Saturday, January 26, 2013


Say what? You can't be serious. Don't you read the papers or watch TV? Isn’t Washington still dysfunctional? Aren’t the two parties still miles apart on the big ticket issues? Aren't 13 million Americans still unemployed? Isn't there war or mayhem wherever you look?

 Yes, all of the above is still true in whole or in part. But I'd like to suggest that if you look at the facts a little more closely, you might conclude that some important things are in fact changing for the better.

Persistent unemployment is still at the top of the worry list. But in late January 2013 the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment fell to its lowest point in five years.

In the same month, housing starts – the same sector that brought the economy to its knees in 2008 –  were up 8.1%, 36.9% over December 2011, according to the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  

The Dow Jones Industrial Average, another trend indicator, is at a six-year high. What makes this particularly interesting is that the stock market’s performance reflects investor confidence in future prospects, rather like the Las Vegas crap tables, more than it reflects factual events.

For the all-important energy sector, the International Energy Agency projects that the US will replace Saudi Arabia as the world's premier oil and gas producer within the next four years.

At least temporarily reducing government gridlock, the Republican Party has postponed the threat of a second fiscal cliff by kicking the debt ceiling down the road until May, in a retreat from the earlier threat to shut down the government if necessary to have their way. A price will still be demanded by conservatives in the form of drastic tax reductions and program cuts. What is new is the sound of at least some ice braking in the protracted political freeze.  Ironically, the US budget deficit has actually been shrinking at the fastest pace than at any time since World War II, according to

After a decade of handwringing and breast-beating about the so-called “decline” in strength, influence, and relevance of the US in world affairs, accompanied by numerous public opinion polls showing a majority fearing a worse future for their children, a USA Today/Gallup poll in late fall 2012 shows that a majority of Americans – 54% – now believes that they will be better off four years from now.

The above collection of data focuses on America’s economy and society. But a footnote has to ask: what about foreign wars, revolutions, Islamist militants, and the daunting but inescapable task of running down the jihadis who, led by Al Qaeda, have targeted the US? This is the primary agenda for the CIA and US Special Forces operations, backed by remote drone and other technology, including invisible but essential cyber defense. China will be a competitor and Russia a troublemaker, and Iran and North Korea potential nuclear outlaws. But what else is new? The threat remains as before, as does the commitment to prevail over terrorists.

Without minimizing the very real human and other costs of conflict, consider a little-noticed but larger reality:casualties from warfare are at a historic low.  Small wars, insurgencies, and barbaric behavior by tyrants are permanent feature of the global landscape, typically in regions in early stages of development, literacy, and peaceful democratic change.  In an earlier age such local explosions would never have made even the back page of Western newspapers. Today, competitive news outlets and deadline-driven journalists, commentators and pundits convey the impression of a planet aflame with war, when the opposite is true for the bigtime conflicts that used to routinely slaughter thousands.

Indeed, the scale of warfare has actually declined dramatically. Far fewer human beings are being killed today by military weaponry than in the past.  In his latest book, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker makes the point dramatically: "The decline in violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species."

Bad things are still happening and the future has a habit of being unpredictable. But the evidence seems to show an uneven but nevertheless  welcome and widespread trend:  things are looking up.



Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A New President's Old Foreign Crisis Agenda

When the recently elected president descends to the West Wing basement and takes his place at the head of the table in the Situation Room, the agenda will look depressingly like the one that was there before the election. If there were no crisis there would be no crisis management and, thus, no meeting of the National Security Council. Crisis drives the top command, which has little time for more leisurely consideration of longer-term strategic thinking and planning. This is the dilemma of a US that feels automatically involved and still looked to for leadership in an increasingly leaderless world. Here are a few samples of probable agenda items, along with some modest policy suggestions that have little chance of being taken seriously.


The US will apply what pressure it still possesses for a cease-fire.  But Israel, wounded by Iran-supplied Hamas rocket fire on its territory after taking out Hamas’ military leader, is poised to deliver a punitive retaliatory blow on the tiny enclave aimed at both punishment and deterrence. The dilemma is that the more comprehensive Israel’s military response, the more alienated the Arab world and its new and fragile regimes will become.

This bloody drama has been playing itself out for well over half a century. The essence of conflict is unchanged since the 1947 UN partition of the British Palestinian mandate. Generations of American mediators have broken their picks on the stone face of resentment in an Arab world of what it regards as a further extension of Western colonialism into "their" region. The Israelis for their part assert their historic rights while seeing all external threats through the lens of the Holocaust. It is hard to be optimistic. But the time has long since come for the US to lay on the table a draft map of a final territorial agreement between the sides, and stop hoping that somehow the parties will do this themselves. That action can at least form the basis for a more realistic discussion of concrete terms, which may never happen otherwise.


The US has struggled for months to find a role that doesn’t involve American boots on the ground or aircraft enforcing a no-fly zone. Unlike Libya, Syria is a linchpin of the Arab Middle East and a still-powerful state. No good options have appeared so far, particularly for a US that is weary of ambiguous incursions into the Middle East.

More effective help is needed to finally topple the genocidal Assad regime. A new opportunity may have opened by the newly-formed “National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.” One lesson learned in the bungled planning for invading Iraq in 2003 was that President George W. Bush’s close-to-unilateral action would have fared much better with a broad multilateral backing such as that organized by Bush’s father in 1991 in Kuwait. Given the refusal of Russia and China to vote for a UN-sanctioned intervention, it is time to form a new Coalition of the Willing, based on NATO, to tackle the thankless but vital task of securing a cease-fire and the beginnings of a post-Assad Syria.

The suspected development of a nuclear weapons capability is what put Iran on the regular list. Israel’s redline warnings to Tehran portend a new Middle East war, this time uniting Shiite Iran with Sunni Arabia in solidarity against Israel and the US. The clock is ticking, and the prospects are dire if no diplomatic solution can be found.

US policy correctly considers preventing further nuclear weapons proliferation a high priority. But the costs of using force preemptively may outweigh the dangers of letting diplomacy run its uncertain course. One possibly promising approach may lie in a statement by Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak stating that Iran has delayed its ambition for nuclear weaponry and is converting some of its enriched uranium fuel rods to civilian use. The president’s diplomatic track should spell out more clearly the mutual benefits inherent in such an approach.


It is no accident that the crisis list begins with the Middle East in various forms. But the sharpening dispute over potentially oil-rich islands has already led to dangerous confrontations between China and Japan, threatening armed escalation. This conflict plays into other tensions arising in Chinese: Japanese relations, colored by memories of the cruel Japanese occupation of China in the 1930’s.

All one can say is that this is so 19th century. There are few signs of a peaceful solution. But I wonder if anyone in Washington even remembers something called the International Court of Justice. It seems unlikely, since it is never mentioned even though the United States helped establish the court in order to provide an impartial forum for resolving just such territorial and boundary disputes. The court did this some years ago in a conflict involving Atlantic fisheries, and sits there expensively ready to conduct an impartial analysis of conflicting claim and historic boundaries, hopefully rendering a judicious and impartial verdict that in a sane world would be accepted by the parties. For a country that preaches the rule of law, such a unique US initiative might astonish the rest of the world and give the US a renewed reputation for constructive leadership.


Thursday, June 14, 2012


It is a cliché to describe Washington, the government, and above all the Congress as “dysfunctional.” William Butler Yeats’ 1919 words apply equally to today’s political discourse: “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The details are all too familiar, and blame can be widely assigned. But the paralysis in Washington deserves a deeper level of scrutiny.

The current crisis centers on the Congress, which has failed to act decisively on the daunting agenda facing a country still mired in recession and in a sour mood reflected in public approval of Congress at around 16 percent. The House of Representatives won’t pass badly needed jobs or infrastructure bills; the US debt rating is still downgraded; once again there is no federal budget; and there is still no agreement on how to tackle the global energy crisis, restore America's competitivene edge, or reform a once-peerless educational system that now lags behind a dozen others. The 62 recently elected Tea Partiers can’t be blamed for everything. But they showcased dysfunction when they cut off their leader, House Speaker Boehner, at the knees and repudiated the “grand bargain” he and President Obama thought they had struck to solve the debt crisis. The political left was only slightly less culpable with its reluctance to seriously negotiate needed reform in entitlements to forestall future bankruptcy.

Senatorial behavior has not been much better. A new low was reached when Republican Minority Leader McConnell confronted the daunting national agenda by declaring the number one priority to be making President Obama a one-term president. The Senate has arranged to paralyze its own decision-making process by applying to virtually all other matters the once rarely used supermajority required to break filibusters. Every major matter now requires 60 votes instead of a simple majority.

The executive branch has also contributed to the dysfunction. The President squandered his first year by focusing on health care instead of the overwhelming crises of unemployment and financial meltdown. He also made a critical misjudgment in leaving action on his agenda to the Congress, which responded with inaction. And he has  joined the Congress in putting the future on hold during this unending election year.

Some otherwise good citizens have also created dysfunction. The Tea Party is half right in its disgust with Washington’s performance, but it doesn’t seem to have learned that overturning the card table is not just another way of playing cards. The federal government is clearly bloated in places, and some functions could be performed more effectively by the states or private sector. But fixing that is not the same as mindless slashes across the board without fact-based analysis. The Tea Party is not the Taliban, but its non-negotiable demands and calls for using elective power to dismantle the federal government reject the American concept of governance.

There is an even deeper source of dysfunction that can make the system unworkable: America was designed by its 18th century founders to be hard to govern. The Constitution is a brilliant blueprint for a workable government in the late 18th century. The core of its architecture is a triad of parts designed to avoid return to tyranny by any one branch. The separation of powers requires a conscious effort to bypass it when action is needed.

The new Republic was beset by north-south racial tensions, controversial Supreme Court decisions, threats of New England secession, and a devastating civil war. But the federal government also fostered liberating revolutions in transportation such as canals and railroads, land-grant settlements and colleges producing the world's finest universities, and, in our era, a network of superhighways and a space program that transfixed the world. When all parts pulled together, miracles became possible. But sometimes the Congress blocked the President, while he in turn used executive power to bypass Congress; the Supreme Court reversed presidential actions; and at least one president (FDR) tried to pack the Court with potential sympathizers.

In a perfect world I might favor the parliamentary system, in which the winners of elections have a shot at launching the programs on which they were elected. But realistically, we will live in a system in which a very different political morality is required if we are to find a way out of the current impasse and toward cooperation to solve common problems. Elected representatives can and should represent the interests of their constituents and act on their own principles. But there are times when it is essential for the common public good to rise beyond that constraint and act in the larger national interest, objectively defined.

In 1774 the great English conservative Edmund Burke delivered a speech to the representatives to Parliament from the city of Bristol, England. In it he made the classic case for that philosophy as the highest duty of those elected to govern. It is worth quoting some of his words in the famous "Speech To The Electors At Bristol":

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect.

This is the essence of statesmanship. More than anything else, its glaring absence lies at the heart of the current blockage in Washington. But if taken to heart by essentially decent and intelligent men and women in office, the American government could work as it is designed to work in a turbulent epoch that once again desperately needs a stable and strong America at its core.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Intelligence Puzzle

The Pentagon has somewhere a threat list that ranks external threats to the national security of the United States. It also wargames those threats, asking hypothetically "what if" and "what then," with teams of officials simulating US and foreign decision-makers. The current short-term threat list is undoubtedly topped by Iran and the long-term one by China.

The first thing to be said is that neither of these threats is existential -- that is, they do not entail invasion or significant bombing by a foreign nation, although you would not know it from the hyperventilating candidates in the current primaries. But tactical threats of isolated yet lethal attacks by terrorists at home and overseas certainly do exist, and could become catastrophic if nuclear materials fall into the wrong hands.

How does the government analyze such security threats? The way all governments do: on the basis of assessments of capabilities and intentions. Technology has contributed mightily to good information about capabilities by enabling satellites with astonishingly high resolution to see everything down to human figures. But it makes no sense to act on assessments of capabilities alone. We know the capabilities of Great Britain, including its nuclear arsenal, but no one would put it on an American threat list As for the hostile nuclear would-be and the hostile already-is, we know quite a lot about the capabilities of North Korea. But we don’t really know where Iran stands on its suspected nuclear weapons building. Some new facilities may be deep underground where they can’t be seen by satellites (nor readily attacked). So Iranian capabilities are incompletely understood.

But even when capabilities are well known, the real puzzle concerns intentions: just what do Iran and China have in mind? Are the Iranian mullahs actually planning to build deliverable nuclear weapons, and if so, what do they plan to do with them? Will they to provoke the US by blocking the critically important Strait of Hormuz, which would surely start a war? As with North Korea, we just don’t know what’s going on in their minds.

China poses a different problem. While Iran makes no secret of its animosity and threats, China is and could remain both our economic competitor and environmental partner, and our prime Asian-Pacific strategic rival. Changes are possible in China’s economic policies, and seven of the top nine of its leadership positions have already transferred to a new generation. It’s also possible that these new leaders have no clear definition yet of their longer-term intentions, if any. Iranians may dream of restoring Persia’s Fourth Century BC empire. But for a rising China, the best historic analogy might be Prussia’s Bismarck, who unified a rising Germany to create an empire and, after minor conflicts with France and Austria, oversaw a balance of power policy that kept the European peace for decades until the first World War.

National Intelligence Estimates, classified and unclassified, contain judgments based on available knowledge of both capabilities and intentions. Enormous resources go into providing the raw intelligence. For example, the National Security Agency uses a huge budget to acquire electronic information about countries on the threat list, monitoring global electronic traffic for key words. But despite all this, our knowledge is murky. Is there anything more that can help us understand Iran's intentions in the short term and China's in the longer term? Is there anywhere else to look beyond conventional sources?

One answer can be found in the famous aphorism by Speaker Tip O'Neill that “all politics are local.” As in most authoritarian countries, policy in Iran and China is driven by the leaders’ determination to retain power, whatever the cost. We can also surmise that at least some Iranian and Chinese behavior can be attributed to generational change. The potential leadership in Iran and the emerging leadership in China are more savvy about the modern world than the bearded mullahs in Qum and the survivors of the great march in China. That fact alone may portend change.

History also helps supply a perspective. Jordan and Iraq were created in 1921, Israel was born in 1948, and a host of African states acquired identity in the decolonization period after World War II. By contrast, both Iran and China were great empires a couple of thousand years ago. National pride and memories of regional hegemony are hard to erase, even through the filters of Shia Islam and Communism. It is conventional wisdom that both aim to restore such hegemony. The challenge for the international community is to show that it understands this, even as it works to peacefully contain both ambitions.

Finally, can we learn something from patterns of culture that still define both societies? In Iran, as any visitor knows, there is a pervasive bazaar culture. When the vendor and the customer are deadlocked over price, the customer finally starts for the door, and the vendor protests, “Wait, wait, come back, we talk.” Is it only the proverbial rug merchants who bargain, or are Iran’s clerics playing a potentially deadly but promising bargaining game? Iran’s strategy in the current crisis may be a form of brinksmanship right up to the tipping point. If so, it will take strong nerves on the part of the US. But this scenario might be far better than the alternative.

Like Iran, China has a powerful culture that historically looms in the background of policy. Alongside the Confucian rule book is another one: the Sun Tzu handbook of military wisdom which, like Machiavelli’s cold-blooded prescriptions for his Florentine bosses, has long supplied guidance to Chinese (and other) military, particularly when faced with asymmetrical power. Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” dates from several centuries BC. While some dispute its authenticity, the axioms in this ancient treatise describe a good deal of Chinese military history. Here are some relevant ones: “All warfare is based on deception.” “If you are far from the enemy make him believe you are near.” ”Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.” “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Sun Tzu’s most provocative, deeply Chinese, maxim is this one: “It is the way of the world for the weak to defeat the strong.” And here are his millennia-old words for those who predicted a cakewalk in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Iran: “There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.”

When our intelligence professionals correctly figure out Iranian capabilities and Chinese intentions, they surely will have earned their keep.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


What follows may irritate some, so let me confess up-front that the following is written by a political independent who has worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations, served Nixon on one of his presidential commissions, worked full-time for Carter's National Security Council, and was a naval officer during WW II.

IRAQ. First, a personal note. I was one who initially supported the attack on the basis of lies about weapons of mass destruction aimed at the United States plus links to al-Qaeda, not to mention National Security Advisor Rice’s scary fantasy of a mushroom cloud. It was probably the last time I trusted political evaluation of intelligence. And I deeply resented the shabby treatment of Secretary of State retired four-star general Colin Powell after he warned President Bush of post-invasion chaos, citing the Pottery Barn motto (“You break it, you own it”). Powell’s concerns were supported by other retired generals who know war. For his pains he was isolated, humiliated at the UN, and effectively dumped. As the Bush administration botched the post-invasion task, disillusionment was complete.

Painful as it is to look back, we should learn from Iraq war enthusiasts Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, President George W. Bush, and Vice President Dick Cheney. They sold the longest and costliest modern war to the American people as a “cakewalk”, with intelligence about WMD that was a “slamdunk", and cost us, not $80 billion dollars, but close to one trillion, over 4,000 US lives, and thousands of maimed US troops ,along with a huge number of dead and wounded Iraqi civilians. We were further deceived when the war costs were kept off budget. It should be noted that none of the four ever experienced combat in war.

WHEN TO LEAVE IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN. Some critics fear that “premature” withdrawal will endanger our objectives of leaving behind a democratic society in Iraq and a secure one in Afghanistan. They may be right that a new surge might give those goals a better chance. But the evidence, both historical and contemporary, suggests that a delay of three years, five years, or even ten may not make much difference. Whenever the US pulls out, the odds in Iraq are what you might expect for a society where Shia were always reviled by Sunnis and, with our invasion, vice versa. The three Ottoman provinces made into “Iraq” in London in 1921 are as likely to have a dictator again holding the country together as an entirely new model of governance imposed from the outside. The odds in Afghanistan, whenever the US withdraws, seem to me to favor recurrence of tribal conflict between Pashtuns and Northerners, along with resurgent Taliban extremism and a weak and corrupt central government. We hope that US efforts at transformative change in both countries will take hold. But they could also vanish like footprint s in the sand. The US military has done its best in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The rest, as always, is up to the natives.

IRAN. Iran is not North Korea, which no American really understands. Rather than being a hermetically sealed dictatorship, Iran has a majority younger generation that is facile with social networks and well aware of the Arab Awakening. The mullahs rule with an uneven fist, but a direct attack on Iran is likely to unite the people. If Iran commits suicide by blocking the Strait of Hormuz, the US is certain to forcibly reopen it. But the paramount basis for policy is that Iran probably has a secret nuclear weapons program, according to the International UN Atomic Energy Agency. Republican contenders Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum have engaged in competitive machismo about who would most unflinchingly go to war with Iran if it did not discontinue its suspected nuclear weapons program. Like the four most influential Iraq war promoters cited earlier, these three don’t appear to have experienced anything that might be called military combat. Big trouble lies ahead if a serious war plan on Iran develops in 2012 before all diplomatic and other non-war options have been thoroughly explored.

Considering the costs, a smart US administration will double down on efforts to reach, inform, persuade, bribe, sabotage, and subvert the program, up to and including covert Special Forces and drone operations. Extreme persuasion worked earlier to end Libya’s weapons program; imagine the situation today if we had not persuaded Quaddaffi to give up his nuclear program. If Iran proceeds to build a weapon, or is only a screwdriver turn away, Israel is likely to ignore US cautions and try to blast Iran’s nuclear facilities the way it did with Saddam’s Osirak reactor in 1982, but on a far larger scale. If the worst can be averted, think of an “Islamic Awakening” in Iran that begins to rescue that lovely country.

GOVERNANCE. President Barack Obama wasted the one year available to presidents for real change by giving primacy to a controversial universal health care plan that overshadowed efforts to deal with inherited crises of rising unemployment and financial meltdown. In his first term his promised efforts to compromise with Congress proved futile, first against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s injunction to give primacy to making Obama a one-term president (how’s that for responsible leadership and patriotism at a time of overwhelming national problems begging for solution). After 2010 Tea Party-dominated House Republicans brought to major issues a Taliban-like non-negotiable agenda that allowed for none of the give and take at the heart of the democratic process. The result was serial paralysis.

The US system intentionally makes governance hard. The (unwritten) British constitution is aimed at making it possible to govern, while the US constitution is aimed at keeping King George III from coming back. The Tea Partiers who knowingly kept the United States government from functioning were once a legitimate protest movement. But they failed to comprehend their responsibility to govern, bringing to life a saying by Brazilian revolutionary Francisco Juliano: “To agitate is beautiful; to organize is difficult.” If these 80 or so Tea-Partiers are re-elected, we can look forward to the continued dysfunction of the federal government as a global laughingstock. But a strongly recovering economy may find the Tea Party a historical footnote.

Maybe President Obama doesn’t deserve re-election, assuming a believable opponent. But I find him a moral, intelligent, and patriotic guy. The right-wing extremists who savagely slimed and defamed his personal character and beliefs should have their mouths washed out with soap.

SERIOUS EDUCATION. Several candidates in the Republican primary debates have demonstrated ignorance of some facts they should have mastered in grade school. (I should correct that; Mrs. Bachmann's endless recital of non-facts as well as Herman Cain’s and Rick Perry's empty memory cards bring to mind the Josh Billings saying that “the trouble with people is not that they don’t know, but that they know so much that ain’t so.”) But the blame should also fall on the American educational system, which seems to be producing, along with the bright achievers, an inordinate number of uneducated people. Those who brag about the US being Number One are right when it comes to military power -- and to the country's still inhrent promise -- but wrong about where we now stand educationally and overall in relation to fast-rising competitors like China, India, and Brazil. (For some figures, see my blog posting entitled "Is the US in Decline?"). If we don’t finally get serious about this in 2012we can forget about maintaining a long-term competitive economy.

INESCAPABLY, CHINA. Efforts to manage competitive but peaceful relations with China are crucial to our national security and well-being. I think President Obama and his team get high grades for managing this tricky relationship as well as that with equally unpredictable Moscow. It is vital that whoever wins in November continue these efforts while, as always, keeping our powder dry.

And a Happy New Year to all.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


The Premise
The US is anything but isolated in the new world of globalized economies, finance, markets, communications, and ideas. It obviously can’t lock the front door as it did in the 1920’s when foreign trade was a small fraction of total GDP, compared with today’s 12 percent for exports and 17 percent for imports. It would be a 21st century isolationism. But my answer is nevertheless a qualified yes.

Two-thirds of Americans are fed up with the drawn-out and ambiguous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The defense and foreign aid budgets face cuts. A recent poll of returnees shows strong preferences for less foreign military involvement. In the overheated electoral season, foreign policy is a footnote, but in one recent debate among Republican candidates, Libertarian Ron Paul said that the US had no business intervening around the world and should concentrate on rebuilding this country. The audience broke into a cheer that topped all other noises of the evening. The evidence is still fragmentary. But it suggests a turning away from optional military interventions that become costly and fail to attain their purpose, leaving people frustrated and disillusioned.

The History
In the early days of the Republic when the US was dependent on foreign trade, George Washington’s farewell address suggested that it was possible to be militarily isolationist without being isolated. The US stayed aloof from World War I until German U-boats attacked US shipping. It entered the war in 1917 in a euphoric and reformist mood, but the carnage was horrendous. Idealistic hopes were dimmed by the Allies’ cynicism at the 1919 Paris peace conference, and extinguished by the Senate’s rejection of President Wilson’s transformed world order. For a generation the US turned its back on the crumbling peace and its own blueprints for international cooperation like an international court. Until the mid-1930’s, threats from Hitler were not obvious. Isolation and
isolationism happily coexisted.

Disputed military interventions have been the “wars of choice” Richard Haass distinguished from “wars of necessity.” World War II was a “war of necessity”, as the threat became existential, and the Pearl Harbor attack a loud wake-up call. Thanks to the nationalist fervor unleashed in Indochina by Japan’s ejection of European colonialism, intervention in the Vietnam War by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson became complex and eventually unmanageable. “Victory” proved elusive, US goals became murky, costs soared, and American society fractured as popular support disappeared. For the next generation, public sentiment opposed any American effort to intervene in distant aggressions, police civil wars, suppress murderous tyrannies, export democracy, or forcibly “nation-build.”

In the 1990’s a new generation belatedly and reluctantly launched military operations in strife-torn Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo under an evolving UN doctrine of humanitarian “responsibility to protect.” But the Somali operation turned toxic, and the others remained problematic.

9/11 was a game-changer. America’s 2001 attack on al-Qaeda’s springboard, Afghanistan, was widely supported until President Bush diverted attention to Iraq. The bitter reality of tribal and religious conflict ended the US dream of quick, cheap success in both places. The Afghan war follows the pattern that led to past US drop-out periods.

The Forecast
Predictions are hazardous. We Americans are noted for historical amnesia, and American history is cyclical. A new isolationist mood would vanish with a direct attack like Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Tough choices would still arise from an assaul on Israel, Iran production of a deliverable nuclear weapon, or an al-Qaeda attack on the US that is again mounted in a country with a return address. But operations against terrorists will rely on low-visibility Special Forces and technology such as drone aircraft. Targeted small-scale operations such as the dispatch of 100 Special Forces to Central Africa in the fall of 2011 will take the place of boots on the ground. US intervention in critical but not vital places will increasingly depend on coalitions of the willing (as has already happened in Libya) and, it can be hoped, upgraded use of “smart power” other that military.

Some Americans will be inconsolable about refraining from military crusades. But they should consider the words of Germany’s ”Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck who, when asked if he wanted war, is said to have replied, “Certainly not, what I want is victory.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Elders of the World, Unite!

When I joined the ranks of not-as-young-as-I-used-to-be, I experienced a series of shocks. It must have been the same, only worse, for newly disabled people who found an unintentionally but jarringly hostile physical world out there. It might be worth unpacking some of the hazards confronting the Republic of the Elderly to explain what I’m talking about.

Here are a few examples of the difficulties with which folks with impaired vision and/or mobility contend every day:

1. Let’s start with an easy one. The best foodie sources for elders sell fairly good precooked meals. They are refrigerated and can be tonight’s dinner or stuck in a freezer for later. They all have cooking or heating instructions. But the specialty stores I know print cooking instructions in exactly the same tiny typeface as the list of ingredients, which are usually minuscule. There is normally label room allowing a slightly larger typeface for a couple of lines of heating tips. I have complained, but corporate management seems indifferent to the problems of its older clientele.

2. Those of us who spend time online must contend with the fact that Internet presentations are often conducted in a light pastel color, with links brought up in another light pastel shade, making the text so dim that it is close to unreadable for people with low vision. The site designers and coders may well include bright young people I taught at MIT. But how come they haven’t made their cool websites more readable for those of us with less-than-perfect vision?

3. TV dramas also present a problem. Some of my favorite sources of mindless violence -- like “NCIS,” “MI-5,” and “Masterpiece Mystery” – seem to shoot many of their scenes in the dark. Whether shot at night, or in cellars, or in other unlighted venues, many scenes are close to invisible to people like me.

4. Steps leading up into stores and restaurants often lack railings. I find that oldsters’ greatest concern is the danger of a fall, and they need something to hang onto. Here again, management seems unaware of the risks to people like their own parents or grandparents, not to mention lawsuits.

5. In my supermarket many desirable items are on the bottom shelf, requiring somehow bending in half or lying on the floor to check it out. Also, some older folks are on a low-sodium regime. It is a monumental pain to search through hundreds of cans, bottles, etc. to pick out the low-sodium versions. Has no one thought of providing a special section or at least shelf?

6. And have you ever wrestled with the little plastic triangles that have to be brought into mathematically precise conjunction in order to open a pill bottle, and which in my case often requires a chisel and hammer, leaving the floor strewn with pills?

The vendors concerned will, of course, be unmoved by the whining of an ordinary senior citizen. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, commerce is not missionary work. My impression is that the current marketing style of commercial America was set a couple of decades ago with a marketing strategy based on the fact that the demographic to target was the 15 to 24 crowd. That may be true for a while longer, but corporate America had better wake up to the fact that US demographics are changing. The 2010 Census projected that by 2025 – 14 years away – there will be 80% more elderly citizens, while the percentages of workers and kids will be up by only 16%. These trends are not completely new. In the last decade, the percentage of Americans 65 and older grew 15.1%, while the percentage of under-18’s grew only 2%.

The marketing manager today should tell her team that the changing demographics call for another look at business models and profit centers. With a few well-advertised improvements to make life easier for elders, businesses will make more money, and their bonus will be a special corner in Commerce Heaven reserved for people who do well by doing good for the elders of the world.