Sunday, September 28, 2014

The African Elephant's Last Days

The African elephant is a magnificent creature, but its time on earth is rapidly coming to an end. The African elephant population has decreased by more than 60 percent over the past decade. Just in the past three years, ivory-seeking poachers have killed more than 100,000 elephants. If the slaughter continues at this pace, the African elephant will be extinct in 11 years! These may well be the last days for the African elephant.
This is the powerful message that Oscar award winning director Kathryn Bigelow drives home in her important animated short film entitled "Last Days." The film premiered Saturday night at the New York Film Festival. Following the screening Bigelow told the audience, "The urgency is great, time is of the essence."

"Last Days" reveals that the proceeds from much of the poaching goes to fund terrorist organizations, like the Somalia based al-Shabaab. One year ago, al-Shabaab struck the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, brutally massacring 67 men, women and children. Thie Westgate tragedy is the starting point for this compelling film, which then tells the poaching story in reverse. 

Al-Shabaab makes millions of dollars from poaching, and lightly armed park police cannot stop the heavily armed poachers. Journalist Peter Godwin, who appeared in the post screening panel discussion, described poaching as "an extension of war." Godwin, who was born in central Africa, said that there were 100,000 elephants in southern Tanzania during the early 1970's, now there are only 13,000. Poachers not only shoot elephants, which are easy targets because they are communal, they also lace watering holes with arsenic. Godwin said, "We are rushing toward the end game.

Focus in this great tragedy is now shifting to curtailing demand. China is a huge importer of ivory, and its demand has increased along with its growing wealth. Peter Knights, the executive director of WildAid, has enlisted the aid of Yao Ming, the ex-NBA player, and CCTV, the government run television network, to spread awareness in China. CCTV has agreed to run "Last Days." Earlier efforts by conservationists to cut demand for shark fin soup in China, which has been popular there since the Ming dynasty, have worked. 

Ivory is also popular in the United States, and the New York City borough of Manhattan is the second largest market in the country. But federal and state laws are not stringent enough to significantly impact the thriving ivory trade in Manhattan, which finds much of its ivory exported to other countries. 

Bigelow hopes that the release of "Last Days" in the United States, on the web and on television, will increase awareness of this urgent problem. She hopes to reach both consumers and politicians. Bigelow told the audience that her interest in the subject was the result of a conversation with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. "Chelsea had just returned from sub-Saharan Africa, where poachers killed herds of elephants by cyanide poisoning," Ms. Bigelow said. "After our conversation I felt compelled to raise awareness." 2014-09-28-photo38.JPG
As Peter Knights observed, "This is not about facts, this is about emotion." If that is the case, Bigelow's "Last Days" will send a powerful message across the globe that will extend the life of the African elephant on earth.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

NFL Fumbles

The NFL is one of the most powerful cultural institutions in America.  It dominates television ratings, it drives marketing decisions, fantasy football, and it provides endless content year-round for bloggers, columnists and commentators.  The average NFL team is worth $1.43 billion, and its top players earn more than $20 million a year.  Many communities invest in state of the art stadiums to host their home team.  And many NFL players are active role models in their respective communities.   

The NFL is a huge business, but with its success comes great responsibility.  Yet the owners and commissioner of the NFL have been more committed to protecting their business than in getting out ahead on several key social issues that have faced the league.  Where is the leadership?

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted as much when speaking specifically about the league's handling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse case.  "Unfortunately over the past several weeks, we've seen all too much of the NFL doing wrong. That starts with me," he said.  "I got it wrong in the handling of the Ray Rice matter. And I'm sorry for that. I got it wrong on a number of levels: from the process that I led to the decision that I reached. But now I will get it right and do whatever is necessary to accomplish that."

Roger Goodell began his career in the NFL in 1982, and he has been commissioner since 2006, a role for which he was paid a staggering $44 million last year.  He has said his job is to "protect the shield," a reference to the NFL logo.  But where would the NFL be without its players?  That is where the league's focus should have been from the moment it became aware of the impact of head injuries, the illegal use of drugs, and the many incidents of domestic violence.   Instead, the NFL has had a reactionary policy to each of these growing crises designed primarily to ameliorate a public relations problem.

Today there are about 1,700 players on the 32 NFL teams, most in their mid-twenties.  These are young men, many of whom came from broken homes and impoverished circumstances.  Many of the youngest players are not mature and are prone to make mistakes in judgment.  Their sudden wealth, the average NFL salary is about $2 million, and fame can often be a difficult adjustment for a young player just out of college.  Yes, they are well-paid employees in a successful business, but many need mentoring.  The NFL can play a more active role in the human development of its players, which may help prevent mistakes in judgment.  

At his news conference Friday, Goodell was asked if he considered resigning.  "I have not.  I am focused on doing my job, and doing it to the best of my abilities."  It is hard to believe that resignation had not crossed his mind, just as it is hard to believe the NFL will truly be transparent and open in its "independent" investigation of the Rice incident.  In the end the truth will come out, and Roger Goodell will have to step down.  

But that will not exonerate all of the NFL owners.   The owners need to create management structures throughout the league that are more diverse, starting with the NFL headquarters on Park Avenue.  More women and minorities need to be given important management roles so that the front offices are more in touch with the players.  

The NFL and its owners need to take the offensive when it comes to the best interest of its players.   It is time to stop fumbling the ball.

Friday, September 5, 2014

ISIS Coalition

President Barack Obama is carefully putting together a coalition of partners to join the U.S. in degrading and ultimately destroying the radical terrorist group ISIS.  His approach has come under attack from critics who want America to immediately strike ISIS in Syria, which is exactly what ISIS wants the U.S. to do. 

In a major development, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has approved his country's cooperation with the U.S. as part of the fight against ISIS, according to the BBC.  Iran's population is largely Shia Muslim, which the Sunni ISIS group views as heretics.

Up until now the Iranian leader has opposed allowing his military to cooperate with the U.S., which has been leading the effort to force Iran to scale back its nuclear ambitions.  But last month American air strikes helped Iranian-backed Shia militia, as well as Kurdish forces, defeat ISIS fighters at Amerli, in northern Iraq.  Now Khamenei has authorized a top Iranian military commander in region to coordinate with forces fighting ISIS, including the U.S.

The Obama White House has been working to build a broad coalition for weeks to deal with ISIS.  Pressure has intensified on the president as Congressional lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have called for U.S. air attacks on ISIS in Syria, where much of the organization is based.  The president has been reluctant to attack ISIS in Syria because it would end up helping Syria's ruthless dictator Bashar al-Assad, who ISIS is also seeking to topple. This is just another example how complicated the situation in the region is.

President Obama has come under harsh criticism for not having a strategy to deal with ISIS in Syria.  Many of these critics supported President George W. Bush's global strategy, the Bush Doctrine, which led to the misguided war in Iraq a decade ago, following al Qaeda's attack on the United States, that then unleashed a chain reaction of events that has now led to today's crisis in the region.

Under the Bush Doctrine the U.S. would topple dictators, like Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and replace them with a democratically elected government.  Instead, nearly 5,000 American soldiers and several hundred thousand civilians have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

Meanwhile, a deeply divided Iraq has been unable to form a successful democratic government.  Iraq fell into chaos as the heavily Shia government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to be inclusive, and wanted U.S. combat troops out of the country.  Of course, now Iraq wants the Americans back to help fight ISIS.

On Friday the U.S. announced it had formed a coalition of countries to take on ISIS.  The announcement was made at the NATO meeting in Wales, and the strategy could serve as a template for dealing with terrorist organizations in the future.  So far, the U.S., Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Turkey were among the NATO countries that joined to coalition.

Officials made it clear that ground forces in Syria would come from the moderate Assad opposition, and in Iraq the Kurds and the regular army would fight, with the assistance of U.S. airstrikes.   “Obviously I think that’s a red line for everybody here: no boots on the ground,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday.  Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among the Arab countries that have indicated they will participate.  The plan, which is still being worked on, will take some time to play out.

Meanwhile, U.S. airstrikes have been effective in slowing the ISIS, but the groups' brutal tactics continue.  ISIS has beheaded two American journalists and threatens more beheadings unless the U.S. stops its bombings.  Some experts believe that ISIS wants nothing more than to draw the U.S. into a full-scale war.  ISIS could then claim equal footing with the world's only super power, and could use such a war to increase recruits and funding from anti-American groups. 

But, unlike the neocons that ran Bush's failed foreign policy, President Obama is not going to be rushed into another ground war.  He believes he needs a strong coalition, including Arab countries, and a more inclusive Iraqi government, to ensure a broader and more enduring solution.  For sure, sending in U.S. ground troops would lead to a quick short-term victory, but ISIS would return the minute U.S. troops withdrew from the region. 

President Obama's actions reflect the sentiment in a war-weary America that does not favor committing more U.S. troops.  Still, because of all the criticism aimed at the president, his approval ratings on foreign policy are low.  Maybe he should have armed moderate Syrians a year ago.  Maybe he shouldn't have said he doesn't have a strategy for defeating ISIS in Syrian when he was working on one.  

But it is better to be thoughtful and measured rather than impulsive and emotional.  There are no easy solutions to this crisis, but all stakeholders must work together if there is to be a lasting peace.  And the president is building that coalition.
Another way of saying, "don't do stupid stuff" is, "be smart." 

Monday, September 1, 2014

The 2014 Midterm Elections

With less than 10 weeks to go before the midterm Congressional elections Americans in general are frustrated with Washington.  National polls show that about three quarters of all Americans disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job.  By comparison, about half of those Americans polled disapprove of President Barack Obama's handling of his job. 

Sunday's New York Post reported that 163 laws have been passed and signed by the president since this two-year term of Congress began in January 2013.  That is far lower than the 284 laws that were passed by the 2011-2013 session, which is an all time record for fewest bills passed.  Congress passed 386 laws during the 2009-2011 session.   Former Representative Lee Hamilton (R-IN) told the Post, "I've never seen it any worse in terms of public esteem for the Congress.  I can't find anybody who says a good word about it."

Despite Congress's lack of productivity, and as outrageous as it may seem, it appears that most incumbents will be reelected in November.   Conventional wisdom is that while most Americans want to get rid of Congress, they nonetheless support their own representative.  This is especially true during midterm elections because voter turnout is often very low, which gives incumbents an advantage.  But both parties are leaving nothing to chance, as a record amount of campaign dollars will be poured into this election, surpassing the $3.6 billion spent in 2010.   

Republicans currently hold a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives, 233-199; there are three vacant seats.  The GOP expects to expand its majority in the House.  Meanwhile, Democrats currently hold a majority in the Senate.  But of the 36 Senate seats in play, 21 of them held by Democrats, while 15 are held by Republicans.  If the GOP picks up six Senate seats this midterm they will be in the majority in both houses of Congress.  Most experts, including Nate Silver, of the election site FiveThirtyEight, give Republicans a slight edge to take those seats and become the majority party in the Senate.  

The Republicans are targeting the seven Democratic seats that are up in states where Mitt Romney beat President Obama in the 2012 presidential election.  They are also going after four additional Democratic seats in states where the president remains unpopular.  Republicans will do all they can to make this election about President Obama's unpopularity. 

Domestically the president has been attacked for executive actions he has taken to bypass the blockade that Congress has become.  For example, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who himself has presidential aspirations, has regularly attacked the president, telling Fox News "He believes somehow that he's become a monarch or an emperor that can basically ignore the law and do whatever he wants."  On the other hand, Republicans have attacked President Obama for being disengaged and "leading from behind" on foreign policy.  The president's recent comment the he does not have a strategy on dealing with ISIS in Syria was seized upon by Republicans.  Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), said on CBS Sunday,  "What I want to hear from the president is that he has a strategy to finish ISIS off, to defeat ISIS."

Congressional and Senate Democratic candidates have tried to localize their elections, but Republicans are focusing on President Obama in an effort to energize their base.  So Democrats are trying to mobilize minority voters,  especially African-Americans, who generally don't vote in midterms.  Party activists are using the shooting in Ferguson, Mo., and conservative calls to impeach the president, to mobilize Blacks.  An increase in the number of Southern Blacks helped Democrats during the 1998 midterm election, when President Bill Clinton was under heavy fire from the right.

Ironically, the one Republican Senator who is in the toughest fight to be reelected is the man who has the most to gain if Republicans win majority control.  Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), the Senate minority leader, has done all he can to obstruct and block the agenda of President Obama since the day he was sworn in to office in 2009.  McConnell is facing a vigorous challenge from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.  McConnell is not popular in Kentucky, but a recent state poll shows he has the edge.  Lundergan Grimes is making McConnell's failings in Congress the issue.  But McConnell is tying his opponent to President Obama.  

Should Republicans take control of both houses the legislative process will grind to a halt.  Anything the Republicans pass, like efforts to defund Obamacare, will be vetoed by the president.  Meanwhile, congressional investigations into the so-called scandals surrounding the IRS and Benghazi will intensify.  The partisan divide will widen as Republicans try to score points before the 2016 Presidential Elections.   

Because so much is at stake, this coming election day is not a time for eligible voters to stay home.