Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hagel's horrible day

Chuck Hagel did not have a fun day in the US Senate. He appeared bumbling and badly briefed. In fact, he exemplified my concerns from a few weeks back. He didn't answer straight on the Iraq surge - he should have admitted his mistake. He implied that Iran was a legitimate democracy - ???. He suggested that President Obama was focused on containing rather than preventing nuclear Iran - thus weakening the already weak (see Negatives-Iran) US policy. In short, this was a disastrous hearing (see clips here). Far worse than most political analysts expected. For me, Hagel's abysmal performance also raises a troubling secondary point. Why did Obama select him? I am increasingly convinced that the answer is domestic politics. Along with others, I believe that the President intends to use Hagel to try and bring a semblance of Republican legitimacy and cover to his second term defense plans. Proposals which I suspect will involve further military spending cuts. Anyway, I don't see how Hagel can get through after this. He might be a good man, but today he wasn't credible.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Israeli air strikes, gun debate, US economic news, drones in Africa,

1) The Israelis are increasingly uncomfortable with the evolving security situation in Syria. As the Syrian regime disintegrates, the risks of political instability escalate. For Israel, the primary concern (as evidenced by last night's IDF air strike) resides in the possibility of the Lebanese Hizballah accessing Assad's chemical weapons. Such a development would fundamentally challenge Israel's security/security posture. As I argued for the Huffington Post before Christmas, if Assad employs his chemical weapons, President Obama must order decisive US Military action. On a side note, with each passing day it becomes increasingly clear that the Syrian rebels will accept no outcome other than Assad's removal from power.

2) The Senate is currently hearing from various advocates on both sides of the increasingly polarised gun control debate. The left is trying to shred the second amendment and LaPierre, the PR nightmare to end all PR nightmares, retains false comfort in his self-created realm of delusion. Personally, I think that Congress should focus on improved background checks, better enforcement of existing laws and increased mental health information sharing.

3) The economy didn't have a great final quarter in 2012. The left are complaining that the cause for this retrenchment was spending cuts and that future cuts must therefore be avoided. In making this argument, they are obsessing over the short term. While in truth spending cuts will probably cause short term economic harm, without such cuts America will continue on a path towards the fiscal abyss. This would be a disaster. Ultimately, until we see comprehensive debt reform (cue medicare), economic growth will be suffocated by consumer/business doubt over the future.

4) The US Government is quietly improving its ISTAR/strike capability for operations against Islamist militants in West Africa. Because of the size and population sparsity that defines much of that region, drone platforms provide a crucial asset for on-going counter-terrorism efforts.
Enjoyed this. Earlier today, George Galloway was shut down by PM Cameron.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Jindal on GOP, Iraq strife, Syria, US in Mali, North Korea

A few issues today.

1) BOBBY JINDAL has said that the GOP needs to stop being stupid. He's right. But unfortunately, the problem goes far deeper than defective PR messaging and the occasional rape remark. The hard truth is that the GOP is disconnected from far too many Americans. Jindal was wrong to pretend that a simple turn of phrase will alleviate this condition of political dysfunction. Instead, conservatives need real, substantial Republican evolution. Evolution that doesn't dilute conservatism, but re-frames and re-energizes conservatism for the 21st century. We need a message that connects with inner city Americans. We need to forge a social conservatism that serves society. We need to build broad coalitions. And most certainly, WE NEED a party valuing of intellectual curiosity, rather than condemning of debate as subversion and treason. If conservatives don't address these problems, we will keep loosing elections. It's not my opinion, it's the 21st century.

Side note- If Republicans select credible candidates, the GOP can re-take the Senate in 2014.

2) IRAQ is not looking good. Five Sunni protesters were killed by government forces in Fallujah yesterday. Now the head of the Anbar Awakening Council (which was critical in helping the US Military restrain Al Qa'ida in Iraq) has threatened insurrection against government forces in Iraq's huge western province. It's important to understand that this situation is not the product of a single incident. For the past couple of years, tensions between the Shia dominated Iraqi Government and Iraqi Sunnis have steadily increased. On the one hand, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Maliki, fears a return to a Sunni dominated autocracy like that of Saddam Hussein. However, in order to guard against this, Maliki is making the terrible error of creating his own semi-autocracy. In doing so, he is playing into the hands of violent extremists like the Islamic State of Iraq coalition (an heir to Al Qa'ida in Iraq) which find power in Sunni fear. These terrorists are attempting to drive Iraq into a 2006 style sectarian civil war. And if that happens, you can guarantee that every agitator in Iraq (cue- al-Sadr)/the region (cue - Iran) will poke out their heads in order to make things even worse. To avoid this calamity, Maliki needs to engage in substantial cross-sectarian dialogue with his primary political rival- al-Iraqiya (the nationalist block). If Iraq returns to the abyss, the consequences will be catastrophic.

3) ASSAD's regime continues its downward spiral towards defeat. Following the rebels capture of Taftanaz, heavy fighting is now underway in the south-west Damascus suburb of Darayya, about two miles from Damascus city center (check google maps to see the proximity). As Nicholas Blanford's notes, the regime and its allies are investing all their resources in this last gasp battle. As a further example of the regime's endangerment, Iran is loudly trying to deter western intervention by issuing threats of a counter-response. I believe that as the rebels begin to encroach on central Damascus, the psychological pressure on the regime will cause an irreversible crumble in its power- those who can flee will do so (I expect Assad among them), those who cannot flee will try and hide. Only the extreme hardliners will remain and they will be defeated.

4) CONCERNING MALI, the French Government is now requesting major support from the US. They need our refueling assets, our logistical transport capabilities and our ISTAR resources. They need these things because for many years they have elected not to spend on these crucial assets. The French (as with their EU partners) believe it is preferable to have American taxpayers carry the weight of international security. I have to be honest, this infuriates me. European governments love to claim that they are modern servants of the enlightenment - spending on social welfare instead of on an effective military capability. During peacetime, Europeans criticize the US for our military expenditures. But without us, they are impotent. This is the false moralism of EU defense policy. Every time that military force is applied, the gaping holes in European military power become apparent. We should provide France with the support that they need, but the French must carry the cost (probably wishful thinking on my part) and President Obama should make an open statement condemning European hypocrisy on defense issues/spending (definitely wishful thinking).

5) NORTH KOREA is threatening a further nuclear test and evidence suggests that this threat is more than rhetoric. While the North Koreans are steadily improving their ICBM capability, we already know that they have an albeit basic nuclear weapons capability. To be honest, while the North Koreans are loud, aggressive and seemingly unpredictable, their unpredictability has predictable contours. In essence, North Korea's foreign policy is similar to the actions of a young child. When a child wants attention or gifts, they cry. When North Korea wants attention or gifts (economic aid), it threatens war. True, the North Koreans sometimes take major action, most recently sinking a South Korean ship in 2010. But it's also true that whether headed by il-Sung, Jong-il or Jong-un, the North Korean regime resides on a foundation of luxury and patronage. It's leaders don't want to die. For all their threats, the North Koreans are cognizant that war with the US would be an act of suicide. With American resolve and strength, North Korea can be deterred.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

On his way out, Panetta destroys the glass ceiling

Talk about a leaving on a loud note... Defense Secretary Panetta's lifting of the ban on female front line combat service is huge news. To be honest, I largely agree with the sentiments of a friend who simply told me, It was going to happen sooner or later.

Regardless of the hyperventilating excitement of some liberals, the excuse of ''equality'' doesn't satisfy the  complexity of this issue. I respect that numerous female service members possess the intellectual, physical and emotional capabilities to serve in combat. Nonetheless, I have some concerns about the potential impacts of this development. What, for example, will be the impact on men (who will remain the predominant majority of combat personnel)? What will this evolution mean for the combat interoperability between men and women? For one example, even if subconsciously, will male soldiers excessively focus on force protection concerns in preference to the demands of the mission? What will this mean for general issues like single sex barracks? What about female platoon leaders? What about the politics when female service members are captured or killed (remember Jessica Lynch)?

On a side note, counter to majority opinion, I actually expect that Special Forces units will be among the most able to adapt to the new regulations. Possessing greater individual redundancy, serving personnel in these units are largely judged  on their ability to operate above a (albeit advanced) base line level.  Here, ''politics'' is subjugated to capability.

However, the record also suggests that women (who meet the standards) can serve with distinction in combat units. Consider the experience of female aviators in the US Navy and US Air Force, or female soldiers and marines in Afghanistan and (previously) Iraq. Every day, women successfully serve alongside their male counterparts in an aggressive, high expectation environment.

In the end, I think the key must be this: Open access - but do not open the door to sex-subjective standards. All must reach the same baseline. Which sadly... isn't great.

Anyway, a friend in the know has sent me these valuable (personal) thoughts -

I have found that gender mixing influences the dynamic of a team, particularly in simulated combat conditions. 

In fact I'd say the overriding factor is the high political cost of any soldier's life, rather than the sex of the soldiers.

I know that some soldiers complain about females out on patrol with them, particularly to the extent that they struggle with the weight, but I have seen that to be true with my male colleagues as much as the females.

I think it's becoming more and more politically difficult, at a time when governments are addressing the concept of equal rights such as gay marriage, to ignore the fact that there are restrictions on women's service in the military.

Research has shown that very few women will take the offer up, fewer still will pass the rigorous physical demands and mentality required. In the IDF (Israeli Military), a tiny proportion of women took up the infantry career, because it's punishing, brutal in many ways, and because it is a man's world. For better or for worse, it's an immense challenge I would imagine, to enter an aggressive, macho (often by necessity as much as corp d'esprit) world like the infantry.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Analysis - Obama's Second Inaugural Address


The next four years?

A time of progressive greatness. The restoration of durable economic growth, a new era of just peace and the arrival of care for those in need. Or, a disaster for America. A ballooning national debt, a gutted military and the death of personal responsibility. Taking a casual stroll through the twittersphere, it seems liberals and conservatives can agree on only one thing. When it comes to President Obama’s second inaugural address, we disagree.  I’m uncomfortable with this polarity of analysis. For me, as with its varied themes, this address was both good and bad.

Here’s what I thought about each major element.

Equality

What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

Spot on. Without true freedom at home, we handicap our ability to preach freedom abroad. Without respect for our fellow citizens, we diminish ourselves. While many conservatives disagree, for me, equality shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Aside from the intellectual hypocrisy of supporting gun owners but rejecting gay couples (both involve the intimate intersection of privacy and individual freedom), there’s a more basic moral issue at stake here. Put simply, in 21st century America, the law must be unchained from hyper-subjective understandings of personal nature. Freedom demands it. As does our national motto, Out of many, one.

Economy

No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores.  Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.

True, strong economic growth requires investment. Yet, in asserting government as the cornerstone of America’s economic future, the President is charting a course towards the economic Bermuda Triangle. Higher taxes do not encourage businesses, they alienate them. Excessive regulations do not facilitate entrepreneurial initiative, they restrain it. Exploding deficits do not inspire investment, they repel it. For all the President’s oratory, economic opportunity won’t find fertile pasture in government intrusion.

Climate Change and Energy

We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.  But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it.  We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries, we must claim its promise.

At a basic level, the President is right. Lead or be left behind. However, contrary to the arrogant self-delusion of some, America is leading progress on climate change. Clearly we can do more. But alongside these efforts, we require an energy policy that makes sense in action as well as in words. If he’s serious about energy, he should drop his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. Further, he should embrace America’s domestic energy boom and back away from regulatory threats. It would be a grave error to mistake energy advancement and environmental protection as mutually exclusive.

Foreign Policy

We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully –- not because we are na├»ve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.

In this time as in all times, diplomacy is the right preference for resolving our foreign policy challenges. Despite this, though war is no cause for celebration, the pursuit of peace is no easy undertaking. Without teeth, diplomacy is impotent; we cannot cut our way to security. Our adversaries must understand that where necessary, we will oppose them with force. Sadly, for the past four years, the President’s foreign policy has been both confused and contradictory. This needn’t be the case in the next four years.

Welfare

The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

We can and we should forge a future in which those in need are assisted. However, contrary to the gospel of Krugman, European welfare states offer few answers. We need solutions which arouse social mobility, while avoiding a culture of dependency. We also need to accept that in order to save America from debt catastrophe, serious entitlement reform is necessary. At present, Medicare recipients receive services many times greater in value than the contributions they paid in. To fill the gap, in doubt and debt, America’s young are paying the difference. Suddenly the President’s climate change warning not to ‘’betray our children’’ rings a little hollow. Only by hard compromise can we hope to provide a safety net for future generations. Medicare won’t be much use if it doesn’t exist.

Partisanship

We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.

A great line which echoed the narrative of Obama 2008. Sadly, over the past four years, the President hasn’t exactly lived up to these lofty standards. But let bygones be bygones. If the President is willing to cease his demagoguery against Republicans, then Republicans should reciprocate in kind. Ultimately, the historic legacy of American politics is the application of power for positive, unified national purpose. Cognizant of the partisan tempests too long suffered, however hard, we must now try to build common ground.




Monday, January 21, 2013

Inauguration Day 2013

I've just returned home after a fantastic Inauguration Day. Yes, I'm a conservative. Yes, I disagree with many of the President's policies. Yes, I wanted Romney to win. But today isn't about political parties. Instead, it's about the celebration of 237 enduring years of American democracy and our peaceful re-affirmation (or exchange) of power. For those reasons, today, I smiled, clapped and had a great time. 

A special shout out to the men and women of the US Secret Service. They are extraordinarily talented, dedicated and patriotic individuals to whom we owe a great debt.



Three photos I took today. Top - Presidential Motorcade. Left - Secret Service Counter-Sniper overwatching Pennsylvania Avenue (Presidential viewing stand is white building in background). Right - Secret Service Counter Snipers leaving Treasury Building roof after successfully securing our democracy.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

We must not censor our entertainment industry

Note- This post is also published on The Huffington Post.

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, from across the spectrum of the gun control debate, various actors are challenging the entertainment industry's right to free speech. Representing Obama, Biden has met with industry representatives. NRA chief, Wayne LaPierre, has suggested that the industry bears the largest share of the blame for Sandy Hook. Most disappointingly however, major media contributors have also jumped on the anti-free speech bandwagon. These individuals apparently believe that they have the right to define appropriate programming for others.

Consider this argument by Ramin Setoodeh. Setoodeh arrogantly proclaims that because he was uncomfortable with the recent movie, Texas Chainsaw 3D, ".... gore at the movies just doesn’t feel entertaining". Therefore, he argues, Hollywood must abandon this genre. Except, as indicated by Chainsaw's box office takings, many others obviously thought the opposite. For me, this is the crux of the issue. While individually, we might not always agree with its products, our entertainment industry is nonetheless at the heart of what America is all about. Not just in terms of its vigorous manifestation of free speech, but also, in terms of how this 'freedom to create' interacts with broader notions of American capitalism. Put simply, the fundamental truth is that the success of movies/video games resides upon their consumer desirability. While the First Amendment essentially assures that government cannot impose excessive legal restrictions on speech, my great concern is that further pressure from various actors could fuel an already present (see South Park) condition of self-censorship in the entertainment industry. This would be a disaster. Such a dynamic would not only assert the authoritarian moral judgments of the few, in preference to the majority opinions of society, it would also encourage a slippery slope towards greater future censorship. In essence, the question would be asked, if violence is to be divorced from entertainment, then why not also the presentation of drugs (for the children's sake)?, or sex (let's stop STDs)?, or religion (we can't risk inflaming violence)? etc. The precedent would be set and the following consequences would be clear: A thought police society locked in the despair of a creative, emotional and intellectual prison

Just look at Europe for an example of what happens when political correctness takes root. 

I'm not being alarmist. Today, censorship sympathizers are sadly a mainstream occurrence (see my response - it's the first comment after the op/ed).
 
No one should deny that the Sandy Hook massacre was a tragedy of terrible proportion. I freely agree, as a country - republicans, democrats and independents alike, we need to work together to reduce the risks of future atrocities. But when it comes to the entertainment industry, the correct course of action is obvious. Parents should exert greater control over the entertainment choices of their children and adults should ignore products which offend their moral values. It's incredibly important that we remember, without controversial speech, America would not have been born and slavery might have longer endured.  

In it's ability to drive debate forwards, often in unpredictable ways, controversy can be an incredible force for good. Because of its polluting influence, content based censorship of America's entertainment industry must be avoided at all costs.
South Park creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker discussing censorship (comment at 5.10 is especially important)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Obama Gun Proposals, Algeria Hostages, Mali

1) The President has announced his gun reform proposals. Some are pretty sensible and are likely to garner Congressional support. Unfortunately, other proposals are the product of a willful and complete failure to understand A) guns B) gun owners.  
          First, what's good? Closing background check loopholes seems sensible. As does tougher enforcement of existing laws. However, it is noticeable about how little effort the President has made to address mental health issues. Apart from 'clarifications' on the law, Obama has offered very little. This should be the key, guns do not kill people. People kill people.

What's bad - First, I disagree with a federal assault weapons ban. As I argued for The Week a couple of weeks back (no pun intended), states should take the lead on this particular issue. Having said this, I do not believe that there is a constitutional right to assault weapon possession. Previous statements by Justice Scalia indicate that he would be unlikely to affirm such a right.
                    Second, and this is my main gripe, the call for a 10 round magazine limit is a serious mistake. In fact, I believe that such a limit is unconstitutional. In the 2008 landmark case of District of Columbia v Heller, the Supreme Court held that civilians have the right to own weapons (including semi-automatic handguns) for the purposes of meaningful self-defense. Overturning DC's previous handgun ban, the court held that ''The (DC law in question) prohibition extends, moreover, to the home, where the need for defense of self, family, and property is most acute. Under any of the standards of scrutiny that we have applied to enumerated constitutional rights, banning from the home “the most preferred firearm in the nation to ‘keep’ and use for protection of one’s home and family,” 478 F. 3d, at 400, would fail constitutional muster.'' The court also affirmed that the second amendment protects an individual's right for his or her firearms to be accessible and operational. When combined with the Court's stipulation ''There are many reasons that a citizen may prefer a handgun for home defense: It is easier to store in a location that is readily accessible in an emergency; it cannot easily be redirected or wrestled away by an attacker; it is easier to use for those without the upper-body strength to lift and aim a long gun; it can be pointed at a burglar with one hand while the other hand dials the police.'' it seems evident that the Supreme Court has held a private right not just to gun ownership, but to a gun ownership that provides for a practical and perceptible posture of defense. This understanding illustrates why I believe that Obama's (10) and New York's (7) magazine size limits are unconstitutional. If implemented, they would fundamentally alter nearly all semi-automatic weapons and would do so to a degree which excessively infringed upon established constitutional rights of self-defense. When confronted by a home invader in the middle of the night, an individual is unlikely to employ the highest levels of accuracy. When confronted by a group of home invaders, an excessive magazine limit is inherently and irrefutably precarious. Excessive magazine limits are in fundamental contest with the basic protections of the second amendment.

2) Algeria. AQIM appears to have kidnapped a number of foreign energy workers in Algeria. I expect that the 1st SFOD-D ready-alert ''bowstring'' squadron is already half way across the Atlantic. AQIM would be well advised to release the hostages now. Delta Force doesn't mess around.

3) The French Military is engaged in serious fighting in Mali. French soldiers are well trained professionals and their current tasking is justified and necessary. But because European welfare states have sucked away EU defense spending, European militaries are terribly underfunded. As a result, their ISTAR capabilities have been seriously degraded. As in Libya, once again the US will have to fill in the gaps. EU defense policy is a joke.