Confronting ISIS — More or Less

Yesterday I watched a disturbing news report on TV. It discussed a news conference by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and included relevant video clips. The reporter started off indignant about what he was hearing but then dissolved into helpless laughter. Truly, what Carter was saying sounded ludicrous although he kept a perfectly straight face throughout.

Remember our plan for dealing with ISIS in Syria? Last June, the President asked Congress for $500M to arm and train “reliable” Syrian dissidents to combat ISIS. After much grunting and groaning, this effort has given birth to its first training group. When they are ready, this formidable force will consist of 90 fighters. Let me repeat that number, 90! And probably not all would actually be fighters. In a comparable U.S. force, not more than half would be at the pointy end of the spear. Carter went on to say that another such group should enter training within a month.


At this rate and force size, given attrition and likely desertions in the field, I doubt that we could maintain a constant fighting force much above a few hundred at most.  And that assumes that they actually fight rather than run, a possibility not easily dismissed given our experience in Iraq. Just for comparison, while estimates vary wildly, it is generally believed that 50-100 foreign fighters join ISIS every day. They will swat this dissident brigade off like they do the ubiquitous sand flies of the Syrian desert.

To be fair, I don’t much like any of the alternatives, but pretending that this holds real promise is a joke — but not a very amusing one. As an aside, listening to Secretary Carter present his case reinforced an impression I got from his confirmation hearings. Based on his curriculum vitae he is a very smart and accomplished man, but he is in dire need of a good speech coach.


Running for President

Recently Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) made a brief pass at running for President in 2016. He has as good a resume as other likely candidates and better than many. After careful consideration and advice from experts, he determined that a run would take too much of his time and conflict with his executive responsibilities. What an amazing epiphany!

Anyone who has made a serious run in the past, even if unsuccessful, could have easily told him how many of his waking hours would go into the effort. The answer is all of them! Running for President is either a full-time job or it is just an exercise in self-aggrandizement. I am guessing that The Donald will have time to hawk time-shares while he toys with another run.

Even if you believe it is too early to get personally invested in the coming election, this fact has important implications for you. Has your Governor or Senator announced his candidacy, or is he making moves that indicate that he will? If so, he is effectively going on a long, paid sabbatical. He will no longer serve the interests of his constituents, focusing solely on his ambitions for higher office. A principled public servant would offer his resignation upon announcing his candidacy, or perhaps even a bit earlier when he departs to drum up support and money for the run. (Yes, I am aware that I seem to be ignoring female candidates, but it is burdensome to maintain gender neutrality in the text. If  you wish, just think “he or she” wherever appropriate.)

Governors really matter in the lives of their constituents. And irrespective of Mark Twain’s sardonic remark about the dangers of a sitting legislature, each Senator also matters. The Senate makes many important decisions and often the vote margin is small. So if your Governor or Senator is mounting his political steed without dismounting from office, I suggest you think about whether he is someone you can really trust to look out for your interests.

I am directing these remarks at those of you in Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. So, wake up!

As a historical aside, you probably noticed that I restricted this discussion to Governors and Senators, although candidates have sometimes had different backgrounds. In the early days of our history, the office of Secretary of State was a stepping stone to the presidency. And that is also an office with heavy responsibilities that affect everyone. However, since the Hatch Act of 1939, no sitting Secretary of State can run for President, so this is now moot. The other frequent source of candidates is the office of Vice-President. But aside from such outliers as Dick Cheney, they are usually inconsequential and no one would even notice if they just went fishing. As John Nance Garner put it succinctly, “the vice presidency is not worth a bucket of warm spit (expurgated version).”

The Police in Baltimore

This afternoon it happened again. An innocent black man was shot in the back as he was running away from a policeman in the same Baltimore neighborhood as the last tragedy. There were several eyewitnesses to the incident, one of whom was actually a Fox News reporter.

The reporter interviewed a woman who said that she had been standing less than 30 feet from the shooting. She related how the policeman just raised his weapon and shot the man with no warning whatsoever. She was understandably agitated but gave a calm and detailed account. The reporter said that he personally observed the incident from almost as close by.  He noted that he didn’t see the man make any threatening moves and that he saw the policeman draw his weapon. A crowd assembled around the fallen man, shouting that he had been shot in the back. Several took cellphone photos of his lifeless body to memorialize yet another atrocity by police.

Can we expect more riots tonight, and are they at least somewhat understandable?

But wait…almost none of this is true! What actually occurred was that the man was approached by a policeman who observed him carrying a weapon. The man swiftly ran away but tripped in his haste and the gun accidentally discharged. No one was struck by the shot. The man didn’t appear to be seriously injured by his mishap but he was transported to the hospital out of an abundance of caution.

When the truth finally filtered out some calm prevailed, and Fox News shamefacedly issued a correction and an apology. But in all likelihood there remain many people in the neighborhood who still believe that there was yet another police brutality.


I don’t know what you take from this, but I think we really need to rethink the use of eyewitnesses in court. As a minimum, the judge should issue a warning that they are often unreliable. (Actually I was going to use stronger language, but I like to keep my blog posts safe for general viewing.)

Presidential Crises

Presidents-in-CrisisTo borrow a Monty Python trope, and now for something entirely different. Usually this blog briefly records my personal observations on current events, but this time I want to discuss those of someone else. Michael K. Bohn has written an insightful and riveting book entitled “Presidents in Crisis: Tough Decisions inside the White House from Truman to Obama.” This is a well-researched insider’s view of how Presidents deal with their inevitable crises. I recommend it unreservedly to anyone interested in our history and how the Presidency actually operates under duress.

Mr. Bohn served as Director of the Situation Room under Ronald Reagan so he knows first-hand how this really works. And make no mistake, what we in the public see is mostly just the results not the difficult and often confusing process by which they are produced. Presidents have to make decisions in the face of conflicting advice and limited or unreliable information. Events usually don’t permit leisurely review. How each President handles this reveals a great deal about them both personally and professionally.


Every President since WWII has endured challenging crises, and of course also before then. However, Mr. Bohn confines his study to the post-war administrations. Truman had the Korean War, Eisenhower faced the 1956 Suez War and the U-2 Incident, Kennedy reaped the whirlwind of the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought us close to nuclear Armageddon, and so on. No President was spared a crisis where his decisions — and his alone — were critical to our nation’s future. Nothing truly prepares one for it. Presidents must draw upon inner resources that hopefully we correctly discern when we elect them.

I want to quote a brief anecdote from the book’s introduction, not because it is representative of the contents but because it illustrates how differently things appear from the inside. These may be important events but after all these are human beings dealing with them.

None of these crises offered much more than an isolated moment or gesture that brought a smile to a participant. However, Henry Kissinger told me one of these rare incidents, which occurred late in the 1973 October War. Washington and Moscow had exchanged serious messages on the Hot Line on October 23 when Israel ignored United Nations cease-fire resolutions in an attempt to capture or neutralize the Egyptian Third Field Army on the Sinai Peninsula. Kissinger called Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz from the White House Situation Room and demanded that Dinitz urge Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to immediately stop the hostilities.

Henry momentarily lost his composure. “Jesus Christ!” he yelled, “Don’t you realize how important this is?” Kissinger quietly listened to Dinitz’s deadpan reply, “Henry, my government might be more persuaded if you invoke the name of a different prophet.”

After reading this book I had two epiphanies. The first is that knowing a great deal about what transpires in world events, as I do as an avid history buff, is not enough to properly evaluate a President’s actions. It is also necessary to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the process too. As a result I have somewhat altered my perception of more than one President. The second is that perhaps anyone who aspires to the Presidency either doesn’t understand the job or has delusions about it that should probably disqualify him. That’s something to consider as we enter the new election cycle, isn’t it?

The Left Finds a Voice

bernie-sandersBernie is in and now it gets interesting. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I, VT) threw his hat into the race for the Presidency and instantly became the standard-bearer for the left-wing of the Democratic party. Those who have been begging Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D, MA) to run now have a port in the coming storm.

Many will immediately shrug this off as a quixotic venture. There are so many reasons why Bernie hasn’t the proverbial snowball’s chance that it is tempting to assume that his entry is irrelevant. He is a 73-year-old Jew, a self-described democratic-socialist, and the Senator from a negligible state. In years past, any one of these factors would have disqualified him. And he has tenuous connections with the party whose nomination he is seeking, although he does caucus with them in the Senate. He has no national presence or organization and, as far as I can tell, neither the big bank account nor deep pocket supporters that are now considered essential for a meaningful run. So why does he matter?

There are at least two reasons. Even if he doesn’t win a single primary or caucus, he will push Hillary Clinton off her current policy of avoiding controversy. The comparison alone with the outspoken Sanders will be invidious. She can’t tread so lightly anymore without appearing too light-footed to take on the job of President. For example, no longer can she dance around the issue of international trade pacts like the Trans Pacific Partnership. Secondly, Bernie will give her fits in the Democratic debates, especially if the field remains small. He is frank and speaks his mind with the determination of a New Yorker from Brooklyn, even though he long ago moved from his roots – though not dropping his distinctive accent to be sure. The debates will be at worst entertaining and at best more informative than past ones have been.

I like Bernie even though I don’t agree with some of his ideas or proposals. I am sick and tired of politicians who bend with the wind and speak in tiresome generalities. Bernie will be a breath of fresh air and for that reason alone I welcome his candidacy. As an aside, I am not influenced in this by the fact, recently discovered, that he and I were fellow students at the University of Chicago.

The Lost War on Drugs

An aspect of the topical debate about policing is the issue of zero tolerance policing. Some liberals point a finger at this as a cause of unreasonably high incarceration rates among the underprivileged, particularly blacks in inner cities. On the other hand, it is widely acknowledged that this has contributed to reducing crime, although the exact correlation and significance is disputed.

But what puzzles me is what exactly is the alternative? Five percent tolerance policing? Ten percent? Which laws should be ignored and why? Is it a function of who breaks the law? Actually, neither the concept nor its alternatives survive close examination.

More to the point, perhaps the rules should be different in the ghetto from those in more affluent areas to compensate for different life experiences. I believe that this is essentially what I hear from some advocates and politicians. But then what about the victims of crime? Who speaks for them? Lax law enforcement is a dubious remedy. If the root causes are bad laws, then face up to it and change them.

That is precisely the situation. There is one cause underlying all of this. Fix it and many of these issues will fade into insignificance. It is our drug policy. Like the Volstead Act almost a century ago, this has been a failed experiment in moral enforcement. There are good arguments for trying to limit drug usage, but indiscriminate prohibition and fierce enforcement causes at least as many ills as it cures.

Drug War QuestionZero tolerance enters into this by focusing enforcement on drug users rather than suppliers and transporters. The idea was that strict enforcement and draconian penalties would quench demand and lead to the ideal of a drug-free society. No consideration was permitted for degree of violation or the known differences among varieties of narcotic substances. It is mindless, and consideration of predictable societal impacts was entirely ignored.

Let’s face facts. We have lost this war on drugs and our casualties have been severe, most notably in the poorer neighborhoods. Let’s try more judicious controls and see if that works better. This doesn’t mean anything goes; there must be some sensible middle ground. We could hardly be worse off, or at least that is so for the currently over-criminalized segments of society.

The False Hope of Compromise

Researchers into how people organize their thoughts have discovered a strong correlation with political leaning. They use a simple test that goes as follows. Subjects are presented with three images: a scarf, a mitten, and a hand. Then they are asked which two objects are most closely related.

Broadly speaking, there are two distinct modes of thought. Holistic thinking is oriented toward context, basing choices on situations and circumstances. Analytic thinking detaches objects from contexts and uses categorical rules. In this test, holistic thinkers choose the relational pairing — mittens are worn on the hand — while analytic thinkers choose the categorical pairing — the scarf and mitten are items of winter clothing. Which did you pick?

People tend to think holistically when they hold an interdependent, connected view of the self, emphasizing harmony over self-expression. Analytic thinkers believe in autonomy and self-direction, with the stress being on personal responsibility. Of course each person can and does switch between these modes of thought, although one usually dominates.

The correlation which this research has revealed is that liberals tend to think holistically while conservatives tend to be analytical. Moreover this divergence appears most strongly at the outer fringes in both groups.

This goes a long way toward explaining the different world views of each political camp and why there is constant misunderstanding between them. It is often asserted that their conflicts primarily stem from differing values, but this research seems to indicate that it is even more basic than that. It isn’t the conclusions by which they differ as much as how they reach them. They simply think differently. Both modes of thought are sound and practical, but in specific circumstances each group would believe that the other ignores realities that they find obvious.

We Agree

So, anyone expecting either convergence or compromise is unrealistic. This does happen, but in such cases each side is simply putting up with some of the other’s ill-informed beliefs for the sake of some greater good. There is actually no agreement at all. What is worse is that each such arrangement fails to build trust that might lead to further compromises.