by Harry C. Blaney III

Most of President Obama’s State of the Union speech was focused on domestic issues, especially the need for America to move forward in dealing with glaring inequality and the need for good paying jobs, but not least improving education and investment in science and technology in our decaying infrastructure. These are, in fact, intertwined with America’s leadership capabilities in an increasingly high risk and complex world. He called last night for a more robust diplomacy and an end to “endless wars” that sap the strength of America and its larger purpose in our world. The speech was both idealistic and realistic, a trait that characterizes much of President Obama’s stance on dealing with many challenges he has had to face.


Given the bitter opposition by the right wing Republicans throughout his tenure, he focused in large part on what could be accomplished at home and abroad on his own. Not to the exclusion of finding some common ground on some issues, but clearly he has been chastened by single-minded and merciless obstruction.


While the president has real limits on what he can do at home, he has more freedom to act abroad. That was shown in the last part of his speech when he clearly set forth his large and ambitious but difficult agenda for the coming year and, perhaps, years. He and his Secretary of State John Kerry have decided, against great odds, to go for the “hail Mary” in football terms. The list is ambitious as it is long. Likely not all of it will end in success, as is often the case in messy and contentious foreign affairs challenges. Perhaps some will, but in any case, it is worth the effort since in many cases, the alternatives are very large disasters for us and others. What is the purpose of his presidency if it is not to address our larger global threats and challenges? He said it well in, “America does not stand still, and neither will I.”


Let’s look at that list and how Obama addressed the international issues to the American people, as that was his main audience since some half of the Congressional audience was in a dead brain coma. Just look at Speaker John Boehner during the speech, and you will know that syndrome.


The president made one of the most difficult tasks ahead in American diplomacy a key priority, namely finding a lasting peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Secretary Kerry is moving as swiftly as possible towards a plan that would smoke out both sides in this long-running dispute that threatens the stability of the entire Middle East. The time has indeed come, perhaps at a difficult juncture because Prime Minister Netanyahu has done just about everything he could to destroy any chance of peace and a fair agreement. On the other side, the Palestinian leadership has been weak, but some of that weakness has been created by the illegal Israeli settlements in Arab land and new settlements that can only be aimed at trying to get the other side to pull out of negotiations. Yet, what is on offer is a so-called “Kerry Plan,” which of necessity must not fully please anyone but give enough that all can and should live with it. The president gave his full backing to this effort and the two state solution in his State of the Union and in quite promises to support Israel’s long-term security under any fair accord. He said: “As we speak, American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there; to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the State of Israel—a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side.”


On the other difficult negotiation, namely sanctions dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as Obama stated, America has made real progress, and he made clear that new legislation that has been proposed by a group of anti-Obama Republicans and some Neo-Con war hawks will get his veto if passed before the conclusion of the present talks dealing with the long-term issues.


He made his argument thus:


“And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program – and rolled parts of that program back – for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. It is not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify, every day, that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.


“But these negotiations do not rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.


“The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible. But let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed. If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. But if Iran’s leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.


“Finally, let’s remember that our leadership is defined not just by our defense against threats, but by the enormous opportunities to do good and promote understanding around the globe – to forge greater cooperation, to expand new markets, to free people from fear and want. And no one is better positioned to take advantage of those opportunities than America.”


One key part of his SOU speech was his clear and decisive direction on ending the long-term wars America has been engaged in over the last decade. Again, in his own words:


“Tonight, because of the extraordinary troops and civilians who risk and lay down their lives to keep us free, the United States is more secure. When I took office, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, all our troops are out of Iraq. More than 60,000 of our troops have already come home from Afghanistan. With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role. Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over.”


It is the almost impossible challenge of trying to get the warring factions of Syria and their external backers to bring a measure of security and peace to this major civil war that threatens a major regional inter-communal conflict.


The problem of Syria was touched on, and this may be his weakest component in the international section. Apart from support for the existing diplomacy, he only briefly mentioned support of the moderate opposition forces, but did not set out any larger vision or new ideas of how to put an end of this horrific killing fields. He said, “In Syria, we’ll support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks… American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated, and we will continue to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve – a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear.” Perhaps the statement was short because hard new decisions remain under debate in the administration and awaits the final outcome of Geneva II. It could also be the almost impossible challenge of trying to get the warring factions of Syria and their external backers to bring a measure of security and peace to this major civil war that threatens a serious regional inter-communal conflict. 


What was also left out was addressing our challenges in Asia, especially the China-Japan clash, the rise of China, dealing with Putin’s Russia, North Korean nuclear efforts, and a fully defined vision on how to deal with climate change, global health needs, poverty and inequality, and strengthening international institutions. However, the speech, for good reasons, mainly addressed domestic policies. One can hope before too long Obama will set forth his fuller vision for all the other international issues that need America’s attention.


Obama clearly sees as his lasting legacy the ending of not only the headless Iraq war, but also finally, the active fighting by Americans and the allied forces in Afghanistan. He has seen the price of these wars to Americans and the blood and resources they cost. On his watch, America will see the end of large scale warfare in a distant land which sadly had little understanding of consequences and mission.


But the larger message of this speech was Obama’s diplomatic and international ambition of a new vision for America and the world that does not heed the erroneous militaristic and stupid turn our nation took with the start of the Bush II administration. He outlined his hope for an America that will again be a constructive and thoughtful world leader using all the tools of “soft power,” while holding the use of military force only when absolutely necessary and when objectives and risks are clear.


I thought there was one statement which set forth succinctly and clearly President Obama’s perspective. “Finally, let’s remember that our leadership is defined not only just by our defense against threats, but by the enormous opportunities to do good and promote understanding around the globe—to forge greater cooperation, to expand new markets, to free people from fear and want. And no one is better positioned to take advantage of those opportunities than America.”


We welcome your comments.



obama 2



Harry C. Blaney III


America under President Obama and Secretary John Kerry is clearly embarked on a difficult and comprehensive set of diplomatic initiatives to try to change the serious global “risk ratios” for America and the international community. But frankly the stakes are high and the rewards are elusive but possible. The problem is that they have been thwarted both by opponents abroad and from partisan opposition at home. The idea of a bipartisan foreign policy is no more a reality than a domestic love fest on domestic issues. These myopic and obstinate obstructions have both stalled progress on a host of domestic issues and on achieving progress towards greater global prosperity and a more peaceful world.


Tonight the President will make his State of the Union address and the prediction is that it will focus on inequality and unemployment, but it will likely also note the challenges America faces abroad.  For one thing, Obama was handed a raw deal when he came into office, including a global recession bordering on depression, nuclear dangers looming in Iran, Pakistan, India, North Korea, and not least disastrous, costly, and mismanaged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On top of that, a global existential threat to mankind by climate change and the growth of inequality on a global scale.  He was opposed on almost every policy when he tried to deal with these issues. In his first term, the Republicans in Congress made clear that his reelection was their first and only goal — which they did not achieve. Now in his second term, malevolent opposition and obstruction are their main tools to prevent progress at home and abroad.


Iran is just such an example. While we are engaged today on a broad set of interrelated diplomatic efforts to contain malevolent forces especially in the Middle East and beyond, the Congress led by mostly, but not exclusively, Republicans are trying to scuttle the negotiations between the G-5 plus 1 Group and the EU and IAEA with Iran. They are doing this by now threatening to add unneeded sanctions to scuttle the path to a possible peaceful agreement and to entice the Iranians back out of any deal and move America towards an added war against Iran in which American lives are to be put at risk for no benefit and much cost to us and the rest of the world.


The sad part is that under Obama America has added key, strong, and comprehensive international sanctions of unparalleled harshness. These have cut Iran’s oil exports by nearly two thirds and imposed new bans on Iran’s banking sector. Together they have deeply impaired and impacted Iran financially. The Iranian Rial has lost about 80 percent of its value. Inflation and unemployment surged, and as a result, they have come to the table based on Obama reaching out to find a peaceful solution that can rid Iran of any nuclear weapons program. But any agreement must also have some benefit to Iran, especially to its economy. Both sides have to have a stake in the outcome.


Recently in the New York Times (1/27/14), Senators Carl Levin and Angus King argued that “There are only two ways to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon: negotiations or military action.” They stated the essential truth and the inevitable conclusion is that those who argue for new sanctions before the results of the negotiations are known want us to go to war. We need to ask why and at what cost to us and our allies who have backed the previous sanctions we proposed, thinking that they would lead to talks and not war.


The two Senators argue that: “The increasingly stringent economic sanctions that have been imposed on Iran over the last three decades have worked. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, came to office last year promising an improved economy, and he seems to have quickly realized that the only way to deliver on this promise is by achieving relief from the sanctions.”


They added:

“For us to impose additional sanctions under these circumstances (or threaten to impose additional sanctions) could be an “I told you so” moment for these [Iranian] hard-liners, providing the very excuse they’re looking for to kill the negotiations and, with them, what is probably the best chance we have of resolving this incredibly dangerous situation without resorting to military action. From our vantage point as senators serving on the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, the risk analysis is quite straightforward.


“The potential upside of legislating further sanctions is the hope that increased pressure might elicit more concessions or push Iran to conclude a more favorable deal. But this is unlikely. The potential downside is more likely and more dangerous: Iran’s decision makers could conclude that the United States government was not negotiating in good faith — a view that Iranian hard-liners already espouse. This could prompt Iran to walk away from the negotiations or counter with a new set of unrealistic demands while redoubling its efforts to produce nuclear weapons.


“Instead of slowing Iran’s nuclear program, such legislation could actually accelerate its quest for atomic weapons, leaving a stark choice: Either accept the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, or use military force to stop it.


“Worse still, it could alienate our international partners. The sanctions have been effective largely because of the active participation of many countries, including China and Russia. When the United States alone doesn’t buy Iranian oil, it has little effect on Iran’s economy, but when the European Union stops, and other major oil customers of Iran such as China, Japan, South Korea, India and Turkey significantly reduce their purchases (which they have), Iran is in trouble (which it is).”


Their bottom line was “We don’t know whether Iran can be persuaded to peacefully give up its nuclear weapons ambitions — but it is very much in our interest to give this diplomatic process every chance to succeed.” I would add that the Iranians have said they do not want nuclear weapons and they too are working against the wishes of their hardliners to try and make a “deal” which they know in advance would require concessions on their overall nuclear ambitions and especially enrichment at and above 20%.


Iran’s intentions remain a bit of a puzzle and remain murky. The want to be the voice of Shiites throughout the region, they want to be a “great” regional, if not global power.  They see the Sunni countries as a threat to their regional standing, but also likely want now an economy that is growing, with lower inflation and to create jobs and exports.


They many also want to be seen as an accepted leadership nation in the larger global context. They know they are more seen now as a kind of rogue state. They know they will get none of these goals without the lifting of sanctions. That alone is reason to continue to negotiate and to even seek, overtime, a larger range of cooperation and rapprochement. The reality is that nuclear weapons in the hand of Iranians is more a danger to them than a useful tool. How could they use it or even threaten it without themselves bringing upon them self-destruction?


The Iranian debate in Congress and among right-wing war hawks writers and media shows us again the difficulties for America today as it undertakes difficult and complex foreign policy initiatives, when regardless of the goals and desirability of an effort, they will mindlessly oppose what Obama tries no matter the advantage to our nation. Think immediately of North Korea, think climate change, think Syria, think the Middle East negotiations, and then realize that it is these Tea Party/Neo-Cons, and right wing Republican hawks beholding not to American interests but to myopic and greedy paymasters, that are endangering our nation’s effective role in a high risk world.


We welcome your comments.


The Battle Over Strategic Policy, Diplomacy, and World View


Harry C. Blaney III

This last year and much earlier and certainly during this coming election year we have seen and will see a battle royale over the purpose and direction of America’s role in the world such as we have rarely witnessed in the last several decades. The question is not so much “if we should be involved” but that too in some cases. There are those on both the far right and on the far left who, for very different reasons, would like to see America either go back to “fortress America” or treat the rest of the world with what my old boss called, in a highly misunderstood memo, “benign neglect.” Yet that position leads us in any case to a dead end and is truly impossible to maintain in the fast moving 21st century world.

Then the question is what kind of engagement we should have, what challenges should we address, and with what goals and with what tools? To simplify the question, there are two broad groupings of stances or schools on strategic and international issues. The first is an “internationalist”perspective which means fully engaged, with a often liberal stance, towards the risks, problems and opportunities for America. The proponents believe that America can and should be a power for good and initiate efforts to solve problems preferably by diplomacy and other “soft power” tools and use the military as a last resort. It accepts that international organizations like the United Nations, OECD, IAEA, UNDP, and NATO are important and cooperation with friends and allies are key to global problem solving.

The second school dominated by a kind of ideological based perspective is that America is and should be the predominant power of the world and that we can and should use military power to that end when it is seen as in our own interest. It is often seen by proponents as our best option. While this group says it support democracy and human rights, in fact, its support for military and dictatorial governments, both in the past and now, shows that its interests are not with the poor people of the developing world, but rather with oligarchs and authoritarian regimes favoring the rich and ruling classes. It supports a raw form of “capitalism” as a favored solution to almost all problems. It also detains international organizations, especially the U.N., but also treaties like the Law of the Sea, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and generally multilateral engagement to solve global problems like our present efforts to defuse war in the Middle East and our concerns about Iran.

We have seen some of this group’s influence at work in the recent Department of Defense and State and foreign operations (USAID and related programs) appropriations bill for FY 2014 that is before Congress now. It is filled with cuts to our diplomacy and “soft power” and it tries to dictate to the administration on a host of issues like Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and other issues. It cuts funding for the United Nations and UNESCO. On the other hand, the Defense Appropriations part includes added funding that the DOD did not ask for and does not need; it puts unneeded funding into nuclear weapons that are not needed and could indeed  be cut in major ways with no loss to security. It dictates spending on low priority very expensive systems that the military-industrial companies want to enrich their executives but are likely never to see any action or real use. This robs our defense forces from resources that they really need, especially money for our troops, training, and logistics in the post cold-war world.

We are still in a narrow box of our strategic policies and objectives being dictated by Congressional types who in turn are run by the lobbyists, their military industries paymasters out for their own interests rather than that of the nation as a whole. We are going into a period when both the Departments of State and Defense will be undertaking major “rethinking” documents of their policies and their strategy in the coming years. The call for reform of this dysfunctional and dangerous decision-making and indeed of our political system is urgently needed if America is ever to become the nation it aspires to be in its domestic life and reach abroad. We need decision making aimed at real risks and dangers and human needs rather than that which is dictated by crazy selfish ideology and those with money and power, controlling our political life and making profits without any true  social or global benefits.

In the end, in the international sphere, the fundamental question remains what are the objectives and values America is most interested in upholding? Is it, as we have often proclaimed, to provide security, prosperity, protect human rights, fight poverty, deal with climate change and a host of other key goals? Or is it to simply proclaim our dominance, send our troops into harms way willy-nilly to gain some narrow advantage, ignore scientific truth about the danger of climate change and environmental detraction, turn our back on humanitarian crises, ignore the problems of global poor health care and its costs to the poorest, and not least, not support international efforts against nuclear weapons or peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts as a key objective rather than choose “war-war” as our first tool in almost any upheaval.

As a professional “policy planner” in the Department of State and much of my “think tank” positions, I had to also wonder of how little thought, experience, study, and wisdom went into past disastrous decisions by the civilian (including in the White House where I once served), the military that I often worked with, and sometimes in the DOS. We all had to acknowledge that most of the decisions we faced were not easy and the consequences of action or inaction were often horrendous — in short, we do need to do better within our government and the quality of our civil servants. But we need less myopic perspective, narrow self serving partisan values, and more understanding of the costs of poor judgment.

We welcome your comments!

400 Parts Per Million: Global Climate Change a National Security Disaster and Global Existential Risk

The recent milestone of CO2 reaching 400 parts per million of our atmosphere is surely a wakeup call as are the many natural and ecological disasters that almost every part of our globe has experienced over the last decade. Carbon dioxide is the primary global warming pollutant and much of it has been injected into our air by human activities.

Scientists have known about this problem of climate change for decades. I devoted a whole chapter to the question in a book entitled Global Challenges: A World At  Risk published in 1979, as did hundreds of scientists and other experts  throughout the 60s, 70s, ands 80s.  No one really paid much attention who had the power to actually do something meaningful.  We got some global action via the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change but despite several other major global meetings resolute binding actions were not forthcoming. However, this was NOT the fault of the UN or its related organizations which made major efforts to advance concrete actions, the fault lies with the leaders of the nations participating.

Now after many disasters, the question of climate change has gathered the attention of some affected citizens, some in the media, and academics around the world. But neither the political will nor the public demand has driven nations and global institutions run by governments to act decisively to reduce the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses getting into our atmosphere.

The reasons for this inaction and the lurking disaster it portends for all humankind are many.

First, the opposition has been of what one can call the “flat earth” types who for ignorance or political or economic interests are climate change “deniers.”  The science is against them but facts and science have increasingly had little influence on those who profit from citizens’ ignorance. American opinion polls have shown hefty minorities who do not believe in climate change and man’s role in the CO2 increase.

Second, is the role that money increasingly plays in American politics has grown thanks in part to the Citizens United decision. Its influence and that of the very conservative rich elements have largely cornered the market on governmental decisions and media outlets, through control over Congressional action, state governments, and not least over the Supreme Court.

Third, the impact of the global economic and fiscal crisis abroad and at home brought on by greed and in some cases criminal acts by management of banks and financial institutions, brought about the resulting austerity policies in Europe. This was led by Germany’s counterproductive demands for slashing government spending, which causedmass unemployment in many EU countries. When you are experiencing a major recession that looks to many as a depression, you worry about putting food on the table, not about global warming and paying for necessary new remedial programs.

Fourth, has been the fundamental weakness of the international institutions and system of governance to address and deal with major global challenges. We have denied them the tools to act effectively and the blame rests with our governments and not with the institutions themselves. We have not given the resources or the authority to carry out actions that are required to fully address the crisis we are facing.  Part of this fault has been the Republican war on international cooperation and institutions in America. This weakness was shown by the inability to agree to a binding global framework convention on global climate change. Global agreement was undercut by the diverse opposing positions: the developing world wanted the “rich nations” to act alone to deal with the problem or pay for any effort.  Some key developed nations i.e. large polluters like China, America, Australia, etc. were driven by narrow economic influences and did not have the political will to sign up and in the end ratify a binding treaty.

So, in the face of these large obstacles what can be done?

The first action is to change our policies by changing our politics and legislative bodies, the education of our people, and scientists speaking out to inform our citizens of the impending dangers and proposing programs that will address global warming. A little courage by our politicians would help a lot also.

On a global level, as long as there is a series of intransigent national and international obstacles and weak leaders, we need to make smaller regional and sector matter agreements and initiatives that create a serious start to slow global warming and its impact on our fragile globe. The EU efforts to cap CO2 and develop clean renewable energy sources are an example. So are the actions by California to lower its energy use through conservation and efficiency programs, which is spreading to other states and regions.  President Obama’s push for rapid R&D and installation of solar energy is a key way to address the problem on a unilateral basis but has been fought tooth and nail by the Republicans and some Democrats in bed with the dirty energy barons.

Our media and schools and churches would help by not giving credence to bad and indeed wrong ideas such as so called “science” that denies climate change and its causes.  But that requires honest and disinterested media which is a rarity in America. However, here again citizens and experts can speak up (too few do) and challenge the mindless and false views from Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation and their ilk. The problem, as Pogo said, is us.

The Perversity of Right Wing Babble and Mendacity!

Doing Bad by Doing Good and Why Humanitarian Action Fails is a book by Christopher J. Coyne, an economics professor at George Mason University, and touted by the right wing Cato Institute. Cato is backed by the Koch brothers and others who are notorious for supporting efforts to fund far right anti-democratic groups like ALEC. This group has been responsible for a number of acts to disenfranchise Black and Latino voters and pushed states to gerrymander legislative districts around the nation which enabled conservative Republicans to gain a majority of seats in the House of Representatives while not getting a majority of the national vote — which the Democrats did. In short, they are trying to undermine the basic values of America, namely one person one vote, equal protection of the law, and real democracy and fair elections. What a cast of characters. 

Thus, Cato sponsored a book launch on May the 5th for this publication which said volumes for its orientation against any truly “good works” and efforts to help the needy, save children in poverty in risk of early death, secure a healthy and dignified retirement for our elderly, a livable wage for workers, and their right to form unions.

The Cato e-mail invitation had the following outline of the problem:

“A common argument for intervening abroad is to alleviate potential or existing human suffering. Repeatedly, however, state-led humanitarian efforts have failed miserably. Why do well-funded, expertly staffed, and well-intentioned humanitarian actions often fall short of achieving their desired outcomes, leaving some of the people they intended to help worse off? Why are well-meaning countries unable to replicate individual instances of success consistently across cases of human suffering?

Using the tools of economics, Dr. Christopher Coyne’s new book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails, shifts the discussion from the moral imperative of how governments should behave to a positive analysis of how they actually do. Coyne examines the limits of short-term humanitarian aid and long-term development assistance, the disconnect between intentions and reality, and why economic freedom—protection of property rights, private means of production, and free trade of labor and goods—provides the best means for minimizing human suffering. Join us as experts discuss this hotly debated topic.”

You get the idea!  Capitalism is the answer to a starving poor child and the critically sick elderly, to lack of health care, to the need for immediate clean water, and just about everything that rich countries enjoy often very efficiently provided by governments at all levels.

Having spent much of a lifetime either examining national and international humanitarian  and economic policies, including at one point running a major program that looked after refugees often in dire circumstances, I wonder if the author or the Cato shysters ever understood the humane urgency of being there while thousands indeed hundreds of thousands die needlessly when no one is able to help on the ground and in circumstances that a capitalist investor would never set his or her foot. The raw capitalism and “protection of property rights that I know is the 1,100 dead garment workers in Bangladesh.

Do all long term development programs work? No. But often the failure is due to local corruption, lack of existing expertise, or sometimes the withdrawal of funding due to acts of Congress, mostly by Republicans through cutting USAID funds.  But many programs providing food, medical help, and clean water have worked as do many larger infrastructure efforts such as agriculture improvement projects. These have been proven by national and global statistics of health, income and other well being indicators, or at least survival of those threatened.

In sum, while the record does showcase some failures of aid projects, the overall global progress made over the decades has saved millions of lives and made hundreds of millions better off than would be the case without outside governmental and international organizations assistance. Examples of these organizations are the World Bank, UNICEF, UNDP, UNEP, and the many programs of developed countries like Britain, France, Germany, the Scandinavians, the U.S. and others.

Can we do better? You bet. We could start by making more resources available to these organizations and national aid agencies while providing competitive salaries for top professionals and carrying out sensible reform. This includes letting more of  U.S. food aid be used to buy indigenous food products at lower prices than are possible with US sourced agricultural products and doing more to establish local institutional training and research to improve local productivity. Last but not least, we can do more to bring education and modern skills and technology to the lowest and most needy sectors.

But let’s remember that saying the “free market” and outside “capitalist” investment can raise the living standard of the world’s poorest is nothing but fallacious. Worse, it shows the continued indifference to real human need by the domestic right wing. Such right wingers are advocates of little or no government, imprudent self-defeating global irresponsibility, and selfishness beyond forgiveness.

Sadly this same attitude of indifference toward human suffering is also displayed by the Republicans in Congress towards our own needy, vulnerable young, old and sick. For proof one can simply see the votes and positions which are uniform against human decency and ruinous for both American well being and that of the world.  It is no way to ensure global security or prosperity.


Strange New Turns. Where are We Going Now on Syria? The Russian Connection, Other Options or Dead-end?

Meeting in MoscowQuotes:

Secretary Kerry with President Putin in Moscow May 7, 2013:

“And Mr. President, as you know better than anybody, there are enormous challenges today that require the same level of cooperation, and I’m very happy that our professionals are working together now to work to deal with some of the issues of the bombing that took place in Boston, and we thank you for that cooperation.

And Mr. President, I bring you President Obama’s greetings. He related to me the substance of his conversations with you, for which he was very grateful, and he is looking forward to seeing you on the side of the G-8 in Ireland and would reiterate that there are many issues – economic, economic cooperation, the challenges of North Korea, Iran, Syria, and many other issues – of which he believes that we could cooperate very significantly.

And finally, Mr. President, I know that we’ll have a chance to talk about it seriously in a few moments, but we really believe, the United States believes, that we share some very significant common interests with respect to Syria – stability in the region, not having extremists creating problems throughout the region and elsewhere – and I think we have both embraced in the Geneva communique a common approach. So it’s my hope that today we’ll be able to dig into that a little bit and see if we can find the common ground. And the President – President Obama particularly feels that cooperation between Russia and the United States with respect to economic issues is something that would be of enormous benefit to both, and Russia’s leadership is so key on so many of those issues. We look forward to working with you.”

There has been a heightened debate among American pundits, foreign policy experts, and security experts with a flood of editorials and op-ed pages over intervention in Syria. Quite a few of those who urged for our entry into Iraq with disastrous results seem to be in the same channel again urging our military intervention. Some call for “boots on the ground” while others support supplying weapons, targeted bombings, creating a “no-fly zone” and other more robust military assistance.

Others for good and bad reasons seek a “do nothing” stance by America. Many of these remember only too well past costly American wars most notably Vietnam and Iraq. Some are simply right wing isolationists, and hope for a failure by Obama; while others believe the U.S. will do more damage and more harm would result from any engagement.

Still others seek various kinds of direct intervention short of “boots on the ground” for laudable humanitarian reasons and for larger regional strategic reasons. They especially desire to establish a multilateral coalition acting with enhanced support and involvement with the rebel umbrella National Coalition in ensuring a peaceful outcome for Syria. In my opinion this will require at the very least, efforts to maintain security for the civilian population in post Assad Syria and a measure of economic progress. This clearly requires difficult and major diplomatic efforts.

I do not share the views of the isolationists nor those who would simply put “boots on the ground” and urge kinetic efforts without any thought of the “end game,” costs, or willingness to put the resources into an effective effort to shape a truly peaceful and stable outcome.  Again my view is for a peacekeeping/peacemaking multilateral intervention with real robust powers and mediation elements that include a rebuilding of the devastation and putting young males to work at once and getting rid of the outside “warriors.”     

There seems now to be a growing consensus among decision makers that more needs to be done in the face of the 70,000 deaths and the real possible danger of a regional conflagration with widespread sectarian killings and upheavals. The added element is that the view that “doing nothing” will exacerbate the likely outcome of further mass killings when Assad falls.    

In this context the Obama administration seems to now have a dual approach of utilizing the diplomacy tool as exemplified by the effort of Secretary Kerry to draw Russia and others into a conference on Syria and to seek cooperation rather than mindless intransigence and opposition on the part of the Kremlin. This initiative and conference was announced on May 7th and the hope now is for a meeting this month.  (See press statement)

Along with this diplomatic tract, the U.S. in my view has now also decided to add new sticks as well as carrots and certain military tools into the mix with some of our key allies in the “friends of Syria” group and NATO. 

The outreach to Russia is based upon the argument that Russia and the West have common interests in not letting the upheavals and conflict in Syria spread in an arc from Iran to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Israel and further along the coast of the Mediterranean.  Another common interest would be that neither Obama nor Putin would want an ascendant and dominant al Qaeda element controlling Syria after Assad. Nor for that matter having Hezbollah or even Iran be enmeshed in a stronger position to play a destabilizing role.

The outreach to Russia could still prove elusive and the Russians could be playing a dishonest game of delay and continue to send support to Assad as Iran is also doing. We all hope this is not the case as there are larger interests at stake between Russia and America.   

Secretary Kerry seems to be making just such a diplomatic effort and seeking a meeting of interested states to establish peace finally. But, I suspect he is also working on other options should it not succeed. Yes, there are no “good” options, nor those that have no costs, but we must acknowledge that “doing nothing” may now bring the worst outcome. No action can only lead to added tragedy and conflict throughout the region and perhaps beyond.

Science, Technology, and Social Science Research Underpins American Prosperity and National Security – Why Then Is It Under Attack?

Obama remarks at National Academy of SciencesAs everyone knows the sequester has been a disaster for American growth, its modernization, and its built and social infrastructure. It has killed needed jobs. It has made the poor poorer, and it has made the middle class languish. Let’s be clear, this is the doing of the Republicans in Congress….not the Democrats and not the President.  It can be repealed by a single sentence in a new law and a bit of common sense, decency, and patriotism by the Republicans and a very few conservative Democrats. It has especially impacted our scientific and technological base.  Don’t hold you breath however.  But remember it has huge implications for our national security and our ability to play a constructive role in world affairs. 

A subset of this madness is some recent acts by House Republicans to attack, not “socialism” or “Obama,” but quality academic science and technology. Yes, sadly there are some of this group that are “flat earth” types, who think the world was formed 10,000 or so years ago, some even, according to polls, think the sun goes around the earth, and many more think that global change is not happening or like a recent failed presidential candidate that humans have had no role in the warming of the earth or build up of CO2 and that we should not do anything about it!

Let’s look at a couple of recent examples via actions in Congress by GOP members. The first is legislation being worked on by Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the new chair of the House of Representatives Committee of Science. Its aim is to destroy the professional peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF). It would replace a system that has worked for decades and brought us superb research with new skewed funding criteria chosen politically by the right wingers in Congress. Further, it would also aim to establish a process to determine whether the same criteria should be adopted by other federal science agencies. Their attack is especially aimed at social sciences including economics; a field they clearly know nothing about based on their pushing for policies that would draw us into a deep depression. 

The second insanity is led by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) who last month successfully (where were the Democrats?) attached language to the 2013 spending bill that prohibits NSF from funding any science research for the rest of the fiscal year unless its director certifies that it pertains to economic development or national security.

The proposed bill would force NSF to adopt three criteria in judging every grant. It would require the NSF director to post on NSF’s Web site, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:

1) “… in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science”

2) “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large”

3) “… not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

NSF’s existing guidelines ask peer reviewers to consider the “intellectual merit” of a proposed research project as well as its “broader impacts” on the scientific community and society.

As another pernicious act Smith’s bill requires NSF’s oversight body, the National Science Board, to monitor the director’s actions and issue a report in a year. It also asks Presidential Science Advisor Holdren’s office to tell Congress how the principles laid down in the legislation “may be implemented in other Federal science agencies.”

The top Democrat on the science committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), according to ScienceInsider, sent a strong message to Smith:

“In the history of this committee, no chairman has ever put themselves forward as an expert in the science that underlies specific grant proposals funded by NSF,” Johnson wrote in a letter obtained by ScienceInsider. “I have never seen a chairman decide to go after specific grants simply because the chairman does not believe them to be of high value.”

Johnson warns Smith that “the moment you compromise both the merit review process and the basic research mission of NSF is the moment you undo everything that has enabled NSF to contribute so profoundly to our national health, prosperity, and welfare.” She asks him to “withdraw” his letter and offers to work with him “to identify a less destructive, but more effective, effort” to make sure NSF is meeting that mission.

Into this fray President Obama made a speech to the National Academy of Science (link to speech) defending the integrity of the scientific method and noting the importance of ensuring its resources, its independence, and taking on those that would insert their partisan ideology into our intellectual research and methods. 

When one thinks you have seen just about every crazy action one can imagine, the Republicans in Congress add to the foolishness and now aim to hurt our nation’s efforts to advance our knowledge, gain key insights, and encourage unbiased science and research. Our national security is based on our economic strength and on our advanced and growing Science & Technology research. Playing with it and aiming to thwart the non-political unbiased intellectual development of our society is dangerous and shortsighted.