?) the New York State Government.

I have never been prouder to not be associated any longer with the New York State Legislature, and that’s saying something if you knew the guy I worked for when I was there.

Posted in American Politics, Just Annoying | 3 Comments »

If You Don’t Like The Game…

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 7, 2009

Sarah Palin is giving an extraordinarily entertaining series of interviews this morning with the major network morning shows plus the news nets. Appearing in chest waders (but with her hair perfectly coiffed and in full makeup…) Simple Sarah is busy attacking not only the media but the individual correspondents who are interviewing her. Speaking to Andrea Mitchell, Palin came close to screaming at her, saying that she just wasn’t listening and didn’t understand. The somewhat creaky and very proper Ms. Mitchell, wife of Alan Greenspan, was also clad in chest waders. Classic TV.

What has become obvious is that while Simple Sarah does not see this as the end of her political career. While wallowing in a storm of claims that “opposition researchers” are wasting her time, the State’s resources, and making it impossible for her to govern, Simple Sarah is also telling all who ask her the key question– are you still considering a run for President in 2012?– are getting the classic candidate’s answer (in this case with a twist): “I can’t know what the next fish run is going to be like, much less what’s going to happen in 2012”. She says she’s tired of “this insane game of politics”… and then refuses to end speculation that she’s still a candidate for the Presidency. If you really don’t like the game, Sarah, don’t play it.

The CW is that Simple Sarah has dynamited her hopes, torpedoed her chances, burnt her bridges. Nearly every “name” GOP leader seems to be echoing that sentiment– she’s toast. There’s something interesting happening here, though– as the orgy of obituary rolls along, Sarah Palin seems to be cementing the one thing she has going for her, politically– her “ultimate outsider” status. It’s clear that the party bosses (such as exist in the GOP) aren’t fans and in fact wish she’d be eaten by a grizzly on one of her fishing trips; given her penchant for hunting there’s some speculation that Haley Barbour may dispatch Dick Cheney to her igloo for a bird shooting excursion. Think about this from the perspective of a campaign strategist seeking to make a buck (well, several million bucks) from Sarah Palin over the next three years, though. The Republican Party’s popularity is below the levels it nearly drowned under after Watergate, so being the sworn enemy of the “establishment” that put it there is a boon. Simple Sarah is a pretty girl who plays to that point even in denying that she does– it’s almost pathological– and the big bad boys are picking on her, triggering that most American of sentiments: standing up to the bully. She’s  busy trying to make quitting on her state a matter of “politics as usual”– it’s opposition researchers hectoring her out the door and she’s just trying to be fiscally and politically responsible and saving Alaska’s taxpayers from the expense of answering never-ending FOIA requests and suffering through a year of a lame-duck (lame-caribou?) governorship when so many important things are happening in the country. Take that all two years down the road and it starts to sound sensible; her former constituents (and the GOP base) will have gotten over the sense of being quit on, she’ll seem to have stood up to not only the Party bosses but the political process in and of itself, she’ll appeal to the idea that she doesn’t want to be a career politician. Her veracity will be perversely increased by stage managing her “exit” from politics, only to be brought back by her dad-gum gee willikers desire to do good by her countrymen and step into the race at great personal sacrifice to do nothing more than help her fellow Americans escape from the (wait for it) tax and spend Obama Admin. If she steps in late– think a few weeks before New Hampshire, skipping the organization-intensive Iowa Caucus but still influencing it– she might hope to create a media maelstrom that would drown out the obvious questions and enrage the Party establishment, thus bolstering her outsider image. She saw how Obama rode the wave of momentum he generated with his early showings and how it drowned (in GOP minds) negative coverage of his run and she wants some of her own. More importantly, as of two weeks ago Palin was handicapped by Mike Huckabee’s 2012 ambitions as they draw from the same base. if she can simply dance her way in and steal the spotlight she can neutralize the Huckster if things break right.

Anyone else sensing that maybe Palin really, really, really does like “the game”?

Posted in American Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

An Even Happier St. Patty’s Day

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 17, 2009

On this day, a day that all of America takes on the green of Ireland, we have a little present for our Irish brethren across the sea– we’re goign to teach you a bit about real football. President Obama has just named Dan Rooney– yes, that Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers– as the Ambassador of the United States to Ireland. Not only do you get a prince, you get one who knows the difference between soccer and football!

Posted in American History, American Politics, European Union, Obama Cabinet | 2 Comments »

We’re Losing Our Minds

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 17, 2009

Nothing can mess up a marriage like money problems; hell even Billy Joel has popularized that concept in Scenes From an Italian Restaurant. When money becomes an issue, everything else goes on the table– bitterness, greed, jealousy and the real killer, irrationality.

In the marriage between our government and the American people, money has become an issue, and irrationality is raising its head above the swirling currents of anger, frustration, and fear.

Take, for instance, this week’s explosion of craziness over the A.I.G. bonus payments. Yes, on the surface it is maddening– the American taxpayers are floating A.I.G. and they’re busy shipping TARP money overseas or handing it out in bonus checks to the idiots who were the engineers and mechanics of the train wreck that A.I.G has become. While many families struggle through layoffs and while houses are being taken by the banks at rates never before seen, the rich are getting richer; anybody can understand the anger that would generate. The problem is that we’re getting lost in that anger and risk doing serious, lasting damage to our nation as a result of it.

In today’s New York Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin charts a personally dangerous course in his Dealbook column under the headline The Case for Paying Out Bonuses at A.I.G. There’s a case for paying out these bonuses? Really? The man must be insane and be courting a Rushdie-esque fatwa called down upon his head by Imam John Q. Public. In this environment who could ever support dishing out more money to the boobs at A.I.G.?

A very prescient man, that’s who.

The contract is the fundamental building block upon which American business is founded. No matter how onerous a deal may turn out to be in hindsight, a contract is a contract and must be honored short of bankruptcy. Yes, you can always ask the other party to renegotiate a contract for the mutual good, but you can not simply walk away from the provisions of a contract because one party just doesn’t like it anymore– at least not without a lawsuit that will see the walker getting nailed for doing so and ordered to perform. Without that surety, there is no such thing as a credit market– a loan or credit agreement is a contract, of course, assuring the lender that the borrower will repay the loan with interest or else forfeit some valuable property in lieu of cash payment. The contract is as close to a sacred concept as exists in the profane world of business and economics. It’s preservation is paramount to our very existence, and one of the key roles of government is providing the tools in the form of the legal system to enforce and ensure contracts.

And now, out of anger, we’re demanding that the government set a precedent that will hopelessly erode the sanctity of the contract because, well, we’re damned angry and have a right to be. The bonuses that are the object of so much ire right now weren’t concocted last week as a boondoggle to enrich a few financiers; they were the result of employment contracts signed before the wheels came off of the economy between A.I.G. and its employees. Whether or not those employees deserve the bonuses in light of all that’s happened, whether or not we want taxpayer money funding those bonuses, whether or not we’re out of our minds with anger, these bonus payouts are mandated by valid contracts that have to be honored simply because they are valid contracts. To have no less an entity than the Federal Government try to abrogate these contracts because the American taxpayer is angry… well, that’s not an avenue any sane person would seek to go down, is it? The slippery slope is an old argument, but precedent is also one of the underpinnings of our society. If the government can step in and simply toss out the provisions of a series of valid contracts because the Congress doesn’t like them, what is the point of the entire system?

The counterargument most offered by bloggers and commentators to this line of thought– that simply tossing out valid contracts is rank idiocy that will be killed by the Courts as it should be– is that A.I.G. is now largely owned by the taxpayers anyway and would have gone bankrupt had the government not stepped in… and bankruptcy is the ultimate voider of contracts. All well and good, save one tiny flaw– that damnable phrase, “would have”. Yes, the government stepped in and the American taxpayer got the bill… to prevent A.I.G. from going into bankruptcy. We stopped A.I.G. from going bankrupt and collapsing because their existence, as twisted as this might seem, is integral at this point to the economic recovery. When we made that choice– to prevent A.I.G. from going bankrupt by, essentially, buying the company, we bought not only its assets but its liabilities and commitments, as well. We are now a party to the employment contracts that mandate these “retention bonuses”, and as a responsible party that is interested more in the overall health and resurgence of our national economy rather than the sideshow BS of the A.I.G. bonus flap, we must hold back our bile and sign the damned checks. To not do so is unthinkable and, should this hit the courts some day, illegal. You don’t have to have stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night to see that, even if like me you hate the concept of paying out this money.

Ditto the ire over A.I.G. taking bailout money and paying it to European and Asian banks rather than keeping it here int he States. A.I.G. owed debts to those institutions and needed to satisfy them under contractual obligation. We cannot give A.I.G. money with which to save itself and thus prop up our economy and then tell them that they can’t use it to satisfy their liabilities– what else would we be giving it to them for but to kill bad debts and satisfy other liabilities so that it may continue to function as a business entity?

Now, that doesn’t mean that we can’t ask for the money back, that we can’t publicly hammer the employees getting these bonuses in an attempt to shame them into not accepting them… but if they say no and want the money owed them, then it’s up to us to perform up to the terms of the contract.

There are no popular solutions to a financial crisis as deep as the one we’re in– the issues are too complex for the average person, myself included, to understand every intricacy and every interconnection. Moves that make sense may be counter-intuitive, and certainly may be the cause of immediate anger from the population. What me must use as our guide in determining sentiment is a baseline fundamental of common sense– do we want to live with contracts providing no surety? Do we want our employers to unilaterally change our contracts? Do we enjoy seeing products on the shelves of our stores, being able to borrow to buy a home or a car or a boat? Do we want to be sure that when we contract out a job that he job will be done? Of course to all of those, so, too, of course to paying out the bonuses contracted for. We cannot have one without the other.

Money can break up a marriage, but the one between our government and ourselves must be saved. We all need to take a deep breath, accept that there will be things that must be done that might not feel great up front but that must be done, noentheless, to get everyone back safe in their beds at the end of this long, dark day.

Posted in American Politics, Corporate Shenanigans, Cultural Phenomena, Economy | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Man of Steele Bends

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 3, 2009

I just have to do a quick followup to yesterday’s story on Rush Limbaugh, the new face of the Republican Party. Apparently Mike Steele, the latest Chairman of the RNC, decided to take back what was supposedly his and fired on Maximum Leader Rush Limbaugh… with  predictable results.

While Rush was bloviating at the CPAC podium on Saturday night, The Man of Steele was sitting down with D.L. Hughley on his odd news-entertainment hybrid on CNN. Maybe Steele thought nobody was watching (not a terrible assumption, given the venue), but as it turns out at least a few folks had tuned in.

During the segment on Hughley’s show, the Man of Steele put on his RNC cape and leotard and let loose a mighty blast– he called Rush Limbaugh “ugly”, “incendiary”, and the big one, “an entertainer”. Memo to Mr. Steele– when you fill the role of a figure head, you do not call the eminence gris an entertainer or similarly minimize his role. It turns what was gris into a tres vive rouge.

A wise man once said that you don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger and you don’t mess around with, uhm, Rush. Well, let’s toss that out the window since we now see that when the Man of Steele messed around with Rush that Rush had no problem tugging on his cape, wedgying his leotard and otherwise stuffing him back in the phone booth. You see, Rush, when challenged, tends to do what every bully does– he gets louder and louder until he drowns out the offender and gets his way. If you are the parent of a toddler, you recognize the tactic. As it turns out, the temper tantrum is an extremely effective tool of rule when you run the Republican Party.

Limbaugh has come back with his Kryptonite blaster blazing, effectively calling Steele a gutless wonder. From Mr. Limbaugh’s radio show yesterday:

“Mr. Steele, your spokesman sounds like the RNC wants ’em to fail, to me. You’re opposing ’em. You say the American people are growing weary of it, getting suspicious of it. But it’s not just Pelosi’s spending. It’s Obama’s. Where are your guts? Why can’t you tie Obama to these policies? They’re his! Where are your guts? (interruption) Strangely, they don’t want me doing the dirty work because when I go out there and, quote, unquote, do the dirty work, they try to cut me off at the knees for doing so. The point is, when you read that statement from Alex Conant, they’re opposed to the Obama agenda, too, they’re just too gutless to say so, and they get frightened when they hear the words, “I want Obama to fail.” “Oh, no, no, no, we can’t be associated with that.” “

Ouch. In one shot, Mr. Limbaugh, who moments earlier on the show said it was crazy that people think he is running the RNC for if he was he’d quit over the sad sack shape it was in, not only contradicts himself with that quote and demonstrates that he is actually running the Party and setting its message but also calls out the Man of Steele as a coward and too stupid to get out a very basic message– the the Republican Party wants Barack Obama to fail and for the national crisis to worsen.

What response dis this draw from the Man of Steele? Surely as the elected Chair of the RNC he would stand up for himself, put the “entertainer” in his place, assert his leadership and prove that the RNC, which has been accused of drifting for four years now with no sense of direction or overriding purpose, with the leadership it so clearly needs and wants. He is, after all, the Man of Steele, no? His response, via Ben Smith’s blog…

“My intent was not to go after Rush – I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh,” Steele said in a telephone interview. “I was maybe a little bit inarticulate. … There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership.” …

“I went back at that tape and I realized words that I said weren’t what I was thinking,” Steele said. “It was one of those things where I thinking I was saying one thing, and it came out differently.  What I was trying to say was a lot of people … want to make Rush the scapegoat, the bogeyman, and he’s not. I’m not going to engage these guys and sit back and provide them the popcorn for a fight between me and Rush Limbaugh,” Steele added. “No such thing is going to happen. … I wasn’t trying to slam him or anything.”

…or not. The Man of Steele bent in the howling wind issuing forth from the Maximum Leader’s mouth just as Congressman Gingrey and so many other have done before him. The fact is that Rush Limbaugh is running the RNC and that nobody is willing to challenge his overwhelming authority, not the Republicans in the House, not the Republicans in the Senate, not the Republican Governor’s Association… and certainly not the RNC Chairman.

Posted in American Politics, Cultural Phenomena | 3 Comments »

Rushing to the Forefront

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 2, 2009

Speaker of the GOP Rush Limbaugh

Speaker of the GOP Rush Limbaugh

All hail Rush Limbaugh, the intellectual leader of the New Right.

Did you just feel that vibration coming up from the earth, through the seat of your pants? It was Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and the rest of the 2012 GOP hopefuls quaking.

Yesterday morning Rahm Emmanuel provided a glimpse into the political strategy of the White House on Face the Nation when he acknowledged Limbaugh as being the face of and controlling influence behind the national conservative community. Limbaugh himself must be delighted with the Presidential imprimatur that comes with that acknowledgment as are many in the rank and file of Limbaugh’s listeners– the way to Limbaugh’s heart is clearly through his ego, as even a casual observer must note. Not so happy are the thinking members of the Republican Party and certainly the leadership of the Party; being labelled the intellectual acolyte of Limbaugh is not only gauling to them, it is also politically dangerous.

As the self proclaimed high priest of the “I Pray Obama Fails” clique, Limbaugh has set himself at a goal that is counter to what should always be the first cause of all Americans no matter their philosophy or political bent– the prosperity and well being of our nation and our people. That is the glue that holds our nation together as a cohesive unit, that desire for what is best for our country; it is, literally, the unifying concept that defines us as a nation. To come out and say in so public a manner as Limbaugh has that you hope our President fails and thus our nation’s situation and peril grow worse– that’s an unfortunate tack to be sailing. Today our nation faces its greatest financial challenge since the Depression, as we’ve all had ingrained into ourselves by the constant drumbeat of financial failure and fraud; Americans are losing their jobs at a horrifying pace, they’re losing their homes, they’re losing their children’s educational future. Our economy contracted almost seven percent in a quarter and our personal debt loads ever increase as lenders jack our credit card rates to stratospheric levels even while we are denied credit for cars, homes and emergency repairs– imagine for a second what it would be like for you, personally, if you suddenly needed to buy a new heating and cooling system tomorrow, or if you needed to do a major sewer repair costing thousands of dollars.

For political gain, Rush Limbaugh effectively is hoping that the situation grows even worse, that your pain increases, that the money now being spent is wasted to no effect.  What better time for President Obama to acknowledge his intellectual leadership of the Republican Party?

The GOP has fed the talk radio beast since the early 1990s and has enjoyed some extraordinary benefits from its advent and growth; it fueled the “Contract With America” programs of the Gingrich Congress, it promoted the culture wars ethos of the Religious Right, it weighed in, some might say decisively, on the 2000 vote recounts and battles that saw its favored son, George W. Bush, installed in the Presidency against the will of the majority of voters and then re-elected to a second term largely on the wings of a smear campaign against his opponent’s Vietnam War record. As a tactical weapon, Republican Talk Radio has been extraordinarily useful, and no organ of Republican Talk Radio has played louder or more consistently that Limbaugh, who now professes a desire for our President to fail in ending a crisis and for our national and personal peril to deepen.

It has often been said that an untrained person with a handgun is a greater danger to himself than he is to his assailant as the most likely outcome of a confrontation is that his gun will be taken and used against him. Rush Limbaugh is now that gun, and Rahm Emmanuel has grabbed it and pointed it very steadily at the GOP.

By making Limbaugh the public’s perception of the thinking of the GOP  Emmanuel has taken a group and philosophy that represents a large if shrinking portion of America’s voters and turned it into the preserve of fringe lunatics, praying for the failure of our nation and the increased power of our enemies and rivals. My brother, an Assistant District Attorney and trial lawyer, once taught me an important lesson about public perception– the one thing that nobody wants to be thought of as is “silly”. When in front of a jury, the one thing you want to impart is that in order to find for the defendant you must accept something that is “silly” and thus become silly yourself. That lesson is tailored to this situation; Emmanuel has pointed out how silly Limbaugh’s stance is while at the same time making it representative of the GOP; in order to support the GOP you too must be silly. It’s a deceptively powerful tactic.

The GOP has even further imperiled itself in this by its actions of a few weeks ago, when Georgia Republican Congressman Phil Gingrey was forced to apologize to Rush Limbaugh for daring to opine that it was easier for Limbaugh and Sean Hannity to talk about opposing the president than it was for a Congressman to actually do it. The pageant of shame that Gingrey was forced to play his very public role in was astounding– an elected Congressman being forced to publicly kiss the ring of a popular entertainer was horrifying to John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, but they also saw the necessity of doing it for Gingrey. In that vision, they saw their control of the GOP slip away and Rush Limbaugh’s role pass from cheerleader to Quarterback. That Obama and Emmanuel saw it as well and would eventually emphasize it was fait accompli.

As Rush Limbaugh, the Speaker of the GOP, calls for lockstep, unwavering opposition to a very popular President and what has rapidly become a surprisingly popular Congress and then takes it a step beyond in publicly calling for the failure of our nation’s policies and the deepening of our national pain there is no force in the RNC or GOP at large who can seemingly oppose him. The dog has taken control of the master as talk radio, with all its fuming opprobrium, displaces the hand on the dial that created and for so long controlled it.

The tactical move by Obama & Emmanuel is underlain by a strategic understanding of the situation in general that the GOP never did achieve; does anyone else recall the claims by many in the Conservative Media during 2007 and 2008 that the Kossacks and NetRoots would undermine the Democrats and the “weak” Obama in particular and draw them so far to the left that they would become unpalatable to mainstream America? Clearly the blogosphere and the New Media as embodied by HuffPo and TPM are the belated but extremely modern response to Republican Talk Radio, and surely the Daily Kos crowd has tried to stake a claim to running the ship it is supposed to be crewing. A funny thing happened on the way to that mutiny, however; Obama was elected on a moderate platform and appointed a bipartisan Cabinet that emphasized effectiveness and intellect over philosophical purity, much to the chagrin of the NetRoots. That disappointment should terrify the RNC as a repeat of their mistakes is not evidently coming for their rivals.

At this point no matter whom the GOP nominates in 2012 Mr. Obama will be running against Rush Limbaugh, not Mike Huckabee, Mark Sanford, Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin.  Of course, that might not make much of a difference as the eventual nominee will need the pre-approval of the GOP’s new maximum leader, Rush Limbaugh. All hail.

Posted in American Politics, CongressCritters, Cultural Phenomena, Obama Positions | 3 Comments »

Ecomonic Warfare or Fiscal Porn?

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 10, 2009

But at this particular moment, with the private sector so weakened by this recession, the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back to life. It is only government that can break the vicious cycle where lost jobs lead to people spending less money which leads to even more layoffs. And breaking that cycle is exactly what the plan that’s moving through Congress is designed to do. –Barack Obama

Yesterday, Barack Obama finally got back to doing what he does best– taking his case to the people of our nation and rallying them behind policy positions that previous administrations of both stripes have considered to be “above” them, too complex to understand and thus not worth attempting to explain. Suffice it to say that you never would’ve seen George Bush (pick your iteration…) in front of a large crowd of politically unscreened citizens handed microphones to ask questions after being given a straight assessment of the problems facing our economy and the extraordinary tasks that need to be undertaken to quell them. Yesterday in Indiana and today in Florida, however, that is exactly what we have and will see Barack Obama do. Lest you think that these were randomly chosen locales, recall that Indiana and Florida were two of the toughest Red states that flipped to blue in the election, a clear reminder to the Senate and House of who they’re dealing with, politically.

Some of the questions he received yesterday were extremely critical of him and his administration– one was delivered by a woman who identified herself as “…one of those who think you should have a beer with Sean Hannity”– but they were handled with aplomb and humour as the cost of doing business for a President who knows that he will have to deal with detractors head on to gain the trust of a nation. Like him or not, that’s a refreshing…wait for it… change.

Last night Obama went before reporters for a live prime time presser and again handled everything thrown at him, acquitting himself well and making yet another strong case for his particular vision of a stimulus package and the steps needed to fix the economy.

Obama and his aides are not fools– they understand that despite the losses of the Republican Party and the seeming rejection of its philosophies by the voting public, there is still an aftertaste of the conservative fiscal policies that the Bush Admin and the House Republicans, in particular, have  told America that they were practicing for the better part of the last decade. There is a seductiveness to talking about tax cuts and limiting government while ignoring the larger issues that drive the economy and the nation; it’s fiscal porn. Why talk about having to free the liquidity of the credit markets when you can talk about the bliss of a paycheck less encumbered by taxes or the pleasures of getting government “off of your back”? The GOP has engaged in this quite literal application of bread and circuses and has done so well– give the people some extra bread in their weekly take-home while keeping them diverted with asinine wedge issues like gay marriage and putting the Ten Commandments on public property and they conveniently forget to take a look at what Fannie & Freddie are doing. It’s undeniable– and undeniably sad– that this formula has worked politically so well for so long.

What Barack Obama has been giving us, literally, is the opposite of fiscal porn– it is depressingly honest at times, featuring quotes like the above and a constant reminder that “the party is over” or “this is the worst financial crisis we’ve seen since the Great Depression”. Obama is treating us as adults and partners, not only in the problem but in its solution. Not only is this the right thing to do– our grandparents handled the Germans and the Japanese, I think we can handle Goldman Sachs and sovereign wealth funds– it is also the politically smart thing to do. As noted by David Gergen last night on CNN, last week saw the Admin focus entirely on policy and working the hallways at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. They were effective in doing so, getting a fixable stimulus package through the House and then saving a better bill in the Senate, but they also allowed public support for the bill to erode. They gave people like Jim DeMint, Lindsay Graham and Mitch McConnell the media floor to rally against what they saw (often mistakenly, sometimes correctly) as excesses in the bill passed by the House and attempted to make the bill a referendum whose choices were Nancy Pelosi’s “San Francisco Power Bitchery” or the Debbie Does Taxes myth of Republican fiscal responsibility featuring their promise about going down on taxes and the double penetration of cutting spending while shifting focus to social issues.

When given the choice between someone with a plan, an actual way to move forward on a problem, and someone who tells you that the best thing to do is either nothing or, worse, admits the problem and then tries to hand you another that has the illusion of being easier to solve, the choice is clear. Obama has a proactive plan of attack that he’s willing to talk about and allow scrutiny of; he’s been honest enough to say that his plan will sometimes lead into blind alleys or need to be adjusted along the way, and that pain will be felt by all as we move forward. What he describes and the way he describes it is very much akin to a war; the comparisons to FDR have already been made ad nauseum, but it is impossible to not note here the latter-day Fireside Chat ethos of Obama’s town hall events this week and his general willingness to tell us we’re in for a bad ride for the next few years– but also that there is an end to the ride in sight in the distance. The war that Obama describes isn’t a war in the sense that Mr. Bush forced us to grow accustomed to; the war that Mr. Obama lays out has clearly defined goals, a frank assessment of risks and challenges, and a strategy to overcome them. It is also explained as war without fait accompli as a component– in this war, the enemy will fight back and will even win battles. We start this war much as we did World War Two– under attack, shocked and dazed, with an enemy in the field that will be initially superior to our efforts to fight it. We are also uniquely suited to grow in strength throughout the fight and overwhelm the problems facing us as long as we do so in a progressive (little “p” progressive, note) fashion that has us methodically building a foundation and then laying successes atop it until the overall fight is won. We started World War Two with crappy and far too few airplanes, a Navy that needed to be built from the keel up, and tanks that were ten years out of date but with a strong base from which to fix those problems. We start this war similarly challenged, with a fiscal sector in chaos, with corporations running out of date models, with too few and patently lousy tools to manage Wall Street, but with the ability to fix those problems with some discipline and some reassessment and realignment of our priorities.

Obama is our Roosevelt; Geithner & Summers our Marshall & Eisenhower. The fight will be long, but it is on. If that doesn’t sound like fun, though, Ann Coulter is going down on your tax bill over at FoxNews LateNight. Your choice.

Posted in American History, American Politics, CongressCritters, Economy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Breaking Nancy

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 5, 2009

pelosiNancy Pelosi’s autocratic streak is, to be modest, several miles wide. The Speaker is very proud of the coalition she has built that catapulted her to power and she is not afraid to drive legislation down that broad avenue at breakneck speeds. Unfortunately for the Speaker, her speeding Congressional Cadillac seems to have struck a Blue Dog in the road.

Regular Order is the lifeblood of most legislative bodies; it is the full process by which a bill makes its way through the subcommittee-committee-floor process, with amendments and rewrites attached by the Members. Through Regular Order a bill is, in the best cases, refined and improved through numerous changes and the introduction of differing viewpoints into its fabric. In the worst cases, it turns a good and concise bill into a bloated disaster of contradiction and fat. Running bills through Regular Order is the most inclusive, fair way of moving legislation– it takes some power out of the hands of leadership and allows the rank and file to have input on a bill. It also adds time to the progression of a bill and causes leadership aides to age prematurely and drink copiously.

Regular Order is also something that was dispensed with out of hand by the former Republican Majority and also something which Ms.Pelosi had promised time and again to redress and reinstate as a part of a return to bipartisanship in the House. There’s a little glitch, though– running outside of Regular Order is really fun for Leadership– no annoying amendments offered by Members whom they don’t totally control, program bills fly through mark up and reach the floor when the Speaker wants them to, the Speaker’s vision being not only the only one that reaches the floor but also is the only one that even is allowed to exist within the limestone walls.

Now, someone has called the Speaker’s bluff and demanded a return to Regular Order. Worse from Ms. Pelosi’s point of view, they have found a champion, and that champion is possibly the only person in the entire city that she fears, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.

The Blue Dog Coalition, the group of conservative Democrats who are a consistent pain in the ass of the far left of the Democratic Caucus, were, well, mildly disturbed by the process in which the stimulus package was shoved down their canine gullets. The package was shot through the process with very little opportunity for input from the rank and file (read: no chance of input) to the point that most legislators were forced to vote without so much as a chance to have staff read the thing in any meaningful way. Pelosi insisted that this was done at the behest of the President and the nation– the stim package was needed and needed quickly with no time for legislative detours. This may or may not be true according to your personal beliefs, but Pelosi had the protective cover and she was damned well going to use it.

The Blue Dogs saw it somewhat differently, as just another broken promise from Leadership that resulted in a flawed bill full of the Speaker’s fondest wishes and lacking the gravitas of a bill to deal with an emergency situation. The lack of input from those in the building feeling the crisis most acutely– the individual CongressCritters whose office phones were ringing off the hook and who were watching interns spontaneously combust after reading through their seven thousandth email on the topic– is a death blow in the opinion of the Blue Dogs, who always bring a sense of having been disrespected to everything they do.

Having endured one indignity too many on the one bill too important to screw up, the Blue Dogs penned a letter demanding a return to Regular Order as being integral to the Congress being able to correctly do the people’s business. Moreover, they backhanded Pelosi across the chops with a reminder that if she failed to do this, she’d be no better than the Republican Congress that caused so much of the mess we’re in to begin with due to their fiscal irresponsibility as fostered by the Speaker’s ramming bills through the House with no input from the Minority or dissenters within the Majority. That, as they say, is going to leave a mark.

Nancy Pelosi might be the most powerful Speaker we’ve seen in decades in terms of her ability to rule by fiat and the fear she’s instilled in much of her Caucus. Nobody has been willing to take her on directly in a meaningful way; for the most part the best we’ve seen are pinprcks from people like Kirsten Gillibrand and the like trying to buck seniority in committee placements and against Leadership wishes. The Blue Dogs circulating this letter, which as of tonight is starting to get a lot of support from other groups within the Majority, is the first crack in Nancy’s dam.

Yet the letter isn’t addressed to her as Speaker. And that is where this gets very, very interesting from a tactical point of view.

Calling for a change to the way bills are moved is a serious business, no matter how you cut it. Doing so by very publicly appealing to a power outside of the Speaker’s office– particularly this Speaker’s office– seems shocking to me. The Blue Dogs, bless their cyanotic little hearts, are involved in something that they’re hoping is going to be much bigger– they addressed the letter to the Speaker’s number one frien-emy, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Worse, Hoyer publicly supported the letter. Very publicly.

Hoyer came out strong in talking to reporters about the letter, being careful not to criticize Czar Nancy but also leaving no doubt at all that she was in the wrong and he was championing the cause against her, implicitly signing on to the “you’re no better than Coach Denny” snark of the letter. The only question at this point is if he’s being opportunistic or if he drafted the thing in the first place. The Blue Dogs, for their part, aren’t making any bones about why they chose to send the letter to Hoyer– “… because this group has no better friend in this fight”, said a widely quoted yet markedly anonymous aide to a Blue Dog.

There’s no love lost between Hoyer, who wanted to be Speaker, and Pelosi, who acceded to the job in 2006. Steny has been a good soldier for these past few years, doing as Pelosi required, but there’s been a palpable sense that he’s doing it out of duty, not belief. Pelosi is the manager-as-king type– hell, she’s freezing her own people out of the process, much less the Republicans– whereas Hoyer is a “Member’s Leader” in much the same way you’ll hear a baseball manager referred to as a “Player’s Manager”. As anger coalesces around Pelosi’s freezing out of even senior Democrats, the Blue Dogs and Hoyer may have just broken the reign of terror that Nancy has used to keep her people in line and quiet despite her excesses. Many of her Democratic Members were appalled — outraged may be an even better word– at how the Speaker, at the helm of a wildly unpopular institution with Members who were going to have to run in a mid-term, publicly kicked the crap out of a Patrick Fitzgerald-gagged Rahm Emmanuel and by extension then President-Elect Obama a couple of months back. Telling Emmanuel that his opinions were not needed in selecting members of the House leadership and that if Obama himself wanted to talk to a Democratic Congressman he was to call her first for permission and then call her afterwards for a debrief were not wise and were not well received by a Membership that wants to grab as much of the Obama glow as they can for their own re-election purposes. It showed the Speaker at her very worst, deluded into thinking that she is the only powerbroker in DC with any claim to leadership of the Democratic Party and thus the nation. You know and I know that doing that to Obama, and especially doing it to Obama through the baddest bad ass in all the land, Mr. Emmanuel, would not go unnoticed and unpunished.

As I wrote last month, that punishment started with the snub of Pelosi-pal Diane Feinstein when the Intelligence leadership was named without consulting her as the incoming Chair of Senate Select Intelligence despite conferring with her rank and file committeemen. As I see it, that was the opening shot. This Blue Dog maneuver needed a boost from somewhere in its defiance of Nancy, especially now that we’re seeing so many others signing on to it– they must, absolutely must, have been assured cover from someone who they believed could cover them. That someone has a funny shaped office just down Pennsylvania Avenue and employs the dissed Mr. Emmanuel.

Tonight Pelosi is coquettishly running up the white flag– she’s making all the right noises about returning to Regular Order and is trying to save face by claiming that’s what she intended all along, just as she’s been saying for the last two years… but not acting on. She’s between a rock and a hard place, which could make her very dangerous or could make her a squishy paste of CongressCritter roadkill in a few months time.

No matter how you cut it, the power dynamic within the House has changed dramatically within the last 48 hours, most likely for the benefit of the nation at a time when we truly need to step past rhetoric and work together, a lesson which the current Speaker is unwilling to take to heart.

Posted in American Politics, CongressCritters | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

What Didn’t Happen on 9-25

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 2, 2009

With the change in Administration we’ve heard an awful lot about what George W. Bush’s sole saving grace is supposed to be: that America was not attacked again for the seven years following 9-11. I’m still left to wonder why.

If we posit that the 9-11 attacks were a sophisticated and complex operation requiring the coordination of scores of attackers, logisticians and money movers then we similarly must posit that al Qaeda was, at least at that time, a sophisticated and complex organization capable of organizing the strikes.

Yet on 9-25 no bombs went off in subway cars or on buses.

al Qaeda was able to attain flight training within the United States for several hijackers. They were also able to coordinate an attack in Afghanistan two days before 9-11 to kill the leader of the Northern Alliance by infiltrating two fake photojournalists into his heavily guarded camp and killing him with a bomb concealed within a working minicam.

Yet on 9-25 no men with simple assault rifles attacked a shopping mall.

The African Embassy bombings were carried out simultaneously on August 7, 1998 in Kenya & Tanzania, using sophisticated explosives mounted in trucks. Although the bomb didn’t penetrate the Embassy perimeter in Dar es Salaam, the truck in Nairobi effectively destroyed the American embassy while the Dar es Salaam truck killed 11 and wounded 86.

Yet on 9-25 nobody staged an attack on a school. In 1999 two teenagers carried out a massacre in a school in Colorado. In 2007 a single student killed 32 at Virginia Tech.

In October of 2000, al Qaeda staged the attack on the USS Cole, blowing a 40 foot hole in an American warship and killing 17 American sailors.

Yet on 9-25 nobody staged an attack on an apartment building.

I’ve always been at a loss to understand what al Qaeda was thinking in the planning of the 9-11 attacks and in their aftermath. The twin attacks in New York and Washington were obviously large scale attacks made to demonstrate that the United States could be attacked and attacked in spectacular fashion. Think back to those dark days on September, 2001; remember how jumpy we all were and how fear had taken hold beneath the veneer of resolution and the layers of outrage that we all wore.

What would’ve happened if two weeks later, just as we all started to get back into our work-a-day routines, a series of low tech, simple operations had been carried out? A suicide bomber detonates himself on a Cleveland bus, as has happened so many times in Israel. A couple of days later a bomb goes off on a BART train in San Francisco. These aren’t sophisticated attacks; if you have the online skills to find this blog you also have the skills to find a site that will show you how to build a simple backpack bomb and carry out this attack. Suddenly going to work is something we fear.

A few days later two men with assault rifles or submachineguns walk up to a schoolyard at recess and mow down the students. The reload twice before the police arive and a hundred kids die. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had a more sophisticated plan requiring far greater logistical overhead. Now we’re afraid to send our kids to school.

A Saturday or two later a pair of gunmen walk into a mall and open up at the foodcourt during lunchtime. Maybe a third lobs a hand grenade or some simple IED into Macys. Now we’re afraid to shop or maybe even go anywhere that people congregate.

At three o’clock Sunday morning a truck bomb goes off after having crashed into the lobby of an apartment building. If Tim McVeigh and Timothy Nichols can pull it off with some diesel and some fertilizer, we can agree this isn’t something that takes much sophistication or planning– this isn’t Pearl Harbor we’re talking about. Now we’re afraid to sleep, and the country is paralyzed.

And none of these things happened in the weeks after 9-11. They aren’t the products of some great strategic mind, redolent of subtlety and deep thought. They don’t require massive transfers of money or logistic support. Highly trained operators– like men capable of piloting a commercial airliner– are not required. None of these attacks happened, despite the screaming obviousness of the logic that dictated them.

Attributing the failure of these attacks to happen obviously doesn’t go to American intelligence or law enforcement efforts– there is no reasonable way, even today, to prevent two or three guys with SMGs from walking into Roosevelt Field or Mall of America or Tyson’s Galleria or the elementary school down the street from your house. So, does this mean that al Qaeda either didn’t have the vision or the capability to pull off these attacks? Or did al Qaeda not have the desire to press their attack and shut down America?

I have my own theories about why al Qaeda didn’t reel in the fish after getting it to take the bait and after setting the hook, but the reality is that without bin Laden or al Zawahiri in custody and talking we are likely never going to know why our country literally dodged the bullet that any rational foe would’ve fired into us in the weeks following 9-11. The nightmare scenario was there for the taking, and was available at low cost and with no special effort made to pull the trigger. After the massive attacks of 9-11, every pinprick attack that could have come in the following weeks would have registered as sledgehammer blows. It didn’t materialize.

If we cannot answer why these attacks didn’t happen beyond saying that President Bush had no influence on them, should we really be crediting ex-President Bush with further spectacular attacks not happening? I don’t have a yes or no answer to that. Neither should history, despite what the George W. Bush Presidential Library will eventually be telling us.

Posted in American History, American Politics, Bush, Intelligence (and lack thereof), Islamists, terrorism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Embracing An Islamist Regime?

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 29, 2009

David Axe’s brilliant blog, War Is Boring, yesterday explored what I view as a patently insane proposal from the Council on Foreign Relations to establish an internationally funded Somali Coast Guard to combat piracy. Somalia cannot govern itself, provide food for its people or police its own territory much less the oceans so yes, sure, let’s assume that the mythical Somali government not only would use the international funding to establish a hugely expensive and technically complex force structure but also that they would even have the inclination to do so.

Stunning.

Axe himself had a more interesting idea– is the answer to the Somali problem simply embracing the concept of a hard line Islamic regime in Mogadishu? For the sake of background, Somalia, long the victim of near total anarchy, was for a brief while in 2006 & 2007 effectively governed by a confederacy of Sharia-law courts, known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). That came to an end in 2007 when the Bush Admin encouraged and facilitated an invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia under the concept that the ICU was providing a home base for alQaeda and similar Islamist radical elements. The Ethiopian Army, supplied with intelligence and armaments by the US in addition to oft rumoured US Special Ops raids and operations, had little problem defeating the ICU’s armed militia, taking back Mogadishu and eventually driving the ICU out of its last strongholds, leaving Somalia once again ungoverned and the ICU reduced to a guerilla band.

The piracy problem grew out of control shortly thereafter begging the question of whether we would be better off with an Islamic regime that isn’t disposed to liking the West or the current mess which threatens international commerce and the flow of oil. A fuller description of the piracy issue and the US Navy’s lackluster response to it can be found in my previous entry, The Vaporware Navy.

As the American Presidency moves to Barack Obama, we are seeing a different attitude being taken towards the Islamic World. While the realities and exigencies of war still exist and have been accepted by President Obama, an effort is clearly underway to defuse hostilities by winning over the Islamic people. Could that effort extend all the way to the acceptance of a true Islamist regime in Mogadishu if it meant Somalia would be under some authority and the piracy problem would be curtailed?

A return of the ICU may be underway already, even without our help or acceptance. With the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces Somalia has reverted to form and become an anarchist failed state, while the ICU is starting to re-emerge in the south. That being said, if the Obama Admin backed a return of the ICU as a reversal and redress of the policies of the previous admin ICU could take control of the entire nation fairly quickly.

What are the risks of an ICU/Islamist Somalia? There is, of course, the risk that our enemies would find haven there; it is a questionable risk, however, given that they are just as likely to find haven in an ungoverned Islamic region such as Somalia is now; indeed our Special Forces have been very active in Somalia taking down terrorist camps and operations. There is the risk of severe human rights abuses, as seen from a Western perspective, of allowing a Sharia-court based system to govern the country. Clearly it will not be pretty– women in burkas, denial of human rights, the reality of Sharia-mandated punishments for adultery, etc. That entails political risk to Obama’s left flank as the women’s rights and Amnesty Internaitonal crowds will feel betrayed by their President on this issue– the reality that the people of Somalia are living with even less human rights and dignity now doesn’t seem to penetrate the dogma of these folks. There will also be risk to his right flank as the Limbaughs and McConnels of the world try to hang a “soft on Islamic terror” label on Obama if he reaches out to the ICU. Never mind that you cant win a war against a movement and that you need to find soft solutions to the problems.

On the upside, we would almost certainly see a huge reduction to pirate activity out of Somalia. The Islamic Courts greatly curtailed piracy when they had control in ’06 & ’07 and there’s no reason to think that they suddenly see piracy as being in keeping with Islamic law; for a change we’d be on the benefit side of Sharia. Obama would have the opportunity to really make an impact on the Islamic “Street”; it would be very hard to demonize America as the enemy of Islam if we very publicly came out in favor of returning a Sharia movement to its role as ruler of an islamic nation. This is the kind of move that would do what Obama hoped to do with his recent interview with al Aribiya Television– prove that America is not the enemy of Islam. Additionally, returning order to Somalia would make possible real foreign aid to a suffering people, including the safe delivery of food. One wonders if the solution of so intractable a problem as Somalia might not also lay the groundwork for real action in regional neighbor Sudan’s Darfur region.

Can Obama recognize the ICU and return it to power in Somalia? Clearly it is within his power to do so, but the political cost, both at home and in Western Europe, will be extremely high. So too would be the potential payout. The time is arrived for America to realize that the export of Democracy and western style human rights to unwilling nations or those simply not yet equipped to deal with them is not a reasonable or even desirable goal; “better dead than red” does not translate to “better secular than starving”. Somalia is an Islamic nation in a state of chaos; resisting the emergence of an Islamic government to fix the problems is a fundamentally unsound strategy.

To look at past as prologue, consider the fact that a young socialist by the name of Ho Chi Minh desperately sought the acceptance and support of Harry Truman in 1945 & 1946. Ho effectively controlled post-Japanese occupation Indochina and had instituted a workable governing structure that was feeding the people and keeping order; he petitioned the United States to recognize his government and stop the French from reoccupying Indochina in much the same way we were making it clear to other European nations that the colonial period ended with the cessation of World War II. Ho was, sadly, not politically acceptable to a Red Scare America despite his friendly overtures; the rest is history. It is important for America to learn from that oft forgotten lesson and not allow our Islamist Scare mindset to prevent order from returning to Somalia and security returning to the seas off of the Horn of Africa.

Posted in Africa, American Politics, Foreign Affairs, History, Human Rights, Islamists, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

 
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