Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in “McKee”

Rewrites

mckeelogo1

One age-old rule of politics, when looking for issues to run on, is never rip the scab off of a loser from an earlier time. Donald Trump, of course, is rewriting all the rules, including this one.

The Donald has dragged up waterboarding, saying that not only will he bring it back into use, but that he will double down and authorize much worse. He doesn’t say what “worse” is, but promises it will be terrible. No one will be able to withstand it, but that is OK because “they deserve it anyway.” In a few key venues, the media’s hair is on fire and the cognoscenti are piling on. But their uproar does not seem to be collecting any steam.

There should be no room for political grandstanding here, and the outrage growing at Trump’s remarks ought to be overwhelming. Torture is morally, legally and rationally wrong. The morality and legality issues have been thoroughly litigated elsewhere. The only conceivable avenue for discussion here is on rationalization – if necessary to save lives, can torture, even though wrong, be justified? Can the illegality and immorality of this tool be rationalized away if it will make the world safer?

In a word, the answer is “no” – not “no” as an alternative response to a legitimate option, not “no” as one answer to an acceptable political question, but “no” because the underlying premise of the entire issue is demonstrably false.

Torture is not designed to get at the truth. Torture is designed to get an answer the interrogator wants. As has been repeatedly established in history, there is no assurance, and no way to gain assurance, that what is revealed under torture will be the truth. Today, every country that recognizes due process of law refuses to accept confessions extracted under torture. The problem compounds in military intelligence, where false information can be more dangerous that no information at all. Given the high degree of probability that information produced by these methods will not be true or reliable, and given the absence of any accurate basis upon which to determine what is and what is not reliable, torture is useless as an intelligence tool.

This conclusion was reinforced in December of 2014, when a Senate select committee on intelligence issued a declassified summary of a 6,700 page report on the CIA interrogation program in Iraq. According to the report, none of the information produced by any of the harsh interrogation methods, including waterboarding, used by the CIA throughout the period of the Iraq war was of any use. None of it.

Finally, waterboarding is torture. There is no basis to keep this question open to debate. It can cause extreme pain, dry drowning, damage to lungs, brain damage from oxygen deprivation, physical injuries including broken bones due to struggling against restraints, lasting psychological damages, and death. The immediate effect of waterboarding is a gag reflex that shuts off breathing and creates a sensation of drowning. The gagging can trigger vomiting, which may then be inhaled. Death from aspirated vomit is a significant risk.

Following World War II, Japanese officers were prosecuted for waterboarding prisoners of war. Some were hanged. When it was first revealed that the United States was waterboarding al Qaeda suspects during the Iraq war era, the country was appalled. President Bush initially tried to contend that waterboarding was not torture, but faced with overwhelming revulsion from all corners, he was forced to concede. He finally signed an executive order banning its use in 2006. Waterboarding was declared torture under international law by a United Nations Convention against Torture, which was then confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights in 2008. The international ban is absolute and without exceptions. President Obama has consistently declared waterboarding to be torture, and continued the executive order banning it in 2009.

Trump’s promises are pointing the United States directly into the international criminal courts at The Hague. The entire world may well be aghast at this hyperbolic, unfocused wall of doubletalk as Trump continues to try to dismantle the aura of international good will Obama has spent the last seven years rebuilding. Nobody knows what to do with any of this stuff, and nobody knows what’s coming next.

This brings to mind the ancient Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times.

Tangling web

mckeelogo1

In a stump speech full of hyperbole, mistakes and pants-on-fire lies, Donald Trump routinely blasts Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) as a complete disaster, a trainwreck, and a total failure. He lists no specifics but only generalities, claiming he will replace every bit of Obamacare with something “terrific.” But he won’t say what his replacement plan is, other than it will provide broader coverage to more people at less cost than the present law.

In his rant against the present act ignores all of the evidence that it is working as planned – bringing affordable insurance to millions, allowing people to change jobs without losing their insurance to pre-existing condition exclusions, relieving the unfortunate who have encountered catastrophic health situations from worry over caps and limits of coverage, and providing assurance to most of us who obtain coverage through their workplaces by eliminating the risk of sudden cancellations, and guaranteeing consistency, certainty, reliability and permanency.

In countless ways, the ACA has made the health insurance coverage that is presently available from private carriers financially safer, more certain, less arbitrary, and more reliable, with better claims procedures, more resources allocated to claims, and better and more consistent processes for the adjudication of disputes than ever before.

Trump also ignores that fact that the ACA is fundamentally a Republican program – hatched from research by the Heritage Foundation created for Nixon in the 1970’s, and formed after the Massachusetts plan sponsored by Mitt Romney during his term as governor there. It has worked successfully in Massachusetts ever since – a point that Romney completely tried to ignore during the 2012 campaigns, and the Republicans continue to ignore to this day.

The only specific aspect of the ACA that Trump points to as indicative of its failure is the rising costs of current coverage, in terms of higher premiums, higher deductibles and higher co-pay. However, Trump fails to recognize that costs and premiums have gone up less under the ACA than they were predicted to increase without the ACA. More important, Trump ignores the fact that the federal law has nothing to do with the premiums, deductibles or co-pays under any of the private insurance plans being offered.

Even here, Trump badly exaggerates the situation, claiming insurance premiums have skyrocketed by almost 50%. While there are a few pockets with significant increases, the overall average increase in premiums has been under 7.5% per annum - which is high, given our low inflation rate, but nowhere near the disaster Trump predicts, and less than economists predicted for insurance premiums before the ACA was enacted

Trumps’ tactics are proving to be an interesting campaign device, because all this is irrelevant if Trump should deliver on his plan – to replace Obamacare with something better. He won’t talk specifics, but the only plan out there that has ever been presented that will provide broader coverage to more people at less cost is single payer, government administered, tax financed, universal health insurance in the manner of Medicare for all – which Donald Trump advocated at one time, which is a keystone of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, and which is exactly what is presently offered by every other country in the industrialized world.

Bring it on!

Or just a thank-you?

mckeelogo1

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?

Governor and the working poor

mckeelogo1

The Governor’s proposed plan to avoid recognizing the Affordable Care Act remedy for Idaho’s working poor, as revealed in last Saturday’s Statesman, is just plain dumb.

He cannot seriously expect anybody to believe in it. Further, as stories of needless deaths and suffering from lack of affordable health care continue to mount, the Governor’s continued obstinacy to expanding Medicaid is just plain cruel.

The problem is how to provide adequate health coverage for a defined class of Idaho’s working poor, meaning those who do not receive health care through their employment, do not earn enough to qualify for subsidized private insurance from the state exchange, cannot depend upon a parent or spouse for health care coverage, and who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid under existing eligibility requirements. In Idaho there are approximately 78,000 individuals who fall into this category and have therefore remained uninsured. Two solutions are on the horizon.

Option A is to expand Medicaid to cover this defined class. This obvious solution is the intended implementation of the ACA. Federal funds to cover ten years of expanded Medicaid benefits are already built into the Act, so the cost to the state to accomplish and maintain the expansion is exactly zero. The estimated return in federal health benefits paid on behalf of the working poor recipients would be approximately $70 million per year. All that is required to fully implement the Act is state approval.

Option B is to continue the status quo with the addition of the Governor’s proposed care plan. This plan would cover some doctor’s visits for preventive care only, but would not provide coverage for labs, diagnostics, hospital care, prescription coverage, or follow up. Emergency care would still be under county indigency programs. Non-emergency hospitalization and surgery is not covered; there is no coverage for acute outpatient, non-emergency diagnostics, nor any follow-up care.

This means for example, that most cancer, cardiac and diabetic care would not be covered except for emergency flare-ups. To get any kind of follow up care, the circumstances have to qualify as a catastrophic disease or condition. The young woman who died in Idaho Falls from untreated asthma would still be uninsured under the Governor’s status quo plan. Everyone, even the Republicans who were recently quoted, acknowledged that the addition of the new plan to the existing hodge-podge of the status quo would be inadequate.

The cost of this new plan would be at least $30 million per year. In addition, the cost to the counties for indigent emergency care is over $30 million per year, and the cost to the state for catastrophic health care is over $35 million per year. Since the Medicaid expansion would essentially replace all of these status quo resources, these costs to the state and counties, approaching $100 million every year, could be almost completely eliminated.

On the pure numbers, Idaho has already lost in excess of $250 million over the initial two years of the ACA in state and county costs that could have been avoided and federal benefits that would have been paid if Medicaid had been expanded when the ACA was first implemented. Unnecessary deaths sustained by reason of inadequate health care in Idaho – which now are centered upon the 78,000 uninsured – have been estimated at 124 deaths per year.

It is pure sophistry to argue that there is some advantage to turning away close to $70 million per year in federally funded health care benefits for the poorest among us, plus wasting a combined $100 million per year of our own taxpayer money that could be saved, just to maintain a half-baked patchwork of admittedly inadequate state based programs. When the unnecessary death toll is measured against amounts of money we are flushing down the toilet every year, the right wing’s political objections to expanding Medicaid become the height of Luddite ignorance.

Even if the Republicans pull all their rabbits out of all their hats nationally in the elections of 2016, no thinking politician expects the ACA to be repealed outright; too much of it has become too ingrained in too many lives to imagine a U-turn now. With expanded Medicaid under the ACA now in place in 30 of our 50 states, there is no political chance that it could be abandoned in 2017. As even the tightest fisted Republican must acknowledge, adequate coverage for the very poorest among us is a legitimate government function that will be retained.

Given all of this, and whether one is a flaming liberal Democrat, a rock ribbed Libertarian or a teapot Conservative, money is money is money. Approving the Medicaid expansion will solve the problem with Idaho’s working poor, eliminate the wretched consequences of inadequate health coverage, and bring about a potential return to the state, in terms of immediate cost avoidance, potential cost reductions and fund savings at the state and county level, together with inflow of federal dollars for benefits paid to the working poor, of close to $165 million per year.

What can the Guv possibly be thinking?

Obama’s foreign policy

mckeelogo1

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.

A matter of war

mckeelogo1

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

How do we sleep at night?

mckeelogo1

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?

Promises broken

mckeelogo1

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?

Playing fair in the sandbox

mckeelogo1

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.

Middle Eastern waffle irons

mckeelogo1

We have steadily found our way onto the wrong side of almost every issue of importance in the Middle East. Some are the result of our inability to work our way out of the mess that George Bush placed us in. Some are the result of rough spots Obama has encountered in the transition to his objectives. A few are the result of wrong choices, and our refusal to acknowledge such, back up if necessary, and change direction. Syria is an unfortunate example.

Obama inherited a difficult situation in Syria. Diplomatic relations were broken off in 1967, and were never restored. Informal relations deteriorated seriously under George Bush, and since the end of the Iraq war had remained rocky because of Syria’s poor human rights issues. This was the situation when Obama stepped into office. When civil war broke out in 2011, the United States attempted to remain aloof, but for some reason felt it had to express its dissatisfaction with the president of Syria, Bashar al Assad, by declaring that he had to go. This has proved to be a mistake. Since the United States had no major backers in the declaration against Assad, and no intention of taking unilateral action to enforce its wish, Assad has been able to simply ignore the threat without consequence.

This left us with no place at the table in the negotiations for the destruction of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons. Obama waffled when news of Syria’s WMD first exploded on the world scene. He indicated that the United States would intervene with force, and at least hinted about troops being committed. But then he backed off, and said – in the peculiar double negative of government speak -- that military intervention was “not unavoidable.”

This allowed Russia to seize the initiative and broker an impressive concession before the United Nations. The United States was moved further out of the picture. Then, in mid-2015, Russia announced that it was joining with Iran to bring immediate military assistance to Syria in the form of weaponry, aircraft support, and technical assistance, in order to allow Syria to effectively fight and defeat I.S.I.S.

Vladimir Putin very carefully threads the needle in expressing his support for Syria. He explains that Russia supports the “legitimate government” of Syria and supports Bashar al Assad as the head of that government. Putin says he would urge Assad to “work with healthy opposition on political reforms,” and that Russia is “ready to work” towards a “path of political transition.” (Al Jazeera, June 2015)

Deconstructing this double talk, it seems Putin would not object if Assad was to step down, as long this was the will of the Syrian people and not pressure from without. Furthermore, one might think that Putin believes Russia is well placed to help in this endeavor, should the opportunity arise.

We, on the other hand, have increasingly found ourselves on the wrong side of critical events. We declined to support Syria because of the inhumane acts of al Assad. We declined to support the revolutionary overthrow, because we could not determine if the rebel groups were radical jihadists. Now, with the sudden appearance of the Islamic States and its horrific intentions, we felt compelled to face the lesser of two evils and began to funnel some support to others of the Syrian insurgents, such as al Nusra and related entities. We have justified this by maintaining that our support is primarily for their efforts to oppose I.S.I.S.

The results so far have been far less than satisfactory. An example of what we achieve by insisting on running everything ourselves, is a program the Pentagon just shut down. It was intended to recruit and train up to 15,000 Syrian rebels to fight exclusively against I.S.I.S. After one year in operation, and close to $500 million spent on the effort, the program had recruited and trained only five individuals. Five. Defense Secretary Carter announced that the program was being closed down, and acknowledged that it was a total failure.

Not to waste any low hanging fruit, Vladimir Putin promptly announced that the $500 million should have been given to him to use in Russia’s efforts to fight I.S.I.S; he would not have wasted the money, he said, as his programs were far more successful. Then, perhaps to rub it in, he then suggested that Central Command begin to share its intelligence with the Russian units. So far, this has been met with a flat rejection, and stony silence to any entreaties to future discussion of areas of potential cooperation.

Under these circumstances, and as abhorrent as the thought may appear to be at first blush, there is good reason for us to admit our error and reverse course in Syria. Attempting to bring about both the fall of Assad and the defeat of I.S.I.S. through nothing more than tactical support of the ill organized forces of al Nusra, without committing U.S. troops on the ground in the effort, is destined to failure. This is the obvious if difficult, hard lesson of Iraq and Libya. Just deposing Assad by revolution, if such were possible, without defeating I.S.I.S. would assuredly concede the entire region to the new caliphate. And committing U.S. ground forces to any part of the effort must continue to be totally unacceptable. As distasteful as it may appear, the successful course on this aspect of the Middle East is increasingly obvious.

We should hold our nose, cross our fingers, and accept Putin’s invitation to join forces with Russia.