Saturday, July 28, 2007

I Came, I Saw, Iraq

Julius Caesar said about Gaul, “Veni, vide, vici.” I came, I saw, I conquered. It was elegant in simplicity. There is nothing elegant or simple about Iraq, however, nor do we seek to conquer it.

Americans and American politicians are polarized. Some want the troops pulled out of Iraq as soon as possible because our troops are targets and our very presence in Iraq creates a fertile recruiting ground for terrorists. Some want to stay the course and fight terrorists far from American shores. There is a disconnect between Democrat and Republican candidates for President of the United States. Democrats only talk about ending American troop presence in Iraq; Republicans only talk about the war on global terrorism, including al-Qaeda.

It is indisputable that American casualties in Iraq are far lower than in other conflicts such as World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam. That is cold comfort to the loved ones of those killed and wounded in Iraq’s random violence. It is almost a cliché to say that we won the war but are losing the peace. The shock and awe of the military campaign has given way to shock and awe by insurgents.

Might the troop surge work while the Iraqis prepare to fight their own battles? Of course it might. American troop presence certainly keeps Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions from wholesale slaughter of each other. Instead, it is only retail factional slaughter.

What if the troop surge does not work? If we pull out of Iraq, will there be a bloodbath between Shiites and Sunnis or led by neighbors such as a mostly Sunni Syria, a mostly Shiite Iran and an anti-Kurd Turkey? Will Iraq as we know it dissolve in the type of ethnic cleansing we saw between Hutu and Tutsi tribes in Rwanda, between ethnic Serbs and Muslim Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia or which is still occurring with disturbing frequency in Sudan?

Perhaps it will; perhaps it will not because a pan-Arab force or a stronger central Iraqi government will emerge. Perhaps Iraq should never have existed as a country at all. Iraq was one of the countries created by the British and the League of Nations from the defeated Ottoman Empire’s huge Middle East holdings after World War I. Americans should not shed blood without end to preserve an old mistake of geography.

We do not have to surrender in the war against global terrorism if we withdraw troops from Iraq. We will instead have the resources to respond disproportionately to terror threats wherever they arise. We will also have the resources to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants. Veni, vide, cecedi. I came, I saw, I killed.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Newtonian Laws of Legislative Bodies

A type of Newtonian law governs the actions and inactions of legislative bodies, such as the Wisconsin legislature and Congress. It is not Newtonian in the physics and gravity sense, although some of those laws about motion and force seem to apply, too. Instead, think of them as Michaelsen’s Laws of Motions.

During the course of a long career in higher education and government, I have observed some phenomena that fit proverbs often coined by others. Many are also true of organizations in the private sector.

1. Success has many parents but failure is an orphan

This is as true now as it always was and is independent of issues because in state and federal legislative bodies, coalitions rise and fall around issues. The corollary is there is nothing we can not accomplish if we do not care who gets credit.

2. Nothing focuses attention like a deadline

Don’t believe it? Consider state and federal budgets. The legislative branch of government will have long public hearings at which many people speak or read verbatim from prepared remarks and in which elected officials engage in long soliloquies. However, the budget has to pass before the fiscal year begins to avoid government shutdowns, payless government worker paydays and interruption of services to those who receive assistance. There is also a flurry of activity near the end of a legislative session. In the private sector, approaching deadlines often mean all-nighters or racing to meet express delivery deadlines.

3. Even a clock that doesn’t work is right twice per day

We all know people with whom we disagree most of the time or who never seem to do anything of value. Once in a while, those people are right.

Because we disagree with them and they have cried “Wolf” so often, we tend not to believe them when there is a wolf approaching. The corollary is that even a blind squirrel finds a nut occasionally, so even a nut is right sometimes.

4. You dance with the one who brought you

We are shocked, shocked when the organizations that helped elect legislators and members of Congress influence the type of legislation they sponsor or shape their positions on bills and amendments.

In the private sector, this means that the client base and the person who hired someone might influence his or her job performance. We take that for granted. Elected officials are no different in this respect.

5. We can disagree without being disagreeable

This is not a generational issue, as many think, nor is it necessarily going along to get along. Some Wisconsin legislators and members of Congress, associations, lobbyists and their ilk disagree vehemently on fundamental issues. There are members of the Wisconsin legislature who could not disagree more that are personal friends. Some agree on ends and disagree on means. Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill and President Ronald Reagan could not disagree more on means but they were great friends. Lobbyists that oppose each other are often friends, too.

It is nothing new that liberals and conservatives are at the throat of each other. Disagree with one of the less amiable members and they will label you stupid, a tool of the most evil opposition they can name and a waste of oxygen. Mean-spirited rhetoric is unfortunately nothing new in the public arena. Compromise is not in the lexicon of the self-righteous regardless of party label.

Contrast that with the private sector. People who are direct competitors have so much in common that they are great friends. They do not wish that their competitor’s spouse and children leave them, their house burns down and their pet dies.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Happy Disindepence Day

July 4 for many Americans is a beery day of sports, food and boating but I worked a few hours at a retail job in Madison. When I worked on July 4 in the American South, customers would often share a plate of food from home. Barbecued ribs, chicken and fish were common with baked beans, potato salad and some home-made sweet tea. Now that I am Up North again, I might have anticipated the offer of a bratwurst, kraut and an ear of corn but no such offer was forthcoming. Southern hospitality is not just a cliché.

I wished people a Happy Independence Day. It is such a uniquely American holiday, celebrating our declaration of independence from Britain in 1776 when it was a risky proposition. The response by most Americans was “you, too.” I pulled a chair outside to watch the Madison fireworks display against the night sky.

Madison is also home to many foreign-born students and workers. Most born elsewhere who are not naturalized U.S. citizens clearly were not expecting a holiday greeting and did not know what to think. Most probably date their independence to throwing off their home country’s colonial oppressors even though many traded one repressive regime for another. As the Who said: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

It was a hot day for Madison; it was sunny and about 85. I went to the grocery store for some items. As I left, a woman wearing a niqab walked in. A niqab is what Americans think of as a burka. It is full face covering with slits for the eyes. She was also wearing a full-length black gown. She bowed to how hot it was by wearing sandals. I see many hejabs worn even by native-born Americans (as a father, I am picturing this lecture: “As long as you live under my roof, you will follow my rules”) but I had never seen someone wearing a niqab before. She was leading a little bareheaded girl.

I did not wish her a Happy Independence Day. A religious society that requires her to wear a niqab in public does not believe in independence of thought and action. What kind of message does her public apparel send to the little girl?

America prides itself on being a free society with a division between religion and state. Are we too tolerant of the intolerant?

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Doctrinal Purity & Minority Status

Although I admire and largely agree with Republican Wisconsin legislators elected in the Wisconsin counties of Washington and Waukesha and the conservative talk radio hosts and bloggers who cater to them, they have been drinking their own wine.

Many are figuratively willing to throw more moderate Republicans elected in other counties under the bus, threatening to field more conservative Primary Election challengers to them. Instead of concentrating on the 85 percent of issues on which moderates and conservatives agree, they focus on the 15 percent where they disagree. Some have talked about toppling leaders they perceive as moderates.

They believe the lesson of the 2006 election Republican bloodbath is not a Newt-like Contract with Wisconsin of lower taxes, more opportunities and government reform, but more leeches. What elected them in Washington and Waukesha, however, is not always the same as that which elects Republicans in other counties. As Speaker, Newt understood this and did not always insist on doctrinal purity.

They have failed to consider three other inconvenient facts. First, backing an unsuccessful Primary Election against an incumbent is a risky strategy. If the incumbent is returned, retribution will be swift. Second, because Wisconsin’s primary is so late, fending off a primary challenge diverts resources from the General Election. It would be hard cheese if the Republican incumbent, with whom they agree 85 percent of the time, were replaced by a Democrat with whom they might agree 15 percent of the time. Third, if toppling leadership were easy, the U.S. Senate would no longer be led by Harry Reid. It is wrong to underestimate the power of caucus leaders to punish and reward.