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March 26, 2011

Now They Tell Us

Surprise, surprise, aside from the Army the Muslim Brotherhood is proving to be the primary force in the Egyptian Revolution:

Islamist Group Is Rising Force in a New Egypt
The New York Times
By Michael Slackman
Published: March 24, 2011

CAIRO -- In post-revolutionary Egypt, where hope and confusion collide in the daily struggle to build a new nation, religion has emerged as a powerful political force, following an uprising that was based on secular ideals. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group once banned by the state, is at the forefront, transformed into a tacit partner with the military government that many fear will thwart fundamental changes.

It is also clear that the young, educated secular activists who initially propelled the nonideological revolution are no longer the driving political force -- at least not at the moment.

As the best organized and most extensive opposition movement in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was expected to have an edge in the contest for influence. But what surprises many is its link to a military that vilified it.

"There is evidence the Brotherhood struck some kind of a deal with the military early on," said Elijah Zarwan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. "It makes sense if you are the military -- you want stability and people off the street. The Brotherhood is one address where you can go to get 100,000 people off the street."

Like I said on February 3, when the protests turned violent, "no good can come of this."

"We are all worried," said Amr Koura, 55, a television producer, reflecting the opinions of the secular minority. "The young people have no control of the revolution anymore. It was evident in the last few weeks when you saw a lot of bearded people taking charge. The youth are gone." ...

In the early stages of the revolution, the Brotherhood was reluctant to join the call for demonstrations. It jumped in only after it was clear that the protest movement had gained traction. Throughout, the Brotherhood kept a low profile, part of a survival instinct honed during decades of repression by the state.

The question at the time was whether the Brotherhood would move to take charge with its superior organizational structure. It now appears that it has.
...

But in these early stages, there is growing evidence of the Brotherhood's rise and the overpowering force of Islam.

Yup. The only surprise is that anyone could be surprised. Egypt has turned more and more Islamist these past few decades. While in the 1950s and 60s it looked like the country was moving in the direction of adopting a more Western way of progress, they've steadily backslide these past thirty years. See here and here for examples.

For a time the military will keep the Brotherhood from imposing it's true extreme agenda. But the Brotherhood, like the Saudi Wahabists, is very good at infiltrating organizations, and now that it will play a serious role in government, I believe that over time it will come to control the military.

On the one hand I want to compliment the Times for coming out and telling us the truth about the Brotherhood and it's role in the revolution. On the other there's this paragraph:

This is not to say that the Brotherhood is intent on establishing an Islamic state. From the first days of the protests, Brotherhood leaders proclaimed their dedication to religious tolerance and a democratic and pluralist form of government. They said they would not offer a candidate for president, that they would contest only a bit more than a third of the total seats in Parliament, and that Coptic Christians and women would be welcomed into the political party affiliated with the movement.

Sure.

Posted by Tom at 12:30 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 22, 2011

Confusion Over Libya

I have no idea what the president is trying to achieve in Libya. Tony Blankley doesn't either:

President Obama, March 4: "Let me just be very unambiguous about this. Col. [Moammar] Gadhafi needs to step down from power and leave."

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, March 20: It "isn't about seeing [Col. Gadhafi] go." Asked whether it was possible that the mission's goals could be achieved while leaving Col. Gadhafi in power, Adm. Mullen said, "That's certainly potentially one outcome."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said, "It is not about regime change."

Then what is this war about? On Friday, Mr. Obama, in announcing our military intervention, cited as justification that Col. Gadhafi might kill "thousands the region could be destabilized the democratic values that we stand for would be overrun." But he also wanted to be "clear about what we will not be doing. The United States is not going to deploy ground troops. We are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya."

So we want to topple Gadhafi, but we don't. We are there to protect the civilians, but we're attacking Libyan military installations that have little to do with that objective.

Do we not quit until Gadahfi is gone... or not? If he doesn't leave, how long do we protect the civilians?

Not to worry, though, the Brits are just as confused:

On Sunday, Dr Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, said that targeting Gaddafi personally "would potentially be a possibility" under the terms of the UN resolution. When the same question was put to General Sir David Richards, the Chief of the Defence Staff, yesterday, he replied: "Absolutely not. It is not allowed under the UN resolution and it is not something I want to discuss any further."

And the conflict between the UN resolution and Obama's objective is just as bad:

The U.N. Security Council's stated objective is "the immediate establishment of a cease-fire and a complete end to violence." This is entirely incompatible with President Obama's stated objective of getting Moammar Gaddafi "to step down from power and leave." If the violence ends, Gaddafi will not leave. To the contrary, if military intervention succeeds in achieving the United Nations' goal of forcing a cease-fire on the warring parties, it will lock in the status quo on the ground.

Obama's attitude seems to wish that the whole thing would go away. As such, he ran from Washington to South America, where he could be on what amounts to a vacation. Yes, trade with Brazil is important. No it is not more important than a disaster that killed thousands in Japan and a Middle East that is exploding at warp speed.

Obama apparently thought that if he ignored Libya long enough those troublesome foreigners would go away. But the UN passed a resolution, the Arab League wanted a no-fly zone, and France said it wanted to take action. Faced with irrelevancy, Obama had no choice but to go along.

As a result he has inherited a policy rather than made one. Because we are the strongest power, we will bear the brunt of any military action no matter who is nominally "in charge" or "leading."

Right now a lot of things are happening at home and abroad. There are showdowns in several states between Republicans and public sector unions. Democrats and Republicans in Congress are in tense negotiations over the budget. A huge disaster in Japan has killed thousands. Egypt just underwent a revolution, and Libya, Bahrain and Yemen are in the middle of one. Did I miss anything? Iran inches closer to the bomb.

What we need is a president who exerts firm leadership, and instead we have someone who has punted on all of the above. He's more interested in his March Madness picks than in governing. He sent more troops to Afghanistan, but it's clear that he did so reluctantly and his heart isn't in it, something you can be sure the Afghans and Taliban have picked up on (why do you think Hamid Karzai is hedging his bets?).

So now we mount an operation meant to enforce a "no fly zone," but clearly it's gone way beyond that. We're attacking ground targets, military storage depots, and bombing this and that.

As if all this wasn't bad enough, the entire act of going to war against Libya contradicts what candidate Obama said while on the campaign trail:

"The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

December 2010

But this is exactly what Obama, now as President, has done. He accepts the UN resolution as enough but doesn't see the need to go to Congress.

Finally, if Gadhafi is killed or captured (and that's what it will have to be, he's not leaving), will we go in and at least try to help the rebels set up a decent government? Did we attempt to approach them before the airstrikes with a sort of quid pro quo; we help you overthrow the dictator, give you aid, and you agree to take our advice on x, y, and z when you win. We condition future aid on you setting up a decent government. Did we try that? Sure, they'd probably reneg on at last some of it, and who knows who we're even negotiating with, but you've at least got to try, I'd think.

My position: The president should have formulated a firm policy one way or the other as soon as the Libyan revolution started. He should have exerted strong U.S. leadership for whatever policy he thought best and got other important countries on board. Either immediate strong unilateral intervention or complete hands-off is better than this half-way confused muddle by a disengaged president we have now.

Where will this go? My guess is it "ends" in a sort of stand-off in which Gadhafi controls most of the country but the rebels have an enclave. We continue to fly strikes and patrols for years. Reminds of of another place not too far away, and look what we eventually had to do there.

Posted by Tom at 9:30 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

March 20, 2011

The Fragility of Complexity

What would happen if all electricity and communications went out in a sizable area? No power, no Internet, no radio, no home or cell phone, and your car won't start. There are many things that might cause this, electromagnetic pulse being one. But forget the cause and play along with the scenario.

You have have no way of knowing how widespread the problem was. Was it just your town? You can't travel far on foot so you have no way of knowing. You'd search the sky for airplanes, and worry would increase if none appeared.

For the first few days everyone would stay near their homes, visit with their neighbors, nervously assure each other that things would be set right before long. But what if nothing changed? How long before people would raid the food stores?

Ok, that's an extreme scenario. More likely is something like what happened in Japan; a powerful earthquake coupled with a tsunami. The crisis at the nuclear plant is only one of many things that could have gone wrong.

What type of societies are the most resilient in the face of disaster? Complex ones like in the West, or more simple ones like those in Third World countries? And among those in the West, which of those would fare best?

You might think I'm strange for pondering such things, but there are larger issues than the "news of the day." It's all very fine to write about Libya, health care, the Federal budget and all that, but sometimes it's good to examine more fundamental issues.

This is one reason why Richard Fernandez' blog The Belmont Club is one of my favorites (Neo-neocon is another in this genre, please check her out too). Introspective and educated, he talks about the issues of the day, but at a level beyond what most bloggers achieve (including this one). This most recent piece of his is typical, and I'm posting it here in it's entirety:

What Could Go Wrong?
by Richard Fernandez

When some fragile item may be damaged by a fall the best place to put it is on the ground. There it can fall no more. Since the "spontaneous evolution of an isolated system" tends to disorder and things fall apart, the most stable place to be is where things must come to a stop. Because "once the system eventually reaches equilibrium and stops evolving, its entropy becomes constant." That's to say things can't get any worse. Something on the ground or at the center of a gravitational mass has nowhere left to go and stays there.

The enormous effort required to keep complex systems full of useful energy is at the heart of Victor Davis Hanson's observation that Japan is an example what happens when a complex system experiences a disruption.

Japan is a place where thing must happen just in time. Miss a connection and the consequences ripple on. It is like a watch; exquisite but dependent on a windup or battery charge to keep going. Let it run down and it stops. Dr. Hanson argues this is precisely the kind of society which planners -- the smart controllers of all stripes -- want to construct: complex, ordered, surveilled and refined. For Japan, complex systems were required for survival. For America, complex systems were required, not by need but the imperative to power; ambitious men who hankered after ant-heaps because they were born bureaucrats.

Japan's high density, central planning, mass transit, demographic uniformity, and a culture of mutual dependence allow millions to live humanely and successfully in quite crowded conditions (in areas of Tokyo at 6,000 persons and more per square kilometer). And compared to other Asian and African cities (Mumbai or Lagos) even Tokyo is relatively not so dense, though far more successful. Yet such urban societies are extremely vulnerable to the effects of earthquakes, tsunamis, "man-caused disasters" and other assorted catastrophes, analogous in nature perhaps to tightly knit bee colonies that have lost their queens.

I don't know quite why many of our environmentalists and urban planners wish to emulate such patterns of settlement (OK, I do know), since for us in America it would be a matter of choice, rather than, as in a highly congested Japan, one of necessity. Putting us in apartments and high rises, reliant on buses and trains, and dependent on huge centralized power, water, and sewage grids are recipes not for ecological utopia, but for a level of dependence and vulnerability that could only lead to disaster. Again, I understand that in terms of efficiency of resource utilization, such densities make sense and I grant that culture sparks where people are, but in times of calamity these regimens prove enormously fragile and a fool's bargain.

But catastrophe has a way of killing ants in ant-heaps more easily than when they are spread out over the ground. Then all the supposed disadvantages of unsophisticated America vis a vis "planned systems" become reversed for two reasons. The first is that subsidiarity -- the ability to addresses some needs at an individual or local level -- is more survivable than centralized systems. Dispersed housing, individual transportation, armed citizens and a tradition of community stop becoming "urban sprawl", "wasteful driving", "gun-toting" and "bigotry" and become objects of envy to helpless people cowering in their high rise, foodless apartments. Subsidiary forms of social organization are sustainable at greater levels of national disconnection. They can work, if need be, by themselves. It is an argument which Leo Linbeck III has been making about governance and health-care, but that is another story.

The second reason is that subsidiary systems are more adaptable. Complex societies are often locked into their adaptation. They can function only when enabled by a larger system. An Ipod is just a paperweight without a network and a power source. In a crisis world you would trade a Bugatti Veyron for a pickup truck. The Veyron is a specialized babe-magnet. The pickup truck does lots of other things. But even pickup trucks have become more complex over the years. In the old Willys Jeep a lot of things could be fixed with a screwdriver, Vise-grip, a few socket wrenches and a file. Today very little can be fixed without the help of "they". "They" is a term coined by Victor Davis Hanson to represent that faceless, anonymous source of help without which we are powerless to go on.

This fragility of complexity has especially bothered me the last 80 days, well before the tragedy in Japan. Some random experiences: I am teaching one morning a week at Pepperdine for the spring 15-week semester, each week alternating between flying and driving. One week in January, the power at terminal one in LAX just went out -- no explanation, no rhyme or reason, no notice when or if it would return. Thousands of travelers were rendered helpless -- no running water, bathrooms, overhead lights. All flights delayed or cancelled, as mobs packed flight counters or simply walked out of the darkened halls to the curb. Then abruptly later it went back on -- again, no explanation. The attendants at the counter simply shrugged and said "they" must have fixed it. To paraphrase those in the Wild Bunch, who are "they"?

"They" is who we are going to call if we break a leg or an intruder is at the door. "They" are who we ask to help us when we are lost. "They" are the ones who are going to enforce the "nuclear free zone" in Berkeley and the no-fly-zone in Libya. "They" are the guys who provide the physical basics, the hard power who the kings of "soft power" are destined to command. There was a time, not so long ago when "they" for the most part meant "us"; because we knew how to supply at least some of these things for ourselves. Knew how to punch out those who bullied us without having to carry the scars of trauma into the Oval Office. But no longer.

The complexity of modern pickup trucks is emblematic of our complex, interelated world. We need each other far more than is safe. Already Chinese factories are slowing down because of disruptions of deliveries from Japan. What do you do in a just-in-time production system when the shipment from Yokohama doesn't turn up? Only hope "they" will fix it. And what do you do when the oil disruptions threaten in the Gulf, the bond markets look scary and unemployment looks like it will never ever go down. You hope "they" will fix it.

At the highest political level of our complex world "they" means people like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. These were the final "fixers" of the system when something went wrong. Of late they seemed to be capable of very little. Why? Because their power to fix depended on the systems they were supposed to control. Their "smarts" were judged by their ability to manipulate the system through which they rose. Once the system itself began fraying at the edges their true quality became evident. They were not very smart and not very adaptable.

There are signs that our complex world is running out the enough "useful energy" to keep its welfare, entitlement and physical systems together. Perhaps as important, the ability of people like Obama and Clinton to understand what is happening may be decreasing correspondingly. This happen ironically because they think they are smart. Their blinkered minds will tend to draw the wrong boundaries around the emerging system in order for it to be comprehensible to their mental models. In the process they thereby increase entropy. When they "smooth" the system to conform to their ideological biases it creates a loss of knowledge which eventually adds to the problem.

People who know all the answers are the worst offenders of all. Their ideological solutions and "investments" make things worse. One way to minimize the effects of imperfect understanding is to shorten the feedback loop. By frequently updating our understanding of a changing system the amount of "error" introduced is smallest when they are drawn at the most subsidiary level. The greatest and most catastrophic errors are created when an monolithic regime clings for too long to an old paradigm. When forced to change, it draws the new paradigm around a bigger volume of enclosed space thus maximizing the error. Here again the simpler system has its advantages. As observed earlier, highly complex systems are less adaptable, less subsidiary. Ideologically driven complex systems, like Europe and the proposed Hope and Change are least adaptable of all.

In history the cumulative process of failing to adapt is called a Revolution. Writers have usually ascribed such upheavals to the personal failings of wicked kings. But at least part of it may be due to the system trying to reach a new equilibrium while the ancien regime stands in its way while they wait in vain for "they" to come and fix things. But things are never fixed; and something else always comes instead, something only dimly glimpsed in the present and fully visible only when it finally arrives. As Forrest Gump once put it, "My momma always said, 'Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.'"

Try telling that to those who know what we should get and what we should think.

In retrospect the desire for one world, a master energy plan and single health care system will be recognized not as imperatives of the human system, but the requirement of bureaucratic ambition. It may also be seen as one of the key blunders of the current political system. It emerged at a time when elites believed history had ended and all that remained was to freeze the 20th century welfare systems in place and etch their faces on Mount Rushmore. But reality proved too hard for them to handle. They would do well to recognize their limits.

Do you agree that complex societies are less adaptable, and that ideologically-driven bureaucratically centralized societies the least adaptable of all? Hopefully, of course, we'll never find out.

Posted by Tom at 9:00 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

March 17, 2011

A Few Quick Comments on Some of the Issues of the Day

Not having much time to blog these days, I won't be able to do my usual in depth analysis of the issues of the day. It's a terrible confluence of events; I get involved in some big projects just as the world goes nuts. On the other hand, while it bugged me greatly for a while to be away from the blog, pretty soon you get used to it. About three of four years ago I decided to just up TV entirely because it was just taking up too much time. For a few weeks I missed my shows, but now I can't imagine going back to it.

The Japanese Nuclear Crisis

Yes the situation at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant is serious. Let's also recall that it was hit by not only an earthquake that registered a whopping 9 on the Richter scale, but a tsunami as well. This is not Three Mile Island... which oh by the way didn't kill anyone.

The bigger question is what the effect will be on nuclear power as a source of electricity. One can only despair after looking at the news, which is in full meltdown over the situation. The extreme environmentalists are licking their chops, figuring that (finally!) they can stop new plants from being built and shut down existing ones.

Amazingly, over 50 percent of Americans still think that nuclear power is generally safe. Unfortunately, another poll shows that half of all voters see Obama as being serious about reducing the deficit, so I guess we shouldn't put too much faith in either polls or the intelligence of the American people, take your pick.

The bottom line is that there is no energy source that is free of pitfalls. Nuclear plants run the risk of meltdown. Coal, oil, and natural gas emit greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide, which the enviros now tell us is a pollutant (who would have guessed?). There are no more locations for hydrodynamic dams, and solar and wind are a joke. Biofuels based on sugar products, grass, or waste hold some promise, but only barely. Only nuclear and fossil fuels can produce enough electricity to matter, and of course the enviros are against both.

Yes let's make nuclear plants safer. Yes let's learn from this and make sure that if they're in earthquake zones they are more survivable. But we either need them as a power source or the enviros need to stop complaining about fossil fuels.

And yes I would be perfectly fine if they built a nuclear power plant in my neighborhood.

The Libyan Revolution

The unrest started on Feb 15, and within a week or two it was clear that a revolution was under way. Unlike his Egyptian neighbor Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi has decided to stay and fight it out. No doubt the Mubarak left because he lost the support of the army, whereas Ghaddafi has cobbled enough of a force from mercenaries and his own army to put up a good fight. In fact, some say he's winning.

"The world," has mostly told Ghaddafi that shooting his own civilians isn't so good, which is kind of ironic since the government in most of those nations would do the same thing if they felt their rule threatened.

On March 10 France even went so far as to recognize the rebel National Transitional Council as the legitimate government.

Most recently, the UN Security Council has approved a no-fly zone over Libya. "The world" seems to see that something needs to be done. Unlike, that is, our own president. But more on that below.

Gasoline Prices

Gas is about $3.50 a gallon where I live. From what I can see there are two general reasons for the rise; the crisis in the Middle East and our own refusal to exploit our own reserves.

Yes we risk spills if we drill. And no it won't solve all our problems. But if you don't like drilling then come up with your own energy source... and please don't embarrass yourself by talking about electric cars, wind, or solar.

I hear Obama and his advisers want to open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Big mistake. One, the reserve was meant for a true crisis, and we're not near that. Two, it's only a short-term solution.

The Federal Budget Standoff

Democrats want to spend, Republicans want to make a few tepid cuts. The entire federal budget is about $3.8 trillion. Republicans want to cut a measly $61 billion, and the Dems a pathetic $6 billion.

Put in context, the Republicans want to cut 61 cents of a budget of 380 dollars, and the Dems 6 cents on the same.

Guess what? The Dems tell us the world will come to an end if we cut any more than $6 billion.

Oh and the deficit is about $1.5 trillion, and by his own projections Obama will have doubled the national debt. But no one aside from those crazy Tea Party types seems to want to do anything about it.

Wisconsin

Chris Christie is getting some competition for status most admired governors among conservatives. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has rode the storm in his state admirably and refused to back down in the face of an unprecedented level of threats and intimidation from union thugs. He kept his party together, and as a result they have achieved the unthinkable; a serious rollback of union abuses.

You don't have to believe everything muckrackers like Upton Sinclair wrote to know that abuses in the workplace were horrendous a hundred or so years ago. I would have been a union organizer myself in the 19th and early 20th centuries. When it comes to coal mines I'm still sympathetic to unions.

But today over 50 percent of union members are white collar workers. The only reason unions were or are needed is to ensure workplace safety and obtain more than starvation wages. There is no reason for labor unions in most work environments today, let alone in white collar environments.

Public sector unions are especially odious, especially so if they have collective bargaining power. The reason is pretty straightforward: The people elect legislators to determine the salaries of public employees. When public sector unions put forth a special representative to bargain with these legislators, they've effectively elected their own special legislator. Worse, they're doing it all with our tax dollars.

This is an usurpation of democracy. The "seat at the table" for public sector employees is and must be only through normally elected legislators. They don't get another seat, or a special representative. If they don't like their salaries they need to work to elect different legislators.

As if this wasn't bad enough, the incredible thuggish behavior of the unions in Wisconsin foretold of what will happen around the country if we do not get a handle on this situation now. As mentioned earlier, while union membership is declining among blue-collar workers it is increasing among public-sector white-collar workers. While workers everywhere should have the right to form an organization (provided they do it on their own time and not at the workplace), the absolutely must not have collective bargaining power.

In the old days there was an implicit agreement in the trade-off of benefits between private and public sector employment. You got higher wages in the private sector, but your job was always somewhat at risk. Public sector employees made less, but had more job security, to the point where in some professions such as teaching you basically have a guaranteed job for life.

Public sector employees now want it all. They want wages equal to or greater than their counterparts in the private sector. The latest rationale is that public sector employees are supposedly more talented and thus deserve more. Besides being arrogant and condescending, such an argument ignores the fact that public sector employment enjoys better job security.

The NPR Scandal

That a few big shots at NPR have whacko leftist views and are willing to take money from the world's biggest Jihadist-terrorist organization is in a way not news. Conservatives have known this for years.

If the big media - "mainstream media" - did their jobs NPR would have been exposed long ago and their funding eliminated. As it is they don't care because with the exception of Fox News and a few other conservative outlets they are only different by degree, not by kind.

The NPR scandal comes on the heals of other citizen-journalist pieces by James O'Keefe and Lila Rose exposing ACORN and Planned Parenthood. What's amazing, and irritating at the same time, is that all three of these; NPR, ACORN, and Planned Parenthood, were ripe targets just waiting to be picked. Everyone who is not drinking the liberal cool-aide knows they're corrupt. And it was so easy to trip them up. If a few ordinary young folks could do it with cheap store-bought equipment, why can't the big media with their millions of dollars in resources?

Instead of introspection on such questions, though, we are treated to idiotic pieces about how "There is no ethical canon or tradition that would excuse such deception on the part of a professional journalist." Yeah that's the important part.

What's scary is what the liberal media must have gotten away with in the days before the internet.

Where's Obama?

So where's our president? Dithering, of course. Playing golf. Going to fundraisers. Consulting with Michelle over this year's vegetable garden. Having fun being president, I guess, but whatever he's up to the issues of the day don't seem to concern him.

His supposedly pro-nuclear power secretary of energy is mostly silent on nuclear power.

He doesn't seem to care a whit about Libya. He and his SecState are always "consulting," but this is a process, not a policy. We have no policy. The UN can pass any resolution it wants about no-fly zones, but we all know that only the US can enforce it.

Worse, he seems to treat foreign policy problems as annoyances, not concerns that should be at the front and center for any president. The only thing that seems to bother him are Israeli "settlements" on the West Bank.

Union thugs? He's behind them. Some on the right say it's all about the money and donations to the Democrat Party, but it's more than that. Public sector unions are integral to his plan to bring European-style socialism to this country.

Before the election Obama told us that "under my plan... electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket." If that's his plan for electricity, why should he think any differently for gasoline?

And the budget? He's AWOL on that too, letting the Dems in Congress do the negotiating for him.

Posted by Tom at 9:00 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

March 13, 2011

Book Review - Decision Points

A short note to my readers: Because of several projects I have taken on I have not been able to blog nearly as often as usual. I will get back to it, but am just not sure when, In the meantime, this review of George W Bush's autobiography should provide food for thought. Thank you

The most honest book by a politician I've ever read was Standing Firm by Dan Quayle. He doesn't sugar-coat the treatment he got from the press, or make excuses for some of his own bad decisions. He knows that it was much of what he did that generated the press. He defends himself to the extent of telling the full story behind the infamous "potatoe" spelling incident, but admits that if he had handled the situation better it would not have been the story it was.

I gained a lot of respect for Dan Quayle while reading that book.

George W Bush's Decision Points is a pretty honest book, as books by politicians go. Nothing he writes will satisfy many on the left. But many on the right will also be disappointed if they are expecting apologies for No Child Left Behind, the prescription drug bill, the attempt at immigration "reform," or increasing the deficit through higher domestic spending.

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Bush defends the decisions he thinks are right regardless of who may be upset. He's not quite as critical of himself as he should be, I think, so the book doesn't match up to Standing Firm. But few, if any, politicians are as honest as Dan Quayle.

Book Summary

Drinking and Faith

One thing about George W Bush; he's not afraid to write about his personal failing with alcohol. While others may see it as an embarrassing chapter in their lives best avoided, he deals with it squarely in the first sentence of the book: "It was a simple question. "Can you remember the last day you didn't have a drink?" Laura asked in her calm, soothing voice." At first indignant, he realized that in fact he couldn't. Admitting he has a habitual personality, he had once smoked cigarettes but at least got that down to cigars. Alcohol was something else, and quitting that was one of the toughest decisions he made. But determined man that he is, once he makes a decision he sticks with it.

Bush also details his conversion experience. As with many people, before he accepted Christ he wasn't totally godless, religion just wasn't really a big deal to him. Meeting the great evangelist Billy Graham changed all that. In 1985 his dad had invited Graham to their home for dinner, which was followed by a Q and A session. There was no on-the-spot bolt of lightning, but Graham planted a seed which grew slowly over the next few years.

Bush says that he "could not have quit drinking without faith." and "I also don't think my faith would be as strong if I hadn't quit drinking." He was still a drinker when he met Graham, but says that God "helped open my eyes" and saw him through. An awful lot of Christians share those sentiments.

Texas Air National Guard


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From Baseball to Politics

Bush doesn't spend a lot of time on his childhood or young adulthood, moving rapidly to young middle age, where in 1989 he became a part owner of the Texas Rangers. It was his experience as owner that built the political skills that would later catapult him to the governor's mansion and then the White House. As owner he had to hold press conferences and take often-hostile questions from the press. It also sharpened his management skills.

Obviously his father and grandfathers' involvement in politics played a role in his decision to run for congress in 1978 and the governorship of Texas in 1994. Interestingly, although he lost the congressional race, his opponent, incumbent Democrat Kent Hance would eventually switch to the Republican party and become a supporter of his.

Incumbent governor Ann Richards was popular, and many people, including his own mother, advised Bush that he couldn't win. And Richards proved tough, and more than a little mean-spirited. Bush Bush won, and Richards was put out of a job.

On To Washington

A popular governor who had won reelection, many people had been telling him he ought to run for president. There would be no incumbent in 2000, and running for an open seat is always much easier. But he didn't take his final decision to run until listening to a sermon one day. The pastor told of how Moses had doubts until God reassured him. Bush, too, felt the same way.

Bush almost lost the 2000 election when the press discovered his previously unrevealed DUI only three days before the election. The reason he didn't reveal it earlier, he says is that he felt it would have undermined his lectures to his daughters about the dangers of drinking and driving. In his autobiography, Courage and Consequence says that he tried to get Bush to release it earlier and regrets that he didn't try harder.

In mid 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney told Bush that if he wanted to pick someone else as VP for the 2004 race he would understand, and "no hard feelings." No health issues, or political ones, drove his offer, Cheney said. He just thought the president should not feel obligated. In a capital full of power-hungry politicians, that was one of the biggest acts of loyalty any politician had ever seen.'

Leading up to the 2004 election, Bush was fine with his vice president, but not his national security team. Squabbling between State and Defense was natural, but it intensified over Iraq to the point where he felt he needed to make changes. He told Powell and Rumsfeld to cool it, but nothing he did seemed to work.

Don Rumsfeld submitted his resignation when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, but Bush refused the offer. The offer was not a formality, the offer was real. But that was not the time.

In 2004, though, Bush had had enough of the fighting between State and Defense. Fortunately, Powell made the decision easy by offering to resign himself.

In 2006, as the situation in Iraq worsened, Bush decided he needed a new Secretary of Defense. A long search ended with the selection of Robert Gates. The other person who he replaced was Chief of Staff Andy Card, who like Rumsfeld had offered to resign before Bush actually made the decision. Josh Bolton was chosen to replace Card.

A Bad Decision and a Good One

Some of the most painful reading was where Bush tried to justify bad decisions like appointing Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. This decision was ill-considered and in truth was the result of a personal friendship and reward for loyalty than based on qualifications. To most conservatives, this appointment fell into the category of "you gotta be kidding." Thankfully she withdrew when it became clear that she was not going to be confirmed.

On the other hand, some of the best reading was about his decision to ban funding for research on embryonic stem cells. Bush spent quite a bit of time researching the issue and listening to people on all sides of the debate. His decision was well-informed, and I think correct. But however you come down, the proponents of "anything goes" have done themselves a disservice through their dishonesty. The standard claim is that Bush (and those evil conservative Christians) want to "ban stem cell research that will save lives." They never mention that there are two types of stem cells, and no one has any objection to research on adult stem cells. It also seems apparent that the possible benefits have been overblown.

Sept 11 and the War on Terror

It's no surprise that Bush spends an entire chapter on September 11, 2001, and the days that immediately followed. It was, after all, the most important day of his presidency, and one of if not the most important days in our history since December 7, 1941. It makes for interesting reading. Most of it, though, is unremarkable in that all of this has been told elsewhere. One story did stick out though: Arlene Howard, mother of George Howard, a police officer who had been slain on 9-11, gave Bush her son's badge when he visited New York a few days after the attack. He kept it on his person every single day of the rest of his presidency.

For the past few years the Democrats have attacked the Patriot Act as at best undermining our freedoms and at worst a turn toward fascism, but Bush quotes Democrat after Democrat who at the time praising the legislation and saying how necessary it was. This would be repeated in a few years when the war in Iraq turned south. And for all of Obama's campaign promises, neither he nor the Democrats in Congress have removed its major provisions.

It was the same with the "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Nancy Pelosi was informed about them, including waterboarding, and approved of their use, and then in 2010 lied about it. Others have "forgotten" that they, too, knew about and approved of measures their party has since come to oppose. Bush goes through the issue in some detail and explains his decision to approve such measures. It is easy to Monday-morning-quarterback this one, as all too many have.

Truth be told, the question of what to do with captured terrorists is a tough one and reasonable people can disagree. What's important to remember is that the decisions Bush made were not rash and poorly thought out ones, but decisions taken after much consultation and reflection. More, they have kept us safe. Those who object imply that had we not kept terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and used waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques things would have still turned out the same; i.e. no more attacks. This is a logical fallacy.

"History can debate the decisions I made, the policies I chose, and the tools i left behind. But there can be no debate about one fact: after the nightmare of September 11, America went seven and a half years without another successful terrorist attack on our soil. if i had to summarize my most meaningful accomplishment as president in one sentence, that would be it."

Given the spate of follow-on attacks everyone expected, that is one heck of an accomplishment indeed.

Afghanistan

Bush writes about the strategy at the beginning of the war, and how it seemed to work because, after all, they did route the Taliban in a month or so. We won with a relatively small number of troops, and so we thought we didn't need to add many more to finish the job. As Bush says, "our rapid success with low troop levels created false comfort, and our desire to maintain a light military footprint left us short of the resources we needed. It would take several years for these shortcomings to become clear."

We're told that Afghanistan is the war that "everyone" supported, and it was Iraq that caused all the problems. But as Bush points out, the Europeans reneged on their promise to send a sufficient number of troops to Afghanistan right from the start. And when they did send troops, they came with so many restrictions that there were not of much use. The British and Canadians were the exception to the rule.

Iraq and the Surge

Although Saddam Hussein did not know about the attacks of 9-11 before the occurred, they did change the calculus regarding his regime. Before 9-11 we thought of Saddam as a problem, albeit a difficult one, but one we could manage. The terrorist attacks on our homeland, however, made Bush and many others in this country realize that could happen if Saddam or someone like him gave WMD to terrorists. While some would say this is implausible, we know that Saddam did hatch a plot to kill former President George H. W. Bush on his visit to Kuwait in April of 1993.

Critics charge that Bush "rushed to war." This ignores the diplomacy and sanctions used by both Presidents Clinton and Bush after Saddam stopped allowing inspections in 1998. Diplomacy and sanctions could have been allowed to go on forever, but there is no evidence that waiting any longer would have made an evidence. Further, while there were risks to invasion, not invading was risky too, something the critics usually ignore.

Of all the criticisms, the "Bush Lied" about WMD is particularly inane. It's really on a par with 9-11 Trutherism (that's me, not W, making the comparison, but it's true). The fact is that all intelligence agencies around the world thought Saddam had the stuff, and the Democrats in Congress thought he did too. For that matter, up until the day he left office on January 20, 2001, President Clinton was convinced he was stockpiling WMD as well.

Obviously mistakes were made after the invasion. Bush writes about two critical ones that he and his team made. The first was that they did not respond quickly enough to the insurgency. No one was sure if it would last or was just a few "dead enders," and Bush and his team worried that an overly strong response would be counterproductive with the population. The other mistake, of course, was in getting the WMD wrong.

George Casey, our commanding general in Iraq in 2006, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and CENTCOM commander General John Abizaid all thought that our troop presence fueled the insurgency and that adding more troops would be counterproductive. Bush accepted that analysis for a time, but by the end of that year came to believe it was wrong. The critical moment came in June, when Casey was briefing him Operation Together Forward, a lost-ditch effort to secure Baghdad. Casey told Bush his strategy was "Clear, Hold, Build," but at the same time had been telling the President we needed to reduce our troop presence. The contradiction was clear, and Bush realized that a new strategy, and generals, was needed.

Beyond replacing Casey with Petraeus and making other key personnel changes, Bush needed key commitments from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Bush told Maliki that the political pressure to abandon Iraq was tremendous, but that he would send additional troops, but only if Maliki agreed to certain reforms. Bush got the commitments at a one-on-one meeting, and the surge went forward.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Katrina

Karl Rove did an excellent job summarizing Katrina in Courage and Consequence, which I reviewed here at Redhunter. His conclusion is pretty straightforward; government failed at all levels. If you want to blame President Bush for his part, fine, but let's not pretend that the Democrat dominated government in Louisiana and New Orleans did not behave in anything but a completely incompetent fashion.

Essentially, Mayor Ray Nagin, Senator Mary Landrieu, and Governor Kathleen Blanco were nothing short of complete nimcompops (again, my term, not George W's) who were incapable of taking a decision, did little that was productive, and if you get down to it behaved in an emotionally unstable fashion. Blanco, for example, continually refused to allow the federal government to assume control of the emergency, which legally limited what Bush could do. It took much begging and cajoling from the President for her to come around.

But Bush does not excuse himself, admitting to making several errors. Some of these were in public perception, but several more substantive. FEMA performed badly, and Bush and his team were slow to make personnel changes. It was indeed a failure of government at all levels.

Domestic Policy

While Bush's foreign policy generally met with approval from conservatives, his domestic policy did not. In the book Bush explains his reasons for everything from No Child Left Behind, to his attempted immigration reform, to increasing prescription drug benefits.

As with everything else in the book, you either accept his policies or you don't. Bush does a good job of explaining himself. He views his domestic polices as bipartisan attempts to make the system work better. That they were bipartisan is a matter of historical fact (look at the voting record in Congress). Whether they improved matters is something else entirely.

Liberals generally liked his policies at the time, or at least were pleased to see him taking their position on immigration reform, domestic spending and Medicare. It was Senator Ted Kennedy, after all, who basically wrote No Child Left Behind. But conservatives were displeased, and their/our continued support waned as time went on.

Africa and AIDS

It isn't widely known in the West, but George W Bush is something of a hero in sub-Saharan Africa. The fact is that he has done more for Africa than any other US president, including Bill Clinton, said by some to be the first "black" president.

Bush proposed, and Congress passed, a massive $15 billion initiative to fight AIDS in Africa. Called The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), it was the single largest program to fight a specific disease the world had ever seen. It was, in many ways, the medical version of the Marshall Plan.

In one memorable scene, after a Presidential visit to an AIDS clinic, the director of TASO (The AIDS Support Organization), Dr Alex Coutinho, said that Bush was the first world leader he had seen hug an African with AIDS.

Not everyone was happy with Bush's actions, some of them European leaders. French President Jaques Chirac was upset that Bush had decided to tie non-AIDS aid to anti-corruption efforts. Steeped in guilt, Chirac seemed to think that we had to send African dictators whatever they wanted. After listening to one tirade by the French leader, Bush gave his own lecture back, reminding Chirac that it wasn't Americans who colonized Africa, and that anyway "America is tired of seeing good money stolen while people continue to suffer. Yes, we are changing our policy whether you like it or not."

My Take

That George W Bush is a much better writer than he is a speaker will not come as a surprise to many. Famously stumbling over many of his words while speaking it must be remembered that he did earn an MBA from Harvard Business School.

As mentioned above, the book will not please liberals or conservatives who are expecting apologies. What Bush does accomplish is explain his decisions in clear, easy to understand, terms. Agree with him or not, you'll come away understanding why he did what he did.

There were a few subjects discussed in the book that I just don't have time to adequately cover; his "freedom agenda" and the financial crisis that hit at the end of his term are the biggest among them. I supported his policies on the former and opposed them on the latter.

Readers of this blog know that I supported Bush's foreign policy and if anything wish he had been more muscular. Iraq did sap our strength; not so much for Afghanistan as for confronting other threats like Iran, Venezuela, and the elephant in the corner, China. The mistake he made with Iraq was not in the decision to invade, which I believe was correct, but in pursuing a failed policy. Finally, few if any of those those who disagree with the decision to invade Iraq would have actually favored military action against Iran if it had come down to it (or if Bush had attacked Iran instead of Iraq, today they'd be saying that Iran was a distraction and we should have attacked Iraq. Liberals, I've noticed, always want to fight another war than the one we're actually engaged in).

Domestic policy was something else entirely. Bush did hold the line on social issues such as abortion, gay "marriage," and embryonic stem cell research. But his "compassionate conservatism" turned into "liberal light" on spending and creating new programs. Although John Roberts and Sam Alito were excellent choices for the Supreme Court, Harriet Miers was a disaster.

In general, those mostly on the right will like the book, those on the left will hate it. No surprise there.


Posted by Tom at 9:00 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack