Sunday, September 27, 2015

Putin on Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin displayed acumen in his 60 Minutes interview on CBS Sunday evening as he ruled out sending Russian troops into Syria, saying, "Well, at least we don't plan on it right now."  

Syria was one of many topics discussed with CBS News anchor Charlie Rose in a wide-ranging interview recorded in advance of Putin's address to the United Nations Monday.  But it appears that Russia is seizing the initiative in ending Syria's civil war by throwing its support behind that country's ruthless president, Bashar al-Assad.  Putin told Rose, "Well, it's my deep belief that any actions to the contrary in order to destroy the legitimate government will create a situation which you can witness now in the other countries of the region or in other regions, for instance in Libya where all the state institutions are disintegrated."   In nearly five years of war in Syria more than 240,000 people have been killed and millions of refugees have fled the country.  

Recently Russia has been beefing up its military in Syria, where it has long had a presence, and it has delivered new arms to Assad's forces.  Putin denied that Russia is trying to establish a leadership role in the Middle East.   He explained, "More than 2,000 fighters from Russia and Ex-Soviet Republics are in the territory of Syria. There is a threat of their return to us. So instead of waiting for their return, we are better off helping Assad fight them on Syrian territory."

Iraq announced over the weekend that it would share intelligence with Russia, Iran and Syria in the fight against ISIS militants.  The Iraqi military announcement spelled out its reasons this way, "the increasing concern from Russia about thousands of Russian terrorists committing criminal acts within ISIS."

President Barack Obama and President Putin are scheduled to meet for the first time in a year in New York Monday to discuss Russia's moves in Syria.  Russia and the United States cooperated in a 2013 deal that led to the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons.  The two countries also cooperated as part of the P5 + 1 nations that negotiated the nuclear treaty with Iran earlier this year.  

ISIS controls large parts of Syria and Iraq, and have brutally killed more than 10,000 people since declaring a caliphate.  Their sophisticated social media campaign has drawn thousands of recruits from around the world, including the U.S. and Russia.  ISIS is a growing cancer that is threatening neighboring countries, including Iran, Jordan, Turkey and Israel.  They are a national security threat to Western nations.  

The United States and its allies have conducted a bombing campaign on ISIS, but it has had only modest success.  There has been much debate over how the Obama administration has handled ISIS, with some conservatives in Congress now calling for America to take the lead by sending in troops.  More than half of those Americans polled in June by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News favored sending U.S. troops to combat ISIS.   But President Obama has been opposed to such an action.

As an old Arab saying goes, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."  But even though the U.S. and its allies, Russia, Iran, Iraq, the Kurds and Syria all have an urgent need to defeat ISIS, their competing interests make a solution difficult to achieve.   And with Russia's growing military presence in Syria at a time when the U.S. and its allies are bombing ISIS positions in that country, there is an increasing chance for a larger conflict.

Putin's bold move has pushed the United States into a position of having accept the tyrant Bashar al-Assad, if only for the time being.   As he explained to Charlie Rose, "...There is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism. But, at the same time, urging them to engage in positive dialogue with the rational opposition and conduct reform."

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Smith School: Making a Difference

The Smith School describes itself as a "Small School with a Big Heart."  This month it is celebrating its 25th year of making a difference for special students in New York City.

In 1990 founder and Smith School Director Karen Smith had seen many students struggle with their academics in the city's public and private schools. "I felt there was a need for misplaced students who weren't receiving the services they needed to be successful," Smith said.   Her solution was to create a school that takes into account each individual student's distinct needs and learning styles.  The school's approach is to empower good teachers "to awaken the latent potential of all our students to succeed academically, to grow emotionally, and to overcome with success the various challenges each day brings."

The Smith School provides a flexible program of academic studies for grades 7 through 12, and its curriculum focuses heavily on music, art and drama.  This is a reflection of Ms. Smith's background; she earned a Master of Arts Degree in Directing for Theater from UCLA.  Smith's theater background imbues the schools drama program with the goal of helping students to develop public speaking and acting skills, "which creates a safe a nurturing environment for growth and personal exploration." The school claims to have one of the strongest music programs among independent schools in the city, and its strong arts program benefits from the school's location near the city's great museums and galleries.   

The Smith School has helped 927 students over the past quarter century, and 173 students have graduated from the institution.  More than 90% of its students have gone on to attend a 4-year college.  The school has been granted membership in several important educational organizations, including the Board of Regents of the State of New York, the Middle States Association on Secondary Schools, and the New York State Association of Independent Schools.  

"This school is truly remarkable," one parent said.  "I had lost hope my child would ever succeed until she came to Smith."   A parent of an 8th grader said, "From the very first day of school, my daughter was excited to attend the Smith School."  A 2015 graduate observed, "My four years at Smith prepared me for the challenges I was faced with my freshman year in college."  

The school's classes are small, typically 5 students, and the learning is individualized.   Early on the Smith School recognized bullying as a devastating and painful problem for students in public and private schools.  Its teachers are alert and vigilant to the problem.  Teachers treat all students with respect and expect students to be respectful with each other.  

The energetic and remarkable Karen Smith saw an opportunity 25 years ago to make a difference for those students who are different, who struggle in today's highly competitive and socially demanding educational institutions.  Looking back over the history of the Smith School, she says, "I am incredibly proud...of keeping my promise to provide a safe and nurturing environment for students who were unsuccessful in their previous environment because of their differences."  She concluded, "While at Smith we embrace those differences."

Congratulations Karen Smith, and everyone associated with the Smith School.

Monday, September 14, 2015

GE Cares

For service, call 1-800-GE-CARES.  Those words are printed on the top of a receipt I received from a GE repairman who came to my house to fix a gas leak in my oven.  But does GE really care?

More than a week ago my wife and I returned home from vacation and detected the smell of gas in our house.  It seemed to be coming from the GE oven.  My wife immediately call our local utility provider, Con Edison.  In minutes fire trucks pulled up in front of our house and a team of firefighters entered our apartment.  The gas detector the firemen used did not register a gas leak, so they left.  Nearly an hour later two ConEdison inspectors arrived at our home and we led them to the kitchen.  Their detectors immediately picked up a gas leak.  So they shut the gas valve off and red tagged the oven for repair.

I called the GE service scheduling line to set up an appointment.  Unfortunately, the earliest time they could send someone was mid week, which meant no cooking dinner.  The GE repairman arrived and replaced a part on the oven.  He then turned the appliance on for a while and determined the leak had been fixed.  Since the oven is no longer under warranty, we paid $416.95 for the repair.  We called ConEdison to schedule an inspection, and they said they would send someone over as soon as they could.  But, the scheduler added, an inspection was not necessary as long as the repairman was certified.  We never leave anything to chance, so we reaffirmed our desire for an inspection.

Finally, several days later, Saturday morning, a ConEdison inspector came to our house.  He deployed his gas detector in the oven and the device buzzed, indicating the leak had not been repaired.  He immediately shut the gas off and red tagged the appliance.  Had we not insisted on an inspection the leak could have led to a catastrophe.   

I called GE to schedule another appointment, and complain about the poor service.  I was told that I would have to talk with GE service, and they would be open on Monday.  I pleaded my case for urgent service, but I was told nothing else could be done.  

On Monday morning I spoke with GE service.  The person I spoke with showed no emotion, no empathy when I explained that the gas leak could have led to an explosion and injuries.  The earliest she said she could get a repairman out was the next day.  "Unfortunately, the dispatcher says he has no one available."  What about the $416.95 I paid for the failed repair, I asked?  "There will be no refund, but you won't be charged for the additional service call because it is within the 30 day guarantee period," the customer service specialist said.  

GE is a global giant serving millions of customers around the world.  It has structured and staffed its many businesses so that each company it owns maximizes profits each quarter.  In short, GE cares most about profits.  

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Run, Joe, Run

"Run Joe Run," is the cry Vice President Joe Biden is hearing more often as he attends public events.  Few politicians are as popular as Biden is today.  But, should he announce he is running for president, he will become a target for Republicans.

Biden, 72 years old, has had a long a storied career in Washington.  He was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, at the age of 30, and he was subsequently overwhelmingly reelected six times by the voters of Delaware.  He served in a number of important positions while in the Senate, including Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.   His more than forty year career in elected office qualifies him to be president. 

Biden's life has been filled with tragedy.  Shortly after first being elected to the Senate, Biden's wife and daughter were killed in a car accident.  His sons Beau and Hunter survived, although they were badly injured.  He considered resigning to care for his sons, but was persuaded not to by Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield.  In his memoir, Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics, he wrote that he owed it to his late wife, who had worked hard to get him elected, to continue.  So he commuted daily between Capitol Hill and Delaware, a 90-minute train ride, to care for his sons.  Yet, following the accident, Biden told NPR in 2007 he had difficulty at first focusing on work.

Biden married Jill Biden five years after the accident, and, in the Senate, found himself on the front lines of many historic events, including the Vietnam War, Watergate, the collapse of the Soviet Union, America's two wars with Iraq, and the election of President Barack Obama.  In 1988, he overcame another tragedy, life threatening cranial aneurysms.

Biden was among the least wealthiest members of the Senate, and he is proud to say he has never forgotten his modest upbringing.  Loquacious and talkative, Biden is likeable and authentic.  Yet he has been prone to gaffs over his career.  When President Obama was preparing to sign the Affordable Care Act an excited Biden told the president, "This is a big deal," loud enough for microphones to capture it.  

But Biden was struck by tragedy again when his son, Beau, died of brain cancer this past May.  Biden was devastated, and he talked about it in a heartfelt interview with Stephen Colbert on CBS last week.  The impact of his son's death has weighed heavily on his decision to run for president, as he explained to Colbert.  "I don't think any man or woman should run for president unless, number one, they know exactly why they would want to be president and, number two, they can look at folks out there and say, 'I promise you, you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy, and my passion to do this." He then paused, and said, "And I'd be lying if I said that I knew I was there."  

With the Democrat frontrunner, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, mired in controversies about her use of a private email server and her handling of Benghazi, more party voices are being raised in support of Biden entering the race.  Even some Republicans have said they would like him to run, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, who told CNN, "I would love to see Joe get in the race."  

Biden is struggling with the decision at a time when his popularity is growing, according to recent polls.  Beyond the burden of his son's death, he knows as an announced presidential candidate he will come under heavy attack from Republicans.   On the Senate Judiciary Committee Biden presided over two contentious Supreme Court nominations, Justice Clarence Thomas and the Robert Bork, who conservatives believe was treated unfairly in his failed attempt to get appointed.   Biden has failed twice to be elected president, in 1988 and 2007.  Biden's missteps include plagiarism, once in law school and another in 1988, which helped cost him his bid for the White House. When Donald Trump was asked by a conservative talk show host last week how he'd do against Biden, he responded, "I think I'd matchup great. I'm a job producer. I've had a great record, I haven't been involved in plagiarism. I think I would match up very well against him."   

Another concern for Biden would be how to campaign against Hillary Clinton.  In 2008, candidate Obama contrasted his opposition to the 2003 war in Iraq with Clinton's Senate vote to authorize the war.  Biden also voted to authorize the war, although he now says he made a mistake.  And Biden's candidacy will also be viewed as a continuation of the Obama presidency, which has continually come under furious attack from Republicans as divisive and overreaching.  Without question, Vice President Joe Biden's current popularity will take a hit should he decide to run for president. 

In August, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote of a conversation Beau Biden, who was near death, had with his father urging him to run.  He knew his father always wanted to be president.  Even with all of the challenges that come with such a decision, Vice President Biden has faced more daunting obstacles many times before in his life.  Stay tuned.