Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Tide of War

In his speech to the nation Wednesday night, President Barack Obama announced his plans to withdraw 33,000 American troops from Afghanistan by the summer of 2012, just a few months before November's presidential election. This will bring an end to Obama's surge strategy but it is unlikely to mollify a growing war weariness among the American electorate.

In addressing a growingly skeptical American public the president sounded both optimistic and realistic. At one point he said, "the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance." But he tempered his hope by saying, "huge challenges remain. This is the beginning -- but not the end -- of our effort to wind down this war." The president's decision would leave 68,000 US troops in Afghanistan to continue the already decade long war at least until 2014, assuming Afghanistan's forces will be able to take over.

The war in Afghanistan is costing U.S. taxpayers $2 billion a week, and more than 1,500 American soldiers have died there since 2001. Al Qaeda terrorists have been driven out of the country, and hostile Tailiban forces number perhaps 20,000 fighters. The Taliban have been degraded in some areas, but not defeated.

So President Obama is facing criticism from hawks, such as Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, who says that the withdrawal is too swift and an "unnecessary risk." South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham wrote a statement via twitter, "We've undercut a strategy that was working." And House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan, expressed his concern; "We are in a very precarious place in Afghanistan right now. It seems the President is trying to find a political solution with a military component to it, when it needs to be the other way around."

The president is rolling the dice with this decision. The Americans have made progress in Afghanistan since Obama's surge, but the central government is frail and corrupt, and its president, Hamid Karsai, is unpopular and unpredictable. Afghanistan's military now numbers about 300,000, but it is unclear whether they can be molded into an effective and truly reliable fighting force. And due to the country's tribal nature creating a strong central government is highly unlikely. All of this uncertainty makes it difficult to see any light in the distance.

America is currently engaged in two and one-half wars that have already cost more than $1 trillion. Its military commitment in Iraq is slowly winding down but U.S. troops will still there for the near term. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is dead but the terrorist group has scattered to Yemen and other countries. And U.S. air forces are currently involved in a NATO effort to oust Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi but he remains in power. The president says "The tide of war is receding," but it is still a flood.

At one point in his speech the president sounded like candidate Obama. "Now, we must invest in America's greatest resource -- our people," he said, "while living within our is time to focus on nation building here at home." But this will be hard to do while maintaining the huge costs of war and dealing with America's enormous deficits.

So it appears that the president, as he so often does, is steering a middle course in dealing with the extremely complex problem of Afghanistan. But in a year's time will the American public, already struggling with an anemic economic recovery, high unemployment and a weak housing market, be satisfied with the president's course? Or will a weary electorate choose another course?

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Golf Summit

Ask any gentleman who has spent considerable time on the links, there's rarely problem too big that can't be hashed out over a round of golf. But Saturday's "Golf Summit" is very unlikely to result in any breakthroughs on matters of debt and taxes.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are going to tee off with House Speaker John Boehner and Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich at an undisclosed Washington golf course Saturday. Details are still pretty hush hush. For instance, will the foursome be paired? Say President Obama and Speaker Boehner play against the vice president and the governor--a truly bipartisan contest. Or will it be partisan--Democrats against Republicans?

President Obama is a relative novice at golf, but he has managed to work in more than seventy rounds since he took office. Speaker Boehner is an avid golfer, but his supporters have warned he hasn't been able to play a lot lately because "he is trying to solve the nation's unemployment problem." Interestingly, he swings right-handed, but putts left-handed. The vice president is rated twenty-ninth among Washington's top golfers according to Golf Digest, fourteen places ahead of the speaker. The governor is also a very good golfer.

If the Republicans are paired together it appears they will have a clear advantage over the Democrats. There is certain to be some wagering, a friendly bet or two. Since the typical round of golf can take four hours, there will be plenty of time for discussion.

Perhaps the vice president will discuss some of the ideas being considered by his deficit commission, which hopes to reach an agreement by July 4. That could make it possible to link a deficit reduction package with Congressional passage of the debt ceiling. The vice president's commission is made up of prominent Democrats and Republicans, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Senate Minority Whip John Kyle. Senator Kyle has said that Republicans are seeking at least $2.4 trillion in cuts over 10 years in order to vote for increasing the debt ceiling by that amount.

The debate over budget cuts and revenue increases (i.e. taxes) has been heated with many Republicans threatening to vote against increasing the debt ceiling unless there are structural changes to government spending. Economists and financial experts have warned that failure to pass the debt ceiling would have devastating effects on the American economy, including higher interest rates and more unemployment, and it would cripple the fragile global recovery.

So America faces perilous deficits (both parties are complicit), a debt ceiling crisis, stubborn high unemployment, two and a half costly wars (in lives and dollars), that our government has authorized, and dozens of other important issues our elected officials have been debating forever. Given the severity of Americas problems, it seems a little silly that our leaders feel a round of golf will somehow pave the way for more harmony and less partisan rancor.

But, make no mistake about it, these men are certain to have a good time on their round Saturday. This is the way Washington works. This is par for the course.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Dallas: A Team Victory

The Dallas Mavericks prevailed over the Miami Heat's star studded cast for their first NBA title proving they were the better team. While Miami had been the overwhelming favorite, turnovers and poor shooting brought about by the Maverick’s intense defense plagued the Heat.

Miami's superstar trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh underperformed throughout the series. Their bench play was poor. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle at one point described it as their three against our ten. In fact, the Dallas bench played a big role in each victory. And their starting five played together as a cohesive unit. When Maverick superstar Dirk Nowitzki got off to a slow start in game six, guard Jason Terry and his teammates stepped up to fill the void.

In 2006 the Mavericks lost their only other chance at a title to the Dwyane Wade led Heat. Owner Mark Cuban, Nowitzki and Terry learned important lessons in that series and set their sites on winning the crown. Cuban made some key acquisitions and changed coaches, bringing in Carlisle who strengthened the team's offense to complement its tough defense.

When James, Bosh and Wade announced they were hooking up on the Heat to win titles there was a lot of resentment about the way they conducted themselves. The Heat surrounded them with a decent supporting cast but the team struggled out of the gate. The primary issue was how the three talented superstars fit together, what role would each play. Toward the end of the season the team pulled together and dominated the league. They went on to win all their playoffs, beating the world champion Boston Celtics and feisty Chicago Bulls. James and Wade were dominant.

But something curious happened in the finals. Carlisle's zone defense stifled the Heat and the Mav's strong team offense shredded their opponents. Surprisingly, at times LeBron James seemed to be out of it. Not surprisingly Dirk Nowitzki would not be denied. Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, JJ Barea, DeShawn Stevenson and the rest of the team would not be denied. This was their time.

Miami has outstanding talent. Heat President Pat Riley will strengthen their roster in the off season. Wade, James and Bosh will be at the big dance again. They will win an NBA title.

The Dallas Mavericks demonstrated that a passionate, determined, gritty and talented team could prevail over a group of superstars. This should be the biggest takeaway for the Miami Heat.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Step Down Anthony Weiner

Representative Anthony Weiner of New York is asking for a leave of absence from Congress and he is entering rehab to deal with his problem. But with the leadership of his own party calling for him to resign it is unlikely that he will ever be able to effectively represent his district. It is time for him to step down.

What was he thinking each time he sent obscene text messages and explicit pictures to women around the country? Did it not occur to him that it was wrong? He must have known that his actions were inappropriate. He must have realized that he was risking everything if he was caught.

By his own admission, if one believes him, he was "sexting" for three years. He was hooking up with women through Facebook and Twitter. These were women he did not know. What made him think no one would talk? What does this say about his judgment? And why did he lie? Did he really believe he could get away with his claim that his Twitter account was hacked? And what does he think of the adverse impact these revelations have brought on the women he communicated with?

Perhaps the person he hurt the most was his wife of less than a year, Huma Abedin, who has been a close associate of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's for more than a decade. Didn't Weiner think of the severe pain he would inflict on his wife, the woman he says he loves, if his exploits were discovered? What kind of love is this? It is very likely that he knew she might be pregnant when he was sending his last texts.

Representative Weiner is an outspoken, brash and energetic spokesperson for progressive causes. Because of his tenure and tenacity he could get things done. While his arrogance could rub his colleagues the wrong way, he was very popular and highly respected by residents in his home district. But now he has embarrassed many of those who have always supported him.

Some commentators have said he did not commit a crime (that we know of) and that he has consistently represented his district and his party well. They point to other elected officials from both parties who have made similar mistakes and remained in office. But shouldn't we always demand that our representatives be exemplars of American Democracy?

In recent weeks Representative Anthony Weiner has become a major issue. Republicans, until recently reeling from criticism of their Medicare proposal, have focused their attention on Weiner's bad behavior. When Congress returns to work Monday, following its recess, Weiner's actions will be a big distraction. That is one reason why House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Party Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and House Democratic campaign committee chair Steve Israel have all called for Representative Weiner to resign.

Representative Weiner can no longer effectively serve his district because he has lost the support of his party's leadership. He is now under investigation for his actions. He can no longer be a credible leading voice on important progressive issues. If he chooses to stay in Congress he will have little or no power.

Representative Anthony Weiner says is fully committed to saving his marriage and repairing his relationships with family and friends. And now he will be on a leave of absence so he can get help with his serious problem. These matters will all need his full attention.

Therefore, the right thing for Representative Anthony Weiner to do is resign.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

9/11 Healing

On this coming September 11, it will be ten years since the greatest terrorist attack on American soil. Among the 2,753 people killed in the attack on New York City's World Trade Center were 343 firefighters and 60 police officers from the NYPD and the Port Authority. Terrorists also flew a passenger jet into the Pentagon, and a jetliner flown by terrorists crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The total death toll that day would be 2977.

The Mental Health Association of New York City held an emotional and compelling event Wednesday evening honoring New York City's "first responders." In particular, Fire Chief Joseph Pfeiffer, who had been among the first to respond to the World Trade Center that morning.

Chief Pfeiffer immediately set up a command post in one of the towers and began organizing the response. As he feverishly worked he saw his brother, Lt. Kevin Pfeiffer, across the lobby gathering his unit together. They acknowledged each other and then his brother led his team up the stairs to help rescue victims. It was the last time Chief Pfeiffer saw his brother alive.

As it happens, Jules and Gideon Naudet, a French film crew, had been working on a documentary about fire fighters at a nearby station. Jules was filming firefighters as they responded to a gas leak near the towers when, at 8:46am, the first plane hit the North Tower. He was swept up by his fire crew and quickly found himself side by side with Chief Pfeiffer. Jules captured the chaotic and terrifying scenes as victims and first responders filled the lobby. Confusion and panic were heightened when the South Tower was hit.

More than 17,000 people occupied the towers at the time of the attack. The camera recorded the sounds of bodies crashing to the ground, as some victims decided to die quickly rather than burn to death.

Naudet's camera was fixated on Chief Pfeiffer's shocked face when a huge rumbling sound began. The 110 story Twin Towers were collapsing, the South Tower at 9:59am and then the North Tower at 10:28am. The film records Chief Pfeiffer and his team as they frantically dashed for cover down a subway entrance in the lobby. Chief Pfeiffer made sure Naudet was with him. More than one thousand feet of concrete and steel pancaked all around them, shaking the earth and filling the air with a thick acrid dust. Miraculously the group survived but it took some time before they were able to escape the maze of destruction.

At the MHANYC event, Chief Pfeiffer, the Naudet brothers, and New York Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano stood together on a stage about fifteen blocks from ground zero and recounted the tragedy of 9/11. While the victims, their families and the city have worked hard to recover and rebuild, awful memories still haunt many them.

Almost instantly the Mental Health Association of New York City was called into action. In the immediate aftermath its mental health referral hotline, 1-800-Lifenet, played an important communications and referral role. And subsequently thousands of calls flooded the center as the recovery and healing process began. For some of those affected it will be a lifelong struggle.

Chief Pfeiffer now directs the FDNY's Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness, which he founded after 9/11. And today the Mental Health Association of New York City continues to fulfill a need in the ongoing healing process. Its work during the 9/11 disaster now serves as a national model and has been used in subsequent national tragedies, such as Hurricane Katrina.

As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, anxiety and stress will weigh heavily on many victims and their loved ones. The MHANYC stands ready to help. For those needing assistance, call 1-800-Lifenet, or go to: