October 29, 2012

Benghazi worse than Watergate? GOP would know.

A terrible series of events transpired last month in Benghazi, Libya. As we all know, the U.S. Ambassador and three other U.S. personnel were killed in an organized, deliberate attack on the Consulate there.

In the days following the attack,  many questions and allegations were launched against the White House, largely by the increasingly right-wing Republican House of Representatives back in Washington and its media ally, Fox News. Why didn't President Obama immediately label the incident as a terrorist attack? Why did the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations initially suggest the Benghazi attack was connected to an anti-U.S. protest march when -- as we eventually learned -- there was no protest, only the stand-alone attack? Why did the State Department not supply more security forces as had been requested by post? And so on.

While it took days for the GOP's political and media establishment to fully gear up in this very timely cause, Governor Mitt Romney was framing Benghazi as an indictment against the entire foreign policy of President Barack Obama, even as recovery operations were still underway. He was definitely ahead of the curve on using this as a political weapon.

Ironically, the Benghazi attack -- which cost us the lives of four brave Americans -- pales in comparison to unspeakably catastrophic tragedies like the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington (2,800+ dead); the 2005 Hurricane Katrina (1,800+ dead); Operation Iraqi Freedom (nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers dead). Each of these death tolls can be in large or small part attributed to incompetent and/or ideologically forced decision-making by President George W. Bush and his advisers. And, by the way, banging the war drums and beating an apologetic retreat whenever necessary has been none other than Fox News. Yet in the years that have followed, almost no one has faced any official or political consequences for any of these failures (unless receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom counts).

And now, Fox News' own Brit Hume is feeling righteous enough to point out that "it has fallen to this news organization, Fox News, and a couple of others to do all the heaving lifting" on exposing the as yet unproven allegations of Benghazi wrongdoing and cover-up by the Obama administration.

There are definitely important lessons to be learned and applied going forward, and possibly careers to be ended. And it is never too late to start holding our government leaders accountable on national security. But if Republican politicians and journalists are going to lead the way on this, it would be nice of them to at least acknowledge the novelty, rather than acting like turning four deaths into Obama's Watergate -- or even WORSE than Watergate (and maybe Vietnam, too?) -- is not transparently political and contrived.

October 25, 2012

Thanks to GOP, Israel is now debatable

In the only Vice-Presidential debate for the current U.S. election cycle, Israel seemed to be the most frequently mentioned foreign country; in the third Presidential debate it was second only to...Iran. Republican ads attacking President Obama also gravitate to Israel as a touchstone of any candidate's righteousness and worthiness.

Presumably, the United Kingdom is even a closer U.S. ally than Israel is, and yet it's barely been mentioned during the current race for the White House. But Prime Minister David Cameron doesn't seem to mind. The UK is in no danger of being reduced to a partisan gag line. Israel's leaders, on the other hand, seem intent on being part of our American conversation, opening to question what has become automatic U.S. support regardless of political party.

This situation has emboldened many Jews and other Americans who feel Israel should NOT have enjoyed relative immunity from criticism or censure since 1973 (except for President Ford's threats and Bush 41's withholding of loan guarantees). Onetime AIPAC faithful like M.J. Rosenberg now applaud the shattering of Washington's monolithic and automatic obedience to one version of Israel's best interest (and of course, U.S. national interest, too...). For some, Israel's bad news is good news, but overall what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have greeted as good news is rapidly devolving into bad.

Obviously, Iran and Israel evoke very different emotions for most Americans, but they do share something in common: Both have been transformed into partisan wedge issues for Republicans to attack Democrats. In Iran's case, this elevates a rogue regime to the status of a global power, meriting a high priority in determining our next President.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his right-leaning allies in the United States have been consistently criticizing the President's commitment to the Jewish State even since before he became the nominee back in 2008. And now Israel is being framed as a central question for our national narrative. This may strike many Americans as a distraction at best, and an insult to our serious national problems at worst.

In no small part due to the Netanyahu-GOP public-relations strategy, Iran's status as a leading opponent and imminent threat to the United States is inflating the Islamic Republic beyond what it deserves -- even as President Obama has far surpassed his predecessor in rallying international support for crippling sanctions and effectively isolating Iran. By also inserting the Jewish State into the same balance of fight-or-flight and friend-or-foe, however, the Prime Minister has delimited and DIMINISHED Israel's status. Israel risks being transformed from a bipartisan, perennial, bedrock ally into a political and strategic PROBLEM to be solved and a weapon for one politician to use against another. In fact, "risk" may be too optimistic a word.

Environmental protection, reasonable gun control, health insurance reform and campaign finance reform all used to be bipartisan issues -- until Republican strategists realized they could be turned into partisan weapons against the Democrats. Politicians like Senator John McCain were forced to choose sides, or risk -- as in the case of the McCain-Feingold campaign reforms -- being at odds with their own party. By now, each of those issues has been reduced and marginalized. It's painful to watch U.S.-Israel relations head down the same path, and frustrating that this downgrade is being enabled by the Prime Minister of Israel and his staunchest U.S.-based supporters.

[I since stand corrected: In the third Presidential debate, Israel was the third most mentioned foreign country, behind Iran and China -- talk about the company you keep!] 

October 12, 2012

Hooray for Europe!

Romania, 1976 - I was shorter, but Communism was big.
Many of my friends on this side of the Atlantic (and on the other side of the Mediterranean) have reacted with derision and ridicule to the news that the European Union is receiving this year's Nobel Peace Prize. LOL, haha, gimmeabreak, etc.

Here are a few of my own reactions:


The eurozone is currently suffering through potentially catastrophic economic turmoil. While there were definite structural flaws in the new economic integration, and the major EU players have exacerbated matters by reducing rather than expanding short-term liquidity, the major crisis was triggered by our own financial brinkmanship and near-collapse here in the United States: The CDO and mortgage bubble, Lehman Bros, trillion-dollar budgetary black hole in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and much more. There's nothing funny about Europe's current woes in any case, especially given the increasing connectedness and see-saw dynamic between our two mega-economies, and the history of instability over there eventually costing Americans our own blood and treasure.


In a world that's increasingly out of balance -- and with violence and uncertainty flaring across the Middle East, the EU has been our key partner in promoting stability and progress. Its member states also comprise the bulk of our NATO allies. We should be wishing them well, and doing whatever we can to encourage and support them, not tear them down and poke fun.


When Alfred Nobel conceived of his peace prize, he wasn't thinking about ending conflicts in East Asia or Central Africa -- he was focused on Europe. The EU s the embodiment of many of those hopes and aspirations -- as the Nobel Committee put it:

The work of the EU represents "fraternity between nations", and amounts to a form of the "peace congresses" to which Alfred Nobel refers as criteria for the Peace Prize in his 1895 will.


All those childhood summers spent bouncing around Europe during the 1970s involved no end of cumbersome border crossings between East and West, within the Communist Bloc, and even between some of the Western European democracies. Borders and virtual barriers were very evident, and not only because of the Soviet domination over half the continent. Europe's divisions went back centuries and the animosities were still very fresh. Indigenous Muslims and Gypsies were barely tolerated, if at all. And of course, the despair, privations and terror of Communist rule were as overwhelming as they were implausible. And it was all very real. Just visiting Berlin today is an out-of-body experience, as the once stark dividing line remains only as a course of paving stones, a short segment of the old wall, and memorial markers where East Germans were killed attempting to cross into freedom. The very idea of East Germany or exit visas seems so remote, and yet 25 years ago it was a reality.


Perhaps, as Americans living in the here and now, we measure the world too much by what we -- not others -- have achieved recently, rather than in any other generation. The challenges we face today can blind us to the struggles of every other nation, forgetting that the post-9/11 mirror poles used to check for bombs under our cars were once used in Berlin to stop East Germans from escaping between the axles.

As early as 1821, Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams: “Even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them.” Such arrogance and exceptionalism have been among our greatest flaws and most powerful of inducements to keep pushing forward and saving the world. But this week, a little humility is in order, and yes, some appreciation for the dedication, aspirations and achievements of others -- especially those we call our friends.

October 11, 2012

Israel's elections lead to fewer choices

No one can be surprised that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has called for elections early in 2013, months ahead of the legal deadline. It's less common that Israel's faction-based political arena is static enough for everything to happen on time.

One key difference between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama relates to our different political systems: Each morning Netanyahu awakes in the PM's residence, his number-one goal for that day is to go to bed at the end... in the PM's residence. For Obama, on the other hand, regardless of how many circles a mid-level ally runs around him, each day he knows he'll be returning to sleep in the White House. This allows him to think a bit more expansively about the opportunities and challenges facing America and the world.

For Netanyahu, as for most of his predecessors, his primary calculation has centered on maintaining and increasing his personal political power and influence. Years ago, he was the leading advocate for direct election of the Prime Minister, figuring it gave him the best chance to get in over the heads of seniority-based faction leaders within the Likud Party. And he was right -- though the flawed process, which retained a Knesset's component, evoked Churchill's maxim about trying to cross the abyss in two steps.

Netanyahu has had to share the spoils of his office with people he dislikes -- politicians like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the right and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on the left. Barak has stayed on despite abandoning his own party affiliation, largely as a useful check against Netanyahu's many rivals within Likud and Israel's broader, growing right wing. Truly, his is a government of enemies.

Having pumped up the twin threats of Iran and Obama as much as possible -- against a backdrop of Arab Spring, summer, and fall -- Netanyahu is well-positioned to pick up extra seats and toss out a few of his hangers-on. Domestic issues like perennial religious and budget priorities are also in play. And so is former-PM Ehud Olmert, not quite exonerated but mostly cleared to return to politics.

The only aspect that might have been surprising -- Netanyahu's contention that the dangers facing Israel demand a clear decision by the Israeli electorate -- is also no surprise, given the way he has inflated the specter of Iran (and, yes, of Obama) to the brink of irrelevance. This was demonstrated by his recent "eh, never mind" United Nations speech, which pushed off any urgency on Iran's nuclear program until next spring at the earliest and also fell in line with President Barack Obama's consistent strategy and perspective.

Regarding the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu has obvious ideological reservations about making any substantive concessions. As a side benefit, the longer Israeli-Palestinian tensions fester and flare, the less invested Israeli voters feel in any effort for a long-term solution -- and the more they rally around a bunker-mentality leader like Netanyahu.

Having lived in the States for a number of years, Netanyahu is well aware of our own forthcoming elections. And one televised debate notwithstanding, he's a bit worried that Americans will re-elect the current President. So Netanyahu needs to appear both conciliatory toward Obama and secure back at home. Being re-elected as Prime Minister -- and without Lieberman or Barak pulling him down and cutting their own side deals -- will be the perfect formula.

October 3, 2012

Nothing ever happens on my block

On our latest visit to my folks, in the same house where I grew up, I finally met some of the new families who've been restocking that quiet suburban block with young kids, after three decades of mostly adult living. They hold block parties and July 4th parade activities, and generally hang out on the street at the end of a day. Great!

One of the houses still devoid of young kids is where Andrew grew up. He was a couple of years younger, and we'd sometimes visit each other for what today would be called "play dates", We also just ran around the neighborhood, climbing trees and filling afternoons with forgotten pastimes.

I hadn't seen or heard of Andrew in probably 25 years, but last month the talk on the street was all about him. Turns out, this smart kid with the strange father and quiet mom had lived out his adult years as a criminal, including an 18-month stint in prison. Then finally, he got himself into a police chase after the stolen SUV he was driving clipped another car waiting to get past an accident scene. On a secluded path between the train tracks and the Schuylkill River, not far from where I learned to windsurf, he ambushed the officer -- an Iraq veteran and father -- with his Beretta. Before dying, the officer returned fire, hitting Andrew. My former sometime playmate, who reportedly had told friends he'd never go back to jail, then shot himself in the chest, ending his unfortunate and evidently miserable life. 

The fallen Marine is a huge tragedy for the community and his young family, and the first fatality for his township's police force. 

For myself, it's sobering to think what if any decisions and influences might have altered the course of a self-centered only child with little patience for wrong answers. It's far-fetched to think any of us growing up there should have done anything to intervene -- who stays in touch, anyway? I do feel a special burden and even guilt, just for having briefly been part of his circle on a small street with two-dozen homes. And instead of the old man who'd designed the ejection seat for the Navy (the late Mr. Castleman), we'll now be known locally for the murder-suicide hoodlum who lurked among us.

Andrew's mother was already not well, and he'd been living at home. His web cam still faces down on the street from a second-floor bedroom -- which freaks out the neighbors. But they're definitely relieved that he's no longer around, especially with a whole new young generation to raise and nurture. And none of the young parents seems strange at all, thank goodness.

The quiet block where we're raising our own kids is not so different -- families with young kids living next to longtime residents who now boast grandchildren -- and, so far, no violent criminals. 

Dedicated to the memory of Officer Bradley Fox, Plymouth Township Police. Rest in Peace.