Monday, March 2, 2009

The State of Palestine

Well, it's been more than a month since my last entry. I don't know, if any word could describe the state of the world right now, it would probably have to be 'transition.' The Obama administration is settling in (loudly), making this and that appointment and this and that policy implementation, augmentation, or reversal, (breaking this and that campaign promise...) and concluding probably the shortest new-Presidential honeymoon in as long as anyone cares to measure. Alterations are being proposed, even worked toward, in US relations with such countries as Russia, Syria, and even Iran. Regime changes, shake-ups, or other substantial alterations of the political landscape are in the works in Cuba, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, and Israel. A warrant was just issued for the president of Sudan by the International Criminal Court for his orchestration for the genocide in Darfur (how aggressively the Court and its member nations plan to back it up is anyone's guess), and the president of the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau was recently assassinated. It's been hard for me to even focus intellectually on a particular issue, as no single issue has really dominated international (or at least my) attention lately, to say nothing of actually collecting enough thoughts on something to sit down and write about it. But, owing to the polarizing role it plays in national- and international politics, and even more to the fact that it has long fascinated me, I'm going to focus (as I admittedly have before) on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

About 6 weeks or so ago, Israel ended its approximately 2-week armed incursion into the Gaza strip, launched in response to brazen and consistent attacks on nearby Israeli residential areas by means of small rocket-fire from Palestinian territory. I've said it before: I don't care what the light-foots in the international community say, Israel's decision to respond as they did (if not certain aspects of its actual execution) was completely justified. But that's not what I wanted to write about. I've been thinking a lot lately about a different aspect of this equation: the Palestinian people.

National elections were recently held for top office in Israel, the main contenders being presently-serving Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (pronounced CHI-pi, I understand) and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Livni, who has been the foreperson of Israel's interactions with the Palestinians throughout this conflict, favored dialogue with the Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu opposes either, preferring a much tougher stance. By a tiny margin, Netanyahu was pronounced the winner- the loser, in my mind, being any chance of a settling of the present conflict in the Holy Land.

If this post is to have a thesis statement, it's this: Palestinian statehood won't by itself result in lasting peace, but lasting peace will not be achieved without Palestinian statehood. First let me say, that in contemporary media, the words 'Palestinian' and 'extremists' or 'Hamas' are used with excessive interchangeability. The recent round of engagement was between Israel and Hamas' pseudo-theocratic regime in Gaza, not the 'Palestinians.' The Palestinians have a globally-recognized administration, led by moderate President Mahmoud Abbas.

There are a few reasons why I think statehood is a must. First: while yes, originally, the term 'Palestinian' had little more significance than 'an Arab living in Palestine,' it is also true that a much more cohesive Palestinian national identity has evolved over the years, both within and without the community. The basic definition of a 'nation' (not to be confused with a 'nation-state') is a group of people that are ethnically and historically similar and who have a desire for some degree of self-rule. Whether it was the case in 1948 or not, I think any justification for Israel's right to exist could equally apply to the Palestinians.

Another is purely practical. It would be much easier to engage the Palestinians as a state than as a collection of autonomous 'territories' without even a recognized capital or mutually-agreed upon system of borders. It would be easier to make formal agreements with them, as well as to hold them accountable for their compliance, if they had recognized sovereign authority as a state.

Lastly, worldwide (and particularly Israeli) acceptance of Palestinian nationhood, would make Israel safer, plain and simple. Social scientists describe what exists in the Territories as a 'frustrated society.' Imagine the affect their circumstances undoubtedly are having on the social consciousness of the Palestinian populous. Whatever the official definition, and whatever the Israelis' motivations or however aggressive (or not) their policies are, I doubt many people can honestly fault the Palestinians for a certain degree of 'occupation complex.' By and large they're self-governing, but should the Israelis decide to limit the free flow of people or materials into or out of the Territories (particularly Gaza), there's not a lot anyone can really do about it. On the other hand, so much of both the Palestinians' and the Israelis' relationships in the broader Middle East centers on the status of Palestine. Why this is true for the Israelis is obvious; the Palestinians' case is a little more complicated.

Think of the Palestinian population as an individual: you're surrounded by other individuals (the other Arab and Islamic states of the region) with whom you share a sense of ethnic, cultural, linguistic, historic and religious commonality which, by and large, forms the backbone of your relationship. However, owing to what amounts to a simple yet crucial legal and procedural technicality, they all see you as more of the embodiment of a cause than a person, and relate to you more as patrons than as peers. This feeling of political limbo, of ethno-national purgatory even, is not something any person could be expected to endure for long without flirting with the boundaries of purely rational behavior.

The way I see it, one of the most widespread and most un-helpful habits we as people are in is to over-idealize our approaches to the theory and practice of conflict. The fact is, there was nothing philosophical about the recent round of Israeli-Palestinian violence, as hard as the participants and the outside world tried to interpret it that way. Both sides were acting in defense of what they felt was legitimately theirs; they each feel very strongly that the land is theirs to live in, and owing to the fact that the last thing war is is humanity at its finest, objectivity and restraint took a backseat. Whatever past history you may have with the beehive in the backyard, and whatever ideas you or anyone else has about who has the most right be there and what's ok for them to do about it, about the time you go out and start chucking rocks at the hive the bees are going to come after you. Philosophy no longer has anything to do with it- it's down to a question of what the bees are willing to do to keep their home from being destroyed versus what you're willing to do to keep from being stung to death by a swarm of bees. I'm not comparing either side to a hive of mindless bees or a vindictive rock-thrower; lest I be misunderstood, you could really view the Israelis and Palestinians in either role, with about equal accuracy. I bring this up to illustrate the fact that conflict is about self-interest, and more particularly about incongruent definitions of it.

I would be crazy to suggest that all of troubles in the region would be solved with this one step. There are more than a few fanatics out there who would see such a move as the 'dwindling of Zionist resolve' and an opportunity to drive their ambitions violently home. Such people, in this case Hamas and their adherents, cannot be militarily defeated; they must and can only be socially marginalized. Statehood would be a gigantic step toward that end. Those affected- the Palestinians, Israelis, the Muslim world, the United States and their Western allies- would only benefit from the achievement of Palestinian statehood. However, it's going to require an uncharacteristically large dose of thoughtfulness and willingness to compromise, for all involved.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Sufficient is the Day Unto the Evil Thereof

Barack Obama is almost certainly experiencing some intense buyers' remorse right about now; there have been better days to be president. I mean seriously, what hasn't gone wrong for the poor guy since he took office? His nominees for senior administration posts are dropping like flies; the economy is going up in smoke before our eyes, and Congress has never been so undeserving of the salaries we furnish them with in the way they've responded to it; the world is on the verge of a stroke from watching and hoping against hope that the current Israel-Hamas truce doesn't go down in flames; our military commanders are telling us that democracy-building efforts in Afghanistan are going to have to take a back seat to beating back a Taliban resurgence, in the face of a deteriorating relationship with US-installed Afghan President Hamid Karzai and with absolutely no help from Pakistan, their de-facto base of operations. Oh, and he's also got the president of Iran calling for the US to not only end support for Israel but to apologize for it, as well as the North Koreans terminating all diplomatic channels with their Southern kinsmen and threatening to disabuse us of any doubt as to their nuclear capabilities. Well, Joe Biden, the Oracle of Delaware, did say Obama would be tested, did he not? Oy.

But seriously folks, I guess the surest way to get away with cheating on your taxes is to be nominated to Barack Obama's Cabinet. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was found to owe something in the neighborhood of $35,000, and he was still confirmed as head of the US government's financial apparatus (which includes the IRS). Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, picked to be Secretary of Health and Human Services, was short a mind-blowing $140K, and apparently all that was inflicted on him was to make a public apology and withdraw from consideration. Nancy Killefer withdrew from consideration as Chief Performance Officer in the White House Office of Management and Budget, over some kind of tax issue with relation to a former household employee. This could possibly be a bad omen for the position of CPO, as Killefer would have been the first to hold it. Labor Secretary-designate Hilda Solis wasn't in trouble, but news of her husband's sticky tax situation stemming from his auto-repair business came to light during her confirmation process. She's not presently expected to withdraw, but her future is far from certain. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was pending confirmation as Commerce Secretary, found himself embroiled in a campaign-finance debacle in his home state and was actually the first to drop out. That one makes me sad-I had high hopes for Richardson. I seem to recall, not long after the election, that a major news story was being made of the fact that the personal information-disclosure packets those interested in administration jobs had to fill out practically had to be distributed in volumes. How did all this garbage get through?!

As I'm confident that no one who reads my blog is so wealthy that they would have otherwise been unaware of the current recession, I won't mention it in detail. Job losses. Home foreclosures. Millions of Americans. That's pretty much it. What really sets me off is what Congress has been attempting to do to 'fix' it. The Democratic leadership likes to chortle about how 'hypocritical' Congressional Republicans' calls for fiscal restraint in the debate over the pending economic stimulus package are; they're not entirely wrong, but they're only bringing it up as a distraction from their own two-facedness. They were the ones shrieking about spending away our nation's future when they were the Congressional minority! And now the proposed spending bill is being jacked up to astronomical heights- we're closing in on $900 BILLION, gang- and lawmakers still have the audacity to try and plug in pork-barrel pet projects in their home states. These efforts to fix our lack-of-funds crisis by spending more nonexistent and unpoliceable money on efforts we have no way of being sure will work, to say nothing of taking advantage of the panicked atmosphere to slip out extra cash for home projects that Americans would not approve under the most prosperous conditions, border on grounds for removal from office. My concern isn't Republican-Democrat ideological conflict or majority-minority power struggle; I'm talking about responsible governance.

As mentioned above, it seems we're going to have to make an extremely disheartening strategy-reversal in Afghanistan. The Taliban, who have proven themselves to be good for exactly one thing- inflicting suffering on the people of Afghanistan, whether they're in power or not, are making a comeback. And we have Pakistan to thank for it. From nearly the beginning, the Pakistani government had been dragging its feet in gaining control of the tribal region on the Afghan border where the Taliban had taken refuge after their US-led ouster in 2001. However, NOW, the Pakistanis have got all their focus centered on India in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai last November, for which India holds Pakistan peripherally responsible. This was obviously the terrorists' intention, as everyone knows how little provocation it takes to spark a standoff between the two nuclear-armed South Asian rivals. So President Obama's found himself with a 2-for-1 deal: India and Pakistan are on the brink of annihilating each other, AGAIN, and as a direct result the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban are now free to use the border region to forcibly reverse Afghanistan's advance out of the 7th Century.

There's not a lot to say with regards to the situation in the Middle East; either the truce will hold or it won't. Various participants in the process do seem to be realizing, however, that there is a certain amount of political and popular responsibility on the part of the Palestinians to marginalize Hamas. However the average Palestinian may feel about Israel, they can no longer afford to be passive about who attempts to lead them; such an attitude has a long history of working out poorly for them. For what it's worth, Israel and the international community ought to be doing more to get humanitarian supplies into the Gaza strip, but it needs to always be retained in remembrance that the strict controls imposed on what goes into the territory were intended to choke off the terrorist groups responsible for attacks on Israeli civilian targets and for the never ending forestalment of Palestinian ascension to statehood. Whether through embargoes or armed engagement, the Palestinian people will suffer greatest for as long as radicals attack Israel. A crucial step in the alleviation of the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza strip, for which there will be no adequate substitute, is the removal of Hamas. They're the Taliban of Palestine.

So in an attempt to jump-start US good-will and credibility in the region, our President goes on the Arab news station Al-Jazeera to, essentially, pledge the end to an era of US-instigated hostility between the US and the Muslim world. I wasn't aware that we had been in the midst of such an era, personally. Well-intentioned though it was, I feel that his language went too far. He took an excessively defensive stance, and appeared willing to shoulder much more of the blame for the un-friendly relationship between certain states in particular as well as the Islamic world at large, than is actually the case. Look, I would be crazy to say that our history in the region was perfectly selfless and pristine; as unglamorous as it is, we do need oil, and we have in the past done some less-than-savory things with some decidedly un-savory people to make sure we had access to it. But I daresay that in the last half-century, we have fought, militarily and diplomatically, on behalf of and even alongside Muslim nations and peoples- from Bosnia to Kuwait to the Philippines- far more than we have fought against them, and far more than any other Western power has done. Do we have a checkered past that needs to be reckoned with? Without a doubt. But I don't accept the degree of responsibility for the frictionous relationship between our civilizations that President Obama says is ours to bear.

The recent behavior of the Iranians and the North Koreans isn't necessarily new as much as variations on an old theme. While the cultural and ideological underpinnings of their actions are as different as night and day, as are the resources available to them (Iran has huge quantities of oil and lose ties to Russia; North Korea has virtually nothing to draw on but is backed by China), they create the same headache. Iran is doing everything it can to assert itself as the main power-broker in the Middle East, and North Korea, the world's largest prison camp, has only ever known a foreign policy alternating between hermit-like isolationism and brazen escalatory confrontationalism. So Obama has to figure out a way to achieve his dawning of a new era in US-Muslim relations without turning the region over to the Israeli blood-thirsty Islamic hard-liners in Tehran, as well as a way to keep a lid on North Korea without ruffling the Chinese, who, on top of being a military superpower, also own the vast majority of our foreign debt, unfortunately.

And yet, for all this, hope springs eternal. With all these unanticipated disasters dotting the world landscape, we could use some encouraging news. As it is we have some, and it comes from the most unlikely place. Iraq, the one place everyone was absolutely certain was a lost cause (including ourselves at times), that had no chance of success, certainly with as little support for the course of action taken there as existed at the time, held its freest, safest, and most inclusive election in living memory last week. As little as two years ago, this would have been impossible. Not just 'perceived' as impossible- it would have been impossible. We were counting the days until we started pulling troops out of plainly irreversibly peaceful, democratic Afghanistan and sending them to pull Iraq back from the precipice of civil war, which we were pretty sure was an inevitable conclusion no matter what we did anyway. Iraq still obviously has a way to go, and the degree to which the various sects that exist in Iraq will accept the voting results remains to be seen. But pictures of ordinary Iraqis, feeling at least that confident in the democratic institutions taking root there and safe enough to head out en masse and participate in them, bear some powerful imagery.

Frequent efforts are made to compare Barack Obama with Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who each led the US through some of our darkest days. I have some serious doubts about the approaches President Obama has taken toward a number of these crises, but if history teaches us anything, it's that absolutely nothing is for sure. Who knows? Any or all of his efforts have as much chance as anything of bringing about the desired results, so far as we are actually capable of predicting the future; I'm perfectly willing to be surprised. But I say that if even MOST of the troubles facing our nation are solved through President Obama's leadership, Lincoln and Roosevelt will start being compared to him.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Deep Breath...And Here We Go

Well, we're officially a new country. And not merely in terms of having a new administration; last week, we were a country that had yet to be led by an ethnic minority Chief Executive. This is no longer the case, and I hope that whatever an individual's political leanings, we never forget the social and historical significance of the election and swearing-in of Barack Obama as President of the United States. As I expect to have become obvious by now, I'm not a Democrat, and don't expect to ever change that. But I'm willing to give our new president every chance, and want him to succeed- in the truest sense. His success is our success.
A number of things have happened over the last few days, and personal circumstances have prevented me from keeping up on them better. So I'll be sharing a few thoughts, not all of them related and in no particular order.
The first is my prediction for President Obama. As I just mentioned, I want to see him succeed. He has made a lot of ambitious goals, and has already gotten to work on a number of them. Ordering the closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and the re-working of our judicial approach to those interred there within a year, ordering a new evaluation of our strategy in Iraq, and freezing the salaries of White House officials above a certain pay level are a few examples. I have a great deal of confidence in Obama's intelligence and his pragmatic approach to leadership. As we have witnessed time and again, personal ideologies have no practical way of becoming policy, either logistically or politically, and the lofty goals our elected leaders set often take quite a beating from the situation on the ground. President Obama campaigned on a promise to have us out of Iraq within 16 months of him taking office. As much progress as has been made in that country, I don't believe that is a realistic goal, and I think he will have the intellectual integrity to acknowledge that and adjust accordingly. Such will also be the situation with a host of other endeavors undertaken by our new president and his advisers, I believe. So my prediction is this: I believe that his decisions will truly be based on what he feels is the nation's best interest, but his list of accomplishments won't closely resemble the promises he was elected on. The Obama presidency will, I believe, cast new light on- or even widen- the rift between the Democratic establishment (Reid, Pelosi & co.) and the party rank-and-file. I predict that he will leave office with quite a bit of popular support, but with little love for or from the Democratic Party management, having demonstrated by the actions he was required by circumstance to take that the leftist wish-list he he's got stapled to his shoulder is no more in the best interest of our nation than the supposed right-wing agenda he was elected to roll back. In other words, I think he will be a good president and a bad party-man.
Another thing I thought was interesting was Jill Biden's 'mouth malfunction' a day or two before the inauguration. In an appearance with her husband, now-VP Joe Biden, on Oprah, she 'accidentally' let slip that her husband had been offered a choice between selection as Obama's Vice President and his Secretary of State. Biden's people have denied that he was offered a choice, but acknowledged that both options were discussed. For most of the post-convention campaign season, then-Senator Biden was touted as a good balance to Obama as an expert in foreign policy, having served more than 3 decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and as it's chairman at the time of his election as VP. However, following Obama's victory in November and particularly after Hillary Clinton's emergence as the front-runner for Secretary of State in the new administration, Biden took a backseat. Jill Biden's 'slip' was really Joe's attempt to re-assert himself as an influential figure in US foreign relations and to reaffirm his elder-statesman role in the administration. He's making sure early on (and I can't say I blame him) that he be taken seriously, within the White House as well as in the eye of the public.
The last thing I wanted to comment on was this bailout initiative. Economics normally isn't my field of interest, but in today's climate, one can't really ignore it and still consider themself a credible observer of politics. It's been going on for a while, and I've put off writing about it long enough. It's taken me this long just to wrap my head around it and formulate a coherent opinion, for one thing. Anyway, President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress have been trying to get a mind-blowingly huge financial stimulus package passed. The first thing that jumps to mind is the Dems' rants about shoulder our 'children' with the economic burden of paying for the wars. But now that the financial markets are in chaos, the American people at large and the Congressional Democrats in particular have fallen back on the old habit of thinking of the government as separate and above the people- that 'even though we don't have money, at least the government does.' We're so quick to forget that a representative government is the product of our society. But acknowledging that the solution is likely going to lie somewhere between 'trickle-up' and 'trickle-down,' I can't help but feel like the approach being taken is, um, 'excessive.' If the outrageous number being gunned for- which officials freely admit was not founded on anything factual; they just needed a number- must be approved, I think at least the majority of the funds should be appropriated out to the states, for the exact reason that the founders set up the federal-state relationship in the beginning: the states are closer to the people. They have a better feel for what the problems their people face are, they know what would work and what wouldn't in an attempt to address them, and oversight and transparency would be so much simpler than the bureaucratic nightmare we're inevitably headed for in trying to fix every woe being grappled with in every state, county, city and town from Washington. Governments by nature accumulate power to themselves, and the more power we give the centralized authority to solve all our problems, the more we will suffer as a society. Federalism (the sharing of governing power between the national and state governments) is not dead, but it sure is being ignored. By the time all this is over, there's going to be a lot of regret and confusion, and I doubt many people will realize why. To quote Gerald Ford, "If a government is big enough to give you everything you need, it's big enough to take away everything you have."

Monday, January 5, 2009


It's hard for me to decide whether the things we read in the paper about Israel actually qualify as 'news'; after all, the origin of the very word 'news' is "new, things that are." Once again, Israel finds itself engaged in armed conflict with Hamas, the Islamic militant group whose raison d'etre is nothing less than the elimination of the Jewish state.
I guess what could be termed new about the present round was the concessions that Israel gave to the Palestinians in the first place in exchange for terms that were never really met. The Israeli government completely withdrew from the Gaza Strip, pulling back all military units and emptying all Jewish settlements in the territory, aggressively whenever necessary. Why? Because they promised they would, in exchange for the cessation of violence against Israeli civilians.
This deal was brokered with the up-and-coming Palestinian administration, a coalition comprised of Hamas and its moderate rival group, Fatah. Hamas first showed its true colors when they violently forced their Fatah partners out of Gaza and declared de-facto martial law. They of course claimed they were doing it to provide the best living conditions for the people of Gaza, but all they did was use the territory as a place to gather recruits and supplies and launch the attacks they never had any intention of stopping in any prolonged way. A cease-fire was worked out in mid-2007, but the rocket fire into Israel that had become the group's preferred method of the moment merely became less frequent. The rockets were not sophisticated enough to be aimed at military targets (or anything), but that was not their intention anyway. They mostly just wanted to terrorize the Israeli populace, do some damage, and kill some people if they got lucky. What nation in the world would be expected to tolerate this kind of behavior- particularly DURING a declared cease-fire- for more than 5 minutes?
The answer is, of course, Israel. Israeli leaders finally decided enough was enough, and launched a counter-offensive. It began with a week of surgical strikes against Hamas targets from the air, and expanded this weekend into large-scale ground invasion of the territory. The international community, almost reflexively, started calling for a truce and condemning Israel's actions because of the large number of Palestinians that have been killed. From the beginning, Israel has been giving warnings to civilians living near designated targets to get to safety. Apparently not many of those warnings are headed, and the military leadership of Hamas, which has been openly calling for a war with Israel, has the audacity to express outrage when having all their wives and children stay with them gets them killed when they get one.
This is where the 'newness' of the situation stops. These militants intentionally position themselves in the most densely-populated areas of the people they claim to be fighting for, provoke Israel by wantonly attacking their civilians- breaking a formalized peace agreement as they do so, start singing the victim song when the Israelis respond and civilian deaths ensue, and the outside world swallows it hook, line, and sinker ever time. Why so many- the Europeans in particular- are so quick to denounce Israeli efforts at self-defense is something I'll never understand. They almost willingly ignore the distinction- operational and individual- between Hamas and the Palestinian people. As horrible as civilian casualties are, they're a fact of war, and a military response Hamas violence cannot with good sense be equated with indiscriminate aggression against the people of Gaza. If the international community is so convinced that the most productive way to resolve this conflict is to simply stop fighting and stop it now, they'd better be willing to do something make it happen- because one party to this conflict is demonstrably not. Real, quantifiable pressure on the Palestinians to get it together and show Hamas the door, observers on the ground to ensure that the terms of the peace agreement are met, anything would be better than thoughtlessly screeching at the Israelis to stop being jerks to those poor, victimized terrorists.
Time after time, this and that truce is arranged, this and that 'political solution' is pressed for among the Palestinian factions, but Hamas wants nothing to do with any of it. Civilian deaths are of course a terrible thing, but let us not be distracted from the fact that civilian deaths are what pushed the Israelis to do what they're doing. If no one on the outside is willing to do anything beyond look down their noses at the Israelis, as unpleasant as it is, I fail to see how letting them fight it out is such an unacceptable option. If Hamas isn't willing to give Israel peace, Israel, like any country faced with an unrelenting aggressor, is within its rights as a sovereign nation to take it.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

More Senate Shenanegans

This will probably be one of my shorter entries. Truly, this past election cycle has made things interesting for members and observers alike of the U.S. Senate.
The first thing I've wanted to comment on was recent developments in the attempt to fill Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton's Senate seat for New york. I have to say, I've been pleasantly surprised by the reactions of key players on the ground to Caroline Kennedy's bid for the seat. Though not unanimous, there has been a rather strong response among state Democratic party leaders and elected officials, arguing that she doesn't have the experience necessary for them to feel comfortable backing her nomination. She has had several encounters with the media, and yet we're no closer to knowing what kind of positions- or even real grasp- of the issues that would be her job to address if she were appointed. NY Governor David Patterson, who's responsibility it is to fill the vacancy, has been loathe from the beginning to hint at whom he prefers to take the seat. He apparently has been publicly toying with the idea lately of some kind of 'caretaker' appointment, someone who would not be interested in holding the office past the 2010 election that is required by state law to decide the seat's fate more permanently. Whether such an approach would make Kennedy's selection more or less likely remains to be seen, but I find it the least little bit comforting that she isn't being given special treatment because of her political lineage.
As a side note, the question has been posed to me about what the legacy of her father, the late President John F. Kennedy, actually was- why he's idolized the way he is. He made a lot of great speeches, started some big-name public initiatives, he was young, good-looking, and had certain charm about him that even many of the most popular presidents lacked. But by and large, I feel that the reason he is still so much of an icon today is, unfortunately, because he died in office. We're a lot less likely to view 'martyrs' in a negative light, but what I really mean is that he died before his popularity went the way of all presidents'. He had been in office for 3 years and a couple weeks, and his record was decidedly mixed. On the plus side, he had a number of domestic projects and his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis; on the other hand, he had the Bay of Pigs and the fact that the first steps toward large-scale U.S. involvement in Vietnam were actually taken on his watch, not LBJ's. And of course, Marylin Monroe. I feel like he has the same reputation that Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton would have had if they had been killed after 3 years in office. Otherwise, he would have had about the same so-so approval ratings most presidents have after their terms end at the anticipated time.
But anyway, the other big event taking place in the Senate is disgraced-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich's standoff with the Senate Democratic caucus over the governor's appointment of a respected Illinois politician to fill Barack Obama's seat. This was a very gutsy move, as Majority Leader Harry Reid had already vowed not to seat any appointee chosen by Blogojevich, who is under investigation for trying to sell the seat. He has said he will follow through on this. The selection of former state Attorney-General Roland Burris, the first African-American to be elected to statewide office in Illinois and who is widely regarded as the closest thing Illinois has to an elder-statesman, puts the Senate Democratic leadership in an extremely tough spot: refuse to accept someone who is very respected in his home state and who has no actual connection to the corruption scandal, and who would be the chamber's only black member, in the name of 'standing up to corruption in government,' or he could back down and look (more than he does already) as making impractical and unsustainable soapbox stances when facing reporters only to wuss out when the crap hits the fan. Personally, I see no reason to keep Mr. Burris out; he's about as qualified an anyone else they're likely to find, he has the respect of the people of his state, and has no proven connection to something that Gov. Blagojevich hasn't even been convicted of yet. The Constitution gives the houses of Congress certain authority to determine the qualifications of their members, but Harry Reid has taken it too far.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Senate seat

Well, I had been meaning to comment on this earlier, but Charles Krauthammer beat me to the punch this past weekend. That I was on the same wave-length as a big-shot syndicated columnist like Mr. Krauthammer might speak really well for me, or it might just mean I think I'm a lot more original than I am :P
But anyway, I've had some thoughts in watching Caroline Kennedy and her supporters descend on Hillary Clinton's soon-to-be-vacated U.S. Senate seat representing New York. Yes, there's a certain romanticism about the idea of the only daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy assuming such high public office, and she has something of a reputation in NYC as a positive leader and contributor to the community, being involved in charities, education, as well as foundations connected to her dad.
But the fact is, I'm tired of the sense of entitlement the Kennedys seem to feel for high elected office. This country was founded, in large part, on resistance to a hereditary, aristocratic leadership class. That her father was one of the most impactful U.S. presidents of the last century is certainly a distinguished and respectable heritage. It is NOT a qualification, in and of itself, for the upper house of our national legislature. I'm certain you could find a host of people, in NYC alone, with a resume to match hers- and while it's great what they do for their communities, they're not qualified to be Senators, either. But Caroline Kennedy has a name, and that seems to be enough for many in the Left and the media.
An interesting point was also made by columnist Jonah Goldberg last weekend concerning Ms. Kennedy's sudden prominence, which I'll paraphrase here. This is not the first time this year that a likeable but hugely inexperienced woman has aspired to high national office. The other woman is, of course, Alaska governor and former Republican Vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. She had at least some years of experience in elected office, and in fact was very well-respected for her performance during that time, compared to Ms. Kennedy's zero. Despite the Left's infatuation with with the concept of 'making the American Dream a reality for all,' Gov. Palin was essentially trashed for being a perfect example of it- a self-made, reform-driven elected official with about as Blue-collar roots as you could ask for (raising a family in a small Alaska town with her steel-worker husband while at the same time managing the state). For what it's worth, and I've said it before, I don't think she was experienced enough to be VP either. But her leftist critics have been exposed as partisan frauds; any objection to her on the grounds of her inexperience as a disqualifier, coming from them at least, lost any credibility in the way they've practically beatified Caroline. Gov. Palin's real liability was that she wasn't 'their kind' of female candidate; but Caroline Kennedy is.
Ms. Kennedy has spent no time whatsoever in elected office of any kind, received the Ivy-League education characteristic her privileged upbringing, and has lived largely out of the spotlight. Given the tragedies that have plagued her family, an aversion to exposure is certainly understandable. But it doesn't take from the contention that her nomination is based on the fact that as far as the Democratic establishment is concerned, its royal family's political bloodline needs to be preserved as well as can be done. Her uncle Ted's long Senate career in coming to a close as he battles a malignant brain tumor, and while I mean no disrespect to his situation or the myriad trials that his family has indeed faced, his departure seems to signal an even greater need for the family's supporters to gloss over her nonexistent political resume and get her into that seat while it's open to begin the next dynasty. Democrats love to imagine that every Kennedy is going to be another John F., regardless of how much or little each individual family member has done to deserve the honor, trust, and responsibility that comes with the positions they aspire for.
While the Constitution specifically prohibits the bestowal of "titles of nobility" (Article I, section 10), apparently when it comes political office, some just deserve it more.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


The UN this week took steps toward full authorization for a multinational maritime force to combat the increasing threat of the hijacking of ships in the Gulf of Aden by Somali pirates. This is a big deal, especially considering that China, who almost never participates in military actions overseas, committed to a deployment of its PLA Navy to the area. This is great overall, in that it shows at least a certain willingness to take a stand as a world body against threats as they present themselves (next step is standing up to renegade nation-states), as well as the communal spirit, which has been somewhat wanting in recent months and years (the US bears some responsibility for this but we're hardly alone), that is bolstered slightly by the shouldering of responsibility by individual member nations. Yes, this action was largely brought about by indiscriminate and un-ignorable threats to nations' financial interests on a huge scale- typically running in the tens of millions of dollars per hijacking- but it's a start.
I am concerned, however, that the international community is focusing solely on the part of the problem that has a negative impact on them- not a surprise and hardly the only instance of it's kind, just one of the most obvious- without taking an active approach to dealing with the underlying cause. There is not a more visible example to be found anywhere of the fact that the last thing a poor country is is a stable country. I'm honestly surprised there aren't more countries in the world like Somalia. It's been more than a decade since Somalia had a functioning national government, hard-line Islamic militias run rampant, and the country is so deep in civil war that the international community is literally afraid to intervene. These pirates are a product of the condition of their country.
I feel that this multinational naval fleet is a good first step, but regarding it as anything other than a first step- implicit of further steps to follow- is a recipe for disaster. So much more needs to be done. A military force with the international community's full backing and the teeth to get the job done will at some point in the near future be necessary to get the armed and violent elements of the Somali populace under control. Immediately thereafter- as close to simultaneously as possible, really- an administrative system capable of substantially tackling the broken nation's infrastructure problems and shortages would have to be put in place. Food, medical resources, and sanitation systems would have to provided on as big a scale as has ever been done. In the (much) longer-run, issues such as refugees, human rights, education and a functioning judiciary would have to be addressed. Such an administrative entity would probably have to be made up primarily of outsiders, at least at first, much like the Coalition Provisional Authority that managed Iraq following the toppling of Saddam Hussein (minus the corruption and incompetence that plagued it). Somali officials would need to be included to the extent possible, both to lend legitimacy to the governing body and to give the Somalis the skills and experience necessary to effectively lead their country. Also to that end, as many Somalis without a major history in the factional violence and that are willing to remain loyal to the new national government (with Somalia in the condition it's in, a steady paycheck would probably provide more than sufficient motivation in most cases) as can be found need to be trained and employed as national military and police. If the forces charged with long-term peacekeeping aren't at least predominantly Somali, their credibility and trustworthiness in the eyes of their countrymen would be in serious jeopardy. These are all lessons we learned the hard way in Iraq.
If meanigful action is not taken beyond putting cruisers in the Gulf of Aden to protect oil shipments (the profits of which are very unlikely to be seen anywhere near Somalia, I might add), the result will not just be the continuance of the unpleasant status-quo. Sure, merchant-shipping will be safer, but Somalia will continue to be wracked with civil violence, Somalis will continue to be punished simply for having been born there, the Islamic militias will gain more expansive and unchallengeable power, and Somalia could potentially become a new haven for terrorists in the image of pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Propoganda will be spread all over the world (even more than it is now) that the UN and its most powerful member-nations are only interested in the inhabitants of the poor and desperate corners of the world when said inhabitants are killing them and plundering their fortunes just to eat. Worse still, arguments to the contrary will not have a leg to stand on.