Questioning Motives

I don’t know about you but I am not one to fathom human motives. I’m not sure what my own are much of the time! But a recent article in Yahoo Finance News ventures into this dark realm when the author professes to know why Barack Obama failed to defend Social Security against the assaults from the Republicans who want to cripple the program — despite the fact that it is one of the most beneficial, cost-effective, and successful programs this nation has ever known.

The author, Dean Baker, Co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, tells us why he thinks Obama backed Mitt Romney in the first debate when the latter said the program must be reduced to save money.

There is a simple explanation for Obama’s refusal to defend Social Security. In elite Washington circles the willingness to cut Social Security is taken as evidence of courage. These people do not depend on Social Security. In fact, as Governor Romney demonstrated at his famous fundraiser speech, they actually have contempt for the people who do depend on programs like Social Security.

If Obama were to take a strong stand defending Social Security he could expect to be attacked harshly by these elites. In news stories and editorial columns, outlets like the Washington Post and National Public Radio would denounce President Obama in harsh terms. Needless to say, his wealthy funders might also have second thoughts.

If it is the case that our President is in awe of the Washington “elites” and motivated by the wish to be accepted by that type of person this is rather disturbing. If this really is the simplest explanation then Baker’s surmise increases in plausibility. But Baker’s guess cannot be said to be an assured thing; it is pure speculation. At the same time, I must confess that despite the fact that I am an Obama supporter and was delighted when he won the last election and plan to vote for him again — given the realities of the situation — I have always thought (and said in print) that he is far too conciliatory, too eager to please.

In any event, Romney is proposing cutting Social Security for retirees — who would be at least five years older under his plan — on the supposition that they have other retirement plans and don’t need the help. Baker contends that even if they had other retirement plans such plans are of questionable reliability and Obama could score big political points by recommending that Social Security benefits be increased, especially for lower-income persons who need help when they retire. But he has apparently been reluctant to do this. As Baker goes on to say in his article:

Given this reality, it would be sound policy for President Obama to insist, in contrast to Governor Romney, that Social Security cuts are off the table until we have fixed the larger retirement savings system. If anything, it would be reasonable to suggest increasing Social Security benefits, especially for low and moderate income workers.

Baker suspects Obama’s motives, and perhaps worries that Obama lacks the courage of his convictions.  Obama has made tough decisions, however — for example when he determined that the Navy SEALs should take Osama bin Laden out in spite of advisers who (we read) urged a different course of action that they thought would be less likely to fail. I dare say it was also his decision, and a good one, not to bring Pakistan into the loop and let them know what was about to happen. I suppose Baker would surmise that the Washington “elites” approved of those decisions. But the Social Security program is one that has benefited millions of people for many years and one which most of us consider a right that we have earned by dint of hard work and long hours on the job. It is not something that anyone, Democrat or Republican, should be tinkering with, much less threatening to take away from our children and their children — regardless of what the “elites” might or might not think.

Let’s hope that Dean Baker read the tea leaves incorrectly and that his venture into the realm of human motivations took a wrong turn. But we are left with the question why this President has not come out in support of Social Security? That in itself is bothersome.

Orwell Revisited

An excellent article in Yahoo News by Walter Shapiro raises a number of important questions about why there was virtually no discussion about the ongoing drone attacks in the recent Presidential debates. In a word, it is because “they” don’t want us to know what is going on “over there,” and both Presidential candidates support the attacks in the name of protecting America. So it’s not an issue that separates the candidates. But Shapiro asks a couple of troubling questions:

The Washington Post reported this week that the Obama administration is developing a “disposition matrix” for its next-generation terrorist assassination program. (The adjective Orwellian is over-used, but it is undeniably apt for a kill list being euphemistically reworked as a “disposition matrix”).

During the Vietnam War, George Aiken, a Republican senator from Vermont, suggested that America should declare victory and come home. Eleven years after the Sept. 11 attacks and 18 months after the death of Osama bin Laden, it is time to debate how long America is justified in using drone attacks against the remnants of al-Qaida and other groups of loosely affiliated terrorists.

Is this war without end, amen? Does the bureaucratic momentum of the drone program mean that it will continue for decades? Is there another kind of disposition matrix that will tell us when the costs of the drone program (from terrorist recruiting to collateral damage) outweigh its benefits?

It is a very weak moral system that weighs costs against benefits. But it is done in business routinely — which simply tells us how the business model has permeated this culture. Such a calculation results in strange ethical conclusions, such as the continued production of the Pinto automobile after it has gone up in flames killing or maiming a number of drivers in rear-end collisions. And it “justifies” drone killing in the name of the “national interest.” Weighing alternatives may be realpolitik but it is bad morality: it ignores the victims — like the 16 year-old American son of a terrorist suspect who was in the country looking for his father and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time thereby becoming part of the “residual effect” of a drone killing in Pakistan not long ago.

It has been said, and rightly so, that the President has to make tough decisions and we are not privy to the information available to him through his various secret agencies. All too true. But we like to think that America takes the moral high ground whenever possible and every citizen with a brain and a conscience should join in asking with Walter Shapiro “when will this end?” Let’s face it, it’s terrorism in the name of defending ourselves against terrorism. It is wrong and it is not clear that it is even in the national interest when there are other ways to deal effectively with terrorism. Further, it strikes fear in the hearts of our allies as well as our enemies, and it promotes the image of America as the Big Bully on the block who is out to knock over anyone in his way.

What Did “W” Know?

As a closet conspiracy theorist myself, I can see how the following story would confirm the paranoia that leads to such “hair-brained” theories as the one that insists that George W. Bush knew the attacks on the World Trade Center were about to take place and simply chose to be elsewhere when it happened.

Now, 11 years later, new details of the attack on the World Trade Center continue to emerge from the government’s vault of classified documents and the journalists who’ve gained access. This year, the reporter with the jaw-dropping scoop is Kurt Eichenwald, a former Timesman and present contributing editor at Vanity Fair.  After reading more than one tweet with the simple instructions “Read this,” we clicked on the link to Eichenwald’s powerful op-ed, due to be published in The New York Times on September 11. In it, Eichenwald goes into teeth-grinding detail about how the Bush administration had even more advance notice about Osama Bin Laden’s attack than we previously realized.

In fact it seemed at the time that the CIA almost certainly had a pretty good idea that something big was “coming down.” And the terrible events that occurred on September 11th might have been prevented if those in charge had been willing to err on the side of caution. But that is not the way we do things in this country — witness the widespread unwillingness to take steps to thwart global warming. We embrace “crisis management” — we wait until something dreadful happens and then we try to figure out what went wrong.

Pert of this, at least, is our cultural hubris, our conviction that America can do no wrong. Another part is our blind addiction to technology and its presumed ability to solve all problems. Another part of it is the business mentality that refuses to consider the long run: it’s all about the short run self-interest (read: profits). And part of it is a sort of brash foolishness that borders on stupidity — like the person who continues to drive and text at the same time thinking that nothing can happen to him. But whatever we call it we should learn a lesson from all this: don’t wait until after the event happens before taking steps to avoid disaster. And don’t dismiss the warnings of reliable people when the consequences might be calamitous.

At the very least, “W” and his administration were wrong not to listen to informed people who gave warnings ahead of the event. At worst he knew pretty well what was going to happen and allowed it to happen in order to lead this country into war with Iraq — something that both he and the neoconservative advisers wanted (as the story above mentions). But that smacks of conspiracy theory and we know that stems from paranoia. I have been told, however, that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!

Foreign Policy

The latest out of Afghanistan is somewhat unsettling. The story begins: KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan and the United States have reached an agreement to curb night raids on Afghan homes, giving Kabul veto power over the operations despised by most local people and control over treatment of any detainees, Afghan officials said on Sunday.

Let’s think about this. In light of the recent killing of 17 civilians, including children, by an American soldier on his seventh tour of duty in two different war zones, not to mention the burning of the Quran at a NATO base resulting in waves of daily protests that brought about the death of seven people and the injuring of 65 others, we now condescend to turn tactical decisions over to the people who actually live in that country. What do we call this? Largess? Generosity? To state the obvious: this is their country. We don’t belong there. Our only possible reason for going there in the first place was to capture or (as it turned out) kill Osama Bin Laden — who, as I recall, was killed in Pakistan where he was apparently being protected by our “allies.” Once that was accomplished, we should have turned things over to the Afghan people and gotten the hell out.

Our foreign policy needs some serious review. As a country we have a disturbing tendency toward paternalism and a misguided sense of our own superiority that must be galling to people elsewhere in the world. As was clearly the case in Iraq, our presence in Afghanistan is unwelcome. I would imagine the people of that country feel as many Americans did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the British armed forces could be seen everywhere in our colonies and military rule was the order of the day. We are an occupying force in a country that wants us out of there — and has for a number of years. Recent developments have simply made things worse and the flames of discontent burn higher and hotter today than they did yesterday. The claim that we must remain there to contain the Taliban is absurd. We have been unable to deal with them militarily –something like trying to nail Jello to the wall. So dialogue seemed to be the wise option. However, any chance of opening talks with those people went up in flames with the Quran.

The very least we can do is to allow the local government to “call the shots” as we prepare to evacuate the country sooner rather than later and allow the people to deal with their centuries-old problems themselves. They may not live the way we would want them to live, but they may not want to live the way we want them to, either.  To repeat, it’s their country and in their eyes we are the ugly Americans.

Lessons Learned?

The latest word from Afghanistan is disturbing.

KABUL (Reuters) – The U.S. military said in a secret report that the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, are set to retake control of Afghanistan after NATO-led forces withdraw, raising the prospect of a major failure of Western policy after a costly war.

This, of course, should not surprise us, though it will surprise some for all the wrong reasons. George McGovern wrote an open letter to President Obama upon his assuming the Presidency of this country warning him not to get further involved in that part of the world. History has shown that such a step is ill-advised. McGovern pointed out that the Russians and the English, in recent history, learned tough lessons and went home with their tails between their legs. He even went so far as to suggest that Britain’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan brought about the final days of the British Empire. The NATO forces now engaged in that war are finding out how frustrating it can be — not only because of the elusive Taliban who are the known target, but also because of native security forces who have turned on them in significant numbers, according to recent reports.

Now whether or not we want to agree with McGovern — who has a PhD in history from Northwestern and has also had considerable “real-world” experience — we should have learned enough by this time to realize that (as Santayana said long ago) those who ignore history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. So here we are.

We are told that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” in that the human embryo seems to repeat the stages of evolution the human race has gone through, complete with a vestigial tail and gills. It has occurred to me that humans after they are born exhibit the same sort of “recapitulation.” The children refuse to learn from their elders just as their elders, for centuries past, have refused to learn from the collective wisdom of the human race. We prefer to make our own mistakes, even if those mistakes are costly in both lives and money. Einstein defined “stupid” as the determination to repeat an act that is known not to work.  We claim to be the most evolved species on earth. I think not!

As one who has become convinced that we can not only learn from history but also from great literature, I watch with amazement as seemingly intelligent people like our President listen to the wrong kind of advice and make the wrong choices. We were mistaken to get involved in Afghanistan in the first place, though chasing down Osama Bin Laden was a viable excuse in the minds of many. But we know Pakistan is not a worthy ally and we also know that the tribes in Afghanistan have been at one another’s throats for centuries. And we also know, or should know, that McGovern’s analysis was based on weighty historical evidence.  But all that is cast aside in the frenzy to impose our will on another culture and eliminate a man whose cause would certainly not die with him.

In the end, we have made our own bed and we must now lie in it. But we should have known enough not to make the bed in the first place. The refusal to learn from others’ mistakes may turn out to be our fatal flaw.