Monday, September 22, 2014

How Not to Retain Teachers

From MSU,
Contrary to popular opinion, unruly students are not driving out teachers in droves from America’s urban school districts. Instead, teachers are quitting due to frustration with standardized testing, declining pay and benefits and lack of voice in what they teach....

Alyssa Hadley Dunn, assistant professor of teacher education, conducted in-depth interviews with urban secondary teachers before they quit successful careers in teaching. In a pair of studies, Dunn found that despite working in a profession they love, the teachers became demoralized by a culture of high-stakes testing in which their evaluations are tied to student scores and teachers have little say in the curriculum....

“As previous research has shown, it is not, contrary to popular opinion, students who drive teachers out of the classroom,” Dunn said.

But the negative factors – including lack of quality instruction time and low salaries – outweighed the positive aspects of teaching and led the teachers to quit. The average U.S. teacher salary decreased 1.3 percent between 2000 and 2013 – to $56,383, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Further, the United States ranked 22 out of 27 participating countries in a 2011 study of teacher salaries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In addition, lack of support contributed to teachers’ decision to quit. Dunn said teachers need more than professional development – they also need personal support, even if that’s a colleague or an organized group to talk to about the pressures they face.
As should be obvious, you're not going to attract new, highly qualified students into teaching programs if these trends continue. You'll get some students who really want to be teachers despite the declining compensation and status of the job, but on the whole you're likely to see a less qualified pool of students entering teaching schools.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Teach For America Protests Too Much....

By reputation, Teach For America has never been particularly good at dealing with its critics, internal and external. A former TFA corps member and manager describes its overall approach as follows:
Instead of engaging in real conversations with critics, and even supporters, about the weaknesses of Teach For America and where it falls short, Teach For America seemed to put a positive spin on everything. During my tenure on staff, we even got a national team, the communications team, whose job it was to get positive press out about Teach For America in our region and to help us quickly and swiftly address any negative stories, press or media. This inability and unwillingness to honestly address valid criticism made me start to see that Teach For America had turned into more of a public relations campaign than an organization truly committed to closing the achievement gap. Unfortunately, the organization seemed to care more about public perception of what the organization was doing than about what the organization was actually doing to improve education for low-income students throughout the United States.
We had a TFA representative stop by here a few years ago, and she refused to clarify TFA's reported policies that bar corps members from criticizing the organization. A corp member attempted to clarify the situation:
When I accepted TFA's offer, I do accurately recall a very lengthy contract we had to sign electronically. And I do remember being very disturbed by a section that dealt with public criticism. In the most PC way possible, the bottom line was that it was extremely frowned upon and consequences could arise. I whole-heartedly remember this part because as a young college grad with a free spirited, libertarian-esque personality, this was a red flag for me.

What I've learned so far in my time with TFA is that public criticism is against the core values. Also, the higher ups tell us public criticism hurts the organization as a whole, and hurts our mission of ultimately helping inner-city, high need students. It's all a guilt trip. And for the record, I have seen TFA corp members severely 'blacklisted'(though not expelled) for public and non-public criticism.
A person who was, at the time, a TFA corps member confirmed to me that TFA retaliates against corps members who publicly criticize the program. The attitude toward criticism seems to start at the top, as evidenced by an editorial authored by TFA founder, chair and former CEO Wendy Kopp, bluntly titled, Criticism toward Teach for America is misplaced. What first caught my eye was Kopp's claim about the subsequent employment history of TFA corps members:
In the 25 years since, Teach for America has enlisted more than 47,000 individuals to commit two years to teaching in some of America’s neediest schools. Long after they finish their commitment, 86 percent of Teach for America alumni still work full time in education or professions related to improving lives in our most marginalized communities. About 11,000 alumni are teachers; more than 800 are school leaders.
For 11,000 of 47,000 corps members to become teachers isn't bad at all. But what in the world does "education or professions related to improving lives in our most marginalized communities" mean? I tried to find out from the TFA website, dated September 8, 2014:
For America’s network of more than 37,000 alumni continue to work toward educational equity, with 86 percent working full-time in education or with low-income communities....

Today, 10,600 corps members are teaching in 50 urban and rural regions across the country, while more than 37,000 alumni work across sectors to ensure that all children have access to an excellent education.
The first statement makes it appear that there are 37,000 alumni. The second may mean that, for some reason, they were referring to their 37,000 alumni who don't work as teachers separately from the alumni who hold teaching positions. What the positions variably described as "professions related to improving lives in our most marginalized communities", "working... with low-income communities" and "work[ing] across sectors to ensure that all children have access to an excellent education" may be, we can only guess.

And then there's another statement, also from September 8, 2014,
Today, 86% of our alumni work in education and we’re continuously working to expand our partnerships with schools and the district to provide continued mentorship, networking opportunities, and professional development to support our alumni educators.
The claim that 86% of alumni "work in education" is very different, and much more clear, than the other nebulous statements. Meanwhile, back on July 2,
Teaching is the single most popular profession among our alumni, and we’re proud of our 11,000 alumni teachers and the work they do every day. We’re also proud of the 86% of our alumni whose work—inside and outside of education--continues to take on the systemic challenges of poverty and racism and directly or indirectly strengthens our public education system.
So when TFA says that its alumni "work in education" they mean work "inside and outside of education"? As for the 86% whose work "take[s] on the systemic challenges of poverty and racism and directly or indirectly strengthens our public education system", exactly what does that mean? Why do I keep hearing that same hollow number, without its being backed up by any actual data about the actual employment and careers of TFA alumni? Kopp herself writes, "64 percent of alumni now work full time in education and another 22 percent work in jobs that relate to improving education or quality of life in low-income communities." It's not a huge surprise that college graduates who gain several years of experience in the field of education end up employed in fields that relate to their experience, whatever their intent when they enrolled, but it would be very nice to have Kopp break down exactly what she means by "in education". As for the additional 22%, the fact that TFA is inconsistent and nebulous in its description of that group and its activities suggests that they're not being entirely honest. They should release their data and actual information about that work, such that the cloud is lifted.

Kopp acknowledges that some of the criticism of TFA constitutes "valuable feedback". Presumably that feedback includes criticism of TFA's history of low minority representation, inadequate training, the short tenure of corps members, and the like, issues that TFA has attempted to address. But Kopp's not writing her editorial to respond to her critics. By all appearances, she's trying to avoid responding to her critics, and as part of that effort she resorts to the spotlight fallacy:
But some of the criticism is based on misrepresentation and toxic rhetoric. Critics say, for example, that Teach for America “endangers students’ education.” Some characterize our teachers with phrases such as “Ivy League short-term student saviour” and allege that we are “an experiment in ‘resume-padding’ for ambitious young people.” One organization mounted a social media campaign to discourage students from applying.
Looking at Kopp's first example, I don't find it to include the sort of unfair attack she describes. The quote she attacks, in its full context, reads as follows,
Inadequate teacher training: TFA’s summer institute, the minimum training its corps members receive before becoming classroom teachers, lasts only a mere five weeks. Additionally, the practical classroom experience that TFA recruits receive during this training does not give an accurate representation of the everyday tasks of teaching. There already exists an inequality in the teacher quality and experience level between low-income and more affluent communities. TFA’s inadequate training perpetuates this inequality and endangers students’ education by giving them a poorly trained, unprepared instructor.
An honest response to that criticism would involve describing how the five week summer institute constitutes adequate teacher training and thus does not endanger students' education. The article to which Kopp linked is calm, reasoned and raises many valid points. What does it say about Kopp that her response is to pluck a quote out of context and use it to try to dismiss the substance of the author's criticism? Kopp herself implicitly admits that the five week program is problematic,
Most recently, in March, our co-CEOs Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard launched two pilot programs: one to provide a year of upfront training for recruits, and the other to extend our professional development to teachers who remain in the classroom for a third, fourth and fifth year.
With 47,000 alumni, there would be no need for such a pilot program if in fact the organization didn't recognize the deficiencies in its model for training corps members and preparing them for the classroom.

The second criticism, that "Some characterize our teachers with phrases such as “'Ivy League short-term student saviour'", is also interesting, as the actual article accuses TFA of projecting that attitude in its sales pitches to college students:
Many assume the TFA promo of Ivy League Short-term Student Saviour, but not all.

Kopp advances the ungrounded idea that TFA recruits can “close the achievement gap” because they are the “best and brightest”– and that they can do so going into America’s toughest teaching situations in two-year stints. And after “closing the gap,” TFAers can fulfill the nation’s need for their “best and brightest” leadership in key educational roles, including those of district or state superintendent, or charter school/education company “founder.”
The author of the blog post later elaborates,
TFA works hard to promote the image of the “best and brightest” as successfully and altruistically “giving back” by offering their indispensable “talent” to rescue students from achievement gaps that are clearly the fault of those who attended “non-target” institutions in order to earn degrees in what TFA considers a non-profession for its lack of “results.”

However, based upon the above discussion threads, some more astute TFAers realize that Kopp’s promotions are little more than selfish, strategically-endorsed, well-funded fiction.
An honest response by Kopp would not involve accusing the author of making the statement, but by explaining how that's not a fair characterization of how TFA pitches itself to college students or how college students perceive its outreach. It might also acknowledge that the comments by prospective TFA corps members, to which the critic links, support the impression that many corps members see TFA as offering to help pave their path into highly paid careers. For example, from 2011,
So for those of you who are unaware, Teach for America and Goldman Sachs firmly cemented their partnership this year. Goldman will be offering (at least) 20 minorities in the incoming Teach for America class summer internships.
The Godlman Sachs announcement prominently features the TFA logo, and states,
Through this program, Goldman Sachs will offer up to twenty paid summer internships to eligible African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans who have also been accepted to the incoming Teach For America corps. The internship with Goldman Sachs takes place between the first and second years of teaching. At the end of the summer, qualified participants may receive an offer to join Goldman Sachs full-time at the conclusion of their Teach For America commitment.
While it's easy to see how that type of partnership could help recruit TFA corps members who were interested in using TFA as a stepping stone to a career in finance, it doesn't do much to undermine the impression many hold that many TFA corps members view their participation as a short-term exercise to build their résumés, not as part of a longer-term commitment to education.

The third quote is presented in a similarly dishonest manner. In context,
Several years ago, a TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.” The message of that flyer was: “use teaching in high-poverty areas as a stepping stone to a career in business.” It was not only disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it effectively advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume-padding” for ambitious young people.
Once again, this is a comment about TFA's recruitment efforts, and the message TFA itself sends to prospective corps members. It would have been nice if Kopp had been able to deny that the incident occurred, particularly given her organization's umbrage over the idea that it markets itself as an opportunity for students to pad their résumés. Being unable to deny the incident, it would have been nice if Kopp had sought to set the record straight, and to clarify how despite the recruiter's message the organization takes great pains to in fact exclude students whose primary interest is in attending an elite graduate program, and strives to ensure that every corps member is fully equipped to manage a classroom from day one. Frankly, Kopp's attack on the messenger does little more than suggest that she cannot defend her own program.

As for the social media campaign? A Twitter hashtag, "#ResistTFA", from a small student-led organization. And do you know where you end up if you look up that organization to try to find out why it is asking that students resist TFA? Right back on the first page to which Kopp linked. That is, even with her out-of-context cherry-picking, two of Kopp's examples of supposedly unfair criticism were part of the same criticism. Let's take a quick look at the criticisms Kopp chose to disregard while painting her critic as unfair:
  • Inadequate teacher training: TFA’s summer institute, the minimum training its corps members receive before becoming classroom teachers, lasts only a mere five weeks [and includes inadequate practical classroom experience]....

  • Promotion of teacher turnover: TFA only requires a two-year commitment to teaching, and as a result, over 80% of corps members leave the classroom after four years [and the organization emphasizes producing "'leaders' rather than career educators"....

  • Conflict with traditionally-trained career teachers: A further effect of the two-year commitment is that most TFA corps members will not teach long enough to be entitled to the higher salaries and benefits that come with increased experience [positioning them as a low-cost alternative to traditionally certified teachers]....

  • Charter schools: TFA has been found to be a key player in the charter school expansion movement as many of these privately-run, publicly-funded schools are mainly staffed by TFA corps members.... however, charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools and offer little in terms of creative approaches to pedagogy....

  • Standardized tests: TFA often claims to foster educational excellence because its teachers effectively boost their students scores on standardized tests [and in some cases that appears to be accurate].... However, we resist the notion that standardized tests are on the whole educationally beneficial....

  • Degradation of the teaching profession: The more TFA recruits committed to teaching for only two years come to replace traditionally-certified educators, the more the teaching profession as a whole becomes a temporary job rather than a profession....

There's plenty there to which Kopp could respond, giving a substantive reply to the valid criticisms and explaining why TFA holds a different opinion on matters such as the importance and impact of high stakes standardized testing. What is she waiting for? Kopp claims, "It is crucial that we have an honest, open-minded conversation about what it will take to improve educational — and ultimately life — outcomes for kids", but it's her approach to TFA's critics, not the actual statements and positions of TFA's critics, that is preventing the discussion from proceeding.

Kopp argues,
In the communities where we’ve been providing teachers for 15 years or more, the impact of Teach for America is clear. Twelve years ago, D.C. students were scoring at the bottom compared with their peers in other large cities. Today, although there is still much to be done, schools in the nation’s capital are improving faster than any other urban district’s. This change is the result of the efforts of many people, but without Teach for America alumni, we’d lose much of the energy behind it.
The energy we might lose being a handful of TFA alumni who are working in the DC school system. Except, even assuming that the TFA alumni bring something special to the table, if TFA is recruiting people who are committed to education why should we assume that those people would not have ended up in education but for TFA? If TFA is taking the position that it attracts people who aren't inclined to go into education and then, through training and classroom experience, transforms them into people committed to the future of education in our society, perhaps that's a case they can make -- but as long as they choose to insist that they are trying to recruit students who are committed to education, not simply looking to build their résumés, they undermine any argument that they could make that their program is transformative.

Kopp asks the question,
Would the United States really be better off if thousands of outstanding and committed people did not apply to Teach for America?
But that's not the right question. TFA's critics don't seem bothered by the idea of a teacher corps that steps in to fill a void, providing classroom teachers where there would otherwise be a teacher shortage. TFA's critics appear to be bothered by the suggestion that any random Iy League graduate, following a five-week training course, is as good or better than a traditionally trained classroom teacher, and thus that TFA corps members should displace traditionally certified teachers in schools and districts where no teacher shortage exists.

Some corps members turn out to be great classroom teachers, while others have nothing but problems -- but one pretty constant criticism I hear from corps members and alumni is that they were out-of-their-depths during their first year of teaching. TFA appears to be belatedly responding to that problem with its pilot project for more complete teacher training, but it is fair for critics of TFA to point out that its teacher preparation program is often insufficient, and that wealthier school districts would not even consider employing TFA corps members in lieu of traditionally certified applicants for teacher positions.

It is also fair to point out that under Kopp's leadership, TFA came to be associated with attacks on the professionalism and competence of traditionally trained teachers as part of its desire for growth, and as part of its effort to maintain contracts to provide corps members to districts that didn't have or were no longer experiencing a teacher shortage. It is more than fair to point out that poor kids don't deserve schools that are inferior to those available in middle class communities, including competent teachers -- and that, whatever qualified candidates TFA brings into the inner cities, it is at best a band-aid solution and at worst an impediment to the hiring and retention of long-term, qualified classroom teachers.

Kopp closes by arguing,
This country is failing our kids, and the conversation we’re having is not helping. It’s not elevating the teaching profession. It isn’t changing kids’ lives or giving them the best chance to fulfill their potential. It’s undermining trust in the efforts of so many to improve education, and driving away what we need most: The energy and attention of every person willing to work for our children.
To me, that seems like a fair criticism of Kopp's own approach to the discussion. It doesn't appear to bother her at all that attacks on the teaching profession over recent decades, with associated efforts to reduce teacher compensation and benefits and to remove job protections, have decreased teacher satisfaction and have caused many teachers and prospective teachers to choose other career options. It only seems to bother her that people are criticizing TFA. Perhaps I'm wrong -- Kopp has been around for a long time. Perhaps she has made a statement in defense of career teachers, or in response to attacks on the teaching profession, that I haven't seen. Can anybody help me out?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Bringing College Costs Down Through Online Courses

The other day I saw an article that says quite a lot about the future of college education, at least in terms of basic courses and courses that can be taught in a structured manner:
This summer, Chad Mason signed up for online general psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. This spring, Jonathan Serrano took intro to psychology online at Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey.

Though the two undergraduates were separated by more than 600 miles, enrolled in different institutions, and paying different tuitions, they were taking what amounts to the same course. That’s because the course wasn’t produced by either school. Instead, it was a sophisticated package devised by publishing giant Pearson PLC and delivered through a powerful online platform called MyPsychLab....

Creating online courses from scratch is expensive and time-consuming. When universities try to do it themselves, the results can be erratic. Some online classes wind up being not much more than grainy videos of lectures and a collection of PowerPoint slides.

Publishers have rushed in to fill the gap. They’ve been at the game longer, possess vast libraries of content from their textbook divisions, and have invested heavily in creating state-of-the-art course technology.

Faced with these alternatives, schools frequently choose the plug-and-play solution. “We would love to create all of the online content ourselves, but that’s not always economically feasible,” says Lindsey Hamlin, the director of continuing and distance education at South Dakota State University, which uses an array of Pearson products for classes in math, economics, and psychology. “These types of courses are really easy to implement. Yes, they are created by other professors. But the content is really good.”

Companies such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Wiley—the heavies of the college textbook market—have produced bundles that are basically a turnkey solution for basic chemistry or econ 101 and dozens of other classes, most at the introductory level. These courses feature content vetted by experts, slickly produced videos, and a load of interactive tests and quizzes. Some are so advanced that they can simulate a physics experiment, engage a student in a developmental psychology exercise, or even run software that grades an 800-word essay. They provide pretty much the entire course experience, without much interaction with a professor and without the hassle of showing up to class on time—or, for some instructors, the hassle of teaching.

The growing uniformity, though it has its advantages, puts schools in an awkward position. The transaction can reduce colleges’ academic mission to that of middleman, reselling course materials produced elsewhere. If schools are offering the same basic courses with minimal variations, it makes it all the more difficult to sell themselves to prospective students or justify their tuition levels.
This standardization of online courses is probably, on the whole, a good thing. It's difficult for individual professors, or even individual colleges, to muster the same sort of resources and specialization that a textbook company can bring to course development, or to even approach the depth and quality of multimedia components that a textbook company can produce. Textbook companies have to invest in the courses in order to keep their market share, not only against each other but also against open source, collaborative competition.

Meanwhile, high schools and colleges should get on board with allowing students to take these courses for something akin to universal college credit, at the lowest possible cost. Colleges sponsoring the courses should contemplate how to bring the best added value to a packaged online course -- supplemental online and offline collaboration with an instructor to discuss the material in more depth, tutoring, monitoring student progress, and the like. But I think the ultimate goal should be to allow students to complete this type of course at the lowest possible price point, with college education turning toward more complex subjects and classes, interdisciplinary classes, seminars, and other experiences that cannot be so easily reduced to a pre-packaged, online experience.

Yes, that would be an adjustment, one that would affect how colleges finance themselves, and might also affect the amount of time it takes to complete a degree program -- a student could conceivably rack up several semesters of college credit while still in high school, something that is possible for some students with AP and through collaborative programs, but is far from universal. If state colleges and community colleges take the lead -- compelled, if necessary, by state legislatures -- then private colleges will follow.

Given that a typical student living on campus takes one or more online courses, the trend toward online education is unmistakable. At this point, it's also irreversible. Given that states are unwilling to provide the same level of funding they historically provided to public colleges, and the overall rise of tuition courses, embracing online education as a way to bring college costs down -- as much as colleges might protest, and even feel some pain over the transition period -- seems like a no-brainer. Yes, it will be necessary to monitor student progress and intervene when students fall behind. Yes, ideally there will be some components to an online course beyond the prepackaged product. But if colleges aren't adding value, they have little business charging tuition for these courses at all.

Monday, August 25, 2014

NATO May Be a Relic, But....

Anne Applebaum argues that the President could create a foreign policy "legacy" by reinventing NATO. Were he to try to follow her suggestion, what an interesting legacy that would be....

Applebaum is upset about a number of aspects of NATO. She doesn't think that all of the member states pay their fair share:
Some Europeans don’t want to pay for their defense? Maybe those who want to be covered by Article 5, the alliance’s security guarantee, should now be obligated to pay. Perhaps those who contribute less than 1 percent of their national budget should be told that the guarantee no longer applies to them. Certainly there don’t need to be any NATO bases in countries that refuse to contribute. And a much higher percentage of their military spending should go toward funding the NATO budget, so that NATO, as an alliance, can afford to pay for important operations.
Applebaum's suggestion that a member nation's total defense budget constitutes a contribution to NATO seems a bit misleading. A NATO member's military is reasonably called a NATO military, but that doesn't mean that the nation's military spending and activities invariably benefit NATO, or even involve NATO. The usual target number that one hears suggested as an appropriate level of defense spending for a NATO member is 2%. Drop the number to 1% and we're talking about... Spain? Also, when Applebaum says "national budget" she presumably means to refer to a nation's GDP.

Applebaum suggests later, that "the United States contributes three-quarters of NATO’s budget". If you're talking about NATO's actual budget, that's not even close to accurate. Perhaps Applebaum is taking the entire U.S. military budget, and comparing it to the combined military budgets of all NATO states, and rounding up.
Only four of the NATO partners met their agreed target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense in 2013 - Estonia, Greece, Britain and the United States. France and Turkey fell just shy of the 2 percent goal.
If we start ratcheting up Applebaum's 1% to a number that might actually exclude nations other than Spain, whose spending has historically been a bit higher but has suffered from years of economic distress, we have to look at Germany. In that context you can see both the importance of GDP, as despite not meeting the 2% target Germany has the third largest military defense budget in NATO, spending more than 100 times as much on defense as Estonia. Raise Applebaum's number to the point that a major military power would reconsider its NATO membership, and you risk turning NATO into "The U.S., maybe the U.K., and the weakest nations in Europe".

As for threatening to relocate bases, surely Applebaum knows about the amount of money and politics involved in the shuttering or relocation of a military base, even when only domestic politics are involved. To put it mildly, international politics within a voluntary defense organization won't make things easier. Suggest moving the NATO AWACS base out of Germany and to Estonia, and Germany is going to remind you of the relative size of its budget and contribution. Also, Applebaum presents no reason to believe that NATO cannot serve its mission from its present locations, assuming it remains willing to defend its member states. Finally, as is evidenced by Spain, when circumstances change military spending can fall. Some of the nations of Eastern Europe, with shiny new NATO bases and facilities built on their soil, may suddenly lose interest in keeping their defense spending at roughly 2% of GDP... might that possibility be why Applebaum uses the 1% figure?

But Applebaum appears to have a different agenda....
NATO also needs to become a lot clearer about its goals. Europe has two immediate security issues: the threat from Russia in the east and the threat from Islamic fundamentalism to the south. NATO therefore needs two command centers, each of which would take care of planning and intelligence for defense against those threats. The basing of troops and equipment needs to be rethought completely: If we were starting from scratch, nobody would put them where they are now. NATO needs to shut down unnecessary commands and legacy bases, and move on.
What Applebaum appears to be suggesting is that NATO facilities be relocated or duplicated in Eastern Europe, where they would serve as a tripwire against any Russian military aggression. Such a move into former Warsaw Pact nations would be viewed by Russia as an abrogation of its understanding (denied by NATO) that foreign NATO forces would not be stationed in those nations, and would be an obvious provocation of what Applebaum deems one of the two most significant threats to the rest of Europe. Such a tripwire would provide additional assurance to a nation on Russia's border that at least some NATO members would be likely to intervene in the event of a Russian invasion, and might deter Russia from attempting such a move... if it's in fact considering such a move.

I have to wonder, though, if that's even what Applebaum wants. Perhaps I'm focusing too much on history: It's extremely difficult for me to believe, for example, that the Polish government is eager to have a major deployment of German soldiers to a NATO base on Polish soil. Would the new NATO bases Applebaum envisions in fact be U.S. bases, nominally positioned under the auspices of NATO?
At the same time, NATO members should understand that any further enlargement is not charity work: Every time the NATO membership is extended to another state, current members have to be prepared to defend that state — and if they aren’t, then the enlargement should be stopped. Either Article 5 is an absolute guarantee or it is worthless.
That should go without saying, but it seems to again tie into Applebaum's unstated agenda -- which seems not so much to be to secure Eastern European nations from Russia, but to increase the obligation of other NATO powers to come to the defense of a member nation that might not seem all that important to the rest of Europe, particularly if that nation engaged in the sort of foolishness that precipitated Russia's incursion into Georgia. As much as Mikheil Saakashvili believed that the west would provide Georgia with a defense against Russian military action, odds are he would have been even more brash had his nation been prematurely made a member of NATO, and again more so had foreign NATO soldiers been stationed in Georgia.

Applebaum continues,
Once NATO has become clearer about its real security interests, its forces can again start carrying out annual exercises, annually, as they did during the Cold War. It’s time to rehearse our reaction to a Crimean-style Russian invasion of Latvia, led not by regular troops but by “little green men” pretending to be local Russians. It’s time to anticipate, say, a civil war in Libya or the fall of Baghdad.
What benefit does Applebaum see from a military exercise that anticipates a Russian invasion of Latvia? Does she believe that NATO forces will be unprepared to defend Latvia unless they carry out that specific exercise? Does she want NATO to thump its chest and try to intimidate Russia? As for NATO planning for a civil war in Libya, although nominally a NATO exercise the operation in Libya had little support in NATO -- it was primarily a project of the U.S., U.K. and France. Why does Applebaum believe that a re-imagined NATO would have more interest in intervening in the Middle East and Africa, as opposed to even less?

What Applebaum seems to be picturing outside of Eastern Europe is a NATO that is more easily directed and controlled by the United States and, perhaps, Britain to carry out missions that Canada and most nations of continental Europe might not deem to be particularly important. As much as Applebaum sees the present structure of NATO as a cold war relic, there is no reason to believe that a revised NATO would prove to share her zeal to provide long-term occupation forces to stop and stabilize civil wars in the developing world and Middle East.

If Applebaum's sales pitch would truly be, "We're going to reinvent NATO by reallocating resources to Eastern Europe, where we will build bases and command centers, while practicing to be able to deploy forces to stabilize failed states and civil wars in Africa and the Middle East", how many nations do you think would actually sign up? NATO is meant to mobilize following an attack on a member nation, something that justified action in Afghanistan but not in Libya. Where would Applebaum take the new organization, and why would its members want to follow?
It’s time that NATO had a better-coordinated cyberdefense and began to think more deeply about information warfare.
Perhaps, but (as with Applebaum's proposal to reduce the number of speeches at NATO summits) that's not something that cannot be done within the existing framework.
It’s also time to face the fact that Russia may have already abandoned several post-Cold War arms treaties, including those covering medium-range missiles: If that’s the case, we need to abandon them, too. Deterrence worked in the past, and it can work in the future.
I guess that makes it pretty clear, that Applebaum hopes to station foreign NATO forces and nuclear missiles in Eastern Europe, in the name of "deterrence". Note also, Applebaum's reference to intermediate-range missiles is to an arms treaty, not a treaty with NATO or with all of its key member states. The U.S. has a treaty with Russia that limits its development of intermediate range missiles, something that's not a huge concern to a nation unreachable by short-range missiles. Russia, on the other hand, sits in close proximity to several nuclear powers, including China, and those nations are developing intermediate range missiles that can reach Russia. The constraint on the U.S. is not as significant as Applebaum suggests, as France and the U.K. have not signed the INF treaty, and thus are unconstrained in the development of intermediate range ballistic missiles. Russia argues that its missiles are technically compliant with the the treaty.

It's interesting that instead of negotiating new treaties that might be more meaningful and better enforced in the 21st century, Applebaum would prefer to start a new arms race. It's also interesting that she sees treaties -- whether the NATO treaty or arms treaties with Russia -- as something a signatory can easily and lightly discard:
If the Western alliance, as currently constituted, no longer wants to defend itself, America can always leave.
Sometimes it's difficult to believe that Applebaum is married to the former defense minister of a NATO member state. Abrogation of a treaty is a big deal and, whatever issues may be involved in breaking treaties with Russia, when it comes to leaving NATO she's talking about potentially doing that to our allies.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Getting Paid to be Contrarian is One Thing....

Part of how you get commentary published, it seems, is coming at issues from an angle that at least some of your audience hasn't seen before. But sometimes, perhaps often, the angle tells us more about the person writing the commentary than about the issue they're addressing. Case in point, Megan McArdle's self-described counter-factual on why she would have preferred for Hillary Clinton to have won the 2008 election. The first counter-factual,
I think that Hillary Clinton would have been more cautious when dealing with Republicans, and therefore ultimately more successful in some ways. At the very least, she would not be facing the same level of vehement opposition in Congress.
Certainly there is no reason to believe that the Republicans would have opposed Hillary Clinton, ginned up fake controversies over her past or present actions, or ridiculed and sabotaged her health care reform. That is, if you ignore pretty much everything in Hillary Clinton's past, as it relates to the Republican Party. The party that is still wailing "Benghazi!" would have been deferential to Hillary Clinton? Really?
I think liberals really do not understand emotionally the extent to which the Tea Party was created by the Affordable Care Act and the feeling that its government was simply steamrolling it.
Except that the Tea Party movement did not grow out of healthcare reform. It grew out of the financial industry collapse and bail-out. It was carefully steered in the direction of healthcare reform through Republican demagoguery and strategic misinformation. There is absolutely no reason to believe that they would not have been led to oppose modest healthcare reform, or that their energies would not have been directed at other significant initiatives -- as has actually occurred with issues such as immigration reform.

(One suspects that McArdle has spent little if any time talking to actual liberals.)
From the Tea Party's perspective, you had an unpopular program that should have died in the same way, and for the same reasons, that Social Security privatization did: because sensible politicians saw that, no matter how ardently they and their base might desire it, this was out of step with what the majority of the country wanted (and no, you cannot rescue the polls by claiming that the only problem with the law was that it wasn’t liberal enough; when you dig down into what people mean when they say that, the idea that there was ever a majority or a plurality that was secretly in favor of Obamacare collapses).
Except... no. Social Security privatization died because the then-President's own party wouldn't get behind it. We're talking there about something that was easily recognized as benefiting a relative few, those privileged with "managing" our money, while creating significant risks for everybody else. While it's reasonable to say that you cannot sustain an argument that a "more liberal" plan would have been more popular, that question is moot for the same reason that the question of Social Security privatization is moot -- a "more liberal" plan would not have been voted into law. If you look at the actual content of the PPACA, other than the mandate (which we all know to be a necessary aspect of keeping private insurance companies on board while requiring them to insure people with pre-existing conditions) you'll find that the individual components of the bill are largely popular. You'll find that the most contentious aspects of the bill, such as "death panels", are Republican fabrications.
The rage was similar to what progressives felt as they watched George W. Bush push the country into a war in Iraq. That defined and animated the anti-war movement (which is why said movement collapsed when Bush left office, and not, say, when Bush agreed to a staged withdrawal of our forces).
For the most part, the anti-war movement collapsed when the war started. Whatever anti-war movement continued after that point was quite modest. Also, no, the rage and demonstrable ignorance of the Tea Party was nothing like what one saw in a typical anti-war protest, nor were Democratic politicians out, en masse, pushing misinformation or refusing to correct misinformation embraced by anti-war protesters.
Yes, those people would still have hated Republicans, even if there had been no Iraq War. But they would not have been as passionate, as organized or as powerful without it.
Who are "those people"? When I look at the Tea Party, I see a movement that has sent ripples through the Republican Party, has toppled incumbent politicians and had its own elected in their place, and has caused some of the most absurdly ignorant people to be elected to Congress since... I'm not sure when. The anti-war movement, by way of comparison, unsuccessfully advocated against the Iraq war and then... nothing? I'm not even sure where McArdle comes up with her canard that the anti-war protesters "hated Republicans", but hers seems to be a classic "hollow man" argument -- putting words into the mouths of "those people" in order to easily swat down an argument that few (if any) made, rather than having to address actual people and actual arguments. Counter-factual, indeed.
Liberals tend to write off this anger as racism, as irrational hatred of Barack Obama, or as perverse joy in denying health care to the poor, but at its root, it’s the simpler feeling that your country is making a mistake and you can’t stop it because the people in charge are ignoring the obvious.
It's not an "either, or". You (and by "you" I apparently mean, "anybody except McArdle") can recognize the actual racist statements and actions of people associated with the Tea Party, and can recognize the racism implicit in birtherism, the suggestion that President Obama is not a "full blooded" American, and the like, while also recognizing that the Tea Party is at its heart a fear-driven organization. It was quite obvious that when the Tea Party was screeching about death panels, or carrying around signs to the effect of, "Keep your government hands off of my Medicare", that they were afraid of change. It was also apparent that they were not approaching the issues in a rational manner, and that the monied interests and Republican politicians affiliated with the movement liked it that way.
Yes, a lot of money and energy was poured into the Tea Party by rich backers, but rich backers cannot create a grassroots campaign unless the underlying passion is there in the voters (paging Karl Rove and Crossroads). The Obama administration created that passion with Obamacare.
That, again, is nonsense. There's an element of truth to the notion that you can't astroturf your way into a massive grassroots movement, but what anybody but McArdle would have noticed is that the monied interests she mentions spotted an early opportunity to co-opt and direct the anger of the Tea Party movement. Those backers weren't interested in stopping the financial industry bailout. They were -- and remain -- interested in harming Obama's agenda. As with Mitch McConnell's stated goal, the priority was to try to make Obama a one-term president. They were not interested in educating Tea Party members about the issues -- to the contrary, they helped maintain a constant feed of misinformation. They would have been every bit as interested in harming Hillary Clinton's agenda.
I think that Hillary Clinton would have pulled back when Rahm Emanuel (or his counterfactual Clinton administration counterpart) told her that this was a political loser and she should drop it.
That may be true, but where McArdle sees that as a good thing I do not. Why not? Because unlike McArdle, who likely enjoys platinum quality employer-provided health benefits and sits on considerable family wealth, I actually needed to purchase insurance for my family. The PPACA permitted me to purchase insurance of a quality comparable to a good employer-sponsored plan at a fair price -- not necessarily at a cost savings over the cost of such a plan but with a more favorable pricing structure than what I had paid for COBRA coverage. Between the expiration of my COBRA coverage and the January 1 start date of the PPACA, I purchased a comparatively overpriced plan on the individual market, riddled with exclusions, and had to deal with the absurd arguments that insurance companies use to jack up premiums over "pre-existing conditions". For people not as lucky as McArdle, that's a big [Biden's Word] deal.
I’ve written before about how my Twitter feed filled up with comparisons to 1932 the night that Obama took the presidency, and it’s quite clear to me that the Obama administration shared what you might call delusions of FDR. It thought that it was in a transformative, historical moment where the normal rules of political caution didn’t apply. The administration was wrong, and the country paid for that.
So McArdle has looked down her nose at Obama from the start? And the country has "paid for" the president's pressing forward with the high-priority Democratic agenda item, healthcare reform, by actually getting healthcare reform? The horror!
That’s not to say that Republicans would have somehow been all kissy-kissy with Clinton -- they weren’t very nice to her husband, after all.
Not very nice.... That's quite a way to describe the constant attacks, inquisitorial approach to his background, and the use of impeachment as a political tool.
But I doubt she would have had the debt ceiling debacle or the deep gridlock of the last four years, because it was Obamacare that elected a fresh new class of deeply ideological Republicans who thought they were having their own transformative political movement, and they were willing to do massive damage to their party, their own political fortunes and, in my opinion, to the country in order to take a stand against “business as usual” -- business that included legislating or paying our bills.
Because using the debt ceiling as political theater, and shutting down the government, was something that the Republicans never dreamed of doing when Bill Clinton was President. That is, if we're again using the term "counter-factual" to mean, "ignoring indisputable fact." Further, if McArdle believes her own argument about the increasing polarization of the electorate, and was paying any attention to the likely outcome of the election, the difference is at most one of (slight) degree -- the odds of the Democrats holding the House were vanishingly small, and one would have expected the Republicans voted into formerly Democratic seats to be part of a new partisan wave. Predictably, McArdle offers no acknowledgement of the fact that the Democrats held the Senate, or the fact that a smaller Democratic loss in the House would not have changed the subsequent power dynamic in which House Republicans refuse not only to compromise, but refuse to legislate.

Besides, I thought McArdle was taking the position that the problem was healthcare reform, not the debt driven by the economic meltdown and financial industry bailout. Why does McArdle believe that the Tea Party would have ignored the issues that underlie their genesis, and become complacent in relation to the bail-out, but for healthcare reform? If they were so obsessed with healthcare reform, how is it that they (mistakenly?) voted into office those who chose to focus on the debt ceiling and force a government shut-down? For that matter, the Republican Party could have easily bypassed its relatively small number of Tea Party members and passed a funding bill, simply by allowing a funding bill to reach the floor -- so how is it that this isn't a problem inside the Republican Party, as opposed to one supposedly driven almost exclusively by the President's being Barack Obama instead of Hillary Clinton?
Of course, in my counterfactual, Hillary also probably wouldn’t have proposed ambitious health-care reform; she’d have done something more modest, like a Medicaid expansion.
More modest... except had McArdle been paying any attention to the Tea Party, she would have heard them complain about any program that directs money to the undeserving poor. She might have noticed the right-wing demagoguery over SCHIP, a program to insure children. She might have even noticed that Republican governors have gone out of their way -- to the point of litigating the issue to the Supreme Court -- to avoid accepting free money to expand Medicaid.
To my mind, however, that would have been a much better outcome for everyone. So there’s my counterfactual for the summer: If Hillary Clinton had won, Obamacare wouldn’t have happened, and Democrats -- and the country -- would be better off.
I'm sure that when McArdle and her husband offer their wealthy friends cocktails, perhaps with some sort of dipping sauce McArdle whips up herself in her Thermomix, that's the sort of observation that makes them chuckle. To notice how the PPACA helps actual people? That's beneath her notice. I don't personally believe that Hillary Clinton would have embraced McArdle's notion of modesty, or that she would have so easily folded on a more ambitious plan when faced with Republican opposition -- if I were to accept that counter-factual, I think we have to include the probability that Clinton would have been viewed within her own party as a failure, and would likely have faced a primary challenge after her first term. As Clinton would not have found that acceptable, it's reasonable to conclude that she would have found a way to stick to her guns.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Second-Guessing of Obama

Before reading Jackson Diehl's latest editorial, I had come to two basic opinions in relation to the current set of accusations against President Obama: First, that the accusation that the President is indecisive on issues of military intervention is largely a canard. When the choice is to intervene or to refrain from intervening, and the U.S. refrains from intervening, you don't need a clear statement from the President, "We're not intervening at this time" in order to figure things out. Second, that the people who were criticizing the President for not being sufficiently decisive were, in fact, the same people who would prefer that our nation err on the side of military intervention.

I do concede that the President's messaging can be wanting, a problem that has existed from the start of his Presidency, as even when nuance and cautious explanation is warranted it can be better for a President's pronouncements on a conflict to be clear and definitive. "We're not intervening in [Nation] at this time because, [brief explanation], but we leave the door open to future intervention if [contingency]" -- for example, "We're not intervening in Iraq at this time, as we believe that our support for the Iraqi government and military, as well as for the Kurds, is sufficient to hold back ISIL, but we will reconsider our position if ISIL continues to advance in Iraq," or, "While we hope that the Iraqi Army will be able to protect the Yazidi people with our continued support, we will call upon our allies and engage in direct military action if that is what becomes necessary to prevent genocide."

Reading Jackson Diehl's editorial, my first thought was, "I doubt that's what the President actually said" -- at least in context. Sometimes a president will make statements in a speech, or in response to a question at a press conference, that don't make much sense -- that can happen to anybody. But the words Diehl ascribes to the President, while using rather inflammatory adjectives, immediately struck me as having been stripped from their larger context,
"What I just find interesting is the degree to which this issue keeps on coming up, as if this was my decision."

These words, marrying petulance and implausibility, were spoken by President Obama when he was asked, shortly after the beginning of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, whether he regretted withdrawing all U.S. troops from the country during his first term. "That entire analysis is bogus and is wrong," was his startling answer.
Here's the actual exchange:
What I just find interesting is the degree to which this issue keeps on coming up, as if this was my decision. Under the previous administration, we had turned over the country to a sovereign, democratically elected Iraqi government. In order for us to maintain troops in Iraq, we needed the invitation of the Iraqi government and we needed assurances that our personnel would be immune from prosecution if, for example, they were protecting themselves and ended up getting in a firefight with Iraqis, that they wouldn’t be hauled before an Iraqi judicial system.

And the Iraqi government, based on its political considerations, in part because Iraqis were tired of a U.S. occupation, declined to provide us those assurances. And on that basis, we left. We had offered to leave additional troops. So when you hear people say, do you regret, Mr. President, not leaving more troops, that presupposes that I would have overridden this sovereign government that we had turned the keys back over to and said, you know what, you’re democratic, you’re sovereign, except if I decide that it’s good for you to keep 10,000 or 15,000 or 25,000 Marines in your country, you don’t have a choice -- which would have kind of run contrary to the entire argument we were making about turning over the country back to Iraqis, an argument not just made by me, but made by the previous administration.

So let’s just be clear: The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because the Iraqis were -- a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there, and politically they could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq.

Having said all that, if in fact the Iraqi government behaved the way it did over the last five, six years, where it failed to pass legislation that would reincorporate Sunnis and give them a sense of ownership; if it had targeted certain Sunni leaders and jailed them; if it had alienated some of the Sunni tribes that we had brought back in during the so-called Awakening that helped us turn the tide in 2006 -- if they had done all those things and we had had troops there, the country wouldn’t be holding together either. The only difference would be we’d have a bunch of troops on the ground that would be vulnerable. And however many troops we had, we would have to now be reinforcing, I’d have to be protecting them, and we’d have a much bigger job. And probably, we would end up having to go up again in terms of the number of grounds troops to make sure that those forces were not vulnerable.

So that entire analysis is bogus and is wrong. But it gets frequently peddled around here by folks who oftentimes are trying to defend previous policies that they themselves made.
Let me also add that I appreciate Tom Ricks' evolution on the question of a residual force -- that at first he thought it would have been desirable to keep a residual U.S. combat force in Iraq, but as the situation has worsened he came to realize that such a force would have been inadequate -- and that the U.S. would have been forced to choose between a significant deployment of additional forces or withdrawing from the conflict, neither of which would have been positive outcomes. Obama's statement inclues a similar analysis. Diehl is among those who continue to quibble over the decision to withdraw combat forces, a decision that the President correctly notes was in fact made by the prior administration and was forced by Iraq's refusal to agree to an acceptable status of forces agreement -- and while it may be true that the President didn't go all-out to twist Maliki's arm to allow combat forces to remain, even in hindsight that does not appear to have been a bad decision. Unless, that is, you would prefer that we now have 50,000 combat troops in Iraq, actively fighting on behalf of Maliki in a renewed civil war.

The analysis that the President stated was "bogus" was the absurd notion that keeping a residual combat force in Iraq would have prevented the nation from experiencing the problems that it has experienced as a result of its poor governance under Maliki. Diehl, to his discredit, purports that the President said that it was "bogus" that it was his decision not to try to force Maliki and Iraq to allow for the continued presence of combat forces, or to maintain combat troops in Iraq as a hostile force that was neither welcomed nor extended any legal protection by the (supposedly) sovereign government of Iraq.

Given that Diehl criticizes the Bush Administration for "resist[ing] the conclusion that his toppling of Saddam Hussein had been a mistake and the subsequent occupation was disastrously managed", I thought I would take a look for a column in which he apologized for his own cheerleading of that war and admitted his own mistakes. The closest I found was this,
The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq has prompted plenty of analysis of the mistakes made there, along with a few tendentious claims that “the same people” who supported war in Iraq are now pressing for U.S. intervention in Syria. I’m one of those people. So, to paraphrase the polemicists: Did I learn nothing from the last decade? Do I want to repeat the Iraq “fiasco”?
Diehl then argues vociferously for military intervention in Iraq because he believes it will be different than the result iof intervention in Syria, speculating, "As in the Balkans — or Libya — the limited use of U.S. airpower and collaboration with forces on the ground could have quickly put an end to the Assad regime 18 months ago, preventing 60,000 deaths and rise of al-Qaeda." Students of history might object, "But, even acknowledging that they helped, it was not actually the air strikes that turned things around in the Balkans, and the aftermath of toppling Qadaffi has destabilized the region and created a host of new security and humanitarian problems." Diehl similarly waxes poetic about "The Surge" and what it supposedly accomplished, despite the fact that the reality is far more complex, and that it was local outreach that helped calm the civil war much more than more boots on the ground. Diehl sneers, "Like the failed U.S. commanders who preceded Gen. David Petraeus, Obama argues that 'there’s no American military solution' in Iraq", as if what we're seeing is an entirely new civil war, and not a civil war that had its roots in prior ethnic conflicts -- not just the civil war that occurred under U.S. occupation, but a history of ethnic, religious and tribal rivalries that started well before Iraq was even a nation state.

This appears to be the answer to his second question, "Do I want to repeat the Iraq 'fiasco'?":
The problem here is not that advocates of the Iraq invasion have failed to learn its lessons. It is that opponents of that war, starting with Obama, have learned the wrong ones.
Frankly, that non-answer was foreshadowed by his use of scare quotes around the word "fiasco". There's nothing in his editorial that suggest that Diehl learned anything from the Iraq intervention, or that it has at all colored his apparent predisposition to shoot first and ask questions later. Although a year later he seems more willing to suggest that the Iraq invasion was "a mistake" for which others should take responsibility, I see no sign that he's reconsidered his own pro-war stance.

Diehl closes with this:
This is not to argue that Obama should dispatch hundreds of thousands of U.S. ground troops to the region. The point is that a doctrine whose first priority is avoiding U.S. engagement is bound to fail. The goal must be offensive: to defeat those forces that are destroying Iraq and Syria, from the Islamic State to the homicidal regime of Bashar al- Assad. That can be accomplished only with U.S. military and political leadership. And it will require Obama to accept the conclusion he still bitterly resists: that he was wrong.
So... Diehl wants the President to admit that he was "wrong" to not somehow force the presence of a continued combat force in Iraq, or to maintain such troops in the absence of a status of forces agreement? Yet he offers nothing to refute the President's expression that the presence of a combat force would not have rendered Maliki's government any more effective, or Ricks' concerns about an ultimate forced choice of "retreat or take sides and escalate" in the face of civil war?

Leaving aside for the moment that there's far more evidence of error by Diehl than by Obama, whether we're talking about Diehl's urging war in Iraq, his errors of history, or his misrepresentation of the President's statement, Diehl offers here an argument, not a valid conclusion. Diehl falls into the category of pundits who argue that if the President [did something] then we would be looking at an outcome that is better than what we are presently experiencing. This brand of pundit is awful at explaining what the President should have done, or why it would be expected to bring about a better outcome. Let's say that the President had followed Diehl's wish that he topple the Assad regime and assume that what followed would be more stable and more friendly to the west.

Should we recall that ISIL, the entity that moved into Iraq and has renewed that nation's civil war, was a powerful enemy of the Assad regime? Does Diehl truly believe that weaker entities in Syria would have been able to unite and stabilize the country and militarily defeat groups like ISIL? Why should we believe that the attacks Diehl desired would not have led to the same sort of destabilization and fragmentation that we saw in the former Yugoslavia, but with much more profound consequences for the region? In the same sort of military and humanitarian crises we've seen following the intervention in Libya? In the rise of ISIL as the dominant military and political force in Syria, with its tendrils extending into Lebanon and Iraq? Wherever you may find answers to questions of that sort, it won't be from Diehl.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Gerson Wants to Intervene in Syria, But Can't Explain How

When I read Michael Gerson complain that the United States hasn't done enough in Syria, I think he's being genuine. My problem with his columns is that they show an astonishing lack of thought about the subject, and a complete lack of understanding or appreciation for why most oppose the type of intervention he desires. If anything makes me question his sincerity, it's his dishonest characterization of the President's position:
When the rebellion was a broad, non-radical uprising — the dead in Caesar’s photos — President Obama did almost nothing to help. When radical groups gained momentum, it became an excuse for further inaction, because America didn’t want to create jihadists. We got the jihadists anyway, who are now causing regional havoc. At every stage, Obama defended his policy with false choices and flanking attacks on straw men: Any critics of his minimalism wanted Marines in Damascus. And when he eventually adopted the policy recommended by many of his critics — aid to the responsible rebels — it was very late.
Were Gerson to educate himself, he would become aware that the White House has attempted to identify, train and arm "responsible rebels" since 2012, and weapons and equipment have been provided for almost a year. Gerson works from the assumption that Syria is overflowing with easily identified U.S.-friendly rebels, with sufficient numbers and dedication to defeat all other factions in Syria, take control of the nation and turn it into a western-friendly state. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests something else, entirely. Perhaps Gerson thought this screening test was serious and workable? We're to believe that significant numbers of fighters can be armed, with little to no chance of serious mistakes?

Gerson wants to pretend that the most powerful factions fighting Assad arose in a vacuum, that groups like ISIS would scarcely exist had the U.S. poured arms into the region with little concern beyond a warlord's promise that he really liked the U.S., but there's never been a showing that Gerson's wish was anything more than a fantasy. You certainly won't find substantiation in anything Gerson has written.

Now Gerson complains that a genocide is occurring in Syria, and that the world must do something. Given that he mocks those who suggest that it would be necessary to dispatch a considerable force of ground troops into Syria to arrest the chaos and stop the bloodshed, it would be nice if he would tell us exactly how he proposes that we stop the civil war and its atrocities. He could explain why he rejects Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General Martin Dempsey's concern that "intervention would end up costing so much, the U.S. military would be unable to respond to crises in other parts of the world". As is par for the course for a Gerson column, those real-world concerns are simply ignored.

You know, it would be great if all of the world's problems were easy to solve. It would be great if all it took for a nation to become a stable democracy was the toppling of its tyrannical leader. It would be wonderful if it were cheap and easy to transform a nation, used to totalitarian rule, into a modern economy with progressive values and a desire for democracy. It would be great if the type of intervention Gerson wants would end the spilling of innocent blood, with no risk of creating a larger, longer or more violent war. But as much as Gerson isn't able to contemplate that such interventions aren't easy, cheap or bloodless -- a reflection not only of an inability to think things through but also to learn from his own past mistakes -- the real world is far more complex. Gerson simply isn't able to process that his eager desire to arm Syrian rebels could lead to any number of outcomes that would be worse for the region and its people than the dismal status quo. Why is Gerson so certain that leader who emerges from the rubble won't be the moral equivalent of Pol Pot? Why does he believe that U.S.-backed forces will do any better at hanging onto their weapons than the Iraqi army that abandoned its arms to ISIS?

Gerson should continue to advocate for the victims of the world, at least the ones he cares about. He should feel free to act as the nation's conscience. But when he wants the U.S. to contribute weapons, support and training to factions in a civil war, I think he owes it to his readers to explain exactly what intervention he proposes, how it can be safely accomplished and why we should believe that it is likely to result in a better outcome. If he cannot do that himself or after consultation with an expert, why should he expect to be taken seriously?

Obama Does Understand War, Which is Perhaps Why He is Vilified by Warmongers

Eliot Cohen whines in the Washington Post,
Abraham Lincoln hated war as much as Barack Obama does. He saw so much more of it firsthand, lost friends in it and waged it on an immensely vaster scale than Obama has. And yet, almost exactly 150 years ago (Aug. 17, 1864, to be precise), he wrote this to the squat, stolid general besieging the town of Petersburg, south of Richmond: “I have seen your dispatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bull-dog gripe, and chew & choke, as much as possible.” And so Ulysses S. Grant persevered.

Therein lies the difference between Lincoln and Obama, which explains much of the wreckage that is U.S. foreign policy in Gaza and elsewhere today. Lincoln accepted war for what it is; Obama does not. The Gaza war is a humanitarian tragedy for Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire. It is also a barbaric conflict, as leaders of Hamas hide their fighters behind children while baiting their enemy to kill innocents. But first and foremost, it is a war, a mortal contest of wills between two governments and two societies.
In his eager regurgitation of propaganda against the Palestinian people, Cohen tells us more about himself than about the President. Hamas is vile enough without the endless justifications of the killing of Palestinian civilians, especially children. Perhaps that's Cohen's primary objection -- that people are looking at the morality and proportionality of the conflict, rather than buying into the "Anything goes" attitude that he would have us ascribe to Lincoln.

For all of his warmongering, Cohen can't bring himself to explain why the President is wrong, or what he should have done differently -- other than, perhaps, endorsing "more war" as a one-size-fits-all solution to world crises. Cohen complains that the President doesn't give rousing speeches that cause the nation to rally behind wars in nations like Iraq and Afghanistan, or to rally behind new wars in nations like Syria and Libya, never mind that the reason that the public doesn't presently rally behind wars is the pathetic incompetence of the administration he served. Cohen has conveniently forgotten that the President ran in part on an anti-war platform, his rejection of Bush's war of choice in Iraq, and that since McCain's defeat the nation at large has consistently rejected those who favor Cohen's views. Let the next Republican presidential candidate run on a promise of more and larger wars, regardless of their impact on the U.S. economy and let's see how far he gets.

The President is palpably smarter and more thoughtful than Cohen, which could explain part of the difference, but I suspect that the larger conflict is in fact that the President prefers to prevent or end wars, while Cohen is happy to play the role of the useful idiot.