The Wrong Foreign Policy (Again)

07 Oct
by John, posted in Middle East, Policy, President, Roosevelt   |  No Comments


The Middle East interventionists are once again ascendant in US foreign policy.  President Obama has ordered both the air force and army helicopters into active combat. It is hard to believe Special Forces are not also in combat as air controllers and advisors.  At this point there is very little difference between President Obama and President Bush II on the Middle East.

Bush’s biggest mistake was one of geography.  He somehow decided that to avenge 9/11 we we had to attack in the Middle East from where Bin Laden recruited many of the worker bee jihadis of 9/11. But the 9/11 attack originated in Asia, in Afghanistan, not the Middle East.  It makes no sense now anymore than it did then.

We are told the reason we must turn away from Russian aggression that could lead to nuclear war in Europe and China expanding aggressively in the South China Sea is because ISIS/ISIL will attack the “homeland”.  Is there a more loathsome Orwellian term than “homeland”?

The President and Senator McCain are now reading from the same script that defined their differences in 2008 in one of recent history’s ironies.  They assure us that jihadis will now attack us if we leave Sunnis and Shiites to stew in their millennia and half civil war.

But of course that has been the case since 9/11.  Nothing has changed.  Of what use is the giant security apparatus constructed after 9/11 under the same loathsome “homeland” title if it cannot protect us? What use is it if once again the American military is the only solution?

What has changed is the FACT that intervention in the Middle East makes everything worse.  It stokes the image of crusaders invading Muslim lands furthering jihadi recruiting and financing. It once again demonstrates that the US is incapable of winning an asymmetric war in support of an unworthy people.

To paraphrase Churchill, by intervening we have sustained an unmitigated defeat.  It is the act of intervention in the wrong place that is defeat.

Foreign policy is often defined as interventionist vs. isolationist.  John McCain is an interventionist.  Rand Paul is an isolationist. But in reality the greatest foreign policy is one not of ideology, but of carefully considered choices.

Reagan chose to focus on the Soviet Union.  He chose in very real ways to provoke it at a moment of Soviet weakness that very few others perceived.  President Clinton ignored the approbation of journalists and hawks to avoid intervention in the Balkans.  Then with a successful Croatian offensive in Bosnia rolling back the Serbs, Clinton introduced the formidable presence of Ambassador Holbrooke, US air power, and heavy American infantry and armored divisions.

It is the act of choosing what conflicts matter.  It is the act of asking can we be effective NOW?  It is the understanding that some contagions must be quarantined to burn themselves out.  That it is heroic sometimes to stand aside even as it may seem dithering and harsh.  FDR spent five years dithering until the Japanese attack and Nazi declaration of war. But when Fascism attacked the US,  the entire country was behind FDR and the war effort. Because of FDR’s decision not to become involved until the moment of maximum US advantage, tens of millions of Europeans and Asians suffered under Fascism.

But it is about American interests, not the mirage of establishing world peace.

The fight is in the Eastern Ukraine and in the South China Sea.  That is where authoritarianism threatens free men and women. It is not in the ideological slave markets of the Middle East.  And it is where free people are actively fighting and dying for democracy not the right to slaughter different sects of their own religion.

There is no easy or safe answer.  Foreign policy is not poll driven.  It is about making the right decisions at the right moments.  And for the second presidency in a row we have an incompetent making the wrong decisions at the wrong times.


Misunderstanding the Ray Rice Story

10 Sep
by John, posted in Policy   |  4 Comments


It is actually  misunderstanding the Janay Palmer story.  Ray Rice is the disgraced and now unemployed abuser of Janay Palmer, the victim.  The NFL, cable news intelligentsia, and others have now abused Ms. Palmer as well.

My first five years out of law school I spent in a small town law practice in Evergreen, Colorado.  Nothing surprised me more than the amount of spousal and child abuse common in Jefferson and Clear Creek counties.    After five years it was these impossibly hard emotional cases  that most motivated me to become a corporate lawyer.

There were many competing agendas in spousal abuse cases.  Judges typically hated these messy “he said/she said” cases.  Social services workers often spent court time explaining  their limited budgets  as excuses for awful outcomes.  One young lawyer who I faced in my last court case in Clear Creek was trying to build a practice in Georgetown to help support his mountain lifestyle.

It is easy to lose track of why you are in court.  Easy to become confused in facts most people would rather not talk about.  Easy for Vice-President Biden and others to pontificate on television about the Baltimore Ravens doing the right thing in firing Ray Rice. But only if you forget Janay Palmer, the victim.

Her husband who is coming off a bad season was set to make about $20 million dollars over the next three years. Rice is approaching the magic age of 30 when even the best running backs begin to lose their skills.  After a year away from the game he will never make anything close to the $20 million the Ravens and the NFL have now taken away.

So many competing agendas.  The NFL has a brand problem.  The commissioner has a potential career problem. The Ravens have a salary cap problem involving a running back in decline.  The cable news show have their daily ratings challenges.  Politicians have an election where women’s issues are in play.

Janay Palmer is in a challenged marriage with an abuser.  He may or may not abuse her again. That is the only agenda that matters.

Ray Rice may have socked away his prior earnings.  If he has, it is his separate property not Janay Palmer’s marital property.  He may have nothing.  Either way in her first year of marriage she will have very little claim on what fortune he has.  Now he has no income.

Abusers control their victims emotionally as we have heard over and over since the story broke.  But they also control their victims with money. The worst case for a victim of abuse is to be dependent on the abuser for money.

It is a very difficult issue that the NFL, the Ravens, Vice-President Biden, and CNN rushed right over.  It is why judges often struggle with putting an abuser in jail. This is not a “teaching moment” such as #bringbackourgirls or #ferguson.  Because unlike those teaching moments, help was available to these victims.

The NFL could have told Rice to suit up this weekend, but place all of his earnings this year into an irrevocable trust established for the sole benefit of Janay Palmer and her daughter.  It could have conditioned any future play on ongoing abuse counseling for the rest of his career.  It could have put the victims first and empowered Janay Palmer to make an independent decision about her and her family’s future as a wealthy woman in early 2015.

These shameful explanations from advocates and cable news anchors pitying Janay Palmer and explaining her actions as “typical” of abused women are beyond contempt.  Victims are individuals not props for a cause.  You have to listen to what they want as individuals.  You have to support them when they go back to the abuser and when they finally leave.  Ms. Palmer needs empowerment in unique circumstances, not pity.

But just as with so many of these cases in a non-celebrity environment, this case became about agendas.  It became about money, politics, and ratings.  And the victim was violated all over again and left in the most vulnerable position – dependent on an unemployed abuser.


Hope for Federal Conservation?

02 Sep
by John, posted in environment, National Park Service, Policy   |  No Comments


Above Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park.

The United States is spending less and less on the National Park Service. As I have written in the past, the NPS is not generating the national deficit but it is paying the price for it.  In 2013 the NPS budget was $180 million less than the prior year.  This cut in funding comes at a time when the NPS has $12 billion dollars of deferred maintenance within the parks themselves.

Even the premier national parks are suffering.  While at a board meeting of the Student Conservation Association at Grand Teton I was shocked at the state of Jackson Lodge.  While the setting remains spectacular, the lodging at retail was almost $300/night, in a state of disrepair which included an apparent routine sewer backup into all 8 rooms in our section, and obsolete food and beverage offerings.

But beyond renewing lodging and other facilities that both facilitate visits and mitigate visitor effects on the parks, the park system is facing the changing demographics of the Millennials.  In a major speech on June 9th of this year the Director of the Parks, Jonathan B. Jarvis, confronted this change,  “Our young people are immersed in technology and unfortunately have little interaction with the natural world, and increasingly they don’t even own automobiles.”

During the NPS’s 100 year history the problem was bringing the public to the parks.  Now Jarvis talks more about bringing the parks to the public through social media and urban outreach.   And without Millennial interest support in Congress for more spending on the parks could further decline.

It is a two pronged intertwined problem – the lack of funding from appropriations and  relevance to the public.  On a hike at Grand Teton a senior park ranger showed me two particular examples.  She challenged me to look around and count the number of people under 35.  They were there, but in small numbers and ethnically white.  Millennials are the most multi-racial group in our recent history.

One of her explanations that was initially shocking was the absence of Internet connectivity.  She pointed out that where prior youth visitors might take or draw a picture of wildlife or scenery, Millennials grew frustrated when they could not post an Instagram photo immediately.  Silent contemplation impressed prior generations, connectivity is essential for the rising generations. My initial angst at this change gave way to the obvious opportunity.   If connectivity attracts Millennials who post a picture that presents a park to 600 other Millennials you are not only relevant, but marketing to your most important growth demographic.

On two occasions we had to move aside on the path as Millennials ran past on extreme trail runs complete with specialized gear.  When I asked the ranger about that trend, she pointed out that a major component of that activity was organized races.  How can NPS with its conservation focus host extreme sports?

With the entitlement budget (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security) on auto-pilot chewing up discretionary appropriations the NPS faces a downward appropriations spiral.  While pursuing philanthropy and a Congressional endowment as additional resources, Jarvis announced that the Park Service would have to solicit more help from private businesses.  This is truly a evolutionary idea coming from the most liberal administration since President Carter and one that tends to view private enterprise with suspicion.

How to invite the private sector to expand beyond the existing concessionaire system? How to deploy its expertise in marketing to Millennials and the parks?  How to renew Jackson Lodge without a Holiday Inn Express footprint changing the iconic buildings?  How to renew park restaurants and stores without Chili’s and Walmart billboards?  How to change with the times, while preserving the public trust?

Jarvis’s clear statements that the NPS has to turn to the private sector provides an opening.  In order to convert conservatives and Millennials to fans of the NPS, the expansion of private sector capital and expertise is essential. Essential to create the experiences Millennials seek and essential to Republican support for reform.

If Jarvis is successful in philanthropy and private partnerships, the NPS may create a new bipartisan way forward for conservation in the 21st century.


Polis – The Adult in the Room

08 Aug
by John, posted in energy, environment, leadership, President, West   |  No Comments


Attending various events for Congressman Jared Polis over the last three years is an interesting contrast to watching President Obama.  At every event regardless of the crowd Polis makes a point of discussing legislation that is bipartisan.  He is often at pains to describe Republicans as either someone he can work with or someone he disagrees with on a particular issue.

He never calls them names.  He is often the adult in the room. And at his town hall on Tuesday that was certainly the case.

There were way too many activists pushing dubious science and even worse dubious politics. In contrast to the reporting in the Colorado Weekly and various other media outlets my count of the protesters out front of the town hall yielded about fifty people with another ten or so people trying to get past them into the library or the town hall.  It was a passionate group that was completely unwilling to listen to Polis.

As I have written before, oil & gas production in greater densities now seen in the bountiful natural gas fields of Colorado causes air quality problems.  There are also non-hysterical public health issues under study here in a state wide bipartisan science driven project that is  examining every aspect of the oil & gas industry in Colorado.  Anyone can participate in the study’s public phase (Fracking Sense) at CU through the Center for the American West in person or via podcast.

There is yet no evidence of a new public water crisis in Colorado.  There are spills and casing failures, but they merit clean up and monitoring not industry bans.  That is no different than Colorado’s steel, refinery, printing, and other heavy industries.  There are air quality issues and testing will reveal over time whether Colorado’s new and aggressive rules are strong enough or require more action.  There are local impact issues around traffic, noise, sight obstruction, and basic disruption in populated areas from oil & gas.

The protesters wanted to waste time on the first two issues.  Polis is laser focused on local impact. He took a lot of abuse from emotional activists.  The same people who failed to produce enough signatures on Initiative 89 to get it on the ballot.

That was the most important news in the town hall.  Despite one protester verbally confronting Polis’s mother that she, “should be ashamed of your son,” Polis defended the protesters’ passion for local control.  But he also diplomatically explained that when standard signature verification modelling was done on Initiative 89 there were not enough John Hancocks to make the ballot.

That would have left the industry with two strong pro-industry initiatives on the ballot and only Initiative 88 on the ballot for the activist community.  Clearly Polis had decided that if the activist community could not deliver signatures even with his financial backing, they could not deliver the votes in the face of a huge oil and gas campaign backed with perhaps twenty million dollars.  He was express in saying that he had stepped into a void this time, but next time such a campaign would have to be a grassroots one.

Polis was under enormous pressure from the state Democratic Party to not inadvertently maintain a fight that would energize Republicans more than Democrats.  He pledged to keep the possibility of a renewed 2016 campaign in a more favorable presidential election year in the forefront of the commission charged with recommending a solution to oil and gas development in Colorado.

But Polis is growing year by year in his political skills.  He knew losing was not only bad policy, but bad for his influence on a wide range of Progressive issues.  Losers do not have leverage.

And for the activist community you have to wonder what are they thinking? If you are going to attack Polis, villify him, insult his mother, is he going to stand with you in the future?  Maybe, just maybe, you might want to remember he is the best deep pocket friend you have.  Or perhaps, had.

A New Policy on Israel and Palestine

23 Jul
by John, posted in Israel/Palestine, Policy   |  No Comments


The United States has now spent my entire lifetime focused on bringing peace to Israel and the lands around it.  The effort has failed.  You can write endlessly on why.  You can write endlessly on fault.  But the time has come to stop writing endlessly on denying reality.

There has never been peace in Israel and its surrounding lands in the Western sense with respect for all religions and peoples.  Read the Old Testament, Medieval history, and modern history.  At best, an occupier would bring a few years of the absence of war.

There will be no peace.  It is a liberating realization, because it creates the possibility for new public policy in the United States.  Policy based on reality.

First and foremost, the United States must stop sending envoys into the region pursuing a “solution”.  Secretary Kerry’s current visit should be the last from a senior US official seeking peace. The Israelis, the Palestinians and their backers, do not respect US politicians.  The proof of this is the complete absence of interest in a settlement after forty years of effort.  And the naive US intervention allows the parties to publicly avoid responsibility while privately pursuing respectively occupation or genocide.

Second,  the United States must stop lecturing Israel on defense measures.  Only the Israeli people and their democratically elected representatives can decide what defense is necessary for Israel.  When the United States interferes in that judgment it assumes at least partial responsibility for Israeli defense.  It is easy to forestall Israeli airstrikes on Iranian nukes, but politically impossible for us to defend Israel from them.

Although not a new policy, the United States must continue to sell/provide arms and funding to Israel for self-defense.  Unlike most US allies, Israel has at least proven it can protect itself if properly armed.  This third policy provides Israel the ability to forestall a second Holocaust that Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and others openly call for in their public statements, schools, and governing charters.

Fourth, the United States should continue to utilize its veto power at the United Nations to prevent condemnation of Israel unilaterally or in defense operations.  The United States should abstain from any Security Council action that condemns Israeli actions that seize new territory for more than thirty days.  This would be an unambiguous public pronouncement that the world would understand before every UN meeting.

The benefits of these changes are straightforward:

  1. Israel freed from American second guessing would also have sole responsibility for its actions;
  2. The Sunni/Shiite world freed from the expectation of American shuttle diplomacy would have to choose war or confront the facts on the ground; and
  3. If there is a chance for the absence of war, the parties must have the opportunity to fight to exhaustion.  As we have seen in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and countless other war zones once war begins the absence of war is only possible when the parties are exhausted or one side is finally defeated.  Constantly rushing in to cut off fighting prevents this essential condition.

The traditional discussion of Israeli and Palestinian problems involves picking a side and arguing about Israel’s founding and relentless injustice against one side or the other.  Israel is a UN recognized state with an unambiguous right to exist and defend its sovereignty.   The Palestinians have been dealt a terrible hand, but they have chosen war and delegitimization of Israel as their method of resolving that injustice.  This is a discussion with no end.

The twin goals of US policy must be the prevention of genocide in Israel and divorcing its diplomacy from parties that have very little respect for American peace efforts.  In the unlikely event that the parties divert from three thousand years of history and create a peace conference we could always attend.

Smart public policy decisions require concentrating your efforts.  The United States needs to focus on disintegrating conditions in Eastern Europe, the South China Sea, and reverse its perennial neglect of Latin America.  All places where the US has influence on some of the parties.  A new permanent policy in Israel and Palestine would provide the opportunity for that focus.