Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Standing up to the wrong bully

  For several years, I have argued with my college age students about the real causes of our prolonged involvement in Iraq. We have discussed the term “hubris” ad naseum.  Weapons of mass destruction, deception, oil, mission accomplished,  and salesmanship have also entered into the dialogue.  One example that I have used to make my point to them is citing the film “Steel Magnolias”, and Sally Fields reaction on the death of her daughter, played by Julia Roberts.

     In a famous scene shot at the cemetery where her daughter had just  been interred, Sally Fields, sobbing, keeps repeating “Why..Why..Why.  I am so angry, I am just so angry, I just want to punch someone”, says Sally Fields.  At that point, Olympia Dukakis grabs Shirley MacLaine, the character who portrays Ouisa Boudreaux , a curmudgeonly older lady for whom everyone has contempt at one point or another, and says “Here, hit Ouisa!”  At that point Sally Fields says, “Hit Quisa?”  and her sobbing changes to gales of laughter, and she is surrounded by her beauty parlor friends who laugh with her at the sheer ridiculousness of the suggestion.

   My point is that in 2003, George Bush made the choice to hit Quisa.  He couldn’t find Osama Bin Laden, and he wanted to punch someone, so he made the case against the usual suspect, nasty mustachioed dictator Saddam Hussein, who had nothing to do with 9/11, but was nonetheless made responsible in the eyes of the American public by an incessant sales job that he possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that he was somehow behind 9/11, neither of which assertion was true.  Ten years later, after billions of our tax dollars were spent to make the middle east safer for democracy, it is deja vu all over again, and we are no further ahead of the ethnic and religious and tribal conflicts that plague the area than we were ten years ago.  But we sure hit Ouisa, and we did so with shock and awe.  And it was all for naught.

     Now, our peace loving President is making the case for war again, and blaming a new Bogeyman, Syrian President Bashir Assad.  He is finally choosing to stand up and fight the bully.  The problem is, number one,  its the wrong bully.  Assad is Ouisa in wolf’s clothing.  The real bully is the Soviet Union whose intransigence and support of this Syrian sheep
has brought the world to the edge of a much broader conflict, and the charge is being led by the President who is so fed up with all the people who have been bullying him, including the right wingers in the Republican Congress,  that he has chosen to stand and fight, and says he won’t back down.  Problem two, Congress is a bully, but if you think by browbeating its members into submission, and shaming them for inaction is going to change their vote in the face of enormous public opposition to another war, you must have been born at night, and last night at that.  

    Choosing when to act, and who to blame, and who to stand up to is a critical test of any leader. Drawing red lines in the sand, politically and diplomatically is a risky business.  Red lines drawn in the sand tend to shift, and lines drawn on political battlements have ways of morphing and moving as well.    President Obama, by choosing the current path, is risking his entire Presidency in a reckless way that doesn’t have to happen.  There are diplomatic alternatives that have yet to be tried.  


We understand your frustration Mr. President.  We understand you are tired of the constant “sniping” by Congress.  We understand and share your revulsion at the sight of children gasping for breath and foaming at the mouth.  It was worse than Sandy Hook elementary, and although you have tried, you haven’t been able to change the laws that would prevent another Sandy Hook either. We understand why you want to “Hit Ouisa”. But, to choose Syria as your Rubicon River. ..to throw down the gauntlet and say, the “Die is cast” on this issue, is the wrong choice, at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons.  And it will not end well, Mr. President.  Finding an alternative is yet preferable to taking the action you have proposed.  Eating crow at the White House is a better choice than escalating a conflict that will go much father than the Rubicon river, once you cross that barrier.  
Fortunately, Mr. Obama seems to be the recipient of a last minute Hail Mary pass from
the Russians. He should take the ball, run into the end zone and spike it. Period.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Isaac Newton was no dummy!

Isaac Newton revisited

 Does anyone in Washington remember Isaac Newton? If not, they should. He was not a famous politician or president or prime minister.  He was someone who studied the elemental forces of nature ( and mankind is part of nature) and  developed conclusions ,  calling them 
" laws" to predict the consequences of any motion or action which disturbs the natural order of things. He said things like "a body at rest tends to stay at rest" ( think of that all you couch potatoes out there).  And, “ bodies in motion tend to stay in motion”, and , perhaps most significant of all " For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction".   That's his third law of physics, and it applies equally to military actions as well as any other actions undertaken by human beings.

     For some reason we lost sight of that law when we attacked Saddam Hussein's Iraq. We were so impressed with the "shock and awe" of our military prowess, and the pulling down of Saddam's statue that we declared “mission accomplished” too soon. Only later did we realize that Newton's third law was still operative, and the response to our colossal use of force was more diffuse, and delayed, but nevertheless equally as powerful.  It took us ten years of blood, toil, and treasure to cope with it, and the results of our effort and the benefits derived therefrom are still elusive.

     Fast forward to 2013, and we are again faced with atrocities perpetrated  by another middle eastern madman in the torturous murder of his own civilians , innocent men women and children , with Sarin gas. Such an act is beyond reprehensible. But the key question remains , are we in the United States the sole arbiter and the sole enforcer of international law? Are we the only drawers of the lines in the sands of international engagement? Is there still no room for the United Nations to act, and if the international community does not act because of Russian or Chinese obstructionism, is there no room to hold the leaders of those countries accountable in the court of world opinion? 

     Former UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson,  who President Obama most resembles stylistically, had perhaps his finest moment when, during the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962, he faced down the Russian Ambassador Zorin and said, “Do you deny the existence of Soviet Missiles in Cuba?  Yes or no, Mr. Ambassador.!  Answer the question.  Don’t wait for the translation.  Yes, or no?..and I am prepared to wait until hell freezes over for your response!" 

    President Ronald Reagan's finest moment was when he said in Berlin, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! " Perhaps John Kerry and/or Barack Obama's finest moment could yet be, "Mr. Putin, the evidence of your client,  Mr. Assad's culpability in the use of chemical agents against his own people.   is incontrovertible.  Are you going to allow him to continue mass murdering his fellow Syrians by lethal nerve gas? Mr. Putin, the world demands to know what you are going to do about it?"

    After all the rhetorical exchanges, one key issue remains.  That is whether a military strike against the Assad government by the US would make things better or worse. What are the probable consequences of such an action? We have heard a lot of rhetoric about the consequences of American inaction, but we should not forget the applicability of Isaac Newton's principles to the situation at hand.

That Third Law of physics is a tough one.  Perhaps when there are no good options, the choice should simply be to not exercise any of them. If the choice lies between don't just stand there, do something, and don't just do something, stand there, maybe inaction is the better choice. If action means that we unleash forces that we do not yet know the full consequences of , then inaction makes eminently more sense. Sir Isaac Newton was no dummy.