July 20, 2014

The American Idea

"Anyways, it's not a right-left issue, it's a right-wrong issue.
And America's consistently been on the side of what's right.
Because when it comes down to it, this is about keeping faith with the idea of America.
Because America is an idea, isn't it? I mean, Ireland's a great country, but it's not an idea.
Great Britain's a great country, but it's not an idea.
That's how we see you around the world… as one of the greatest ideas in human history.
Right up there with the Renaissance... right up there with crop rotation… The Beatles' White Album...
That idea, the American idea, it's an idea. The idea is that you and me are created equal…
It will ensure that an economic recession need not become an equality recession.
The idea that life is not meant to be endured, but enjoyed.
The idea that if we have dignity… if we have justice… then leave it to us, we can do the rest.
This country was the first to claw its way out of darkness and put that on paper. And God love you for it. Because these aren't just American ideas anymore. There's no copyright on them. You've brought them into the world. It's a wide world now.
I know Americans say they have a bit of the world in them. And you do. The family tree has a lot of branches. But the thing is… the world has a bit of America in it, too. These truths… your truths… they are self-evident in us."
                                                                - Bono, Georgetown University, Nov 12, 2012
My wife and I saw Dinesh D'Souza's "America" this weekend. I wish he had titled it differently, especially the subtitle "Imagine the world without her" since the movie has nothing to do with how the world would have evolved differently without the influence, workings, and contributions of the United States. Rather, in his paean to our country, D'Souza attempts to refute the various 'charges' made against America (as he identifies them) by various 'America haters' from the liberal academic left and extends his warnings from his last movie, 2016, to draw a damning thread from Bill Ayers and Saul Alinsky to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The basic premise is this: the 'haters' believe America stole everything that made its growth possible and has maintained its dominant position by force while D'Souza argues that America's behavior has actually been the opposite of all other great powers throughout history -- defeating enemies but not looting their wealth (in fact, helping them to rebuild); setting into law the foundational principles of equality, justice, the unalienable rights of individuals, and rule of law such that over time they would eventually and consistently trump policies and practices that were antithetical to them (e.g. the principle of equality enshrined in the Constitution would eventually work to overturn the practice of slavery and discrimination based on race); and adopting capitalism as the economic foundation for the country such that entrepreneurs, innovators, tradesmen, laborers, and anyone with ambition, a work ethic, and an idea has the opportunity to generate and accumulate wealth unlike any other economic system practiced around the world. 

I think the first part of the movie works as intended in that D'Souza raises facts perhaps not known by the general public while the last part of the movie is a wonderful tribute to the things that America is and what it represents and reminds the viewer of the importance of opposing efforts that would undermine and lessen America. I wasn't too keen on the middle part where he personalizes things too much and for too long but perhaps there just aren't many other ways to point out that there are people in government, academia, and various interest groups who for sundry reasons seek to change America from what it has been to something that would be unrecognizable by those who established her, fought to keep her whole, and who have promoted and protected her for so long. 

Our country is not only an amazing place full of opportunity for anyone with the ambition to 'do something' but the manifestation of an amazing idea that free men and women can 'do anything.' 

The Framers of the Constitution envisioned a system whereby government would be large and powerful enough to do things that private citizens could not, such as defend the country from external threats and establish and enforce a legal framework that protected the rights of citizens and ensured commerce could flow from state to state without undue hindrance but not so large and powerful that it would dominate the people in the very way that the British Crown had to such an extent that the people chose to 'throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Yet people being people, it is common for many to seek an easier path through life, one based on handouts or advantages for which their effort need be minimal if at all, or to fear some other group based on differences in race, ethnicity, religion, or social or economic status. As D'Souza points out, there are those who seek to further their own ambitions by exploiting such tendencies, weaknesses, biases, and prejudices for personal gain whether that is power, influence, profit, and some perverse pleasure in seeing an existing order disrupted just for fun. The challenge, of course, is for the citizenry to see such things for what they are and to have enough awareness, self-discipline, pride, and sense of civic responsibility to reject such charlatans, trouble makers, and selfish opportunists. 

Like any sort of disciplined life--in religion, business, sport, civil society--the fact of the matter is that there are no short-cuts that lead to any sort of sustainable, productive end...at least not one worth having over the long term. The principles woven through the foundational documents of our Nation possess extraordinary power for good, for productivity, for lasting power, and for civic virtue that benefit all of us. But they take time to come to fruition and to have lasting value once in practice. They can withstand numerous abuses as they have within them the mechanisms for correction, but they are not impervious to destruction if the citizenry tolerates too many abuses, too many distortions, and too many false promises for too long a time. 

There are those who are busy turning the various instruments of government against the very people for whom the government is supposed to work. When the IRS is used as a tool for political advantage to intimidate and silence opponents, when the Department of Justice is leveraged to selectively enforce laws based on the preferences of the party in power, or the "bully pulpit" of the presidency or any other elected seat of political power is used to practice the politics of division (race, economic class, social status, ethnicity or country of origin, etc.), when the virtues of our country are used to harm us, exploiting our cultural preferences for altruism, compassion, and an innate desire to help others, Good People should take notice and make clear that our country has served as a beacon for people around the world because of what it is, what it stands for, the IDEA that it manifests. But if that is changed, America can't help but be something else. If those who would change America want America to be like all other countries, then America will be like all other countries. How is that a good thing when the peoples of the world have looked to America precisely because it was different? 

July 18, 2014

Global Crises and the U.S. Defense Budget: Update and Outlook

Given all the reporting about the various crises exploding around the world--Ukraine/Crimea/Russia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel/Gaza, Libya, China's provocations in the East and South China seas, drug cartels/terrorism/foreign intrusions in Latin America, unsecured borders...you might be curious about our Nation's ability to handle all of it. Well, the picture isn't a pretty one and it gets worse as you look out into the near-future. If you've any interest in why, this video might shed some light. Last week I was asked by the Center for Security Policy to provide an overview of our defense posture and its implications for national security. The presentation is a bit long, about 15 minutes or so, and the Q&A continues from there. I hope it helps illustrate the dangerous consequences of our national budget/spending problem. If it matters to you, contact your representatives in Congress.


June 26, 2014

The Will to be a Force for Good

I read an article today in the online version of Britain's The Daily Mail (a tabloid paper, to be sure, but one that still does some interesting reporting on global events, accompanied by some pretty decent graphics) about the spread of "Islamic fundamentalism" across many parts of the world.  I think much of the problem addressed is somewhat akin to the drug cartel problem spanning Latin America. No single criminal or radical, violent Islamist group is able to overthrow a government or present a meaningful threat to the U.S. on its own. But the aggregate effect of their collective actions, unchecked by weak or complicit governments and in some cases actually facilitated by corrupt governments, leads to the breakdown of law, the undermining of otherwise viable economic systems, displacement of populations, drying up of investment, decay of infrastructure, and sapping of the will and hope of impacted populations. This can lead, in turn, to sanctuaries wherein hardened groups recruit, train, gain experience, plan, and from which dispatch their poison to other areas, sometimes even to the United States.

In much of the world, it really is the case that a ‘strongest tribe’ is needed to impose and sustain some type of 'order' such that societies function. Sometimes that 'order' is ruthless and repressive and the societies 'function' in a way that enables survival but not much else. Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has served as the ‘strongest tribe’ in multiple ways: economically, ideologically, diplomatically…all underwritten by a strong military posture and a national political will animated by the importance of remaining engaged in the world in ways that stood against repressive, authoritarian regimes. The 'order' it has sought to promote and sustain has never had the goal of completely eliminating every bad actor in the world or imposing our system on others by force as tyrannical regimes have sought to do in so many places in the world. Rather, the goal has been be to maintain an order in which rule of law, trade, integrity of sovereign borders, and intolerance of repressive regimes (especially those that seek to nurture and export violent extremism and criminality) are valued and central elements.

The U.S. is the only power able to manage and sustain such an order, not by imposing it but through the myriad activities that combine to sustain such – a nudge here, an economic agreement there, the encouragement of positive interactions, facilitation in dispute resolution, helping to address small problems so they don’t become large, and, when occasion demands, sometimes a military strike when it’s the only or best option given the problem to be addressed.

It’s exhausting, it costs us, it’s never ending…but as much as the world benefits from it we gain even more.

That’s the point missed by this Administration and it's the point Americans need to once again recognize, appreciate, and support.

To further illustrate the point, check out the Fragile States Index (also found here), compiled by The Fund for Peace and published by Foreign Policy. Look at the rankings, note the countries that score high and low, consider their context. Then scroll down a bit to the section entitled Postcards from Hell and click the photo which will take you to a photo essay of "life and death in the world's 50 worst places."

Imagine a world without a U.S. willing to promote, underwrite, and sustain a global order that has brought greater prosperity, more opportunity, and brighter hope to more people around the world than any other country in any other period of history.

June 21, 2014

1001 Arabian Nightmares

As literature and legend has it, the ancient Persian king Shahryar was betrayed by his new wife. Upon learning of her infidelity the King had her executed. Having also seen his brother similarly dishonored, he becomes convinced that no woman can be trusted and so begins to marry young virgins only to have them killed the following day before they too can betray him. His chief advisor, the vizier, is charged with finding him new virgins to marry and scours the kingdom for them but eventually no more can be found. Alas, only his daughter, Scheherazade, is left and at her own urging he sends her to the the King. On their wedding night, and knowing her fate, she tells the King a magnificent story but does not finish it by morning. The King, wanting to know how the story ends, spares her life so that she can finished the tale the next night. When evening comes, Scheherazade finishes the first story but quickly begins another, likewise leaving it incomplete when the new day dawns. She continues with the trick for a thousand more nights, the King continuing to spare her life so that he can learn the end of one story only to be drawn into the next. Eventually, he awards her a full pardon and makes her his queen. 

I couldn't help but think about this tale while following all the news of the latest crisis in the Middle East, this time the rapidly evolving conflict in Iraq. It seems that there is always some war breaking out in these ancient lands. No sooner does one stop than another begins. Since the discovery of oil in the region just after the beginning of the 20th Century and certainly from the formation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, the West has been drawn in like Shahryar to the never ending series of 'stories'--desiring the see one end, presuming that some final condition will at last be at hand, only to discover that another one opens that can't help but hold its attention. But there's another way to look at the issue: there is always another story and one cannot presume that the current story will be the last. 

Given this latest spasm of violence in Iraq--coming on the heels of the chaos in Syria and the squandering of America's tremendous investment of blood and treasure by people who seem only to want to remain mired in the 8th Century--one could reasonably conclude that any further involvement by the U.S. would simply be more wasted effort. It certainly is the case that we cannot solve the problems of the Middle East. But like the stories told by Scheherazade, tales unfolding within tales, the larger story in which this current tale is unfolding...ultra-violent jihadis, corrupt and inept rulers, scheming neighboring powers...centers on the strategic interests of our own country. What interests of America's are at stake, threatened by the mayhem of warring factions who refuse to reconcile their differences?

Here is one nightmare scenario to consider:
  • Left unchecked, the assault by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, aka ISIS) serves as a catalyst for the partition of Iraq into Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish zones
    • Iran's support of the Maliki government and its willingness to invest military resources in the battle against ISIL and other Sunni militants enables it to dominate the Shia north
    • Saudi Arabia, rising to aid the disaffected and abused Sunnis of Iraq, similarly dominates the Sunni south
    • The Kurds establish their own autonomous zone in north Iraq, fomenting an increase in separatist activity among their Kurdish brethren in Turkey and western Iran
  • Iraq ceases to serve as a buffer state, effectively creating a shared border between Iran and Saudi Arabia but one not so clearly defined that it precludes proxy battles between the two powers
  • The chaos in Iraq effectively merges with that of Syria, embroiling an ever larger region in conflict and worsening the flow of refugees into the surrounding states of Turkey and Jordan
  • To further burnish their credentials, both sides (Shia and Sunni) start funneling increasing support to militant Islamists of their respective sides who not only export their violence to other theaters (most likely Europe) but also increase attacks against Israel
  • Beset by increasing attacks against its monarchy and unable to cope with the flood of refugees and militant groups, Jordan falls
  • Iran announces (or is finally revealed to have) a nascent nuclear capability akin to North Korea's but more destabilizing given Iran's missile inventory and more ready access to advanced technologies from Europe and Russia
  • In response, Saudi Arabia makes it known that it will also acquire a nuclear capability (most likely purchased from Pakistan) to offset Iran's -- the two in continual competition for dominance within Islam
  • Israel is now surrounded by a more militant Hezbollah (now supported by a nuclear power) to the north, a chaotic if not fully Islamist Jordan to the East, an Egypt still in disarray to the south, better armed and motivated Palestinians to the West, and the imminent threat of a nuclear Iran
  • The next chapter of Arab/Islamist-Israeli wars opens with a rising tide of militant attacks in cities across Israel and increasingly accurate rocket fire from Lebanon, Gaza, portions of Jordan, and the Sinai Peninsula
  • Faced with this existential threat, Israel uses its nuclear arsenal
The consequences of such a scenario on the economic and security interests of the US would be devastating. Energy prices would skyrocket. The European economy would be rocked with ripples spreading outward to the US and Asian markets. Like-minded militants across the northern and trans-Sahel portions of Africa would be motivated to increase their activity. Terrorism would likely reach the shores of America once again. 

Like Scheherazade's stories, we can't know the end until we get there, but not knowing the end also means we can't presume that the crisis in Iraq won't impact us here at home. I think that at the very least there is not only merit but a compelling case for doing what we can to shape the outcome. Will our continued involvement cost us more that we've already paid? Quite probably. But doing nothing won't insulate us from the consequences, and will likely cost us even more in the end.

June 14, 2014

America's Options: Combatting ISIS in Iraq

Well, things are certainly a mess in the Middle East. As bad as Syria continues to be, I think Iraq is even worse especially when one considers the long-term strategic implications. A fractured Iraq that results in separate Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish autonomous areas (if not new countries) will have profound implications for the larger framework of relations and competitions involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, the Gulf States, and Israel (as always). If ISIS success results in the fall of the Iraqi government and the establishment of an ISIS-controlled zone within Iraq, other extremist Islamist elements will see it as validation of the brutal measures employed by these jihadis. 

We've seen that the chaos of Syria serves as an incubator for extremism--the most violent groups rising to dominate the battlefield which enhances their prestige, draws others to their cause, and provides the experience they use in other pursuits, the ISIS push into Iraq being a prime example. Emboldened by the perceived favor of Allah, in their minds a clear reward for their hyper-zealous commitment to the most extreme interpretation of the Koran, ruthless imposition of sharia law, and merciless eradication of their enemies (reports from the battle zone tell of streets being lined with the decapitated heads of Iraqi Army and police personnel), such groups will be ever more firmly convicted of their goal to create and expand their dream of a regional, perhaps global, Caliphate -- exporting their brand of rule-by-terror along the way.

Is the immediate problem of one group seizing control of a few towns in some distant land our problem to solve? No. But we do have larger interests that would be threatened by an even more radicalized, violent, and unstable Middle East: increased energy prices; the export of experienced terrorists to Europe, Africa, Latin America, and perhaps even the U.S.; emboldened terror groups in other regions adopting the ISIS model; increased tensions between Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shia) as they compete for dominant influence within Islam; a more energetic push by Iran for a nuclear weapons capability (especially if U.S. reluctance to assist Iraq enables Iran to fill that role (as they are doing now) and thereby gain advantage in related discussions) which would lead to further nuclear proliferation in the greater Middle East...the list goes on. It's not the short game we should be concerned about. It's the larger regional and global condition that would be affected that should draw our interest since we are the chief benefactor of the existing global order -- access to markets for our goods, access to reasonably priced energy to keep our economy going, influence in regional issues that favor (or harm) our economic and security interests, and the overarching interest in promoting rule-of-law and economic stability that serve the interests of all people.

Unfortunately, the current Administration doesn't see this and will make every effort to avoid entangling itself in yet another messy, distant, hard-to-deal-with problem. The consequence, of course, will be even more 'messier' and 'harder to deal with' problems that will move from 'distant' to our own shores.

Thursday morning I was asked to pen a short piece for The National Interest on military options available to the U.S. relevant to the rapidly unfolding crisis in Iraq. We met the late afternoon deadline and they posted it last evening (Friday).

America's Options: Combating ISIS in Iraq

Just what options might be available to Obama if he is forced to act to salvage what can be saved of the elected government—and the hard-won gains that cost America so dearly over a decade?

Dakota Wood
June 13, 2014

Riven by religious extremism and brutal sectarian competition, Iraq is descending again into the madness of civil war. The Maliki government has made a mess of things since taking office, estranging large segments of the Iraqi population along the way. The U.S. contributed to the mess via its hasty withdrawal two years ago, electing to end its security mission based on the Obama Administration’s desired timeline instead of as a response to achieving specific security objectives in Iraq.

Continued military involvement in Iraq would have entailed bitter costs in terms of manpower, treasure and casualties. But it also would have the benefit of giving the U.S. more influence over the behavior of the Iraqi government. A continuing military presence would have enabled the U.S. to intervene where necessary to manage tensions among competing Iraqi elements, mitigate the influence of Iran, assist the government in quelling unrest at its earliest stages, develop high-fidelity intelligence that supported all the preceding items, and maintain options useful in future situations which, inevitably, develop over time.

In short, being there helped to keep a lid on things, and when problems did develop, let us address them more quickly and effectively. With all U.S. forces gone, however, the President has very few options available. And, as the current crisis continues to unfold, the few remaining options are almost uniformly bad.

May 22, 2014

To Change the World, Start by Making Your Bed

I've had the distinct pleasure of briefing Admiral McRaven on just a couple of occasions. One can't help but be impressed by his demeanor, professionalism, intelligence, and focus. Quite an extraordinary leader. His advice to the graduating class of UT is superb and something I think you'll enjoy.

McRaven to Grads: To Change the World, Start by Making Your Bed

By Tim Taliaferro in 40 Acres on May 17, 2014 at 9:18 pm

Because we can’t improve upon perfection, and because it’s silly to try and summarize a speech that should be read in full, we present the full copy of Admiral William McRaven’s May 2014 Commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin. McRaven, BJ ’77, Life Member and Distinguished Alumnus, is the commander of U.S. Special Operations and led Operation Neptune Spear, which resulted to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Remarks by Naval Adm. William H. McRaven, ninth commander of U.S.Special Operations Command

University-Wide Commencement

The University of Texas at Austin, May 17, 2014.

President Powers, Provost Fenves, Deans, members of the faculty, family and friends and most importantly, the class of 2014. Congratulations on your achievement.

It’s been almost 37 years to the day that I graduated from UT.

I remember a lot of things about that day.

I remember I had throbbing headache from a party the night before. I remember I had a serious girlfriend, whom I later married—that’s important to remember by the way– and I remember that I was getting commissioned in the Navy that day.

But of all the things I remember, I don’t have a clue who the commencement speaker was that evening and I certainly don’t remember anything they said.

So…acknowledging that fact—if I can’t make this commencement speech memorable— I will at least try to make it short.

The University’s slogan is,

“What starts here changes the world.”

I have to admit–I kinda like it.

“What starts here changes the world.”

Tonight there are almost 8000 students graduating from UT.

That great paragon of analytical rigor, Ask.Com says that the average American will meet 10,000 people in their life time.

That’s a lot of folks.

But, if every one of you changed the lives of just ten people– and each one of those folks changed the lives of another ten people—just ten—then in five generations—125 years—the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people.

800 million people—think of it—over twice the population of the United States. Go one more generation and you can change the entire population of the world—8 billion people.

If you think it’s hard to change the lives of ten people—change their lives forever—you’re wrong.

I saw it happen every day in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A young Army officer makes a decision to go left instead of right down a road in Baghdad and the ten soldiers in his squad are saved from close-in ambush.

In Kandahar province, Afghanistan, a non-commissioned officer from the Female Engagement Team senses something isn’t right and directs the infantry platoon away from a 500 pound IED, saving the lives of a dozen soldiers.

But, if you think about it, not only were these soldiers saved by the decisions of one person, but their children yet unborn– were also saved. And their children’s children— were saved.

Generations were saved by one decision—by one person.

But changing the world can happen anywhere and anyone can do it.

So, what starts here can indeed change the world, but the question is…what will the world look like after you change it?

May 15, 2014

"First they came..."

While reading Henninger’s piece I was reminded of this poetic version of a theme developed by Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller who repeatedly wrote about the “cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis' rise to power and the subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group.”
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.”
This is the danger of the ‘politically correct’ litmus test applied by extremists on both the Left and Right; it is a self-destructive spiral that ultimately results in a contest among the self-selecting ‘most correct’ as to which of them will be the final arbiter of what is acceptable. In the course of the battle, sadly, one finds the field littered with the remains of those who didn’t quite measure up to standard. During a brief foray into politics not too very  long ago, I was consistently immersed in this nonsense wherein candidates competed to prove just how much more ‘party pure’ or ‘true to the cause’ they were than their rivals...and the crowd (the few activists who cared enough to even attend a political event) expected–demanded–such. Lost, of course, was any opportunity to actually discuss issues and debate not only the nature of challenges but the merits of alternative solutions. We see this all the time at the national level–a given candidate not sufficiently Right- or Left-wing enough for the hardened extremists. The result: an increasing divide between left and right, rational people driven from the debate, a dysfunctional governing apparatus, and lost opportunity.

Ideological purity is unattainable and the policies that extend from such are un-implementable except by force…which leads to authoritarianism. It takes extraordinary effort to keep from veering into an extreme camp when one perceives that ‘the other side’ is irreconcilable and too much ground has been ‘lost.’ I do agree that at some point one has to say ‘enough,’ hold ground, then methodically and relentlessly push back but how that’s done and the costs extracted in the fight have to be thoughtfully considered otherwise greater things are lost in the process.
So what to do? For the 'common man' to care enough to be involved, to summon both the energy and the courage to say 'enough' when the extremists are on a rant, to realize that what we have enjoyed as a country and as a culture – based on profound principles that are at the heart of our foundational documents – is not permanent and can actually be lost. Take an interest. Get involved.

Bonfire of the Humanities
Christine Lagarde is the latest ritualistic burning of a college-commencement heretic.
Daniel Henninger
May 14, 2014 7:19 p.m. ET

It's been a long time coming, but America's colleges and universities have finally descended into lunacy.

Last month, Brandeis University banned Somali-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali as its commencement speaker, purporting that "Ms. Hirsi Ali's record of anti-Islam statements" violates Brandeis's "core values."

This week higher education's ritualistic burning of college-commencement heretics spread to Smith College and Haverford College.

On Monday, Smith announced the withdrawal of Christine Lagarde, the French head of the International Monetary Fund. And what might the problem be with Madame Lagarde, considered one of the world's most accomplished women? An online petition signed by some 480 offended Smithies said the IMF is associated with "imperialistic and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide." With unmistakable French irony, Ms. Lagarde withdrew "to preserve the celebratory spirit" of Smith's commencement.

On Tuesday, Haverford College's graduating intellectuals forced commencement speaker Robert J. Birgeneau to withdraw. Get this: Mr. Birgeneau is the former chancellor of UC Berkeley, the big bang of political correctness. It gets better.

Berkeley's Mr. Birgeneau is famous as an ardent defender of minority students, the LGBT community and undocumented illegal immigrants. What could possibly be wrong with this guy speaking at Haverford??? Haverfordians were upset that in 2011 the Berkeley police used "force" against Occupy protesters in Sproul Plaza. They said Mr. Birgeneau could speak at Haverford if he agreed to nine conditions, including his support for reparations for the victims of Berkeley's violence.

In a letter, Mr. Birgeneau replied, "As a longtime civil rights activist and firm supporter of nonviolence, I do not respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks."

Smith president Kathleen McCartney felt obliged to assert that she is "committed to leading a college where differing views can be heard and debated with respect." And Haverford's president, Daniel Weiss, wrote to the students that their demands "read more like a jury issuing a verdict than as an invitation to a discussion or a request for shared learning."

Mr. Birgeneau, Ms. McCartney, Mr. Weiss and indeed many others in American academe must wonder what is happening to their world this chilled spring.

Here's the short explanation: You're all conservatives now.

Years ago, when the academic left began to ostracize professors identified as "conservative," university administrators stood aside or were complicit. The academic left adopted a notion espoused back then by a "New Left" German philosopher—who taught at Brandeis, not coincidentally—that many conservative ideas were immoral and deserved to be suppressed. And so they were.

This shunning and isolation of "conservative" teachers by their left-wing colleagues (with many liberals silent in acquiescence) weakened the foundational ideas of American universities—freedom of inquiry and the speech rights in the First Amendment.

No matter. University presidents, deans, department heads and boards of trustees watched or approved the erosion of their original intellectual framework. The ability of aggrieved professors and their students to concoct behavior, ideas and words that violated political correctness got so loopy that the phrase itself became satirical—though not so funny to profs denied tenure on suspicion of incorrectness. Offensive books were banned and history texts rewritten to conform.

No one could possibly count the compromises of intellectual honesty made on American campuses to reach this point. It is fantastic that the liberal former head of Berkeley should have to sign a Maoist self-criticism to be able to speak at Haverford. Meet America's Red Guards.

These students at Brandeis, Smith, Haverford and hundreds of other U.S. colleges didn't discover illiberal intolerance on their own. It is fed to them three times a week by professors of mental conformity. After Brandeis banned Ms. Hirsi Ali, the Harvard Crimson's editors wrote a rationalizing editorial, "A Rightful Revocation." The legendary liberal Louis Brandeis (Harvard Law, First Amendment icon) must be spinning in his grave.

Years ago, today's middle-aged liberals embraced in good faith ideas such as that the Western canon in literature or history should be expanded to include Africa, Asia, Native Americans and such. Fair enough. The activist academic left then grabbed the liberals' good faith and wrecked it, allowing the nuttiest professors to dumb down courses and even whole disciplines into tendentious gibberish.

The slow disintegration of the humanities into what is virtually agitprop on many campuses is no secret. Professors of economics and the hard sciences roll their eyes in embarrassment at what has happened to once respectable liberal-arts departments at their institutions. Like some Gresham's Law for Ph.D.s, the bad professors drove out many good, untenured professors, and that includes smart young liberals. Most conservatives were wiped out long ago.

One might conclude: Who cares? Parents are beginning to see that this is a $65,000-a-year scam that won't get their kids a job in an economy that wants quantification skills. Parents and students increasingly will flee the politicized nut-houses for apolitical MOOCs—massive open online courses.

Still, it's a tragedy. The loonies are becoming the public face of some once-revered repositories of the humanities. Sic transit whatever.

May 8, 2014

It is our fight! - America's Role in the World

There is this wonderful scene in the second film of the The Hobbit trilogy where Tauriel, the captain of the Elven guard, confronts Legolas following a running battle with a band of orcs who have been trying to kill the escaping dwarves and their Hobbit-burglar, Mr. Bilbo Baggins. Legolas has taken her to task for disobeying the Elven King's orders to remain within the walls of their fortress even though Tauriel did so to render aid when it was most needed. Tauriel angrily observes, "The King has never let orc filth roam our lands, yet he would let this orc pack cross our borders and kill our prisoners!" "It is not our fight," Legola replies, to which Tauriel passionately responds: "It is our fight! It will not end here. With every victory this evil will grow. If your father has his way we will do nothing! We will hide within our walls, live our lives away from the light, and let darkness descend." Then imploringly she says, "Are we not part of this world? Tell me, Mellon, when did we let evil become stronger than us?"

Last week I had the great privilege of hosting Dr. Robert Kagan who was the kick-off speaker for The Heritage Foundation’s “Protect America Month,” a series of lectures on issues relevant to US security interests and the defense of our country. [His lecture can be seen here.] Dr. Kagan used a brief overview of WWI and its aftermath to provide context for today’s current situation and dangers. He did a remarkable job in describing the perspective of the various European countries and their peoples who were in a position to 'do something' to stop the rise of Nazi Germany but chose not too for sundry reasons, thus setting the stage for the horrors of WWII. He then discussed the various attitudes of both Europeans and Americans today, noting the similarities and differences in context and perspective between then and now. A primary theme of Kagan's was the vast good that has resulted from America's efforts to promote and sustain a world order based on trade, freedom, and liberty since WWII. But this 'common good' and the world order that has been underwritten and guaranteed by the US is now in jeopardy with profound consequences. Why? Kagan explained: prolonged peace and extraordinary prosperity for America (since the mid-1940s) has caused our citizenry to take for granted what was necessary to create such an enjoyable state of affairs in the first place. A chief problem we now have is that most Americans just don’t understand the need to remain engaged in global affairs, especially when it comes to our national defense capabilities and their posture, with the result that the ‘global order’ is fraying. He maintains it is not that Americans are isolationist; they still very much want to trade with the world and enjoy what it has to offer. But Americans are much less willing to remain 'engaged' with the world when it comes to investing the resources necessary to sustain the world order that has benefited our country so richly and for so long.

We are seeing the consequences of this as competing powers move to exert their influence in areas once firmly within America's sphere, powers that are exploiting America's waning presence and willingness to counter their tactics of intimidation and occupation. China is aggressively asserting itself in the Western Pacific. Russia has annexed Crimea, is destabilizing Ukraine, exploiting Europe's dependence on Russian energy, and intimidating a host of states formerly within the old Soviet system. North Korea is increasingly provocative. Iran is making strides toward realizing its nuclear ambitions. Instability plagues an increasing number of countries stretching from Latin America, across Africa, through the Middle East, and into Central Asia. International criminal syndicates undermine the fabric of law and compromise the ability of smaller governments to maintain order, most notably in Latin America and Western Africa. The list continues.

Can the US be everywhere as the 'world's policeman'? Should it be? No...but that misses the point. Like a parent who is present at home, a policeman who is routinely out in the community, the CEO who regularly engages with his workforce, or a commander who makes his presence felt throughout his unit, simply being there and engaged has a way of keeping things in check, of preventing small problems from become large crises, of drawing to us friends and allies and the benefits to extend in terms of trade, influence, and access to resources. Our values are protected and promoted; not those of someone else. Threats to our homeland and interests and to the global good that we benefit from are mitigated. "But," some will say, "why should we carry the burden? These are problems for those other countries. We have our own problems here at home. Let them take care of their issues and we'll take care of ours!" Simply stated, easy to understand, and so attractive to believe. The reality, however, is that no other country has the ability to do what we have done; and to the extent distant regions descend into chaos, we will ultimately feel the effects right here at home.

Sadly, our relative affluence and freedom from overt threats to our way have life have desensitized us to the subtle but very real dangers always present but which have been kept in check while we were strong and engaged. The more we withdraw from the world and the weaker we allow our defenses to become, the greater those dangers will grow as stronger, hungrier, and more confident powers step in to fill the space we create. It needn't be this way but we have to be willing, as a people and as a country, to reawaken to the necessity to shoulder the burden of a great power if we desire to reap the benefit of being a great power.

With this in mind, a friend of mine raised this question: “How would the world be different if the current international system that we established after World War II and which is fully dependent on America’s guarantee/underwriting is allowed to fall apart? Americans need to know how their standard of living would fundamentally change and what that would look like on a day to day basis.”

For all this talk about ‘weariness’ of bearing the cost of being the preeminent world power, we need more talk about the benefits that accrue to America and the losses that would accompany American withdrawal. Is such an argument a “hard sell” in today’s political climate? Sure. But making such an argument is what leadership is all about.

Here are some other items recently in the press that echo similar themes:

The Return of Geopolitics: The Revenge of the Revisionist Powers, By Walter Russell Mead
     “The second part of Fukuyama’s book has received less attention, perhaps because it is less flattering to the West. As Fukuyama investigated what a post-historical society would look like, he made a disturbing discovery. In a world where the great questions have been solved and geopolitics has been subordinated to economics, humanity will look a lot like the nihilistic “last man” described by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: a narcissistic consumer with no greater aspirations beyond the next trip to the mall.
     “In other words, these people would closely resemble today’s European bureaucrats and Washington lobbyists. They are competent enough at managing their affairs among post-historical people, but understanding the motives and countering the strategies of old-fashioned power politicians is hard for them. Unlike their less productive and less stable rivals, post-historical people are unwilling to make sacrifices, focused on the short term, easily distracted, and lacking in courage.
     “The realities of personal and political life in post-historical societies are very different from those in such countries as China, Iran, and Russia, where the sun of history still shines. It is not just that those different societies bring different personalities and values to the fore; it is also that their institutions work differently and their publics are shaped by different ideas.
     “Societies filled with Nietzsche’s last men (and women) characteristically misunderstand and underestimate their supposedly primitive opponents in supposedly backward societies -- a blind spot that could, at least temporarily, offset their countries’ other advantages. The tide of history may be flowing inexorably in the direction of liberal capitalist democracy, and the sun of history may indeed be sinking behind the hills. But even as the shadows lengthen and the first of the stars appears, such figures as Putin still stride the world stage. They will not go gentle into that good night, and they will rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

What would America fight for?, The Economist
     “Europeans think they can enjoy American security without paying for it. Emerging-world democracies like India and Brazil do even less to buttress the system that they depend on. America is preoccupied with avoiding foreign entanglements. Mr Obama began his presidency with the world wondering how to tame America. Both he and his country need to realise that the question has changed.”

The decline of deterrence, The Economist
     “Some will celebrate the decline of America’s ability to deter. But wherever they live, they may find that whatever replaces the old order is much worse. American power is not half as scary as its absence would be.”

And this item by Eliot Cohen in The American Interest, The Reluctant Strongman, which has a collection of Essays in this month’s edition on America: Self Contained:
     “The Administration has been remarkably reluctant to make the case for American strength, and particularly American military strength. Its actions reflect its silence: The impending defense cuts are premised on the notion that the United States will not, and should not, fight a land war again. The wars it will fight, if any, will be against terrorists; and as it presides over a shrinking Navy, it seems to have a limited conception of what the United States should do in the Pacific.
     “Some of this attitude may reflect a deep doubt about American prudence; some of it a belief, shared by many in the foreign policy elite, that the world is fundamentally a benign place in the wake of the end of the Cold War. Some of it may reflect as well a preoccupation with domestic concerns, and a belief that until some of those are dealt with (health care, yes, but the structural problem of unsustainable entitlements, no) the United States should not engage abroad.
     “But some of it, too, reflects an approach to foreign policy in which one’s first moves are to extend a hand to one’s opponents rather than to one’s friends. Thus the risible Russian reset, and a nuclear arms control treaty as disadvantageous to the United States as it was favorable to Russia (whose tactical nuclear weapons were kept off the table). Thus, too, the repeated outreach to Iran, even when the revolutionary regime was slaughtering unarmed protesters in the streets. Thus the summits with China and the shunning of a sometimes tactless Japanese leadership, without even going to the trouble of acknowledging its entirely understandable anxieties. Enemies first means friends last—which is why countries like Colombia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Poland have found themselves at various points ignored, run roughshod over, or rebuked by this Administration.”

April 16, 2014

Identity and Loyalty in Islam and the Middle East

The author is a dear friend of mine for whom I have the highest respect and admiration. Harold has a gift for explaining the extraordinarily complex world of the Middle East in a way that even I can understand...no small feat! Among his many exploits, Harold was the driving force behind the rescue of Iraqi Jewish artifacts, stolen by the Hussein regime, following the collapse of Saddam's tyrannical government in 2003. (As an aside, I managed to get him stuck in the sands of Kuwait while spending time together back then but that's a tale for another time!) A protege of Bernard Lewis, Harold received his Ph.D. in Islamic history from Columbia University, has studied and traveled widely throughout the Middle East, and has been an indefatigable champion of freedom his entire career. If you want to gain a better understanding of why things are the way they are in the troubled Middle East, this essay is a very good place to start.

by Harold Rhode
inFocus Quarterly
Spring 2014

Westerners strive to solve problems. When people appear obstinate, we often indignantly say, "Are you part of the solution, or part of the problem?" This is alien to Middle Eastern and Islamic culture. Middle Easterners cope with problems for which they know there are no solutions—akin to living with a chronic illness.

Islam, for example, does not recognize the equality of all people. Muslims are the rightful rulers of the Muslim world. Non-Muslims who believe in God and who have a revelation from God before Islam do have the right to live in Muslim societies. They are called "dhimmis" which means, "protected people," who can live in the Muslim world, albeit in positions of political and social inferiority. To be sure, they might become important. There have been Christian Foreign Ministers in Egypt (Butros Ghali) and Jordan (Marwan Mu'ashar), but Christians know they cannot hope to rule their countries. This is most clear in Egypt, where the Copts, native Christians descended from the ancient Egyptians, cannot aspire to become Egypt's president because that position is reserved for a Muslim.

Lebanon is in constant upheaval in part because its French-inspired Constitution, written when Maronite Christians were the largest confessional group, decrees that the Lebanese President must be a Christian. The anomaly of the Head of State being a non-Muslim is a driving force in Lebanese civil strife. Muslims rationalize it by comparing their prophet Muhammad's temporary peace agreement with his enemies, until he could regroup and defeat them.

This is also why Israel can never be accepted as a Jewish state. From the Muslim point of view, the land of Israel is Muslim territory because it was conquered by Muslims in 637 C.E., and will remain Muslim forever.

The only way this might change is if Muslim scholars themselves re-examine their sources and try to find ways within their tradition to come to grips with realities on the ground. Jews and Christians were forced to do this long ago as a result of political realities they had to face. But for now, it is hard to imagine that Muslims would do the same.

Religious Identity

In the West, religious and national/ethnic identities are usually separate and do not necessarily

April 15, 2014

Krauthammer: Thought police on patrol

I thought this was an especially good piece by Krauthammer. His general message--for people to care enough about freedom to be willing to confront totalitarianism especially in the realm of ideas and the policies that extend from them--reminded me of this quote attributed to Plato, "The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men," (with variations ascribed to Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill, and many others). The challenge, of course, is to be willing to step out in front of the crowd and put oneself at risk of criticism, ridicule, legal action, or even physical abuse. But that's what bullies count on, people not being willing to stand up to such intimidation.
By Charles Krauthammer, Published: April 10
Two months ago, a petition bearing more than 110,000 signatures was delivered to The Post, demanding a ban on any article questioning global warming. The petition arrived the day before publication of my column, which consisted of precisely that heresy.
The column ran as usual. But I was gratified by the show of intolerance because it perfectly illustrated my argument that the left is entering a new phase of ideological agitation — no longer trying to win the debate but stopping debate altogether, banishing from public discourse any and all opposition.
The proper word for that attitude is totalitarian. It declares certain controversies over and visits serious consequences — from social ostracism to vocational defenestration — upon those who refuse to be silenced.
Sometimes the word comes from on high, as when the president of the United States declares the science of global warming to be “settled.” Anyone who disagrees is then branded “anti-science.” And better still, a “denier” — a brilliantly chosen calumny meant to impute to the climate skeptic the opprobrium normally reserved for the hatemongers and crackpots who deny the Holocaust.
Then last week, another outbreak. The newest closing of the leftist mind is on gay marriage. Just as the science of global warming is settled, so, it seems, are the moral and philosophical merits of gay marriage.
To oppose it is nothing but bigotry, akin to racism. Opponents are to be similarly marginalized and shunned, destroyed personally and professionally.
Like the CEO of Mozilla who resigned under pressure just 10 days into his job when it was disclosed that six years earlier he had donated to California’s Proposition 8, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
But why stop with Brendan Eich, the victim of this high-tech lynching? Prop 8 passed by half a million votes. Six million Californians joined Eich in the crime of “privileging” traditional marriage. So did Barack Obama. In that same year, he declared that his Christian beliefs made him oppose gay marriage.
Yet under the new dispensation, this is outright bigotry. By that logic, the man whom the left so ecstatically carried to the White House in 2008 was equally a bigot.
The whole thing is so stupid as to be unworthy of exegesis. There is no logic. What’s at play is sheer ideological prejudice — and the enforcement of the new totalitarian norm that declares, unilaterally, certain issues to be closed.
Closed to debate. Open only to intimidated acquiescence.
To this magic circle of forced conformity, the left would like to add certain other policies, resistance to which is deemed a “war on women.” It’s a colorful synonym for sexism. Leveling the charge is a crude way to cut off debate.
Thus, to oppose late-term abortion is to make war on women’s “reproductive health.” Similarly, to question Obamacare’s mandate of free contraception for all.
Some oppose the regulation because of its impingement on the free exercise of religion. Others on the simpler (nontheological) grounds of a skewed hierarchy of values. Under the new law, everything is covered, but a few choice things are given away free. To what does contraception owe its exalted status? Why should it rank above, say, antibiotics for a sick child, for which that same mother must co-pay?
Say that, however, and you are accused of denying women “access to contraception.”
Or try objecting to the new so-called Paycheck Fairness Act for women, which is little more than a full-employment act for trial lawyers. Sex discrimination is already illegal. What these new laws do is relieve the plaintiffs of proving intentional discrimination. To bring suit, they need only to show that women make less in that workplace.
Like the White House, where women make 88 cents to the men’s dollar?
That’s called “disparate impact.” Does anyone really think Obama consciously discriminates against female employees, rather than the disparity being a reflection of experience, work history, etc.? But just to raise such questions is to betray heretical tendencies.
The good news is that the “war on women” charge is mostly cynicism, fodder for campaign-year demagoguery. But the trend is growing. Oppose the current consensus and you’re a denier, a bigot, a homophobe, a sexist, an enemy of the people.
Long a staple of academia, the totalitarian impulse is spreading. What to do? Defend the dissenters, even if — perhaps, especially if — you disagree with their policy. It is — it was? — the American way.

March 17, 2014

Ukraine and American Foriegn Policy

The below was originally posted last week to The Foundry, the blog of The Heritage Foundation. As an aside, working with editors is always an adventure, usually demanding a bit of patience in the back-and-forth that occurs while debating everything from grammar and punctuation, essay length, or phrasing and word choice. Oftentimes the author and editor are coming at a piece from different perspectives, the author quite focused on details and nuance within the paper while the editor's interests usually center on the readership or the tone of the publication or website. In this case, I won with regard to content but was surprised by the title posted to the blog that (in my opinion) shifted the focus from commentary on US foreign policy to the machinations of Putin. Ah well. The point I was trying to make was this: the Administration's policies for national security and defense do not account for the world as it is resulting in opportunities our competitors are only too happy to exploit for their own self interest, usually to the detriment of ours. We may wish for others to 'step up their game'--increasing their investment in defense, for example--but we're foolish to make our own national interested dependent on the actions of others. The Obama Administration may want to redirect its attentions to domestic policy but it is doing so at the expense of our national security and the greater good of so many countries that depend on our strength to keep regional predators at bay.

Dakota Wood   March 14, 2014

A great deal of ink has been spilt over the evolving situation in Ukraine, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s de facto annexation of Crimea. At present, Crimea’s parliament has called for a public referendum to consider formal secession from Ukraine—the vote will be held on March 16.

The Ukrainian government holds that Crimea’s upcoming referendum is unconstitutional, but no one in the Crimean government cares what Ukraine thinks. Regardless, the “popular vote” will likely result in Crimea’s separation from Ukraine for four reasons: 1) Crimea’s population is nearly 60 percent ethnic Russian; 2) Russian troops and supporting local brigands control nearly all Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea; 3) Ukraine has no ability to physically eject Russia from its territory; and 4) Western governments are loath to intervene.

Despite its claims to the contrary, Russia invaded Ukraine under the flimsiest of pretexts to exploit a strategic opportunity presented by Ukraine’s recent political upheaval, a crisis created when its Russian-leaning leader rejected popular desires for Ukraine to ally itself with Europe.

Fresh off his success hosting the Winter Olympics, Putin’s confidence must be soaring; after all, he’s laid permanent claim to a key warm-water port for the Russian Navy; secured unfettered access to the agricultural and energy resources of the Crimean peninsula; and reclaimed territory he believes was wrongly lost following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In one swift, bloodless move he has also exposed Europe’s innate military and political weakness, as well as the continent’s inability to protect its broader interests; Central Europe’s shaky security situation; and Europe’s general dependence on Russian energy. All in all, it’s been a pretty good month for Vladimir.

And what has been the U.S. response to all of this? Indignant rhetoric from Secretary of State John Kerry, and much finger wagging from President Obama, both of whom are shocked that Putin would behave so boorishly. Herein lays the problem with America’s foreign policy: our leadership behaves as if the rest of the world hangs on enlightened philosophical pronouncements from the White House teleprompter.  In reality the world acts in its own self-interests—Russia, Syria, Iran, North Korea, and China have no problem bullying other nations while the U.S. takes offense that our geopolitical foes aren’t interested in resolving differences over tea and cakes. One shouldn’t be surprised, then, when thugocracies exploit windows of opportunity created by American withdrawal from key regions or lack of will to push back against oppressive regimes.

To date, the U.S. has dispatched a handful of military aircraft to Lithuania and Poland, where it has also undertaken an exercise with NATO allies, and sent a destroyer to the Black Sea to participate in a naval exercise with Bulgaria and Romania. While these actions might have signaled America’s commitment to oppose Russia’s blatant violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, the Obama Administration immediately neutered them by declaring that these measures were scheduled well before the crisis in Ukraine.

The White House has, however, announced several new measures designed to buttress Ukraine: business summits, an innovation council, a special envoy to represent the U.S. in an energy working group, packaged meals to the Ukrainian military, FBI agents to help track down pilfered funds, and doubling the number of Ukrainian students brought to the U.S. under an academic exchange program—all of which are very nice but hardly constitute measures that will prompt Putin to reconsider his reckless disregard for reasoned statesmanship.

While direct military intervention in the Ukrainian crisis would be foolish, there are several things the U.S. could do militarily (in addition to diplomatic and economic measures) to send a strong message to Putin, including:
  • Commit to the deployment of ballistic missile defense (BMD) assets to Poland and the Czech Republic, something President Obama foolishly cancelled shortly after taking office;
  • Rapidly organize and execute a major NATO exercise (to include ground, air, and naval maneuvers) with the explicit purpose of showing the Alliance is healthy and won’t tolerate military intimidation of Europe by Russia;
  • Initiate a bilateral exercise with Georgia, an especially symbolic move, given Russia’s attack of that state in 2008; and
  • Conduct high-level defense consultations with Ukraine’s military leadership, again for the express purpose of establishing a principled boundary between the West and Russian belligerency.
Critics will argue such actions are provocative; that’s the point. If Russia doesn’t meet some sort of resistance, Putin will only be emboldened to continue to behave belligerently.

Putin’s gambit demonstrates the consequences of the Obama Administration’s wrongheaded approach to security affairs. Extended retrenchment, unanswered challenges to red lines, weakness in military affairs such as we are seeing the President’s proposed defense budget for 2015 and beyond—all invite geopolitical bullies to grab what they can while they can.

Peace really does come through strength. “Soft talk” absent a “big stick” is just statecraft reduced to whimpering—not really what one expects from a Great Power, and certainly not conducive to maintaining peace and prosperity for the U.S.  Obama’s geopolitical timidity has created strategic opportunities for Russia, China, Iran, and numerous militant factions to reorder regional balances in their favor. To the extent America refuses to shoulder the burden of being “the best hope for mankind,” we will find ourselves, and so many others around the world, poorer, increasingly challenged by our enemies, and with fewer prospects for better tomorrows.

March 5, 2014

The Gathering Storm

While reading a paper at work today, I was caught by this observation from Churchill and couldn’t help but think on our present circumstance…not just the most current problem in the Crimea but more broadly too:
“It is my purpose, as one who lived and acted in these days, to show how easily the tragedy of the Second World War could have been prevented; how the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous; how the structure and habits of democratic states, unless they are welded together into larger organisms, lack those elements of persistence and conviction which can alone give security to humble masses; how, even in matters of self-preservation, no policy is pursued even for ten or fifteen years at a time. We shall see how the counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger; how the middle course adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull’s-eye of disaster. We shall see how absolute is the need of a broad path of international action pursued by many states in common across the years, irrespective of the ebb and flow of national politics.”
Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm, 1948

His point, of course, was to emphasize the importance of constant attention to the necessary investments of defense, fiscal restaint, political awareness, and the courage to stand up to aggression even when things seem to be going along quite well. These elements are essential to the preservation of a country's economic vitality, its cultural health and resiliency under pressure, and the strength to confront challenges before they grow to dangerous levels. When people do not attend to such things for too long a time--which typically happens during extended times of plenty--they eventually find themselves unprepared, perhaps fatally, at the worst possible time when the need is greatest, their resources have been squandered, and their competitors sense opportunity.

March 3, 2014

America's Defense Death Spiral

The National Interest has kindly published a longer version of my commentary on the unwillingness of Congress and the Administration to deal with the fiscal challenges facing our country, choosing instead to compromise the ability of our country to respond to challenges to our security interests. One can never know for sure when and where such threats will arise but they inevitably do. The list of opportunists is quite long: Putin, Iran, China, al Qaeda and its affiliates, and regionally destabilizing problems like we're seeing in Venezuela, Syria, Nigeria, and North Korea among others. Do we have to respond to every crisis? Certainly not! But we should have the ability to respond to crises that we feel rise to a level of concern to warrant a response. If we continue with our current "death spiral" we will soon find ourselves without the ability to respond when we most need to and then it will be too late to raise the forces needed. Last point - Reagan clearly understood the value of "peace through strength." When one maintains a strong posture the rest of the world, and certainly our competitors, understand the implications of such and modify their behavior accordingly. Strength keeps things in check. Conversely, weakness--even perceived weakness--invites trouble. The worrisome headlines about Ukraine are but one example.

Dakota Wood, March 2, 2014

From invective-laden commentary about the near-fatal compromise of America’s security, to those fearful of how reduced defense spending will affect local economic conditions, to those who feel not enough was cut, the Secretary has taken flak from all sides. Frankly, you have to feel some measure of sympathy for a man who is dutifully carrying out the unenviable task of reporting to Congress—and to his boss, the Commander in Chief—the logical consequences of their institutional irresponsibility in failing to provide for the security of our nation.

Much can be said for the Secretary’s thoughtful description of the various challenges confronting the Department of Defense. But what was truly fascinating about his presentation was its mixture of Orwellian doublespeak, dire warning, and blunt realism—all bookended by notes of assurance.

The Secretary was quite candid when speaking about the growing uncertainty in world affairs, the worsening of the threat to U.S. security interests, and the increased levels of risk the U.S. will need to accept as our military forces are reduced. He pointedly noted that "the abrupt spending cuts...imposed on DOD" were so severe in scope, scale, and timeline that we would reap a force "not capable of fulfilling assigned missions." For example, we will be left with an Army capable of addressing only a single major contingency at a time.

But the Secretary also ladled out large doses of happy-talk. A much smaller force facing an uglier world would somehow be a “more capable force.” The cuts, delays, and terminations "will help bring our military into balance." And, although our military "will continue to experience gaps in training and maintenance" while facing a "dynamic and increasingly dangerous security environment," it would still be able to "protect our country and fulfill the President's defense strategy."

Poppycock! A smaller, less resourced force will be able to do less. And a smaller, less capable force will have a more difficult time successfully engaging a more dangerous world where, to use the Secretary’s words, “American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.”

February 27, 2014

President George Washington on Strength and Security

Following publication of my preceding post about the root challenges to our national security, a friend reminded me of George Washington's "Farewell Address" written "To the people of the United States" in September of 1796, in which he announced he would not seek a third term as President. Among his many wise cautions and loving encouragements, I thought this one stood out as especially germane to our current situation:
"As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear."
Our government, and us as individuals too, would be well served to follow his advice.

February 26, 2014

Our True National Security Problem

A short piece about the current debate on funding for national defense.

Dakota Wood, February 26, 2014 at 5:29 pm

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

It seems that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has become Washington’s newest whipping boy, drawing the ire of nearly everyone who might in any way have an interest in national security. No sooner did he complete his preview of the FY15 Defense Budget than critics pounced with an eye-watering zeal. Most have argued that his recommended cuts to our military will fatally compromise America’s security while others feel the cuts weren’t deep enough given the end of our two long-running wars. And some have noted the lack of an accompanying defense strategy (apparently forgetting last year’s Strategic Choices and Management Review Report (SCMR) and the soon to be released 2014 Quadrennial Defense Report) that would have provided a context for how the smaller force will be employed to protect our security interests. Frankly, while the various criticisms have merit in their particulars they largely miss the mark in addressing the root problem: the institutional irresponsibility of both Congress and the White House in the gross mismanagement of our national finances with the consequence that our government is on the verge of failing to provide for the security of our Nation.

The Secretary provided a rather blunt, though carefully worded, assessment of the various challenges confronting the Department of Defense: growing levels of uncertainty in world affairs, worsening of the threat environment, and the increased levels of risk the U.S. will need to accept as our military forces shrink. He pointedly noted that “the abrupt spending cuts…imposed on DOD” were so severe that we would reap a force “not capable of fulfilling assigned missions,” indeed resulting in an Army, for example, having the capacity to address only a single major contingency. In spite of any presumed efficiencies to be gained through consolidation, reform, and reduction, a smaller and less resourced force will be able to do less and will have a difficult time succeeding in a world where “American [military] dominance…can no longer be taken for granted.”

Hagel would have better served the country by flatly stating that the mindless cuts agreed to by both the Congress and the White House have put this Nation at unacceptable risk; the budget he should have announced should have been the one he held in reserve, the one fully constrained by sequester-level funding. As is, his wishful budget, premised on additional funding to be negotiated between Congress and the White House, will likely convey the false notion that our soon-to-be-hobbled military will be able to adequately defend U.S. security interests.

Sadly, neither the Administration nor Congress appears to have it within them to address the primary challenge that actually confronts our Nation: out-of-control deficit spending driven almost exclusively by a national public entitlements program that is relentlessly compromising the security and long-term viability of the United States.

Members of Congress have already pushed back against every recommendation made by Hagel to address the impending implosion of our defense establishment driven by sequester-constrained funding. Taken in their entirety, these protests collectively prevent any change to defense spending even though it was Congress itself that imposed such reductions in the first place! Does no one remember the stunning failure of the “supercommittee” in 2011 or the fact that the President vowed to veto any effort by Congress to repeal their mindless handiwork?

Various efficiencies can certainly be found throughout the Department and the Pentagon should aggressively root out waste and unnecessary redundancies so that it exercises the most responsible stewardship of the resources America provides it. But it must be adequately funded to provide for the effective and relevant defense of our country as we have previously addressed in A Strong National Defense and The Measure of a Superpower and in the just released 2014 Defense Reform Handbook.

In essence, the proposed Defense budget actually serves as a stinging indictment of the callous disregard this Administration and much of Congress has for the long-term well-being of the country. The fact of the matter is this: our national financial problems derive from the insidious welfare and entitlement state that both entities have helped to create, sustain, and expand. The bulk of our spending resides in the non-discretionary accounts that both political parties and both branches of government are loath to address. As a consequence, the security of our country is being sacrificed to pay the cost of Congressional and Executive Branch fecklessness, intransigence, shortsightedness, and political grandstanding. The Obama Administration has shown in its own national defense budget that it cares more about committing American taxpayers to greater indebtedness than keeping our country safe and our interests protected and Congress is a fully willing accomplice. Something is certainly needed to impose on Congress the fiscal discipline that it seems unable to summon on its own. Whatever that is, its focus should be on correcting the real problem of expanded entitlements and rampant deficit spending, not on abrogating the one responsibility only the Federal government can fulfill.