Monthly Archives: October 2012

Horses and Bayonets

Originally published on The Huffington Post 10/23/12

It was the 21st versus the 20th century in last night’s foreign policy debate. Never was the contrast between a party wedded to the past and a party anticipating the future more evident. Governor Romney’s obsession with Cold War hostility to Russia and with the declining number of naval ships in the American armada was compellingly addressed by the president, who suggested the Governor might not understand how the modern military works. You don’t count ships to measure the navy’s 21st century fighting capabilities any more than you worry about the vanishing of horses and bayonets in measuring a modern army ‘s potential.

War has changed and so have the priorities of defense spending. But not even the president has followed his prudent logic to its conclusion. Obama and the country need to recall that it’s not just horses and bayonets that were rendered obsolete by barbed wire and trenches in World War I, it was also those trenches and barbed wire (fortifications like the Maginot Line) that were rendered obsolete by tanks and aircraft in the German Blitzkrieg of World War II. Nukes made big conventional war itself less viable and for the half-century standoff with the Soviets, nukes and MAD (mutually assured destruction) left Cold War as the only real option.

Today, terrorism and non-state actors continue to impact the character of war, again leaving once omnipotent weapons systems far behind.

  • Think of 9/11: nineteen terrorists hiding out inside the U.S. hijacking airliners and turning them into bombs. No multi-billion dollar missile defense system of the kind Ronald Reagan wished for would have made a difference. Aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines meant nothing.
  • Think of a roadside bomb placed by a “civilian” warrior in Afghanistan: how many M-1 tanks or armored Humvees would it take to preempt the planting of such a device? Or are they just apt targets?
  • Think of suicide bombers: can a B-1 bomber save a platoon or a crowd of civilians from a zealot with a suicide vest?
  • Think of Osama bin Laden’s demise: It was superb intelligence and a couple of teams of Navy Seals along with three choppers (one that malfunctioned) that finished off al Qaeda’s leader.
  • Think of terrorist cells in Yemen or Somalia: drones today do better in preempting terrorism than squadrons of F-14s or divisions of infantry.

In military history, asymmetrical war has always been the challenge. Today, the irony is that the most pernicious challenges to our national security are not armadas of ships or planes, or Blitzkrieg invasions by large standing armies. There are no more “world wars,” and if in the nuclear age we stumble into one, it will be the last war ever. Instead, we face regional conflicts, civil strife, militia warfare, terrorism and guerrilla operations (often all at once, as Syria or Libya today!) — along with campaigns by criminal drug syndicates with their own mini-armies.

It is no longer superpower states such as Germany or Russia or China that threaten the peace, but weak states, rogue states and failed states. The asymmetry between traditional military macro-power and the micro-tactics of terrorists, hackers and religion-driven martyrs has become our greatest military challenge.

So President Obama needs to follow his prudent post-modern military logic to its end. That logic will show why slashing our bloated Defense Department budget is feasible and desirable, will demonstrate that perhaps one third of DOD costs are devoted to obsolete or unnecessary or inefficient weapons systems, systems that were designed for an era of warfare in which powerful states crossed national borders to instigate regional or global wars that is long gone.

Lean and mean is not a rationalization for reduced spending but a recipe for effective national defense. However, it results in reduced spending and can contribute mightily to balancing the budget and fixing the deficit). If, then ,we take the logic of horses and bayonets and apply them to bombers, battleships and nukes — no matter who wins the election, Osama-killer Obama or Peacenik Romney — we can lick the debt, improve our defense capabilities and guarantee a safer world.

What President Obama Coulda/Shoulda Said

Originally published on The Huffington Post 10/8/12

The verdict was in before the debate was over: the president lost — he was distracted, weak, disinterested, irritated and looking like he wished he was somewhere else. Maybe the facts were on his side, maybe his opponent was shamelessly dissembling, but so what? That’s politics, folks!

Governor Romney (suddenly proud of his Massachusetts moniker) won — he was reasonable but aggressive, articulate but emotive. He was kind of making things up as he went along but it was working big-time: “What, me lower taxes on the rich? Never! What, me make Medicare a voucher program? Who told you that? What, me leave out people with pre-existing conditions from access to health care plans? I wouldn’t be so cruel! Paul Ryan? Who’s that?”

Bottom line, Romney lied and the president sighed. Romney made stuff up and the president stood down. Milquetoast moderator Jim Lehrer let Romney elude his feeble questions and steer the debate any way he wanted, and the president watched. On the evidence of this single evening, you could almost believe Romney would make the better president, lies, opportunism, Tea Party and all!

I get that the president’s team wanted to play preventative defense, be safe, wanted Obama to remain aloofly presidential. Was he ever! He let his advisers disarm the most powerful man in America at the moment he was asked to be reelected president of the most powerful country in the world. The trick was to keep Obama looking both tough and presidential, feisty and nice. Here’s how he might have done it, what he coulda/shoulda said:

Romney:I just want to help the middle class…
Obama: I hear you say that tonight, Governor Romney. But that’s not what the country heard you saying earlier in the year at a fundraiser. You stand here now and talk about caring and the middle class, after telling your big money backers that you don’t really care about 47 percent of the country? Do you know who those 47 percent are? Those who “don’t pay taxes,” Governor? Veterans; hard-working retirees; beneficiaries of Ronald Reagan’s Earned Income Tax Credit, minimum wage workers, some with two jobs, who don’t make enough to reach even the minimum tax level. They are America. You can’t write them off when you talk to your big bucks backers and then tell the American people tonight you care.

Romney: I like Big Bird, Jim, I like you too, but I’m going to defund PBS.

Obama: We all love Big Bird, anyone who has raised kids in the last forty years loves Big Bird. But what you are missing Governor, is that Big Bird stands for something important. Big Bird is about educating our kids without selling them stuff at the same time. Big Bird is about carving out one small slice of the broadcast spectrum to do programming commercial television can’t afford to present. Do you really want to eliminate a very modest subsidy for one of America’s greatest assets we all benefit from? Well, let me tell you Governor, I am ready to pick a fight with subsidies — eliminate the one to the oil industry for example. But I will fight to keep the few dollars we still spend on public broadcasting, on the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. No, Governor, if I were you, I’d stick to bad-mouthing big government. But I’d leave Big Bird alone.

Romney: I’m not asking for a five trillion dollar tax cut for the rich. I want to cut everyone’s taxes, especially the middle class.

Obama: Governor, you know and I know we can say more or less anything we want tonight in the debate. We can contradict what we said yesterday or what we plan to say tomorrow, and maybe folks won’t tune in to the fact checkers to see who is right. But here is the difference, Governor Romney, when you are campaigning for office you can pivot here and there, you can say X today and Y tomorrow, you can talk to your radical base one week and pretend they don’t exist the next. But when you are President of the United States you can’t play it fast and loose: you can’t just change your mind overnight. Or make things up. People depend on your words, because your words have consequences. Your credibility depends on your consistency, and without credibility you have no power. If you don’t mean what you say, you can’t govern. That’s the responsibility of power. That’s the burden I bear, Governor. And if you want Americans to believe you are fit to govern, it’s a burden you need to assume.

Romney: I believe in the free market, in individualism, not in big government.

Obama: Sure you do. So do I. But I also believe in community. In justice as well as in liberty. It’s the balance between them our wisest presidents have always sought. When the individual and the community are in balance, when government helps the market work by regulating its abuses and assuring real competition rather than monopoly, the country is sound. But when the market dominates everything else, when individualism becomes narcissism and if everyone who cares about community is called a socialist, then we risk not just losing our balance. We risk losing our democracy, losing our country. That is the real choice America faces today: between a fair balance of freedom and justice, a judicious mix of markets and government, and a radical runaway egoism that allows a small number of Americans to play winner take all. The party whose candidate you are doesn’t seem much interested in a balance or in moderation. That party’s extremism — even if it is not yours — is putting our democracy at risk. Far as I know, you are still that party’s candidate for the presidency.

Romney: In Massachusetts, I worked with the Democrats, but you refuse to work with the Republicans…

Obama: It’s hard to work with opponents who say “Anything you are for, we are against. Even when you adopt our ideas.” My health plan drew heavily on Republican ideas, including yours. Your party in Congress never gave it a chance, so we had to make it a partisan victory. Leaders of your party said almost before I was in office that their first priority was to deny me a second term. How do I sit down and work with them after that? Actually, I tried. But I guess I wasn’t too surprised when it turned out they weren’t interested in find middle ground, common ground, where we could work together. Compromise is a two way street. I’ll let the voters decide which Party gave up on it.

So, Mr. President, there are still two debates to go. There’s still time to put Big Bird and democracy and the responsibility to the truth in front of the American people. And maybe next time around say what you coulda/shoulda said this time. And win.