Is 2014 a tipping point?

With Russia “invading” (in quotes because right now we don’t know if it’s official yet) the Crimea and the 20th century spectre of the Soviet War Machine raising its head within Ukraine, there are a lot of interesting and very good articles out there about the situation, like this one at The Bridge and another by Robert Kagan from Brookings. They and a great many others coming out are actually focusing less on the Ukrainian situation and more on how we’re finally witnessing firsthand “the decline of America as a superpower.” I won’t pretend to have their credentials and expertise, but I do have some opinions and comments on the subject.

First, I don’t believe America is declining as a superpower. We may well be choosing not to exercise that power as freely as we did in the past, but even with the proposed cuts in the American military, the ability to project power – be it by aircraft carrier, cruise missile, aircraft or ICBM – is still there, and even if we’re shrinking in numbers, the technological capability continues to increase (even if we have a terrible habit of fielding it before it’s truly ready). There may well be damned good reasons for arguing against forces cuts, but frankly, “we can’t go back to pre-World War Two levels” isn’t one of them. Ignoring the point it’s an observation, not an argument, I propose that today’s Soldier/Marine, with enhanced body armor, comms, GPS and weaponry, is more capable and powerful than a platoon or more of WWII, Korea or Vietnam-era troops, so the straight-numbers comparison is fallacious. As none of our current adversaries have our levels of technology, experience and capability, I still say we have the cutting edge in all mediums of war, possibly excepting cyberspace, and in spite of the recessions and downturns, our economic power continues to be unparalleled.

Next, the reason we’re not exercising that power is due to the will of the American people. As has been shown in the past, after every major conflict America gets understandably war-weary, wanting to come home, lick her wounds and bury and mourn her dead. That is what’s happening here. After 13 years of war, we’re tired, and I can’t disagree with what seems to be a widely-held opinion that we need to pull back and focus on ourselves for a while; work a little harder at putting our own house in order, and maybe a bit of our backyard and areas and topics where we have a compelling national interest, but more on that later.

What does this mean for Ukraine? Unfortunately, not a lot from the American corner. I’m a huge advocate of diplomacy, and especially exhausting diplomacy before going the military-action route, but I don’t feel it’s going to work here, at least not to the benefit of the Ukrainians. Russia isn’t in the mood for talking, and they know we’re war-weary and are not about to put boots-on-ground in Russia’s backyard, so they’re going to take the Crimea and they’re going to get it. What’s unknown is how far they’re going to push regarding taking at least eastern Ukraine or possibly the whole damn country along with it. What’s more likely to affect that equation is less what we’re doing and more on what Europe will do. This is Europe’s backyard as well, and you can be damn sure all the former Eastern Bloc nations are getting little beads of perspiration on their foreheads and wondering if they’re next. After most – but not all – of Europe leaning on the US all these years, expecting us to put our neck out, it’s time to grow some cajones and step up, and decide just how much western-style Democracy for your neighbors is worth to you.

However, in spite of the tragedy going on in Ukraine, I’m not finding many people talking about the greater strategic situation. The first article I cited above is one, but most are using Ukraine to lament our great demise as we’re about to be swallowed up into the history books. Russia isn’t the only one who’s been pushing the status quo lately – and Russia has been pushing, reestablishing military maneuvers, patrols and provocations not seen since the 1980s. China as well has been dipping its toe into provocative waters the past few years, culminating (for now) in this year’s establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) extending well past internationally-recognized territorial waters and more reminiscent of its ancient dynastic reaches. Along with the airspace, it’s making great efforts to claim oceanic zones well past the 12-mile limit, and is willing to come very close to direct confrontation with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam to do so. And why? Because like Russia, China can see the American cycle and knows that while we’ll posture and rant, we won’t act. Per the title of this post, I ask the question: do these events signify a tipping point, and into what? A lessening of American influence in certain parts of the world, or an outright new Cold War? I hope and believe it’s the former, but I can’t discount the latter. A major geo-political shift, or just ripples on the global pond? Time will tell.

So is the US developing a more isolationist outlook a bad thing, at least in terms of compelling US interests? Hard to say. Perhaps it will encourage Europe to take some risks with Russia. Perhaps it will push Japan, South Korea and the SE Asian nations into a military NATO-esque treaty much more formal, binding and important than the current ASEAN, which is just political and economic. Perhaps it will force the Middle East to finally do something about Iran and its financing of nearly every subversive group in the region. What does it mean to the US and our closest allies? It may well mean that since we’re unwilling to face more years of conflict – that we need a breather – we’ll have to accept ceding certain geo-political portions of the spectrum to our adversaries and deal with them down the road when, admittedly, they’ll be entrenched and it will be much harder. But maybe not that much harder, or one could even speculate the problem could take care of itself while we’re in a pseudo-isolationist mode. After all, Russia’s economy is still in poor shape, and any expansion attempts – which seem, in the Russian tradition, to be likely to include a lot of military forces – could see the whole country economically implode again a’ la 1989. And the Chinese have established a reputation for themselves as well: they go into developing countries with a lot of capital, improving the lives of the populations there, but their arrogance quickly makes it clear they see their “investments” as inferiors, and so prospects for long-term relationships wither as the indigenous populations realize the Chinese will never view them as equals, but merely resources to be expended as needed.

And as for us? The will of the people seems to be clear, if not a mandate: end the long wars, bring our troops home, focus on our economy and bringing jobs and manufacturing back to the US (and if you don’t believe that’s a priority for Americans, check out how fast Mike Rowe’s and his mikeroweWORKS Foundation pages have been growing). In spite of our greatness, we’re not perfect, and there are areas where we are surpassed in other parts of the world: aspects of education, health care (and I’m NOT delving into a health care debate here!), and seemingly small but actually very important things like parental maternity leave.

Along with getting our own house in order, maybe it’s also a chance to help our closest neighbors and build security in our own neighborhood. The Ukraine situation has largely overshadowed the revolutionary events happening in Venezuela this week (who also happens to be our biggest oil supplier; talk about your strategic interests!); Cuba is enacting more and more reforms, and it just may need an economic push to take it over the top; Columbia was once synonymous with drug lords and drug wars and it now a thriving nation (with admittedly some lingering problems), and the southern South American (is that redundant?) nations of Brazil, Argentina and Chile could be economic powerhouses and powerful allies, with a little help, assistance and advice.

As always it is, in the end, in the hands of the American people. We – and our votes and polls – will decide, and the whole world will, to different extents, have to live with our decision.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Syria – Six Questions Our Leaders Should Be Asking, and We Should Be Discussing

Since the use of chemical weapons (hereafter referred to as CW) in Syria, it’s been front page news as the US government and populace, as well as the international community at large, addresses the issues, actions and consequences.  Per various forms of media, global society at large seems completely worn out on conflict and is largely against the idea of direct action, pressuring their governments to the point where most international partners are bowing out of the idea.  Here in the US, no matter which spin of media you follow there does seem to be a majority against a direct strike by both the populace and Congress.

There are actually valid arguments for both acting against and staying out of Syria.  For starters, Syria is a sovereign nation, and this is an internal conflict; in other words, none of our damn business.  We didn’t care when the Syrian regime was just using bullets; why should we care now?  Of course it’s because Assad stepped on the old CW trip-wire, taking this from a (sadly) rather common Middle Eastern civil war to a topic of international concern.  Also, since World War Two the US has both been seen and proclaimed itself as the world’s policeman.  Acting or not acting in this situation will either maintain that status, or possibly dissolve it, as stepping aside will make us inconsistent in that role.  It may very well permanently change our international status and perception – and that may not be a bad thing. 

Many years ago, in the early 1990s when I was a student, I was passed an article written by Philip A. Crowl at the US Air Force Academy in 1978.  Originally discussing Vietnam, it’s titled “The Strategist’s Short Catechism:  Six Questions Without Answers” and the full online text can be found at http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiug.30112106658633;view=1up;seq=1. Those six questions – questions any senior decision-maker or military leader should ask before entering a conflict, seem to be even more relevant in light of current events.

To summarize, the six questions must all be answerable before entering a military situation if one is to have hope of success.  They should be being asked by our nation’s leadership, and they should be being discussed by our populace.  The six questions, in summary (and all should be considered quotes or paraphrases from Crowl’s article), are:

1)       What is it about?  What specific national interests and policy objectives are served by the proposed military action?  How is the value attached to those interests and objectives, and what is their fair price – are these objectives and interests worth the price that war more often than not demands?

2)      Is the national military strategy tailored to meet the national policy objectives?  Does the military means meet the political ends?  Does the military know how far to go, or when to stop (either in physical location, or in level of force)?

3)      What are the limits of military power?  Is the military being asked to do something it cannot achieve?  This often goes against the military – and overall American – “can do” attitude, and so can be hard to face.

4)      What are the alternatives?  Not only diplomacy and negotiation, but have all the possible military strategies been considered, or only the favorite or most popular?  War should always be the last resort of politics, not the first.

5)      How strong is the home front?  Does public opinion support the war and the military strategy employed to fight it?  How much stress can civilian society endure under the pressures of the wartime sacrifices demanded?  Can it plausibly be explained as a “just war?”

6)      Does today’s strategy overlook points of difference and exaggerate points of likeness between past and present?  What are the lessons of experience?  Has concern over past success and failures developed into a neurotic fixation that blinds the strategist to changed circumstances requiring new and different responses?

So where do I stand on this (because it would be unfair to criticize without putting forth my own views)?  The American people (and their politicians) tend to take a very short view on current events.  This doesn’t mean their objection to attacking Syria is wrong, but they should also be aware that if, at their urging, the US government takes no action against Syrian CW stores and activities, they really have no cause to go pointing fingers if – a few years down the road – a Syrian terrorist (or terrorist supplied by the Syrians) drops a CW device on a US overseas base, or even within the US.  After all, you had your chance, and decided – justifiably at the time – it wasn’t worth it.  Therefore, while my belief is that the US government should respect the wishes of the American people, I personally think we should drop a few dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles on every Syrian CW factory, warehouse and convoy we can find, and lessen the greater threat as much as possible with the minimum loss of life and national treasure.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Another Politican Rant

My perception is that federal-level politicians are completely cut off from the average US citizen. Maybe it’s not solely their fault; perhaps their staffers filter out everything non-political before it gets to them, but I don’t think they’re “in touch” with anyone any more. I’m a centrist, but have friends and family from across the political spectrum from the far right to the far left and everywhere in between, but what I’ve been seeing over the past few months for the first time is that EVERYONE is sick of politicians. Even people I used to consider the “party faithful” on both sides – people who will vote their party’s candidate without even knowing the candidate’s details – are calling for mass ousters of Congress for incompetence. Personally, for the past few years I’ve been practicing a “vote out the incumbent whoever they are” philosophy and will continue to do so until I see someone start performing. For now, all they do is talk. I believe if a politician took a leap off the bandwagon and tried to do something for the greater good, something that showed they actually cared about their constituents rather than keeping their ratings up, they’d gain a huge following. Take for example if Senator Rubio of FL said “jobs are a problem in this country, and the employment scene in FL isn’t looking great, but there are tons of oil and oil-industry-related jobs in North Dakota right now. If you want a job, you should move there.” Sure, some communities and FL state officials would scream that he was ruining the state’s tax base by encourage emigration, but people would realize he actually cares about them having a job. I think he’d attract a lot of good attention because Americans would find it refreshing, kind of like if a member of Congress had actually stayed in DC and worked when Congress as a whole decided to take a 9-day vacation right before sequestration hit.

I used to be very interested in the Sunday morning political talk shows and interviews. Now, I feel like these guys aren’t even talking to the American people anymore; they’re only addressing their fellow politicians, attacking and defending, and for the most part we, the public, no longer give a shit because we know by their actions they’re not even talking to us or representing best interests. They’re either representing their own interests or those of their party. In a few cases, they’re representing their constituents’ interests, but generally for purposes of re-election and at a greater cost to Americans as a whole.

The big question is, will any of these guys ever realize how pathetic and untrustworthy the American people think they are?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

North Korea in the news again. After 60 years, shouldn’t we maybe try a new approach?

The North Koreans (NorKs) and Iran continue to be snarky and we continue hitting them with more and more sanctions and seeking to isolate them at greater levels. It didn’t work with Cuba 50 years ago, and it’s not going to work now. The key is engagement – draw them in, get their people exposed to what’s out there in the rest of the world. Make them hungry for it. Sure, the current regimes will claim victory and responsibility for bringing the 21st century to their people, but so what? The people are who matter, and once they see what’s out there, it’s the people who will make the change. Not immediately, but even if it takes a generation change will come. Americans just need to take a more strategic, longer view of the world.

To that end, I believe we should be engaging with these countries and every other country we’re seeking to influence. We should be funding – overtly or covertly – internet access and cafes at every opportunity, because we’ve seen what it leads to. Look at China – they “cracked” the door on the internet for their people just a wee bit, and then were unable to hold it closed, and now China has a burgeoning middle class and more democracy than they’ve ever had before. Is it American democracy? No, but it doesn’t need to be. They’re making their own style, and I feel it will continue to evolve as the average Chinese gets more access and the younger generations age and replace the older ones.

So for Cuba, lift the sanctions; let everyone vacation there. Cuba will get hard foreign currency, but more importantly, Cubans will all these Americans; how they act, how they live, and they’ll want it. Lift the sanctions on the condition of building telecommunications links and contracts with US companies and get the internet in there. For the NorKs, same thing: give them the food they need to keep their people from starving. If necessary, route it through Venezuela or some other nation they deem friendly, but tie it to establishing greater communications with the outside world: student exchanges and internet access. It will take years, but change will happen. It will likely be more of a Chinese-flavor or emergence than American, but so what? All we need is some flavor of democracy, since historically (and admittedly, “so far”), democracies don’t attack each other.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Whereas the Huffington Post goes from merely opinioned, to fiction.

Dear Huffington Post –

I’m writing to report an editorial error, and an ethical and PR one as well. Frankly, I’m disappointed in you. An avid reader for a long time, I can no longer just enjoy and ruminate on your various columns, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing with others’ opinions as I see fit. Now, I must question the actual integrity of what I read here.

Why? One name: David Wood. Mr Wood posted an op-ed piece several weeks ago (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/30/defense-budget-cuts_n_2584099.html). Rather than rebut portions of his opinion on the subject matter (something which JohnQPublic [http://www.jqpublic-blog.com/?p=212] did more eloquently than I could), I’m more upset with the Post than the column’s author. Why again? Because Mr Wood either lied or was lazy in his writing, and the Post doesn’t seem to care.

Sadly, I think many people – including myself – agree with his overall premise: there’s a lot of waste in the military and defense budget. However, citing an Army Master Sergeant with 10 years in service or a General with 16 years in service – a gaffe not only instantly recognizable by almost any military member or veteran, but something easy verifiable through Google in less than 60 seconds – makes the entire piece untrustworthy. Did he effectively lie by making up numbers that sounded good for the article, or did he cite another source and was lazy to bother with fact-checking? Regardless, he screwed up and hasn’t cared enough to correct the record.

Where the Post comes in is its lack of interest on the matter. Do I want you to fire Mr Wood or no longer accept his submissions? No. Do I want the Post to impale itself on its own sword? No. There’s a big difference between fault and responsibility, and the Post was not at fault for these errors; they’re Mr Wood’s own. However, the Post was responsible for them, and I’d appreciate the Post set a new standard (or reboot an old one) by accepting that responsibility publicly.

Frankly, it’s something too few individuals, companies and organizations (not to mention the government) do any more. It’s always “I misspoke” or “I was taken out of context,” or “it’s the internet; if we ignore it, it’ll be off everyone’s radars in a week.” It’s amazing how much forgiveness you can receive and how much respect you can gain by simply saying “we screwed up; we missed something. We’re sorry and are making efforts to fix it and working to minimize the chance of it happening again,” hopefully through slightly more attention by editors and fact-checkers on the Post’s part. If a member of Congress were to actually step up and take responsibility for a screw-up (one they hadn’t already been dragged through the mud for, such an affair that became public), that person would get my vote no matter which party they were, just to reward a level of integrity you don’t see anymore.

Although I admit I’m not aware of your staff organization, I’ve always pictured the Post as a journalistic organization, with purview and scrutiny in its process, rather than just a free-wheeling revolving door for columnists to get their work out there. Unfortunately, I’ve started to question that vision after reading Mr Wood’s article with the glaring, obvious and easily-refutable factual errors.

Please Huffington Post, step up and prove me wrong.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Revolution Has Begun!!!

Well, not really. Actually, not at all, and when (and more importantly IF) it does, it won’t really be a revolution but an experiment.

I actually began verbalizing and discussing this week something I’ve been thinking about for a long time: running for Congress after I retire. Will it happen? Who knows; I have a few years left in the military and have no idea what shape I’ll be in (physically and fiscally) when I retire, but the spouse and I think it would definitely be an interesting experiment.

Because that’s the more accurate word for the idea I’m having: an experiment that would take up a chunk of savings and probably six months of my life. You see, if I do this, I’d want to do it the old-fashioned way, to see if it’s even still viable. I’m not going to have a bus, or a staff, or have signs by the side of the road everywhere (I HATE those things!). Instead, I would move to where I want to run – probably Colorado, because we love it there and it’s already at the top of our retirement list anyway – get a map of the congressional district I want to run for, and start walking and talking. That’s it. Hanging out in diners and coffee shops talking with people, going door-to-door in neighborhoods, setting up with a single sign in mall and grocery store parking lots and parks, and just telling people what I think Congress should be doing and not doing, and seeing whether they agree. No tv or newspaper ads either – I would have a blog, and probably a Twitter account (which honestly I shudder to think about) – and if people who Facebook and blog started actually agreeing with me, and as organized news media heard of some wacko out there campaigning for Congress who isn’t accepting donations and doesn’t have a PAC, I think my name would start getting out there on its own. I especially believe in leadership by example, and I think being able to run a campaign on a minimum of dollars sets a good example on how I would deal with the budget and deficit: you don’t really need all the frills if you’re willing to get out there and actually do the work.

The other aspect of the experiment? No negative campaigning. One of my biggest beefs with elections are that people spend all their time attacking others because they don’t actually have anything to say about themselves. I don’t have that problem. I know where I stand on most issues, and if I don’t know the answer to something, I’m not afraid to say “I can’t answer that now because I don’t know all the details, but if you give me a way to contact you I’ll find out and let you know.” Now I’ll add a disclaimer that if someone starts taking personal shots at my family I won’t haul off and verbally smack them up side the head, but I’m there to speak about what I believe and how I think things should happen in government, and I don’t plan to ASK for anyone’s vote: if someone agrees with me (more than they agree with the other candidates), I expect they’ll vote for me. If they disagree, I’m not offended.

As I said, if I can pull this off, it will be a very interesting experiment. I honestly don’t expect to win, but who knows what could happen? Perhaps others will try the same method, after (with the benefit of hindsight) fixing what I screwed up on. Or maybe I’ll keep a daily journal and publish a book about it.

Either way, I’d like to be able to try this. I’ve felt for a while now I need to do something more than sitting around and bitching about what I don’t like about the government, and writing my Congressman and the newspaper doesn’t cut it anymore.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The most effective campaign-related ad I’ve seen so far (and how I think their issue should be handled)

So was catching up on some missed tv via online streaming, and had to sit through those mandatory ads they make you watch before you can get to what you really want to see. However, one particular ad was interesting; interesting enough for me to actually follow the link. It’s called Vote Our Future, and while I’m pretty sure it’s a right-wing-based sponsor, it had the most effective pitch I’ve seen this year – one that, if it gets out there, could really have an impact. The site and ads are directed at 20-somethings, and the whole concept is that the older generation is screwing the younger generation by refusing to deal with the debt/Medicare/Social Security crisis now and instead dumping on future generations. Sure, that’s what politicians have always done, but it looks like things are finally reaching a tipping point, and this site is attempting to make its demographic target sit up and take notice. And the 20-somethings should, because no matter which way the site itself leans, their message is correct.

Saving Social Security and Medicare are central topics to both Presidential campaigns, and both claim they can fix it, but I don’t believe either one because I don’t think these programs can be saved without changing some of their basic tenets. Per multiple sources (I’ll put two here: http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=1258 and http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/politics/budget-2010/), these social programs eat up twice as much as the defense budget (and cutting the defense budget is a whole ‘nother blog, and can be done rather easily if it’s done by what’s not really needed vs. what’s not politically acceptable). There’s no way to save them and keep us from going bankrupt without reducing what’s going out compared to what’s coming in. People are living much longer now are working much longer (and before anyone screams “easy for you to say,” my Dad is 90 and still does 20 hours a week at Lowes and enjoys it) and so the eligibility ages need to be increased to compensate. This is not to say people 3 or 4 years away from eligibility should be screwed, because that doesn’t give them enough time to plan, but I don’t feel raising the eligibility age to, say, 72 or 75 for everyone who is now age 45 or 48 is particularly punitive. They have decades to plan and save, and since they’ll be working longer, that’s also more payroll taxes going in to offset later expenditures.

Is this a perfect system? Nope, but guess what: in spite of what the candidates like to claim, THERE ISN’T ONE. People are going to have to sacrifice and adjust to a new reality, and IMHO, giving them a few decades to do so is the fairest possible way.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment