Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Future of the War on Terror

We've been in the War on Terror for over 7 years now, assuming it started on or about 9/11/2001. We've gone after al Qaeda (though didn't get bin Laden). We've fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with forays into places like the Yemen, Somalia, and the mountains of western Pakistan. The question remains, has it worked? Or to paraphrase something former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once said "are we creating more terrorists than we are killing?"

I offer for discussion the following thoughts. These are not a policy for which I am advocating, but rather a series of slightly less than random ideas on how we can more innovatively wage the war on terror. Please feel free to disagree, expand, expound, and by all means, offer your own ideas.

1) First, drop the "war on terror" moniker. Frankly, it suggests that all terrorism is the same. It is not. And as such it needs to be dealt with differently. The moniker has become trite, which isn't helpful.

2) Al qaeda does not equate with all terrorists. Listening to our political leaders, one would be hard pressed to think that everyone who does something that can be deemed terrorism is somehow linked to al Qaeda. Kind of a "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" game. The truth is that our political leaders want to lump everyone together because it makes it easier to communicate the concept of "war on terror" (see item 1). But doing so makes it difficult to deal appropriately with the different groups, and it also gives al Qaeda a kind of "rock star" status that then can use as a rallying cry.

3) Marginalize al Qaeda. Fareed Zakaria in his new book "The Post-American World" suggests that the al Qaeda leadership has basically already been limited to public relations stunts. Every so often a video or audio tape arises to rile up the loyal followers. But they have had to decentralize their operations to the point where control of terrorist operations now happens at a local level. In a way this is worse - it is easier to cut out a tumor as a whole than it is to get the cancer once it metastasizes and spreads throughout the body/world. On the other hand, we can exploit the fact that these satellite operations are out there alone. Perhaps we can convince them that most of the community thinks of them as "the losers of the neighborhood" rather than the martyrs.

4) Do the same for the other terrorist groups. All of these organizations represent a small minority of the people in their communities. Sure, much of the community might sympathize with them, but in reality they do so mostly out of either fear (think al Qaeda in Iraq, AQI) or because the terrorist organization is providing more social services (schools, roads, safety) than the government (think Hamas and Hezbollah).

5) Go after the money. This is one area for which President Bush should get a heckofalot more credit. By cutting off their funding trails, the President has effectively kept millions of dollars from getting to people who would engage in terrorist acts.

6) Think antibiotics, not OTC. Most over-the-counter (OTC) medicines treat the symptoms, and let the body's natural defenses actually deal with the disease. Antibiotics go to the root fo the problem itself, at the source of the infection. Consider "the surge" in Iraq. The increase in troop numbers gets all the press, but in reality this was merely the OTC remedy for the symptoms (i.e., IEDs, car bombs, sectarian violence). Additional OTC efforts included physical separation (segregration) of Sunni and Shia. However, much of the success attributed to "the surge" actually was the result of greater attention to the root problems facing the people. The "Sunni Awakening," which started well before the troop surge, and the negotiated suspension of hostilities of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, did more to reduce violence than any increase in troops (though all of these factors obviously acted synergistically). The bottom line is that we worked with the Sunni leadership in Anbar province to deal with a mutual enemy (AQI made the tactical mistake of killing more Iraqis than Americans).

7) Admit that we like Muslims. On its surface this sounds a bit silly, or perhaps bigoted. What I mean is that the Islamic world, and much of the non-Islamic world, cannot help but think the US hates them. President Bush, in a catastrophically poor choice of words, even used the word "crusade" in first describing this new war on terror. Our rhetoric often includes phrases such as "they hate our freedoms," "Islamic jihad," "Islamic fundamentalism," and even "Islamic fascists." Emails bantered about the supposed former history as a "Muslim" by our new President-elect, in such a way as to use someone's supposed religion (when they weren't accusing him of being a radical Christian) as a pejorative. But as Retired General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently, "the really right answer is: What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is: No." Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States and the world. I have friends who are Muslim (and Jewish and Christian and Buddhist and athiest) and they are just like everyone else...they don't hate America. They do, as does much of the world right now, wonder what the hell our problem is (but that is another post). My point, of course, is that if we demonize people, they will feel like, and act like, demons. And for the record, that is exactly how the rest of the world thinks of demons who are so self-serving that we don't respect the rights of others. Frankly, that's not a real good place to be if we want to call ourselves world leaders.

8) Go green. Okay, this one looks out of place, doesn't it? But it actually may be one of the most important things we can do to fight terrorism. Much of the strife on the planet right now has one source - our addiction to oil. Sure, there is sectarian strife, cultural strife, caste-based strife, religious-strife, etc. But much of that is also related to the fact that oil = riches and development (think Dubai), no oil = poverty and struggle (think India). By finding alternative - and sustainable - sources of energy we will remove much of the bases for conflict. Can we do it?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Who will be in charge of energy policy in Congress?

The Executive isn't the only branch of government ordering up moving vans. A good number of long time members of Congress have retired, and of course there will be turnovers in seats as a result of this past Tuesday's election. Add to that the fact that President-elect Obama is likely to tap several current members of both the House and Senate to serve in his Administration. Rahm Emanuel, who just won reelection to the House before being tapped as Obama's Chief of Staff, is just the first to leave an option seat behind him. So there will be some jockeying for positions going on over the next month or two.

But another trend (okay, not sure if it's a trend, or a couple of cases) is the removal or attempted removal of some of the older members from their vaunted positions of power on various committees. I had noticed this early on and then this morning saw this article on the Politico web site: No Congress for Old Men.

Mainly the article deals with two high profile cases. After serving on the Senate Appropriations Committee for 50 years, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia has voluntarily stepped down from his chairmanship. Voluntary is a relative term in government, and it was clear that he would be forced out if he didn't opt to do so willingly. At 90+ years old, it was time to release the chairmanship to someone who can more effectively run the Committee. This is arguably the most important committee in the Senate since it handles the money...No appropriations, no program (even if the program exists on paper). I'm not sure who will take over as chair, though there are quite a few well known names serving on the committee, most of whom are returning for the next Congress (though there are a few others that have either retired or been defeated [or in the case of Ted Stevens, might still win his election only to be forced out]).

The other big case pits one of the most vocal liberal members of the Democratic party (Rep. Henry Waxman of California) against one of the venerable and powerful chairs of the Energy and Commerce Committee (Rep. John Dingell of Michigan). This particular power struggle is fascinating and has potentially major ramifications for future energy legislation.
Most will remember Waxman's activism against the tobacco industry and others in his role as Chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. As might be expected from a California representative, Waxman is very environmentally friendly (according to environmental groups). He also sponsored the House's version of the "Kid Safe Chemical Act" that would dramatically reform the Toxic Substances Chemical Act (TSCA) [Senator Frank Lautenberg sponsored the original bill in the Senate]. You pretty much know where Waxman will be on any issue.

John Dingell, on the other hand, is a bit of a paradox. He is generally considered a liberal Democrat, and throughout his career he has been a leading congressional supporter of organized labor, social welfare measures and traditional progressive policies. He also "was a primary force behind enactment of the National Wilderness Act, the Water Quality Act of 1965, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act of 1977, the Safe Drinking Water Amendments of 1986, and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990." But Dingell is from Michigan, which has put him in the position of actually thwarting legislation that would increase the CAFE (fuel efficiency) standards, based on his feeling that it would hurt the already limping auto industry that remains a big part of Michigan's industrial base. Furthermore, Dingell's wife is a lobbyist for General Motors (and actually a decendant of the founders of GM). While Dingell is considered a reliable and powerful member of the Democratic caucus, he has been at odds with Speaker Pelosi and others on CAFE and climate change issues.

This, of course, has potentially huge ramifications for the prospects of developing sustainable energy policy, which is a goal that President-elect Obama has indicated is high on his list of priorities. So, would having someone like Waxman (a California, "business-oversight" guy) or Dingell (a Michigan, "I know the auto industry" guy) in charge of the committee that will ultimately play a large role in our energy policy of the future? Would Waxman's views result in push-back from industry? Would Dingell's views put him in a better bargaining position with an industry that will likely be further affected by changes to energy policy?


Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Election is Over - Now the Hard Work Can Begin

It seems like the Presidential election has been going on for two years. [Oh, it has, never mind.]

But it's over now.

We now have President-elect Barack Obama. Congratulations.

Now the hard work begins.

Over the course of the long campaign we have heard a lot of ideas for change. Some of them are workable, and some of them are...well, maybe not. The financial meltdown pretty much quashed some of the grand plans. Others may take a little longer to accomplish. Frankly, I think Obama was pretty clear during the campaign that change wasn't going to be easy. And it won't be. So how do we do it?

For starters, the President-elect has to choose his cabinet and advisors wisely. Like Lincoln's "Team of Rivals" (thank you Doris Kearns Goodwin), Obama should look for the best combination of people with vision along with varying viewpoints. Whereas the outgoing Administration was noted for it's preference of like-thinking advisors, the incoming Administration should seek a wide range of views. Good ideas are not restricted to one political party, and neither are bad ones. The central focus should be on defining the key priorities for the future, evaluating all the possible options, and finding a path forward. The development of these priorities and ideas needs to be as open and transparent as possible. No edicts from above. Rather, there should be public discourse and buy-in to the priorities we set. Obviously there are things that cannot be discussed in public - certain national security strategies come to mind - but the goal should be to involve the American public as much as possible. And Obama should lead for all Americans. He acknowledged this in his speech last night - "I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president, too." No more games. It's time to lead.

Another key is Congress. The election brought an even larger majority to the Democrats in both the House and the Senate. More importantly, we now have the Democrats controlling both of the main operating branches of the federal government. This gives the potential for great power. But as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. The Republican party controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, and frankly, they blew it. They saw it as a mechanism for securing their own party power rather than a mechanism for moving legislation that benefited all Americans. In all fairness, the Democrats didn't particularly use their power wisely either the last time they controlled both branches. It's time that Congress learned its lesson. Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid must act responsibly and ensure that important issues are brought to the floor for debate. They must ensure that the minority party gets a realistic say in how legislation is shaped. And the minority party (i.e., the Republicans) must play nice. No more stonewalling so nothing gets done just so you can get reelected by arguing the Democrats didn't accomplish anything. Both parties need to remember that they are elected to represent the people - not themselves - and not just the half or so of the public that voted for them, but all of the people. No more games. It's time to govern.

And the final key, of course, is us. We, the people. Our responsibility for governing this country doesn't end on election day. It begins. We must become informed as much as possible about key issues. The real issues, not the wedge issues that we argue over constantly and don't ever change. We need to tell our elected representatives that we want them to deal with the national debt, social security and medicare, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, climate change, environmental degradation, soaring health care costs, energy, education, international relations, etc. These are the issues that are why we have a federal level government. We must make it clear we want the President and Congress to deal with these issues. But we must also be honest with ourselves and our elected officials. We reward pandering, and so they have little choice but to pander. We complain about Congress incessantly, and then we reelect the incumbent 98+% of the time. We have an obligation to learn, and to make informed choices. And this means all of us. Not just the Democrats who have just seen their candidate elected. All of us. The Democrats in Congress can't accomplish much without the Republicans, and vice-versa. We all have one thing in common. We are all Americans. We all want the same things - peace, prosperity, and a welcome place to raise our families. And we want to leave behind a country and a planet for our children and grandchildren without also leaving them with a huge invoice for our short-sighted mistakes. We can only achieve our long term goals if we band together. We did it after 9/11. We can do it again. And we can start in our own communities. No more games. It's time for taking responsibility for our own actions.

And so, now that the election is behind us, we must focus on making the future better than the past. We all have a role to play in the grand scheme of managing this country. No more games.

It's time to do it right.

Let's get started.