Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cheney's Legacy

Former Vice President Dick Cheney is clearly more concerned with his own legacy and political partisanship than with the well being of America, even though his actions bring attention to his own devastating failures in office and undermine this nation's president.

Take the most recent attack on President Barack Obama's initial handling of the nearly catastrophic attempt to blow up an airplane over Detroit. "He seems to think if he closes Guantanamo and releases the hard-core Al Qaeda-trained terrorists still there, we won't be at war," Cheney said in a written statement. "But we are at war and when President Obama pretends we aren't, it makes us less safe." This is an amazing statement coming from the man who, while serving as vice president, personally authorized the release of more than 500 Guantanamo prisoners, dozens of which are reported to have reengaged in terrorism against the United States.

As vice president, Cheney played a key role in undermining the civil rights of Americans through the Patriot Act, and authorizing the use of illegal torture, such as waterboarding, in interrogations. Cheney's statement about President Obama continued, "He seems to think if he gives terrorists the rights of Americans, lets them lawyer up and reads them their Miranda rights, we won't be at war." Perhaps waterboarding passengers before they board a plane will mollify Cheney?

The former vice president's chutzpah and outspokenness is especially remarkable considering all that went wrong during his term. There was the Iraq War, poorly justified and badly executed by the Bush/Cheney administration. There was also the failure to find even one weapon of mass destruction in Iraq, the single most urgent reason cited for going to war. And there were no Al-Qaeda training camps in Iraq either. Yet thousands of brave American soldiers have died or been injured, and billions of dollars have been spent in this war which America is committed to for years to come.

The former vice president also took his eye off the ball in America's war on terror. The Bush/Cheney White House failed to close the deal in Afghanistan eight years ago, and rid the world of Osama bin Laden. Instead they allowed the problem to fester and grow until their last day in office.

Following the ghastly terrorist attacks on America September 11, 2001, President George Bush set up a commission "to provide recommendations designed to guard against future attacks." On July 22, 2004, that commission made its findings public. Yet to this day America has not successfully implemented all of the commission's recommendations. Perhaps doing so would have "connected the dots" between a father's warnings to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, his son's failure to get a visa for Great Britain, and his attempt to buy an airline ticket to Detroit for $500 cash while carrying no luggage.

Cheney and some ambitious Republicans are critical of President Obama for taking so long to respond to the attack. But where were these same critics when it took President Bush six whole days to comment about Richard Reid's failed attempt to blow up an airliner with a shoe bomb? And did these same GOP critics rush out fundraising letters to their constituents warning of America's safety immediately following the Reid incident as some have done this time around?

In his written statement Cheney identified President Obama's "goal of his presidency--social transformation, the restructuring of American society." Well, after the Bush/Cheney administration, what choice did he have? Sure, the issue of national security is critical. But the new president inherited a near economic depression, record job losses, huge government deficits that will be damaging to our children's future, failed oversight of the nation's financial institutions, more than 40 million Americans without health insurance and rapidly increasing medial costs.

The failure to stop the Detroit "underwear bomber" is unacceptable. There is plenty of blame to go around. But it is time to stop scapegoating; it is time to fix the systemic problems. It is time to knock down walls and jealousies between the appropriate government agencies, to leverage existing technologies to centralize and track important information. As an example, if Google can create a technology to prioritize a search, or send out Google alerts or can place a targeted advertisement on a Blog, why can't the U.S. government create a software program to track terrorism suspects? So that if England puts someone on its "no-fly" list an alert is sent to the TSA and its counterparts worldwide.

It is time to stop politicizing America's safety; to stop all the national bickering and backbiting. The war with Al Qaeda needs everyone's total focus. There is too much at stake!

Monday, December 28, 2009

The American Rockies

The Rocky Mountains majestically tower into the winter sky. Proud and beautiful, they command respect from every direction.

The Rockies have endured centuries of rapidly changing weather patterns, which often batter these behemoths with fierce gusts and slashing storms only to give way to intense sunlight and heat. They are unmoved by wind whipping down narrow passes and valleys. Sleet, ice and freezing rain do not faze them. Clouds often embrace the highest peaks and are visible for a hundred miles. The sun illuminates their grandeur. The blue and white sky provides a glorious backdrop.

Pine trees and Aspens wash across the face of these great mountains, providing a green and white blanket interspersed with rocks and crags. Snowballs, clinging to a million tree branches, hang as seasonal ornaments. Steams, clogged with ice, gurgle and snake downward to lakes and reservoirs. Life here is rough, stoic and real.

In a century the world around the Rockies will have evolved. One hundred winters and untold blizzards will have come and gone. Yet these mountains fear nothing; they demand awe. They are constant. They are the inner strength of America.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Change? What Change?

Remember just a few weeks ago when political pundits were declaring the demise of the Republican Party? That Republicans were teetering on the edge of insignificance; remember? Well, not to be outdone, Democrats have now stolen the show!

Former Democratic National Committee Chairman, and Vermont Governor, Howard Dean has counseled senators to vote no on the latest Senate health reform proposal. As he explained in a Washington Post op-ed piece, "I know health reform when I see it, and there isn't much left in the Senate bill...this bill would do more harm than good to the future of America." Democratic Congressman Dave Obey, of Wisconsin, was quoted by Politico as saying, "It's ridiculous, and the Obama administration is sitting on the sidelines. That's nonsense." Powerful Democratic Congressmen John Conyers, of Michigan, said, "No public option, no extending Medicare to 55, no nothing, an excise tax, God...The insurance lobby is taking over."

While everyone pretty much agrees health care reform is needed, Democrats have not been able to garner support of the 60 members required to assure passage. Meanwhile, President Obama has been singularly focused on supporting any bill that could be labeled health care reform, but to no avail. Senator Joe Leiberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said no to extending Medicare benefits just three months after he proposed the very same idea. Of course he almost was Republican Senator John McCain's running mate in 2008. Nebraska Democratic Senator Ben Nelson has rejected the public option and wants tighter restrictions on abortion.

President Obama has found himself in the position of catering a handful of moderates at the expense of his core supporters. But is any win on health care reform a win? No say liberal members of Congress who are furious. For instance, Democratic Representative Anthony Weiner of New York said, "Some of us have compromised our compromised compromise. We need the president to stand up for the values our party shares."

So the White House has found itself deflecting criticism from its own party. White House adviser David Axelrod responded to Howard Dean's attack, "I saw his piece in the Post this morning, and it's predicated on a bunch of erroneous conclusions. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said of Dean's charge that the bill was good for insurance companies, "if this is such a great thing for the insurance companies, why are they spending hundreds and millions of dollars every day to attack it?"

Meanwhile, the president began employing some scar tactics, telling ABC Newsman Charlie Gibson, "If we don't pass it, here's the guarantee....your premiums will go up, your employers are going to load up more costs on you." And he said the costs of Medicare and Medicaid are on an "unsustainable" trajectory, and if not dealt with, "the federal government will go bankrupt." As the president ratchets up his rhetoric, his job approval rating has slipped to a new low, 47% according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. The president can find some comfort in the fact that the Congress, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party all do worse in the polls.

But Republicans are beginning to build a narrative of a president who is not a leader. And it just may be sticking. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough observes that "No one fears of President Obama." And conservative columnist Peggy Noonan asked Axelrod, "You are losing the left, you are losing the right, you are losing the center. That looks to me like a political disaster." Even Democrats like Representative Weiner are calling for leadership; "It's time for the president to get his hands dirty."

Even if House and Senate conferees are able to hammer out a health care reform bill that passes Congress, its impact is not likely to be felt on Main Street for some time. Meanwhile the president's image will have been damaged by the lengthy debate, and he will have spent an enormous amount of good will with the public no matter the outcome.

This is now President Obama's ecomony, Obama's unemployment problem, Obama's housing crisis, Obama's deficit, Obama's wars, Obama's banking regulatory problem and it will remain Obama's health care reform problem. Fortunately for President Obama, the party of "no" has weak national leadership. Governor Sarah Palin's magical book tour has made her a lot of money but it hasn't converted many voters. However, Republicans will be competitive in Congressional districts across the country. And as the 2010 midterm elections approach, Americans will be asking themselves, "Is this change we can really believe in?"

Thursday, December 10, 2009

War and Peace

President Barack Obama said he was grateful and humbled to receive the Nobel Peace prize, and acknowledged his accomplishments are slight when compared to past honorees. But in his acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway, President Obama had to balance the role of a wartime president with his recognition as a man of peace.

The United States is engaged in two wars and President Obama's appearance comes days after he announced a military buildup in Afghanistan. He deftly addressed several audiences, including the American public and European nations both wary of the continuing Afghan War. His speech amounted to a declaration of an Obama Doctrine, "I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people."

He eschewed idealistic passages of peace for the hardened rhetoric of war, "There will be times when nations - acting individually or in concert - will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified." He then warned, "Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms."

President Obama, who has been criticized by conservatives for being too apologetic in past speeches overseas, made no apologies in Oslo. "Whatever mistakes we have made," he said, "The plain fact is this: the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms."

He noted that, while there was no longer fear of a nuclear war between two superpowers, "The old architecture is buckling under the weight of new threats." He continued, "Modern technology allows a few small men with out-sized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale."

He said there have to be new standards for the use of force that apply to all nations. "I - like any head of state - reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation," he said. "Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates - and weakens - those who don't." President Obama also said that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, saying, "Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later."

President Obama, who expressed concern about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, called out Iran and North Korea. "Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted" he said. "The same principle applies to those who violate international law by brutalizing their own people." The president noted that he had prohibited torture, ordered the prison at Guantanamo closed and reaffirmed America's compliance with the Geneva Convention.

The president did speak of alternatives to violence in dealing with nations that break rules and laws. He said that the international community must stand together as one against rogue nations; that their words must be backed up by tough sanctions. “Intransigence must be met with increased pressure,” he said, “and such pressure only exists when the world stands together as one.” He praised NATO for its support in Afghanistan and called for a strengthening of UN and regional peacekeeping.

President Obama was fond of saying "dream big dreams" during his presidential campaign. But after nearly one year as president his outlook has been tempered by his deliberations over worldly problems such as war and human suffering. Now a more pragmatic and realistic man has stepped forward onto the world stage.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Lighting Up The Town

On this the first Sunday in December, thousands of Carnegie Hill residents gathered in front of the historic Brick Church to carry on a New York tradition. It is from this location, amid carols and good cheer, that Park Avenue's Christmas lights are turned on each year.

Children teetered on parental shoulders as young and old huddled in the chilly evening air. A program with traditional carols numbered from one to twelve was distributed to many attendees. At times all would sing, at others women or men were challenged to take the lead. The voices were as varied as the diverse crowd. Some sang beautifully while others, well this is the season for hope. Some of those residents not willing to test the cold air looked down from windows in towering Park Avenue apartment buildings overlooking the scene.

The first Park Avenue tree lighting took place in 1945 at a time when this country was recovering from World War II. Today our country is at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The church pastor spoke of those currently stationed on the war front as well as the memory of those who have lost their lives in past wars. A trumpeter played "Taps" for those tens of thousands of brave American soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who gave their lives in service of this country in the time since the ceremony first took place.

"Let there be light!" were the magical words spoken by the pastor. The crowd gasped with approval as the lights on the pine trees located in the center of Park Avenue's median illuminated. Gradually, the remaining Park Avenue trees located to the north and south illuminated. With that the crowd returned to a rousing rendition of "Jingle Bells."

It is times like this that make the neighborhoods of New York so special, especially this time of year.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Season for Hope

Amid hopeful signs that the U.S. economy is slowly improving, President Barack Obama called today’s report of a decline in unemployment “good news for the season of hope.” But House Minority Leader John Boehner charged that the president’s policies “had nothing to do with putting Americans back to work.” Bah! Humbug!

With the all-important Congressional midterm elections just eleven months away both political parties are jockeying to win the perception battle among potential voters. So this is the season of hope at the White House, for sure, as the president pushes his agenda on several important fronts.

Take the all important counter insurgency buildup in Afghanistan, known as “COIN” among the 68,000 American troops based in that country. After an in-depth review with his national security team and other important stakeholders, President Obama announced he will add about 30,000 troops to the cause, and he said he will begin a drawdown in eighteen months. Given Afghanistan’s history, rugged terrain and largely illiterate population there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic. But the Obama administration has received support from many allies, and today NATO, which has 48,000 troops there, announced it would send in 7,000 more.

General Stanley McChrystal has devised a comprehensive and complicated strategy to defeat the Taliban and terrorists that includes efforts to help train local police and military, and teach the population to take control for themselves. The drawdown date is when the first troops will be withdrawn not when all American troops will come home. But this timetable puts real pressure on President Hamid Karzai’s government to strengthen his country’s military and reform his government. Afghanistan is not likely to be a deciding factor in the Midterms unless there is a sharp increase in deaths among American soldiers.

Meanwhile Congress is slowly moving toward passing health care reform legislation. It seems there will be some form of public option, maybe an “opt-in” or “trigger” mechanism. Health care lobbyists have spent millions of dollars trying to derail reform and their efforts have watered down the impact of the bill. But early next year President Obama will likely sign a health care reform bill, something no other American president has ever been able to achieve.

Earlier this week the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its third quarter 2009 estimates showing that “an additional 600,000 to 1.6 million people were employed in the United States, and real gross domestic product was 1.2 percent to 3.2 percent higher, than would have been the case in the absence of the (government stimulus package).” Today it was announced that the nation’s unemployment rate dipped two-tenths of a percent to 10%. Meanwhile, Bank of America has said it will return to the government $45 billion in TARP money, giving reason for further optimism in the nation’s banking sector. Of course, much needed banking reform is still needed and Wall Street is not Main Street.

President Obama will focus on cutting the deficit in his January 2010 State of the Union address. No Congressmen favors cuts in the funding going to his district, so political battles are certain to ensue. Republicans have already attacked the president and Congressional Democrats for the growing deficit. Take Leader Boehner’s recent barrage, "Washington Democrats' so-called 'war on deficits' is about a year late and more than a trillion dollars short.” But where was Leader Boehner during the Bush Presidency when deficits exploded?

The dominant party always loses some Congressional seats in the Midterm elections. But this year the Republicans lack strong leadership, a clear vision for America and a unified strategy. They also may be losing the all important perception battle. With an improving economy, a plan to deal with deficits, health care reform and a reasonable strategy for victory in Afghanistan, this may indeed be the season of hope for President Obama.