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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Kissinger and Power

Henry Kissinger and the American Century by Jeremy Suri

Kissinger has been dissected by numerous authors and Jeremy Suri, in Kissinger… does not attempt to compete with them. He takes a look at Kissinger’s foreign policy influence (considerable) and from where his ideas have sprung. As a Jewish refugee from Germany, Kissinger was influenced very heavily by .. Kramer, who believed that power was the only way to peace. Kissinger was to become the embodiment of that belief and he had the influence to bend numerous administrations to his way of thinking. Having seen the failure of the Weimar Republic, Kissinger set about preventing its failures. Vietnam had less to do with Vietnam than it did preserving the French empire. He was afraid that the loss of Vietnam would undermine and destabilize France and thus Europe. His was a very Eurocentric policy.

Indeed, that influence is still apparent. Using his Kissinger Associates consulting firm, he has as clients, many global companies including Coca Cola as well as a variety of companies. He fails to see the inherent conflict of interest in consulting for countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United States. That he should fail to see the problem reflects his enormous hubris and self-confidence. I suspect his true motivation is to promote his own self-interest, but that’s merely speculation. He continues to fly between countries, visiting with top leaders, telling each what the leaders of the other have to say and think; useful perhaps, but fraught with danger nevertheless.

One of Suri’s themes is to discover how well-intentioned men wind up creating such bad ends. He suggests three reasons: a lack of humility, power becomes trap; failure to reassess one’s assumptions; and the centralization of power. It would be fascinating to have a conversation with the current crop of candidates about how they might avoid the same pitfalls.

More really good books

There are just sooo many good books out there, not to mention magazines and newspapers. Anyway, here are two that I heartily recommend:

Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish by G. Bruce Knecht
This book reads like an adventure story. Knecht recounts the true story of an Australian Fisheries patrol boat chase of a pirate fishing vessel that had been taking Patagonian toothfish (commercially known as Chilean Sea Bass - how the name change occurred is also part of this story) illegally off Heard Island. The chase went on for weeks through incredibly bad weather and under the most difficult legal conditions. The ship was finally boarded with the help of the South African Navy and then sailed to Australia where the crew was put on trial. I won't spoil the ending for you by revealing the outcome.

Unfortunately, the ultimate message is not optimistic. Short of a worldwide effort to stop illegal fishing in order to prevent the total destruction of a species, I doubt that anything can be done (although the example of porpoise-safe tuna fishing might be one way.) I had difficulty putting this book down.

Another very different book is The Offering : A generation offered their lives to America in Vietnam -- One soldiers Story by Tom Cathart. Carhart is also the author of West Point Warriors: Profiles of Duty, Honor, and Country in Battle, also excellent.

Carhart, a West Point graduate writes of his year in Vietnam. It's the most realistic and honest portrayal I have read -- and I've read a lot of literature out of Vietnam. I recommend it most highly.

Mine Water Poses Danger of a Toxic Gusher - New York Times

Mine Water Poses Danger of a Toxic Gusher - New York Times

This is a perfect example of lack of leadership at the top. It seems to me the president should sit the directors of the agencies involved in a room and not let them leave until they have worked out a satisfactory solution to the problem.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Rational v Emotional

As a committed rationalist, I was fascinated by John Dickerson's discussion of emotionality (although the link to fascism was more than tenuous) v rationality in his analysis of why Obama is leading the field. (link) If you are going to suggest that we need to pick out candidates less on emotional grounds than rational, you need to define your criteria. What standards are you going to use to make the rational decision. Let's face it, there are only a few to go on and they will depend on what you want in a leader, then you can decide whether experience is important in making a judgment. There are only three kinds of measures for a president with regard to experience: legislative, executive, judicial. Obama has little experience on all three and that's why representative Watson had trouble coming up with something. I would argue all of these are irrelevant. A fourth measure is less tangible and relates more to the emotional/charismatic side of the debate, and that's the ability to create consensus and majorities from disparate groups, e.g., the Congress. That's where Obama shines. It was more than apparent in his work in the Illinois legislature (I live in Illinois) and his current Senate colleagues have noted it as well. This skill often requires the sublimation of one's own desire for recognition in an effort to reach a higher goal. This is where the vision and the charisma are so important. That's what Obama has tapped in to. Hillary has the same policies but lacks the ability to bring people together (not to mention her particular albatross: Bill.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Habeas Corpus, Terrorism and Lincoln

Habeas Corpus is a long-standing constitutional and common law principle that requires the entity holding a prisoner to produce that prisoner and to show demonstrate a charge against the individual. It prevents autocratic governments from holding prisoners in secret for as long as they wish. A complaint made against the Bush administration is that they have violated hits principle. They respond that during a time a war the government is granted extraordinary powers in order to protect itself and its citizens. Bush representatives have cited Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus as a precedent. Habeas corpus has been denied to the prisoner at Guantanamo as well as for those secreted away to prisons abroad in other countries.

The problem with this argument is that Lincoln acted transparently in his actions, seeking and getting approval of Congress for this momentous step. I would argue it was still a mistake; nevertheless, he did seek congressional approval.

The other argument is that we are in a special war, a battle against terrorism. No explanations of what constitutes victory has been delineated, and in fact, the war seemingly has no end. In addition, the administration argues that secrecy is necessary and we just need to trust them. The Founding Fathers are spinning in their graves. This is precisely what they feared: an autocratic power unchecked by oversight.

If we look at the level of violence, we need only to calculate the number of murders annually in this country: around 150,000. That amount of violence greatly exceeds the numbers who died in terrorist attacks against us. Yet no one would propose suspending habeas corpus for criminals.

Democracy is always best served in the bright sunlight of openness. Habeas Corpus helps us do that and prevents the accumulation of power by the few.

Additional Information

Monday, February 18, 2008

Open letter to Hillary's campaign

Some suggestion that might help the campaign:

1. Lose Bill. He is a drag and it makes it look like he's running the show. You do much better on your own. You will also have to address the issue of what role he would play in a Hillary Clinton White House. The best thing you could have done would have been to divorce him from a campaign standpoint (not from a human one and I admire your willingness to stick by him.)

2. You MUST release your taxes. Obama has and your refusal to do so until after the nomination makes it look like you have a great deal to hide. Transparency is really important.

3. There is little difference between you and Obama on policy issues -- except perhaps Iraq where frankly you remind me a little of Margaret Thatcher -- the country is looking for the vision thing and you need to stop denigrating that. Show us your own vision for the future.

4. Emphasize how you will get things done. It's not enough to make proposals. We need now to hear how you will mobilize both parties to reach compromises to accomplish your goals. We all know compromise will be essential.

5. Stop changing your message and focus all the time. To hear you moving your message as your campaign loses steam hurts your image. Geez, and don;t use the change word anymore. Obama beat you to it.

6. And let's not overemphasize the experience. Obama has more legislative experience and a stronger record working with the other party to get things done. LBJ and Nixon were elected to office with tons of experience and we know where that got us.

Just some thoughts.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Open letter to George Soros re the Housing Mess

Dear Mr. Soros:

It seems to me -- perhaps naively -- that given the rise in foreclosures and the failure of the subprime mortgage market, that an opportunity exists to do a lot of good, make a profit, and save people's homes at the same time. If I had the money, I would buy up as many home as possible at foreclosure sales, then renegotiate the sale to those who live in the homes at a fixed mortgage rate. Since the price would be lower (yet still higher than the purchase price at the foreclosure sale, thus assuring a profit), but the interest rate fixed (even 6% would benefit both the mortgage holder and the house owners) the mortgage payments would be lower, assuring that people would not have to leave their homes and the market would be stabilized.

Obviously, this would take a lot of capital, but the returns would be substantial and the human and economic benefits rather extraordinary. The banks holding the original mortgages might suffer, but they are the ones who got us in this mess in the first place.

Just a thought. You have obviously shown a great deal of compassion for people and have resources that might be able to make a dent in what is obviously a huge problem.

Sincerely yours,

Eric Welch

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical's Lament by Randall Balmer is a really excellent book that restores the evangelical community's historical social liberalism to its rightful place.

Balmer is an historian and evangelical who decries the distortion of the movement's roots and its hijacking by a small group of cynical (that's got to be the only word for it) group of people anxious to improve their own political power and standing. The issue of abortion was not even on the right's radar screen until several years after Roe v Wade. As Balmer points out, abortion is barely mentioned in the Bible appearing -- and even then only very loosely -- in Psalms, Deuteronomy and Luke. Divorce had been the evil of choice until around 1979, but with the election of Ronald Reagan, darling of the right, they couldn't very well pick on divorce. (of course, Reagan had supported pro-abortion bills earlier in his political career.)

It remains ironic -- and a symbol of their political callousness -- they the number one issue for the religious right is tax cuts. Tax cuts, for heaven's sake. Balmer has every reason to be dismayed.

A list of his concerns posted on Amazon:

"Other issues championed by the Religious Right strike Balmer as equally disingenuous and/or misguided:

"Prayer in schools -- Jesus criticized those who made prayer into a spectator sport - "go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father."

"Creationism -- Until the intelligent design creationists "can devise experiments consistent with the scientific method to test their claims, they should stop parading as scientists." 140. "Intelligent design is religion, not science and the proper venue for the propagation of faith is the home or the church, not the university." 138.

"Home schooling -- "For much of the twentieth century, evangelicals found comfort within their subculture as a place of refuge from the outside world, which they came increasingly to regard as both corrupt and corrupting. The homeschool movement and the impulse to send children to religious schools merely represent an extension of that fortress mentality." 107.

"Anti-environmentalism - "for decades, evangelicals have neglected the environment because it seemed to them unimportant in their grander scheme of biblical interpretation." 145. Now groups such as the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship which is a coalition of Religious Right leaders aiming to counteract the environmental movement, with support from James Dobson, Charles Colson among other high profile of the Religious Right, simply "echo the pro-business and antiregulatory sentiments of political conservatives." 154.

"Torture - unconscionable silence. [Who Would Jesus Torture?]

"Perhaps most disturbing of all is how "Leaders of the Religious Right [Dobson and others] have expressed their disdain for toleration and for pluralism itself." 90. "Their ideology, laced as it is with the rhetoric of militarism, represents a betrayal of the faith. The shameless pursuit of affluence and power and political influence has led the Religious Right into shady alliances and has brought dishonor to the gospel." 189. "

An excellent read.