Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Hokey Pokey

The US is going to deploy about 100 troops to Uganda to help in the pursuit of the Lords Resistance Army and it’s certifiably insane leader, Joseph Kony.

This is an unequivocal good thing.  Kony is the worst kind of small bore war criminal, a local madman who kidnaps and indoctrinates children, using them to intimidate, murder, mutilate and rape the local rural populations throughout multiple Central African nations.  Almost unbelievably brutal, his forces stay on the move, stealing what they need, committing horrific crimes in the process.

Sure, the US is an economic basket case, with flat GDP growth, near 20% real unemployment, increasing poverty and crumbling infrastructure, but we have a tremendous amount of military capability sitting idle, and this is one of those opportunities where the US can apply some of those military resources to try to solve a real-world humanitarian problem without causing additional unforeseen geopolitical problems.

A company of Rangers with some associated air and intelligence assets doesn’t even constitute a rounding error on the budget, and yet that tiny injection of twenty first century combat power changes the calculation for the entire region, and might offer the best chance for a blighted people to finally rid themselves of this madman.

Even in present circumstances, the US is the most economically and militarily powerful nation in the world.  There is much good the US could do, from disease control to agriculture to education, but there is a tremendous lack of political will for projects like that, not only in the global south, but even here in America there are hard and fast limits to our willingness to direct public resources at these sorts of problems.  Oddly, however, the US has always been willing to deploy military resources regardless of cost - as long as the solution required highly professional and technologically advanced killing, we were at the head of the line of volunteers.  Many times, those projects benefited despots, or resulted in such an unimaginable slaughter as to render the accomplishment of the original goal Pyrrhic.

Within these odd and arbitrary constraints, perhaps humanitarian military intervention is the best we can do.  If we helped with clean water and schools and roads and digital communications it would be a better thing, but with our dysfunctional political system controlled by authoritarians and racists, perhaps the best we can do is agree on who the bad guys are, and then kill them.


Also today, there have been credible reports that the Obama administration has abandoned it’s bizarre attempts to keep an American military force in Iraq after the December 31st deadline specified in the SOFA.  In spite of an endless stream of promises during and after the campaign to end the US involvement in Iraq, Obama has in the last year sought a deal to keep some number of troops, probably a Brigade Combat Team, renamed as a Training Unit, in country after the new year.  The thing is, Prime Minister al-Maliki could agree to allow the troops to stay in spite of the SOFA (and as long as they actually then DID remain to protect him and his Cabinet from retaliation), but in order for them to continue to operate with complete immunity from the Iraqi criminal justice system as the US Command insists, there would have to be a vote in Parliament for which Maliki readily admits he does not have the votes.

So either the Obama administration is finally acknowledging reality, or they are trying a last-ditch hardball tactic to attempt to frighten the Iraqis into backing down and asking for a continued US presence.  There are a lot of factions in postwar Iraq, and some of them depend quite heavily on the US military to enforce their positions and protect their lives.  Many would like to see the US military continue to operate in Iraq, but it is politically unwise (except for the Kurds) to say so out loud.

The invasion of Iraq was a monumental blunder for the US, one we will be paying for in a variety of ways for many years to come.  But it's important to remember that the Iraqis paid a much higher price for our blunder, and will be trying to recover from it for the better part of a century.  There is nothing to be gained by staying, no fences will be mended and no interest served beyond the desperate grip on power that those who played along now find growing tenuous.  It's well past time to cut the cord...

Monday, October 10, 2011

Gee, Y'Think?

Right out there for the whole world to see.  There was the Clinton Impeachment.  Then there was Bush v. Gore.  Then there were the battles over judicial nominees.  Filibusters, Recess Appointments and Budget Reconciliation   The ugly battles over Health Care Reform (remember the "Cornhusker Kickback"?).  The year-end negotiations (that looked unpleasantly like extortion) to trade extensions to the Bush tax-cuts for the wealthy for a few months more Unemployment Insurance.  Finally to non-stop talk of defunding and even shutting down government, leading to the debt ceiling debacle.

Anybody who has been able to find a basis for a belief in an effective, functioning American system of governance in the last decade has clearly not been paying attention.  It was a system, designed before the invention of the telegraph to intentionally be ponderous and heavily biased against change.  From the founding documents to the bicameral legislature to the three co-equal branches, the American political system of governance has always functioned only sporadically, and even then on the basis of a set of norms and gentleman's agreements that had no power behind them.  Can you imagine a functioning parliamentary system that depends on Unanimous Consent for it's most basic operational functions?

And yet, we pretended.  Our politicians pretended, our pundits pretended, our journalists and historians and political scientists and economists all pretended that everything was working just the way it was intended, and that while we were perhaps seeing a particularly virulent outbreak of partisanship, there was nothing inherently wrong with the system itself - when you talk about Washington DC, when you talk about Congress and the Senate and the President you were talking about America, a sacrosanct set of institutions that made this country the BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD!!

Sure, there was a kerfuffle in 2005 over the Filibuster, then being wielded by a Democratic minority, with Bill Frist threatening to go Nuclear to put an end to those Democratic filibusters, and there have been a few half-hearted discussions around Congressional reform, but it's almost impossible to imagine anything coming of it - it's like asking third graders to police the playground.  And I assure you, when the Republican Senators talk about how close they came to what would have amounted to unilateral disarmament in '05, they shudder and promise sheepishly NEVER AGAIN.

And yet, suddenly, today we find the Internet all abuzz over a speech given by former military/intelligence honcho Bob Gates two weeks ago in Philadelphia, where, in the finest tradition of young men in the presence of dishabille emperors, he called attention to the somewhat desultory functioning of America's governing institutions:

"I do believe that we are now in uncharted waters when it comes to the dysfunction in our political system--and it is no longer a joking matter...It appears that as a result of several long-building, polarizing trends in American politics and culture, we have lost the ability to execute even the basic functions of government much less solve the most difficult and divisive problems facing the country. Thus, I am more concerned than I have ever been about the state of American governance."

Now, Robert Gates is the consummate DC insider, an impeccably credentialed Republican who has served at the head of a number of gigantic American bureaucracies, so you have to realize just what a Cassandra-like cry of impending disaster this really is - and you can't be overly disappointed that he didn't come out and name names (and parties).  The truth is there to be seen, between his carefully chosen lines, and even for those who reserve all blame for the Democratic party and the godless liberals and socialists they empower with their misguided policies, there is no longer room to pretend the system continues to function on any level.

It's not the tea party, or budget policy, or levels of taxation or government spending that is why we are doomed, any more than it is Medicare or Social Security or the Affordable Care Act.  It is a system of governance designed for a different time, governing a smaller, more homogeneous nation in a time of horse and sail, one that is simply unable to meet the demands and challenges of the twenty first century, and one that continues to be exploited by small, venal, greedy men and women who stand to gain more wealth and power through a strategic failure of governance than they ever would have were they to act in the interests of their constituents.

This system that cannot govern, that cannot be repaired by those who busily exploit its every failing, that is readily co-opted but cannot be used to solve real problems, this is ultimately why we need Occupy Wall Street and similar movements.  Their focus at this point is on the banks and financial "Masters of the Universe" who are using creative new methods to make certain that more and more of the available wealth in the world accrues to them, and them alone, but ultimately, when their message can no longer be ignored and, without legitimacy, their opponents have lost every fight, when their movement seeks to implement the justice they will have spilled blood to regain, they will discover that nothing can be implemented, that lone rump wholly-owned corrupt politicians can block them every step of the way, and they will discover at long last what this fight was really about.

So just as it is a straight line from Tahrir Square to the Wall Street protests, so is it then to Bob Gates.  This coal mine has a canary, and while the message is subdued and somewhat cryptic, it is the very first crack in the wall that protects dysfunction in the name of democracy, and hides from change behind the bastions of the status quo.  It's hard to predict what America will look like with a new system of government, but it increasingly looks as if we're going to have the opportunity to find out.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Message is the Message

This guy could kick your ass
So on one of the dozen or so interchangeable Sunday morning Republican TeeVee talkfests, one of the pundits got around to asking the ubiquitous John McCain (R-Dementia) about the debate audience lustily booing that gay soldier in Afghanistan.  As a side note, I think it's worth mentioning that exactly none of them would have booed if that dude was actually in the building - he looked like he could kick the entire Republican Party's ass.  But anyway, the exchange went like this:

SCHIEFFER: Do you think that the Republican candidates should have spoken up at that debate about [the booing]?
MCCAIN: Yeah, I do. But a lot of times when you’re in a debate you think about what you’re going to say, what the question is going to be. It’s hard to react sometimes. But I’m sure…I would bet that every Republican on that stage did not agree with that kind of behavior.

OK.  But here's the thing.  My first thought when I read that was "Horseshit.  EVERY Republican on the stage agreed with that sentiment, whether or not they felt it was politically worthwhile to denounce it."  Because a political movement has no choice but to own their key messaging.  Sure, there can be ideological elements on which a given candidate can take a heterodox position, but a certain sort of tribal hatred has been such a core plank of the Republican platform, a key underpinning on which their entire worldview is constructed for so long that is has literally become part of the Party DNA.  Whether it's hatred and intolerance for Gays, African-Americans, Women, Muslims or Hispanics, these kind of divisive tribal politics have exemplified the Republican message at least since Reagan.

So you wind up with a condition where a Huntsman or even a Romney can, with at least some credibility, accept the science on Global Warming or that an individual mandate exists to protect the interest of private insurers and is therefore part of a free-market belief system, but to allow a path to tolerance for Gay Americans, like a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens, is simply impossible.  To question the tribal structure of the Republican constituency is to open the door just a crack to the possibility that their definition of "Real American" might be artificially narrow.  And without a broad strategy of demonization, they would be left only with issues, which is distinctly unfavorable territory for them.