Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Democrats, I Dare You

A month ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations network of 192 countries and 2,000 scientists, released a report in which they agreed that evidence of global warming was "unequivocal".

Furthermore, they stated that there was at least a 90% chance that the burning of fossil fuels was, at a minimum, a substantial cause of the phenomenon.

Think about it.

Two thousand scientists from 192 countries - under U.N. auspices no less - agreeing to the use of the word "unequivocal" and "90 percent". Though my tone may sound sarcastic, I am relieved that this agreement was possible.

This is as close as you can get to certainty on a scientific issue this large (global in scope, with numerous potential causes) and this new (twenty years is not that long in major scientific endeavors).

Nevertheless, there are still people who claim to be unconvinced. Undoubtedly, some of them are genuinely skeptical and not simply placing their economic or political interests above the well-being of their children, grandchildren and the planet.

However, at this point, the skeptics' motives are irrelevant. If this scientific consensus is not compelling to them, then nothing ever will be. Therefore, the time for debate is over. Action must be taken - using raw political power as necessary.

The House of Representatives is expecting legislation on the matter in July. I am writing today to dare the Democrats to be bold in designing the upcoming bill.

We are far past the point of settling for the politically convenient measure of simply allocating more money for alternative energy research. We need to be discussing higher fuel efficiency standards, carbon 'cap and trade' programs and, yes, even expansion of nuclear power.

There is significant evidence to suggest that the first two proposals aren't even that politically risky.

Recent polling by the Civil Society Institute claims that 4 out of 5 Americans support "Congress taking the lead to achieve the highest possible fuel efficiency as quickly as possible". Though I am relatively unfamiliar with CSI, and therefore do not automatically trust them as a reliable source, these numbers do not surprise me. Americans are unquestionably in favor of minimizing dependence on oil (admittedly for security and not environmental reasons) and this is a tangible step towards that end. (I found this poll near the end of this article.)

As for carbon capping and trading, a coalition of prominent American CEOs met just last month to publicly ask the Congress to move forward on efforts to design and implement such a scheme.

Expansion of nuclear power is certainly the most controversial move I am advocating here, but included as a component of a broader policy it could help garner support from a critical mass of Republicans. President Bush himself has long been an advocate of such a measure.

If the Democrats want to make a positive difference for this country, and if Speaker Pelosi wants to distinguish herself as a true leader, this would be a great place to start.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Introduction to Project Vote Smart

I ran into Project Vote Smart recently and immediately thought of posting a link to it on this blog. I held off because I wanted to take the time to survey the site to see if it was useful and genuine in its intent.

After having done that, I am excited to post a permanent link to it in the "Learn" section of this blog.

The purpose of this non-profit organization is to give voters a central source of issue related information on candidates and elected officials. It contains links to their voting records, interest group ratings and public speeches.

The Project has an impressive and diverse Board - including prominent leaders on the left and the right of the American political spectrum.

Project Vote Smart has been around for several years now. Hopefully, it will gain enough traction in the coming months to have a meaningful impact on the 2008 elections. I encourage all of you to pass on the link to your friends.

Monday, February 19, 2007

A New Diplomatic Strategy for Iran

I do not mind plainly stating my belief that an Iranian nuclear arsenal is unacceptable. Therefore, if all diplomatic and economic prevention measures prove unfeasible or ineffective, I believe that force should be used.

That being said, the United States has not even begun to exercise the level of diplomacy that I believe is required to make military action morally acceptable.

This is not to say we have done nothing on the diplomatic front. The U.S. has prodded the U.N. Security Council to address this issue since the earliest days of the Bush Administration. Unfortunately, the economic and political interests of China and Russia have prevented any effective measures from being taken.

Recognizing this, the Bush Administration partially shifted execution of diplomacy to a smaller group in 2003 - the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany). Unfortunately, the 3 have made virtually no progress since they initiated negotiations. This is almost certainly attributable, in part, to the underlying position of the French government which inadvertently admitted recently that it does not view an Iranian nuclear arsenal as a problem.

This leaves many to conclude that the best remaining option is bilateral talks between the U.S. and Iran - something the Bush Administration has stubbornly rejected to date.

The United States must talk to Iran, but I believe that bilateral discussions would be both unfruitful and a strategic mistake. The level of trust between the U.S. and Iranian governments is virtually zero - which makes meaningful diplomacy almost impossible. In addition, bilateral discussions would further frame the standoff as one between the United States and Iran - which it is not.

The UN, Europe, Russia and China have been and will continue to be prominent players in any diplomatic initiative as they control most of the carrots and sticks that will serve as the basic tools of diplomacy. Nevertheless, a significant and potentially powerful group of stakeholders - Iran's neighbors in the Middle East - remain relatively unengaged.

An Iranian nuclear arsenal is directly counter to the interests of Iran's neighbors. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Kuwait and Iraq have nothing to gain from a nuclear Iran and potentially much to lose. It is easy to see why some of these nations might pursue their own weapons in response to an Iranian nuclear program. Doing so would safeguard both their physical security and their relative levels of regional political influence.

The United States has substantial influence with each of these countries and - in this particular case - aligned interests. Therefore, we should - in a very public manner - mobilize these governments into a coalition to address the standoff.

While this coalition would be free to initiate their own proposals that serve the end of preventing Iranian nuclear weapons, it seems unlikely, given their relative economic weakness, that their value or chief purpose would be compelling Iranian acquiescence. Rather, I believe such an initiative would have two very different benefits.

First, assuming high publicity, it would provide a credible counterweight to the rhetoric of the Iranian leadership. It would dramatically increase the likelihood that the other side of the debate would be heard by the Arab and Iranian populations. Iranian leaders would then have much less success portraying the diplomacy as Americans or Westerners attempting to deny them their valid sovereign right to peaceful nuclear power. Just as the Iranian President is trying to divide the U.N. Security Council, so should we attempt to divide him from his people and his neighbors' populations.

Second, the group would serve as an intermediary between the U.S. (and any other genuinely engaged partners) and Iran - thereby addressing the lack of trust between the two nations. It would be a forum in which bilateral talks could occur and a mutually agreeable deal (assuming one is possible) could be structured.

Of course, it is entirely possible that this course of action could fail. I do not present it as a silver bullet method for determining Iranian intentions or obtaining their compliance with respect to uranium enrichment or U.N. inspections. However, even if unsuccessful, it would provide our best option to rally Middle Eastern public opinion around our perspective by making our true intentions heard.

It is time that the United States recognize the paramount importance of winning the war of ideas and information. Although I stand by my advocacy of force as a last resort, American leaders must acknowledge that force will only delay weapons development and likely make the Iranian leadership - and more importantly, the Iranian people - want nuclear weapons even more....

Friday, February 16, 2007

2.9 Trillion Dollars...in 10 Minutes

I found this budget tutorial online and felt it was worth posting.

It is a simple tool for anyone wanting a very concise summary of how the budget is crafted and what the major spending categories are today. You can go through the entire thing in 10 minutes or skip to the section you want to quickly get smart on any part you are particulary interested in....

I highly recommend the "Spending" and "Spending by Category" tabs. Most people do not realize how much of government spending is tied up exclusively in health care and social security, despite the consistent talk about these issues in Washington and in the media - and the sway these topics hold with large blocks of voters (particulary senior citizens).

By the way, I have created a new "Learn" section (on the left) that will include a link to the tutorial and hopefully additionally useful tutorials I find later (If any of you run across any, please pass them along).

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Bush Deserves More Credit on North Korea

Finally. A real diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea.

The Bush Administration has endured harsh criticism over the years for their unwillingness to pursue diplomacy as vigorously as some would like. Their perceived preference for unilateral action has also been a source of frustration to many followers of foreign affairs.

In my opinion, with respect to North Korea, these charges have never been very justified. The United States has been fully engaged in diplomatic efforts with North Korea throughout the Bush Administration.

They have had to be...

There is no military option for North Korea that would not cost tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Korean and American lives. Our lack of economic ties to North Korea similarly leaves us without a stick to use. Unless they could be separated from China, which we have no power to do, their economic situation cannot really be diminished any further.

Hence, diplomacy and the carrots that come with it.

Bush's unwillingness to talk outside of the context of the 'Six-Party' framework has been spun by many as a refusal to give diplomacy a sufficient chance. After careful consideration, I have come to the opinion that the six party context was the only one in which diplomacy would have been meaningful.

I say this because a future violation of the new agreement will be a finger in the eye not just to the United States, but to all four of our partners - one of which is North Korea's essential friend, and only meaningful ally, China. North Korea has demonstrated that bilateral agreements with the United States are meaningless. Their blatant and unapologetic violation of the agreement they reached with the Clinton Administration in 1994 proved that. Therefore, any "victory" or "breakthrough" brokered only between America and the North Koreans would have almost certainly been an illusion.

Some, primarily on the left, are minimizing this accomplishment by claiming that Bush has only achieved what Clinton did 12 years ago. For the reasons I just outlined, I reject this claim. Though the technical arrangements for the deal are highly similar, the consequences to the North Koreans of violating it are very real and potentially enormous. Specifically, they risk alienating themselves from China - without whom their economic collapse would be total.

Some conservatives are charging that this deal is "rewarding bad behavior" and therefore is bad policy. I agree with their premise, but not their conclusion. We are rewarding bad "behavior", but the fact of the matter is that doing so is our best option.

It will stop their ability to produce additional nuclear fuel, and this had to be our highest priority. Even if the agreement only holds for a few years, it will provide valuable time for larger strategic options including additional efforts to convince China to pull the resources that keep Kim Jong Il in power.

People should give President Bush more credit on this issue. It shows a tremendously important willingness and ability to shift tactics, compromise and talk.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Newt Gingrich on Health Care

I attended one of Newt Gingrich's speeches a couple of years ago and was very impressed. Gingrich wasted no time on empty political rhetoric. Instead, he promptly listed what he felt should be the United States' top five priorities for the first half of the new century. He briefly explained his rationale for choosing each of the five, then proceeded to expand on a series of specific measures to address each.

I did not agree with everything he said, but the substance was stimulating - and a great deal of it was very compelling and innovative. A number of my friends attended the speech and most were quite impressed. Many of them would probably never vote for Newt Gingrich, but they were genuinely engaged by his ideas.

The purpose of this post is to draw attention to an organization Gingrich has established to address the challenge of affordable, effective and universally accessible health care.

There are many political advocates of universal health insurance today. A few, such as John Edwards, are even becoming bold enough to put forth plans with price tags and funding strategies. But there are far fewer that are willing (or able) to pursue the directly related and larger problem of exploding health care costs.

By all outward appearances, Gingrich has put together a viable organization to do just that. The think tank has produced a respectable amount of intellectual material in its short life, only a small portion of which I have reviewed. I have varying opinions on the ideas I have examined so far, but I still felt the material worth promoting on this blog as a good resource for someone wanting to learn more about the issue and cutting edge thinking on how to address our problems.

I would also like to specifically promote two short articles on the site that I found particularly interesting. The first is on Alzheimer's. The second is a bold idea to invest in a national IT infrastructure for our health care system.

Controlling health care costs is an essential pursuit. Even if we could raise the funds and political will to insure all Americans tomorrow, there is no way to sustain such a program for the next generation at current rates of health care inflation. Therefore, if we are to sustainably provide access to health care to all Americans, we must address the costs of service, not just find ways to achieve universal insurance.

Health care is easily the most complicated domestic issue in America today. There are numerous stakeholders with widely varying interests, vexing ethical issues and trade offs to weigh, and complex economics to study. Throw in the role of culture, politics and rapidly advancing science and technologies and one can see why few ideas gain traction in this space.

Still, the stakes are too high - in both lives and dollars - to kick the can down the road any longer. Whatever motivation one may presume is behind Gingrich's efforts, I applaud his actions thus far.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

A Spark of Hope in Korea?

I have never been able to even speculate on the intentions or strategy of the North Korean government. As Churchill once said about Russia, North Korea today could be considered a "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Therefore I don't have a great deal to say about the article that led to this post.

Nevertheless, I couldn't resist posting a link as it is a rare piece of news on North Korea that is not bad - and even a bit encouraging. The article is light on substance - frankly, it's only worth reading if you are desperate for any news related to American foreign policy that is not bad. The first sentence pretty much sums up the 'good' news:

North Korea said it was willing to consider first steps to ending its nuclear
arms program at six-party talks that opened on Thursday, with China drafting a
deal that could mark rare progress in the tortuous negotiations.

It's encouraging that China is playing a central role, and that this possible breakthrough is occurring in the context of the six-party talks.

Of course, this stance could be totally reversed the next time a North Korean diplomat steps in front of a camera, but I thought we should savor the moment...

Monday, February 5, 2007

McCain Crossing the Line?

I have been a big fan of John McCain since I first began to closely follow politics. I have always believed him to be a man of conviction and principle. He's not unlike every other politician (or human being for that matter) in that I do not always agree with him, but I have always felt confident that he puts the interests of the country, as he sees them, above his party.

An increasing number of my friends and colleagues have become uncomfortable with McCain's recent attempts to court the base of the GOP. For example, his much publicized meetings with Jerry Falwell, whom he once referred to as an "agent of intolerance", are particularly troubling to some I know on the left of the political spectrum (many of whom are Christians, by the way).

Throughout this, I have given him the benefit of the doubt. If he has to campaign a little more cynically this time, so be it. As long as he is the McCain of the last 20 years and not the McCain of the last 20 months after he arrives at the White House, what difference does it make? Merely talking to a Jerry Falwell in no way indicates a real shift in worldview or governing intentions.

However, when he makes specific promises to satisfy a constituency, I take notice. Particularly when I consider the promise misguided and foolish.

In a recent interview with Robert Novak, McCain apparently stated the following:

"I've never voted for a tax increase in 24 years...I will never vote for a tax
increase, nor support a tax increase

Such a broad, categorical statement is absolutely foolish and it is blatant political pandering. How can a potential president categorically withdraw a major tool of fiscal management from his policy arsenal?

Some would doubtlessly argue my assertion that this is bad policy. Taxes and government intervention in the economy are wasteful and destructive to growth, the argument goes. I will not dispute that this is often the case but it is certainly not always true. Consider taxes on cigarettes. These taxes benefit society in two large ways. First, they decrease cigarette consumption, thereby promoting health and lowering our nation's medical liability. Second, the revenue they generate help us finance the present day costs of medicare and medicaid - expenses which are partially attributable to smoking.

I would certainly agree that more needs to be done to eliminate government waste as a means to balance our budget and promote a healthy economy. I do not think tax raises should be a first option or undertaken lightly - on any income group. But to discard them entirely... is unjustifiable.

I would think it to be an unacceptable sacrifice for someone more concerned with the well-being of the country than their own political career.

Beyond bad policy, it could prove to be foolish politics. George H.W. Bush made such a promise in his 1988 campaign (remember "read my lips..."). Fortunately for the country, Bush Sr. had the character to support a tax increase during his administration when he deemed it necessary for the good of the country. Nevertheless, breaking his promise cost him severely in 1992.

This statement by McCain greatly troubles me. I guess he could be taking his new campaign strategy to an extreme - saying what he needs to say knowing that he will do what he thinks is right when the time comes.

But this is getting harder and harder to believe.

Friday, February 2, 2007

French Thinking on the Iranian Nuclear Program

"[Iran] Having one [atomic bomb], maybe a second one a little later, well, that's not very dangerous..." French President Jacques Chirac stated last Monday.

At first, I was infuriated by this statement, because I consider it absurd (and frightening) for several reasons. But the more I think about it, I am a bit relieved. At least we know where the French government stands on this matter. They are not our ally in this pursuit, despite the fact that they have endorsed UN resolutions condemning the Iranian action and, along with Britain and Germany, led the supposed diplomatic offensive to stop it.

Chirac's reasoning was apparently based on the belief that the Iranian leadership would never be foolish enough to use such a weapon. "[An Iranian nuclear bomb] would not have gone 200 meters into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed to the ground," he says.

And he would be right, if Iran was foolish enough to launch one on a missile or drop one from a bomber. But these are certainly not the only ways to deliver a nuclear weapon. Terrorism relies entirely on surprise, stealth and shadowy networks. We have decades of experience that demonstrate this reality. Thousands, if not millions of tons of illegal drugs are smuggled into this country every year from countries all over the world. If this is possible, why couldn't one nuclear weapon be as well? The answer is that it could.

There are other reasons Chirac's statement is nonsensical. Does he think that Iran would only build "one, maybe a second one, a little later"? Is he comfortable assuming that the Iranian leadership is a rational entity - one that can be deterred by mutual assured destruction as the Soviet Union was in the Cold War? President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's public rhetoric strongly suggests otherwise - not to mention the fact that we really have no idea what the real power players in Iran (the Ayatollahs) intend. Does Chirac believe that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan would allow an Iranian nuclear arsenal to exist without developing their own? Does he believe that it is even worth the risk? Apparently so.

America should pursue diplomacy as genuinely and as vigorously as possible on this matter - something we are not doing today. But we should realize that if it fails, it probably will not be the Bush Administration's fault. When those that are supposed to be among our closest allies publicly dissent (as is admittedly their right to do), it weakens the chances of diplomacy having a meaningful effect - and makes a military conflict more likely.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Why 5?

The ongoing Senate debate on the troop surge in Iraq has become a little boring to me because I had concluded that it was going to happen, regardless of the rhetoric opposing it. President Bush has decided to do it and because Congress is not seriously considering withholding money, they have no power to stop it.

That being the case, I have tried to move my focus to discussions on how to manage the larger strategic issues in Iraq (see my post on Lugar).

But comments made today by General Casey during his Senate confirmation hearing (to be Army Chief of Staff) brought me right back to the surge issue. Apparently, Casey, the top commander in Iraq prior to General Petraeus's promotion, told the President that 2 additional brigades would be sufficient to address the violence in Baghdad. President Bush instead sent 5 brigades.

Of course, this is the President's prerogative as Commander and Chief. But I fail to understand why he would overrule the man he considers the military's top expert in the region. After all, his confidence in Casey must be extremely high if he is promoting him to Army Chief of Staff.

I am not qualified to speculate too much on military tactics, so I will not. But I thought people should be aware of this disagreement.