The Education of Barack Obama

Last week President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly, which he has done five times before.  He spoke of a “network of death” and the “cancer of violent extremism” in the Middle East and said that “the only language understood by killers like this is the language of force” while promising to lead a coalition to find a military solution to the challenge of ISIS.  The President also had sharp words for Russia, describing it as a “bully” and rejecting its “vision of the world in which might makes right.”

Observers have noted that the UN speech represents a dramatic change in the President’s tone and focus.  A National Journal article compares the six UN speeches and shows a President who has been transformed from a believer in “hope” and “change” and a world in which everyone shares a common interest in peace to a man who realizes that there are bad people in the world, that they want to do evil things, and that the only way they can be thwarted is by deeds, not words.  Optimism — about relations with Russia, about common values and shared dreams, about an inexorable arc of progress toward a rosy future — has been replaced by a recognition that the world right now may be teetering on the brink.

Only two years ago, President Obama mocked Mitt Romney’s realpolitick view of the world and America’s role — I thought an unseemly low point for the President in this regard came during a debate discussion about Russia in which he sarcastically stated that the 1980s had called and wanted its foreign policy back — but now the President has come around to largely adopt Romney’s position, and to use language that is reminiscent of President George W. Bush.  He probably won’t acknowledge that fact, but at least he now recognizes the threats we face and is resolved to do something about them.

Conservatives may criticize the President for being late to the game and for failing to more quickly recognize and respond to the threats posed by ISIS, Russia, and other bad actors on the world stage.  That’s fair, I suppose, but I think most of us learn from experience and modify our views of the world as we go through life.  President Obama also is learning the lessons taught by the School of Hard Knocks.  As we all know, such lessons can painful, but we can hope in this instance that they are lessons that are well-learned.

Ebola On A Plane, And In The U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced that a person has brought the Ebola virus into the United States on a commercial airplane flight.  The man, who was not exhibiting symptoms of the virus at the time, landed in Dallas on September 20.  He is being treated at a Dallas hospital, and in the meantime the CDC is sending a team to Dallas to try to figure out who else may have been infected.

How big of a deal is this news?  That’s not clear — but it certainly would be better if it hadn’t happened.  According to the CDC website, Ebola is transmitted by coming into contact with the blood or bodily fluids of someone who is infected with the disease, or with the clothing or other items that have come into contact with those substances.  The website actually addresses what the CDC would do under these circumstances:  “If a traveler is infectious or exhibiting symptoms during or after a flight, CDC will conduct an investigation of exposed travelers and work with the airline, federal partners, and state and local health departments to notify them and take any necessary public health action.”  The website doesn’t specify what the “necessary public health action” might be.

For those of us who have to travel as part of their jobs, this news is somewhat unnerving.  Airports and airplanes are the great crossroads of the modern world, where your path might intersect for a few seconds with travelers from faraway lands while you wait to board a plane or go through security or get some crappy grub at a fast-food outlet.  In a modern airport, you could be sneezed upon by people from just about anywhere, or unknowingly sit in a seat that minutes ago was vacated by a complete stranger whose health condition is absolutely unknown.  How many people were transported in the plane that brought the infected man to this country before anyone became aware this issue existed?  How do we know where the infected man sat, or whether he used the bathroom?

We’re probably not to the point where people will be traveling in hazmat suits, but don’t be surprised if you see an outbreak of those mouth and nose masks the next time you take a commercial airline flight.

When Is A Beheading An Act Of Terrorism?

Last week, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, a woman working at a food distribution center was beheaded by a former co-worker.  Witnesses said that the killer had been trying to convert other employees to Islam, and his Facebook page included a photo of Osama bin Laden and a picture of a beheading.

And now the media is engaged in a debate:  should the killing be described as an act of terrorism, or as the deranged action of a disturbed guy who just went “postal” after his firing?  An interesting piece in the Christian Science Monitor poses that question and wonders just how terrorism should be defined.  Is premeditation required?  Does a terrorist act have to be part of achieving some larger terrorist goal?

In some respects, this seems like a debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  After all, it’s not as if all terrorist acts are carefully calibrated to achieve some larger and rational geopolitical objective.  The Boston Marathon bombings, for example, weren’t designed to take out American leaders or discourage American actions in some faraway land, they were simply designed to terrify random people — which seems like a pretty good definition of terrorism to me.

By that definition, a beheading of an innocent former co-worker by an Islamic man who has tried to convert co-workers and apparently follows the teachings of terrorists falls comfortably within the ambit of terrorism.  The depredations of ISIS and other Islamic terrorists have made beheadings — as opposed to other methods of killing — a form of terrorist political statement, and I don’t think it’s far-fetched to conclude that the Oklahoma City killer chose his approach with that understanding in mind.

If we can’t recognize terrorism for what it is, how can we hope to defeat it?

The Country That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

Sometimes you have to wonder how this country once managed to put a man on the Moon.  Often it seems like we just can’t seem to do anything right anymore, and our formerly hyper-competent and capable nation is now just a shadow of its former self.

The latest evidence is the developing story about the intruder who leapt a fence and sprinted into the White House.  We already knew that the Secret Service somehow failed to unleash a dog that would have knocked down the intruder and left the front door to the White House inexplicably unlocked.  Now the Washington Post is reporting that the intruder, who was carrying a knife, made it much farther into the White House than was originally disclosed.  He apparently overpowered an unaware Secret Service agent inside the front door — the agent wasn’t warned because alarm boxes nearby had been “muted” because they were too noisy — and then ran around the lower floor of the Executive Mansion.  Fortunately, the First Family wasn’t there, and the intruder was subdued.

This kind of appalling incompetence would be comical if the potential consequences weren’t so serious.  Of course, alarms are supposed to be noisy — their sole purpose is to unmistakably alert people to a problem.  Whoever approved their “muting” and stripped away an important part of the President’s protection should be fired.  Even worse, in this one incident we see a cascade of failures by the Secret Service — which has one of the most important jobs in the federal government and at one time was held in high esteem.  Now these revelations, following on the heels of scandals involving boozy high-jinks with prostitutes, make the Secret Service seem inept, badly managed, and poorly trained.

In one of the seasons of The Wire, a Baltimore longshoresman who was wrapped up in a smuggling scheme wistfully said, to a friend, something along the lines of:  “This country used to make things once.”  I’d amend that to say, “this country used to be able to do things once.”  Now we can’t even maintain security alarms, use guard dogs, and keep a disturbed man from entering one of the highest security places in the country.  It’s sad.

Obamacare’s First Birthday

It’s hard to believe, but it was only a year ago on October 1 that Obamacare, through that ill-fated healthcare.gov website, was born.  Parents will tell you that a newborn’s first year passes by in a blur — and it has, hasn’t it?  It sure seems like more than a year ago that we were hearing about wait times and website crashes, but ISIS beheadings and Ebola outbreaks and other assorted disasters have a way of telescoping the passage of time.

So, how is Obamacare doing on its first birthday?  Not surprisingly, given the superheated controversy surrounding the Affordable Care Act, it kind of depends who you ask.

The New York Post has done a review and gives Obamacare an overall grade of “F,” because it has cost a lot of money, hasn’t really made a huge dent in the mass of uninsured people, has messed with a lot of people’s plans, and is affecting full-time job creation by businesses because of the costs it imposes.  The Department of Health and Human Services, on the other hand, has released a report that says Obamacare has produced a significant reduction in uncompensated costs that have to be borne by hospitals, presumably because there are fewer uninsured people who can’t pay their hospital bills.  Yahoo Finance, in a survey article, found that some people like it and some people hate it, depending on whether Obamacare has raised or reduced their costs, helped them get insurance that they couldn’t have received otherwise, or eliminated plans they liked.

And — some things never change — the healthcare.gov website is back in the news again, because it has a “critical vulnerability” in the security area.  Basically, it appears that the government entity that manages the website hasn’t been using the basic available tools to monitor security issues and test for website vulnerabilities.  It’s not clear whether any people who have used the website — and entered in lots of highly personal information in their quest for insurance — have experienced any identity theft or similar problems.

Regardless of your political affiliation or your view of Obamacare, there is one finding that pretty much everyone should be happy to celebrate on Obamacare’s birthday.   A Washington Post review of congressional floor speeches found that, this month, members of Congress mentioned “Obamacare” only 27 times.  That 1/100th of the number of mentions Obamacare received in October 2013.  Isn’t it nice to not hear politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, yammering about Obamacare, Obamacare, Obamacare?

Politically, does that mean Obamacare is no longer the hot topic it once was, or does it just mean that Obamacare has been knocked off the front pages by other problems and issues?  Beats me, but my gut instinct is that the Republicans are wise to not beat the Obamacare drum incessantly.  People who hate Obamacare or feel they were screwed by it don’t need to be reminded over and over.  Focusing on ISIS, terrorism, the border, and other non-Obamacare topics make the Republicans seem like less of a one-trick pony.

Friday Night On The Patio

Last night Kish made a wonderful dinner and then she, the Carroll County Cousin, and I moved onto our patio for the evening.

IMG_3347We sat in perfect temperatures, sipping glasses of wine and chatting as dusk fell and the last glimmer of sunlight faded from the treetops.  At full darkness, the summer insects performed their nighttime symphony, and the pleasant background buzz of chirps and chitters rose from surrounding bushes and shrubs and grass up to the stars above.

A football game was being played at New Albany High School.  For the most part the announcer’s voice was muddled and just one more part of the background noise, but from time to time his words could be heard with sharp clarity.  At one point during the halftime show we heard a his excited announcement of “Sweet Home Alabama” and the first few notes of the band’s no doubt rockin’ arrangement of the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic.

It was a classic middle American moment, hearkening back to an era when electronic devices did not rule our lives and people spent their evenings in the warm late-summer air, enjoying the simple pleasures of a good night-time talk.  We sat there for hours.

The Afghan Ingrate

Boy, that Hamid Karzai is a real peach, isn’t he?  The United States frees his country from the grip of the repressive Taliban, restores democracy to Afghanistan, and supports Karzai during long years where he doesn’t seem to be interested in much of anything except trying to line his own pockets and dodge responsibility for everything that happened in the country he was supposed to be governing, and he can’t leave office without taking a few parting shots at the U.S. of A.

After 13 years as president, the jug-eared Karzai and his trademark cap are finally leaving office with the same class, intense gratitude, and willingness to accept full responsibility that have characterized his years in power.  In his farewell speech, he blamed the United States for the ongoing war with the Taliban and said “that the Americans did not want peace because they had their own agenda and objectives.” 

We didn’t spend the blood of our soldiers and billions of dollars to prop up a tinpot like Hamid Karzai, we took out the Taliban to try to rid the world of safe haven for Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups.  We tried to rebuild Afghanistan after the depredations of the Taliban and create a democracy in hopes of preventing terrorism from taking root again.  That’s why we ended up with Hamid, the corrupt hack — and now it’s galling to have to listen to the criticism of “leaders” like Karzai, who never would have been in a position of any influence but for the United States.

Hamid Karzai is a good example of the old adage that if you lie down with a dog, you get up with fleas.