Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Pure Insanity

Along with education, energy policy is arguably the most important strategic domestic issue because of its impact on so many other areas.

The well-being of our economy, our national security, and our environmental future are all directly linked to where we acquire our fuels and how we generate our electricity.

Of course, I've written this before, but it's worth saying again. And again.

Thomas Friedman, one of my favorite thinkers, returned to the New York Times this week and wrote a searing 3 minute essay on the pure insanity of U.S. energy policy (or more precisely, the lack thereof).

Did you know that the U.S. government is currently subsidizing oil companies during times of record profits, but is not offering any support whatsoever for the construction of new wind or solar power installations?

You can (and should) read more about this travesty here.

Personal note: I've pretty much tipped my hand in recent weeks about my support for Barack Obama. This article starts with a nod to him and a slap and McCain and Clinton for their recent support of the "gas-tax holiday". I'd ask all readers to look past these initial few lines, regardless of their political preference, to focus on the real issue that most of the article discusses.

Update: The New G.I. Bill

Last November, I posted a brief note and link about a "Post-Iraq G.I. Bill" being co-sponsored by Senators Jim Webb (D-VA) and Chuck Hagel (R- NE).

I noticed an article today that provides an update on the bill. The piece focuses more on politics than policy (apparently John McCain and Webb disagree on some major implementation details), but it still manages to provide an update on the bill.

Here is my original post on this bill.

Here is the new article.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Obama and Wright

A few days ago, I said that Barack Obama would have an obligation to speak out against his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, if he had heard him spread some of his wilder and totally unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.

Yesterday, Wright restated some of these claims, including one that the United States government is responsible for spreading the AIDS virus.

This time, he spoke to a national audience.

Today, Senator Obama responded with a brief (7 minute) but very direct denunciation of these remarks.

I hesitate to wade into issues like this because I think that they distract from those that matter most (e.g. energy policy, health care, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc, etc, etc).

However, if I can help squash these distractions even the tiniest bit, I will do so - and that will include any unwarranted attacks that may arise on John McCain's character as well.

If I thought Wright's remarks offered any insight at all into Obama's character or policy positions, I would let this go...or perhaps even pile on. But Obama's entire career - his professional decisions, his legislative initiatives, his writings, and his rhetoric - indicate the exact opposite.

It is perfectly respectable to disagree as vocally and publicly as possible with a politician's policy positions. But unwarranted attacks on a candidate's character - whether direct or through false levels of association with groups or other individuals - harm our democracy by dissuading our best people from serving.

We have to speak out against that when we see it.

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Rant Against Political Coverage

In today's New York Times, Elizabeth Edwards rails against the maddening lack of substance in the mainstream media's coverage of the Presidential election.

Sadly, the article doesn't offer any solutions, but it's a rant I agreed with (and felt a little better after reading) , so I thought I would pass it on.

It seems to me that the coverage has gotten even worse in the last month or so. I've actually stopped watching the major cable networks discuss the election. Like Mrs. Edwards, I am offended that these political pundits spend 30 seconds - much less entire segments - discussing a candidate's bowling score or drinking abilities....

It's a 3 minute read and you can find it here.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Future of Oil Prices?

A Canadian bank predicts the price of oil will rise to $150/barrel by 2010 and $225/barrel by 2012.

It's only one opinion, but there are some simple facts in the article that make the prediction seem plausible (for example the dramatic increase in car sales in Russia and China).

The 60 second article is here.

I won't make a personal prediction about how fast oil prices will grow, but I think that any Americans that believe that the current "spike" in oil prices is in any way temporary are in for a major disappointment.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Remembering an Education Milestone

The New York Times published a good article to commemorate the 25th anniversary of what is arguably the most important government document in the history of education reform.

The article takes 7 or 8 minutes to read, but it provides a useful partial overview of the history of education reform in the United States. It also (barely) begins to explore the relationship between the effectiveness of a nation's public education system and the overall long-term strength of its economy.

I strongly disagree with some of the assertions in this article - for instance:

American schools...teach creativity and the problem-solving skills critical to prospering in the global economy.

I'm not sure which American schools teach these things effectively. Mine certainly didn't and I went to public schools that were considered at least above average.

Nevertheless, I think the article is useful reading for anyone interested in education reform...

It's here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Civic Duty

Every citizen has an obligation to proactively speak out against ignorance like this regardless of whether it supports their politics or not.

(That would include, for example, Barack Obama if he personally heard some of his pastor's wilder conspiracy theories)

Reflections on Bosnia and Iraq

In response to a comment on a recent post, I mentioned that our efforts in Bosnia might provide valuable lessons for how to proceed in Iraq and possibly, even a model or vision of "success".

Richard Holbrooke, a former UN Ambassador, compares Iraq and Bosnia in the Washington Post today.

The article does not really analyze the prospects for "success" in Iraq, but it does provide a useful framework and/or list of concerns that must be monitored and addressed if Iraq is to have any shot at building a relatively stable society (with or without major American military support).

After reviewing this article I am left with two big thoughts.

First, Holbrooke's listing of the issues to be addressed makes it clear how extraordinarily difficult this quest for a stable, democratic Iraq was from the start - and how much harder it is today after 5 years of minimal progress.

Second, despite my first thought, it may yet be possible. The peace in Bosnia today has largely gone unnoticed and/or been taken for granted. Yet it came after a civil war that left over 100,000 people dead and persisted through 30 failed cease-fires. And, like Iraq, much if not most of the fighting was due to ethnic and religious differences. Of course, there are doubtlessly many factors that make the two countries very different problems, but the point is that the challenges in Bosnia long seemed to be no less solvable - yet apparently they were.

Given the stakes, historical examples like Bosnia and the fact that we WILL be in Iraq until next January, why not continue to explore what success looks like in Iraq and what could be done to achieve it under a new American President....?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Neglected Issue

We've barely heard a peep from the Presidential candidates about their plans to improve our public education system.

In my opinion, there should be at least one full debate devoted entirely to this topic once the general election begins.

Bob Herbert wrote this 3 minute piece in the New York Times that shows how bad we are failing our young people today and the consequences that might have for tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

3 Minute Must Read on Iraq

David Brooks, one of my favorite Op-Ed writers (due to his sharp and relatively fair mind), wrote a thought provoking piece in today's New York Times. I strongly recommend the entire thing (all 3 minutes worth).

Steve, I still owe you a description of "success", but I think Brooks offers a partial version near the end:

Iraq will look like a lot of places in the world: a series of cold and fragile understandings, with occasional flare-ups (like in Basra), but no genocide and no terror state.

This is certainly nothing I think we should be doing cartwheels over... but it may be better than the alternatives associated with withdrawal.

I'm still in the undecided camp, so I don't know if I believe it or not. I'm particular skeptical of the sustainability of the "balanced opposition" that Brooks cites as the critical new dynamic that has emerged.

But, it occurs to me that we are staying until at least January 2009, so we should take the opportunity to honestly consider all possibilities - including those that come from new leadership in the White House and new developments on the ground.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Kissinger's Perspective

The "debate" on national security and international relations has collapsed in recent years to Iraq and Iran with a dash of North Korea, Pakistan and Russia.

For those of you interested in the future of international relations and national security strategy, Henry Kissinger provides a refreshingly sophisticated essay in today's Washington Post outlining three major forces that will shape global events for most of our lives.

These forces include the evolution of the European Union, radical Islam and non-state actors and "the drift of the center of gravity of international affairs from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans".

You can read the entire article here.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Thought on Missle Defense: Invest Elsewhere

I was surprised today that President Bush won critical European support for the missile defense system his administration has championed.

The more I think about our list of national security concerns, the further investing in the missile defense falls on my priority list.

Here's why:

Even the greatest proponents of our missile defense systems admit that no foreseeable system could shield us from a Russian or Chinese attack. They simply have too many missiles. At best it does nothing and at worst it compels them to build more missiles.

Knowing this, advocates of this system claim that the shield is intended to protect America and Europe from the technologically more modest but seemingly more reckless Iran and/or North Korea.

In theory, these two states could at some point in the future attack a member of NATO with a long range missile. But the likelihood of that is so absurdly low that I must ask why we are investing tens or (more likely) hundreds of billions of dollars to address it??

The launch of a large missile against another country is pretty much the most blatant surprise act of war a nation can commit against another. As offensive and blustery as the Iranian and North Korean leadership typically are, they consistently demonstrate enough sanity to ensure that they do not destroy themselves. For all their arrogance, the leaders of these countries do know that attacking NATO in such a manner would - with 100% certainty - ensure their personal destruction.

One may doubt the effectiveness of such a deterrent in the case of a theocratic Iran. We do not really know how the Supreme Ayatollah thinks at the end of the day. But 30 years of theocratic rule in that country demonstrate a clear history of shadowy aggression meant to further their interests while not provoking (or politically enabling) a catastrophic retaliation by their enemies.

In my judgement, these people may regularly demonstrate a zeal that some may call "crazy" but there is a ton of evidence that they are not suicidally stupid.

Let's consider the threat of a non-government actor such as a terrorist group. We should ask how and why they would commandeer and successfully aim and launch such a weapon. There are a vast range of options to do as much damage in a far easier manner. We've seen countless examples and our best analysts have predicted many more.

In my opinion, it is those risks that we should prioritize - and this is my major argument against missile defense: its opportunity cost.

Why not instead bolster the security in our ports? Why not instead increase our resources dedicated to securing Soviet nuclear material? Why not instead take the politically popular step of securing our borders (both north AND south)? Why not instead provide the first drops of security on our nation's trains and subways - targets that have already been established as terrorist favorites (in London and Madrid).

Let me clear that my argument is NOT asking you to believe that North Korea, Iran or some other internal rogue/terrorist element does not want or will not try to attack American and/or NATO interests at some point in the future.

All I am saying is that they will almost certainly NOT do it via a huge missile.

Despite our tremendous military capabilities, we still have shocking vulnerabilities.

We should have a more sensible list of priorities and address them accordingly.

A Good Article on NCLB

I've written about the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on here before but here is another fairly concise article that talks about some of the most common misperceptions associated with this law. It will soon be up for re-authorization.

In the process of discussing the bill, the article also provides a little more context on the broader public education system in this country.

Hopefully education will get more airtime in the general Presidential election than it has in the primaries... but I'm not all that optimistic.

For those of you that are interested in the article, you can read it here.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A True Expert Opinion on Iraq (And My Thinking)

Tragically, Iraq has become a tremendously political issue.

Many senior Democrats have staked a firm position that the vast majority of American combat troops need to be withdrawn as quickly as logistically possible. On the other end of the spectrum, many Republicans have equated withdrawal with "surrendering" to al-Qaeda. Many journalists and other "experts" have become equally invested in one side or the other.

This dynamic, combined with the extraordinary complexity of the issue, makes it tough for an intellectually honest person to confidently identify the best strategic course of action for the United States.

About a year ago, I was beginning to become convinced that our efforts were futile due to the cultural divisions in Iraq. It was this sense of futility - not a lack of appreciation for the strategic consequences - that led me to think we should probably withdraw or at least dramatically reduce our commitment to Iraq (and double-down on Afghanistan).

This mindset was challenged, ironically, when I read Thomas Ricks' book Fiasco (which I highly recommend). In his very successful attempt to catalog the failures of the Bush Administration before, during and after the invasion of Iraq, he highlighted many issues which struck me as quite...correctable (and by "correctable" - I do not mean "avoidable" - though many certainly were). I am choosing not to list them here because supporting this assertion is somewhat tangential to the main point I want to make with this post.

Fiasco made me think that the new surge might be worth a shot. I felt this way not because I believed more force was the answer, but because the new leader, General David Petraeus, was actually the first commander with the appropriate counter-insurgency background to design and execute an appropriate strategy to make real progress. (This was one of the "correctable" points in Fiasco).

Today, I am back in the undecided camp.

I am no longer willing to say definitively that the endeavor is futile; however, I am extremely annoyed by those that pronounce the "surge" a success. The violence reduction is undeniably a positive tactical development. Yet without knowing WHY violence has declined, we are foolish to celebrate it as a strategic achievement.

For example, if it has occurred primarily because the powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has decided to order his militia to stand down until we leave, then the violence reduction is minimally valuable. If our new tactics have convinced him or his followers to genuinely engage in the political process, then we may be making strategically meaningful progress. Unfortunately, events in the last week seem to suggest the former and not the latter.

Likewise, our alliance of convenience with the Sunnis may evaporate once al-Qaeda is sufficiently destroyed. There is no obvious reason to believe that they will not, at some point, continue the warfare against the Shiites and the Americans that we saw prior to their decision to focus on al-Qaeda. Although it is possible we are building sustainable connections with Iraqi Sunnis, our experience in Afghanistan in the 1980's with the Sunni insurgency against the Soviet Union should give us pause. Many of our former "allies" in that struggle joined (or today lead) the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Anyway, as I said previously, I am back in the undecided camp and looking for the rare additional fact or insightful analysis to push my thinking one way or the other.

Today, I read an article that gave me a little more hope that we could prevail. Admittedly, the author of the article was a little more important to me than the content.

Lt Colonel John Nagl is a personal friend, but objectively one of the greatest thinkers I know. In addition to serving in both Gulf Wars, he is a Rhodes Scholar with a PhD in Strategic Studies from Oxford. From my personal experience with him, I know that he is politically savvy yet still intellectually honest. He understands, via firsthand experience, the situation on the ground in Iraq. He also, quite literally, wrote the Army and Marine Corps book on counter-insurgency. He has also recently left the Army, so I feel confident that he is able to express his full unfiltered opinion.

I'll let you read what he wrote here if you are interested.

Most of his essay is focused on military tactics and institutional changes that are needed in the 21st century military.

But one of his conclusions is that Americans need to demonstrate more patience. He believes that we and the Iraqi moderates can prevail.

His opinion has pushed me ever so slightly more into the let's wait and see camp.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Greater Loyalty

The Washington Post has recently printed an exchanged between a long-time Clinton political advisor, James Carville, and the Governor of Mexico and former Clinton Cabinet Member, Bill Check SpellingRichardson.

Carville was recently compelled to compare Bill Richardson to Judas Iscariot after he endorsed Clinton's opponent.

If you want to read the entire exchange you can find Mr. Carville's remarks here and Gov. Richardson's here.

To me, this is the most striking part of Mr. Carville's remarks:

I believe that loyalty is a cardinal virtue. Nowhere in the world is loyalty so little revered and tittle-tattle so greatly venerated as in Washington. I was a little-known political consultant until Bill Clinton made me. When he came upon hard times, I felt it my duty -- whatever my personal misgivings -- to stick by him. At the very least, I would have stayed silent. And maybe that's my problem with what Bill Richardson did. Silence on his part would have spoken loudly enough.

Richardson, predictably (but nevertheless perhaps genuinely) responded that he prioritized "loyalty to my country" over loyalty to an individual.

I am not naive enough to be surprised that Carville - or anyone else that makes a career in politics - values loyalty to an individual above loyalty to the country. We see politicians act in this manner constantly because loyalty to a powerful sponsor is almost always rewarded more richly than loyalty to ideals. It's an undeniable and tragic reality of our political system.

Nevertheless.... to see this idea spoken of so openly makes me shudder. Carville must believe that he and his allies are so right that loyalty to each other is synonymous to loyalty with the country or... he's completely lost touch with the core democratic idea that public service is just that.

He's not even faking it any more. That's just scary to me.

A Senseless Taboo

I agree that the 2nd Amendment allows individuals (not just militias) to own guns but we desperately need to combat the political climate that treats the mere discussion of any restrictions as an attempt to repeal the right altogether.

For instance, I'd have a hard time being convinced that the joker responsible for this 7 year old should continue to have a right to his weapons and I'd be interested to hear a representative from the NRA (or any one else) argue otherwise....