Saturday, June 26, 2010

Finally, a butt-kicking leader

By Don Klein

Gen. Stanley McChrystal is out, fired by the president. Finally Obama acted with alacrity, and was never more presidential. That’s the way most Americans want their presidents to behave. There was no extended deliberative period. No drawn-out consideration of the facts.

McChrystal showed a terrible lack of judgment in allowing his aides to demean and mock one of the most crucial American credos – civilian control of the military – and paid the awful price. And they ridiculed not in the confines of the locker room but in the presence of a magazine reporter. What kind of judgment is that?

The stupidity of the situation brought into question the experienced general’s judgment and he had to go. That was the easy choice for Obama. Military men learn in early training that the civilians are in charge. That’s why in the centuries since 1776 there never was a junta taking over Washington.

What is admirable about this unfortunate situation is that Obama acted like a leader. He didn’t hesitate. He took charge immediately and made the change. And what is more outstanding was the brilliance of his choice of a successor in a circumstance that otherwise set Obama up for another round of political sniping from the Right.

The president chose Gen. David Petraeus, the most celebrated military man in current times to head up the Afghanistan conflict. By doing that he accomplished two important goals. 1. He put a man in charge who was a totally familiar with the war and is as well versed in the Middle East as anyone in government, and 2. he silenced the ready-to-pounce Republican jabberwockies who love all CEOs, whether corporate or military, and hate Democratic presidential authority.

This is what Obama supporters have been seeking from the president for almost a year and a half now. Action. Presidential action. Not just another extensive cerebral approach to a national crisis. More about Afghanistan later.

One has to think that the president has suddenly discovered the clout of the White House. Without any legal authority to do so, Obama twisted the arms of BP brass recently and got them to put $20 billion into an escrow account to pay for the losses to Gulf citizens as a result of the oil spill.

This was so effective that the Republicans in Congress were so flabbergasted that all they could do was cry foul. A Texas Republican apologized to the BP boss who was testifying before the House energy committee claiming the company was victim of a “shakedown.” He never mentioned any concern for the real victims of the oil spill along the coast, Americans who previously were labeled by the BP chairman as “small people.”

And, finally, it appears that Obama has won an uncharacteristically classic battle in Congress to establish a long list of regulations to bring the financial community under control. After it is enacted the question will be how enthusiastically will it be enforced? Given the history of federal bureaucracy my guess it not very vigorously.

Nevertheless, Obama deserves much credit. Things are beginning to look better for him and he seems to beginning to feel his oats by finally using the power that comes with the Oval Office. But none of these accomplishments will do much good for the Democrats this fall unless there is a sharp upturn in the economy and jobs.

Personally I’d like to see action designed to discourage out-sourcing. Whatever benefits are accrued to American businesses that go foreign there should by an equal monetary penalty to wipe out corporate profits at the expense of US workers’ jobs. I don’t think we will see anything in this department this year despite Obama’s campaign promises on this subject.

Back to Afghanistan. One of the factors that became very evident in the exchange of command from McChrystal to Petraeus was the president’s recommitment to the Afghan War. I think we need a further refinement of our role in that part of the world. What we are doing now is not succeeding and what we plan to do later is even more precarious.

Just how far are we willing to go in that God-forsaken patch of bleak terrain? It might be cruel to say this but I don’t care a hoot whether Afghan girls get an elementary education when our commitment to that nation constrains the rights of American girls to benefit from their birthright.

I am tired of reading the casualty lists as too many American youths sacrifice their lives for an ungrateful nation which embraces our enemy and refuses to fight for themselves. I don’t like spending billions on a country whose president is dealing with our enemy behind our backs. The same goes for Pakistan.

I don’t know why we are fighting the Taliban in the first place. That is an Afghan problem, not ours. We should get back to battling al Qaeda, our real enemy. Worst of all, Obama’s apparent commitment to the current policy in that part of the world reminds me a lot of the George W. Bush fiasco.

I wish Obama would reverse direction. We have more problems of our own than in most of my lifetime and let’s work on those solutions not the on Afghanistan’s. I like Vice President Biden’s views on the war. Go after al Qaeda with all the power we have and if Pakistan and Afghanistan fail to support us fully, withdraw our support of their governments. We should stop being their patsy, their unrequited sugar daddy.

Now that Obama finally found his muscle and started kicking butt these last few weeks, he still has plenty of other butts to kick. You found the formula, Mr. President, now get to work down the line.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Poetry yes, prose no

By Don Klein

It is beginning to have the feel of 1979 when Iranian students stormed the US embassy in Tehran. The incident was so badly handled by then President Jimmy Carter that he was swept out of office more than a year later.

Is Barack Obama unconsciously replicating those days of Carter ennui? Is he reminding us of how incapable he is in finding a solution, or at least a plan of action, to a situation grass roots Americans refuse to live with? Is he toying with the possibility of becoming known as a leader paralyzed and overwhelmed by events?

Will the offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico be his hostage crisis? Will Obama’s "Waterloo" not be the failure of his political programs as predicted by some Republican senators, but rather an unexpected and uncontrollable oil spill? These are legitimate questions that will be answered relatively soon.

In case you forgotten 52 American embassy workers were held hostage for 444 days by Iranian extremists after they stormed the US compound in Tehran in 1979. The reason for their behavior is unimportant since their action was clearly a violation of the most sacred doctrine of international law – an embassy in a foreign land is the property of the nation it represents and is protected from intrusion by the local government.

The Iran government spit on this reverent international agreement and Carter fumbled like a schoolboy trying to explain to a strict teacher why he played hooky for most of time until everyone was freed after he left office more than a year later. He even aborted a desert helicopter rescue after a accident which left eight American servicemen dead and shied away from any other action.

Today with the oil spill still dominating the headlines and with the public impatient for presidential action which does not seem to be coming, insiders have to be worrying about Obama’s leadership image. Here we have 11 American dead when the oil rig went up and we are well into nine weeks of failure in stemming the flow of oil into the gulf.

And like Carter more than three decades ago, Obama doesn’t seem to have a clue as to what to do next to relieve the pain of those injured by the spill. There are those defenders of the president who ask, "what else can he do?" as if he has done anything significant so far.

There are lots for him to consider if he was bold and proactive. He could ask all the major oil suppliers who make billions selling gasoline to Americans to assemble emptied tankers at the sight and a start sucking up the accumulated spill. His apologists say this is expensive and will not work. But it did work in previous spills elsewhere and the expense will not be greater than the damage caused by the oil reaching into shorelines.

Besides the expense will be BP’s not the taxpayer’s.

I am sure there are other strategies that could be used. Anything is better than nothing, which is pretty much what is being done now. But Obama is proving the old Mario Cuomo adage that campaigns are poetry while governing is prose.

Some years ago Cuomo, the former governor of New York and a brilliant wordsmith in his own right, said in a speech, "In fact, if our candidates campaign in poetry instead of good hard specifics, and win, they may wind up governing… in vain." Could he have been predicting the fate of Obama?

Most people who listened to the president speaking from the Oval Office Tuesday were not very impressed. He spoke like an oncologist describing how he plans to remove a cancerous growth from a patient’s nose. I heard more passion from an auto mechanic explaining how he will adjust my car’s faulty alternator.

Obama came into prominence as the twenty-first century’s version of Franklin D. Roosevelt or a reincarnation of Jack Kennedy. He had the style, the language and the swath of greatness, but the challenges of the time seem to be too much for him. At least so far. Maybe he will surprise us soon and give us all the confidence that was generated by the great presidents of the past.

When FDR was at his height I was a teenager. I was 15 years old when he died and I cried when I watched the newsreels (there was no consumer television then). They say it was a different time then, and maybe it was, but a great leader brings out the emotions in people.

What made Roosevelt the beloved man he was? His eloquence did not match Obama, but he had something today’s president seems to lack. He was inspirational with his upbeat attitude and expressed confidence in the future. So was Kennedy, even though he achieved less.

But Obama is an enigma. No matter how much I root for him to succeed and to inspire a downcast nation he appears to have lost the knack. His words promised us a great deal during the presidential campaigns and to many he appeared to be that proverbial knight on the white charger.

The problem is that his style has not matched his pre-election words. He is riding a pony not a stallion. The weight of the high office he holds seems to have worn him down. The energy is sapped. Hopefully he is not turning into a latter day Carter.

The question remains, however, has he made Cuomo’s bywords his axiom?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Ecology versus investments

By Don Klein

Some Brits are annoyed with the American reaction to the despoiling of our coastal lands by BP. They don’t like the oil giant being branded by most Americans as the self-centered, lying entity that it is. Some of them say we are xenophobic and petulant.

The Brits are worried about their freaking investments – about their dividends and the viability of their pension funds. That is more important to them than the destruction of a large portion of the US ecological system. All they see is evaporating profits.

Their loss of dividends affects them more than the loss of income of thousands of innocent American workers in the area. It is a higher priority than the decimation of American wildlife and the potential for the oil spill to travel up the East coast spreading its devastation to half the population of the country.

Many Britons are upset, according to a report in The New York Times, at what they see not just as the economic costs of American anger, but also at language they say demonizes Britain, America’s partner in the so-called special relationship — "loose talk that taps into the British suspicion that Americans are insular and overly nationalistic."

A Conservative peer, Lord Tebbit, in an astonishing statement of ridiculous snobbery quoted by The Times called the American reaction "a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan, political, presidential petulance against a multinational company."

That is similar to accusing a rape victim who has just identified her attacker as a person driven by "peevish revenge."

To begin with, let us get a few things straight. No one in the United States to my knowledge, has blamed the Brits for the spill. BP, once known as British Petroleum, is the culprit not the British people. If the outlandish defenders of BP were interested in continuing good relations with the US wouldn’t it be in their best interests to stay out of the fray. The oil spill that is corrupting our natural resources has nothing to do with the British people, and no one on this side of the Atlantic thinks it does.

If this ruinous oil spill had happened off shore in Britain and was despoiling its natural resources, putting its citizens out of work and threatening to spread over a wide range of the British Isles, would these same defenders of BP be calling outraged locals xenophobic and petulant?

It is understandable that British pensioners who depend on BP dividends to sustain their level of comfortable retirement are concerned, but any loss of income on this score is not because of anything Americans have done. It was all brought on by BP’s negligence and people in this country are irate, as should be the Brits.

Lord Tebbit and others can scold us all they want, but the more they talk this way the worse they sound. Tebbit and his greedy friends are concerned with dividends for their long range financial security but don’t give a seagull’s muck for the thousands of Americans who are victims of this debacle.

If they want a target to lambast, look to BP. Their bloody executives agreed to cut corners on safety and to increase the flow of oil all for a single purpose – to make more profits.

That may have been okay for shareholders and pensioners as long as it paid-off, but it did not in this case and they may now turn into the unintended fiscal victims of the problem having to face uncertainty– as will many Americans who have lost their livelihoods. No Brits died on the failed rig, 11 Americans did.

My advice to the Brits who find fault with the vigorous American response to being ravaged by an oil company based in England: Get used to the harsh language, it ain’t going away.

The new British Prime minister, David Cameron, took a more temperate route. "I fully understand the US government’s frustration because it is catastrophic to the environment," he told reporters, "BP needs to do everything it can clear up the situation. The most important thing is to mitigate the effects and get to the root of the problem."

You can bet that Cameron will wait for a later date when passions have cooled and no one is paying attention before he will make his appeal to the US to soften its claims against BP.

There is speculation that BP, third largest oil company in the world after Exxon and Shell, will either get away with murder by buying off enough congressmen to escape full responsibility or it will suffer the opposite – extinction.

Either way the liabilities are too great for even BP and in the end the taxpayers will again foot a portion of the bill to protect an industrial giant. A reprise of the unpopular Wall Street bailout. They screw up and we get screwed. A familiar story, but for the British to take the attitude that their money is more important than our livelihoods and our environment really should freak out lots of Americans.

The Brits have offered no assistance in the cleanup. Offered no technology worth a damn to help mitigate the situation. They have done nothing but take pop shots while ingesting their afternoon tea. That won’t do and we will remember that the next time the Brits are in need of crucial help from us.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Nowhere elso to go

By Don Klein

Let me admit as an American Jew who is not very religious – nor a Zionist – I more often than not interrelate with other Jews on international issues not only because they are co-religionists but because they are among the worst of the oppressed in history. Actually I feel that way towards all persecuted people.

I think of the mass murder of Jews in Europe regularly and my gut wrenches at the incalculable loss of humanity in those days.

Despite those facts I do not automatically side with the action of the Israeli government. I have been critical of Israel’s positions on many occasions but as a reasonable and proud American, steeped in American ideals, I find there are many occasions when Palestinians and other Arab groups act detestably. They often behave brutally with unabashed cowardice.

Having put that on the table I must say that I fully agree with the Israelis in their blockade on Hamas-Gaza. That is enemy territory from which many attacks against unarmed civilians in Israel have been launched. What choice did Israel have?

Remember back to October 18-29, 1962 when President Kennedy ordered the US Navy to intercept Cuban-bound ships. None other than Communists, disputed the American blockade of a country which never attacked the US mainland like Hamas attacks the Jews daily nor did any harm to the US. Kennedy had less provocation to blockade Cuba than Israel has today but the world cheered when America did it.

Why? They feared a nuclear conflagration between the Soviets and US and the end of modern society as we know it. The same consequences are at stake for Israel today. The Hamas-Gaza government has sworn to wipe out Israel and drive its people into the sea.

That brings us to the boarding of the Mavi Marmara, the Free Gaza Movement ship which tried to run the Israeli blockade. Nine Arab supporters died in the incident which easily could have been avoided – by the Arabs – if their claim they carried no contraband was true.

The death toll is regrettable but as in almost every case whenever Arabs or their supporters are killed when engaged in militant anti-Israel action there is a hue and cry about the intensity of Israel in defending itself. The cries of concern are diluted by the fact there never is a similar outcry when the Jews are unprovoked victims of Arab gunmen, bombings and missile attacks.
But getting back to the recent blockade incident. The whole thing was designed by Arab extremists to draw attention to the three-year-old blockade because as we all know they could have gotten all the humanitarian supplies they wanted into Gaza if they had dropped the cargo off at an Israeli port for inspection. The rebels wanted an incident so they refused to do that, then when the Israeli forces boarded one ship they were attacked by Hamas-Gaza sympathizers.

Radio transmissions released by the Israelis and reported in the New York Daily News revealed how ‘humanitarian" those Hamas-Gaza sympathizers were on board the ship involved in the incident.

"Shut up, go back to Auschwitz," one voice declares belligerently in accented English during the six minutes of radio transmissions released by the Israel Defense Force. A short time later, another voice chimes in, "We're helping Arabs going against the U.S. Don't forget 9/11, guys."

The Israelis claim the audio is a complete, unedited version of the conversation between its navy and the half-dozen aid-carrying ships headed for Hamas-Gaza.

Now ask yourself this question: why would peaceful civilians armed with only knives and sling shots attack fully armed troops if they had nothing to hide? If they were on a peaceful mission, as they claimed?

There is only one answer: Because they wanted an incident to be splashed on headlines throughout the world. They want naive outsiders to believe they are victims of brutality. Imagine back during the Cuban missile crisis when the US Navy blockaded Russian transports headed for Cuba. If they had boarded a Russian freighter and were attacked what do you think the Americans would have done? Lick their wounds and retreated or open fire to quell the attack?
I am not surprised to hear condemnation from Turkey and other Muslim countries and if fact I am not surprised to note anti-Israel rallies in Europe. Most of the rallies in Europe were orchestrated by Muslims living in those countries, as was the Washington rally.

Besides, the Europeans in my view are the most lily-livered of all peoples. I don't know how they ever managed to dominate the world for so many centuries prior to World War I, but lately they are the worst of wimps. They never intervened in Bosnia (in their backyard) until the US took the lead.

They mostly would not support the US in the Middle East and when they did, it was just token. They are craven and leave all the hard tasks up to others -- the US and Israel.

Instead of condemning Israel on this occasion why don't the western nations do something to stop Hamas missile attacks on Israel? That would end the blockade over night. I guess they think Jews are expendable, but Muslims have oil.
So given the circumstances I applaud the Israelis for taking their fate in their own hands and stopping these ships from entering Hamas-Gaza.

What the Arabs and the rest of the world does not know is that Israel has a secret weapon. As Golda Mier told the visiting then-Sen. Joseph Biden after Israel broke the Arab siege in the 1973, it is "We have nowhere else to go."

Once the Arabs get used to the idea that Israel is here to stay, the sooner there will be peace in the Middle East.