Writings and observations

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What a weekend. The culmination of a remarkable diplomatic effort with Iran is announced. An unheard-of cooperation with both China and Russia. A world shaping nuclear limitation agreement that might – just might – last forever, sealed by a performance no one thought possible. This was topped by the release of all American prisoners in Iran. Under a separate and delicately balanced agreement reached after months of work. A completely separate but parallel negotiation carried out in complete secrecy. Finally, a potentially explosive naval confrontation is finessed into a non-story, over before anybody actually realized what had happened. It was a stunning clean sweep of U.S. diplomacy.

The reporting of these events unfolded within hours of one another, delivered to the sound of an unending cacophony of insults, jeers, heckles, outrageous threats and just plain lies from the resources of right wing television, talk radio, and the entire passel of Republican Presidential wannabees. What was totally ignored by these responses was that a new Iran appears to be emerging and at hand. No one expected Iran to comply with the nuclear agreements. It had routinely stiff-armed demands for the release of prisoners for years, even those detained on the shakiest of grounds. And similar military incidents had dragged on for months while this one was over in a few hours. What did remain over it all, however, was the stench and stain of the vitriolic attacks from the Republican candidates and the far right commentariat.

In political campaigns of the not-too-distant past, the firm principle observed by the working media and by both sides of any political issue was that we have one President at a time, and that in any developing crisis on foreign soil, politics stops at the water’s edge. It would have been unthinkable for the press or anyone in a campaign mode from either party to comment upon anything happening in a foreign land in the middle of a developing crisis, while any American lives might be in jeopardy. We had one President at a time, and while we campaigned ferociously over domestic matters, or over issues of future policy, in any matter pertaining to current foreign situations we stood resolute, in full and complete support of our President.

In those days, for anyone to say anything negative about the deal for the four prisoners being released in Tehran, or anything at all about the ten sailors or their predicament on Farsi Island, while these individuals were still in Iran’s custody and before their safe return had been assured and actually carried out would have been regarded as unthinkable – something just short of high treason – and would have earned the outrage of the speaker’s own party as well as that of the observing public. It was a good rule, and we should return to it.

In the events of this last weekend, if there had been anything other than a leaderless Republican party with its primary campaign in shambles, the entire country would be still be on its feet cheering and celebrating the results that had been achieved. What this all truly deserves is a Wall Street parade with a Sousa march dedicated to it, and a fireworks display.

Maybe somebody ought to at least try … How about at a quiet Hip-Hip-Hooray, softly anyway, three times, with maybe a “Go Team Go” at the end?

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McKee

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Contrary to what Republican presidential candidates keep trumpeting, in the area of foreign policy Obama is doing just fine in the eyes of the rest of the world.

The redoubtable Brookings Institute, the original middle-of-the-road think tank and an icon in this arena for over 100 years, carefully acknowledged this in a May of 2015 report. “Both his critics and his defenders tend to use unrealistic benchmarks in grading his presidency,” the report first observes. “If we use the kinds of standards that are applied to most American leaders…” it concludes, “Mr. Obama has in fact done acceptably well.”

This conclusion is confirmed by results released in October of 2015 by the Pew Research Institute. In a poll of over 40 countries world-wide, Pew reports that Obama enjoys an average approval rating of 65% in world affairs. In the important four countries of our closest allies in Western Europe – the U.K., Germany, France and Spain – it is even higher, with an average approval of 75% or better. Only in Russia, China and the Middle East of the major countries of the world does Obama receive truly bad ratings, but these regions also gave Bush terrible ratings. The most that can be said here is that Obama has not been able to improve upon the positions he inherited from the Bush administration.

In fact, Obama has racked up a remarkable record of accomplishments in foreign policy in the last seven years. Consider: he (1) rebuilt the worldwide reputation of the United States from its lowest point ever during the last days of the Bush administration to one of general approval and good relations with most countries by mid-2015; (2) cautiously improved relations with Vladimir Putin of Russia; (3) significantly improved relations with Xi Jinping of China; (4) reopened the embassy in Cuba; (5) successfully completed implementation of SALT II; (3) successfully reached a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issues with Iran; (4) achieved working trade agreements with Europe, China and the Pacific Rim countries for new multi-national trade pacts; (5) is on the brink of achieving the first ever multi-national agreement on climate change; (6) withdrew all troops from Iraq on schedule; (7) significantly degraded al Qaeda, including the killing of Osama Bin Laden; and (8) is on-target for significant reduction in troop requirements in Afghanistan.

There are huge problems that have cropped up, or remain, and which overshadow some of these gains.

He clearly has not succeeded in all that he set out to do. He has been unable to close Guantanamo. We continue to struggle in Afghanistan. Iraq is coming apart. The emergence of ISIL is a real threat. The situation in Eastern Europe is tense. Some of these failures were inherent and left over from the days of Bush and prior, some were the result of early mistakes by Obama in resetting the direction of his policies, and some are simply works still in process as a result of a constantly changing dynamic in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

One area for which he is roundly criticized by the Republicans is not a mistake. The concept of “leadership from behind” is the product of his decision to change the direction with which we implement operations in foreign policy; to build coalitions and seek consensus before action, and to defer, where appropriate, and allow others with greater interest or greater proximity to the crisis at hand, to take the lead both in planning and implementation. He has said repeatedly that it is not necessary for the United States always to be the first ones in, always to own the plans or concepts of operation, or always to position itself as the ultimate leader.

This is true not only in Europe but also in the Middle East, where the ills and mistakes committed in “The Ugly American,” Lederer’s and Burdick’s classic of the late 1950’s, are illustrative of why the mere presence of the United States can be toxic to any situation. The animosity towards the United States by the countries of the Middle East erupted with the disastrous decision to go to war against Iraq, then continued through the series of mistakes, incompetence and egregious mishandling of the post-war developments under the Bush administration. It has not abated during the Obama years.

Given this situation, plus the outbreak of Arab Spring and the uncertainties surrounding Putin’s intentions in the Ukraine and elsewhere, it is not feckless to be cautious, nor to wait until a concept of operation had matured to the point of mutual agreement among allies, before proceeding. To have followed the hawks’ cry of “Ready! Shoot! Aim!” would, in most analyst’s eyes, have landed us in a much more precarious situation with respect to Eastern Europe and conditions in the Middle East than we find ourselves in today.

We may not be in a good position yet in all the hot spots of the world, but it could have been much, much worse. It is instructive that, aside from the few regions mentioned above, the only entities truly wringing their hands over the choices Obama has made in these areas are not among our allies or even among those directly affected, but rather are only from the right wing media crowd and the Republican presidential candidates, all from within our own country.

No one knows where history will eventually place Obama in his management of foreign policy. Surveying the current writings, and sifting out the obviously politically biased commentary, one might expect the grade somewhere in the high C to mid B range – perhaps even an A minus, depending upon unfolding developments with ISIL and the Ukraine.

One thing is certain: Obama does not deserve the label of being the President responsible for making the worst foreign policy decisions ever. That badge of dishonor clearly and demonstrably continues to belong exclusively to the 43rd President, George Walker Bush, and to his cabal of cronies, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Sununu, and Rove.

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McKee

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To formally declare war against any terrorist group as a reaction to ordinary criminal acts, whether against France, some other country, or against us, would be a dumb mistake.

To do so just to best Vladimir Putin in some sort of attempt to get ahead of Russia in the Middle East would be even dumber. We know we cannot defeat an idea with conventional weaponry. We know we have no business involving ourselves in civil wars in the Middle East, especially where those disputes spill over into unwinnable theological differences within factions of Islam that have been at odds with one another for a thousand years.

We also know better than to interfere with a regime change driven from without; a lesson learned from Iraq and Libya.

Finally, we must know that we cannot continue to assign the responsibility for warfare to just the 1% of our young and hearty, expecting them to return again and again to the hellish nightmares of battle while the rest of us continue on without inconvenience or sacrifice.

This means that to avoid running amok into the same moral, legal, political and practical quagmire we found in Afghanistan and Iraq, we must keep the situation with Syria and ISIL or ISIS, or whatever it wishes to be called, in careful perspective. If our real objective is to seek out and hold the individuals responsible for these atrocious terrorist activities accountable to society, which is a legitimate objective, and which we have proved we are very good at doing, then the obvious solution lies in our criminal courts, not warfare. The acts are crimes, and are best handled as crimes wherever they are found.

To date, the overwhelmingly successful prosecutions of radical jihadist terrorists has been in the federal courts of the United States. With a conviction rate of close to 90%, more than 500 terrorism related cases have been prosecuted there since 9/11.

Meanwhile, the effort to prosecute detainees in military tribunals at Guantanamo under the war powers act has become hopelessly snarled and bogged down. There have been three convictions out of Gitmo since 9/11. Three. There are only seven detainees currently being tried in military tribunals there, and indications are that the Pentagon only intends a total of fourteen prosecutions in all – out of the entire 780 detainees incarcerated at Guantanamo in its history.

We have the personnel, the processes, and the knowledge to manage the entire matter of terrorist acts completely under the direction of our United States Attorneys’ offices and within the criminal justice system of our federal courts. Terrorist acts are crimes and should be treated as such. This is where it all belongs, and this is where it all should stay

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McKee

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Buried in the news last Friday, behind the dreadful stories streaming from Paris, was word that a drone attack in Raqqa, a desolate town in northern Syria, had probably killed Mohammed Emwazi, notoriously known as Jihadi John, the brutal Islamic States’ terrorist of the horrendous beheading videos.

An Army press officer explained that Emwazi was the target of the attack, and confirmed that the drone missiles hit the target and that personnel – that’s plural – were killed. An unofficial report says there were three vehicles blown up, another says that at least three other individuals were in the targeted vehicles.

Although the drone can zoom a video in on a selected target close enough to read a license plate, this is all that has been released thus far. But this just begs more questions. In particular, who besides Emwazi were killed? Other members of Islamic States? Innocent civilians? Maybe women or children? Not clear.

There is an elaborate command structure for authorizing drone strikes, running from the lowest field commander up through the complete chain of command to the White House. Everybody up the ladder has to approve. One veto anywhere up the line, and the proposal is scrapped. Once it makes it to the White House, the President signs off on every concept plan — who the target is, why it is thought that the target is where it is said to be, where it will take place, etc., and what the collateral damage estimate is. The approval up the chain of command to this point is of the operation in concept or a CONOP. The actual go-ahead for a given shoot must be based upon a fully approved CONOP, and is by a smaller designated committee within the military; again, it has to be unanimous, but the President is not involved in the actual operations decisions.

For the targeting window to be considered suitable, whether for the operations concept or the specific shoot, there must be current, reliable intelligence reports that indicate a “low CDE,” meaning a low estimate of “collateral damage.” This is the military term for the women, children and other incidental civilians that might be in the path of the military operations. There is an actual international law compact on the issue of collateral damage that says, in effect, it is permissible for the military to conduct an attack that knowingly includes civilians within the target operations area where the expected loss of civilian life is not “clearly excessive” to the anticipated military gain. The compact does not quantify the term – it does not say exactly how disproportionate the mix has to be before it is permissible to intentionally include women and children in the attack zone.

Although John Brennan, current CIA director, says drone strikes are only used to apply “targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us,” Leon Panetta, a previous director of the CIA, explained it this way: “If you can isolate the individual and take the shot without impacting on women or children, then do it. But if you have no alternative and it looks like he might get away, then take the shot.” In other words, notwithstanding Brennan’s doubletalk, it is okay to take out a few women and children if the bad guy is about to get away.

All of this is shrouded in secrecy, and exact numbers are difficult to find and very hard to verify. From the reports available online, some from admittedly biased groups, it appears that when we target a specific individual, we kill far more additional people, including uninvolved civilians and even children, than we do in more generic attacks. The worst example may be our attempts to kill al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri in 2006. Then, in two targeted drone strikes, we managed to kill 76 children and 29 adults, but not Zawahiri. In Pakistan several years later, we fired six separate drone attacks over a two year period in an attempt to kill one man – Qari Hussain, an al Qaeda Taliban leader – before bringing him down in October of 2010. In the effort, 128 people were killed, including 13 children. In a more recent compilation published in November of 2014, The Guardian reported that attempts to kill 41 designated targets to date resulted the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people as of November of 2014. This meant we were killing an average of 128 people in drone attacks for every targeted individual we went after. Serious questions are raised over just exactly how we define terms like “clearly excessive,” “surgical accuracy,” and “precise.”

None of this takes even one iota away from how horrible the terrorist attack on Paris was, nor justifies nor explains the atrocities it has brought to the French and the unbelievable grief suffered by the innocent victims’ loved ones there. But as we ponder the circumstances in Paris, answer this:

What do you suppose the going rate in collateral damage is today for a drone strike on a terrorist leader of the caliber of Emwazi – maybe two kids and a pregnant woman?

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McKee

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Contrary to his repeated promises, Barack Obama announced on Friday the deployment of U.S. combat forces into Syria to assist local rebels fight I.S.I.S. The political, military and legal morass boggles.

There is no express legal authority for the United States to commit ground troops into Syria. It is not clear exactly who needs help or why. There is no mission statement particular to this situation. There appears to be no exit strategy. The rationale Obama has manufactured is that he has authority under the War Powers act of 2001, even though I.S.I.S. is not al Qaeda, Syria is not Iraq, and Bashar al Assad is not Saddam Hussein.

The area is in northern Syria, reportedly under the control of Kurdish rebels. The force to be deployed is a special operations unit of a few dozen. Their orders are to train and advise the Kurdish rebels, but administration officials acknowledge that the unit will be operating at or on the “front lines,” if such ever can be said to exist in guerrilla warfare, and was expecting to find themselves in firefights sooner or later.

The rebels are also seeking to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al Assad, and may be expected to engage in fighting against the government forces as well. What complicates this to an astronomical level is that the Russians have declared themselves allied with the Syrian government, and will be supporting the government forces with aid, weaponry, and air support.

Air Force A-10 Warthogs and F-15 fighters from bases in Turkey will be committed to the air support of the U.S. forces as and when needed. The Russian air support may well be coming from Russian bases in Crimea or navy carriers in the Black Sea. This may well entail both countries flying through shared airspace on the way in, over and out of Syria. While the Russians have said their main target will also be the I.S.I.S. forces, they may have already conducted air strikes on Syrian-Arab rebel forces. Further, although President Putin has stated that Russia has no intent of committing ground troops to the effort in Syria, President Obama has made exactly the same promise.

There is no other way to look at this other than that the chances of the United States finding itself in a firefight with Russia, either on the ground or in the air, have just increased through the roof.

What can possibly go wrong?

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McKee

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Donald Trump called Bernie Sanders a “socialist-slash-communist,” proving convincingly that he has no idea what either term means. Senator Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist,” a phrase disconnected from both. Let’s examine some basics.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the term “socialist” means one who advocates that the means of production, distribution and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole. It says the term “communist” means one who advocates that all property be owned by the community, and that each person participate according to ability or needs. Socialism and communism are each independent economic theories.

Neither have anything to do with the totalitarian government of the former Soviet Union. For The Donald to call Bernie a “socialist slash communist” is an ad hominem argument intended to arouse visceral feelings towards totalitarian Communism reminiscent of the Cold War. It is baseless slander when applied to Senator Sanders, and should have no place in a legitimate political argument.

While the pure socialist may advocate for government ownership of most business, the democratic socialist does not. With the exception of demanding the abandonment of private ownership of prisons, which was a wrong-headed idea from the outset, and perhaps advocating for the eventual merger of the health insurance industry into a single-payer entity, the democratic socialist appears to accept private ownership of business, provided that the community and the masses are protected by reasonable and effective government regulation.

“Capitalism,” says the OED, means the system where trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit. Pure capitalism, or laissez faire, means the private ownership without interference or regulation by the government. Under laissez faire, it is only the “private owners” who are in any position to benefit from the economic system. In today’s economy, the “owners” would be the top 2% of us, or perhaps only the top 1%, being those who actually control the resources to push capital, labor and production to their best advantage. The masses, the 98% or 99% of us who do not have this power, would literally be at the mercy of the “owners” under laissez faire.

In the late 1700’s, Adam Smith realized that unrestrained free market capitalism would be intolerable. Smith recognized that if the entirety of the economy was left to vagaries of a market exclusively controlled by the owners, then what he termed the great body of mankind – i.e., the rest of us – would be impacted by “intellectually erosive effects.” He said this was the condition “into which … the great body of the people must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.” Thus even Adam Smith felt that in certain circumstances, it was a proper function of government to protect the masses.

The plain fact is that we have not had anything close to laissez faire capitalism in this country from the earliest days of the 1800’s. Certainly beginning with the trust-busting days of Teddy Roosevelt, and continuing to this day we have established an extensive matrix of government regulation to protect most of us from the “intellectually erosive effects” of the unrestrained free market. One might say that our system has evolved into one of regulated capitalism.

What we enjoy from the view on the left is a system of democratic socialism with strong components of regulated capitalism, and a few tendrils reaching towards laissez faire. From the right, the view is of regulated capitalism with a strong dose of democratic socialism, and a few tendrils stretching into classic socialism. Or maybe it is the other way around.

The point is that from wherever we look, we see an amalgam of both economic systems, interwoven, and hopefully taking the best from each. There are considerable differences between regulated capitalism and democratic socialism. In almost every quarter, there is plenty to argue about in the areas of who is entitled to protection and from what, how much is reasonable, whether the involvement is national or best left local, and always, always, how much will it cost and who is to pay.

But certainly we must recognize that these debates are well intentioned, by patriots of good cheer, and are being advanced with honorable motives and a sincere desire for betterment of society. There should be no place here for personal attacks or mean spirited slander.

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McKee

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Duff McKee has been writing column-length pieces from time to time over the years, mainly in Facebook, and now he has agreed to become a regular contributor here. This is a recent post from Facebook about Kate’s law; new pieces will be coming soon. – rs

What a week! The House announced a move to improve the criminal justice system by reducing draconian sentencing in one area, and the Senate announced a move to reverse the course and return to the unreasonable sentencing in another.

On the positive side, the House Judiciary Committee announced agreement upon a major overhaul of the drug sentencing laws, reducing prison terms in many areas and increasing the emphasis on rehabilitation. This begins to mirror extensive efforts by the states, including Idaho, to reexamine and overhaul their criminal justice systems. Significant savings in cost are being realized as prison populations are reduced. To the liberals, this is a matter of social justice. To the conservatives, it is a matter of simple economics. The product is a bi-partisan effort and the results are projected to be considerable.

On the negative side, the Senate announced it was going to take up a bill next week that will dramatically increase the prison sentence for anyone illegally entering the country after having been once deported, or having been convicted of a serious felony. New prison sentences are to be imposed for violations, starting out at five years mandatory for first offense, no exceptions.

This comes in response to the senseless murder of Kate Steinle, allegedly by an illegal immigrant. When a national furor resulted, Bill O’Reilly seized the initiative and promoted the enactment of new federal sentencing provisions, which he has termed “Kate’s Law.” This has been vigorously lobbied, mostly by Fox News, and has been taken up by the Conservative wing of the Republican party, most prominently by Senator Cruz but including others. It does not seem to matter that the immigration status of the assailant was and is wholly immaterial to any of the facts or circumstances of the murder. Nor does it appear to matter that the new provisions are completely unnecessary, redundant and inconsistent with existing law, and counter to the efforts that are being taken elsewhere to overhaul the criminal justice system.

The only justification offered for the mandatory prison sentences are that knowledge of the severity of the sentence to be imposed will deter others. Deterrence has been studied to death over the last decade as state after state has taken up the issue of sentencing reform. With detailed statistics going back almost 50 years, the studies are overwhelming in demonstrating that in the usual case, the actor gives no thought to consequences at all. Changing the mix of what might be considered will not alter this condition. In the few cases where deterrence might hold some influence, studies indicate that it is the certainty, not severity, of punishment that impresses. There are no credible studies supporting the conclusion that adding knowledge of the severity of punishment makes any significant difference.

In the general case, immigration offenses do not warrant mandatory prison sentences. There is no violence involved, the offense does not involve moral turpitude, and the direct impact of the offense does not extend beyond the individual and perhaps the immediate family. Protection of society is not a consideration. An immigration offense is “malum prohibitum,” meaning it is a public offense only because a statute declares it such, not because of any intrinsic evil in the conduct cited. For all these reasons, in the absence of aggravating circumstances, misdemeanor range sentences are adequate and appropriate to recognize the seriousness of the offense and impress the consequences of punishment upon the actor.

Illegal reentry is already a federal crime with punishment provided of a fine and incarceration for up to 20 years for extreme cases. The ordinary case, without aggravating circumstances, calls for sentences of 2 years or less. The precise sentence depends upon statutory conditions pled and sentencing guidelines found after conviction. There were approximately 16,500 prosecutions under this law in 2014, with the average length of sentence imposed being 17 months, including time served.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission estimates that increasing the minimum sentence to a mandatory five years in all cases will add approximately 60,000 inmates to federal prisons over the next 5 years, at a cost to the penal system of approximately $2 billion per year. According to one Congressional source, this will completely erase the savings expected from the overhaul of drug sentencing.

Unless reason and common sense prevails when this measure comes up for a vote, what the left hand may have provided in terms of a bipartisan proposal for reform and costs saved in the area of drug reform, will be taken away by the right hand under the guise of immigration control and in retribution for Kate’s unseemly murder.

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McKee