Sunday, March 27, 2011

It's all in how you read it

We are probably all well aware of the continuing developments in Libya.  While the ultimate outcome remains murky at best, the situation is so confused that it's even taken Japan off the front page.

For the most part, ignoring the military specifics, the political debate seems to hinge on whether the "no-fly" zone has morphed into something more, or at least something else.  There are opinions all over the map about that, so let's look at the actual language of the UN resolution as a starting point.

UN resolution 1973 says this:

Demanding an immediate ceasefire in Libya, including an end to the current attacks against civilians, which it said might constitute “crimes against humanity”, the Security Council this evening imposed a ban on all flights in the country’s airspace — a no-fly zone — and tightened sanctions on the Qadhafi regime and its supporters.

Adopting resolution 1973 (2011) by a vote of 10 in favour to none against, with 5 abstentions (Brazil, China, Germany, India, Russian Federation), the Council authorized Member States, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory — requesting them to immediately inform the Secretary-General of such measures.

The first paragraph speaks specifically of the "no-fly" zone.  That's pretty clear.  The second paragraph adds some additional ideas, specifically ...take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory

Now, that language suggests additional things.  Depending upon exactly how we read that, "all necessary measures to protect civilians" could mean almost anything where somebody perceives a threat.  Clearly a military unit, or even a squad of policemen, walking down the street shooting at people would likely qualify, especially if they are acting under orders.  To me, it seems to suggest that even if they weren't acting under orders.

Of course, like all things political, there are always nuances and hidden concepts.  In this case, since a "foreign occupation force of any form" is specifically precluded, that means outsiders can only change things through the use of air power.  That might include planes, conceivably helicopters, unmanned guided missiles, and perhaps drones.

Those things might not have been intended by some who supported the resolution, but to me the language, at least in the English version, opens the door.  I should caution that sometimes these things don't translate well, so the "intent" in some other languages might seem very different.  As an aside, the original Four Power Agreement to govern the city of Berlin at the end of WWII had this very problem, and it caused no end of problems over and above the issues between Russia and the western allies.

Ultimately, no matter how you parse those words, the situation becomes obvious.  The resolution places the UN, or at least its member states, in the position of taking sides in what is essentially a civil war.  The exact nature of the sides is unclear.  On one side you have the current government, which I believe can best be described as oppressive.  The threat to go "house to house" cleansing the nation of rebels was clearly a "threat" in any language.

On the other side, however, we have the "rebels."  They claim to seek freedom from oppression, which is undoubtedly true.  What is less clear is exactly what they have in mind when and if they succeed in doing that.  Trading one oppressive regime for another, with only the haves and have-nots trading places, isn't a good long-term solution.

Ultimately, we all need to acknowledge one eternal truth:  Democracy isn't easy!

In a nation with no democratic history, the people are faced with a myriad of new choices and responsibilities, often with no experience or expertise to guide them.  Old issues, such as tribalism, don't suddenly go away.  The disparity between the rich and poor remains.  In the case of Libya, how does the country share the revenue from their oil, which represents, according to some figures, nearly 90% of their export income?

At this point, the ultimate outcome...which side still in doubt.  Personally I have few doubts what Libya would look like if the current regime manages to stay in power.  It's not a pretty picture.

On the other hand, I have no idea what a new government might look like.  Neither does anyone else.  For those on the outside who desire "Democracy" there is a risk, for even if a pure democracy was established, the people of Libya, for whom we are supposedly doing all of this, might just select a government that "we don't like."  Democracy is like that.  Democracy is messy, noisy, and confused.  As we have seen in the US, even with years of experience, it's still hard to make function well, and elections often mean abrupt about-faces.

At this point, the world appears to have collectively chosen sides, and given the current regime's statements, that's not terribly surprising.  There is a suspicion that Oil plays a big part in all of this, and that's likely true to some degree.  No one can say how much.  In the end, all anyone can do is support the people as they search for "something better" and hope they succeed in finding it.  Hopefully, "something better" will be better for every Libyan.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Short and simple (not sweet)

Item:  There was another rocket attack in Israel.
Item:  Israel launched attacks in Gaza that killed several civilians, including some children.
Item:  A bomb exploded in Jerusalem, destroying a bus and injuring many.

Some things change, while other things remain constant.  As the violence ramps up yet again, the unchanging situation remains unchanged, for exactly the same reasons, on both sides of this struggle.

First, you have to want peace.

Sadly, no one does. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The 800 pound gorillas, and their much larger dad

Setting aside the situation in Japan, which we truly shouldn't, the world has now re-focused on the Middle East, and specifically Libya, and while that conflict is, for the moment, more dramatic, the outcome in Japan is just as important.

In any case, the UN acted, either way to slowly or precipitously, and declared that Gaddafi should stop his attacks on his own people.  With that declaration in hand, and the twin requests for a No-Fly zone from the rebel government and the Arab League, several nations have acted.  Gaddafi seems surprised by that, but I suppose he just never quite believed all the statements being made.  Oh well.

So, there are a couple things unsaid, or just mentioned in passing, and they're the 800 pound gorilla's stalking the Middle East at the moment.

The first, which has been tacitly acknowledged, is that unless the coalition forces actually chose to target Gaddafi himself, which they all agree isn't in their rules of engagement, then the whole situation could well end in some sort of stalemate, with Gaddafi content to sit in Tripoli and the rebels unable to expand their sphere of influence.

In one respect that's a reasonable outcome in the short range, since the whole idea was to save lives.  No fighting means no one is dying, although it's clearly a situation that can't last forever.  What happens next is anyone's guess, but surely politicians of every persuasion will be complaining one way or the other.  John McCain, who until a couple days ago was complaining about the lack of action on a No Fly zone is now complaining because they've got one.  Sorry, John, but you can't have it both ways.

Another aspect of Libya, which is always a danger in these situations, is that the next government might be more anti-American.  That's a risk with a democracy, and there's not a thing we can (or should) do about it.  If we truly believe in democracy as a governmental model, then we have to believe that whatever the people vote for themselves is appropriate.  In the US we've seen that firsthand, with a bunch of folks decrying the Bush years, and others saying the same thing about the current President.

The other 800 pound gorilla is Saudi Arabia.  They have been staunch supporters of the US, but when they look at how we tossed Mubarak and Egypt under the bus, they've got to wonder.  I don't disagree that Mubarak needed to go, but it does send troublesome signs to those who read that as some sort of policy change.  Bahrain is a similar situation, although the message to the leadership there has been straight-forward: stop beating the protesters and loosen the reigns of freedom a bit.  I don't think they're hearing that message, or else they're just ignoring it.  It's impossible to tell which right now.

However, with all of this said, let's turn our attention to the daddy of the 800 pound gorillas.  The reason the whole world cares as much as they do, and it's not remotely about the "humanitarian crisis," isn't being discussed, at least not directly.  In truth, it's one thing, and one thing only: Oil!

The simple answer here, which is so far from the radar screens that it doesn't even register as a blip, is that so long as the world, or more directly the US is dependent upon oil, we'll continue to be drawn into these things, for all the wrong reasons.  No, we don't need to be drilling more at home, or in the gulf, or anywhere else.  We need to put the effort into alternatives, and cut ourselves loose from foreign policy dictated by economic reality.

As I said in the book:  What we need is not evolution, but revolution.  The time is now!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Making decisions

For those who believe in absolutes, the answers are always easy.  If, for example, you don't believe in the death penalty, then it is easy to say that never, regardless of the question of guilt, regardless of the severity of the crime(s), the death penalty is never "right."

That specific choice is actually rather simple, but only because there are viable options to be utilized.  Saying "no death penalty" doesn't mean you have to say "no punishment."

Other situations are different, with less clear-cut results.  Although I don't wish to discuss the "right to life" directly, there are nuances in that stance.  It is easy to say "no" to an abortion, but not all abortions are equal.  Yes, they have the same result for the unborn, but their case can be radically different, at least from a societal perspective.  Do we force a woman who has been raped to give birth?  Clearly that's much different than a woman who simply made bad choices.  Do we force a woman to continue a pregnancy, knowing that it likely will end in her death, and quite likely the death of the unborn too?  Again, decisions based purely upon an absolute runs up against reality.

On Thursday we saw that very discussion played out at the United Nations.  The Security Council debated what to do with Libya.  There are a number of "facts" which we can probably agree upon, namely that the existing regime is employing the military (a catch-all term including police and whatever else there is) to crush a rebellion.  The existing regime has denied all sorts of actions which we have seen on the nightly news.  The leader and his proteges have openly lied so much that we probably doubt anything he says, even if we likely believe him when he said he'll send his troops house to house to kill the rebels.  THAT we likely believe.

So, the Security Council debated, and in the end decided to act.  The vote was 10 to 0,with five abstentions.  Two of those five, Russia and China have veto power, but chose not to invoke it.  They both believe that intervening in other countries is wrong, but largely because they fear that very action in their own lands.  The most interesting abstention is Germany.

If we were to look at humanitarian disasters in the last 100 years or so, one that stands out would be Hitler's Germany.  The world stood by, content to believe it was an internal matter for Germans, and in many ways it was.  However, before the shooting war began it was obviously much more than that.  The German people know all too well what can happen, and they've created laws for themselves to both remind them and to prevent any replay.  60 years later, those may be a bit of overkill, but I applaud their dedication to the cause.

They have also more or less forsworn having a military that is built to fight an external war.  They know what happens when, as Churchill put it, the world changes from "jaw-jaw to war-war."  Post war Germany lived with both the knowledge of history and the Cold War threatening to again destroy the country just as the 30 Years War did in 1618.  They would provide the battleground, but little more.

Did the UN act too fast?  Should the world stay out of such matters?  At what point does the "internal situation" in a country become "everybody's concern?"  No one truly knows, and therein lies the problem.  There is no single point on a measuring tool that says "here is the point where things change."

In the end it appears likely that Libya will undergo a change in leadership.  Exactly how that plays out is unclear.  Did too many people have to die to make that happen?  Absolutely, but in a nation where there are no elections and no system in place to alter the government, that's the way things happen.

As Churchill once observed, "Democracy is the worst form of government...except for all the others."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

In simple terms, the question is really easy, and there are plenty of examples from earlier times that could be cited.  However, like most everything else in life, simple questions don't have simple answers, especially simple right answers.

Around the world we are watching humanitarian disasters in the making.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Caught in the middle....again

In 1941 the government of the United States grabbed the broad brush and in the ultimate example of a knee-jerk reaction, painted every person of Japanese ancestry as complicit in the attack on Pearl Harbor.  American citizens, some of whom were second and third generation citizens, were rounded up, their rights completely trampled, and given short notice to move to internment camps.  Property was confiscated, or forced to be sold at pennies on the dollar.  It was actually only slightly different than the actions taken in Germany against the Jews.

Eventually, two or three things happened.  Very slowly there was some recognition that some(most) of these people were actually Americans, who just happened to be ethnically Japanese.  Some were allowed to join the military, or in some cases, re-join!  Ultimately the 442 RCT, fighting primarily in Italy, became the most highly decorated unit in the Army.  Was that because they took extreme risks to prove "white America" had been wrong?  Possibly, but let's just acknowledge that they did their share.

Much later, decades later, the government finally got around to acknowledging that most actions taken had been wrong, and blatantly illegal.  It was too little, and far too late, should have been a learning experience.  For some it might have been, but, unfortunately not for all.

Today we are holding hearings in Congress that are far too reminscent of McCarthy and his ilk.  The target this time isn't the Communists.  This time the "group" that is being painted with the broadest of brushes isn't the Japanese.  This time, it's Muslims.  Other than that, history is repeating itself.

There is no question that the United States suffered a devestating attack, once again a surprise assault that caused much damage and loss of life.  This time those targeted were truly innocent civilians, which doesn't change anything, but it's worth acknowledging.  This time, once the truth was discovered, it was again easy to place the blame on on a single group.  However, it was not a racial segment, but rather a religion.

There are two great truths about 911.  The first is that it was carried out by a splinter group that represented no nation, nor even a specific religion.  They had their own agenda, and while others throughout the world might have welcomed the attack, they did not participate in it.  Hitler might or might not have welcomed the actions of Japan, but he didn't actively help them.  In fact, he would have been much happier if they had attacked Russia.

The second great truth about 911 is that it became far too easy to blame the religion rather than the perpetrators.  In our collective rush to demonize all Muslims, we've never paused to look at the truth.  We marched hell-bent into Iraq... because...well, because somebody in power wanted to, and then doctored the evidence to make it seem reasonable.  In hindsight, we were absolutely wrong in every justification was offered, but the damage is done.

There is, however, one place, happening today where we could do something right...and we're not.  The so-called King hearings only serve to make matters worse.  They again demonize a religion while purporting to find out about "radical Islam."  Terrorism isn't that narrow, and if we look at the most recent attacks in the United States, we'll see that.  The shootings in Arizona, the attempt to bomb and MLK parade in Spokane, and many other "terrorist acts" aren't related to any religion, and not remotely related to Islam.

Sadly, whatever lessons we could have learned from 1941 have been ignored or forgotten in our rush to find a new enemy.  That's something we should not idly ignore.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

How we don't get to the middle.......

I found these two quotes in a news story today, and they reveal a whole lot about our current situation.

"I don't think compromise right now is the option," Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a GOP freshman from Tennessee, said last week.

Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois put it more bluntly to Time magazine: "I came here ready to go to war. ... The people didn't send me here to compromise."

These two men were speaking about reducing the deficit, and while I applaud the concept, their execution is sorely lacking.  Compromise, that evil word, is definitely the way to go, lest we simply continue to polarize further an already-divided society.  When we can't talk to each other about our differences, we will never find good solutions, and the more we demonize the other side, the worse it gets.

Failure becomes the inevitable result when Leadership is abandoned in favor of diatribe..

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Smack between Tunisia and the middle

Libya is obviously on our minds a lot lately, and likely will continue to be there.  Not surprisingly, opinions are all over the map about what's the proper course, and in the end, hindsight will be, as always, 20-20.

We've done too little, or we shouldn't jump in.  We should do this, or that, or we shouldn't.  What's the right answer?  I'm not sure I know, but here are some ideas to consider.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Stuck in the middle?

Sometimes the middle can be elusive, even though you know it's got to be there.  Somewhere.

Right now, the state of Wisconsin is just plain stuck, largely because they're not in the middle.  Well, "they" might be, but the two extremes (which may not be all that extreme, but I'll get to that in a minute) are not in the middle.

To be fair, the discussion, or debate, or confrontation, or whatever you want to call it, isn't about money.  I'm not certain that it ever was, even though that's the "official story" from one side.  So, here's my take on all of this.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Freedom comes with a price

If you study the Constitution, you know that the first amendment includes what we generally call Freedom of Speech.  Although from time to time other "rights" move to the forefront, this one most likely affects our society more than any other on a regular basis.

Questions regarding Gun Control or Separation of Church and State also come up, but we might go months or even years without any truly significant public discourse about them.  Speech seems to come up fairly regularly.

Freedom of Speech can be the ultimate hot button, and for good reason.  With a few exceptions, we allow anyone to say anything.  While I firmly believe that's a wonderful thing, it does come with a cost.  We allow people to say hurtful things.  We allow people to exaggerate.  We allow people to lie.  We allow people to express opinions way outside mainstream thought.

This week the United States Supreme Court confirmed that Free Speech, even speech considered hateful and hurtful, remains legal speech.  Notwithstanding the hurt it creates, I think that's probably a good thing.  That said, it doesn't mean I agree with what's being said, nor with where it's being expressed.

Contrary to the literal words of the Constitution, Congress can make a law abridging Freedom of Speech.  Years ago, the Supreme Court acknowledged that.  In a ruling usually referred to as Schenck, justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said this:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. [...] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.

So, the question about what is or is not protected speech, according to Holmes, hinged upon two things...a clear and present danger, and something that Congress has a right to prevent.

In a later case, Brandenburg vs. Ohio, the standard was modified, and identified as: that which would be directed to and likely to incite imminent lawless action.

If we apply that standard, there aren't a lot of situations where speech can be legally constrained.

Now, one thing the Supreme Court never said is that there is a second "freedom" associated with Speech.  Yes, you are free to say almost anything you wish, but, more importantly, you are also free to enjoy the implications and results of having said that.

You may call your boss whatever you like, but you may find yourself looking for a new line of work.  You may accuse your spouse of cheating, or call him/her terrible names, but you may find yourself single once again, you may publicly make any sort of pronouncement you wish about the state of things, but your friends may desert you.  Like most other things, freedom of speech comes with a price.

This week, the Supreme Court decision regarding the right to protest at funerals was, I think, a proper legal decision.  I believe it is up to our society to find ways to protect its members during their most vulnerable times, and some sort of private space restrictions, such as those enacted by many states, seem reasonable.  I wish that was not necessary, but, sadly, it is.  Freedom of Speech does not automatically include some sort of conscience clause, although it might be nice if it did.

When I see protesters around the world being shot, trampled, or attacked simply because they wish to peacefully express their disagreement with a government policy, I like to think this country has finally moved beyond that.  I can recall the Civil Rights marches, or the Vietnam protests, which, in truth, looked little different.

In the end, Freedom of Speech is worth having, even though that big, general principle can mean individual pain.  I wish it were not so.  I'm not naive, but I wish we had leaders who could heal rather than divide.  I think we all do.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Well outside of the middle

I'm all in favor of spirited political debate.  I don't even mind if it sometimes becomes a little heated, as long as it remains respectful.  However, I strongly believe that debate should be a discussion of different viewpoints, based upon a common set of facts.  If we can't agree what we're debating, there's little sense in the discussion.

If you've read the book, you know I have no use for "made up facts."  The famous "Death Panels" supposed contained in the massive health care bill remains a classic example of that, and, unfortunately, that discussion still sways some people's opinions about what the bill does or doesn't do.  Sadly not enough Americans bothered to find out the truth.

However, that "make something up that sounds incendiary" mentality remains, and it can still be found amongst those who wish to lead this country.  The shining example today is Mike Huckabee.

In a radio interview with station WOR, New York, he is quoted as saying the following about President Obama:

One thing that I do know is his having grown up in Kenya, his view of the Brits, for example, (is) very different than the average American.

There are two problems here.  First, it is demonstrably false that the Obama grew up in Kenya.  In fact, he first visited that country in 1987, when he was in his 20's.  The second problem is that Huckabee draws a comparison between the President's view of "Brits" as opposed to the average American's view of them.  I'm willing to bet that he has no documentation to back up either of those positions, let alone actually compare them.

However, that wasn't enough made up facts, so he continued on:

The bust of Winston Churchill, a great insult to the British. But then if you think about it, his perspective as growing up in Kenya with a Kenyan father and grandfather he probably grew up hearing that the British were a bunch of imperialists who persecuted his grandfather.

The reference to the "bust of Churchill" was also a bit of using selective facts.  Huckabee asserted that Obama removed the bust from the Oval Office and "returned it."  However, the actual facts are that in 2009 he removed the bust from its previous location, replaced it with a bust of Abraham Lincoln, and then located the Churchill bust in White House residence.

Now, if you wish to believe that moving the bust was a big thing, then that's fine with me.  However, taking only a portion of what happened, and then trying to spin it into something bigger, while including an outright lie in the process, isn't.  We deserve better, and we should demand better.  Of course, when the various reporters followed up, Huckabee's spokesperson simply said "he misspoke."

Now, that may be true, but the point remains.  He publicly created untrue "facts" to support his point of view, and anyone listening probably took that as gospel.  He didn't make any effort to tell the same audience he "misspoke."

In some ways I'd be inclined to just skip over this, except for another news story that I think ties in.

According to a Winthrop University poll, Huckabee came in first amongst 15 potential Republican candidates in a poll of "southern" voters.  Now, that's his home territory, having been the governor of Arkansas, but the fact remains that he made up facts to support whatever position he was taking, and then selectively blended the truth to make something seem very different than it was.

I have a real problem with that, and that's why I think we need some real changes in what we call Leadership.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Since this is the first entry, let me take a minute to explain what you'll find here in the future.

Somewhere in the middle is where most of our answers are found.  In politics, for example, the extremes seldom prevail, simply because in any reasonably democratic process, the majority will be against an extreme position on either side.  If we assume, which we can a good portion of the time, that the classic "bell curve" of distribution is valid, the bulk of opinions will be somewhere near the center.  Not always, but often enough to generalize.

So, when faced with two extremes, the ultimate answer, assuming compromise is allowed, will likely fall Somewhere in the middle.