Saturday, January 21, 2012

Military Rape

Serving in the military is dangerous enough, you would think, without having to worry about your fellow soldiers raping you.  Killing you is bad enough; we know that there are deaths to friendly fire, and almost certainly always will be.  Getting raped by the other side is also a danger that, I would imagine, the laws of war will never completely eliminate.  But there is increasing news coverage of people getting raped by members of their own side.

A Democratic Congressman has introduced a bill that would take military rape cases out of the military chain of command.  If the Defense Department is to be believed, there is a veritable contagion of rape among soldiers:  19,000 sexual assaults in 2010 alone.  Even granted that not every sexual assault would qualify as a rape, that's still a staggering figure.  A new documentary called The Invisible War delves into the problem up close and, from what I have read, in a heart-rending fashion.

I don't know whether other countries have a comparable problem.  I do know that rape is deplorable, and rape on this scale is a scandal.  I also think that this consequence of mixing women and men in military units should have been entirely predictable.  In general, mixing men and women in close living quarters is almost certain to result in sex.  Mixing men and women in close living quarters where they are deprived of a normal social life is even more likely to result in sex.  Mixing men and women in close living quarters and a stressful position is almost certain to result in rape.  It is deplorable, but true.  Of course, one would have to adjust for factors such as the prevalence of rape in a society in general; within a given society, however, I would have to think that this is a recipe for rape, even if not necessarily on the same scale that the U.S. Army is experiencing.

Obviously, the military's response to sexual assault is also an important factor.  It appears that commanders have not taken rape accusations as seriously as they should have, and that may be due to an institutional failing.  I don't, however, think that they are going to eliminate the problem entirely.  And, no, I don't have a solution.  The best alternative, in my opinion, would be to have all-male and all-female units, but that creates other problems.  Women don't officially serve in combat roles now, but can you imagine if they did, and you had to choose between sending in an all-male or an all-female unit into a dangerous situation?  Whatever you picked, the answer would be wrong, and the military would probably end up creating rules about which units had to be committed that would be contrary to good tactics.  I don't have an answer, but the situation needs to get better.

Monday, January 16, 2012

In Defense of Manning?

I have been following the case of Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of passing over 700,000 classified documents to Wikileaks, with some interest.  I am curious how so many people seem to be defending him.  Since a preliminary investigation led an officer to recommend his prosecution on all 22 counts, we now get to see how his lawyers are going to defend him.  According to the Huffington Post, "defense lawyers say Manning was clearly a troubled young soldier whom the Army should never have deployed to Iraq or given access to classified material while he was stationed there from late 2009 to mid-2010."  Also, "others had access to Manning's workplace computers. They say he was in emotional turmoil, partly because he was a gay soldier at a time when homosexuals were barred from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces."

In other words, he didn't do it, and they shouldn't have let him near classified information anyway, and, besides, it didn't do any harm.

The first of these is the only legitimate defense -- he didn't do it.  I suspect that this is also going to be the weakest line of defense, since there are probably plenty of emails from Manning to Assange and others indicating his intention to release the documents.

Moreover, this defense flatly contradicts the two fallback positions:  it's the Army's fault for letting him near the information, and releasing it didn't damage U.S. interests.  These are two sophistical arguments that I happen to despise, seeing them frequently among high-profile court cases in which the defendant has no real defense.

The Army should certainly have good procedures to keep the unqualified away from classified documents, and from what I have read, Manning's superior officer was going to cut his access shortly before the documents were leaked, but didn't get around to it.  Still, is this a defense?  The law (or Army code) is pretty clear about protecting classified information.  Even if the Army slipped up and let someone near classified information when it shouldn't have, is that a reason Manning should not be prosecuted?  Manning could be a Taliban spy and the same logic would apply:  the Army would be, in that case, foolish to let him near the documents, but he would still be guilty.  Can a bureaucratic mistake excuse an illegal action?  And can anyone who knows how time-consuming a process it is to get a clearance on Manning's level really want the Army to add even more safeguards?

Manning's emotional state might at least count as mitigating circumstances, but the excuse that he was a homosexual at a time that homosexuals were barred from serving openly doesn't count for much.  The rules were in place, and well known, before he signed up.  If you were a polygamist and signed up for the Army, you might be stressed out about it -- don't sign up!  There was no draft that put Manning in this situation; he did it to himself.

The last argument is one of the most frivolous:  that the documents did no harm to U.S. interests.  While one or more of the charges on which Manning is being brought up may require actual damage to be done, surely he is in defeault of at least some rules regardless of the actual consequences of what he did.  I can understand that one would want some rule about significance; you wouldn't want to send someone to prison for a long period of time because he leaked a single, trivial document, for instance.  But Manning leaked over 700,000 documents.  It should not be up to the court to decide whether these documents actually harmed U.S. interests, because then every case of leakage would degenerate into a debate, not about the law, but about the effects of the leak.  People would be able to release classified documents with impunity as long as they did not rise to whatever level of "damage" a military court happened to hold.  It would be risky, of course, but I imagine there are people who would be happy to take the chance.

Unless Manning has some extraordinary exculpatory information that his defense lawyers have yet to bring up, therefore, the case against him looks very strong.  I have long since lost much faith in our jury system, but, since Manning will be tried by a military court, there is some hope that justice will be done.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Think This Through

I got an email about some training that I have to attend.  It includes the following warning:  "Due to limited seating, please plan to arrive early."  I would like to know what train of thoughts went through the head of the author as he wrote that.  If there aren't enough seats, having people arrive early is not going to solve the problem.  Sure, those who do arrive early might get seats, but that just pushes the lack of seats on to those who fail to arrive early.  No matter how early you tell people to arrive, and no matter how much they follow your advice, they will never produce more seats.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Is There A Place For Paul?

Hardly anyone, probably not even the candidate himself, believes that Ron Paul can win the Republican nomination.  But his strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire have turned him from a marginal figure into major player in Republican politics.  For many, a strong but unsuccessful run to be a party's presidential nominee could be used as a basis for a future presidential run, perhaps by becoming vice president first.  I think it highly unlikely that Paul will become a vice-presidential nominee, however, because he is too polarizing.  Moreover, at age 76, this is likely to be his last run.

Is there any hope that the Republican candidate, should he win the presidency, will offer some sort of post to Paul?  Should he?  Paul represents an unusual constituency, a small but dedicated group who differ from Republicans in general on a number of issues.  Every political party is composed of diverse interests, but libertarians present a special set of challenges to incorporate into the party mainstream.  Unlike another small but devoted following, the avidly pro-life section of the party, libertarians are not single-issue voters.  There is not even a major issue most frequently identified with them; instead, their views are relevant in nearly every political action.  And while most libertarian views are congenial to most Republicans, there are some views that are so far out of mainstream conservatism that they alienate many potential voters -- issues like drug enforcement and foreign policy, for instance.  It is therefore possible for a Republican candidate to say many things that libertarians approve of, but to have a single libertarian in a Republican administration is likely to attract enormous criticism from both Republicans and Democrats.

Still, you don't want to write off the support of this important group of people.  Even if a third party is not likely to rise up any time soon, just having libertarians stay home could mean defeat for a lot of Republicans in close races.  I have even heard of people identifying themselves as "liberal-tarians," libertarians who somehow believe that the Democratic party represents their views better than Republicans.  I find this absurd, but I have to admit that the way Republicans often behave while in office, I can understand why libertarians would be anxious to find an alternative.

So could a Republican president find a place for Ron Paul in his administration?  The department of state can be a refuge for a politician out of step with the main line of opinion in his party, as when Colin Powell served there for George W. Bush.  In Paul's case, however, this is out of the question.  Paul is such an isolationist that his appointment would alienate everyone, including, probably, our allies.  Most other cabinet -level positions would almost be contradictory for Paul to hold.  Labor?  He'd probably want to get rid of it.  Energy?  Likewise.  Housing and urban developement?  Same.  It is hard to imagine someone with Paul's long and consistently-held beliefs taking over the administration of a department that he doesn't think serves a legitimate purpose.  (I'm thinking of Leon Panetta's sudden shift to a defense hawk after his appointment as secretary of defense; I'm not suggesting that Panetta is insincere, but his political philosophy is considerably more flexible than Paul's.)  I suspect that he would decline the position, even if offered.

There is one possible alternative, and that is the department of the Treasury.  It is true that Paul's website calls for a 0% tax rate, which is one of the things that makes it impossible for Paul to win national office.  However, it seems that even he must admit that the government needs to collect some revenue; and since the Treasury was one of the original three cabinet departments, he can't claim that we have ever done without it.  Assuming that he would continue to enforce existing laws while promoting their repeal, Paul would make a strong advocate for decreased federal spending as Secretary of the Treasury.  He would be a strong advocate for taxpayers, and you can bet he would make the IRS less aggressive in its collection methods and less exacting in its rules.

A president would have to have strong assurance from Paul that he would actually enforce existing laws, because his appointment to such a position would have to excite some fears that he would just refuse to collect money; and while I'm pretty sure he wouldn't do that (or would refuse the position if it was contrary to his conscience), you would want some public statements to that effect at the time of his appointment to calm financial markets.  There is always the chance that he would not be approved, and that kind of split with libertarians would be far worse for Republicans than simply leaving Paul to the side.  On the whole, I think the risks of appointing Paul to any cabinet position make it very unlikely that a president would take the risk, but I can think of worse people to hold the office.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Jazz

Those of a certain age may remember a 1980's band called "Johnny Hates Jazz." Maybe they should have called themselves "Johnny Hates Music," or simply "Johnny Has No Taste."

How can you hate jazz? I am a little more understanding of people who hate, for example, country music. I love it, but I grew up with it and it appeals to me in many ways beyond its musicality. Bluegrass is an even better example. I like classical music, but if some people find Tchaikovsky boring, I can totally understand that.

But jazz? Jazz is like a cool drink when you're thirsty. Jazz is the feel of water covering your body as you relax in the pool on a hot day. Jazz is a full—body massage with scented oils. I guess improvisation might not be for everyone; it might not be your favourite kind of music. But hate it? I don't understand that.

I should qualify that by noting the different types of jazz, some of which are definitely less likable than others. Do you listen to bebop, bossa nova, or Dixieland? Hard bop, neo—bop, post bop? There are even such unlikely types as acid jazz, punk jazz, and ska jazz. I'll be honest, I couldn't tell you the first thing about how these forms differ. I didn't even know what type I liked myself until very recently. I have always liked jazz, but it seemed that every time I listened to an album, it wasn't quite what I wanted. For a long time, I thought I must want smooth jazz, because that is how it sounds to me. It turns out that I was actually looking for cool jazz; smooth jazz is more like elevator music. I can probably attribute my mistake to the time when I grew up, when the adjective 5 "cool" was passe and people were more likely to strive to be smooth. Cool jazz grew up after World War II, when cool was definitely the thing to be.

It's kind of surprising that I would like jazz, because I usually prefer order over spontaneity. There is, however, something incredibly satisfying to the soul to hear a saxophone wander, unpredictably but beautifully, over a string of notes, mixing in happy and sad, anxious and relaxed, leaving me feeling simply content. I find that I want to give a thumbs-up to almost every song. So, if you haven't tried jazz, open up Pandora, type in cool jazz, and give it a listen. You might understand why I am so confused about Johnny's peculiar tastes.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Republican Presidential Candidates: Not Romney

In accordance with my contrarian nature, I disagree that the other Republican presidential candidates are not up to par. I don't have a strong favourite among them, but I think almost any would do a good job.

I admit that I was excited about Herman Cain briefly. In general, I think it is good to get outside opinions into Washington, so much so that I strongly support term limits. My concern with Cain was that he had no previous political experience, not even on a local level. I was afraid that he might get into office and make some embarrassing mistakes because he just didn't have the political background to know how to handle situations, much as our current president has made a number of gaffes, especially in foreign affairs. I acknowledge that this is a trade-off: you can't ask for an outsider and at the same time get the level of comfort that comes with a political insider. I certainly wouldn't rule Cain out because of his lack of experience, but it was a concern. For better or worse, he is no longer a candidate, so I don't have to consider that issue further. (Do you see why I don't follow these things too closely?)

Ron Paul presents another level of discomfort. Unlike Cain, he has a lot of experience, and his stances on the issues are well known. I probably agree with most of his domestic policies. His foreign policy -- the foreign policy of libertarians in general -- is more problematic. When I first saw libertarians promoting themselves as peace candidates back in the 1980's, I was appalled, because I was a hawk and I couldn't understand how these people -- whom I considered allies -- could have such different views. Since then, my views have moved a lot toward a non-interventionist stance (see "A Good Word For Isolationism"). If that were all libertarian foreign policy was about, I might be able to support it. However, when I hear Paul claiming that we are responsible for making Muslims hate us, and saying that a nuclear Iran is no threat, I part ways. A realistic foreign policy can conclude that the U.S. should not be as involved in policing the world as it is now. A realistic foreign policy cannot be premised on the idea that supporting Israel is a good reason for Muslims to hate us. Muslims are going to have to take responsibility for their own destructive actions, and we cannot withdraw from the world so much that we allow vulnerable states to be destroyed to save ourselves from raving fanatics.

Newt Gingrich is an extraordinary person. When he engineered the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, he was my hero. It wasn't long after that that I began hearing some of his curious statements. I particularly remember one interview in which he berated a bunch I of reporters for being surprised that he and President Clinton had been able to work together on an issue: "Let me tell you something: This is a new era. The old rules don't apply." First, his condescending tone was annoying. Second, my scepticism alert goes off whenever I hear anyone talking about "a new era" or "old rules not applying." It's not that things don't change, but they generally do so rarely and slowly. People are too eager to proclaim new eras for the obvious reason that it gets them attention, or -- in Gingrich's case -- because he genuinely thinks that he is capable of bringing about such a formidable transformation. I didn't let these things bother me too much at the time, because I was still in awe of his electoral accomplishment. However, his subsequent statements have reinforced my impression of him who thinks too much of himself. That would not be a serious problem in itself; really, anyone who runs for president has a big ego, and it seems a little trifling to worry about whether Newt's is bigger than everyone else. My concern is that he is a little too interested in placing himself above ideology. He is determined to be an independent i thinker, which is good, but I think he takes pleasure in demonstrating that he is not bound i to standard conservative positions. His well-known support for the global warming crisis 1 is just one example. I can see him waking up some day with a grand government scheme that would transform America and mark him as a heroic president. Liberals would jump all over it because it is basically a liberal idea, and conservatives would be left trying to fight a Republican president.

I took an interesting quiz recently that identified Rick Santorum as the candidate closest to my views. From what I have read, he is a very grounded person with deep beliefs, which is important to me. I was pleased by his good showing in Iowa, but I doubt he is strong enough to win the nomination. My feeling, for what it is worth, is that Mitt Romney will be the Republican candidate I think, in fact, that he is going to win the election as well. It is difficult to tell if this would be a benefit for conservatives, but there are many ways that it has to be better than another term for Obama.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Republican Presidential Candidates: Romney

Since I am conservative, you might think that I would be following the Republican primaries closely. I used to: when I was in 5th grade, I carefully tracked the race between Reagan, Bush, and Anderson on a piece of graph paper, recording percentage vote and delegates for each state. In the meantime, I have become jaded. Not that there is anything wrong with the process, but I have so little to do with the outcome that I don't bother to learn much about it until it gets much closer to the convention.

Being unimportant and ill-informed does not, however, prevent me from sharing my views with the world. I have never been as down on Romney as most people are. To begin with, he is absolutely right about the distinction between state vs. federal mandated health care. Not too long ago, I was arguing this point with someone who said, "Don't be naive, Virginia's constitution is more restrictive than the federal constitution, yet Virginia requires people to buy automobile insurance." I was curious, so I looked it up (as expected, the Virginia constitution is on line). Here is what I found: "The authority of the General Assembly shall extend to all subjects of legislation not herein forbidden or restricted" (and further verbiage to the same effect; Article IV, Section 14). In other words, the Virginia constitution is the exact opposite of the federal one, in that it reserves all powers to the government that are not specifically denied to it, whereas the federal constitution reserves all rights to the people and states that are not explicitly granted to Congress. This difference is there on purpose, as the states are supposed to be sovereign governments, and Congress is supposed to regulate relations among them. Even though I would not have proposed a health insurance mandate had I been governor of Massachusetts, Romney is clearly correct to say that it is a separate issue from whether he supports a federal mandate.

I also disagree with the criticism of Romney as too smooth. To be honest, I don't completely understand this criticism. I can see how "smooth" might come across as "phony" in some instances; however, in my view chances to view Romney speak, he seemed anything but phony. Being smooth is not a flaw; it is a highly desirable trait (and I say this as someone who noticeably lacks it). Being smooth implies knowing who you are and where you stand; it implies coolness under pressure. These are precisely the traits that one looks for in a leader. "Leadership" is a fuzzy concept, but I have come increasingly to appreciate its value in politics. Leadership sometimes means taking an unpopular but morally correct stance in public, but I think that is just one aspect of the broader sense of leadership as getting people to do what you want. Sooner or later, politics comes down to persuasion; it is about convincing people of the right path. Surely, having some beliefs that you stick to is part of persuasion. If you merely do what is popular, there is no need to persuade. But that is more like a necessary prerequisite than an essential characteristic of leadership. Leadership requires one to present a convincing case in a convincing manner. It means reassuring people to stick by a decision even if it doesn't appear to be right in the short run; even if, by human measure, it will never seem to work out, but you should do it anyway because it is the right thing. Leadership can be used for bad purposes, of course, and often is. That does not mean, however, that people with good purposes should eschew leadership. It is not only possible, but highly desirable, for a good person to be a good leader. This can come across in different ways. Sometimes a shy or awkward person can turn out to be a good leader. More often, one would expect leadership from someone who is confident in himself and his beliefs. I don't know if Romney necessarily qualifies as a good leader, but his demeanour suggests that he may be, and I don't perceive that as a negative characteristic.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Good Word for Isolationism

I am not an isolationist.  I am, however, a lot closer to that position than I was 25 years ago.  Back then, the major threat to the United States was the Soviet Union.  We were in a Cold War, and I thought it was important to fight them and their proxies everywhere.

I don't know if my views have changed because we're fighting a different sort of war now, or if it's just because I've gotten older.  Either way, I'm definitely finding more reason to be sceptical of foreign intervention in a whole host of places.

I was not a big proponent of the Iraq war.  (Is that how history will know it, as "The Iraq War"?)  Attempts to paint it as a "war for oil" are really hard to take seriously, but I was never convinced that Saddam Hussein and his regime posed an urgent threat to the United States or any of its immediate neighbours.  I was not strongly against the war, as I viewed getting rid of a brutal dictator as a good thing.  My major complaint was that Bush should have gratefully accepted the U.N.'s offer to rebuild Iraq after the war was over.  I certainly did not foresee the long counter-insurgency war the U.S. would have to wage to pacify Iraq, but it was easy to predict that establishing a stable government there was going to be a lot harder than defeating Iraq's armed forces.  Having disposed of the dictator, I thought it would be great for the United States to allow the U.N. to manage the more difficult job of reconstruction.  It is a bit cynical, but it would also, I think, have been the best thing for all involved.  Besides, if the U.N. then had problems, the U.S. could always complain, "You should have let us do it!"

But why invade Iraq in the first place?  A nuclear weapon in the hands of such a state is certainly destabilizing and threatening, but I would have to have evidence not only that Iraq was working on nuclear weapons, but that their developement was imminent.  Chemical weapons, which also get lumped under the WMD designation, are not nearly so threatening on a mass scale.

What about Afghanistan?  Since Al Qaeda had effectively declared war on the U.S., and since the Afghan government was either unwilling or unable to restraint it, it makes sense that destroying Al Qaeda's bases in Afghanistan would be an important U.S. interest.  On the other hand, did we need to establish an effective, friendly Afghan government that would prevent all future terrorist activity for all time to come?  I thought the British and Russians had pretty much demonstrated that fighting a war of conquest in Afghanistan was a losing proposition.  (We're not trying to conquer Afghanistan, of course, but establishing a friendly Afghan government is, if anything, an even higher bar.)  The country is mountainous and hard, people are among the poorest in the world, and they pride themselves primarily on being fighters.  Yes, it would be nice to clear Afghanistan of terrorists, but is that a realistic goal?  Is it easier to establish a solid government there that will prevent terrorism, or to invade and wipe out terrorist camps whenever they become a problem?  We had destroyed the camps within months of 9/11; all the rest of the time has been focussed on making Afghanistan safe for the future.

The idea of making the world perfectly safe is characteristic of modern America, where adults often part with the words, "Drive safely," and kids are methodically protected from everything that might possibly cause them physical harm.  It is also, however, characteristic of great empires, which don't like to tolerate unruly border states.  Who wants to allow potential enemies to develope?  It is important, however, to decide what is worth fighting for and what is not.

I hear a lot about "vital American interests" when discussing wars.  What constitutes a vital national interest in Afghanistan?  Is an unstable Afghanistan like to cause an immediate threat to the United States, or is it a place where a threat could develope in the future?  If there are terrorists there, are they really vital threats to America?  Is it better to attack them there, or to protect America's borders?  I'm not sure what the answers are, but these are the questions that we need to ask.

There is one thing that I am sure is a vital American interest, and that is the developement of nuclear arms by Iran.  Any nuclear proliferation is a potential threat, but an Iranian nuclear arsenal is a more serious threat than most.  Not because Iran would be likely to bomb us -- it will be a long time before it has a missile capable of reaching America.  There is the threat of a terrorist sneaking a small nuclear device past customs; I am not sure how likely that is, but I'm sure Iran would not hesitate to use such a weapon against the U.S.  Even without such direct damage, an Iranian nuclear weapon has the potential to lead to nuclear war in the Middle East.  Regardless of which state is targeted, and regardless of whether the U.S. even needs any oil from the Middle East, a nuclear war there would be disastrous.  The other industrial economies of the world, in Europe and Japan, would be crippled without this oil; and the U.S. economy would be crippled without our major trading partners.  We would have a humanitarian and a selfish interest in preventing such a war.

Isolationism is not a bad word.  The United States will spend itself into oblivion if it defines its interests in such a way as to require preventing every possible threat from developing.  That doesn't mean that there aren't steps short of war that can be used to apply pressure to countries to be more co-operative.  It also doesn't mean that there aren't times when war is the best option.  My concern is that we have decided on war, and the goals of our wars, without adequately consideration the limitations of this aspect of policy.