• photo USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in the South China Sea

    The Will to Fight

    U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stirred reaction in Baghdad and Washington this weekend when, in an appearance on CNN, he blamed the loss of Ramadi to an outnumbered force of ISIS militants on the Iraqi military’s apparent unwillingness to fight.

    It was a striking statement by a senior American official—and it was refreshing. Secretary Carter didn’t break news—even a casual observer of the Iraqi military’s previous fights with ISIS would question their will to fight.  But it was refreshingly honest, perhaps the most honest and open discussion of the challenge we face in Iraq since 2002.  As a Senate staffer a decade ago, I used to look at the U.S. military’s ratings of readiness for the Iraqi forces we were training and ask “why aren’t they getting better?”  No one could give me an answer.

    In 1939, the U.S. military had fewer than 350,000 soldiers, sailors, and Marines.  By 1945, the nation had converted shop-keepers and farmers into a military force of 12.2 million that liberated Western Europe and defeated imperial Japan.  There are lots of reasons why this historical analogy is exceptional, but there is no doubt of the American public’s willingness to fight in Europe and the Pacific after Pearl Harbor.  The evidence, like that cited by Secretary Carter, in Iraq is equally clear: in the Sunni west, Iraqi forces have been unwilling—even when adequately armed and in larger numbers than ISIS forces—to fight.

    The reality is that wars are not the business of rulers alone.  A people not willing to fight for their own futures—notice I didn’t say freedom—will always be vulnerable to intimidation and conquest.  In Iraq, a country born of the First World War when European powers divided the land based on what made sense to them, there is no sufficient national identity to bind the people together.  The Sunni-Shiite divide is real and lies at the root of what people are willing to fight for in Iraq.

    Questions over the will to fight are not limited to the Middle East.  In Russia and Ukraine, evidence is mounting both of simmering dissent within Russian forces and in the Russian populace over Vladimir Putin’s illegal war.  It is not yet at the point of crisis, however, and all evidence indicates extensive—perhaps even growing—Russian intervention in Ukraine.  Success on the ground and a tightly controlled media landscape in Russia means there is no way to really gauge dissent.  Still, reports of even a handful of deserters from the Russian military confirms that, just as in the Soviet era, truth has a way of evading censors.

    Finally, in Asia, American attention is focused on China’s island-building in the South China Sea.  Here Secretary Carter again made news asserting America’s navigational freedom over islands that a year ago did not exist.  China, in a blustery rejoinder, vowed to defend itself and its territory from foreign intimidation.  The question observers have to ask is whether either side would be willing to fight over these principles.  For China, they are talking about protecting their sovereignty.  For the United States, the issue is one of international norms.

    To be certain, there is much between bluster and war, but bluster can be bluff while actual combat reveals the truth about one’s will to fight.

    Carter: Iraqis showed “no will to fight” in Ramadi | CNN

    Is Russia about to Invade Ukraine? | Vox

    China moves weapons onto artificial islands in South China Sea | The Age

  • Veterans graves during Mermorial Day

    We Remember | Memorial Day 2015

    Gilgamesh, in the epic Mesopotamian poem, wanted to live forever, like the gods.  But Gilgamesh was human.

    His mortality meant that he would know death.  His name, however, could live forever.  He would be remembered, he reasoned, because of the great things he did.  He asked:

    “Who is the mortal

    able to enter heaven? Only the gods

    can live forever. The life of man is short.


    What he accomplishes is but the wind.

    Where is the courage that you used to have?


    Where is the strength?  It is Gilgamesh

    who will venture first into the Cedar Forest,


    And you can follow after, crying out:

    ‘Go on, go forward, go on, embrace the danger!’


    You who have fought with lions and with wolves,

    you know what danger is.  Where is your courage?


    If I should fall, my fame will be secure.

    ‘It was Gilgamesh who fought against Huwawa!’


    It is Gilgamesh who will venture into the Forest

    and cut the Cedar down and win the glory.


    My fame will be secure to all my sons.”

    If you’ve ever stood at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and read the names of some of the 58,286 Americans inscribed there, then you know the power of memory to live on, just as Gilgamesh described it.

    My picks of the week are remembrances—the story of two Marines, Corporal Jonathan Yale and Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter, who stood their ground one fateful day in Iraq while a massive truck bomb barreled toward them.

    On this Memorial Day, and always, remember Yale and Haerter and that long line of Americans who have stood with them.

    Everybody Should Read General John Kelly’s Speech About Two Marines in the Path of a Truck Bomb | Business Insider

    Honor the Fallen | Military Times

  • Vaccine bottles and a syringe

    Pick Your Poison: Ignoring Science at Our Own Peril

    Throughout human history, our progress has been intimately linked to advances in science.

    Even in the so-called “dark ages,” the light of learning was turned on the natural world.  From those efforts came Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Galileo.  New understandings of the universe based on observation with new instruments challenged world-views, and the Pope, in one of the great refutations of science in recorded history, forced Galileo to recant his claims, based on observation, that the Sun was the center of the universe.

    Ancient history, right?

    Except it’s not.  Some Republicans believe that if they don’t say the words “climate change” or finance the study of it, then there won’t be any consequences of “climate change.”  Sticking your head in the sand has never proven an effective way of solving big challenges—I doubt it will this time.

    And some Democrats, spooked by sham science, have turned on one of the greatest public health successes of the last century: vaccination.  Millions of children today survive childhood disease that a century ago killed nine of my grandmother’s 14 siblings.  Thank you science.

    What’s worse—even on something non-controversial, like eliminating lead exposure in American cities, leaders in Congress and in state houses across this land refuse to act on science that is clear cut in telling us we need to address the plague of lead in urban environments and the neurological dysfunction that follows.

    If we are to progress as a people, if we are to thrive, if we are to survive, we cannot willfully ignore what science is telling us about the world around us.  Too often today, unfortunately, willful ignorance is the choice of many.  One day, our children or our grandchildren will regret it.

    The G.O.P.’s War on Science Gets Worse | The New Yorker

    Why Freddie Gray Never Had a Chance: Lead Poisoning Is Killing Inner-City Baltimore | The Daily Beast

    Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Joins Vaccination Debate in Montpelier | VPR

  • close up of the capitol building on a United States bank note

    Follow the Money

    In a conversation about campaign finance reform years ago, a friend and former colleague told me that he believed “money is a form of speech.”  The same argument underpinned the majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United and poses a fundamental threat to our democracy.

    Any question about the corrosive and dangerous effects of money in our electoral system can be resolved with a quick look at two articles this week: one details the political strategy for the billionaire Koch brothers who are—along with a handful of other billionaire activist donors—shaping the ideology and candidates of the modern Republic party.  In another article, we see millions of dollars flowing to the Clinton foundation from donors with a financial stake in the sale of uranium mines in the United States to the Russian atomic energy agency Rosatom.  At the time, Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State and the sale of the Canadian company that owned the U.S. mines to Rosatom had to be approved by a U.S. government committee because uranium is considered a strategic material.  The State Department has a seat on that committee.  In the midst of these moves, the New York Times reports, a Russian investment bank that advocated for the Russian acquisition, paid former President Bill Clinton $500,000 for a speech.

    In an age where celebrity trumps substance, and cash equals speech, familial political dynasties backed by unregulated and unfettered finance amount to rot at the heart of our political system.  My friend, former-Senator Gary Hart, this week asked, rightly, whether or not the United States is already an oligarchy.  It may be.

    Our only hope is a public awakening to the dangers our republic faces.

    Secret Koch memo outlines plans for 2016 | POLITICO

    Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation as Russians Pressed for Control of Uranium Company | The New York Times

    Dare we Call it Oligarchy | Time

  • Who Are We As a People?

    Poverty in the United States is destroying lives and making this great nation weaker.

    In Maryland this past week, Rodney Todd, a single, working-father of seven died, along with all of his children, from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in their home.  Investigators found a generator in the kitchen that was out of gas.  Several days earlier, the local utility had disconnected power to the home because a stolen electric meter was discovered there.  The generator, authorities believe, had been used to provide light and heat on a cold spring evening.

    Mr. Todd, we know, worked in food service at a university near his home.  He began working there after leaving prison for an assault conviction and gaining custody of his children.  He made $10 per hour when he started in 2012.  We don’t know if he received any type of public assistance, but several news outlets reported that, in previous years, Mr. Todd had sought and received assistance with his utility bills.  This year he did not for reasons that are still unclear.

    There are details about the lives and deaths of Mr. Todd and his children that we will never know with certainty, but by all evidence, poverty and a cold night claimed those eight souls this past week in the richest nation on Earth.

    In Kansas, and other places around the country, it’s not enough to be poor.  Some elected officials would like to humiliate you, too.  They do so by passing laws prohibiting users of food-stamps from buying lobster or filet mignon.  It’s a modern twist on the “Welfare Queen” myth a generation ago.  It’s ugly.  We should be better than this.

    But we’re not, sadly.  Worse still, other countries are out-pacing us in important ways.  The Social Progress Index for 2015 ranks the United States as 16th in the World—just ahead of Belgium and Portugal, but behind Japan and Germany and a slew of our allies.  The decisive issue according to the authors of the report is not income equality, but the depths of poverty.  In the United States, we invest in our military—the finest in the world—but we under-invest in our schools, in our infrastructure, and in our people.

    We’re the wealthiest nation on Earth.  When will we act like it?

    Enjoying the Low Life? | The New York Times

    The rush to humiliate the poor | The Washington Post

    Carbon monoxide blamed after father his 7 children die in their sleep | The Washington Post

  • Trying to Understand U.S. Foreign Policy

    The Western-allied government in Yemen, which had been hailed by President Obama last fall as a successful example of his counter-terrorism approach, has fallen.

    The resulting chaos has now seen air strikes by a coalition of Sunni-Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, fighting the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi for control of Yemen.

    In Iraq, the United States finally launched airstrikes against ISIS elements hunkered down in Tikrit where they held off an Iraqi force of 30,000 troops led, principally by Shiite militia and, until this past week, receiving senior-level advice, if not operational control, from Iranian commanders.

    In Washington, the Secretary General of NATO arrived mid-week only to be snubbed by the American president, sending the unmistakable signal to Russia that U.S. policy will—at least for now—defer to Russian initiative.  If the United States was serious about confronting Russia over Ukraine, President Obama would not ignore the Secretary General of the Western Alliance.

    It’s not the lack of strategy—the application of national means to achieve desired ends—that I find most troubling.  Rather, it’s the uncertain steps.  Last year was a disaster in the rhetoric of American foreign policy.  From the president’s cavalier dismissal of ISIS as the “J.V.” team to his heralding of success in Yemen last October, the administration seems simply unaware, challenging even its most ardent supporters to pause and assess what they are doing.

    I find myself in that position now—troubled by actions and uncertain of what the United States is trying to achieve in the Middle East and Europe.

    A Policy Puzzle of U.S. Goals and Alliances in the Middle East | The New York Times

    Obama’s Mideast “free fall” | POLITICO

    Obama Snubs NATO Chief as Crisis Rages | BloombergView

  • Ukraine and Russia: It’s Not Getting Better

    In response to the growing war clouds to its East, Lithuania this week approved a law to reinstate compulsory military service.  In Poland, young men and women are joining paramilitary units, with government support, and pledging to defend the Polish republic “at all costs.”  The American military is deploying armored units to the Baltic members of NATO for exercises, and planning to leave the equipment in place.  The Russian military has increased the pace and frequency of its military probing of NATO air defenses.  On Monday, Vladimir Putin called for snap drills of Russia’s Northern Fleet.

    Meanwhile, a generation of arms control is slowly falling apart.  While the New START treaty between the United States and Russia remain in place, as does the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, Russian voices are calling all into question, even while their country walks away from the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty.

    It is increasingly clear that Russia’s intention is revision of the post-Cold War international settlement.  It is using force in Ukraine now, according to Yuval Weber writing in the Washington Post, because Russian leaders understand their relative position is declining.  This is a dangerous moment, all the more so because the United States has made clear, both in word and deed, that it will not fight for Ukraine.  That may be the wise course, but it is also a risky course should Putin succeed there and then turn his eyes to NATO allies in the Baltics.

    Why the U.S. does nothing in Ukraine | Washington Post

    Poles Steel for Battle, Fearing Russia will March on them Next | The New York Times

    An Unnoticed Crisis: The End of History for Nuclear Arms Control | Carnegie Moscow Center

  • War and Peace: Iran and Eastern Europe

    Barack Obama ran for president in 2008 on the promise that he would end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and change the tone of American foreign policy.  He was motivated by a belief that Iraq was misguided and that the country was weary of war.  In addition, many Americans believed that the perception of American belligerence in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, contributed to insecurity around the world.  Unfortunately, six years later, the world is far more fractured and the president’s approach to foreign policy is open to criticism.

    The most obvious example of this criticism in the past week was “The Letter” signed by 47 Senate Republicans to the leaders of Iran, warning them that negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program would be merely an executive agreement and may be revoked by the next president or modified by future Congresses.  The Constitutional complexities of the argument aside, the Senate Republicans missed badly on this one—and not just because so many Americans rightfully see The Letter as undermining the President in the midst of complex and serious negotiations with a historic adversary.

    The issue in the Iran negotiations is how best to keep Iran from building a nuclear bomb.  Critics of the negotiations argue that Iran cannot be trusted to keep its word.  The Obama administration maintains any agreement will not be based on trust—it will depend upon verification.  It’s the right approach: a negotiated settlement with Iran would contain their nuclear ambitions, impose an intrusive verification regime, all the while retaining for the United States and its allies the ability to impose the violent sanction of force should Iran fail to meet its obligations.  An agreement would buy time for other forces to reshape Iranian politics—and that’s a wise long-term strategy.

    Events in Eastern Europe, however, have to shape American policymakers views of potential conflicts in other regions.  Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia—former Soviet republics who are now NATO’s eastern-most members—are nervous.  They know they can’t trust Putin’s Russia, but they are uncertain, too, of the strength of the western alliance’s commitment to their defense.  So in Vilnius—where memories of Lithuania’s fate in the 20th century remain strong—parents make plans for their children in the event of war, even as the government issues advice to citizens about what to do should war come to their neighborhoods.

    The candidate who ran to end wars, governs as president in a period of incredible insecurity from Eastern Europe to the Middle East—and we haven’t even touched on the South China Sea.  That level of insecurity requires a prudence in the application of military power not familiar to a lot of Americans in the post-9/11 era.  Airstrikes—war—to keep Iran from going nuclear are still an option regardless of what the president’s critics claim.  But another war in the Middle East will gravely limit America’s and NATO’s options in Eastern Europe.

    Preparing for War in Lithuania | Foreign Affairs

    Russia stand-off: 3,000 US troops on exercise in Baltic | Yahoo

    Obama pressed on many fronts to arm Ukraine | POLITICO

  • Identity, War and Peace

    Two articles have recently caught my attention—one about the rise of Christian militias, financed by American evangelical Christians, who are fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  The other about the first signs of hope in Iraq in a long, long time.  They reflect different dimensions of the same conflict, and those differences give me pause.

    In Baghdad, the curfew imposed after the American occupation began has been lifted.  People are beginning to return to the sidewalk cafes and parks of that city, even as ISIS continues its marauding and terror only dozens of miles away.  In Baghdad, with a new Prime Minister, there is a sense, we are told, of hope returning—enabled in part by a recognition that Sunni and Shia have to rely on each other for there to be peace.

    The rise of Christian militias shouldn’t surprise us.  People who have been abandoned by recognized authorities are sure to do what they can to defend themselves—and to rely on friends and co-religionists with the means to support them.  The danger, though, is that in introducing another armed religious force into a region awash with armed religious forces only underscores the ISIS narrative: that the West is fighting a religious war against Islam.

    All of this underscores my reluctance to accept the Obama administration’s national security strategy of strategic patience.  The longer groups like ISIS are left to sow terror and murder unchecked, the more risk there is for other ugly developments.

    The Islamic State is Losing Iraq | New Republic

    US Christians back emerging private war on Iraq jihadists | France 24

  • People Power

    It has been easy, in recent months, to focus on what’s going wrong in the world.  Wars, terrorism, and disease compete for our attention each week.  None of them are hopeful.  But this week, events on two sides of the Atlantic give us hope.

    This past week, more than 1000 Muslims formed a ring of peace around a synagogue in Oslo.  They stood hand in hand with Jews to protect those praying inside.  One of the event’s organizers, Zeeshan Abdullah, was quoted saying:

    Humanity is one and we are here to demonstrate that. There are many more peace mongers than warmongers. There’s still hope for humanity, for peace and love, across religious differences and backgrounds.

    There is hope for us, yet.

    In Washington, DC, at the end of the week, people power took a different meaning when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), despite withering opposition from America’s biggest Internet service providers, voted to regulate the Internet as a public utility: embracing the broadest and most ambitious calls of advocates of “net neutrality.”  It means that providers cannot throttle content nor can they offer pay-to-play fast lanes that would provide unreasonable barriers to entry for Internet start-ups.

    The public played a huge role in the FCC’s decision.  During a public comment round, the New York Times reports that four million Americans made their desire for net neutrality heard—and the FCC listened.

    I find myself processing these enormous events in the context of my own experience in Rhode Island.  Tuesday night, I was privileged to appear before the RI State Senate Judiciary Committee to offer testimony on a bill that would give Rhode Islanders information to protect themselves when the data they entrust to corporations or governments is breached by hackers.  More than a half-dozen lobbyists for big companies and industry associations took their turns testifying about the “onerous” and “overly-broad” provisions of the proposed legislation.  The choice became crystal clear: protect Rhode Island’s consumers or accept the status-quo that lets businesses decide when the public has a right to know about the breach of their personal information.

    There were no big crowds around the RI statehouse Tuesday night.  There were not four million comments from the public to sway the Senators.  There were just lobbyists paid to make a point for their clients; lobbyists who I’m sure are also sought after for campaign contributions during election season.

    I’m not naïve or Pollyannaish about the value of lobbying or even the needs of corporations and their preference for minimal regulation.  But the dearth of citizens’ voices in Providence on Tuesday night left me unsettled.  A lot of money and lot of talent was arrayed against a good bill.  The public should care about that.

    F.C.C. Votes to Regulate the Internet as a Utility | The New York Times

    Inspiring Images of Over 1,000 Muslims forming ‘Ring of Peace’ Around Oslo Synagogue | The Huffington Post