Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Into the Stretch

We’re into the home stretch and the Administration is out there doing its usual pre-election thing.  The President, speaking to friendly audiences in Texas and Georgia, is insisting this election is about taxes and terror.  Meanwhile, the Iraq war is bleeding the country’s financial resources and Osama bin Laden remains not merely on the loose but it would seem no longer seriously hunted.  One wonders how long it would have taken the public to realistically assess our progress in Iraq had the war not been waged on borrowed funds and, aside from the looming deficits that will impact on the next generation, no visible sacrifice.  Higher taxes to cover the cost, not to mention a draft that touches all rather than a tiny fraction of American households might have put things in a different light.  The question isn’t only whether the public would have soured earlier, but given the potential of real and widespread sacrifice whether they would have signed on in the first place.

Dick Cheney is out there doing his thing as well.  The man who spoke with such certainty about an Al Qaeda-Iraq connection and the existence of WMDs long after both were discredited theories, now tells us that the current escalation of violence – more than 100 US service personnel killed in October – is just part of an insidious insurgent plot to influence our election.  Aside from the acknowledgement of our military leaders that things have been deteriorating for many months, the fact is that Iraq has now become the primary issue for a majority of voters is not because of calculated asaults timed precisely for our election but because Cheney and his colleagues have made such a terrible mess of things from the run up to a terribly misguided war right through this bloody month.  To this moment the Administration rejects any talk of strategic change, which might admit a mistake, and will consider only the possibility of altering tactics, something to which I’m not sure the Vice President has even given his nod.

Finally, and classically, Don Rumsfeld has weighed in as only he can.  He still of course talks about the messiness of war – “things happen” remains his attitude even three years after he first pontificated as such over the disastrous looting that set the stage for a country out of control – anyone’s control ours or the now sitting democratically elected Iraqi government.  But Rumsfeld has taken concrete action in face of adversity.  Responding to the disaster under his watch, he has set in motion a major new public relations effort aimed at the 24/7 news community.  As the Secretary sees it, what we really need is some focus on the good news out of Iraq or at the very least, one would have to assume, better management of the bad news that is at this point impossible to hide.

So we prepare to go to the polls.  All the trends seem to be in favor of change.  We’re cautioned however, that while this Congressional election may indeed have been nationalized, Tip’s law that “all politics is local” remains the norm, and a tough hurtle to overcome even in these extraordinary times.  More pointedly, I think of Yogi, “it ain’t over till it’s over” which gives me pause.  In the end I don’t see this so much as a test of the Administration as one of the American voting public.  Have they at long last had enough?  It will also be a major test for the Democrats not so much before November 7 but after should they win either or both Houses.  The question then is whether they will actually function as leaders or evidence the maladies of post traumatic stress brought on by years of being beaten in one election after another either by the Republicans superior numbers (albeit often at the margin) or superior tactics aided so importantly early on by the Supreme Court.  That, by the way, was not an example of judicial activism if that’s what you wondered.  Activist judges are only those who rule against conservative ideology.  In any event, post the hoped for victory, just saying no won’t do any more.  The vague and often glibly pronounced criticism will have to be replaced by concrete alternative proposals and a readiness to talk to the “bad guys”.  I don’t mean the Iranians, North Koreans and other usual suspects though that is long over due, but the Republicans.  I also don’t mean talk at, but talk to and with.  The problems we face today are enormous and another two years of vicious bickering, sometimes for its own sake, simply won’t cut it, nor can we afford it.  We need solutions to urgent problems and waiting out Bush’s last two years on some kind of virtual side lines isn’t a luxury the country can afford nor is it what we at this point can only hope the voters will have signed on for.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Obama Fuss

Barack Obama has made it to prime time.  Magazine covers, television interviews and the subject of countless columns including most of the Op-Ed voices at the New York Times.  We’ve heard all the pros and cons, the urging to run, the reservations including this morning’s slow down and wait message from Bob Herbert.  I for one cast my vote for an Obama candidacy in a post last May when voicing concerns about both John the Savior McCain and Hilary the Inevitable Clinton.  Because so much has been written and said these last two weeks, I am a little reluctant to join the chorus, but perhaps a word from an ordinary voter not a professional pundit can justify yet another Obama piece.

It’s interesting that we are suddenly faced with so much Presidential talk just two weeks before such a critical mid-term Congressional election.  To be sure much is being said about the potential for a Democratic takeover of the House and Senate.  The country does seem at long last to be mad as hell and unready to take it any more.  One wonders what took it so long, but to carry the cliché, “better late…”  We’re focused on the Presidency for one simple reason, that’s where the power lies and that’s the only place where a change of direction can take place.  Six years ago when, as John Kerry might put it, Al Gore first won and then lost the election, conventional wisdom had it that an appointed President in a split country would lack the power to do much harm.  So much for conventional wisdom, as we find ourselves, in retrospect, arguably the most damaged country on the globe.  Of course our discomfort pales in comparison to what is being faced by the citizenry on the streets in Iraq or in the nightmare that is Darfur, but not relative to where we could or should be.  That damage, that dramatic turnaround of events symbolized by a record surplus turned into a record deficit both actually and metaphorically can in the final analysis be laid at only one doorstep, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  We’re focused on ’08 in ’06 for good reason.

And why Barack Obama?  I think it all boils down, certainly for many Democrats but perhaps for some Republicans as well, to one simple fact.  We’re tired of holding our noses and voting for the last man standing chosen from a field of the uninspiring, the less or the just barely acceptable.  We simply want to be excited about our candidate, to be counting the hours till Election Day when we can pull the lever for our standard bearer.  Al Gore wasn’t Bill Clinton and John Kerry wasn’t, yes you guessed it, Bill Clinton.  Just look at the field today, in both parties.  Is there anyone out there about whom a majority of Americans, much less a broad spectrum of party loyalists can get excited?  Sure Senators have a poor record of success in winning the presidency, Jack Kennedy being the exception.  Hello, the relatively inexperienced Jack Kennedy had charisma, that something special that made your heart beat a little faster.  I encountered him first on my college campus in the presence of, among others, the Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren and no one could take their eyes off him.  Don’t tell me emotions don’t count.  Clinton, who is our reigning political superstar, may be a policy wonk and he may be able, unlike Bush, to put not only two but thousands of words together coherently and elegantly, but ultimately it’s emotion, his aura, that carries the day.

Leadership is not about clever (and misleading) slogans, but about getting people to follow both little people like you and me and world leaders, all at the same time.  Barack Obama may be untested in the regard, but at least he shows the potential.  He holds out the possibility that we can rekindle the fire within and with it restore not superficial flag waving but real pride in being Americans.  That’s a heavy hurtle to put on someone’s plate, perhaps it’s asking too much, but if not now, when?  This country is moving ever so closely to the historic tipping point that has plagued virtually all of the world’s great empires, the one that leads ever so certainly to decline and then destruction.  The Republican National Committee is running a commercial showing Osama and company, a ticking clock in the background.  It’s likened to the famous Daisy commercial run against Goldwater in 1964.  Hopefully the Democrats will counter with the simple but powerful question, “why is Osama still around on your watch” – done hold your breath.  The fact is, the GOP ad is accurate, not the face of Osama, but the ticking.  People are getting excited about Barak Obama because, realistic or not, they hope he might be able to stop it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Loan Officer as Peacemaker

The Nobel Committee’s selection of Muhammad Yunus as this year’s outstanding peacemaker may, despite his unquestioned good works and that of his Grameen Bank, have surprised a lot of people.  The banker as peacemaker?  Yes indeed this banker is a peacemaker as are the others like him around the world who are engaged in similar work.  It may seem simplistic to distill the world’s greatest impediments to peace down to two prime causes, but I would suggest that “mine is the only way” religion and rampant poverty are compelling candidates.  All too often the two converge.  Perhaps some suicide bombers including those who flew planes into the Trade Center and Pentagon come from the well educated and middle class, but that oft quoted fact is misleading.  Militant movements require countless foot soldiers and the upwardly mobile bombers are the exception not the rule.

The abject poverty and unspeakably low standard of subsistence (one can’t call it living) found across Africa, the Middle East, Asia and even South America is well known to be a breeding ground for unrest, and most importantly for manipulation by charismatic demagogues who today are often extreme religious fundamentalists of one stripe or another.  These are people so desperate and so turned off by the status quo that any attention is welcome, certainly if it carries with it the promise of a better life (even if in the world to come).  Conversely, it you can change the lot of the desperate by giving them a helping hand and enough economic aid, in Grameen’s case a few dollars in seed (often literally) money, the dynamics can also be altered.  The idea that providing seed for a garden can feed a family for years while a donation of food is merely a short term fix is not a romantic cliché but a practical reality.  The latter, no matter how well intentioned, is tantamount to crisis management and the former to a potentially permanent solution which is precisely what Yunus opted for.  His micro loans to the impoverished of Bangladesh have literally turned around lives.  That many of the recipients were women whose societal status was changed in the process is an added bonus, but focusing on this bit of social engineering really misses the point.

No one can say for sure that those whose lives have been turned around by the small loans made by Grameen and other micro lenders across the globe will never join the ranks of the destructive.  At the same time, it is probably not a stretch to suggest that the potential of such an end is far less likely than it might have been without this creative intervention.  It would also be naïve to think that most of the recipients of micro loans will end up as have the very small number of moderately successful entrepreneurs that got their start from his helping hand.  But if the borrowers as a whole can just get on the road to self sustaining family life, a big step will have been taken toward peace.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who reads these posts that I don’t put much stock in military force to answer the world’s problems whether in Iraq, the Holy Land or anywhere else.  Fighting just tends to breed fighting to wit the emerging arms race that is demanding our attention these days.  Of course, military action may sometimes be unavoidable, but like that donation of food rather than seedlings, it remains a response to immediate crisis never a mechanism for long term solutions.  On the other hand, economic development may well be, especially of the micro kind.  The problem with so many efforts at lifting societies through economic development is that donating governments and agencies want to do grand things.  If we build something big it is thought, if we can infuse large capital pools into an underdeveloped place, the lives of the many can be impacted.  At least that is the promise but, without discounting the importance of doing those big projects as well, such development relies essentially on trickle down (yes Voodoo) economics.  So often it results at best in the emergence of yet another, but relatively small localized middle class and all too often accompanied by a truly tiny elite class of new super rich.  Sadly this kind of high profile development, which routinely holds out the promise of more jobs than it really creates not to mention what turns out to be the most ephemeral ripple effect, simply has not solved the problem.  Rather than eradicating or even putting a dent into global or localized poverty, at times it has actually exasperated the growing disparity between those who have and those who remain without.

The underlying message of the Nobel Committee is that peace takes a lot of work and, while the task seems daunting, ultimately it has to be addressed at the individual level.  This is a painstaking and prolonged process.  Peace has to be made by small and deceivingly unimpressive acts one person at a time.  The most hopeful message that they have conveyed in honoring Muhammad Yunus is that it can be done.  The best take for us on their selection of the loan officer and peacemaker is that it must be done if we are to address and then overcome the most pressing challenges of interacting peacefully in this incredible but shrinking planet.

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Better to Stay and Die?

If the 2006 campaign returns to what remains upper most in the minds of Americans, the war in Iraq, expect to hear that catch phrase “cut and run” a lot over the next weeks.  I hope Democrats won’t permit themselves to be “Swift Boated” this time around.  To that end, I’d suggest that they counter by defining the present course, which amounts to no more than “stay and die”.  Stay and die is exactly what President Bush is asking our troops to do and that is exactly what is happening to them in an escalating manner.  Three years out and the casualties mount every single day.  43 Americans died in July, 65 in August and 74 in September, one of the worst months of the war.  More than 20 lost their lives in the last few days and October has hardly begun.  The Minnesota GOP state chairman who used the “cut and run” slogan yesterday in an interview pointed out that, while the battle deaths were tragic, fewer Americans have died in three years of war than on September 11.  Leaving aside the dubious connection of that attack and Iraq, I wonder how he squares the 20,000 American casualties, some of whom are physically maimed for life.  How about the war related suicides or the wide spread post traumatic syndrome that plagues not merely the former combatants but their entire families. 

Stay and die to what end?  Have we improved the quality of life for Iraqis or the stability of the region?  Have we lessoned the ranks of Al Qaeda or diminished sectarian hatred?  Looking at the news every day we see a country that, despite our “good work”, seems to be spiraling more and more out of control.  Can we look our young service personnel in the eye and really tell them why they are risking their lives by just walking down the road?  Can we square their deaths or injuries with their families?  Of course we can’t, certainly not with a straight face.  That GOP Chairman says we’re fighting there so we don’t have to fight here.  Does he have any basis for such a supposition?  Even if he does, what are the moral implications of such an idea?  Are lives lost there any less valuable than lives which might be lost here?  Has our military action, our bravado and flexing of muscle made us safer or states like Iran and North Korea less belligerent, less dangerous?  We all know that quite the opposite is the case.

So what if we do cut and run rather than stay to die?  Will the world think any less of us than it does already?  Will we be any less feared?  Will Iraq be any worse off?  Let’s get real, the bloom is off that rose thanks, in large measure, to this misadventure.  The truth is that one day we will have to leave and whenever that day comes it won’t be an exit of victory no matter what Henry Kissinger (thought we were done with him) or George Bush may claim.  The Russians lost in Afghanistan (which we may be headed for as well) and we will have lost in Iraq much as we did by intervening in Viet Nam’s civil war in the 1960s/70s.  Ah, we really learn from history, don’t we?

It doesn’t matter what you thought before they say.  For or against our invasion and occupation of Iraq, we are there now and it’s a shared reality and problem.  Agreed.  That doesn’t mean that we must come to it with the same solution.  Having to bear that awful responsibility is enough – my country did that and, absent renouncing my citizenship, I have to own up to it.  That acceptance of burden also, it would seem, gives me equal, if not more, right to find a way out.

Saying we won and leaving isn’t credible and won’t cut it.  What we can say, is that we made a costly mistake, perhaps even with good (if misguided) intentions.  We can’t undo what is done, we can’t bring back the casualties of war (ours and many others), but we can change course in the hopes of ending hostilities or at least changing their dimension and focus.  Perhaps, as the proponents of staying suggest, that’s a pipe dream and our exit will make things even worse.  Looking at the record, where things were before we brought “shock and awe” to Iraq and where they are today three years later, that case will be hard to make much less prove.  Will our dream of a unified democratic Iraq prevail if we leave?  Perhaps not, and if not it may remind us that “our” dream is not necessarily “their” dream.

Bring it on you wordsmiths of ill repute.  Keep on repeating your cut and run.  I embrace it as an alternative to letting more human beings stay and die.  I can live with humiliation but not with their unjustified sacrifice, with victims of a misguided self defeating policy.  Perhaps I’m a dreamer, but the world may just be a better place after we bring the troops home, after we cut and run.