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History rolls on

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With our attention riveted elsewhere, on the imbroglios of national politics, a remarkable development in the Middle-East is slipping past without raising any of the hullabaloo to which it deserves. An election is going on in Iran, with results that appear to be significant to the future prospects of world peace.

The government of Iran is a complex structure of civic processes tightly intertwined with religious infrastructures. The government exists in an arcane duality dictated not only by a constitution but also by the Quran, with everything subject to limitation and oversight to ensure compliance with the demands of Islam, and with all of it under the exclusive and absolute control an Ayatollah. It is abundantly clear that most of us have no idea how the various parts of Iran’s governing machinery are connected up or relate with one another or with the rest of the world.

Perhaps partly as a consequence of this lack – since by nature, we tend to dislike that which we do not understand – but apparently and mostly out of a desire to make the President look bad and denigrate the importance of the nuclear arms agreement negotiated on his watch, the campaign rhetoric from the pack of Republican candidates treats Iran with suspicion and disdain.

The country is considered an enemy, as though Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the odd-ball hardliner from the past, was still the president, that the reform movement was non-existent or had made no progress, that the Ayatollah of today was of the same ilk as the Ayatollahs of yore, and that no changes had been made in any parts of the country since the hostage days of Presidents Carter and Reagan.

Despite the eyes of the rest of the world watching with aghast fascination, the nuclear arms agreement is dismissed as a huge mistake, the trade embargoes are praised for the misery they have caused, and it is repeated blatantly and often that the United States should have somehow managed to confiscate the Iranian assets embargoed in banks throughout the world. This representation of the Iranian situation by the Republican beseechers could not be more wrong.

In fact, dramatic changes have begun to occur within Iran. The visible change began with the unexpected election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani as president to replace Ahmadinejad in 2013. The nuclear arms agreement was largely possible because of Rouhani’s efforts in heading off opposition from the hardliners by stressing the importance to Iran of lessening the crippling economic sanctions, and in securing the Ayatollah’s agreement not to interfere. While Secretary Kerry pulled off a diplomatic coup in assembling the impossible coalition of allies that included Russia and China at the same table, all would have been for naught without Rouhani being receptive to the idea from the outset.

With this background, on last Friday the Iranians went to the polls to elect members to their 290 seat parliament and the 88 member “assembly of experts,” a council of clerics and religious leaders that plays a role in the selection of the successor to the Ayatollah. These bodies had been overwhelmingly in the hands of the principlists or hardliners. The election of 2016 was the first general election since the announcement of the nuclear arms agreement.

The results of the election are not final yet, but with a dramatic turnout in excess of 60% of the qualified electorate, it appears the results will be continued gains for the reform and moderate candidates in both the parliament and the assembly of experts. The principlist majority in parliament appears to have disappeared, and their hold on the assembly of experts lessened considerably. The election is being seen as a referendum on the nuclear deal as virtually every prominent critic of the nuclear pact was defeated.

The long range impact of this shift in power on foreign policy is still uncertain. The Ayatollah has made it clear to President Rouhani that he does not foresee a relaxation of tensions with the United States. Nevertheless, with the influence of the hardliners beginning to wane, President Rouhani and his moderate allies within Iran are working for more open communications with the West. While it is way too early to count on anything, and no one is suggesting that the United States drop its guard for an instant, the developments are unmistakably a positive sign of at least the potential for better relations between Iran and the United States in the future.

With all this properly in context, is it too much to ask of our candidates for election that they shut the bleep up about Iran? Or if they have to talk, that they explain the situation in Iran as it actually exists, instead of making stuff up as they strive to make Obama look bad? There was a time, in my lifetime, where both parties subscribed to the principle that when trouble was brewing, we had one President at a time and all politics stopped at the water’s edge. If there was an international crisis afoot, then no matter what the individual or even partisan beliefs might be, as to the world, we stood solidly behind the words and actions of the current President.

Would that we could return to that day, instead of having to tolerate the intemperate, hyperbolic and plainly fallacious remarks of Trump, Cruz and Rubio as they shoot off their collective mouths striving to climb over each other on a subject they know nothing about.

What a mess

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The Republicans are determined to present us with a rude, ill-qualified, arrogant buffoon as the best of their best, while the Democrats are splitting themselves into the left, the far left and the farther left, with the most extreme manning the barricades to demand that the party's candidates are not liberal enough.

The country has never in its history faced an electoral challenge with as odd a collection of enigmas as this one.

Trump, who to any rational observer remains a catastrophe in progress, is actually becoming palatable to the hidebound of the right wing pols. The reddest of them are beginning to talk of accommodating his presidency. O’Reilly, for example, is looking fondly on Giuliani to be homeland secretary and Christie as his obvious pick for attorney general.

It could be worse. If Cruz gets his hands on the levers of power, with his 19th century Victorian views of social mores and his iconoclastic attitude towards the role of government, the country could be set back to the middle of the last century. And the mere thought of entrusting the “football” to Rubio appalls. He is no more than an immature school boy in an empty suit running for class president.

Trump needs 1,237 delegates to win on the first ballot. He has accumulated 82 delegates out of the 133 available from the first four states, or 61%. Counting all few caucus states that start their processes on Tuesday but won’t have reports until later, there are 661 more delegates up for allotment, with results immediately available from 11 states by the end of the day. If Trump continues at anywhere close to the same rate, he will have close to 400 delegates by when all the votes are counted, or over 480 total. This will put him substantially ahead of the curve as the campaign moves along, and far ahead of any of his competition. He will only need fewer than 760 or so delegates out of the remaining 1,600 plus delegates to be awarded, or something in the range of 45%. This means that so long as Cruz, Rubio Kasich and Carson continue to split the anti-Trump vote between them, Trump will be in no trouble. Any combination of plurality wins in the same ration as before Super Tuesday will sweep the remainder of the states by an ample percentage, almost certain to be sufficient to deliver a bullet proof majority before the convention.

The only hope now to derail Trump appears to be a sudden and sustained surge by one of the remaining candidates sufficient to deny Trump enough delegates to win on the first ballot. If the convention goes to a second ballot, Trump delegates who are no longer committed by law might bolt and either support one of the others or get behind a last-minute white knight. Hello, Governor Romney – anybody wonder why he has not endorsed anyone yet?

One would think that all of these Republican machinations would serve to solidify the eventual race to the Democrats. But, the Democratic candidates have their own set of problems. Clinton, who for the second time in her career is running a meandering, unfocused Presidential campaign, continues to give the singular impression that her principle theme for running is that she wants to be elected. She does, however, bring a set of skills to the task that are unmatched by anyone else. She is the only one capable of taking over immediately, without risking the country to a learning curve or a trip through la-la land.

But her candidacy, and her administration if elected, will be laden with the baggage she is dragging around that runs back 30 years. Never has a candidate with negative popularity numbers in the range of Hillary’s managed to get elected. Unless, of course, one compares her negative numbers with the unpopularity index of Donald Trump.

Now that Hillary has turned the corner, the polls seem to indicate that the major primary states are all going to deliver for her from here on out. But Sanders shows no sign of slowing down, and continues to draw huge crowds. He has been the enigma of every pundit and curious onlooker with access to internet commentary in the country.

Not one of the cognoscenti gave Bernie a chance to rise out of single digits when he announced last year. He should never have had a chance on the national scene: he’s too old, he’s Jewish, he’s an atheist, and he is a committed socialist. He qualifies his position to being a “democratic” socialist, but nobody to the right of the centerline pays attention to that distinction.

In another time, it might also have been crippling to any national campaign that he was a pot-smoking, draft-dodging, hippie father of an illegitimate child in his youth. But he never made any attempt to keep any of this secret, and when the press tried slinging some of it around last summer, none of it stuck. If he gets the nomination, all of this will come pouring out of the woodwork again, but as of today, it does not appear to make a whit of difference to the huge crowds following him around. It is impossible to count him out until the last votes are in.

A pragmatic problem to the movers and shakers within the party is that Bernie has no ties to the Democratic party organization other than his decisions to caucus with them in the Senate and to run on their ticket for national office. This leaves nothing to attach coattails to, meaning it is uncertain how his candidacy might impact the down-ticket races for governorships, congressional seats and state legislatures. These races are of critical importance to the Democratic party organization as the country approaches the 2020 census and the mandatory round of legislative and Congressional redistricting that will follow. While the Democrats can justly console themselves by maintaining that either of their candidates would be better than any from the clown bus, many of the older pols are apprehensive of a Sanders’ administration as it may affect the integration of the Democratic party down-ticket. This would tend to indicate that the super delegates, who are made up almost exclusively of party insiders, will opt overwhelmingly for Hillary come vote time.

But then, what do I know? These opinions and a buck won’t even get a cup of coffee anymore. Approximately one year ago this week, my predictions were for a Republican circus of modest interest until the party reluctantly coalesced around Jeb Bush – maybe as early as Halloween, followed by a stately and probably boring Democratic procession to Hillary’s coronation. Hoo, boy! Did I ever get it wrong.

Rewrites

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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

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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?

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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?

Governor and the working poor

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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

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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.

A matter of war

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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

How do we sleep at night?

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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?