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Archive for February, 2010

There is a very old joke that goes something like this: a man is walking along the street at night when he sees another man on his hands and knees crawling around beneath a street light. He walks over and asks the man, “Did you lose something?”

“Yes,” the man replies, “I lost a quarter.”

“Oh. Well, just where did you lose it?” the first man asks.

“Over there,” the other man says, pointing down the street towards the darkness.

“Well then, why in the world are you looking here?” the first man asks.

The man on his hands and knees just looks up impatiently and replies, “Because there’s more light over here!”

Today, the U.S. military in Afghanistan is in the midst of a major battle. The target of the coalition (mostly U.S.) forces is the Taliban in Helmand province – a Taliban stronghold. The U.S. Marines are attacking with full force and driving the Taliban out of the cities and into the hinterlands of Afghanistan. The idea is that this will allow the Afghan government to exert more control over Helmand. It will also help destroy the opium crop, which is said to be a way the Taliban raise money.

I suppose it is easy to forget, in all the turmoil of war, that it wasn’t the Taliban who attacked the U.S. It was Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.  At least that’s what the NSA says, based upon their communications intercepts that preceded the 9/11 attack.

Apparently the people of the Netherlands have come to the conclusion that this war with the Taliban doesn’t make a lot of sense. They are going home. Their sentiments are not much different from a lot of Europeans, and that has Secretary of Defense Gates worried. He says the European anti-war mentality is a danger to peace.

Dick Cheney was right about only one thing in his entire life. When we first got into the war against Al Qaeda he said it would have to be a different kind of war, a clandestine war. He also said we wouldn’t be hearing much about the war because it would be waged in secret. He was wrong about the second part, we hear about the War on Terror all the time. But he was right about the first part – this kind of war has to be different. It’s not the kind of war an army can win. It has to be more like a police action – a secret police action. Maybe a CIA kind of thing or a job for something like Israel’s Mossad.  It’s simply too easy for a nimble organization like Al Qaeda to evade a slow-moving army or the Marine Corps. That has been effectively demonstrated for the last nine years in Afghanistan.  Pretending that the Taliban is our real 9/11 enemy doesn’t help in countering the true threat from Al Qaeda.

The would-be captured terrorist Najibullah Zazi has said recently that he was close to launching a new attack on the U.S. It’s worth noting that his capture had nothing to do with the U.S. Army or Marine Corps or Air Force or Navy.   Al Qaeda is planning more attacks – not spectacular attacks like 9/11, but smaller ones – deadly but smaller.

One must ask: is our attack on the Taliban really an effective way to fight Al Qaeda? The answer has to be: “No”.  The problem we have is that this is the type of fighting our military is trained to do, but warfare has changed and we have not adapted to the change. We still haven’t learned the lesson of Vietnam. You can’t fight unconventional forces in a conventional way. The tactics of World War II, even though they were gloriously successful, just don’t apply here. But, that’s what our generals are trained to do, so we do it.

We’ve been lucky. Our FBI or CIA or some other quasi-police agency caught Najibullah Zazi. However, there are probably others like him: sleeper agents and spies. Infiltrators.  The question our military should be addressing is how to counter these clandestine agents because that is the real military threat we face. The Taliban do not pose an imminent threat to America. We all know are not nice people, in fact they seem to be really nasty people.  But they are on the other side of the world and their primary concern is Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s primary concern is America. The Taliban is not Al Qaeda, and that is exactly the problem with our defense against Al Qaeda.

We’re like the guy looking for his lost quarter under the street light.

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It was a suicide.  The private plane was deliberately flown into the Internal Revenue Service building in Austin.  The pilot left a suicide note on the Internet – a note that the FBI is now desperately trying to remove. Why is the FBI removing the pilot’s last words from the Internet? So you can’t read them, of course.  It is a little too late for that though. Rick Sanchez has already read some of the note live on CNN.  It’s a little hard now to suppress what the man thought.

I’ve written about this before – suicide attacks that is.  I wrote about it in my article on 9/11, that other suicide attack on a building.  Why do people commit suicide? There is really only one reason – they are desperate and they see no other solution to their problems.  The man who flew his plane into the IRS building was desperate, and he wrote a six page letter telling of his long struggles with financial problems, of how he wrote to his Senators and Congressmen but was always ignored.  He wrote about his difficulties with the IRS and his perception that he was being treated wrongly.  He wrote about American business and how they always get preferential treatment from the government while the people are left to suffer.  He wrote about the current economic meltdown and how the banks were thrown a massive economic lifeline – even though they were the proximate cause of the meltdown – while he, also a victim of the economy, received not a dime of help.

It was anger; no – rage. It was frustration.  It was despair. It was an act of revenge. It was a statement.

So, what are we to make of this? Is this a one time oddity? Does this attack mean anything for us or should we just ignore it and have another cup of Starbuck’s?  Consider this: ever since President Obama was elected, Americans have been arming themselves to the teeth.  Sales at Smith and Wesson have soared.  We have a new political party – sort of – the Tea Party. They are the party of “just leave us alone”. They don’t want to pay taxes. They don’t want national health care. They don’t want the government to do anything for them or to them. They want the government to just go away. The most popular person in the Republican Party is a dimwit from Alaska. The sole role of the Republican Party, since W left the White House, has been to obstruct everything the Democratic President wants to do – everything. It is not a question of what is good for the country. It is all about power, and it is most certainly not about what is good for you.

The country’s government is in gridlock. The only thing our government is able to agree upon is war. Who shall we bomb next, and when shall bomb them?  It’s good business for the defense contractors of course, but it’s not clear that we have Osama bin Laden too worried.  Or, that we even know where he is, for that matter.  What we have is the ultimate proof that President Eisenhower was right about the “industrial-military complex”, but does anybody really care? Certainly not Congress.

We have become a polarized country, perhaps dangerously polarized. Half of us want nothing to do with government, and the other half wants government to solve all of our problems. The first half thinks the second half are a bunch of naive fools. The second half thinks  the first half are lunatics. Meanwhile the oligarchs who run this country are busy having laws written to help their businesses. Tax laws are being written to give a unique advantage to certain types of businesses but not others, and certainly not to individuals who really have no power in this country at all. That’s because we are a republic and not a democracy.

The suicide pilot was not an idiot.  He was not a fool. He was not insane – he was desperate and he was angry. Sounds a lot like half the country right now. It’s probably appropriate that this incident happened in Texas, that most Republican of states. The Governor of Texas has recently talked of secession from the Union. He’s had it with the United States of America.  So, while the FBI scrambles to cover up that which everybody already has seen, and the rest of the government will undoubtedly scramble to portray this as an isolated incident perpetrated by a nut case, the American people may well be pondering something else.

Is this the canary in the coal mine?

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If there is one thing that everyone in America seems to be able to agree on, it is this: we are in big economic trouble.  After having a near miss with a second Great Depression, we are unsteadily moving towards a state of continuing economic uncertainty.  It’s not just us; it’s the whole world. Spain, Greece, and Portugal are now in deep economic trouble and if they default on their debts the euro and the entire European economy could be endangered.  China, now the prime manufacturer for the world, and the principal holder of U.S. debt obligations, is mostly concerned with their own economy, not ours; except that their economic fate is inextricably linked to ours. If we go down, they go down.  That is something they would really like to avoid, so they are taking their own self-protective steps to strengthen their currency and prepare for a second round of economic bad news.

Everyone, almost everyone anyway, seems to feel we spent a huge amount of money in forestalling the complete meltdown of our banks. We did this with borrowed money – money that was essentially borrowed from China and will eventually have to be paid back.  The problem is that we are very close to being in a situation where as a nation, we spend more than we earn. And it looks like this imbalance will only get worse in the coming years.  It is a recipe for economic disaster.  We either have to earn more or spend less. The problem with earning more is that our multinational companies have outsourced so much production to China and other countries that it is now really hard to earn more money. We just don’t make enough stuff here anymore. So what’s left? Cut expenses. Spend less.

Immediately, the right wing goes after the entitlement programs, since, philosophically, they have always opposed them. Slash Social Security, cut Medicare and Medicaid, eliminate anything that smacks of helping people – and let’s don’t even talk about universal health care. On the left we hear about different types of cuts. Recently President Obama said he wanted to cancel NASA’s plans to go back to the Moon.  He also wants to tax the banks and the rich folk (makes sense – after all, that’s where the money is).  There is one thing no one talks about. The big 800 pound gorilla in the room, the Emperor’s unmentionables, the biggest ticket in the U.S. budget, the Mother of All Budget Breakers: Defense Spending. There – I’ve said it.  That which must not be said. The ledger which must not be looked at. The sacred amount, the holy of holies which must not ever be questioned: it is this one little item that is bleeding the life blood from our country.

Whoa, pardner. Wait just one cotton pickin’ minute, Glenn Beck might say. How do you figur’ that?  How come I’m not going after that big money waster, Social Security or Medicare? Well, for one thing, I’ve already paid a lot of money into the Social Security/Medicare Ponzi scheme and I want my money back some day. And I’ll get it too, and so will you, just so long as the population keeps growing – the key ingredient to any Ponzi scheme.

Defense spending, on the other hand is different. A lot of it goes to defense contractors who get their contracts via lobbyists and cozy relationships with our Senators and Congressmen.  They build all sorts of useless things like B-1 bombers and nuclear powered aircraft carriers.  They spend a lot of money on their own version of entitlement programs like huge pensions for retired admirals and generals, free medical care, free or low cost housing, food, clothing, schooling, transportation, recreation, you name it. Talk about Socialism, talk about entitlement programs, this is the King of Entitlement programs. We all know this, but it’s unpatriotic to say so, so we keep quiet.  For a great many people, the military is a jobs program, except for those unlucky few who wind up in actual combat, of course. The thing is that vast numbers of military people never come within a thousand miles of combat. The truth is that most of our weapons are never used. The truth is that the military is the largest old boy network in the country.  It is a system where you make alliances for life.  These alliances are used to get jobs in industry after people leave the military or in the government itself where you can find groups of people working in the same office who “just happened” to know each other in the service. We all know that – we just don’t talk about it.  It’s not patriotic to say that.  The thing is this: having a nice and safe, cushy career in the military and then retiring to a fat job in government or industry while collecting a fat pension is not the same thing as dying for your country in the rocks and sand of Afghanistan. But we act like it is.

The simple fact is this: our military budget is horrendously bloated.  Our military spending is way out of line. We buy the wrong weapons.  We have the wrong strategies.  We have the wrong number of people.  We are wasting enormous amounts of money on our military budget, and like a drug addict or an alcoholic, we can’t stop.  Defense spending is our sacred cow. It must not be questioned.  It must not be cut. It is killing us financially, but we won’t and we can’t admit it.

Here’s something to think about: how many years has it been since 9/11? It’s getting close to nine years. So how is our military doing fighting this war against terror? Well, let’s see….we bombed Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban, but we didn’t get Bin Laden. We invaded Iraq and killed Saddam Hussein, but we didn’t get Bin Laden.  We’re back in Afghanistan but we can’t seem to locate Bin Laden. Nine years our military has been fighting yet still we face possible terrorist attacks from Al Qaeda every day. Does this mean our military isn’t up to the job? No.  It means that this is not a job for the military.  Remember when Cheney said that the war against terror was going to be a clandestine war and we wouldn’t hear much about it? Well, that was about as close as Cheney ever got to the truth. We are not going to defeat Al Qaeda with armored columns or stealth bombers or aircraft carriers or 20,000 Marines. We don’t even know where they’re hiding.

After World War II Europe pretty much disarmed. We didn’t. Neither did the Soviets. President Reagan drove the Soviet Union into bankruptcy by accelerating the arms race. Massive military spending didn’t help the Soviet economy, it killed it. Even so, we don’t learn.  We continue on, preparing to fight multiple simultaneous wars on different fronts, like the Cold War never ended.  We’re spending enormous amounts on the War on Terror at the same time.  More than anything else it is this unconstrained defense spending that is destroying our economy.  Why? Because the military does not create a product. Money goes in but no consumer products come out. It isn’t a business. Money spent on defense is not an economic stimulus, it is a burden on the taxpayer – a burden we have to acknowledge and sensibly reduce. This doesn’t mean we stop fighting Al Qaeda, it means we have to fight in a more productive, intelligent, and clandestine way – but not the way of the military.

Our problem is that we cannot even talk about this. Our problem is that we have a corrupt system that continually increases defense spending in ways that are not useful or effective. Our problem is that, more than anything else, defense spending is killing our economy and we won’t admit it; we are afraid to admit it.  Our problem is that defense spending has become our sacred cow and it has become unpatriotic to question anything about it. Even so this will end, either when we get up enough courage to honestly debate defense spending or when our economy simply collapses and defense spending, like everything else, simply withers away.

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