Friday, August 22, 2008

Sexual Morality (Adults Only)

Jay Tea wrote a very good article this week about his stand on Abortion. In the course of that discussion and the debate in the comments following the article, opinions regarding sexual behavior and orientation were naturally expressed. That got me to thinking about sexuality and the moral imperatives we follow regarding them. From what I learned in various biology classes, the sexual imperative is arguably the strongest after self-preservation, and so a person’s sexual choices and behavior can be said in many ways to mirror the character of the person at their heart. The next obvious question, then, is the moral value of a person’s sexuality, and it is there that the discussion so often devolves into bitter attacks and accusations. Given how close to our heart our own preferences sit, it is not surprising that a practice which we find strange would also be seen as ”wrong” and offensive. What further complicates the matter is the fact that some behaviors go well outside acceptable boundaries of even the most tolerant consideration, particularly those which involve harm to other persons and deliberate assaults on the general sense of propriety. In between those extreme practices and what we might call ”normal” sexual behavior, however, is a range of practices which may be strange to us, but which may reasonably be considered the private business of those who practice it, while in some other cases the behavior may cross the line into moral offense.

I am a practicing Christian, but I understand that to a non-believer my Scripture will have no weight, so for this article I will try to consider the matter using reason and – hopefully – a common set of moral standards. I mention my faith here, for the reason that I wish to be clear about my own moral position, and while I may not understand every point as fully as I wish, I accept the Lord’s word as true. I would mention, however, that I do not always agree with those who quote a snip or scrap of the Bible in one place or another to support their argument, while ignoring the broader context of Scripture. What I mean can be seen by briefly considering the ‘Bible’ argument against homosexuality. The verses in Leviticus which condemn homosexuality, for example, are not far removed from verses condemning wearing garments made of mixed fibers, eating pigs or certain other ’unclean’ foods. You see, the Hebrew people in that time were in the wilderness, where any communicable disease could literally wipe out the nation. I am not trying to use that as proof that the Bible was tolerant of homosexuality, but those verses need to be seen in the context in which they were written and originally taught. Further in the Bible, other verses come up, including 1st Corinthians and 1st Timothy, but again there is reason to be careful about overstating God’s law regarding homosexuality. For example, even though I am sure that my Lord encountered homosexuals in various places during His ministry on Earth, there is no verse quoting Jesus condemning homosexuality. The case of the Roman Centurion whose faith Jesus commended (Matthew 8:4-6) is worth consideration in this respect, but I leave it at that. Speaking just for myself, I think the Bible warns us that what makes the sin in sexuality is the lust. It should certainly be obvious that lust has brought many a man to his ruin, and adultery is a grievous sin in the eyes of the Lord. There are verses in Proverbs, for example, which warn against treating a person as a thing, against thinking of a human being only as an object for serving a sexual desire.

I don’t know about you, but I worry a bit about my struggles to think of every person I meet in the right way. It’s easy to fall into stereotypes, to take a superficial image and assume that’s all there is to that person, but such thinking is an offense to the greater, unseen, person. We’ve come far enough in our cultural mores, to understand that a person’s race, gender, and age are not valid indicators of capability or character. Even so, what we see on the surface still affects our judgment and influences our actions, and when a sexual orientation is clear, that reaction might be strong. Also, we wrestle – or at least I do – with a variety of impulses in response to situations. I try not to judge other people for things they screw up, because my own record is not particularly impressive.

Some time back, I had what I think is a revelation for my faith – that the reason God makes us consider our sin and repent, is so we are not weighed down by that sin, that we are enabled to move ahead and grow into the person we are meant to be. With regard to sexuality, we must learn to govern strong desire and focus our actions to an appropriate goal. Not only that, but we must be careful to avoid that subtle temptation to believe that we can act without consequence. Adultery is wrong, divorce is wrong, and lust is wrong, because such things diminish the person and lead to destruction and suffering. Sexual sin is among the worst, precisely because it cuts deep into its victim.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Intelligence and War

The sudden invasion of Georgia by Russia has, once again, brought strong criticism on America’s intelligence community. Some of it is justified critique of a bloated bureaucracy, some of it is a kneejerk reaction from people who hate the intelligence services, and some of it comes from people who simply do not understand the structure, functions, and limits of intelligence. For example, more than a few people have blamed the Central Intelligence Agency for missing the warning signs of Russia’s invasion, while in fact it is the responsibility of the DNI, or Director of National Intelligence, who has the duty to advise the President of such threats. The head of CIA, the DCI, has since 2005 been a deputy to the DNI, one of several people who report events and analysis for his review. On paper, this arrangement gives the DNI more complete information to consider before he makes a recommendation to the president. In practice, however, the new office adds another layer on a system which is notorious for delay and in-house feuds. It’s very difficult from the outside to know whether the change in organization made things better or worse overall.

Looking more closely at the Russian invasion, though, it should be mentioned that effective deterrence would have required a number of things to have gone right. We would need to have understood the early troop movement in context, for example. That’s not as easy as it may appear – the Russians engaged in a full-scale military exercise in the area during July, for example, and it would have been all but impossible to determine when the troops stopped their exercises and began real combat operations. Satellite imagery and phone intercepts would not have told us Putin’s intentions.

So, we obviously needed HUMINT, human sources to provide insight about intentions and plans. Frankly, we have never had a lot of those, especially at the executive level. If it’s any consolation, no nation’s intelligence service has more than one or two such sources in a major country’s decision-making office, not least because such offices are careful indeed to protect access to national strategic decisions. If you ever want to know what sucks more than an IRS audit, check out sometime what goes into a “Personal Data Statement Questionnaire”, one of the key source documents compiled in the clearance process for vetting potential appointees and their staffs. And Russia, even before Putin, was legendary for its paranoia.

A third avenue of information is building a network of informants. Some information can be deduced by building a profile using alternative sources, and either putting together a composite of data removed from the primary source, or by using low-level sources to produce intelligence to support strategic analysis.

There are other means of collection and analysis, of course, which is one reason why there are so many different agencies and offices which handle intelligence. In addition to military concerns, economic, political, social, demographic, topological, and even weather information can be used to suggest a nation’s intentions and plans. More, events do not generally happen in the singular, which is to say that for every intelligence failure like the invasion of Georgia, there are unheralded intelligence successes. It is a rare individual, for example, who stops to consider why the recent border flare-up between India and Pakistan suddenly cooled down, without any publicly apparent diplomatic action. Of course, an observant reader would understand that the media is not in the business of accurately reporting events and their context, but rather the business of creating reaction and driving attention and emotion. As a result, wars which happen get press while wars averted are ignored. Also, intelligence services do not generally seek attention for their activities, especially when such scrutiny might reveal sources and methods of collection and analysis, in other words giving the enemy tools to close off access the next time they want to do something without us knowing about it in time to react.

Some folks have observed that the United States may have understood the Russian intentions, yet been unable to stop the invasion. One indicator of that is this week’s agreement between the US and Poland to station ten missile defense bases on Polish soil. The agreement’s timing suggests that the United States had been working towards the action as a optional response to potential Russian aggression; it was far too specific and finished to have been begun after the Russians invaded Georgia. This agreement and certain indications of additional protocols put into performance (ever wonder what Russia was reacting to, when it suddenly threatened NATO this week?), provide glimpses into how the event analysis helped structure an effective US response without escalating the crisis. Using warships to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia is another tactic which suggests careful and early planning by the US, making the Russian position more difficult without inviting casualties.

The intelligence community has its share of suck-ups, political assassins, incompetents and outright traitors. But it is important to understand that there are many agents and officers, in analysis as well as in the field, who do a difficult job well, without credit or reward, serving America as well as the troops sent into harm’s way.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Consequences of Twiddling

Some years back, the Democrats took a look at the process in Presidential elections – they were getting their keesters handed to them on a regular basis – and decided the way to fix it was to start the process early and get their nominee chosen much earlier. This decision resulted in Senator John “Magic Hat” Kerry getting nominated in 2004, and appears set to tap Senator Barack “Magic Suit” Obama for the spot this year. Kerry proved singularly inept as a candidate, and recent events have begun to show Obama’s failings at a time where he can ill afford it. The decision to ‘front-load’ the primary process has produced candidates of dubious qualifications, but more to the point, no effective vetting, so that surprise collapses and mistakes are inevitable.

The Republicans also decided to front-load their own primaries this year, which is one reason for the very weak choice of McCain. The theory, based as near as I can tell on nothing more than assumptions and guesses, is that most voters choose a candidate to support early on, and so there is a strong advantage in getting your party's pick out first. The idea seems to be, that getting your candidate chosen first gives the voters more time to get comfortable with them, and makes your candidate appear more solid than his/her opponent. The problem with that, aside from the basic premise, is that front-loading the primaries only changes part of the process; the actual election date remains the same, and what's more, the convention is still held in late summer, creating a period where events and opponent strategy can defeat momentum and support. Also, a front-loaded primary system is responsible for the schism between Clinton supporters and Obama supporters, as Clintonites claim - loudly- that Senator Obama claimed primary victory before the voters really knew who he was and what he stood for. Obama's poor job at Saddleback takes that claim further, as the Fairy-tale Senator proved unable to answer questions about his opinion. That's not to say that Senator McCain has been at his best this summer, either. McCain was slow to figure out that Americans want secure borders and protection of strategic resources a lot more than they worry about the Global Warming fraud or getting along with the other major party. If McCain had been held to the fire a bit longer by his rivals, he would have discovered what the party cares about a lot sooner. And both Obama and McCain have been remarkably dull at times in noticing that what the average voter wants has very little in common with what CNN or MSNBC care to broadcast. In past elections, the nominees of both Republican and Democrat campaigns came out of the primaries with relatively clear stands on the issues, and specific programs planned for deployment. It appears to me that neither of this year's nominees can say that, and playing catch-up in the last couple months before the election just does not look, well, presidential.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Not ‘The Asian Century’, After All

Every so often, it is fashionable for some political or economic magazine to pronounce the doom of American dominance. Numbers are presented to show the ‘inevitable’ decline of U.S. influence and power, which is to be replaced by either one dominant Asian nation, or a coalition of Asian nations. For several decades now, we have been assured that the future belongs to Asia, not the United States. This theme has been quite popular, but it is quite simply wrong.

History is not taught with the prominence it deserves, and students are seldom very happy to take a history course (which says something about most history teachers, more than it does about History, I would say), but the lessons of History are vital to anyone who wants to understand the nature of Mankind, the character of nations, and the course of civilization. Those who understand History, understand the unique character of the differing players of note, but also the truly unique place and role of the United States. This can be illustrated, perhaps, through examination of three Asian nations presumed to be rising, unstoppably it seemed, to dominance.

Japan: Following World War 2, the Japanese people had to effectively rebuild everything from the ground up. This caused them to be focused on efficiency and savings, two virtues which helped create a very strong economy within a generation. Companies like Sony, Honda, and Toyota became known first for low prices, then exceptional value. Japan gained great influence on the strength of its industry, which was (and is) directed by MITI, a government agency which directs large-scale business as a strategic asset. The Japanese strategy of keiretsu associations of separate businesses which helped each other without an obvious head of control, created advantages that companies from other nations could not match. By the late 1970s, the strength of Japanese business plus the focused direction by MITI made Japan appear unstoppable, and there were genuine fears that Japan would own the majority of influence in Asia in a matter of a few years. That, however, never happened. The first cause was that macro-economics can only be influenced by macro-level forces – by definition, the internal policies of Japan failed to establish control over the policies and operations of other nations. The keiretsu strategy was only effective when one Japanese company faced another individual company in competition. On the global scale, nations learned their lessons and adapted to the changing conditions. But Japan also failed to understand the one-dimensional nature of its power. A strong Yen and efficient business operations would not placate regional enemies, people with a long list of grievances. Both North and South Korea remain bitter about their treatment at the hands of Japanese invaders during World War 2, as does China. Few people outside the Asian sphere understand how greatly Japan’s intentions are mistrusted. Even before Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the Land of the Rising Sun was seen by its neighbors as aggressive and voracious, on a scale not seen in the United States in memory. Worse, Japanese officials have been slow to apologize, and where apologies were made, they lacked specificity and a genuine sense of contrition. For example, when China demanded apologies for the medical experimentation of Chinese prisoners of war, the Japanese government agreed, but said the apology would have to wait until the last surviving member of the Japanese units concerned passed away, in order to avoid offending the honor of Japanese families of the men who had committed these crimes. This action outraged the families of the victims, naturally, but Japan has not budged from that position. Consequently, there is a sense in Asian circles that some Japanese companies are worth doing business with, but that Japan is not suited for a leadership role in the region.

India: Calling itself the world’s largest democracy, India has also enjoyed strong growth in economic terms, and India also enjoys a military power which is effectively unchallenged in the Indian Ocean. The Rupee is also rising against the US dollar, and the strong growth of technology in India has impressed many observers. Yet this growth began decades ago, and while impressive never seems to accomplish everything it promises. Like Japan, India has long controlled business through a central economy, relaxing a bit only after 1991, but even then not allowing companies to succeed or fail solely on their merits. In many respects, the Indian government acts in a manner reminiscent of the old Italian patronages by city-states controlled by ruling families, a peculiar mix of feudalism and socialism intended to achieve certain limited specific goals, which often come at the cost of the economic health overall. This would explain why, even here in the 21st Century, India retains a rigid caste system which effectively denies opportunity to many of its people simply on the basis of their race and family.

China: For more than a half century, it has been fashionable to call the Chinese ’unstoppable’. A nation of more than a billion people, with a growing industry and a largely literate people, is indeed an imposing force. However, just as an athlete on steroids may seem invulnerable at first but who dooms himself to the consequences of its poison, so Communism corrupts, and often destroys, the effectiveness of business within its control. Even though China has discarded the more draconian aspects of its practices, it still faces the consequences of their implementation. For example, the horror of the Sichuan earthquake was made much worse by the clear lack of building codes for residential housing and schools. Put plainly, many of the buildings which collapsed in the earthquake did so because there was no functional concern for the safety of such buildings – the Chinese tended to put together towns and cities where the government felt they were needed to support “crash” projects. No genuine infrastructure was ever planned, let alone built and maintained. There is no Chinese equivalent to the U.S. Coast Guard, no rehearsal of disaster drills and rescue operations with an equivalent of the U.S. Red Cross, no communications network to coordinate first responders to natural disasters. More than seventy thousand people died, and literally millions more lost everything they had, because their government wasted the resources which could have been prepared for the crisis. This catastrophe is relevant to the discussion of the nation’s course of influence, because a nation which does not consider the needs and welfare of its population, will destroy its own strength from within.

The same short-sighted set of values can be seen in China’s administration of the Olympic games. Several members of China’s female gymnastics are now known to be under the minimum age allowed by the IOC for Olympic competition, but China continues to pretend they are legitimate. Because the verification of age falls to the home nation of Olympic athletes, there is no way to disprove the claim but it clearly fails the smell test, not least because when the scandal broke, the Chinese government immediately refused to look seriously into the question, falling back on the predictable but unethical line that the government could not be challenged on such points. The men in Beijing who rule the nation fail to understand the message that this sends out – that China is quite willing to lie about essential points, if it means getting what they want in the short term. This behavior has already cost legitimate Chinese companies (like Lenovo or Tsing Tao) a chance at a serious world reputation, because it has become common knowledge that defects in workmanship and dangers in design may be covered up by the Chinese government, protecting short-term advantages at the cost of long-term confidence. Similar problems, however less publicized, are troubling the Chinese military. Rumors of accidents, failed projects, and defection continue to plague the PLA. It may well be that the Chinese military is capable of accomplishing objectives in the short term, but not in the long, as continued difficulty stabilizing Tibet is showing.

It seems counter-intuitive to say so, but many Asian countries are finding the United States the optimal choice, not so much as the leader in alliances and associations, but as an impartial referee. The reasons, however, are strong once they are considered. To begin with, for all its chaotic rises and falls, the US dollar remains the currency of choice for most currency exchanges, because of an inherent trust in its (long-term) stability and acceptance in transactions. Most effective trade practices, including governance codes, began in the United States, so much so that despite promises they would never embrace it, many European and Asian nations are considering implementing at least part of the once-vilified Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. Moreover, the United States military enjoys the unique reputation as the only peacekeeper force which honors its promises. Even the Indonesian government, no friend of America these days, admitted that the US Navy was invaluable in saving lives and delivering relief immediately after the tsunami disaster of 2004. Despite the controversial nature of the invasions in 2002 and 2003, the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq are freer now than they have been in memory. When asked to leave by the Philippine government, the US left Clark AFB without complaint, just as when asked by the Japanese government to stay in Okinawa, the US made arrangements which considered not only its needs, but the priorities of the host country. Scandals in American conduct make the news precisely because they are rare, the exception rather than the rule. Consequently, because American companies generally honor their contracts better than major companies from Asian countries, and because the US military acts in a manner consistent with state policy, the American agents are considered honest brokers more often than many Asian competitors. For the foreseeable future, then, this century remains an American century, not an Asian one.