October 19, 2012

"Brought to you by the letter "O" and the number 16 trillion"

The Scariest Little Corner

This is a long article but well worth the time to read. Luke Mogelson, in The Scariest Little Corner of the World, paints a graphic picture of the complexity of Afghanistan re relationships among its ethnically diverse population and with Iran. He describes the multitude of issues effecting life in this remote part of the world, from religious fanaticism to illicit trades in weapons, drugs, and refugees. Warlordism, shifting alliances, water-wars, economic interests...they're all here and further complicate the future of Afghanistan.

In spite of all that's been written about 'cultural awareness' and the massive sums of money and time spent by the military in trying to equip our forces to understand and operate effectively in this part of the world, we continue to underestimate the magnitude of the challenge to entice cultures still firmly rooted in the 9th Century to join the 21st...or even the 20th, or perhaps just the 19th. 

Should we write-off this region given the cost in people and treasure we have borne over the past decade or so? No, not entirely. The U.S. still has security interests linked to the major actors in the area. Iran's pursuit of a nuclear capability, its support of various groups at war with Israel and the West, and Pakistan's relative instability are all concerns for the U.S. Better to be present in the region if only to be able to collect intelligence and maintain a 'feel' for the region (something that cannot be done from Washington DC) than to be absent and find ourselves continually surprised by events that inevitably cost more to respond to than would otherwise be the case if we had advance warning or were able to shape events even a bit. Does this mean a continued presence of 65,000 troops and billions of dollars? Certainly not. But we have a tendency to swing from one extreme to another in our policies and I think we should guard against the urge to withdraw from the area entirely. 

It would be most helpful, of course, if our approach to engaging a given region actually accounted for the nature of the region rather than presuming all peoples everywhere eagerly desire to make themselves 'little Americas'.

October 13, 2012

Modern Warfare

I saw this story this morning and just had to post a comment. Per the story, if you are playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 using a certain 'map' and employing a rifle scope inside a bathroom you just might scan the frame of a mirror and see mention of Allah, something offensive to Muslims. So...the game maker, Activision, is deleting the map and issuing an apology for the 'offense', this from the maker of a product where the focus of the game is to kill as many enemy combatants as possible using knives, handguns, rifles, machine-guns, explosives, airstrikes, grenades... Violence per se doesn't seem to be a problem, but the placement of a reference to Allah in a bathroom that can only be seen under specific conditions somehow is.

Quite a head-scratcher if you ask me. 

Of course I couldn't help but be reminded of similar lunacy in other areas of the commercial world:
- A McDonald's 'Happy Meal' toy yanked from circulation because little swirls on its base could be interpreted as a reference to Muhammad.
- Burger King withdrawing a soft ice cream because the swirls on the lid meant to represent a swirling ice cream cone could be interpreted as an inscription for Allah.
- Nike withdrawing basketball shoes and apologizing for its stylistic design of the word Air on the sneakers that could likewise be interpreted as 'Allah'.
- Ikea airbrushing its Saudi-version catalog to remove women so as not to offend Muslims. And,
- Starbucks weathering criticism of its logo, supposedly because the young mermaid depicted was actually Queen Esther and this might be offensive to Muslims.

In stark contrast, Christianity is routinely attacked, defamed, insulted, exploited for 'art' and otherwise mocked in countless ways, yet this presumably isn't a problem. 

Returning to the original story, I find more than a bit of irony in the title of the game: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.  It seems to me we are engaged in a form of 'modern warfare' - a battle of cultures. If so, what is our 'call to duty'?

October 11, 2012

Talking Turkey

A week ago I briefly mentioned the growing conflict between Turkey and Syria, noting the potential for NATO involvement with the implied danger that the US could get dragged into another war in the Middle East. A string of news reports over this past week highlights this evolving situation. 

Two items in The Christian Science Monitor (here and here) directly address the potential for NATO involvement with the latter of the two articles noteworthy in its quoting NATO's Secretary-General, "'We have all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary,' said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen." 

The Telegraph and The Atlantic both have good overview stories about the potential for war between Turkey and Syria, noting the problems caused by the flood of refugees into Turkey (also here), the support Turkey is providing the rebels (angering Syria) and Syria is providing the Kurds (angering Turkey), and the pressure likely being felt by both governments to not be seen as 'backing down' in the face of the other's provocative actions. 'National pride' can be a powerful motivator for starting wars that no one actually wants to happen. 

Then there is this complicating piece about Turkey taking exception to Russia allegedly sending advisors and equipment to Syria through Turkish airspace. 

Hmmm...a tangle of alliances, national pride, ethnic rivalries, insurgencies, great power competitions, tottering regimes attempting to maintain power at all costs. Reminds me of the conditions leading to World War I. How interesting...

October 10, 2012

The Electoral College

Election Day is just four weeks away, Nov 6. I've no doubt as we get closer we'll hear the usual discussions about past election results, the pros and cons of a national popular vote vs. the electoral college, the history of voting irregularities and odd outcomes in the U.S., etc. To add my two cents worth, I'd like to take a moment to address the Electoral College issue and provide some useful links to solid references on the subject (at least I think they're 'useful' and 'solid').  

Criticism of the Electoral College process generally focuses on the fact that a Presidential nominee can win the popular vote but still lose the election by not garnering sufficient Electoral College votes as has happened three times in U.S. history. (In the 1876, 1888, and 2000 elections the popular vote winner lost the Electoral College vote. In 1824, Andrew Jackson won more popular and electoral votes than John Q Adams but because he didn't win a majority of either vote (more importantly, a majority of the electoral vote), the outcome of the election was decided by the House of Representatives who elected Adams.)

Interestingly, there have been 18 instances in our history when the winning nominee won a plurality but not a majority of the popular vote, i.e. he won more votes than the next closest nominee but did not exceed fifty percent of the popular vote. This is of interest because it means that more people voted  for someone other than the man who won. 

For an excellent overview of the pros and cons of the Electoral College, see Tara Ross's article published on the Heritage Foundation website entitled The Electoral College: Enlightened Democracy. A summarized version is here. Additional concise explanations of the Electoral College can be found at the FEC, National Archives (with a good 3-minute video), and Wikipedia websites. 

At its core, the Electoral College approach to electing our President (and VP) reflects the 'republic' form of democracy codified in our Constitution. The structure of our country was founded upon the organizing principle that the United States of America was to be a federation of autonomous states that ceded some authorities to a central government (see discussion of the 10th Amendment here). Various compromises were made to address a wide range of concerns among the Constitutional Convention delegates and the various state populations who would ultimately vote on the proposed document, concerns that included protecting the interests of small, less populous states from those of the larger and more populous states and the interests of minority populations or factions from the absolute domination of majorities. 

James Madison discussed the problem of 'factions' in Federalist 10 while Alexander Hamilton  applied Madison's reasoning in Federalist 68 wherein he (Hamilton) discussed the merits of an elector-based system for choosing the chief executive officer under the new Constitution (an approach later codified in the 12th Amendment).

Effectively, the U.S. elects a President and Vice President via the aggregated results of 51 independent elections (the 50 states and Wash, DC) that are themselves based on the popular vote in each state and the District. This system was deemed preferable in that it ensured smaller, less popular states could compete in some way with the larger states, rural areas could compete with urban centers, and instances of fraud would be largely isolated and highly unlikely to spread nationally. It preserves the federated nature of the United States and prevents a majority of any type - ethnic, religious, economic, etc. - from so dominating the political landscape that any other group is effectively disenfranchised. 

Though it can be confusing and certainly frustrating (as was seen most recently in the 2000 election between Bush and Gore), I continue to believe that our current process is far better than any other yet devised.

Update: Since posting this I realized I didn't include one other item for consideration, that being the matter(s) of identity or perspective as it pertains to American citizens. I think that over time our identity has shifted from that of a state-centered one to one that is largely national-centered. In times past an American more closely identified with his/her state: I'm a proud Texan,Virginian, New Yorker, etc. As our country more firmly established itself as a 'country' and as technology (especially in transportation and information-sharing) and our economy shifted to create a more mobile society, people more easily lost their once-firmly-fixed roots in a specific locality and adopted a broader perspective of 'America.' I realize my view is presented here as an assertion but if accurate, perhaps it explains much of the criticism of the Electoral College process in favor of a popular vote -- people are more apt to believe in the individual-centered framework of a popular vote election process where 'Americans' collectively  and directly vote for the President rather than naturally inclining themselves to prefer a state-centered vote. Are we a nation of individual citizens who happen to live in locations arbitrarily defined as 'states' or is our country as federation of states operating in a national framework overseen by a federal government? 

October 5, 2012

Britain in Twilight

"I think I can save the British Empire from anything—except the British." - Winston Churchill

Sadly, in the 'special relationship' between the US and the UK our once mighty 'elder' has become an enfeebled great aunt who while retaining all the great history that is accumulated over time can now do little more than care for herself...and even that is increasingly in doubt. 

This article expresses quite well the dangerous decline in Britain's once exemplary form of democratic ideals. From the article: 
   "The reality is that representative democracy, at the core, has to be about people voting, has to be about people engaging in political parties, has to be about people having contact with elected representatives, and having faith and trust in elected representatives, as well as those representatives demonstrating they can exercise political power effectively and make decisions that tend to be approved of," said Wilks-Heeg.
   "All of that is pretty catastrophically in decline. How low would turnout have to be before we question whether it's really representative democracy at all?" The UK's democratic institutions were strong enough to keep operating with low public input, but the longer people avoided voting and remained disillusioned, the worse the problem would get, said Wilks-Heeg.
   "Over time, disengagement skews the political process yet further towards those who are already more advantaged by virtue of their wealth, education or professional connections. And without mass political participation, the sense of disconnection between citizens and their representatives will inevitably grow."

In terms of military power, the news is even more disturbing. Consider this item, an article penned by some of the most senior members of the British military establishment. (Their full report can be found here.) The authors point out with great clarity the dangerous implications and consequences of Britain's military decline. As stated in the article:
   “In international relations, an ally is worth as much as, and no more than, the resources and specifically military resources it is capable of contributing towards implementing a shared purpose by force or the threat of it.”
   "It is astonishing, as Andrew Roberts has noted in the Foreword to our report, “that politicians themselves should not want a stronger military, as that and that only gives them a voice worth listening to in the councils of the world”."

Owing to Britain's dire financial condition, the government has slashed their military services to the point where observers question whether the UK can field any credible military capability at all. The last time its navy had as few ships was in the 1700s. Its army is half the size of our Marine Corps. The totality of its first line air force capability is less than that of a single U.S. fighter wing. See these articles for examples and discussion: here, here, and here.

Whereas Greece, Italy, Spain and now France should be stern warnings to the US of reckless financial and spending policies, Britain's sad military state of affairs, the increasingly widening chasm between its public and their government, and their loss of identity as a people, should similarly warn us of the risks we run if we don't attend to our own civic, cultural and security matters and interests both at home and abroad. Whether we like it or not, decreased ally capability means we will have to shoulder a greater burden ourselves to protect our interests. 

Challenges don't go away just because one stops spending on the capabilities necessary to address them. Our shoreline doesn't insulate us from the influences of stronger, more aggressive cultures. In fact, the weaker we grow the more threatening competing interests become.

VDH: The Neurotic Middle East

If you've not noticed, I'm a fan of Victor Davis Hanson. Add him to your reading list. His latest article for NRO is a must read. [Thanks to my dear friend HR for forwarding!] As I've written previously, much of the Middle East's problems lie in the philosophical underpinnings of the fundamentalist form of Islam many of its people embrace (note that other countries with large Muslim populations, such as Indonesia, somehow still embrace modernity) and the cultural framework that not only tolerates the behavior we are observing but encourages it. Our foreign policy must account for this or else we'll continue to suffer the consequences. At the very least we need to regain a sense of who we are as a country, what we stand for, and why our approach to individual freedom, liberty, and Western-liberal democratic political principles is superior to other systems...and make no apology for it. 

Selected excerpts:
"[The] world tacitly gives exemptions to the Middle East - and expects very little in return. It assumes that the rules that apply elsewhere of civility, tolerance, and nonviolence are inoperative there - and perhaps have reason to so be.

"The world also assumes a sort of Middle Eastern parasitism: Daily its millions use mobile phones, take antibiotics, hit the Internet, fire RPGs, and play video games, and yet they not only do not create these products that they rely upon, but largely have antipathy for those who do.

"Asymmetry is, of course, assumed. One expects to be detained for having a Bible in one’s baggage at Riyadh, whereas a Koran in a tote bag is of no importance at the Toronto airport. The Egyptian immigrant in San Francisco, or the Pakistani who moves to London, expects to be allowed to demonstrate against the freewheeling protocols of his hosts, while a Westerner protesting against life under sharia in the streets of Karachi or Gaza would earn a death sentence. What is nauseating about this is not the hypocrisy per se, but the Middle Eastern insistence that there is no such hypocrisy. We expect the immigrant from Egypt to deface public posters and call it freedom of expression; we expect Mr. Morsi, who enjoyed American freedom while he studied for his Ph.D. and then taught for three years in California, to deny it to others and trash his former host.

"So how do we make sense out of this abject nonsense? Superficially, it occurs because the world is cowardly, and we accept that terrorism is far more likely to emanate from the Middle East than elsewhere. Principles or tastes do not explain why movies mock Christ and not Mohammed. Fear does, and all sorts of empty pontifications must dress up the necessary compensatory selectivity."

Read the article for VDH's prescription for how to deal with this "delusional neurotic"!

A Splash of Cold Water

Victor Davis Hanson is at it again with a nice post highlighting three current situations that should remind us that knowing and understanding history and what history has to teach us is important. See 'World Order, Under Siege?' for his discussion of Germany vs Europe, Iran vs Israel, and the broader turmoil in the Middle East vs Obama's wrongheaded world view.

One just can't escape the geopolitical realities of our world. Consequently, our policies are most effective when the account for such realities.

On a loosely related note, keep an eye on the clashes developing between Turkey and Syria (two good stories here and here). Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is trying to consolidate his power through a deepening alliance with Islamist elements in his government. Meanwhile, Syria's President, Bashar al Assad, is waging a brutal civil war against a very mature popular insurgency to retain his hold on power. Syrian operations against rebels have led to cross-border attacks into Turkey, with Turkey responding in kind against Syrian installations. Given that Turkey is a member of NATO, there exists the potential that any serious cross-border incursion by Syria could result in Turkey's call for NATO support against Syria. 

This could present a 'back door' option to the US that would enable it to support the rebels against Assad, something our country has been unwilling to do. Adding complexity is the frustration Turkey has had with their Kurdish problem; the Kurds seeking some level of autonomy for their people who occupy an area that overlaps Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The Kurds were generally supportive of US efforts in Iraq since the security umbrella provided by our operations protected their interests relative to the more powerful Shia and Sunni power blocs. Now that we're out of Iraq, however, they are on their own. (In an interesting 'what if' exercise, you could wonder how things might be different in that region had we retained an operational capability in Iraq. How would it have impacted our response to the Syrian uprising, Iran's continued pursuit of nuclear capabilities, the saber-rattling between Iran and Israel, etc., etc.?) Whether US involvement in Syria is advisable or not, it is an evolving situation and one can't know with certainty how it will all fall out.

[Update: See this about challenges in Saudi Arabia. Thanks HR, again, for forwarding.]

October 3, 2012

Executive Orders

We had an interesting discussion this morning regarding the use of Executive Orders by Presidents. My eldest was reading about it in her U.S. Government textbook and she wondered why they weren't used more often; after all, it seemed an easy way for a President to 'rule by fiat' in a sense. That led to discussion of why they are used, the character of the person using them, and the context for their use (period in history, what was going on at the time, what was intended to be accomplished, why an EO was needed vice simply enforcing a law passed by Congress, etc.). 

Over the past couple of years much has been made of the Obama Administration's use of Executive Orders, especially given concerns about the Administration attempting to by-pass a 'do nothing' Congress. I checked the National Archives site for a listing of EOs and have copied it below. 

The king of EOs remains FDR at 3728, averaging 310 per year for his twelve years in office. So far, BHO and GWB are tied for least EOs issued averaged over their term(s) in office (GWB-36 per year, BHO-35 per year).

For the most part, Presidents issue EOs to clarify specific points of policy or enforcement actions within the context of a more broadly worded law passed by Congress. Occasionally, Presidents attempt to 'legislate by EO', that is to write and enforce their own perspective that may or may not be in accordance with Congressional action. When this happens, challenges are usually raised via the courts. 

Wikipedia has a very good overview of Executive Orders here (lots of footnotes, links to other references).

The National Archives site for Executive Orders is here.

Barack Obama (2009-Present) 
EO's 13489 - 13628 (140) (updated to account for EOs signed but not yet recorded by the National Archives)

George W. Bush (2001-2009) 
EO's 13198-13488 (291)

William J. Clinton (1993-2001) 
EO's 12834-13197 (364)

George Bush (1989-1993) 
EO's 12668-12833 (166)

Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) 
EO's 12287-12667 (381)

Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) 
EO's 11967-12286 (320)

Gerald R. Ford (1974-1977) 
EO's 11798-11966 (169)

Richard Nixon (1969-1974) 
EO's 11452-11797 (346)

Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) 
EO's 11128-11451 (324)

John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) 
EO's 10914-11127 (214)

Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) 
EO's 10432-10913 (486)

Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) 
EO's 9538-10431 (896)

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) 
EO's 6071-9537 (3728)

Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) 
EO's 5075-6070 (996)

October 2, 2012

Call a Terrorist a 'Savage'? How Uncivilized

An anti-jihad message is 'hate speech' by today's topsy-turvy standards.


"In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad."

So reads an advertisement that went up a week ago in New York City subway stations. Sponsored by Pamela Geller's American Freedom Defense Initiative, the ads were meant to provoke, and they did. Denunciations poured in, activists plastered "racist" and "hate speech" stickers over the ads, and an Egyptian-American activist even got herself arrested after spray-painting one poster pink.

Establishment opinion quickly rallied to a consensus. As the Washington Post put it, while the words could be read as "hateful," "an offensive ad" nonetheless has the "right to offend." A rabbi summed up the media orthodoxy in the headline over her column for CNN: "A right to hate speech, a duty to condemn."

Columnist Bill McGurn on the reaction to a New York City subway ad that urges people to "support Israel" and "defeat Jihad." (Photo: AP)

Certainly that's one way to read this ad. Then again, most Americans probably read it the way it is written: Israel is a civilized nation under attack from people who do savage things in the name of jihad. Whatever the agenda of those behind this ad might be, the question remains: What part of that statement is not true?

Ah, but the use of the word "jihad" inherently indicts all Muslims, say the critics. There are millions of peaceful Muslims for whom jihad means only a spiritual quest. So why do so many people associate jihad with murder and brutality?

Getty Images
A controversial ad, which has already been defaced, that condemns radical Islam is viewed in a New York subway station.

Might it be because violence is so often the jihadist's calling card? Might it be that some of these killers even incorporate the word jihad into the name of their terror organizations, e.g., Palestinian Islamic Jihad? That may not be the exclusive meaning of jihad, but surely it is one meaning—and the one that New York subway riders are most likely to bring to the word.

The same goes for "savage." Exhibit A is Oxford's online dictionary, which defines a savage as "a brutal or vicious person." There are innumerable Exhibit Bs, but let me invoke one of the most powerful.

This is a Reuters photo that ran on the New York Times front page for Sept. 1, 2004. It shows an Israeli bus after it had been blown up by a suicide bomber. Neither bloody nor gory, the photo is nonetheless deeply disturbing, because it shows the lifeless body of a young woman hanging out a window.

The Times news story added this detail about the reaction to that attack. "In Gaza," ran the report, "thousands of supporters of Hamas celebrated in the streets, and the Associated Press reported that one of the bombers' widows hailed the attack as 'heroic' and said her husband's soul was 'happy in heaven.' " What part of any of this is not savage?

Two years ago, Time magazine ran a cover photo of an 18-year-old Afghan woman whose nose and ears had been cut off by the Taliban. This weekend, an al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group in Kenya threw grenades into an Anglican church, killing a 9-year-old boy attending Sunday school. In light of these atrocities, "savage" seems profoundly inadequate.

The point is that what makes someone a savage is not the religion he professes. It's the actions he takes. Notwithstanding the many Jews and Christians who have been attacked, those bearing the brunt of this savagery are innocent Muslims who find themselves targeted—at their mosques, in their markets, at a wedding reception—simply because they belong to the wrong political party or religious tradition.

The people of Libya appear to understand this better than the president of the United States. The Libyans know that a civilized society is one where the strong protect the weak. In July they voted for such a future when they rejected Islamic radicals in their first free elections since toppling the dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The Libyans' problem is that the extremists are better armed and better organized than their elected government, which leaves the strong free to prey upon the weak.

Back home in America, amid all the gooey indignation about how the subway ads are hate speech but must be defended, the idea seems to have taken hold that the beauty of the First Amendment is that we get to insult each other's religions. Certainly that's sometimes the price of the First Amendment. Its glory, however, is as the cornerstone for a self-governing, free society whose citizens know that someone saying something disgusting about your faith is no excuse for murder.

What a curiosity our new political correctness has made of our public spaces. Let your sex tape loose on the Internet and be rewarded with your own TV show; photograph a crucifix in a jar of urine and our museums will vie to exhibit it; occupy someone else's property and you will be hailed by the president for your keen social conscience.

But call people who blow up, behead and mutilate "savage"—and polite society will find you offensive.