Obama’s Foreign Policy Charts a New Course for the U.S.

September 17th, 2014

              President Obama’s foreign policy has been much maligned over the years of his presidency by both the left and the right.  Those on the left have bemoaned his continued use of drones and what is viewed as an unduly aggressive approach to intelligence gathering (revealed by the Snowdon disclosures of NSA abuse).  Those on the right claim he is too slow to exert American military might and that the nation has lost much prestige in the world community because of his seeming indecisiveness.

              In fact, Mr. Obama has charted a relatively clear and decisive course of action in almost every international incident/crisis his administration has faced.  And a careful analysis of those actions reveals a definite shift in American foreign policy, perhaps the most dramatic shift since the end of the Second World War.

              Simply stated, the Obama Doctrine limits military responses to those circumstances that directly impact on American security (as opposed to “American interests”) and avoids military responses that would involve an all-out military engagement (“boots on the ground”) in favor of having regional players take on that role.  The Obama Doctrine also places increased emphasis on diplomacy, defined to include the measured use of sanctions, in lieu of aggressive posturing, with threats of military action, for all traditional international disputes and territorial aggressions.

              It also takes a measured approach to terrorist non-state actors, eschewing entirely “war-on-terror” labels in favor of case-by-case assessments of the threat posed and the consequences of aggressive counter-measures.  The Obama Doctrine can result in limited military actions, some, as in the current threat posed by ISIL, even planned to extend for a significant period of time, but it does not presume an open-ended “war” against terrorism itself or against any and all non-state entities and organizations that could conceivably pose a threat to the United States.

              In essence, the Obama Doctrine redefines America’s role in the world and its view of its own interests.  It diminishes the use of military force as a primary tool and instead uses the impact of diplomatic and economic persuasion as the means by which the country can protect itself and preserve its way of life.  This doctrine is a cross between Monroe’s (“You stay out of our backyard and we’ll stay out of yours”) and Teddy Roosevelt’s (“Speak softly and carry a big stick”).  It regards military force as a weapon to be deployed rarely rather than regularly and reduces the need for it by re-defining the kinds of circumstances that call for its use.

              Viewed in terms of recent history, the Obama Doctrine would have led to very different American actions and reactions.  Faced with the circumstances of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Obama Doctrine would not have found American forces fighting in Iraq.  Instead, the U.S. would have led an international use of economic sanctions, coupled with limited U.S. military support of regional countries that sought to expel Iraq from Kuwait.  In other words, the U.S. would have supplied armaments and provided air power for a military campaign against Iraq and would have used economic sanctions against Saddam’s regime to force his withdrawal from Kuwait.

              In response to 9/11, it is unlikely that the Obama Doctrine would have led to anything like the thirteen year war in Afghanistan.  Instead, it would have seen significant air power used against likely al Qaeda camps and enhanced economic and diplomatic tactics to force the government of Afghanistan to force al Qaeda out of its territory.  The result could have very likely been at least a decade of aggressive actions but the cost would have been far less in both dollars and lost lives and may have led to fewer new terrorist cells in the rest of the world (and certainly no more).

              And, of course, the Obama Doctrine would never have seen the United States invade Iraq under any of the many pretexts claimed by the Bush-Cheney administration.  It would thus have never laid the seeds for the development of an ISIL or for the expansion of terrorism into that country and would have kept Iran as an implicit enemy rather than a de facto ally of Iraq (as it is now).

              The Obama Doctrine has been on display in Syria, where any increased U.S. military presence at any point over the last three years would have more likely led to worse circumstances (from an American perspective) than exist now.  (If you doubt that assertion, just ask yourself which rebel groups could be trusted in Syria to be true “friends” of the U.S. once the Assad regime was overthrown.)

              The Obama Doctrine is now also on display in the president’s decision to confront ISIL.  The goal will be the destruction of that terrorist group, but it will not involve a U.S. invasion of a sovereign state, nor will it involve placing American forces in harm’s way with a boots-on-the-ground all-out war.  Instead, it will seek to place ISIL on the defensive through enhanced intelligence tactics (drones and limited air strikes) and through support for the military commitments that regional states are willing (through American diplomacy) to take against the threat to their governments.

              And the Obama Doctrine is on display in terms of the re-definition of American interests.  Instead of focusing on broad statements of interests in “democratic principles” or, plainly stated, in countries that have oil, the Obama Doctrine emphasizes the security of the country, as in protection from terrorist attacks, not from the loss of a source of oil.  This aspect of the doctrine is really just common sense.  No country that has an abundance of oil will ever refuse to sell it, and efforts to jack up the price are also doomed to fail (witness the failed efforts of OPEC to do so long term in the 1980s and ‘90s). 

              Oil was never a legitimate basis for going to war, and the Obama Doctrine thankfully recognizes that fact.

              Obama hasn’t been a great president.  His domestic record, Obamacare notwithstanding, is still largely unimpressive.  But without a lot of fanfare, he is crafting an exciting new foreign policy for his country.


Reflections on a High School Reunion

September 11th, 2014

              I had never been to any of the reunions with former classmates that, for me, can be of the high school, college, or law school variety.  Each invitation found me either too busy or not particularly interested, or maybe a little bit of both.  But when my wife decided she wanted to attend her fiftieth high school reunion, I found myself more than mildly interested in the experience I would have in observing, if not celebrating with, her former classmates.

              Jeri graduated from Alhambra High School in Los Angeles in 1964 (the same year I graduated from Great Neck South, back in the New York suburb where I grew up).  She warned me in advance that “no one” would know or remember her.  She just wanted to have the experience of being with those of her classmates who would be attending.  The idea struck me, at first, as being a little odd, especially if “no one” would know or remember her, but I did nothing to discourage her, and even arranged my teaching schedule to be able to accompany her to Irvine, CA, which was where the reunion was being held (we never found out why).

              I learned a few things as soon as we arrived at the reception/dinner, which was held in a large ballroom in the Marriott Hotel in Irvine (which is in Orange, not Los Angeles, County).  First of all, more than a few alums did know/remember Jeri, and several went out of their way to greet her as if she were a long lost friend.  Another thing I learned was that even if one alum didn’t remember another, everyone was treated like an old friend.  Initial conversations often turned on whether the alum was part of the college-prep group or the trade-preparation group, the latter consisting of those not inclined to continue in academic work after high school.

              I spent fifteen minutes chatting with one of those grads.  His name is Dennis, and he made very clear right at the outset that he definitely was not in the college-prep group.  “Just workshop and print shop for me,” he said, without the slightest indication that he was humbled or disappointed with his educational deficiencies.  It shortly became easy to understand why he wouldn’t have been concerned with his book-learning handicap, since Dennis, as he proudly revealed to me, is a very successful and wealthy business owner who is also the patriarch of a large family (three children, nine grandchildren, two nieces, two nephews, which, when he hosts the annual holiday vacation that has become a family tradition, totals 31 people, all of whom he wines and dines and rents resort lodging for every year).

              His business makes rubber parts that are used in the manufacture of large machine-making equipment.  In other words, he makes the little cogs for the big wheels and gets paid handsomely for it.  Dennis typified one type of alum I saw: the guy who made it big even though no one might have thought he would.  At the breakfast the morning after the dinner, I observed Dennis seated at the head of a large table of alums and their spouses, and he was very much in charge of the proceedings.

              Another interesting alum I met was named Ray.  Ray is a creationist and proud of it.  His main claim to fame is an impressive hard cover book he has written that “establishes” that the Bible account of creation is absolutely and irrefutably correct.  Ray was busy selling copies of his book to anyone whom he thought might benefit from reading it. 

              I chatted with him at length, questioning his science (which is really a series of non-sequiturs, kind of like solving unrelated mathematical equations and then claiming that the total of all of them proved an entirely unrelated supposition).  He had written his book over 25 years ago.  He claims over 300,000 copies have been sold and that it has been reprinted three times.  I looked over the book.  It has a lot of pictures of things like dinosaurs and pre-historic humans.  It also contains a sizeable amount of text, so it’s certainly a serious effort.  And Ray is energized about it, seemingly as much as he was when he first wrote it.

              Jeri didn’t know Ray in high school, and I have no idea if he would have been considered a “most likely to succeed” candidate by his classmates.  But succeed he most definitely has, even if his “science” is mostly pure nonsense.  And he does appear to believe, the non-sequiturs notwithstanding, and as the evening wore on, I did see him selling a few more of his books, smiling all the while.

              Dennis and Ray may not have been typical of the attendees at the dinner, but they did epitomize them in one distinct way.  Just about everyone I observed wanted to share what they had been doing for the last fifty years with whichever old friend or acquaintance they met.  Some were more reserved than Dennis and Ray, but almost everyone seemed more than willing to talk about what turns their lives had taken since that graduation day way back when.  And in very few instances were those tales heavy-laden with grief or misery.  Most often, they were in the nature of self-congratulatory testimonials.

              Of course there is the nostalgia element, too, although I didn’t pick up on a whole lot of reminiscing from the conversations I heard.  There would be a little bit of it, remembering certain teachers and classes or popular couples who had gone steady, but mostly the attendees at this reunion seemed to be more interested in sharing what they had been doing since graduation and where they were now.

              A woman with whom I spoke (a spouse of one of the alums) may have summed it up accurately when she said, “People who come to reunions are happy people.  The graduates who aren’t happy aren’t here because they don’t want to see their old classmates.”

              I thought about what she said for a long time and wondered why I haven’t gone to any of my reunions.


Rethinking “Breaking Bad”

September 11th, 2014

            If you watched the Emmy Awards telecast earlier this month, you may have been taken, as we were, with the plaudits bestowed upon the now-concluded hit series “Breaking Bad.”  The show won a basket full of awards, including three acting honors (for series star Bryan Cranston, and his co-stars, Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn) and best dramatic series (the big prize of the night).  All of the awards were richly deserved, to be sure.  The show was high class pop art in every respect, with large followings across all demographics.

              But in considering the entire series, and not just the last eight episodes, which were the second half of the show’s sixth season (in essence it was seven seasons, since the first eight episodes of season six were separated by almost a full year from the airing of the final eight), we were struck by what the show didn’t accomplish.  And that failing, while not in the least detracting from the show’s popularity, probably knocks it down a peg or two in any claim that it rates as one of the best series of all time.

              The show, brilliantly conceived by Vince Gilligan, began as a psychological drama, wherein a man (Walter White, the Cranston character), who somehow lost his rights to a Nobel Prize in chemistry, ended up being a high school chemistry teacher who also worked at a car wash to supplement the family’s income.  The back story of that man was never fully detailed, which may have been a clever way to hook the audience the show attracted.  But it took the series away from any Shakespearean aspirations and instead turned it into a succession of close calls for the man and his sidekick (played by Cranston and Paul, respectively) as they descended into the production of the perfect crystal meth, which Walter eventually adopted as his raison d’etre.

              But the series continuously left aside potential psychological dissection in favor of shocking violence, much of it gratuitous, and cliff hanger endings.  And by eschewing character study in favor of nail-biting action, the show came to resemble “24” far more than it did “The Sopranos,” with which it is all-too-often incorrectly compared.  And as the story lines became more and more preposterous (albeit hugely entertaining) the opportunity to develop a deeper sociological statement, a la “The Wire,” was also lost.  What were the societal implications of Walter’s creation of the perfect meth?  Was his attempt to redeem his life through a life of crime all that different from the paths taken by many who seek to escape poverty by whatever means possible?

              The series never explored those themes in any serious way.  In the end, it was just another well-produced TV show with sharp writing and great acting that used the least sophisticated plot devices to hook and keep its audience.  The series was first offered to HBO before landing on the more family-oriented AMC.  HBO and the other “premium cable” channels are not restricted by the sexual taboos that commercial stations must abide by and are generally less concerned with ratings (since their subscribers pay up front for the non-commercial broadcasts).  We wonder if the series would have taken a different path on HBO.  Would Vince Gilligan have done more with the psychological study that Walter White, and to a lesser extent, Jessie (Mr. Paul’s character) presented?  Would Gilligan have sought to do more with the darker aspects of the drug culture that was really only presented in superficial detail in the series?

              Most likely the show would have looked the same, with perhaps some added titillation in the form of unclothed female pulchritude.  But truly great television events, the kind that transcend the moment and make a statement that is both culturally relevant and artistically significant, are exceedingly rare.  “Breaking Bad” could have been one, but in the end, it just broke bad.


On the Trauma of Shopping for a New Car

September 4th, 2014

              I really didn’t want to buy a new car.  Or, perhaps it would be more truthful to say, I wished I didn’t have to buy a new car.  I’d grown very comfortable with the hybrid I’d owned for five years.  It had all the bells and whistles I wanted (XM radio, full navigation system, rear-view camera), and it got reasonably good mileage (around 32 mpg) while going about 500 miles on a single tank of gas.

              But after my last regularly scheduled maintenance, I knew it was time.  That was when the friendly service technician told me that I would need to have one cylinder replaced (something about a common problem for this type of hybrid when it has over 60,000 miles on it) for a cool $3,600.  I wasn’t about to put that much money into a car that was likely to cost me increasingly more in those kinds of repairs as I put more miles on it.  And so I began the hunt for a new car. 

              Let me be blunt: I hate just about everything about shopping for a new car.  Here, in relatively brief summary, is what I experienced on this latest excursion into car shopping hell.

              I started my hunt by looking for a new hybrid.  I liked the one I had, but it had been five years, and I was sure the advances in technology would provide more and better choices.  So I went on the internet and asked “the Google” to give me a list of the best hybrid sedans.

              Uh, I guess I should have narrowed my search a little.  I was immediately shown to dozens of sites that all claimed to have the best hybrids identified, listed from one to ten, and each with professional ratings and consumers reviews.  After studying a bunch of these sites over several weeks, I decided that TMI was making my task almost impossible.

              So I reverted to plan B, which was to test drive one of the hybrid models that my good friend, a self-proclaimed expert on hybrids (even though he’s never owned one, which should have been a clue) recommended.  So, I called one of three local dealers, all of whom, I should add, had been bombarding me with e-mails, almost begging me to let them sell me my new car, ever since I had first started my Google search.  (Give up any expectation of privacy if you ever go shopping on the web.)  That weekend, I had my test drive.

              Here’s the thing about a test drive: it really isn’t intended to let you get the feel of the car.  It’s kind of the equivalent of buying a house after you stop in for an open house on a Saturday afternoon.  Yes, everything is very pretty, but the real understanding of what it’s going to be like to live in the house (or to drive the car), doesn’t come from that first visit (or test drive). 

              In fact, the “test” drive is really just a sales pitch, wherein the dealer/salesperson (I think they are all men, but I’ll go gender neutral to be p.c.) tells you all the wonderful features in the car, most of which you’d rarely, if ever, think to use if you owned the car.  That’s what the modern technologies have done with the cars that are being manufactured these days.  They have far more gadgets than you’ll ever need, and many won’t even be comprehensible unless you are a car technology nut, which I most definitely am not.

              Anyway, I didn’t like the car.  It wasn’t as comfortable (or, truth be told, as substantial) as the hybrid I already had.  And the price tag was far more than I was willing to pay.  Of course, before I could get out of the showroom, I was forced to listen to two other sales-types who wanted me to know what a great deal they could give me (first on a “one-time rebate” and then on a trade on my current hybrid).  It was only when I claimed I was late for a golf tee time that I was able to extricate myself from the ordeal of trying to escape from car dealer purgatory.

              Finally, I turned to the guy at my gym who had befriended me over the last year.  He’s a car salesman and had offered to help me if I was ever in the market for a new car.  I had vowed to myself that I would never turn to him, knowing that doing business with friends (or even friendly acquaintances) is bound to lead to bad results all the way round.

              The first thing my gym rat pal did was turn me off of hybrids.  “Too little return for the added gas mileage,” he said, “when compared to the higher sticker price.”  I did the math, and it turned out he was right.  The better deal was to go with a smaller gas version of the same model, thereby saving dollars on the purchase and getting gas mileage that would still be pretty good. 

              Partly because I was exhausted (mentally and psychologically) ,I let him convince me.  And, lo and behold, his original quote was more than fair.  I used the web to verify that fact.  It was still a major undertaking to actually buy the car, however.  First there was the appraisal of my hybrid for the trade-in value.  That took over an hour (don’t ask me why.)  Then there was the process of getting my credit report (another hour).  And then there were the two hours with the finance manager, wherein I was “offered” the undercoat protection (NO!), the extended warranty (no thanks) and the anti-theft gizmo that was on sale for a limited time (okay, if you insist).

              Six hours after I arrived, I left with my new car.  It’s bright and shiny and I think the horn works.  I haven’t figured out how to lock it with the keyless lock system, but I’m sure I will.  And if I don’t, well, at least I have that anti-theft gizmo.