Washington Merry-Go-Round

Author Archives: Us News Syndicate

Handicapping the Election

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 30 October 2014

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

Handicapping the Election

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – A third of Americans will have already voted by Election Day on Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean the pollsters are having any easier time trying to gage who will cast a vote in these midterm elections. A whole host of challenges make predicting harder than it used to be. Besides, in a democracy, you’re not supposed to know the winner ahead of time.

This year’s midterms are full of races that are too close to call. Republicans are counting on a general dissatisfaction with government to tilt the playing field in their favor, and Democrats are relying on what they believe is a better ground game that will get their voters to the polls.

A couple of marquis races could tell us early if it’s going to be a big night for the Republicans, or if the Democrats will be able to hang on in red states where they should have been counted out months ago. In New Hampshire, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen is popular with the voters but in the last few weeks Republican challenger Scott Brown has come on strong. If she can ward off Brown’s challenge, that’s a good early beacon for Democrats, and vice-versa for Republicans should Brown prevail.

Colorado is another nail-biter. Barack Obama turned the state blue, but it’s been inching back red with the affable Cory Gardner, a conservative favorite who has confounded Democrats by embracing over-the-counter birth control and disavowing his earlier support of a personhood amendment on the Colorado ballot. Democrat Mark Udall is relying on women to turn out in sufficient numbers to support his policies on reproductive freedom, and return him to the Senate.

Other bellwether races include Georgia and Louisiana, where Democrats Michelle Nunn and Mary Landrieu are running strong races but may not reach the 50 percent plus 1 threshold to win, and would then go into a run-off.  The Louisiana runoff is Saturday, December 6; the Georgia runoff isn’t until January 6, after the new Congress is sworn in. If either of these races decides which party controls the Senate, Katy bar the door – the money will flow, the attacks will fly, and it will be war. Landrieu’s opponent is a Republican Establishment favorite, Rep. Bill Cassidy; Nunn is running against Fortune 500 businessman David Perdue.

Keep your eye on Independents running in Kansas and South Dakota. While former Republican senator turned Independent, Larry Pressler, appears to be fading in South Dakota, businessman and entrepreneur Craig Orman is coming on strong in Kansas. If he wins, he would expand the Independent caucus in the Senate from two to three, and in a closely divided Senate, that could be the balance of power. Maine’s Angus King and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders are the current Independents.

Republicans are well positioned to take the Senate, and what they will do with their newly gained majority is a mystery. They haven’t run on an agenda other than their opposition to President Obama. Republican Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has given up on his pledge to repeal Obamacare “root and branch,” and now says that there are pieces of the Affordable Care Act that the GOP can chip away at with Democratic support, like repealing an unpopular tax on medical devices.

Lastly, beware of the polls. In an increasingly mobile society, many of the people pollsters try to reach don’t have traditional phones and cell phone users are generally out of bounds for survey takers. In 2012, Mitt Romney didn’t have a concession speech prepared, he was so convinced he would win the election based on his campaign’s polling. His pollster made the false assumption that young people and African-Americans, disappointed in Obama, wouldn’t show up in the numbers they did four years earlier. Low turnout is forecast once again for Tuesday. And once again, the voters can prove the pollsters right – or wrong. They have the power.

Twitter @WMerryGoRound

© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

 

Segmented news feeds biases and undermines Obama

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 29 October 2014

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

Segmented news feeds biases and undermines Obama

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – Whatever happens, it seems President Obama can’t catch a break from the grindingly bad news that has become a media staple. Whether it’s the onset of Ebola or the rise of ISIS, we look to Obama for answers, and when he takes too long to act, or he seems indecisive, he’s judged for lack of leadership.

This is not always fair, but as Democrats stand for election Tuesday, they are paying the price for Obama’s failure to command the stage when the country looks to him for leadership on big issues. It’s not his policies that are the problem. The Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare, is taking its place alongside Social Security and Medicare as an important part of the safety net. It alone is enough to secure Obama’s legislative legacy.

On a range of issues, when Obama’s critics are asked what they would do that he’s not doing, they come up blank. Not even the most hawkish Republicans are calling for sending U.S. troops back into the Middle East in large numbers. On Ebola, Obama has remained cool and steady while the governors of New York and New Jersey gave into panic, ordered draconian quarantine measures, only to back away after receiving pressure from the medical community and the White House.

Cool and steady, however, is not what plays well on the cable news shows, at least not anymore. The economy is growing and the unemployment rate has come down significantly, but that’s not what anybody is talking about, least of all Obama. Has there ever been a president as woefully incapable of making his own case as Obama? It took former President Clinton at the Democratic National Convention to convince Democrats that Obama has a record of accomplishment they can be proud of.

A fractured electorate will go to the polls on Tuesday wanting to send a message of dissatisfaction and disappointment to the Democrats, yet not wanting to give the Republicans a vote of confidence. That’s a major reason why the races are so tight in key states. Whatever the outcome, an equally fractured and segmented media will render its judgment. For individual voters, or non-voters, they can find a media outlet that will affirm all their pre-conceived notions about how terrible one party or the other is, and how it’s all Obama’s fault.

Blaming Obama is an equal opportunity endeavor. It doesn’t matter where you are on the ideological spectrum; finding fault with a lame duck president is almost too easy. Democrats hung in there with Obama through the 2012 election and a promised shake-up of the White House, which didn’t amount to much. But Democrats are now buying, however reluctantly, the “narrative” about Obama’s passivity and bystander attitude as crisis after crisis breaks on his watch.

In a sea of chatter, the two sides can’t even agree on basic information. Facts are up for grabs every night on the cable talk shows. With the Middle East in turmoil and fears of Ebola escaping from West Africa, polls show that the Republican Party is seen as having the best handle on national security. How quickly Americans forget how unhappy they were with former President Bush for taking the country to war in Iraq. Now they’re angry at Obama for not cleaning up the mess fast enough that Bush left behind. That’s how Clinton put it at the Democratic Convention.

Democrats win over Republicans on “understands people like me,” and the party best able to deal with women’s issues. But the economy is the number one issue in every election, and Republicans have edged ahead of Democrats as the party better able to handle the economy. It’s not as though things are that terrible; it’s just that people expected a lot more.

Twitter @WMerryGoRound

© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

 

We don’t know the candidates

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 23 October 2014

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

We don’t know the candidates

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – There are lots of things we don’t yet know about the upcoming election, like what the turnout will be and whether the Republicans will win control of the Senate. One thing we do know is that enormous amounts of money are being spent and that this election like the last, and like the next, will set a new record.

Some people think that’s just dandy, they tend to be the ones who benefit most from the current system. Bring it on, they say. There’s so much money that another 10 million here or there wouldn’t change a thing. The Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision in 2010 equating money with free speech opened the floodgates, and now there’s so much money that it has hit critical mass.

Advocates for this financial free-for-all cite as evidence that our democracy is strong, and that money can’t buy elections as proven by the fact that political strategist Karl Rove funneled millions into Republican campaigns in 2012 and came up empty-handed. All that cash didn’t translate into winning elections.

Another case in point that money only goes so far is Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, who lost his seat in a Republican primary to a little known and underfunded opponent. Cantor’s ample war chest didn’t save him from defeat.

These arguments have validity in the sense that money can’t always buy victory in Congress or in local races around the country. But do we really need to pour these many millions into political races? It would be one thing if the purveyors of all this money were educating the voters and legitimately debating the issues. But that’s not what’s happening.

If you live in an area that has a hotly contested race, you’ve probably turned off your television by now. The barrage of negative ads has left you feeling alienated from the political process; you’re sick of all the negativity, and you’re not even sure you’re going to vote.

The ads are relentless, and very few of them say anything positive. If you dropped in from another planet, you’d think we have nothing but lying low-life’s running for office. Heck, you don’t have to come from elsewhere in the galaxy to think that. Just watch a few of these ads, and you’ll be eager to tune out and get back to football or “The Good Wife.”

The excessive amounts of money spent by the right and the left to destroy the political opposition demean our democracy. Sure, some of the ads are clever. Iowa Republican Joni Ernst’s most recent ad portraying her in a pig pen and promising to clean up Washington just like she cleans the pens on her family farm is a winner, and well within bounds.

But that’s not true elsewhere. In Virginia, where Democrat Mark Warner is well ahead of Republican challenger Ed Gillespie, the campaign advertising is so over-the-top negative that it’s a turn-off for all but the most partisan voters. That’s where tribal impulses come into play. If you’re a Democrat, you vote for Warner; if you’re a Republican, you support Gillespie; if you’re neither, you might be inclined to sit out an election where both candidates are portrayed in such a poor light.

Ah, but negative ads work, you say, that’s why they’re deployed in our partisan wars. They work because of the growing disconnect between the electorate and the elected. Voters don’t know their elected representatives well enough to judge their character and their record, and they rely on the messages that come through the media. When a campaign message, or paid TV ad, hits a nerve, it can mean the difference between winning and losing. Whipsawed by the system, the American people too often turn away from politics when their participation is most needed.

One idea we have advanced is to have every 10,000 people elect a delegate, who in turn would cast votes for all offices, federal, state, and local. The thought is that these delegates would be known to the people who elect them, and they, in turn, could get to know the candidates on the ballot, from senators to mayors. This is actually what the Founding Fathers had in mind with the House of Representatives. Most people knew the candidates, and knowing the candidates is the best way to choose winners.

Twitter @WMerryGoRound

© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

 

Objectives, threats, and means

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 22 October 2014

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

Objectives, threats, and means

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – Everyone is hoping the shooting of a soldier at a Canadian war memorial is an isolated event, but hope is not a strategy. Authorities in Canada, the U.S. and Britain must take seriously early reports that the shooter is a likely ISIS sympathizer. Whether he acted on his own or is linked to others will be the investigative focus in the coming days.

Whatever new information is uncovered, we already know that the self-described Islamic state is more powerful than Al-Qaeda. They have significantly more money, and their extremism attracts zealots worldwide. Western governments must now monitor the flow of people heading to the Middle East. Impressionable young men and women drawn to the idea of an Islamic caliphate are eager to join the battle.

We don’t know enough about the particulars of the attack in Canada, but we do know that ISIS has proven to be exceptionally competent not only on the battlefield, but in the chilling videos that they produce, and which serve as a recruiting tool.

With a small force, they have captured the western part of Iraq, and the northern part of Syria, military feats that win grudging admiration from war planners in the U.S. Their sophistication in using video and social media combined with their battlefield tactics make them a force greater than anything Al-Qaeda ever dreamed possible.

Al-Qaeda under the direction of Osama bin Laden pulled off a series of attacks on African embassies, the USS Cole, and then finally on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a flight that ended tragically and heroically on a field in Pennsylvania.

Since that September day in 2001, America waited for the next attack from Al-Qaeda. It never materialized. Instead, more than a dozen years later, the hatred and resentment that boils in the Middle East yielded ISIS, an enemy that is cannier and therefore deadlier.

The Dow Jones stock index dropped more than a hundred points after word of the shooting in Canada. If one attack by one shooter that results in one death can have that immediate repercussion, it could well encourage additional attacks by copy cats seeking the limelight, or it could presage a coordinated strategy by ISIS to chip away at Western economies and instill fear in their populations.

All possibilities must be considered. The U.S. public is skittish enough already that another incident would put pressure on President Obama to ramp up the administration’s response to ISIS in Syria and Iraq. It is stunning that this force estimated at 20,000 soldiers, which has taken the city of Mosul, second largest in Iraq, and is on the outskirts of Baghdad, still has the manpower to fight in Kobane in northern Syria.

Obama doesn’t want to put boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria, but if he is serious about confronting ISIS, his administration is going to have to do a better job arming the Kurdish army, which has 170,000 trained soldiers, but is sorely lacking in modern equipment.

It’s fine for Obama to keep American combat troops out of the fight, but sending advisors and forward observers to the front lines to pinpoint air strikes would not violate his pledge, The battle is not winnable without more direct U.S. engagement. ISIS has proven very adept at “concentrating on the battlefield,” a military term that means they don’t travel in target-rich convoys or large formations, but move in small, dispersed groups that come together at the front only when they’re ready to attack.

Among their leaders are former Iraqi soldiers and officers whom U.S. envoy Paul Bremer dismissed out of hand following the 2003 war, thereby planting the seeds for a Sunni resentment that has become so toxic in the form of ISIS. Actions have consequences, and if Obama wants to carry out the mission he identifies as “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, he can’t minimize what it will take. Only by destroying ISIS at the source will the threat to the U.S. and its allies be minimalized.

Twitter @WMerryGoRound

© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

 

American parliament

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 16 October 2014

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

American parliament

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – We could wake up on November 5th with two additional Independents elected to the U.S. Senate and majority control awaiting the outcome of two runoff elections, one in Louisiana on December 6, the other in Georgia on January 6, three days after the new Congress is sworn in. These races reflect both the nip and tuck nature of who’s ahead in key places, plus voter frustration and disgust with the two major parties and the gridlock they represent.

It will set a record if the number of Independents in the Senate expands by one or two on Election Day. There are currently two, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine. Both caucus with the Democrats, but there is no guarantee that either of the most viable Independents on the ballots this year would do the same and cast their lot with the Democrats.

Neither has said, and both are within striking distance of winning in their respective states. Larry Pressler, a former three-term Republican senator, has shaken up what was supposed to be a sleepy race in South Dakota, converting the deep red state into a battleground for Senate control. He’s been out of the Senate for almost 18 years, shedding his Republican label and voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

He pledges to serve only one term and says he will never raise money while he’s in office, an appealing platform in the wake of the Citizens United ruling that opened the floodgates of special interest money in elections. Pressler is the wild card in the 3-way South Dakota race against Republican Mike Rounds and Democrat Rick Weiland, and if he wins, it would be on the strength of his quirky history and defiance of politics as usual.

In Kansas, Independent Greg Orman has forced Republican Pat Roberts to campaign aggressively for the seat he has held for the last 18 years without having to break a sweat. Orman has tapped into the discontent Kansans feel about Washington and about their senior senator, who rents a barcalounger in a friend’s house when he returns to the state.

Orman gained ground when the Democrat in the race dropped out, and he was able to coalesce the anti-Roberts vote. Since then, the Republican establishment has intervened from Washington with an All Points Bulletin to come to Roberts’ rescue. Everyone from Mitt Romney to Sarah Palin has since come into the state to show the flag with Roberts.

Orman won’t say which party he would favor in Washington should he win, only that he would likely go with the side where he could have more impact. If the Republicans win enough seats for Senate control on Election Day, Orman could well choose the GOP. On the other hand, if the majority is up for grabs, he could have a great deal of power as the majority-maker.

Unlike Orman, Pressler is a bit easier to read. While he won’t commit to either party, he says he would be “a friend of Obama” if the voters return him to office. In conservative South Dakota, that’s not smart to say. But Pressler is banking on the fact that voters prefer candor rather than the kind of dodgy statements that are the stock trade of politicians.

Adding to this November’s drama are two races headed for runoffs. In Louisiana, if Democrat Mary Landrieu falls short of 50 percent in her bid for reelection, the race goes into a runoff with her likely challenger, Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, a physician who wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which he calls the “Unaffordable” Care Act. In Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn is running even with Republican businessman David Perdue, but reaching 50 percent will be hard for either of them with Libertarian Amanda Swafford gaining up to 10 percent of the vote.

In the end, the country could end up with a Senate that looks somewhat like a parliament, where parties are often compelled to form coalitions to create a majority. If so, these Independents might just hold enough sway to hold at least one party in the center.

Twitter @WMerryGoRound

© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

 

Where are the forward observers?

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 9 October 2014

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

Where are the forward observers?

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – Months of sustained air attacks in Iraq and Syria have destroyed trucks and artillery pieces as well as oil and other installations, but so far have failed to sufficiently degrade the self-declared Islamic state’s fighting capabilities. ISIS is pushing on toward Baghdad and is on the verge of taking Kobane, a Syrian town on the Turkish border. On Wednesday, President Obama met with his top generals and military advisors at the Pentagon in what appeared to be an effort to beef up the U.S. response and get everyone on the same page.

Media reports conveyed the military’s frustration that the targets have not been worthy of U.S. air power, and that knocking out a few trucks with air attacks is not a good strategy. ISIS can always buy more trucks; they have got plenty of money. If the U.S. and its allies are serious, the bombs should be hitting ISIS forces.

The problem is that ISIS doesn’t travel in convoys. They’re too smart for that. They know that would attract attention, and an attack. But they do have to come together when they’re massing for an attack as they take territory.

And someone has to be on the ground to spot those movements. In the military, the people who do that work are called forward observers.  It means what it says: go forward, go out to the battle line, observe with field glasses, spot the targets and call in the strikes. Amazingly, these critical players apparently have not been there during this air campaign in keeping with Obama’s promise not to put boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria.

The Pentagon has sent advisors, and military experts assumed those advisors would be on the front lines with Iraqi troops or the Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters. The American military is equipped to do that, they’ve got the maps, the coding, the trained eye and the necessary technology to identify targets. Without these forward observers on the ground, the military is flying blind. When Obama met with his generals, they undoubtedly made this point. To have an effective aerial bombardment, they need a target-rich environment.

Right now, they’re likely relying on satellite technology, which is not as effective as trained U.S. line-of-sight personnel. Some might say this violates Obama’s pledge, but boots on the ground need to be better defined. Regular combat units qualify for sure, but advisors broadly defined are not the same thing.

Given our history with Vietnam, where a small number of advisors eventually led to a  commitment of hundreds  of thousands of troops, it’s understandable that Obama’s promise not to commit ground troops in the current conflict would lead to skepticism. But it’s crazy to ask the military to conduct an operation where it is denied access to critical information. At some point, lobbing bombs at great expense is not a productive strategy, and Obama will get more pushback from his generals.

Twitter @WMerryGoRound

© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

 

Obama as Truman

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 8 October 2014

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

Obama as Truman

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – It was seen as a mistake by the political pros when President Obama told a friendly audience in his home state of Illinois that while he is not on the ballot this November, his policies are. With an approval rating of 41 percent, Obama isn’t welcome on the campaign trail. The last thing most Democrats want to hear is that they’ve got to defend his policies when all they’re interested in doing is spending the considerable money he’s been raising.

It must be frustrating for Obama to have his policies seen as a drag on the economy when he can point to a series of statistics that demonstrate the country is better off than it was six years ago. Unemployment is down to 5.9 percent and the stock market is roaring. Interest rates are lower than ever and gas prices at the pump are coming down, which makes consumers happy.

These are numbers that should buoy the president’s party as Democrats head into the midterm elections. Instead, Democrats are running with the wind in their face. Trying to figure out why that is so, and why Obama is having such trouble taking credit for overseeing the country’s climb out of the Great Recession, requires an understanding of psychology in addition to politics and the economy.

Obama took office in January 2009 in the midst of the greatest downturn in the U.S. economy since the Great Depression, and with the highest expectations for his performance since John F. Kennedy swept into Washington with the Best and the Brightest. It didn’t help that Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., preempted any Obama honeymoon with his assertion that defeating Obama was his number one priority.

The Republicans didn’t succeed in denying Obama a second term, but they have thwarted much of his legislative agenda. House Republicans won’t take up any Obama proposals, not even the strongly bipartisan bill on immigration that passed the Senate more than a year ago. Republicans instead feed the echo chamber that is Washington and the cable news networks about how Obama can’t get anything done, that he can’t get along with Congress, and how he’s inviting a constitutional crisis by resorting to executive orders.

There are real problems with the economy, most notably the unequal income distribution with the top 20 percent doing extremely well, while the rest of the country, a staggering 80 percent, makes do with stagnating wages, lost home values, and spiraling college costs. Still, you’d think Obama shouldn’t have to shrink from the stage when second quarter GDP growth came in at 4.6 percent. These numbers don’t lie; almost everyone is measurably better than they were six years ago, or even two years ago.

But elections don’t follow graphs and flow charts or the first President Bush would have been reelected in 1992. He had won a war, and the country was coming out of a mild recession when Bill Clinton challenged conventional wisdom to run against a president whom most saw as unbeatable. People vote with their emotions as much as or more than they do on issues.

If people voted strictly on their pocketbooks, those policies Obama cited in his speech should carry Democrats over the finish line. But the threat from ISIS and from Ebola is in the headlines, and 70 percent of Americans according to polls say the country is on the wrong track. Obama’s final two years may well come to resemble those of Harry Truman, when fears of a “Red Scare” gripped the nation, the Korean War sapped morale, and it wasn’t until years after he left office that his presidency underwent a resurgence.

It would be better if Obama could get a fairer evaluation before he leaves office. For better or worse, his policies are on the ballot.

Twitter @WMerryGoRound

© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

 

China on the brink

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 2 October 2014

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

China on the brink

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – The Chinese government says it will not send in the army to disperse the hundreds of thousands of protestors who have immobilized Hong Kong for the last week. At present, their plan is to out-wait the protestors, but historically, unopposed protests often morph into revolutions. So China has a problem. Local forces did use tear gas and pepper spray, and they are stockpiling riot gear in public buildings should protestors attempt to force entry. Still, with rare exception, these massive demonstrations with 300,000 people crowding Hong Kong’s central streets have remained peaceful.

The central government in China has cracked down on Internet access wherever they could, but in the modern age that’s a losing strategy. For now, it looks like Beijing is sitting tight in the belief that the protestors will soon wear out their welcome. For their part, the protestors are putting procedures in place to ensure they can stay for a good long while, establishing buffer zones around some businesses and neighborhoods, and clearing routes for ambulances and other emergency vehicles to get through.

Each side is betting that they’re correctly reading the crowd dynamics, and whoever is wrong will pay the price.  Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, said he would meet with student leaders to discuss their ideas for democratic reforms, but that he would not step down, which tops their list of demands. Leung was put in place two years ago with China’s blessing, and the process that will select his successor is at the heart of the rebellion.

Reformers want to be able to nominate candidates who would then run in a free and open election instead of being handed a slate of candidates pre-selected and pre-screened by a committee of elites in Beijing with close ties to the Communist Party. Hong Kong was a British colony and a democracy before the handover to China in 1997, and it has always enjoyed a measure of freedom that is unthinkable in mainland China. That was part of the handover deal.

It must be excruciatingly difficult for Chinese leaders to stand down and allow the protests to continue unabated in Hong Kong. The last time anything remotely like this occurred was in Tiananmen Square in 1989 when the world watched in horror on live television as Chinese tanks rolled over unarmed protestors in the street.

That incident gave China a black eye from which they have not recovered, and it haunts their decision-making to this day. Sending in the army and rolling over protestors with tanks is not a scenario China wishes to employ. Hong Kong is home to the Hang Seng Index, the Chinese version of the Dow Jones, and the Hong Kong Stock exchange. It is a financial jewel, China’s New York, and Chinese leaders don’t want to do anything that would kill the golden goose.

Hong Kong brought the capitalist spirit to China where it took root and was instrumental in catapulting the Chinese economy into the second largest in the world. What happens next in Hong Kong rests almost entirely on the business community and how it handles the protests, which, because of their size, are making normal commerce impossible and damaging the economy. Chinese leaders are counting on business people as well as ordinary citizens, a silent majority if you will, to tire of the disruption and demand an end to the protests. It is a though they are taking a page out of “Les Miserables” that depicted shuttered doors and windows as an answer to French revolutionaries. But that revolution came to a violent end at the hands of the French Army.

The protestors say they have momentum on their side, and that they are building support, not watching it dissipate. If they are right, Beijing has a big problem. Making major concessions would likely set off a ripple effect throughout mainland China, perhaps fatally undermining the fragile central government’s control over China’s vast population. Opening up the next election in Hong Kong to more than a few of their handpicked buddies would be such a concession. And absent force or concessions, it is difficult to see how the government is going to manage this crisis and remain in power.

Twitter @WMerryGoRound

© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

 

“Wheels up, rings off”

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 1 October 2014

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

“Wheels up, rings off”

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – “I salute her 30 years of distinguished service to the Secret Service and the Nation,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement, and then she was gone. After a string of embarrassing Secret Service lapses, lawmakers in both parties called for Director Julia Pierson to resign, and on Wednesday afternoon, she did just that.

Yet it’s not at all certain that recent incidents undermining the agency’s credibility are attributable to Pierson’s management and that a new leader alone could bring about the changes the agency clearly needs. Both cultural and structural problems exist.

Pierson was supposed to be a breath of fresh air in the macho culture that permeates the agency. A career employee who had done her time as a field agent, the hope was that she could lead the way as the agency’s first female director to a culture that is more professional.

President Obama tapped Pierson for director after the Cartagena scandal broke. While preparing for a presidential visit there, agents cavorted with prostitutes. One agent left his weapon behind in a woman’s hotel room. Another incident followed soon after of an agent passed out drunk in the hallway of a hotel in the Netherlands.

The Secret Service recruits young men and women, and the lifestyle of long hours and constant travel is not conducive to family life. “Wheels up, rings off” is the phrase that aptly describes the attitude as their flights departed to places domestic and foreign.

The Tailhook scandal of 1991 exposed similar behavior among Navy and Marine Corps pilots at a Las Vegas convention, after which more than a dozen admirals and almost 300 naval aviators saw their careers ended or severely damaged as a result of the Navy’s investigation.However, the comparison is inherently flawed. There is no condoning what those pilots did, but a devil-may-care attitude not taken to such extremes is typical and even conducive to the performance of one- and two-man combat missions. Theirs is an attack mentality.

Nothing the Secret Service has done is on the scale of Tailhook, but then Secret Service agents have an opposite mission. Theirs is a defense mentality, and it is defense in the extreme because they are committed to taking a bullet for the people they protect. The military asks service people to risk their lives for their country, but only the Secret Service asks its employees to intentionally sacrifice their lives if necessary because other lives are deemed more important than their own (one agent was killed and two wounded defending President Truman in 1950, and one agent was wounded protecting President Reagan in 1981). This commitment deserves our gratitude and makes it all the more important that this critical agency change its “wheels up” culture.

A structural problem also exists. Originally created in 1865 to investigate U.S. currency counterfeiting, which was widespread at the time, the agency’s mission later grew to include credit card and computer fraud. The agency was also given responsibility for domestic intelligence collection and counter-terrorism activities, but these ended in 1908 when the newly created FBI took over these tasks. The Secret Service did not start protecting presidents until 1901, in response to the assassination of President McKinley.

Today, Secret Service special officers and uniformed agents belong to the protection arm of the service, whereas, special agents perform both protective and non-protective (counterfeiting, etc.) duties. The problem is that there is no correlation between these functions, and this split personality is the agency’s primary structural dilemma, stretching resources and confusing the mission. Now that more scrutiny is being applied to this venerable agency, the case should be made that focusing strictly on protection of the president and other dignitaries should be a standalone undiluted duty.

Twitter @WMerryGoRound

© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

 

The Kurdish conundrum and disaster in the making

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 25 September 2014

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

The Kurdish conundrum and disaster in the making

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – The nightmare that is Syria today took a new and horrifying twist this week when 100,000 refugees streamed across the border from Syria into Turkey. Turkish President Recep Erdogan promptly shut down the border, cutting off access to safety for countless numbers of additional refugees, mostly Syrian Kurds. The rationale for this is complicated, and only an understanding of the underlying rivalries can explain it.

The disparate Kurdish organizations are united only in their fight against ISIS. Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani, the ailing leader of the Patriotic Union Party (PUK) and recent president of Iraq, control the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a Western-oriented democratic movement that governs Kurdistan, the autonomous northeastern area of Iraq. Its army is the Peshmerga.

Abdullah Ocalan, residing in a Turkish jail since 1999, is the leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), originally a communist organization that conducts an ongoing insurgency in eastern Turkey. The PKK is labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S., Turkey, and their NATO partners. The PKK is closely aligned with the leftist Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) and its army, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), that control the northern portion of Syria known as Rojava (West Kurdistan), apparently with the acquiescence of the Syrian government.

Focusing only on the military organizations, the Peshmerga has joined with the PKK and the Iraqi Army to fight ISIS in Iraq, while the PKK and YPG have joined forces to fight ISIS in Syria. Meanwhile, the PKK continues its anti-government campaign in eastern Turkey, though apparently at a greatly diminished level since the rise of the ISIS threat. Meanwhile, although the YPG has sent fighters to aid the PKK in eastern Turkey, it maintains an uneasy peace on the Syrian (Rojava)-Turkish border while it concentrates on ISIS – or, more to the point, while ISIS concentrates on the YPG. Hence, the flood of Kurdish refugees into Turkey.

As a result, Erdogan’s closure of the border has him flirting with a humanitarian disaster on a huge scale if ISIS subjects the people left behind to the same brutal tactics it used in northern Iraq. Women and girls are enslaved and sold into the sex trade while men who refuse to convert and pay allegiance to ISIS are slaughtered.

If Turkey does not relent, a situation could develop similar to what occurred in Iraq when 10,000 Yazidis, members of a pre-Christian sect, were trapped on top of a mountain. U.S. air drops of water and food helped them survive, and air strikes aimed at ISIS in Iraq alleviated the crisis, while the YPG, PKK, and Peshmerga cooperated and came to their relief. But in northern Syria (Rojava), the people who are coming under ISIS domination do not have a mountain haven, and their numbers greatly exceed those of the trapped Yazidis.

Until Erdogan took over as prime minister several years ago, democratic Turkey was a secular state, balancing its majority Muslim population with a government that kept religion at bay. Erdogan changed all that, bringing Islam into the public square. Playing a double game, he denounced extremism while letting ISIS terrorists cross with ease between Turkey and Syria, even for a time allowing wounded ISIS fighters to receive medical care in Turkish hospitals. Suddenly, he awoke to the threat ISIS posed, but this only left him with another enemy, since he already condemned Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government as well as the PKK and YPG Kurdish leftists.

This is why Turkey faces a quandary. The U.S. expects this one Muslim NATO country to join in the campaign against ISIS, but that would mean allying its forces with the Kurds while indirectly aiding Assad. It is no wonder that Erdogan is vacillating. Yet, if he does not quickly act, a catastrophe will ensue when ISIS begins massacring the Kurds.

Twitter @WMerryGoRound

© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND