Sunday, November 23, 2014

On riding the Congressional Red Wave

I'm not entirely hostile to the Republican Party, though for all that I malign democracy, the Democratic Party promotes a platform to which I am more sympathetic. This is due to two factors: First, I am an advocate for active social change rather than passive, laissez-faire methods. Second, I am actively opposed to religion and theocracy in all its forms and as such the coalition between the Republican Party and the politicized Christianity in America make it impossible for me to support any high-profile Republican in any capacity whatsoever.

So it should come as little surprise that I am less than pleased with the results of the midterm elections. It may be simple, stupid optimism, but I don't think that these results necessarily forebode a swing back towards the right wing in the 2016 presidential season. The next two years will constitute a trial period for the Republican Party, and the performance of Congress during this trial will have considerable impact on that election.

There are a few things that are going to influence this:

1) Repeal of the ACA - This could go either way. The Republicans have been after this since before it even passed, and so it is now one of the "big ticket" items on their agenda. This is something that will be used as a benchmark of their success, like getting out of Iraq and closing Guantanamo have been for Obama.

These benchmarks, of course, have very little to do with any actual effectiveness or competency, but because of their high profile and binary nature they are easy for voters to understand and rally behind. For this reason, the GOP essentially must pursue repeal of the ACA, despite what Mitch McConnell has promised in post-election interviews. To fail to do so is, in the mind of the voter, a failure of the GOP. The Republicans may expect that they can spin it as their efforts being blocked by the Democrats, but that spin is unlikely to hold up while they hold a majority. If it does, then the repeal of ACA gets to be a talking point for their next Presidential candidate. It's a tough tradeoff to measure.

Obviously, the greatest contributors to the enrollment numbers are the poor, who have seen an overall 9% decrease in uninsured people under the ACA. The kicker is that a higher percentage of Republicans gained insurance under the ACA than Democrats, so by repealing it Republicans will be hurting their own constituents, such as those in historically poor and republican areas such as Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi; and the deep south remains the most uninsured part of America.

Image Source: The New York Times
This does not indicate a large shift in votes, unfortunately, because voters tend to vote with ideology and not their brains. In Kentucky, for example, the ACA was a huge success. But despite high participation and a lack of an informed populace - who do not understand that the state franchise "Kynect" is an ACA program - voters in that state remain likely to support a repeal of the ACA and will probably blame Obama when their newly gained health insurance melts into the ether.

On the other side of the coin, young people (18-34), Hispanics, Blacks, and women all had significantly greater levels of enrollment than old white men. These are groups which tend to vote Democrat, and so will be fighting to keep the ACA on the books in two years' time.

2) Filibusters and Shutdowns - Unfortunately, the filibuster is a fact of life in Congress now - the commonly cited figure is that 70% of all bills before the Congress will be filibustered and only 2-3% of them will ultimately pass. The desirability of that latter point is a debate outside the scope of this discussion; it does, however, give an indication of the ability of our Congress to actually accomplish anything. As an organization tasked with running the nation and fixing its problems, a 2-3% implementation rate is eyebrow raising to say the least.

Abuse of this procedural artifact has been brought to light recently but it will make no real difference in the perception of either party. I assess that the minority party - which is the one with the most to gain from a filibuster - will suffer slightly more blame; on the other hand the mechanism is now identified in the public consciousness as a Republican strategy. At best, it comes out as a wash.

Speaking of Republican strategy, however, leads us into something which explicitly IS a Republican strategy: Holding the nation hostage via the Government Shutdown.

The shutdowns in recent years reflected extremely poorly on the Republicans, as the nation overwhelmingly (and rightly) viewed the loss of services as a dangerous and irresponsible act of political brinksmanship, rather than - as the GOP had hoped - as the inevitable results of a failure of the reigning Democrats to negotiate.

The voter has a short memory, as it turns out, and they decided that the solution was more Republicans. During the campaign season, Sen. Mitch McConnell threatened to use government shutdowns as a strongarm method to get their way. He quickly waffled on that point - presumably after an aide showed him the polls from the last shutdown - and has vowed "no shutdown, no repeal [of the ACA]" in the post-election interviews. At least one of those points is disingenuous, and the fact remains that the cat is out of the bag now. Congressional Republicans - who have to deal with not only Democrats, but the rogue and extremist Tea Party members - have historically demonstrated their willingness to shut the government down and it remains a threat that they can continue to employ. If the extremist elements within the GOP do not fall in line, the fallout from even the threat of a shutdown will reflect very poorly on a Republican Congress, who will be seen not only as disruptive as ever, but also as unable to control a congress in which they hold a majority.

Therefore, filibusters and shutdowns will inevitably end poorly for the Republicans in 2016, forcing them to take a less rigid, more ecumenical position in order to market themselves as a party that can solve problems.

3) Vetoes - There is really not much relevant data on veto-heavy terms. The Reconstruction era Presidency of Andrew Johnson, while culminating in an impeachment attempt, is not analogous because Congress had the votes to override a veto.

I expect, however, that a high number of vetoes is likely to go in favor of the GOP. Americans prefer an ecumenical government and the veto counteracts this idea in two ways.

First, it has the President throwing out the orders of our democratically elected Congress. Despite being democratically elected himself, there is simply no way to avoid the spin on this.

Second, while the Republicans hold a majority in Congress, they lack the supermajority necessary to override a veto. Once again, rather than being seen as the essence of republicanism in action, where our representatives have a balance of power which prevents a runaway Congress, this will be spun as a Democrat minority exercising a disruptive power to prevent the "will of the people". By passing laws that they expect to be vetoed, especially with the congressional tendency to attach emotionally charged titles to bills, the GOP can counteract at least some of the bad press from the above point by casting the democrats in an uncooperative and heartless light.

Expect the number of idiotic bills with emotional names and causes to increase as the election season picks up. The Republicans may also, in the spirit of Congress under Andrew Johnson, use a series of vetoes to pursue their OTHER high profile key agenda item: Impeachment of the President.

4) Impeachment of the President - This is the "Big Ticket" which the GOP has been pursuing for six years for no reason whatsoever. Mitch McConnell made assurances that his Congress would not shut down the government and that they would not fully repeal the ACA, but the impeachment of President Obama is still on the table.

This is a losing move for the Republicans and I hope they make it.

As above, they must pursue this point as a matter of public perception. Unlike with the ACA, however, there is a time limit. They cannot let this sit idle until they are in a better position to move - they must act in less than two years or they have failed.

Contrary to GOP hysteria, Obama has not committed any "Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors" and therefore is not subject to impeachment - or to be more precise, there is nothing to convict the President of in the event that impeachment proceeds to a trial before the Senate. Impeachment proceedings are a high profile case which would force the issue - Republicans would have to present their evidence and have it weighed. The failure of their case will be a high profile stain on years of campaigning, and the distraction of the case from other matters of national import will become a burden on the GOP for pursuing a petty political agenda at their expense.

Ultimately, I expect that it is safer for the Republicans to avoid the issue of impeachment overall so that they may maintain their theatrics, rather than suffer the much worse failure to convict the President. This puts them in a bind: as I've repeatedly said throughout this post, they must pursue impeachment now that they have a majority and the must do it within a set time limit.

It is possible that the GOP expects the payoff for repealing the ACA to be higher than that of even a half successful impeachment. Repeal of the ACA is high profile and the fallout from its removal lacks the immediacy necessary for the voters to attribute the cause of their ire appropriately. Should this be the case, it works against the Democrats in 2016 as well. Candidates can proudly say that they supported and defended the ACA should it survive a Republican assault; on the other hand,
failure of the GOP to impeach the President is not something which a Democratic candidate can mention without tying together the ideas of impeachment and the Democratic administration.

Ultimately, I don't expect either plan to come to fruition, but the GOP is likely to stage a big show of assaulting the ACA while letting their plans for impeachment fall by the wayside. This will give them contentious and ideologically charged fodder to ride in the 2016 presidential season. What remains is whether or not two years of a Republican Congress will convince the swing voters that the GOP is reactionary and dangerous, or if it will convince them that the GOP needs more rope to pursue its agenda.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Shrine of an Idiot God

While I am sympathetic for many reasons, I am increasingly of the opinion that one of the greatest recommendations of the monarchic system is that it has as an effect the disenfranchisement of essentially the entirety of a societies many, many idiots.

This has no bearing on the actual quantity of idiots present, or their vociferousness, but so long as the particular idiot that you hear is not the monarch, you can take comfort in the absolute knowledge that this idiot is not, and never will be, dictating policy. In this day and age I think nobody can deny the appeal of that sort of assured impotence in ones ideological opposition.

Imagine what changes there would be in our approach to discourse, which in the internet age is more prolific than ever, if it were known by both parties that their discussions are nothing but the exploration of hypotheticals? Without the illusion that anything said by any pundit has the slightest influence on policy, what good could getting worked up possibly do? From whence would come vitriol? Perhaps it is out of the habit of a lifetimes under a crown that gave our forefathers their seemingly effortless ability to discuss passionately matters of state, then just as quickly turn from them to more mundane subjects: a deeply ingrained belief that nothing they wrote actually had import or impact.

So what if the monarch is not brilliant, a master statesman? So what if now and again the monarch is one of the idiots? That is actually another upside which is critical to the contentment of the populace: Someone concrete to blame.

The monarch, as the State incarnate, literally is responsible personally for the well-being or otherwise of their subjects. If there is one thing that can be proven by the rantings of the people - of their blame casting and religious fervor and conspiracy theorizing and appeals to the state to intervene somehow - it is that the people above all want to know that someone is ultimately in charge. Not some amorphous, intangible Congress or Parliament. One solitary individual. Human nature all but demands a king.

And why not? Better to have one person in charge than this Byzantine mess of shifting allegiances and untraceable accountabilities. One person under whom we all thrive together or not; one person who is trained in the art of statecraft and who may even excel in it, potentially to bring us to new heights.

Let's not forget that the vast majority of governments have been some form of autocracy. The bulk of human achievement - art, technology, civics, literature, philosophy - has been accomplished under these conditions. The greatest and widest and longest lived empires the world has seen were united under a crown. Let's stop pretending that this is an accident.

Let's stop pretending that populist doublethink has truly improved upon tried and true methods. Let's abandon the idea that democracy and republicanism are new developments and logical progressions of autocratic government, when in fact these institutions date back to the ancient world. Let's stop pretending that by forcing politicians to pander to the populace for votes that we have attained greater transparency or accountability in our government; or that the plebians are even entitled to a hand at statecraft. Let's abandon that notion that says that all of us are better than some of us. Let's stop pretending that it isn't stupid to believe that democracy isn't mediocrity enshrined: that the law of averages somehow works in our favor in the long run.

Let's give monarchy another go of it.

Friday, October 17, 2014

On Iraqi WMD and the Justification for War

It is becoming public knowledge that there were chemical weapons found in Iraq during the 2003-2011 Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn. On its face this contradicts the long-running script that "we were lied to" about the pretenses for the war.

As usual, the truth is not so pure and simple.

I heard about these a few years back from a couple different Iraq vets. I mentioned it in passing when ISIS overtook an old chemical weapons plant this spring. We had captured the same plant in 2003 when we first swept through.

There is a key point th
at needs to be made: The difference between "Saddam's WMD program poses a threat" and "Saddam has old, leaky, improperly stored and probably inert WMD from the 1980's" is not a small difference.

What many people fail to realize is that hindsight is 20/20. They think that the indicators are obvious, when in fact they aren't. We "should have known" the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor. We "should have known" about the 9/11 attacks. We "should have known" that Saddam's WMD programs were in a sorry state.

Saddam was surrounded by enemies and fickle allies who would happily turn on him if they sensed weakness. His regime HAD to create the impression that they had WMD as a deterrent. It worked on Iran, it worked on Israel, it worked on Syria and Jordan and Egypt, and it nearly worked on us.

As Sun Tzu said, "All warfare is based on deception". It is the function of Intelligence to try and peel back the layers of deception, and sometimes Intelligence fails. Critics of the war conveniently forget the way that Saddam blocked and delayed inspectors and rattled his saber in the days leading up to the war.

These revelations do not fully vindicate the Iraq invasion, but it does lend credit to the posturing that Saddam did in 2002-2003. We did go to war in Iraq because we were fed falsehoods, but it looks more and more like those falsehoods were fed to us by Saddam, not by George W. Bush

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Aborting Jesus

In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt makes one of the most controversial claims I've ever seen: that legal and accessible abortion makes a better world. The data makes a compelling argument and if you would like to examine it and his arguments I urge you to pick up a copy of his incredibly interesting book.
The pro-life contingent is fond of asking "What if the baby was the cure for cancer?" or other such inane questions. It is inane because any problem has a solution which may be derived by anyone with the proper intelligence. New problems, on the other hand ...well, let's just say that the drop in crime rates observed two decades after Roe v. Wade wasn't attributable to the "cure for crime" being allowed to come to term.

Jesus is a great example of just such a situation. Imagine how much better the world might be if Joseph had done what he was supposed to do? (Hint: Deuteronomy 22:20-21; Numbers 5:11-31) There would be only one basic cult of Jehovah on the planet. The Dark Ages, the Crusades, the Inquisition, Sharia ...and likewise, the reactions to those forces: communism, the French Reign of Terror, the Holocaust, Pogroms. Lesser banes like Intelligent Design would also be absent from the world today.

In the void left by Jesus' absence there would be new atrocities, for sure. Humans are atrocious, and religions are made by humans. But what if three quarters of the world's population wasn't all devoting their bloodshed to the same God, whose cults have written into their texts the world's most reassuring excuses for horror yet devised? Mind that even the religious wars in Hindu and Buddhist areas in the modern day are fought against one sect of the cult of Jehova.

Perhaps this is the key to Christopher Hitchens' note of the correlation between Women's Rights (and reproductive freedom) and the quality of life and freedom of an area. Perhaps the causal relationship is not only direct; but it is as Hitchens suggest, that women's rights and reproductive freedom create conditions for a better world.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Thin Blue Lifeline.

I saw one of those uplifting, good news type stories in my news feed today:

Police officer picks up tab for the groceries a desperate mother tried to STEAL to feed her struggling family

I re-shared it for a couple reasons.

First, it's awfully popular to hate on the police. I understand that what they do is often unpopular, and very few of us ever have or take the opportunity to have a pleasant encounter with the thin blue line. In a larger sense, this is true of everything we do. We can be model employees, but a single fuckup is what our bosses will tend to remember. So it is important that we take time to remember that these individuals have taken a job that they know is unpopular, that doesn't pay well, and is dangerous, almost universally out of a sense of service. It is also important to remember that most of them retain that sense of service and community; and to remind ourselves in positive ways why it is that such a profession exists. The watchman doesn't just repel dangers, but checks in to ensure our well being. Which leads to my second reason:

This is exactly what the police ought to do.

I'm not saying buy groceries for folk, that was an act of charity above and beyond the duties of an officer. But it is an indicator of how the officer ought to view their role and act within that role, and that role is as a member of the community.

I've heard people wax nostalgic about the days when the cops that walked a beat in your neighborhood knew your name. I am wary of nostalgia, but this is a worthwhile goal. It fosters a sense of connection between the officers and their charges. It enhances community appreciation of the police. It means that there are enough police to have them walking about and knowing their areas and the people within them.

I'm writing about this news item here for a third reason. A while ago I opined on nullification, and made the point that while the police ought not to have de jure powers of nullification, the realities of law enforcement give them such powers de facto. This good news story is an example of this de facto nullification: the law requires that the woman, a thief, should be arrested and punished; in most cases the law is perfectly logical and therefore should remain standing. However, the officer took the time to consider the situation and chose not to enforce the law, because in this specific situation the effect of doing so would have been beyond negative. This officer, rather than act without imagination, did the right thing without the waste of time, money, and paper that would go into legislating every conceivable exception that can or ought to be made to the law.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Spy Games

If you asked me what the most myopic thing in the news today is, I'd give the outrage over this as an answer:

US coping with furious allies as NSA spying revelations grow
US should accept limits on spying on allies
Spying on Allies Fits President Obama's Standoffish Profile

The majority of news sources are treating the "revelations" that the US spies on its allies as some sort of bombshell, as though international relations were conducted between preteens who still get shocked when they find out their friends talk about them behind their backs.

And so, in this "Hollywood Tonite" approach to International Relations, we are treated to surprise when it is revealed that Germany is still talking to us and has a delegation of intelligence professionals en route to the US.

They speculate, in their ignorance, that it is to discuss getting the US to knock it the hell off.

That is total bullshit, and I think any reasonable adult who steps outside, gets a breath of fresh air, and forgets the hype, can understand why.

NPR gets it:
4 Things To Know About Spying On Allies

Everyone spies on everyone. It's an accepted and expected aspect of international relations. Society is a bit weird, though, and holds a bit of a double standard. So while Barack Obama and Angela Merkel may have assumed (or even explicitly known) that they were being spied on, there has to be a bit of a public shit-show for the plebes when "embarrassing" revelations are made.

Chancellor Merkel shakes a finger at President Obama, and in a few weeks, everything quiets down and the world moves on.

At least, that would be the case if it wasn't for some very REAL embarrassments that didn't change the situation slightly.

Embarrassments like these assholes:

The US spying on allied countries is no big deal until the very instant the US starts having problems containing its classified information, because information taken by spies tends to be of a classified nature - that is, it's not just American secrets that are at risk.

So this hubbub over American indiscretion is not entirely disingenuous. There IS a big problem with the US spying on our allies. But it has nothing to do with Chancellor Merkel feeling invaded. It has to do with feeling exposed.

My guess is that the German intelligence envoy is not going to spend most of their time discussing how much less spying the US can do on Germany - though in a grand scheme of things it would be advantageous to do so - but rather inspecting US security protocols to ensure that German secrets are adequately protected.

They will also likely take some time to work out what German secrets have already been compromised so that the German government can get a head start on some PR and damage control. The French, and any other allies, would be smart to make similar assurances for themselves. Given the close-knit nature of Europe, they may be piggy-backing on the German mission. It would be more prudent for them to see to their own business, though, and I expect visits from our NATO partners will be coming soon. Once everybody's asses are sufficiently covered, this little debacle will simply fade from public consciousness.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

"This Man's Army"

There are an unbelievable number of preventable, serious breaches of honor and integrity occurring in the military.

Snowden worked at NSA for less than a year and took the job with the intention of leaking information.

In the entire clearance process, not ONE person managed to make him as a fraud.

Manning showed countless signs of being unhinged. Not one person in his chain of command did what was necessary to stop him before it was too late. Not one person who in-processed him made him as a confused and tormented individual. Instead, we handed him a clearance.

The Army is going to try and make this about individuals, but there are critical failures within the Army itself that are going unaddressed. As we speak, there are half a thousand students going through AIT to become Intelligence Analysts. By the end of the year, the majority of them will be handling sensitive information. Nowhere near that proportion of them is actually mentally and/or psychologically qualified to do that job with the attention to detail and gravitas it requires. They are being permitted to do things which they ought not to be because the Army is willing to cut corners to fill the demands of a war that is all-but over.

Manning, Snowden, and Hassan are guilty and deserve punishment. None of what I've said is intended to exonerate them. But let's not forget that the blame for the damage they have done does not rest solely with them.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Some Sense Regarding Syria

Given my line of work, I've been keeping abreast of the Syrian Civil War. My coworkers and I have formed some ...unpopular opinions about the best course of action.

To wit, we're rooting for Assad.

This is not because he's necessarily a great guy. We joke sometimes that he should get a nomination for Time's "Man of the Year" because he has managed (despite the claims every few weeks to the contrary) to avoid using his chemical stockpile in his efforts to maintain order in the country, and by extension maintain stability in Asia Minor.

That last little piece is what is most important here. In case you've been entirely ignorant of world affairs the last two years, the entire Middle East is in a bit of an uproar. Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Afghanistan are either in the midst or on the brink of what we'll euphemize as "major paradigm shift"

In many cases, this is not necessarily a good thing. I'll talk more about it in another post, which will focus on Egypt, but suffice it to say that we, as a nation, have some very simple and idealistic notions which often serve to act counter to our best interests as a nation.

Were it not for the Syrian government's connections to Iran and Hezbollah, I firmly believe that our internal debate about which side (if any) to choose in the Syrian conflict would have been ended months ago in favor of Assad.

Syria was one of the most stable countries in the Levant. They had a mostly secular government which, due to its composition of a minority sect, served to protect the rights of both Sunni and Shia Muslims within the country. Sympathies towards Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas comprised a known element which could be accounted for, which both the United States and Israel did.

The Syrian opposition represents not only an unknown quantity, but an unpredictable one. The rebels are not a unified group, but a loosely affiliated cluster of dissident organizations who have little in common but a mutual interest in the destabilization of the Syrian region. Many of the groups have terrorist support. Many of them are openly anti-US. These are important considerations for any aid: There is no way to control which aspects of the Syrian Opposition get support, but the Syrian Military, which is an organized and homogenous force, CAN offer that security. There is no way to know which faction of the Syrian Opposition will attain power should they win; but we know from experience EXACTLY how the Assad regime will behave.

To oversimplify, the Syrian conflict boils down to the old dilemma of "the enemy you know" versus "the enemy you don't". This is an oversimplification because we know, at least in part, a bit of the enemy we have in the Syrian Opposition, and it is an enemy that no country - not even Iran - has an interest in handing control of a nation and its resources.

The US Government has been wavering on the subject of intervention in the Syrian Conflict. Due to the pressures and misguided sympathies of an uninformed and capricious public, we have been supplying marginal amounts of aid to the rebels. But it is best that we remain uncommitted in this conflict, and deal with whoever the victor is from a neutral position. Fortunately, it appears the victor (absent US, NATO, or UN intervention) will be the standing Syrian government. They have the military hardware, the air supremacy, and funding from some of the greatest military powers in the world on their side. By withdrawing from the Syrian conflict, we all but assure Assad's victory and can resume diplomacy in the Middle East status quo ante.

And finally, someone in the US government has seen and heard reason, and has spoken in its favor.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Difference Between Retreat and Tactical Withdrawal

In a disappointing turn of events today, Brad Manning was acquitted of what was arguably the most important charge leveled against him: Aiding and Abetting the Enemy.

This means that he has dodged a minimum mandatory life sentence, though this could (and arguably, should) be a matter of semantics. The full weight of the crimes for which he has been found guilty carry a combined sentence of well over a hundred years.

This is assuming that the sentences are not served concurrently.

As my opening statement made abundantly clear, I have no love or respect for Manning. I remain hopeful that he spends the rest of his life behind bars. Furthermore, I am hopeful that his acquittal on the charge of primary importance was politically motivated to create advantages for the preservation of Information Security.

Edward Snowden is currently seeking, and has received a limited version of, political asylum. The Russians, who currently hold his fate in their hands, have so far protected him on two grounds: First, that they feel the United States have been unduly harsh on perceived whistleblowers (no doubt a reference to the trial of Manning). Second, that they have no extradition treaty with the United States. While this second point will require some considerable political maneuvering, the first provides the crux of whether or not Snowden will receive asylum.

By acquitting Manning, the issue of leaks has been depoliticized. Manning and Snowden are now simply at risk of punishment for crimes which the whole world, themselves included, admit committing. Intelligence is a sacred lifeline for all nations, and no self-respecting government can brook a threat to the security of their secrets.

This is surely not lost on the Russians, whose protection of Snowden has no end other than the pique of the United States. However, all nations have a public face to present, and so in order to be the guardians of order and righteousness which they proclaimed in their issuance of partial protection to Snowden, they will be put in a tough spot by the news that Manning is officially not a traitor. If they do not return Snowden, the grounds for asylum are also now clearly not present, and Snowden may have to find himself in places where less political power can be brought to bear in his defense.

A similar case may also be found in Julian Assange, who has managed to hide himself away in an embassy in London lest he face extradition. The whole of Europe, who fretted over the injustice of his possible fate as a spy in the United States, now has no reason to worry and therefore no reason to sour relations with the United States over a single muckraker, hacker, and thief.

All told, I am hopeful that my disappointment will turn into a greater overall victory as we are able to thoroughly and without hindrance persecute and prosecute these traitors and spies who proclaim "anti-secrecy" and once again establish the rule of law and order in our Intelligence communities.

"I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are."
-William Tecumseh Sherman