Sunday, December 11, 2011

Compromise: The Constitution's Real Legacy

I found myself in a protracted discussion the other day -- actually, over a number of days -- and as happens, too frequently I'm afraid, became far too frustrated to continue.  It would seem that we have far too many interpreters of the American Constitution and not enough constitutional scholars.  I claim neither as a simple point of reference here, but I do harbor a certain historical responsibility to look at the motivations behind the people who ultimately create what we call history.  This job encompasses using (or abusing) all the various academic disciplines, including reading other people's mail.  Because in the dissection of human history and the actions that precipitate each entry, one must, in Idi Amin's rather cryptic observation, "Never confuse what I'm saying with what I'm thinking."  And therein lies the story and more important, the caveat in the game.

I have also grown weary of the flotsam that wanders the aimless currents of the Internet like a dyslexic flounder.  Misinformation, disinformation, hysterical polemics based more on medication issues than a rational thought process, self-serving agendas meant to promote a point no one can quite locate; out of context quotes, assumptions based on other assumptions, political interpretations offered up and consumed by people who never quite got past the 8th nauseum.  All circulated at the speed of light and evidently meant to be consumed somewhere in between the 140-character text bite and your good Friends gratifying experience in a public toilet.  Yeah, press Like here.

What's my point?  I suppose it is wrapped around the fundamentals of logical argument, something they try to teach you in the first year of college in order to avoid a lot of nonsense later.  I don't think I enjoyed this class, not sure I even remember it, but I do remember watching at least 50 episodes of Perry Mason:  "Objection, inadmissible!"  Then the judge:  "Sustained."  Jurisprudence adopted these simple ideas for a reason.  You need to argue the facts. Save your opinions for your 13-year old daughter who is going to ignore them anyway.

The discussion in question revolved around the constitutional right to bear arms.  I have no issue with that right.  As part of an argument over some perceived injustice (not clear which one), my opponent began cranking out random quotations and non-sequitors from various sources claiming the 'incredible foresight' of the founding fathers -- here I'm assuming -- on anticipating the invention of the Apache helicopter gunship with the dual Gatlin platform...or something.  Try to stay with me here for a moment.

I said, "Hold on a minute, partner!"  You have taken a third-party quote by an unrelated party (at least directly), as evidence of what four or five other people were possibly thinking and then extrapolated that quote almost 300-years to the present to argue a case on the merits of some incredible degree of foresight -- good or otherwise -- that may or may not have existed.   In most cases, common sense alone would dictate the latter.  Now, I always appreciate oppositional arguments or opinions, mostly because running around all day agreeing with people is a boring, unproductive exercise at group ass-kissing, a process that Zuckerburg has already perfected and I have no intention of infringing upon.  Dissension is how we finally distill the truth out of many random, and often opposing ideas and opinions.

My initial point in that friendly (though headed somewhere else), discussion had nothing to do with the 'right to bear arms' -- in fact it wasn't even about rights, but about second-guessing Washington, Madison or the bartender down the street.  You see, as Americans, we're in love with the mythology surrounding our founding as a nation.  Hell, that's okay. It is after all, a great story.  But a few things tarnish that landscape of altruism and that is where the foresight -- political to be sure, actually resides.

Putting together a federal constitution for these 13 rowdy and disparate colonies was more like a bar fight than a meeting of great minds.  Remember, each colony was founded on different values, ideologies, religions, cultural thinking and on and on. Just getting them to shoot the British instead of each other was a major early achievement -- winning a revolution, virtually miraculous. That victory is what brings up the often sticky issue over the 'right to bear arms' and the role of [first, as colonial] state militias.  Washington would have lost the war without these 'irregulars' because no mechanism was in place to finance or legally franchise a federal army.  Trust me, there is nothing worse than declaring war when you don't have a real army to back it up.  Really dumb by most standards.  The sad truth was that there was no United States of America, hence, no legal authority.  Now hold that thought for a minute and fast forward to the bar fight in Philadelphia.

The 'foresight' of these founders was really based on the political realities of the moment.  Yeah, they'd won the country, but not much else.  The British were gone, but not gone.  They were still in Canada to the north, and we had the Spanish in the west and south and the French were everywhere.  Now the French were allies of sorts, but this alliance was subject to whims and nuances of European politics, fickle and capricious as they always were.  And Washington was pretty sure that the British would be back.  And his victorious army?  Gone home to milk the cows and get caught up on all the bills that had piled up during the war. 

The key political issues on the founder's plate all amounted to deal-breakers of one kind or another.  The United States, in post-war status was virtually defenseless.  The army had disbanded, the navy was either borrowed (from the French) or just an amusing idea that existed mostly on paper, the colonies were suspicious of a strong federal government -- and rightly so -- just booted out a king and didn't necessarily want a new one.  (Actually, some wanted to make Washington king.) Yet, these same colonists had just received a hard lesson on the value of mutual defense.  None of them could go it alone, so for them, the new Union represented the ability to preserve the gains they had made through blood, toil and most importantly, a reluctant cooperation.

The Constitution itself was created over a period of about ten pretty difficult and rancorous years.  It is, for the most part, a document of compromises.  The Bill of Rights (so-called, fundamental rights), are purposefully vague.  They are intentionally broad-based and not designed to be regulatory as such. That is the premise of the courts via an interpretation of what these rights might mean in contemporary terms.  Lot of flexibility granted the states here.  The idea was local autonomy on most issues, leaving the federal courts, particularly the Supreme Court as final arbiter on constitutional matters.  Of course, I don't think the founders anticipated a 'politicized' Supreme Court.  Oh well.

Now, as far as the militias went, a couple of things were obvious to the founders, particularly Washington.  First, he owed them.  Couldn't have done it without them.  Second, was the colonies natural distrust in the idea of a centralized federal army, even in light of the greater security issues facing the new republic.  These militias or irregular forces would remain an integral part of the new Union, both as a compromise to current (internal) political realities, and as a defensive bulwark against unforeseen events on the international stage.  In the case of the latter, there were also economic incentives involved.  The core issue of the rebellion was, after all, a perception of unfair taxation -- those proceeds needed to support England's far-flung military adventures.  A reserve army would negate, at least marginally, the need for funding of an expansive national force.  An issue that had daunted Washington's military campaign throughout the war of rebellion.  As we can clearly appreciate in this day and age, armies are not cheap.  And gee, selling new taxes just after a war on excessive taxation?

No civilian or reserve militia (army) could exist without the 'fundamental right' to bear arms.  Washington in particular, appreciated the role that these civilian military reserves could play within the scope of his current perception.  But like all matters entering into the process of constitutional theoretics, no one could really anticipate how these issues and rights would travel over time.  That is why the Constitution was left as an amendable document.  And without that very basic premise, it is highly unlikely that the principles and ideas brought forth by these early founders would have even survived the first few decades of its existence.  Quite often, the real foresight lies in the generosity of the legacy -- the inheritance and continuity of an imperfect ideal.  

Now what in the hell was I so pissed-off about?  Oh yeah.  Historical second-party mind reading.  Well, the truth is that what is written here is also opinion of sorts.  Except that it is based on better minds than mine, and on the personal letters, diaries and notes of the participants in this wonderful experiment known as American democracy.  We need to continue these debates, because they are the spokes in the rolling wheel of an evolving system.  Human activity -- desires, ambitions, dreams -- are not static. Neither is the Constitution.  The brilliance of this document is not so much in the power of the individual words, but in how those words have traveled, despite the ravages of time and a constantly evolving interpretation.  We need to keep it a vague, shadowy ideal, and let each ensuing generation decide for themselves, and in their own slot of time, just what it means -- to them.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Busy Week

Grief & Sorrow
What can you really say to the Japanese people that hasn't already been expressed by better voices than my own. I do admire their grace under fire though, and only hope that this disaster will soon turn to face the light of a quiet dawn.
Recriminations abound, but let's remember that we live on a rambunctious planet, one that is in constant flux and that we are merely guests. This is a moment for humility, not anger.
Libya Going to the Dark Side

And Ghadafi marches on while the world debates the price of oil -- not its conscience -- in this suddenly lop-sided conflict. It is a conundrum though. The knee-jerk side of American thought right now (myself probably included) is to take the bastard out. I'm reminded a bit of an old movie: The Wind & the Lion. The interesting part was the role (image) of a small band of American Marines caught between an inter-Arab conflict exasperated by a colonial powers dispute. Just like the conflict in Libya, a great deal was perceived to be at stake -- oil not being on the list. Of course, we also had Teddy Roosevelt as president in this flick, which isn't a commentary on our current leader, but rather an indication of how cautious American foreign policy has become. We don't really make decisions anymore, instead we debate the matter, check with our buddies, Congress, take a few polls, see what Rush Limbaugh has to say...meanwhile, everybody gets blown to bits and were off the hook. This isn't policy, it's a broken Ouija Board. Oh -- those Marines? Sided with the Arabs and killed a bunch of Germans. Because at that moment, it was the right thing to do.
It seems that we lost both our integrity and the definition of a 'friend' shortly after World War II. Two things appeared to have spawned this national confusion. The first was that war became obsolete -- at least as far as how we had defined it, or really, how we understood its purpose. Secondly, we embarked on the only option available to us, that being world competition via a 'Cold War' whereas territory, attrition and reparation was traded in for "our interests."
This is the point where we lost our integrity and subsequently, any perception of trust that might have been afforded in different times. We also began to get left behind because we no longer had anything other countries really needed -- at least nothing that was free of either a subtle extortion or an abundance of lip service. And pretty soon our track record in the developing world began to convince struggling democracies that it didn't pay to get too close to us. Our back could turn at any given moment and if some boil erupted on the landscape, these countries didn't have to look far for the source of the disease. Sadly, America has always had great social and democratic ideas (not ideals) but concurrently, some really bad manners.
So what to do in Libya? And Bahrain (currently facing an siege by the Saudi military)? And Yemen...and on and on? When do these 'interests' of ours, this material junk we cherish take a back seat to what we used to represent? Are we so trapped in consumption and global markets that we can no longer either define or comprehend the difference between right and wrong? Are we really that confused as a people, as a nation? As they like to say on the first day of rehab, "Just when is that moment of clarity going to show up? It needs to be soon because people are dying.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Let's Not do this Again, Please.

Guilt by innuendo is not an American ideal, although it may qualify as a bad and somewhat chronic habit.
I really do not think that New York's Rep. Peter King is another Joe McCarthy, though it might be assumed that he holds to the adage of "keeping your friends close and your enemies closer." I really want to be wrong here because this is a path we've taken before with some devastating results for individuals that were no more of a threat to this country than...what? The Beatles?
Yeah odd, yet not so odd a comparison when you begin to vilify 'groups,' (never mind religious affiliation) you're really out duck hunting with a machine gun. Far too many moderate Muslims in the world already feel that powers in this nation are on a witch hunt -- and further, that the Islamic faith is somehow a 'politicized' religion, assuming quite illogically that the Christian right isn't? Geez, I'm basically an atheist, but I always figured that God wasn't planning a run for the White House (at least in my life time) and that this was a country that separated church from state -- if for nothing else, to preserve our collective sanity. Or better yet, how would this conversation go forward if a wayward band of Bedouins had stumbled upon Plymouth Rock? Or the Indians defeated us at Wounded Knee? I could go on here, but the point is that this country has a bad habit of slamming the door on any new re-invention of its own mongrelism. That's a lot of arrogance and assumption for a country that hasn't had that many birthdays.
I really want to ask this country, "Just what in the hell are we so scared of?" Is this the bad old days of the 1950's where communists were supposedly hiding under every bush? Has everyone forgotten that the appeal of both communism and socialism in this country was a direct result of the Depression and the Dust Bowl? That a weak fed and rampant greed on Wall Street turned this country into one mass beggar's camp? The appeal wasn't wrapped up in the tenets of communism, socialism or fascism for that matter, as a political alternative, but rather some form of government that offered social justice and a job. People sought out these organizations because they found themselves living in a country with a failed system of government and nowhere to turn for help. Fear was everywhere and consumed in quantity by everyone.
That same fear is back home to roost, only since 9/11 it has become pretty selective. It's so prevalent and insidious that we managed to not only undermine our own constitution, but our ideals and sense of reason as well. Yes, serious threats do exist -- in fact, they have always existed. Somewhere in that notion of individual freedom and democratic ideals, the very core of what we try so hard to sell ourselves and the world, is a fundamental caveat: the risks inherent to an open and tolerant society. And perhaps one other overlooked virtue: integrity. We're supposed to do the right thing at our own peril. That's how you earn the 'white hat' and the affirmation to wear it with pride.
So if we are that 'open and tolerant' society we cannot allow ourselves to be selective in the application of a high and lofty ideal. If congress wants to interrogate Islam and those that practice an alternative faith on the broad basis of affiliation and innuendo, then maybe next week we can haul in a few geriatric commies and what's left of the Beatles. Then we'll go after the Baptists, the born agains and those damn atheists...oh.
"First they came after my neighbor and I did not raise my voice. Then they came after my other neighbor and again, my voice was silent. Then, they came for me."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Road to Redundancy

Heard an interesting quote from an Egyptian lawyer in Cairo, who in a convoluted roundabout way managed to clarify the appeal of our uniquely American view of democracy...or whatever the hell the current system calls itself. He said, "I want my children to grow up and be able to elect leaders they can criticize."

Loved that statement. It seems that much of the struggling world admires our messy, inefficient, corrupt form of government -- certainly not for our ideals, which are rarely practiced in real time -- rather, because it allows us (in proper middle eastern form) to throw shoes at people with a certain degree of immunity. Concurrently, these same admirers of the system also despise us as a nation -- certainly with good cause -- for the way we tend to bully-boy our way around the world's neighborhoods. This is further complicated by our definition of 'friend.' Actually, we don't have a working definition. We only befriend inanimate objects...oil, copper, natural gas, bauxite...someplace to park an aircraft carrier. We only ask that you refrain from killing our people. Killing your own, well...

The point here is the Egyptian lawyer's comment and how that defines an outsider's view of America. What are we doing right now in this country other than overthrowing ourselves? Elements of the conservative right, the Tea Party, attacks on unions and public employee pension funds, no federal budget, pissing contents in several states...blah, blah. This is all indicative of a reactionary response to a whole lot of socio-political discord at just about any level you care to identify. An economic schism is breaking this country into self-protective camps of not-so-special, but almost desperate interests.

Maybe we need to put this country in dry dock and scrape the shit off the hull. What happened to the middle of the road anyway? A lot of rumbling has always existed about our chronically broken two-party system -- yo-yo democracy as I call it, but some middle ground did seem to flourish occasionally. Now we have gone from yo-yo democracy to the heaven and/or hell system where the only badge of inclusion is the ability to disagree with anything and everything that has an ounce of common sense wrapped around it. All in the mighty interest of dogma. It's not wrong because it is a bad idea, it's wrong because a Republican didn't think of it...or a Democrat, both of whom find themselves hiding out at the radical outskirts of both their party and their thinking. This is trench warfare.

America has always been the dog pound of the world. This country was founded by folks who found themselves persecuted in other lands. People who experienced economic privations, religious intolerance, feared for their lives or their sanity -- sought at extreme peril to give their children something better. And to stand in the bright light of personal freedom -- of thought, of ideals, of a God of their choosing. And an opportunity to break out of poverty and ignorance and hell, make a buck.

What's happened to that? The middle class has virtually vanished -- more accurately downsized, or in the creative economics of voodoo math, the bar has simply been moved upward. Middle class now means that you have to make 250k a year. Think I'm kidding? Trot down to the bank and find out for yourself. Our venerable Congress, duly sworn to uphold something -- nobody is sure what -- boasts a stunning list of accomplishments, topped by virtually legislating the foreclosure on your house -- because, "some things are too big to fail." And others are too small to matter.

Now that they've taken your home and your retirement portfolio, they want your pension. They also want to keep your children stupid and your elderly neighbor shopping in the cat food aisle. Certain people want to dismantle Obamacare because they say there is a difference between something that might be broken and the alternative -- which is non-existent at the moment. They want to throw the baby out the window with the bath water rather than trying to improve on the efforts of people that actually had the guts to take on the deficiencies inherent to our health care system.

And education? It's comparable to mugging children on Halloween. We're supposed to be a nation of ideas -- doers, thinkers -- cutting edge stuff. What are we really doing? We specialize in under valuing the need for education through chronic under-funding. We then fire teachers in order save the asses of the very bastards that just stole your house! And people in government brag about the salvation of General Motors, while your kid sits in a classroom with 43 other students, half of which can't speak English, much less spell it. But that's a good thing. Because they may never really understand that half the bigotry in this country is not aimed at them -- or some group, or a different race, or opposing ideology or religion, but at intelligence itself. We are producing far too many children that have the intellectual curiosity of a dead spider. Disagree? Spend ten-minutes watching Maury Povich open DNA tests for an audience that actually applauds the antics of people with the collective IQ of a fence post. And we celebrate this garbage as entertainment, instead of recognizing it as a symptom of something far worse.

I see much of this as a 'self-deserving prophesy.' In far too many cases we fail to elevate both the ideals and the principles that others seem to champion in our place. We seem to be a broken dynasty that has never embraced, in full appreciation of the stakes, that all systems require maintenance and perseverance as an element of a living society. We are all standing alone, paralyzed in our sacred individuality, while the nation slides forcibly and imperceptibly toward the opposite poles of reason.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Things Could Get Ugly (Uglier?)

Events in Libya seem to be dragging out a lot longer than people had hoped for. For the people of Libya, that is not good news. Factional in-fighting and the recalcitrance of Ghadafi himself could greatly escalate the number of civilian casualties, though at this point it is nearly impossible to identify civilians as such. Everybody looks like a combatant.

A few oddities about Ghadafi: The first is that nobody in the media can settle on how to spell his name -- seen at least three, maybe four versions. Another matter came up when an associate asked, "How come he's just a colonel?" I think his rank was self-imposed as he did begin life as a socialist, and has managed to spin a lot of mileage out of his own version of an 'egalitarian society' -- only difference being that his version of socialism is practiced with $60 billion in various off-shore banks. Well, $30 billion after the US seized a few accounts.

Another item that got lost in my shuffle was that al qaeda tried to assassinate him about 20 years ago. Ghadafi had a rather interesting relationship with the various radical elements of Islam, in that he financed and gave shelter and sanctuary to many of these fighters. But it seems that they quickly became competition in his own theater of revolution, particularly in the case of Osama bin Laden. Pan-Arabism was one thing, but an Islamic revolution was quite another animal in Ghadafi's eyes. An Islamic jihad was not particularly palatable to an Arab (Libyan) nationalist. Ghadafi couldn't see himself relegated to the back burner -- one fish among many, so he sicked his security forces on al qaeda and removed them from the country. They in turn, attempted to kill him. The whole affair seemed like a Clint Eastwood western.

At this point, the call for outside intervention is growing feverish on quite a few fronts. It seems that few Arab countries would object. On one hand, Libya's problems are an excellent distraction from their own internal problems, but at this point, no nation, Islamic or otherwise is going to offer even lip service to the Ghadafi regime. And on all nation's minds is the question of just how long the world can afford to stand by and watch. Previous events in the Balkans, Rwanda and the Congo serve to remind us just how costly the seat on the sidelines can be. It is rapidly approaching a point where conversation needs to be tabled and action begin.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Real Price of Bread

Thought I'd take a break from Ghadafi-bashing to look at a problem that most Americans tend to not notice on those weekly trips to Safeway. The price of grain -- grain that is turned into flour, that in turn creates a loaf of bread. A staple throughout the world.
Most Americans wouldn't take much notice if bread went up a nickel. Or a dime, a quarter, maybe even a dollar. We're like that. We just suck it up, bitch to the cashier and go home and make a sandwich.
World grain prices have been soaring. Strategic reserves (yeah, just like oil, only grain happens to be edible) are shrinking -- in some cases (like the Middle East and North Africa) non-existent -- some of the besieged governments throwing the reserves on local markets as an appeasement to very unhappy citizens. In countries like Saudi Arabia, the reserves are gone.
Other issues are also at play. Weather conditions are high on the list. Russia's drought of last year has forced the country to go from producer to importer. Severe weather conditions in Australia, Pakistan, Latin and South America have added to world shortages. Speculators are busy manipulating these volatile markets in an endless search for quick profits. China has become a huge consumer of grain stocks -- along with everything else -- their needs are great and due to world economic conditions, they are cash heavy and food poor.
And one other surprise: the proliferation of bio-fuels. The majority are produced from grain stocks -- put another way -- food stocks. This puts the petro-chemical industries and refineries in direct competition with food producers for agricultural commodities. And it is a double hit, for the production of bio-fuels has been shown to be a contributor to the very climate changes that are under indictment for crop destruction around the world. Converting food into fuel is no different than what many vegetarians lament about the western diet: "Instead of eating the cow, why not eat what the cow eats instead."
Philosophy hardly matters here. Starvation does. You take that nickel or dime and add it to the cost of a bushel of wheat in the developing world, and it becomes a dire struggle between mere subsistence and the social destruction reaped by an insidious and selective famine. Despots and dictators are capable of creating all sorts of chaos in their own neighborhood, but it pales in comparison to the havoc that can be reaped by a simple loaf of bread.

Friday, February 25, 2011

NATO Through the Back Door Again

A Little Incidental History on Libya

I love flags. This one belonged to the old province of Tripolitania on the northwestern coast of Libya, hence the shortened capitol name, Tripoli. Following WW I, it was annexed as an Italian colony, one of the few pieces of real estate that the Italians managed to capture. Like most land grabs, this one was done under the guise of saving the Ottoman Wilayats from...well, apparently some other Ottomans. Seems the Ottoman Sultan was in the rather uncomfortable position of having picked the wrong side in 'the big war,' and Turkish nationalism was just hitting the prickly-going-on-dangerous period of its development. The movement was headed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk -- 1st President of what would become a modern and secular nation-state. Kemal himself could fill two or three pages on his own, but the point here is that if he didn't make a move following WW I, the big powers would turn Turkey into a garage sale.

Back to Italy in Libya. By 1920, both the Sultan & the Caliphate (more on that later) were sent somewhere more sympathetic, and while Italy granted Tripolitania a degree of autonomy, they quickly reneged on the deal and occupied the territory. WW II trashed the whole area and Libya was pretty much occupied by allied forces until about 1947. Most of the Italians were sent home. 1951 saw the establishment of Libya as a constitutional monarchy of sorts. Oil was discovered, the king got a little too rich and it seemed like BP, Chevron & the US Air Force were running the place. While the King was being medically treated in Turkey (1969), a young Gadhafi & some military buddies staged a coup. Arab nationalism was on the rise and running fast throughout the middle east and northern Africa.

Now to the present and probably the real point at hand. First we had the 'Great Game' with all its various ramifications, intentional diversions and subterfuge. Once the Soviet Union swallowed its own tongue and left the US as the predominant military power in the world, the UN playing field didn't really level out -- just tilted a little more toward the scary idea of independent thinking making an impact on that indecisive mob hunkered down in New York. Nobody was offering 'free bridges to nowhere' -- at least in the short term. At the same time, China was elevated to the 'big table,' allowing it the opportunity to finally be a 'deal-breaker.' The changing world structure also seemed (emphasis on seemed) to render NATO a little redundant as a military deterrent to the Red (now red, white & blue) Menace.

So a couple of Bush [es] and probably creative folks like sure-shot Dick Cheney thought, "Gee, the UN won't cooperate on our invasion plans, so lets use NATO." We should remember here that NATO means 'North Atlantic Treaty Organization' and its stated manifesto is to defend western Europe from the not-so-red menace. Basically, a mutual-defense treaty.

That brings up two important questions: What's NATO doing in Afghanistan when that country is south, not north and a damn long way from any ocean, much less the Atlantic one. And second, why would a NATO spokesperson state today that, "[Libya] is in our immediate neighborhood," that statement inferring some kind of legitimate agenda for...what? Hopefully just a geography quiz. And both questions are rhetorical.

So what we have in NATO, I guess, is our own little United Nations, and since we probably finance most of the costs for defending the North Atlantic through our branch offices in Kabul and Baghdad, everybody dances to the music. Seems the only solution is to have the UN denounce NATO as a mercenary force. Gee, it sort of is actually.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Much Ado About Everything -- Punting the Pundints

Where to Begin?

Looking a Little Worn

Hate it when my router explodes on a great news day. Ah, Libya. Interesting debate today between Ted Koppel & someone forgettable from a DC think-tank on...I'm not sure really. Seemed like it was foreign policy with an emphasis on foreign -- to the ear. For the most part Koppel seemed irritated (nothing unusual) and the other guy had a bad habit of interrupting everybody -- hence the former.

The debate (this is going on over at the White House as well) is centered on 'what to do?' Buying 'oil futures' seems pretty smart, but profiteering wasn't the real subject at hand -- or was it? Certain folks were crying for intervention -- maybe create a 'no fly zone,' a fig boycott -- something resembling a decision wrapped in a sentence.'s the problem:

The Great Game

Sometime around 1990 or so, the Game kind of changed. In case you're wondering what sport we're talking about, it is roughly a competition involving pimps and prostitutes. The pimps were the United States and the Soviet Union, the 'girls' -- well, whoever that wanted to play. The goal (murky as it seemed) was to stack the UN with malleable (though pathetically crooked) despots, dictators and barn burners who would be more than happy to vote on a pimp's resolution to say, ah, bomb Cambodia without permission. In exchange, they got a bridge to nowhere, a water purification plant without any water, or the best: obsolete big power military hardware that negated any need for honest, dishonest or really, any kind of elections. This was how colonialism branched out into imperialism and other naughty stuff. This went on blatantly for over forty years -- the more subtle stuff lurking in the background -- most notably: "Who's got the oil?" Or, who's going to keep Israel from causing trouble, or, who's going to off-set Iranian influence or, where the hell can I keep the 5th Fleet so it can defend the oil...see where this is going.

That leaves the US as a pretty dishonest broker and a lousy friend overall. You could also blame the Soviet Union, but we know what happened to that experiment. So, over at the State Department where every other sentence contains the word "unacceptable" no plan exists because that would require a rather unpalatable side-note or two on past/current affairs. Those kind of confessionals are normally conducted with a priest -- not American voters.

If Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen don't dwell on the origins of their unique political problems too long, they might offer friendship at some future date. Or not. A certain kind of stench hangs over their need to revolt and it has an American odor to it. One can only hope that in the longer run that these folks can be better people than our example in the conduct of international relations.

Muammar Gadhafi, aka 'Guide of the First September Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.' Gotta remember that Gadhafi is (was) both a socialist and a big fan of pan-Arabism. Certainly a megalomaniac -- and not short of cash. Dangerous combination. He did follow a sort of socialist/Islamist ideology for a time in the early years, but it morphed into more of a nationalist platform once it became apparent that he wasn't going to be Emporer of Africa. Given his past, and more importantly, his personality, it is not likely that he will follow Murbarak's example and quietly go on vacation. The assumption is that he covets the shroud of the martyr -- a goal that hopefully will be reached sometime soon.
At the moment, the US should probably do little other than to try to protect US nationals in the area and offer what humanitarian resources that might seem feasible -- which is probably nothing, given the instability in the current situation. Libya's military is fractured into various camps and the presence of mercenaries only adds to the chaos. Quite likely -- and shortly it seems -- the military, or factions thereof, will press their own agenda and unlike Egypt, it quite likely could become factional. Libya is a tribal state, which given the absence of a strong central leadership figure (like Gadhafi), the country could easily Balkanize -- opening up the possibility of worsening violence and bloodshed.
So, the US has a lot to ponder. How does one not engage The Great Game in all the nasty forms it adopts? The problem with international engagement is that force and naivety are both unacceptable in the conduct of geo-political conversations. One is deemed bullying and the other viewed as weakness. Yet, the US remains the model for struggling democracies around the world -- in spite of the associated scorn. It's a paradox. If we don't (as a policy) manipulate the world system -- then what becomes of those that struggle? It seems that bad faith sometimes serves a purpose if you can just survive that long process of getting to the destination on your own steam.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Buy the Army a 7-11 Franchise

Interesting background material emerging on the Egyptian Military. Seems they have a few outside interests including farms, factories, resorts -- probably a cable shopping network. Finally explains why they went along with the Egyptian/Israeli peace accord. War is bad for business!! Same negative impact on squashing revolutions. Can't shoot your own customers!

Might drop President Obama a note. Could cut defense spending by 60-70% if we let the Pentagon open some KFC franchises around Kabul. Just a thought.

ADDENDUM: How could I be so dumb? We need to offer the franchises to the Taliban. Get these guys going on commerce and they'll probably lose interest in shooting their customers. Of course, like I said, they'll still need some electricity.

More on Afghanistan: Cairo vs. Kabul. Can't imagine Afghans taking to the streets with signs reading "Oppress me! Oppress me!" Don't see that notion gaining much traction. Plus, there is the problem with the word 'fundamentalist.' Root word: 'fundamental.' Discount the prefix 'fun.' Doesn't work here. Fundamental means basic. Leaves out any room for discussion, which is a moot point if you have managed to deny a population the other fundamentals: readin,' writin' and arithmetic. If you stretch both my lines of thinking here the dots do connect.

Best to the Egyptian people. The really hard work begins today. It is going to take more patience and civility than anyone can possibly imagine.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wrong Speech!

Seems Hosni Mubarak wrote two speeches and recited the wrong one. Midway through it was pretty evident that he didn't have a bus ticket out of Cairo. He may soon wish otherwise. But to be fair, giving up power, particularly at someone else's request (well, a lot of 'someone's), is both difficult and not particularly palatable. Plus, there is the part where delusion has either set in, or has been a continuing element of the psychosis that develops in the mind of those who cherish absolute power. Whatever the motivation may be, it should be remembered that his faults should be weighed against the positives. He has maintained a very delicate treaty with Israel -- not happily, mind you, but a great many lives have been allowed to go forward by the very endurance of that agreement. Okay, credit where due, but he needs to go. Popular uprisings will not accept 'maybe tomorrow' as a credible alternative. Ignition has occurred.

Now the tricky part. Two things: His call for constitutional change to necessitate his departure is both a marginal truth and a whole bunch of smoke. The country has been under 'national emergency' administration for...a damn long time. That negates the power and authority of a constitution anyway since most provisions went out the window with the bath water. I'm pretty sure there are a few adults around to manage an interim government until substantive changes can be made. That cannot happen with a half-million people tossing bricks at each other. That stifles most kinds of constructive engagement.

Secondly, and far more problematic is the military. Fence-sitting is not a military attribute. It is quite likely that they will stage a coupe as the only available option in restoring some kind of order. History shows that when the military is forced to execute this option, they are not likely to surrender power in anything resembling the short term. Egypt could offer a separate or somewhat diluted paradigm, but nobody can bet on that at this point.

Another possibility exists. A split within the military. This is perhaps the most dangerous of scenarios in that the general population could get caught in the crossfire. If Murburak goes, other folks (including segments of the military elite) may be requested to join him. Thirty years of enmeshed relationships in a power arrangement is bound to create a number of mutually self-serving relationships and a whole bunch of insecurity. Who falls and who remains standing? Scary shit shows up here.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Media Misfires All the Way Around

I often wonder if anyone (except perhaps NPR) can ever again discover the true value of in-depth reporting, semi-in-depth or maybe even scraping the surface of a story with a dull knife-type-in-depth, though the latter would be about a cross between an oxymoron and a catatonic delusion. Of course, this is America and if you can't find the truth in under three-seconds, then it probably isn't worth finding anyway.

First item: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As soon as somebody put 'Muslim' and 'Brotherhood' in the same sentence, mass hysteria erupted over the possibility of an Islamic state in Egypt. Sorry, population is too young and far too educated. Besides, the Muslim Brotherhood is more akin to an Elk's Club in a dry county. Same thing if you found five conservative Republicans standing on a street corner in front of an abortion clinic. What, the building is going to explode? Journalists need to do their homework. And yes, the Muslim Brotherhood needs to be included in any political settlement on Egypt's future. They are Egyptians after all.

Second item: This is a little funny in a twisted sort of way. Al Jazeera (one of the primary media outlets for the Islamic world) has had kind of an odd niche in both reporting and commenting on issues both inside the Islamic world and how the Islamic world views world issues. Americans have always viewed their reporting as slanted and bias. (Gosh, ours isn't?) Well last week in a rather odd turn, Hezbollah accused Al Jazeera of biased reporting over the organization's actions in Lebanon. Al Jazeera seems to be caught between a kind of group nepotism and a more progressive sign of modern realities: credibility.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Happy Birthday Ron!

Ronald Reagan turns 100. Probably the only Republican I ever voted for in a presidential election. Mostly because I am an optimistic cynic, a political agnostic and find ideas far more appealing than affiliations.

I often credited Reagan with ending the Cold War. And of course, Gorbachev as well. They each played a unique role in the unraveling of an empire, but hindsight (always perfect) and foresight (fraught with danger) really makes me think that access to information (communication) destroyed the party line. It also proved that the only person you can brainwash is yourself. The old idea of mass indoctrination to any way of thinking is categorically flawed. It is why two people can't own the same secret. The moment the Berlin Wall cracked, all bets were off. What had really trapped these folks for 40 years was bullets, barbed-wire and hopelessness. Ideology was merely static on the line. However, in the very beginning, socialism did hold a kind of beguiling charm. More on that later.

Social Security going broke? How about this: Got my pathetic list of income & expected benefits for my 'golden years' the other day. Here's what I'm thinking. I have no relatives or beneficiaries, etc. Social Security is going to hand out $255 to nobody in particular when I tip over dead. The rest they are going to keep. Why couldn't I get something like a reverse mortgage on my body, whereas I either promise to eat really healthy from now on -- or more realistically, get half the money up front and promise to drop dead in five years. I mean, there must be a lot of people that only make it to 64 7/8 years of age -- then boom! It ends up in your neighbor Bob's account and you don't even like the son of a bitch. Anyway, just a thought.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Little More Musing in South Asia

Funny, but just today Pakistan's nuclear capacity found it's way into the news again. Seems they have been busier than most people might have assumed. By recent accounts, Pakistan has probably achieved nuclear (warhead) parity with India. That's not particularly alarming in itself as Pakistan maintains the 'nuclear card' as a deterrent to India's overwhelming advantage in conventional forces and to a lesser degree, India's geographic insulation. The latter deals primarily with delivery system capability, which remains questionable where Pakistan is concerned. Still, that conventional superiority that India possesses comes with a risk. It creates an imbalance (similar to the overwhelming conventional forces of the Soviet Union in eastern Europe during the warmer chapters of the Cold War) and such asymmetrical relationships have the capacity to initiate a nuclear option by the weaker antagonist. That's the real downside of deterrence as it leaves Pakistan with a 'first use' option virtually by default.

It is also important to remember that India's nuclear ambitions were not fueled by issues with Pakistan, but rather China. These two fought some rather sharp border clashes in (I believe) the 1980's. India's need for a credible deterrence against China actually created Pakistan's own need against a nuclear-armed India. This was what the theory of 'non-proliferation' was hoping to avoid, but who is going to surrender the option first, or better yet, actually believe the intentions of the other party? That's exactly why we carried on a Cold War with the Soviets for some 40-odd years. Trust is hard to find here.

Oh -- World view of India and Pakistan is not concurrent with the antagonist's view of each other. India is also viewed as a 'status quo' power. Pakistan isn't. That makes for an unhealthy assumption or two.

On Afghanistan -- I alluded to the Texas electrical co-ops of the 1940-50's. Just to be clear, they were not financially successful, but they were established just the same.

Something to consider: Afghanistan's literacy rate runs about 25-28%. That may be optimistic. This plays well into the hands of the fundamentalists because ignorance and fear are a formidable force and they know how to use it. They've been pretty successful at it with us. Can't get on a plane without getting your spleen photographed. Egypt's literacy runs about 66.4%. Democracy requires educated participants. America has been fiddling around with the concept for over 200-years and it is still screwed up. For Afghanistan, we need to forget the adults and put a hard press on the children. It will take at least a generation (maybe 30 years) to form a nucleus of a literate public in that country. Turn on the juice -- turn off the rhetoric. Only then will the Afghan people really control their own destiny.

No, not an easy task. But then the really difficult jobs never are.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Always the 'Why' Question About Afghanistan

Recently I responded to a commentary written by Tom Gallagher at, a site I cruise through occasionally and sometimes contribute content. The 'why' question came up in a December 10th piece and I wanted to expand on my own comments here, primarily because far too many Americans favor the knee-jerk analysis of their favorite pundit or simply offer the Vietnam paradigm -- neither of which will put this conflict into a worthy perspective. Try this one instead:

"The 'why' question always seems to top the list when it comes to Afghanistan. The answer is both simple and complicated. One word answers both sides of this weathered argument and it tends to inhabit the complicated side of things: Pakistan.

I think it is also important to remember that this conflict was an inheritance and not an instigation -- as such, not a direct agenda by the current administration, but rather part of an on-going security status quo. As such, President Obama's options are limited by the ramifications of any sort of timely withdrawal, regardless of the popularity of such a move by many Americans.

What we have in the area are two nuclear-armed antagonists (Pakistan & India), parked in a pretty volatile section of the planet. It is estimated that 100-180 combined nuclear devices exist in both nation's stockpiles. For a decade or so, India has been the jilted lover in the three-way relationship that has existed between India, Pakistan and the US. Most of this is due to 'our' perceived need to prop up the Pakistani government as a foil against both the Taliban and Pakistan's own fundamentalist factions. If the Taliban manage to prevail in Afghanistan, what will stop these elements from pushing a similar agenda in Pakistan? And how will India react? And further, how will the US respond to a radical Islamic state with a readymade nuclear capability? That's a lot of cards stacked on one very small table.

However, some options due exist on a viable exit strategy. The events of the last few weeks in both Tunisia & Egypt (and apparently in Jordan) do offer an interesting alternative to holding onto Afghanistan at the point of a gun: Electricity. As reported last year (Mother Jones) the Afghans themselves (in a rather broad-based internal survey) when asked, placed electricity (and what it meant for communication, education & discourse) at the top of their 'wish' list. Things like internet and satellite communication & cell systems. Peace was about third on the list, in a somewhat odd tie with American/coalition withdrawal.

The real question then is, "Why not?" If the US could electrify Texas in the 1940-50's through electrical co-ops (the user being invested in the system), then the same could be said for Afghanistan. The Taliban thrives on both the inability of the average Afghan to communicate internally and the far more dangerous consequences that result from an under-educated populous, ignorance a pernicious enemy of the truth.

It would seem realistic to assume that the Afghan people would not only rally to this cause, but defend the infrastructure as well. They would finally be invested in the technology that has proven so powerful in bringing both political discourse -- and perhaps meaningful change -- to both Tunisia and Egypt. Perhaps then, the Afghan people could finally have the resources needed for an honest conversation on the future of their country.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Shameless Commerce Department

Coming in April 2011...or there abouts. More on this later.

Okay, it's later. Horses, historical malfunctions & cannibal recipes.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Taking Over the Radio Station

The Mummy Dons a Beret

It seems the Revolutionary's Handbook is still a viable guideline for popular (political) revolts. Down in sub-section 12, paragraph 14 is rule number 7: take over the radio stations first. Or in this case, Facebook, e-mail, tweets, and the various cell providers. Once you control communication on a vast (really, national) scale, you control the flow of information -- your idea of what constitutes necessary information. Oddly, the same strategy (intentional or not) played a very large role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, albeit, the tools were a little less sophisticated: the early internet and satellite television. I, like others, probably gave Reagan a little too much credit for downsizing the Red Menace. He certainly upped the ante on the price of financing a continued Cold War, but in the end it seemed more like a case of access to information by a population starved of the truth -- well, bananas too. Which brings us back to the old Manual.

Section 1, about the fourth paragraph offers this bit of wisdom: "Revolutions never begin when the boot of oppression is stamped firmly on your face." They actually start when that small crack of light peers from under the door. The light is called 'expectations.' In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev was that glimmer of light, his policy of Glasnost amounting to the first crack in the ideological cement of that 40-year old monstrosity known as the Iron Curtain. I doubt that he fully understood the ramifications of what he unleashed at that particular moment -- a revolution that ultimately swept away the USSR, and almost cost him his life. Boris Yeltsin completed the transition, but only after certain segments of the old Soviet military establishment, including Gen. Alexander Lebed's 14th Army stood down, thus allowing for a fairly non-violent restructuring. Other cicumstances, and perhaps other leadership could have resulted in almost apocolyptic results. The showdown in Moscow had an immediate effect for millions of Russians, but a very edgy West was far more interested in just who was in control of the nuclear codes -- not to mention the strategic nuclear forces now in de facto foreign hands -- far from Moscow's central control. So as Russia's future lie in flux in the fall of 1993, virtually at the whim of the military, so lies Egypt's revolutionary ambitions today. While the stakes are not as high for the world at large, they are of paramount importance for the future of the Egyptian people -- and ultimately the stability of a volatile region.

Egypt had probably been at the 'tipping point' for at least a decade, though like many oppressive regimes nothing internal (or probably external) offered the sort of incindiary spark to break a rather marginal status quo. Then Tunisia exploded. While the overthrow of the Tunisian government did offer certain triggers for the social unrest that had been brewing in Egypt, the most powerful message to come out of Tunis was, "Yes, we can and here's how!"

Communication. From the seemingly ancient days of Radio Free Europe and the ever-tenacious BBC to somebody's wall on Facebook saying, "I'm not going to take it anymore!" In some ways the message has finally merged with the messenger, which should probably be a fairly harsh warning for the despots and barn burners of the world. Yet couched in this ominous signal is a warning for all governments, democratic or not. When mass communication meets mass anger on an open line, negotiation may cede its perceived civilty to the power of those shaking fists. It is a process that bears watching.