Archives for January 2012

WaPo Redeems

Just when you thought the Washington Post jumped the shark* with its recent front-page, Sunday edition, above-the-fold story on romance in the Occupy Wall Street camps, the paper redeems itself with two very good pieces. One is what the Post does best: human interest stories with a policy/political/national security bent. It focuses on Jennifer Matthews, a key CIA agent and mother of three, who was among the seven Americans killed in the December 2009 suicide bombing in Afghanistan.

Another article was the type of article you don’t find very much in the Washington Post (apart from regular columnists like Krauthammer and Will): a grown-up’s piece on the topic of income inequality, titled “Angry about inequality? Don’t blame the rich,” by James Q. Wilson.

True, the OWS romance piece was a human interest story with a political bent, but its corniness should have relegated it to the Style section. It belonged nowhere near the front page.

One other observation. The Post’s ombudsman showed that the paper’s coverage of the annual Pro-Life March was rather biased, with its absence of photos indicating the large size of the crowd and its use of the term “antiabortion ideology.” That begs the question: why isn’t the ombudsman catching these things before they go to print? Surely the Post employs copyeditors to proofread for typos before putting each issue to bed. Why not the same to proofread for bias?

* A phrase describing the moment in the evolution of a television show or other entity (in this case newspaper) when it begins a decline in quality that is beyond recovery. The phrase originated from the Happy Days episode where Fonzie jumps a shark while water skiing.

(Also see previous post on Washington Post quality control issues.)

Repubs Finally Waking Up on Envy

It’s about time Repubs started stating the obvious about Dems.

Mitt Romney said that bashing Wall Street and the top 1 percent is largely driven by envy.

While few people admit to envy, ask practically any psychologist and they’ll tell you that envy is one of the most prevalent and powerful of human emotions. Even Repubs harbor envy but they’re better about keeping it in check.

Of course, the Washington Post writer who reported Romney’s comments is skeptical that envy is a motivating factor. But want evidence of envy? Why, see the Washington Post: “That Wonderful Woman! Oh, How I Loathe Her” by Ann Hornaday.

Next time there’s a counter-protest at an Occupy Wall Street event, the counter-protesters should set up a booth offering free couseling to OWSers on envy management. Envy is a terrible thing for one’s mental and physical health, you know. Yes, it’s a medical fact that too much envy and resentment lead to diseases like cancer and heart disease!

Predictions: Did It Happen?

February 8, 2011. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner says the U.S. is in no danger of losing its Aaa debt rating. “’Absolutely not,’” Geithner said, when asked in an ABC News interview whether a downgrade is a concern. “‘That will never happen to this country,'” as quoted in Bloomberg News.

Was he right?

No. Six months later, S&P downgraded U.S. debt to AA+.

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January 4, 2011. Walmart CEO Bill Simon predicts “serious” inflation in coming months clothing, food and other products. “We’re seeing cost increases starting to come through at a pretty rapid rate,” he told USA Today.

Was he right?

The overall inflation rate for 2011 was 3.4 percent. Up from 1.5 percent for 2010. Doesn’t seem serious, but actually a 3.4 percent inflation rate means prices double every approximately 20 years. Among other things, that’s demeaning to ole’ George Washington’s face on the dollar bill. Blame the folks at the Fed for that.

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July 21, 2011. Jeff Reeves, editor of InvestorPlace, writing in MarketWatch.com. The title of his article: “Why We’ll Have 10% Unemployment Soon.”

Was he right?

No. Unemployment now stands at 8.5 percent. Still way too high for comfort, but substantially lower than Mr. Reeves’ prediction.

Osama bin Laden’s Boomeranged Plans

(A previous version of this article appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.)

Islamic extremists always have hated the presence of US armed forces in the Middle East. In an effort to coerce us into leaving, they called for a holy war and mounted a massive terrorist attack. The result: a lot more US forces in the Middle East. Terrorists may be good at blowing people up, but they are not political geniuses. The best way to remove US troops from a given territory is by waging peace on us, not war.

In his 1998 fatwa urging the killing of Americans everywhere, and in his 1996 “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” Osama bin Laden bewailed the American military bases in Saudi Arabia. He vowed to “expel the Jews and the Christians out of the Arab Peninsula” by initiating a guerrilla [terrorist] war. “And by this war, great losses will be induced on the enemy side, that would shake and destroy its foundations and infrastructures, that will help to expel the enemy defeated out of the country.”

Bin Laden partially got his wish, but not in the way he intended. The U.S. did withdraw Air Force operations from Saudi Arabia, for the most part. It happened only after we “induced” great losses on bin Laden’s side, rather than the other way around.

Bin Laden’s attack on September 11, 2001 proved to be one of the biggest strategic miscalculations of all time. While he no doubt relished the thought of having killed thousands of Americans, his broader objective backfired. Apart from he eventually being killed, it prompted the deployment of more American soldiers in the Middle East than bin Laden probably ever dreamed of. There are more than a hundred thousand U.S. troops there.

In his war declaration, bin Laden mocked the US’s quick withdrawal from Lebanon in 1983, from Yemen following a 1992 bombing of a hotel there, and from Somalia after 18 US Army Rangers were killed there in 1993. He apparently concluded that a new round of attacks would produce a similar outcome. That sentiment probably was reinforced by our tepid response to the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, when we launched a few cruise missiles into the Sudan and Afghanistan.

But bin Laden did not understand that different kinds of terrorist attacks provoke different kinds of responses. We as a nation are slow to anger. But when we get angry, we are ferocious. We not only pummeled bin Laden’s terror network but annihilated two regimes that harbored it.

Smarter Muslims who dislike the US presence in the Middle East should have been furious with bin Laden after what he did on 9/11, not only from a moral standpoint but also from a strategic one. Radical Muslims, by contrast, continue to cheer that terrorist attack. Little do they realize how badly their own interests were damaged.

Even less obvious to radicals is that waging peace is the best way to keep us out of the Middle East. US forces got heavily involved in the Middle East because a radical Iraqi ruler decided to invade his neighbor to the south in 1990, with tremendous repercussions for the interests of the US and rest of the world. That ruler’s threat to peace over the ensuing 12 years made us stay there. Only now, after he’s been long removed, has the US finally decided to substantially reduce its forces in Iraq.

Of course, the continued presence of bad guys in that region will keep us there for the foreseeable future, as is the case elsewhere, like the Korean peninsula.

This should be a lesson to those who are under the mistaken impression that the US deploys its military abroad for reasons of “hegemony” or “empire.” No, the actual reason is to counter bullies, terrorists, or warring factions. And once they are gone, we go home. The steep reduction of US forces in Germany following the Cold War is a good example.

But extremists do not think in rational terms like this. That is one reason why they are called extremists. It leaves us with the messy job of trying to eradicate them before they can inflict further terror on civilization. Meanwhile, because of their actions, it looks like we will be taking up residence in their home territory for years to come.

Patrick Chisholm is editor of PolicyDynamics.

Nice Countries, but Firm Countries, Finish First

(A previous version of this article appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.)

The United States will be friends with practically any other country, as long as that country is also willing to be friends. But woe to those who aim to do the U.S. harm.

Being open and friendly, but tough when one needs to be, is a strategy for success. In other words, nice guys but resolute guys finish first.

That holds true not just for individuals, but also for nations. And the United States is one such nation.

The world is blessed to have many countries – especially developed Western countries – that promote the ideals of freedom, democracy, peace, economic cooperation, and humanitarianism. It is a far cry from centuries past, when the major countries’ primary goal was to divide and conquer.

But there is an unenlightened contingent. Numerous countries, especially rogue states, still insist on spewing out insults and vitriol, and blaming their internal troubles on other countries. They have the medieval mentality that belligerence is the key to advancement.

The latter group of countries is why the former group can’t be too nice. Giving into bad guys’ demands can have disastrous consequences. A famous example is when Great Britain acceded to Hitler’s desire to usurp more territory in 1938, thinking that once his immediate demands were satisfied he would no longer be a threat. Britain’s leaders were under the erroneous impression that bad guys could be dealt with solely through talks, diplomacy, and appeasement.

The United States can sometimes be too nice, too. In 1994 it signed an agreement with Pyongyang to allow North Korea limited nuclear-power generation in exchange for a freeze on its nuclear weapons program. As it turned out, North Korea did no such thing.

By and large, though, the United States combines niceness with toughness.

America is akin to a rich, successful, and happy person. Such a person is affable and receptive toward everyone he meets. Yet he is vigilant, too. Being rich, he’s envied. There are people who don’t like him just because of his good fortune or his outsized influence. Some wish to hurt him. For those people, he’s firm. He plays hardball right back with them. And he doesn’t give in to their demands.

America is willing to be friends with almost any country as long as that country is willing to be friends with America. And if that other country is not willing, America still holds out hope that someday it will change its mind.

During the cold war it was the Soviet Union that was the antagonist, not the U.S.. Because the Soviets were ideologically against the American way of life, no amount of trying to befriend them would have worked. The only thing the U.S. could do was be ever-prepared and ever-vigilant – make sure the Soviets see the weapon at America’s side, while always having an olive branch stuck in its back pocket. After the Soviets finally shed their bad attitude, the U.S. happily and readily presented them with that crumpled old olive branch.

Another example was Libya. In the wake of Saddam Hussein’s ouster, Libya finally realized that being cooperative with America, not antagonistic, was in its best interests. So it shed its program of weapons of mass destruction.

Whether it is a nation or a person, a key to success is to be friendly and kind to anyone who reciprocates, yet tough toward those who try to inflict harm.

A computer model even illustrated this lesson. Developed by The Santa Fe Institute, was a digital fish tank. Users could introduce new life forms to observe whether their species thrived or died out among the other life forms. According to tech guru Winn Schwartau, each life form had a complex set of rules governing its behavior. Over time, wrote Schwartau, the life form that consistently dominated abided by the following rules:

“1. My species will always play nice with you. I will never be aggressive to you. We will make every attempt to cooperate and work with you and everyone in our (global) fish tank.

2. If you screw with me, I will annihilate you without any warning. Period.”

That was written pre-9/11. Like Japan and Germany 60 years prior, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein discovered how seriously we take Rule #2.

And as long as we keep abiding by both rules, America, like the fish in the digital fish tank, will stay on top.

Patrick Chisholm is editor of PolicyDynamics.

Deterrence’s End

(A previous version of this article appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.)

During the Cold War, deterrence helped preserve the peace. Now, America and the world are facing the truly frightening prospect of future cold wars, as hostile regimes around the world come closer to develop-ing their own nuclear weapons. North Korea, it appears, already has them. Iran is getting closer to having them. Iraq likely would have had them by now if not for our intervention. (There are very credible reports that Saddam Hussein merely put is nuclear program on hold, with the intention of restarting it later.)

It is easy to imagine a proliferation of nuclear-armed nations within a few decades. Deterrence worked for 40 years with the Soviet Union, notwithstanding numerous close calls. Many believe deterrence will keep Iran at bay as well. But the concept of deterrence is breaking down. Iran and North Korea do not require long-range missiles to attack the United States. They have an alternative delivery system: terrorist organizations. Launching a strike against us would be a matter of using such organizations or their own operatives to smuggle in weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The attacking nation could keep its participation secret. As several observers have pointed out, this reality negates the idea of deterrence. Were such an attack to occur, determining culpability would be very difficult, if not impossible. A smuggled-in nuclear bomb detonated in an American city would leave little if any trace of physical evidence as to who carried out the attack. This would hold true for biological weapons and other WMD as well.

It is akin to the criminal world: if the identity of murderers always could be known, the fear of certain retribution would result in fewer murders. Similarly, in the past the fear of certain retribution deterred rogue nations. But now that their complicity can be kept secret, we are much more vulnerable to catastrophic attacks.

Even if we could eventually ascertain a nation’s complicity, the mere fact that it may think we could never do so, and try to get away with it, is enough to negate deterrence.

The situation reflects the larger changes that have been taking place since the end of the Cold War. We have entered the era of “Fourth Generation Warfare” (a phrase coined in 1989 in a “Marine Corps Gazette” article, which denotes warfare against nongovernmental terrorist or criminal groups like Al Qaeda). This type of warfare is typically waged by highly mobile, secretive terrorist or paramilitary groups that do not necessarily act under the direct control of a foreign government. They blend in with civilian populations, and often are glad to sacrifice their lives to kill civilian or military personnel. They may act as proxies for hostile governments, which supply weapons, training and other support. The advent of WMD means such groups can inflict casualties on a scale that in previous times would have required large armies.

The geopolitical scene has changed as well. No longer (for now) are we squaring off with a hostile superpower, but with an assortment of rogue states that have or could soon have WMD. The increasing availability of lethal technology means the risks of the unthinkable are rising every year. Given the nature of petty tyrants, it is only a matter of time before one of them decides to use WMD, including nuclear weaponry, against us or one of our allies.

The North Korea situation demonstrates what happens when rogue regimes are allowed to obtain WMD. It is an excruciating predicament indeed (and shows that we – as opposed to rogue nations – can still be deterred). The immediate lesson is that we must prevent more of these predicaments, as we did with Iraq.

We are living in unique times indeed, where the widespread availability of WMD is profoundly changing the geopolitical equation. For our planet to survive, America and the allies have to do things they would not normally do. It includes preemptive military action. Though such action certainly carries large risks and consequences, assuming diplomacy and sanctions fail to persuade, there is no other way to stop the onset of a world full of nuclear-armed despots. Otherwise, if they gain access to WMD, they will not be deterred.

Patrick Chisholm is editor of PolicyDynamics.