Saturday, January 31, 2009

An Unending War

Thursday was an interesting day, if a long one. I spent it speaking with various doctors, and discussing my prognosis with Dr. Paul Mansfield at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Before speaking with Dr. Mansfield, however, I reviewed my test results with Dr. Fournier. It’s a nasty bit of a reminder, to see the proof that the little mutants are still there, not doing anything that needs an immediate response but there all the same. I have mentioned before that I am lucky, yet it’s never over. I can do most normal things that anyone does, but then again the word ‘normal’ changed forever for me.

No, it’s not a medical blog thing, but I take the present crisis very seriously, pretty much the same way. We’re never going to be ‘normal’ again, not the way it used to men. Not the financial crisis, which in the end comes down to the usual foolishness of people not doing their homework in how they invest their money and the usual con men cheating them because of it, the usual government people seizing the chance to spend tax money on things we don’t need and can’t really afford, in order to pay off the people they owe for their political careers, and the usual media inability to give us facts, instead trying their best to exaggerate every bump in order to get ratings, and the eventual exasperation in general when all these facts finally become too obvious to ignore anymore. We will survive this mess because we always do.

But there are groups, and governments as well, who think the world would be better if a lot of Americans died, and if the US was castrated militarily and economically. They are supported by enemies within the US as well as without. They hurt us badly on 09/11/01, and our traitors showed their colors by pretending America deserved it, and that our response should be apology and surrender. That war has not ended, nor will it in our lifetimes.

We have no choice but to win.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Jobs, Education and Policy

Charge more but offer less. That’s essentially the game plan thrown out by John E Potter to Congress this week, as the Postmaster General of the USPS once again admitted that his organization is incompetent, corrupt, and bloated.

What’s significant is not that a government bureaucracy would – as usual – refuse to address the causes of its problems (once again it appears that accountability, like paying taxes, is only for the ‘little people’), but that Congress is an accomplice in that denial. This is evidenced by the new “stimulus” bill, which provides pretty close to nothing for the average American but saddles the nation with nearly another trillion dollars in debt. That’s not to say the first one was a great idea, but at least that one involved getting money to people and it is – theoretically – paid for by reductions in this year’s tax refunds (if you have not read through your tax instructions for this year, get ready for a shock – the government is all about taking your money, and they are determined to do just that, no matter what they say in front of the cameras). The new “stimulus” includes a mess of government spending which does all but nothing to help mainstream American businesses and communities, and which effects won’t be seen for two to three years, and a tax-cut component which basically rewards people who don’t pay taxes, and does nothing for employers who need help finding a way to keep the employees they have now, let alone hire any new ones. Unemployment, alas, is also not a problem for the bureaucrat to worry about, but one of those things that only hit those unfortunates who work to support their families.

I have been thinking about this mess, and the heart of things is unemployment. If folks lose jobs, they worry and spend less, which in turn hurts the economy and causes more job loss. The only way to stop that cycle is for enough people to get new jobs that the people getting jobs outnumber the people still losing jobs. Well, it should surprise no one that our good elected officials in Congress lied to us; they’re not going to help in the jobs market, not least because they never really could help. Ask anyone who has been in a hiring position, and they will tell you that government never significantly impacts the job market. Government jobs fall into three broad categories – the military, bloated over-staffed positions that could be better done by private companies, and pure pork positions which do nothing but eat tax money. Jobs are always available, even during the Depression some companies were hiring, but to get those jobs you had to be in the right place at the right time, but you also had to be well-qualified. And sorry, “well-qualified” means being able to do the job and to prove your credentials, not being the right race or gender or culture.

There’s a lot of whining about jobs going overseas or jobs that do not pay well. And there are groups which exist solely to force companies to provide jobs to people who frankly are not interested in working hard, and to pay a “living wage”, which always means about twice as much as the job is worth. Look, imagine you were going to buy a car, and you chose the Hyundai over the Mercedes because you couldn’t afford the Benz. “Living wage” is the same thing as someone coming up and telling you that even though you bought the Hyundai, you have to pay the Mercedes price, just because they want you to do that. Same logic, folks. If you want a job that pays a certain amount of money, then you best get off your butt and make your services worth that kind of coin. A high school diploma and a resume that shows nothing more complicated that customer service and jobs that primarily involve data entry, are not jobs that lead to high pay or security.

There are really only three ways to get a good-paying job, and by the way, a job that is less likely to get cut in a recession. One way is to develop a necessary expertise that is in short supply. The problem there is that over time those niches get filled, look at what happened to IT. The second way is to be related or a really good friend to the owner of a successful business. The other 99.99% of us will move on. The last way is to continue your education.

Now, ‘education’ is a trite word, and I am not saying what we hear so often from job counselors, that getting a degree (or an advanced degree) will by itself mean a better career. I personally knew a couple guys with doctorates who could not hold long-term jobs at decent pay. I mean that we all have brains, which are meant to be used effectively at important tasks. In third grade that means book reports, at the Masters’ level that means a defensible thesis, but in the real world of employment that means doing a bit of research and analysis on the community and environment you have, and making informed choices on your strategy and actions. I did not choose to earn my MBA because some Godmother in a glittering tutu promised I would be rich if I did, I chose that path on the basis of Houston’s economy, the relative proportion of MBA-holders to significant positions in management in my industry, and after discussion on the issue with some people whose opinion I value. After my MBA, will take a few more courses and then sit for my CPA license exams, which decision was made in a similar manner. And as the years go by, I will further add coursework and continuing education to my resume in order to stay current not only in my field, but to be aware of business conditions where I live and work.

It is significant to consider now the effect of policy. For long-term meaningful employment, a person must have appropriate and continuing education, and they must be proactive in using their knowledge. This strategy not only makes the individual more valuable, it improves the company which hires that person, and as a whole the nation becomes more competitive in global commerce. It should be noted, however, that the government does not support this strategy, except at the level of lip service. If the government would like to really address unemployment and the nation’s long-term interests, then there needs to be a ‘stimulus’ program which benefits education quality for working Americans who want better employment and those who will soon enter the workforce, rather than payoffs to Abortion clinics.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On War Against Terrorists, Part 3

There are more than one billion professed Muslims in the world. US Intelligence says that at its height, Al Qaeda numbered perhaps fifty thousand members and another hundred thousand supporting persons. That works out to about 0.015% of all Muslims. If all terrorist groups and – let’s be generous – all radical Islamist groups which desire to attack the West and Israel are counted, that number reaches a total of perhaps ten million people, or just 1.0% of all Muslims. While Islam has many factions which are hostile to American values and policies, it must be understood at the outset that the overwhelming majority of Muslims have effectively nothing in common with terrorists. The common complaint from the West that Muslims must protest the behavior of terrorist groups misses the point that most Muslims already consider terrorists to be well beyond the pale, so that protesting against them would make no more sense than believing that young white Christian men should disavow any connection to Ted Bundy, Timothy McVeigh, or Charles Manson – it should not be necessary to state the obvious.

This is not to claim that the Muslims are just like Christians, except for a few different customs and spiritual practices. Islam is a strongly evangelistic faith, based on the belief that only Islam is true in God’s eyes, all other beliefs being in error or outright rebellion against God. Tradition is revered in Islam, because Islamic law (Sharia) is rooted in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammed and his hand-picked disciples and successors (the Caliphs). This is roughly comparable to the old Roman Catholic practice of considering the Church of Rome to hold the full authority of Peter as granted by the word of Jesus Christ Himself, back in the day when the Pope could call up armies to kill in the name of God. It should be noted, however, that the Caliphs of Islam are long removed to the past, so that no current Imam has the authority to speak for all of Islam. From time to time, someone gets bold enough to declare himself the Mahdi, basically the Muslim equivalent of the Messiah, which effort up to now has invariably resulted in a bloody war of conquest, ending in the death of the false Mahdi and his supporters. This point is significant, in the light of reports that the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been pushing to have himself proclaimed the Mahdi of Islam or Twelfth Imam (the ‘hidden Imam’). This is not merely narcissism, but also a power play intended to promote the ascendancy of the Iranian race, the Aryans (yes, those Ayrans) as the natural leaders of Islam. Ahmadinejad appears to be playing Sunni against Shia in order to advance a racial caste to the top, conveniently his own. While to Western eyes and ears this kind of claim may appear laughable, there are various accounts which purport to describe the physical appearance of the Mahdi, and Ahmadinejad has been spinning the ones which happen to work in his favor (not all of them do, of course).

Ahmadinejad’s attempts to spin himself as a spiritual leader are part of the Middle East political movement renewing state ties to religion. This is actually a periodic cycle for the region, dating back to the Islamic Caliphates prior to the Fatimad Empire, which shifted the center of power to Egypt and created a meritocracy in the government. This secularization was further continued by the Khan invasions of the thirteenth century, which saw the Mamluks come to power through their defense of the nation (note, defense of the nation, not the faith). Later, Islam became influential in politics again under the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughul empires, but as the names imply, this regional division of power devolved the unity of Islam still further.

Following the first World War, the Ottoman Empire essentially collapsed, and the vacuum was partly addressed by the rise of Wahhabism, a movement begun in the eighteenth century which argued that Muslims were being punished by Allah for an impure faith. It is important to understand that the leader of that movement allied himself with one Abdul Ibn Saud, who successfully claimed the territory of present-day Saudi Arabia for himself, and not coincidentally this territory included the two holiest places in Islam, the cities of Mecca and Medina. Saud’s success seemed to indicate that radical Islam could prevail over the colonial powers, restoring Muslims to their rightful control of their own land.

To Muslim eyes after World War 2, modern history shows the consistent rise of Muslim power, from the removal of colonial powers, to the end of secular masters, to the increased wealth and power worldwide of Islamist states. The existence of Israel and the annoying habit of Americans in demanding that their views become global polity aside, the leaders of the Islamist movement came to believe that their power and influence would only increase, and all that was left to do was to simply follow through.

‘Following through’ did not work out so well. Attempts to invade and destroy Israel failed over and over again, and frequently cost the Muslim forces much more than it did the Israelis. The various oil crises posed threats to the United States, but they too seemed to end to the Americans’ advantage. The Islamists have a bad knack of choosing the wrong friends, from Germany in both World Wars, business negotiators who could not see beyond the end of the decade, and religious leaders whose extreme ideology made their doctrines inpracticible in any real sense. Unfortunately, rather than admit errors and rethink the strategy, the Islamists in positions of power reacted with hostility and malice. It is no random fact that the Muslim Brotherhood, which engaged in small-scale murders and thuggery in the 1920s, evolved into more elaborate and extensive conspiracies to topple undesirable regimes (e.g. the Shah), blackmail wealthy families into bankrolling terrorist operations (Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Egypt, especially), and seek to eradicate western presence through violence and intimidation.

The western response also evolved. Early capitulation in paying ransoms and acceptance of hard-line Muslim dogma (such as refusing to do business with Jews, women, or blacks in positions of importance as corporate representatives) became less attractive as groups became less mercenary and more bloodthirsty. American businesses began demanding better protection from their own government, and mercenary armies came into being to protect western compounds and facilities. Eventually, this need to protect American interests influenced official policy under the Reagan and Bush Administrations. Even the Clinton Administration supported sub rosa operations, which were accepted by Middle East governments because they did not embarrass the officials personally. But by the end of the twentieth century, it was becoming apparent that terrorist groups had taken on a new dimension; the fa├žade of legitimacy.

The recent conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza territory is a solid example of what happens when terrorists are allowed to gain political power and to present themselves as the duly elected representatives of the people. But Hamas is not the first group to play this role. Elements of the PLO, Islamic Jihad, and of course Al Qaeda have all played the game of diplomat, in some cases becoming able to claim the image of respectability, as seen in Afghanistan under the Taliban, the Sudan, and Yemen. This was a tipping point for the George W. Bush Administration, the concern that the sense of control in their own territory would lead to attacks on American soil. This concern, of course, was built in large part on the character and scale of the 9/11 attacks. The profile of the conflict, as well as the stakes, changed completely almost overnight.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

On War Against Terrorists, Part 2

Shortly after the end of the War of 1812, a strange event took place which changed the world. Naval officers, then diplomatic officials of the American and British governments agreed to cooperate to seek out and destroy pirate operations in the Caribbean Sea. The new policy took decades to fully effect, but eventually ended piracy in the Western Hemisphere as a major threat. The episode is significant not only because of the drastic shifts in policy, but also as a rejection of the contemporary belief that piracy was impossible to eradicate, a problem the civilized would have to accept and deal with as an unpleasant reality. It is further significant that the effort to wipe out piracy was not limited to one nation, nor was it the property of only one political party. The effective resolution of international terrorism by Jihadist factions requires a similar purview.

The shock of the 9/11 attacks united the nation – for a moment – and focused attention on the true cause and foundation of the culprits. But soon after, groups reverted to their nominal postures, which behavior may be generally categorized as reactive, passive, and proactive.

The majority of Americans hold a position regarding terrorism that may be described as reactive. That is, their desire for a certain action is in response to something that happens to provoke that reaction. Therefore, when thousands of Americans were killed in the 9/11 attacks, most Americans wanted to find and attack the men responsible. Most Americans supported the invasion of Afghanistan to remove the Taliban, because of clear connections between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The war in Iraq was also initially popular, because of Saddam Hussein’s behavior which appeared to demonstrate support for terrorism (which was true) as well as a threat of WMD use (which turned out not to be true). Reactive opinions tend to shift focus over time, preferring predictable routine to unusual conditions.

Some Americans opposed any military action whatsoever with regard to the terrorist attacks. This position is the passive position. These people want terrorism to treated as a crime, with the nominal legal framework used to pursue and punish the attackers. The problem with the passive approach is that it has already been shown to be ineffective against large groups, as the planners and leaders stay out of legal reach. The 1993 bomb attack against the World Trade Center built a case against only the lowest-level participants, for example.

The third group contends that the best strategy in attacking terrorism is to strike at its source. This group is the proactive or peremptory group. The position is often controversial, as is evidence by shifting public and congressional opinion on the Iraq war, but has a solid core of support, especially among military. The proactive strategy has not been used successfully very often, although there are historical precedents in the Napoleanic Wars, the campaigns of Genghis Khan, and the Six Day War of 1967, among others.

The significant lesson in addressing these three groups, is to understand that all three exist to varying degrees, and any effective plan must take all of them into consideration.