Sunday, December 30, 2012

Charlie Reed, CSU's Chancellor, Is Retiring

Charlie Reed, California State University's Chancellor for the last 15 years, is retiring.  I worked in the CSU's Office of the Chancellor, the system's administrative headquarters, throughout most of Charlie Reed's tenure and have my own perspective on his performance.

Reed had his faults but he was a strong leader with a particular dedication to students.  He fought hard in Sacramento for CSU, reached out to minority and other underserved communities in California, championed the development of processes to assist high school students to be better able to enter the CSU system, and demanded that his staff and campus presidents strive to increase graduation rates.  Perhaps above all, he guided the system through incredibly troubling times that resulted from a failing economy and weak politicians unwilling to make tough decisions and focus on higher education.   

Reed was unfairly blamed for tuition increases that flowed from diminishing state financial support and monumental budget cuts.  He clashed with the faculty union which refused to recognize that no one was getting salary increases but still wanted them for its own.  

Charlie failed to recognize the mistake in boosting executive pay, not for existing presidents whose salaries were frozen as was everyone else's but for new presidents he wanted to attract to lead CSU campuses.  Students blamed CSU for fee increases instead of turning their focus on Sacramento which consistently slashed CSU's budget.  

Charlie Reed was admittedly coarse at times, lacking the smoothness of his predecessor, Barry Munitz, but Reed was decisive, loyal to his staff, incredibly bright and quick to grasp complex issues, hard working, and, underneath a gruff exterior, a very caring person.

Good luck, Charlie.  Enjoy your well earned retirement. 

See Los Angeles Times article on Reed, with its own perspective on his legacy:
CSU Chancellor Charlie Reed Retires

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Is Hamas Provoking Israel?

a well written article about Hamas’ ambitions in its struggles with Fatah (PLA) and Israel and Hamas’ strategy in the current confrontation with Israel.

While there are many who believe Israel wants war because of an impending election, many others believe that Hamas is seeking to provoke Israel to go to war and very much wants Israel to respond as it has done, and even to invade.

At the time of the last war between Israel and Hezbollah, there was considerable information to suggest that Hezbollah wanted Israel to attack and invade southern Lebanon.

This is obviously a dangerous situation and not one likely to improve soon. Israel finds itself in a bit of a Catch-22.

Things are a bit more complex than they might appear at first blush.

My Partial Wish List re Famous People

(1) Nancy Pelosi should have stepped down after 2010 debacle; sorry she’s still House Democratic leader;

(2) Dick Morris should be fired by FoxNews;

(3) McCain ought to follow Lieberman’s lead and retire while he can still do it gracefully;

(4) Anderson Cooper should have focused on his daytime show which was cancelled as that was his strength;

(5) Rachel Maddow should return to old form and have on more guests including Republicans; enough with her constant chatter, the charm has worn off;

(6) Joe Scarborough should run again for Congress (and hopefully lose) and abandon his early morning show where he talks nonsense;

(7) Mitch McConnell should look himself in the mirror and realize he looks even worse smiling than he does straight-faced, and then retire;

(8) CNN should give Wolf Blitzer and John King special speech training to overcome monotone for Wolf and Gatling gun delivery for John;

(9) American public should come to realize Petraeus was no genius, that his counter-insurgency strategy leaned heavily on British strategy in Malaya in the 1950’s that some of us oldsters actually recall, and that his recent hijinks reflects dangerous hubris;

(10) Laker fans should rejoice that the team isn’t turning once again to Phil Jackson but rather moving on to something and someone new;

(11) Jerry Brown should cancel the bullet train and consider himself lucky that Proposition 30 passed;

(12) Chris Matthews, George Will, Brit Hume and Diane Sawyer ought to step aside and let younger voices move up and be heard; you’ve all faded considerably.

SORRY but this is only a partial list. There will be more later.

Originally posted on Nov. 15, 2012

Concerns About Nate Silver's Statistical Modeling & Obama's Ground Game

I was commenting to a Facebook friend who had posted about the failure of Romney’s ORCA ground game to get out the vote versus the success of Obama’s GORDON technology to track Obama-leaning voters when some of my concerns about all this somewhat crystallized.

In some ways, some developments in this campaign leave me a little concerned, in particular Nate Silver’s incredible ability to predict and the Obama campaign’s incredible ability to map (apparently named Gordon). Obviously the data is out there so it isn’t as if either is inventing data or corrupting the process. But that’s true when it comes to all of the tracking done by Google, our telephone companies, our ISPs and the like in this electronic/digital age and the challenges all this tracking, recording and storing poses to our personal privacy and, perhaps, our individual freedom. I, like many others, have become increasingly concerned about the ways things can be and are monitored, mapped, stored, retrieved and used to predict, manipulate, and the like.

I’d say I’m feeling some diffuse anxiety about all this, particularly as these techniques, approaches, strategies and the like will only become more prevalent.  I’m not a Luddite and I’m glad Obama won.  And, the use of sophisticated statistical modeling with respect to data already collected by others is different from collecting data in order to control, manipulate and mislead others.  But the increasing ability of organizations, including governments, to accumulate and aggregate all of this data is quite scary.

Originally posted on Nov. 10, 2012

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Need for Presidential Leadership

"We want you to lead, not as a liberal or a conservative, but as president of the United States of America," said John Boehner, R-Ohio, Speaker of the House of Representatives, on Wednesday, November 7, 2012, the day following Barack Obama’s reelection as President. "We want you to succeed. Let's challenge ourselves to find the common ground that has eluded us. Let's rise above the dysfunction and do the right thing together for our country."

I don’t know whether Boehner was being truly honest in his remarks as, in the same breathe, he expressly opposed a key Obama campaign pledge that would allow the Bush tax cuts to expire, and the tax rates in place during the Clinton years to apply, with respect to those Americans making more than $250,000 per year.  But I concur with Boehner’s expressed sentiments.

I voted for President Obama this Tuesday and contributed to his campaign, as I had done in 2008.  I am extremely pleased that he won reelection.  But I want him to adopt a somewhat different leadership style this time around.  I want him to lead openly, forcefully and directly, reaching compromises when they serve the national interest.

In his first term, President Obama too often sought to stay above the fray, letting Democratic leaders in the House and Senate do battle with Republican leaders to hash out the particulars of various bills and public policies.  This was true during the battle over the stimulus bill early in the President’s term, equally true during the fight over the Affordable Care Act, and repeated again during the pitched battle over increasing the debt ceiling.  President Obama had spoken favorably during the 2008 presidential campaign of former President Ronald Reagan’s approach to leadership by which he remained above the fray, stepping forward nearer the end to embrace a particular policy or piece of legislation.  And, indeed, Obama adopted this same approach.  In my view, it was and continues to be a failure. 

I believe that had Obama openly led the fight over healthcare reform from the outset rather than let Nancy Pelosi and others do much of the heavy lifting and fighting in the trenches, Obama would have been required to explain its terms far more clearly to the American people than was the case, and the enormous opposition to it might well not have materialized the way it did.  Instead, most Americans, myself included, did not understand the funding or other aspects and ramifications of Obama Care.  Many remain confused by its terms to this day.  I think Obama could have better promoted his stimulus bill at the outset of his presidency had he been in the lead using the bully pulpit at the time he was seeking its passage.  And I believe that the fight over raising the national debt ceiling might have been less harmful to the nation had Obama been more visible during the conflict. 

Obama was more visible in some instances involving domestic policy during his first term, such as the auto bailout, his executive order assisting young immigrants who were brought illegally into this country as children, and his change in position on same-sex marriage, and he benefited greatly from having adopted these policies.  As well, he was very active in providing leadership and very visible in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and that served him well, as it did those deeply affected by the storm.

If President Obama is going to have a successful second term, he must abandon his “above the fray” approach and provide open and direct leadership from the outset on major policy and political issues, domestic and international, including addressing what is now being called “avoiding the fiscal cliff.”  Abandoning his old style won’t be easy, as it seems to comport with his nature and personality. 

Indeed, I was a bit concerned to hear the President say that he looked forward to working with both political parties, in his remarks on Election Night.  Mr. President, you are the head of one of those parties!  Yes, you should and will need to work with the leaders, and rank and file, of your own political party. But his choice of language, reminiscent of his comments during his first term, suggests that he is above the parties and their conflicts.  He is not!  He heads the Democratic Party and must lead it and the nation.  

Nor will abandoning this “above the fray” approach assure a successful second term.  It won’t.  But, in my view, if he fails to step forward and provide more robust leadership now, he will not succeed in his second term.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Second Presidential Debate and What Obama Needed and Needs To Do

I thought the President won the second presidential debate on October 16, 2012.  But it certainly was no knock-out punch.  Romney did well, particularly in listing some of Obama’s promises at the outset of his presidency on how he would fix the economy and the deficit.  In my opinion, the President needed, and needs, to address two issues above all else: (1) his failure to realize a number of promises and predictions he made early in his presidency about economic growth and the deficit; and, (2) his plan for a second term.

I wish President Obama had responded directly to Romney’s allegations about the economy and Obama’s unrealized promises.  Knowing there are risks with whatever he says, in my view, Obama should have been prepared to admit that the economic crisis he inherited turned out to be far deeper and more pervasive than he and many economists initially thought it would be.  Obama’s initial optimism was misplaced and he should have conceded that, particularly because it wasn’t his fault.  The statistics show that the jobs being lost each month during the end of Bush’s term continued into Obama’s term, not because Obama had no answers but because the American economy doesn’t turn around on a dime.  He should also have noted that he sought bipartisanship to address the economic calamity but was met with a Republican Party already dedicated to defeating him for a second term and unwilling to compromise on almost anything.  Nonetheless, the President did institute a stimulus bill that helped create and save many jobs and under which Paul Ryan and many Republican Governors sought money to stimulate the economy of their locales and states.

As well, in my view, the President should have been willing to make broader comparisons between the Great Recession and the Great Depression, pointing out how long it took President Roosevelt and the nation to pull itself out of that catastrophe.  Obama should have shown that the recession Reagan encountered was small potatoes in terms of job losses, foreclosures, bank failures, the collapse of credit markets and the like compared to the Great Recession, and he should have noted that President Reagan raised taxes during his tenure in office, something Republicans including Romney and Ryan refuse to do.

The President also should have outlined in a clearer way his plan and vision for a second term.  He has articulated a number of his objectives but hasn't packaged them in a way that will lead pundits to get off his back and recognize that he has offered a vision of the future.  To be sure, when you are the incumbent you are not in the same position as your opponent.  You are not starting from scratch and you must embrace your own record but you must explain it as well.  The President has done much in his first term and a second term will build on his successes and seek to remedy those things that still need fixing.

The President has outlined his plans to continue to encourage an increase in manufacturing jobs in the United States, to change the tax code to encourage that and to alter tax provisions that currently encourage corporations to ship jobs overseas.  He has discussed an immigration policy that he quite rightly had to institute in part through executive order, granting a special temporary status to many young people who came to this country illegally when they were infants. He has discussed continuing to move the country toward energy independence through alternative energy sources and America's own energy in oil and natural gas as well as through clean coal.   And the President has talked about moving forward with education and re-education.  Obama pushed for the change in student loan funding that eliminated banks from the process that made incredible profits on the backs of students.  As well, his second term would also see the implementation of ObamaCare and he has begun, as he should have a long time ago, to underscore the benefits of his healthcare law.

The economy is continuing to improve, private sector jobs are returning and growing in number, consumer debt is down, unemployment is down, foreclosures are in decline.  The economy is beginning to move again.  He should explain this and how he will continue to work to encourage economic growth.

Unfortunately, the President has remained far too silent about the extent to which the Republican Party, particularly through its control of the House of Representatives, has stood as an obstacle to so much of his program.  Obama’s jobs bill stalled in Congress because of Republican opposition.  The Republicans refused to move forward on wide sweeping immigration reform.  Even Republicans like McCain stepped back from previous positions, making comprehensive reform not possible.  While the Democrats controlled both houses before the 2010 elections, the Republicans in the Senate used the filibuster, requiring a super-majority to pass anything, with abandon, thwarting the President and slowing economic growth.  Many economists believe that the stimulus bill was too timid and that further pump priming by the Federal Government was needed to jump start the economy mired in the Great Recession.  But Republicans opposed any of this, fought against raising the National Debt despite that previous Republican presidents had done so countless times, and undermined America's credit standard and economic recovery.

On the energy front, there is no reason that the President has remained silent on the BP oil disaster in the Gulf in explaining that he has been moving cautiously forward in licensing the use of public lands and other oil exploration.  That spill was a catastrophe of the first magnitude, extraordinarily costly, not merely in dollar terms but in human terms, to the Gulf and the entire nation.  The President should criticize the “drill baby drill” approach that is reflected in Romney's approach, including its new application to coal mining.  Obama needs to provide a balanced approach but not retreat from addressing legitimate environmental concerns.

These are matters the President should have addressed but there is still time.

The last presidential debate is on foreign policy.  Having sustained a bloody nose during the second debate regarding Obama’s reference to “acts of terror” immediately following the Benghazi attack, Romney will likely come charging back on Libya.  The President should be well-prepared to respond.  The Administration should have handled that incident better but it pales by comparison to Obama’s successes in foreign policy and failures by Republican predecessors.  As well, recently The New York Times has been reporting that there was a demonstration against the American made video in Benghazi and that the organized terrorist attack may have overlapped with that demonstration.  If that is true, President Obama needs to so indicate.  But let’s recall previous American tragedies, including the loss of over 250 Marines in Lebanon during President Reagan’s watch, after which he essentially cut and ran, withdrawing American troops rather than pressing forward.  As well, we all recall that the Bush Administration was given warnings of some treacherous al-Qaida plans prior to 9/11 that were not acted on.  Things happen around the world.  It’s important that the President put Benghazi into perspective.

Obama has earned a second term and I support him.  Mr. President, congratulations on your energetic performance at the second debate.  But it’s important that you continue to persevere and I strongly recommend you implement at least a few of the points I’ve outlined above.

Friday, September 14, 2012

America's Response to the Arab Spring

Anyone who thought the Arab Spring would bring peace, tranquility and pluralist democracy to the Arab world was, at best, misinformed.  For decades, many Arab states had been ruled by autocratic if not dictatorial regimes whose origins can be traced to an earlier period dominated by ideologies of nationalism, Communism, and secularism.  Domestic opposition to these regimes had coalesced around Islamic organizations and Islamists had long been targeted for repression.  Even in autocratic regimes built upon tribal, dynastic and Islamic principles such as Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, opposition increasingly tended to be led by Islamic movements.  While secularists devoted to liberal democratic principles also often found themselves in opposition and subject to repression in Arab autocracies, they tended not to be the strongest opposition.

Hence, the Arab Spring has unleashed an Islamic reawakening in the Arab world.  Despite a misplaced belief by some that “free” elections in Arab states would result in the triumph of secularists devoted to liberal or pluralist democracy, electoral victories have gone to Islamist parties.  This has been most visible in the two countries that led the uprisings, Tunisia and Egypt.  In Tunisia, the Nahda party is in control of the government.  It is a moderate Islamist party, at least when compared to the more extreme Salafists.  In Egypt, the Moslem Brotherhood triumphed at the polls.  The Moslem Brotherhood has a long history as an extreme fundamentalist Islamic organization strongly opposed to the dissemination of Western values, secular regimes, and Israel.  Time will tell whether its political leadership, reflected in Egypt’s President Morsi, will adopt more pragmatic moderation now that it is actually in power.  In any case, these new regimes reflect the re-emergence of Islam as the dominant political ideology, and not merely religion, in the Arab world after decades of secularist rule in much of the region.

The United States has sought to move with caution during the Arab Spring.  While American policy has long advocated democracy, it has also not surprisingly favored support for pro-Western regimes regardless of their political stripe.  Hence, the United States long supported Egypt’s Mubarak, a secular military dictator who repressed Islamic fundamentalists and others but maintained peace with Israel.  The United States has also long supported the traditional regimes in Saudi Arabia and the Arab emirates despite their autocratic structures given their pro-Western foreign policies.

The United States did not foment the Arab Spring.  With its eruption, in Tunisia, then Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and now Syria, the United States has sought to find a balance between, on the one hand, supporting Arab efforts to cast aside dictatorial regimes in favor of open elections and political movements with considerable popular support, and, on the other hand, maintaining friendly relations with autocratic Arab regimes that remain pro-Western.  Where the more traditional Arab regimes have succeeded in maintaining stability and not succumbing to the Arab Spring, the United States has moved carefully in continuing to lend its support while gently nudging their autocratic leaders to make concessions toward opposition groups in order to avoid instability.  These include Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Jordan.  But where autocrats have been successfully challenged in the streets, such as in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the United States has sought to develop friendly relations with the newly emergent Islamist forces.

It is easy to criticize the Obama Administration for purportedly not showing stronger leadership during this incredible period of flux in the Arab world but such criticism is misplaced.  Some American political leaders were highly critical of Obama for not standing behind Mubarak, clearly a pro-American dictator, as his regime began to crumble.  But even his own military comrades saw the writing on the wall as popular opposition grew and grew and ultimately the military moved against him if only to preserve its position of power.  Surely had Obama remained steadfast in support of Mubarak and against the popular revolution, America would not have succeeded in “saving” Mubarak and it would have found itself in an untenable position vis-à-vis Egypt. In Tunisia, the first country to overthrow its dictator, there was little support for the crumbling regime.  The United States wisely showed support for the overthrow of the dictator.  In Yemen, the United States appears to have sought to provide its good offices to assist the long serving leader in stepping down, in hopes that the succeeding regime would remain pro-American.

If some have been critical of Obama for not standing behind America’s Arab allies, others have been critical of him for not moving faster to support forces aligned against the old regimes.  This was most evident with respect to Libya, during the battle against Gaddafi, but is also evident more recently with respect to the civil war in Syria.  John McCain, the Republican candidate for President in 2008, was sharply critical of Obama for not leading the fight against Libya’s Gaddafi.  Obama wisely chose not to take the lead but, rather, provide important support in a more subdued way, looking toward American European allies to step forward.  As a result, Gaddafi was defeated and American influence with the Libyan government appears strong.  McCain has also criticized Obama for not getting involved in the Syrian civil war against Assad.  Obama has wisely not bowed to these criticisms.  He has moved cautiously vis-à-vis Syria, seeking to build a coalition to pressure the Assad regime and quietly provide arms to the opposition.

It is clear that a cautious, measured, balanced policy of the kind Obama is pursuing is required to cope with the Arab Spring and spinoff events.  It reflects wise public policy as well as the sentiments of most Americans.

The American electorate does not want further significant American military involvement in the Middle East or elsewhere.  Americans came to see the Iraq War as a huge mistake.  The United States was misled by its President into believing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and became immersed in a civil war pitting Sunnis against Shia with Kurds as still another party.  While supporters of the Iraq War claim that it resulted in a democratic state, that remains unclear.  The sectarian groups are still fighting fiercely amongst themselves both in political and military terms.  The emergence of a democratic regime, even a functioning pluralist political system, remains questionable.  Furthermore, as a result of the Iraq War, the current Shia dominated Baghdad regime is far friendlier to neighboring Shia Iran than suits American interests.  The continuing war in Afghanistan is trying the patience of most Americans.  While that war had widespread American support at the outset, it has become the longest war in American history, the Afghanistan regime seems incapable of assuming effective military control over the country (much as the South Vietnamese regime could not do during the Vietnam War) and most Americans are now eagerly awaiting America’s exit in 2014.  Polls suggest that Americans do not want to become militarily involved in Syria’s civil war.

As shown by the early results of the Arab uprisings, the regimes that have come to power may turn out to be far less friendly toward the United States and its allies than the regimes that were overthrown.  Hence, while continuing American support for the dictators would have been a mistake given their tenuous holds on power, unabashed support for the popular uprisings and the Islamist leaders and parties who have come to power might have been and may be a mistake as well.  The new Egyptian regime is dominated by the Moslem Brotherhood, which, as noted, has historically been a very anti-Western organization that has denounced Egypt’s treaty with Israel as well as the dissemination of Western values in the Islamic world.  The opposition to Syria’s Assad family is led by the majority Sunnis.  Their political orientation remains unclear as a unified opposition has yet to emerge.  While the United States should not keep its distance from this Sunni opposition, as America wants to exercise influence over the probable victors in the civil war, it needs to proceed with caution.  It is far too early to know where a new regime in Damascus will stand vis-à-vis the West, Russia, China, Israel and its neighbors.  Furthermore, American support for a particular group or organization in the Arab world often backfires as others paint those groups as too pro-Western or weak on fighting for the Palestinians.  Effective diplomacy requires subtlety, something many Republican politicians seem not to understand.  The Obama Administration has seemingly been successful thus far in cultivating good relations with the new regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen despite the latest terrorist attack in Libya and mass demonstrations elsewhere.

Critics of Obama have also focused on his treatment of Israel and its current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.  Republicans have long claimed that Obama has been an apologist toward the Arab world and Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president in 2012, has irresponsibly charged that Obama has thrown Israel under the bus.  Netanyahu, seemingly trying to take advantage of the American presidential elections to put pressure on Obama, recently claimed that Obama’s refusal to draw a bright red line in the sand beyond which Iran may not move without suffering military retaliation deprives the United States of any moral authority to restrain Israel in its actions toward Iran.

These charges are simply untrue. President Obama must walk a careful line in furthering American interests in the Middle East.  He has repeatedly pledged America’s steadfast support toward Israel.  At the same time, America has always had interests in the Arab world, both in the oil-rich kingdoms surrounding the Persian Gulf, and amongst the Arabs from the Fertile Crescent to North Africa, including Egypt.  Obama has sought to proceed in a cautious way to maintain support for Israel, nudge both the Palestinians and Israelis toward a resumption of peace negotiations, remain supportive of Arab regimes that, while not democratic, are pro-Western, and develop links with the new Arab regimes that have emerged from elections as a result of the Arab Spring.  This has been a juggling act of sorts and is quite a challenge.  It is easy for Obama’s critics to accuse him of not acting firmly enough in one or more of these areas but an effective foreign policy requires that America pursue its interests in all of these areas simultaneously.  Obama is doing so despite incredible obstacles.

The most recent crisis has involved demonstrations against American embassies and consulates in the Arab world following the airing of an inflammatory video on YouTube mocking Prophet Muhammad and a terrorist attack and killing of America’s ambassador to Libya on 9/11. Instead of supporting President Obama in a bipartisan manner during this period of unrest, Mitt Romney engaged in partisan politics, condemning a press release issued by the American Embassy in Egypt before any violence or breach of the Embassy’s wall had occurred that was intended to discourage violence by condemning the hate-filled YouTube video as an assault against religious tolerance.  Romney was heavily criticized even by many of his own party leaders for his misguided behavior.

Surely, America needs to proceed with strength but caution in response to the current unrest over the incendiary video and the terrorist attack in Libya.  Working with a friendly Libyan government, the United States must aggressively hunt down the terrorists who killed our Ambassador in Libya.  But as for the street demonstrations now occurring throughout many Arab and Moslem countries against the hateful video, the United States must proceed prudently. 

The Arab world is in turmoil and the United States will be making an enormous mistake to believe that it can control events just because it is the United States of America, the world’s predominant if only “super power.”  It does not further American interests to alienate the emerging Islamist governments in the Arab world who may be less friendly to us than their predecessor autocratic rulers.  We must seek to develop positive relations with them but this will not be an easy task.  Egypt is a particular challenge given the profound change from military dictatorship led by a secular, pro-Western leader, to an Islamist regime led by a prominent member of the Moslem Brotherhood.  But the United States needs to proceed with caution, using its influence as best it can and only using threats to withhold financial and military aid, let alone the actual deployment of American military force, sparingly.  These threats have some effectiveness but likely not as much as most Americans think they do.  

At the same time, the United States must make clear its expectations and act appropriately if foreign leaders fail to meet them.  Recently President Obama was asked whether Egypt was still an American ally in light of President Morsi’s tepid response to the breach of the American Embassy by Egyptian demonstrators.  Obama responded that he didn’t think Egypt was an ally although it was not an enemy.  While the United States drew back slightly from that pronouncement the next day in that Egypt is legally designated a major non-NATO ally, Obama’s message to Morsi was clear: that America will seek to accommodate these new Islamist regimes that have emerged at the ballot box but it will not forego America’s own interests or sit idly by while America’s interests, including the safety of its citizens, are undermined.

The ramifications of the Arab Spring are still unfolding.  Those who thought the popular uprisings would result in Western-style liberal or pluralist democracy were mistaken.  It has unleashed pent up popular sentiments deeply affected by and infused with Islam.  These sentiments reflect fundamentalist religious beliefs, historical sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia and among diverse ethnic communities, frustration over widespread poverty and unemployment, deep animosity toward Israel, and distrust of the West.  There is no deeply embedded pluralist democratic ethos in the Arab world so the development of democratic institutions will take some time.  The rise of new autocratic regimes before democracy takes root is certainly quite possible.

But the United States has weathered previous storms in the Arab world and the greater Middle East.  Egypt under Nasser was not an American ally.  Non-Arab Iran under the Shah was an American ally.  America tilted toward Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War.  The biggest threat decades ago to Western interests came not from Islamists but from radical secular Arab movements, sometimes allied with the Soviet Union.  Alliances come and go.  It often appears that “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” but not quite.

The United States must remain strong and resolute yet flexible and prudent.  In my judgment, that has been Obama’s approach.  Accommodations made by the United States to dynamic situations should not be seen as signs of weakness.  Rather, inflexibility and a belief that America can and will prevail in every situation through its exercise of military and/or economic might are doomed to failure.

These are uncertain times and often the most effective path forward is far from clear at the time decisions must be made.  President Obama has made mistakes.  But, overall, his policies toward the Arab Spring, Israel, the Middle East, and Iran, have been smart, wise, prudent, and in furtherance of America’s interests.

Friday, August 31, 2012

A Struggle in Tunisia After Revolution

Jeffrey Fleishman wrote a very interesting article in the August 31, 2012, Los Angeles Times on the struggle in Tunisia between moderate Islamists and secularists on the one side and Salafis, fundamentalist Islamists, on the other.  I commend it to you.  I have pasted it at the bottom of this blog.  Here is the hyperlink:,0,2582445.story

I commented to Jeffrey on his article as follows:


Thank you very much for keeping tabs on developments in Tunisia. ("Militant Islam rises in moderate Tunisia," Los Angeles Times, Aug 31, 2012.) While that country's struggles ignited the Arab Spring, it is a small nation and far more attention tends to be given to Egypt and now Syria.  But in many ways Tunisia has long been the vanguard of developments and "modernization" in the Arab world.

I lived in Tunisia for 14 months from Fall 1967 through the end of 1968 doing research as a graduate student at Princeton University.  I never completed my PhD thesis but I spent considerable time in Tunisia observing and researching the modernization process.  I was a political scientist and part of a group at Princeton studying political stability and authority patterns in a number of countries, most in Western Europe.  I have continued to follow developments in Tunisia as I developed a deep affection for its people, although I left academia long ago to become an attorney.

During my stay in Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba was the country's president.  He was a Western-influenced nationalist from the Sahel who sought to "liberate" the country from many Islamic traditions, including Ramadan.  He succeeded in many ways but not in others.  He repressed Islamists although most felt with a velvet glove rather than with an extremely harsh hand.  But neither he nor Zine el Abidine was able to sufficiently transform the society, in its economy and deep-seated traditions, to overcome the Salafis appeal.

As you chronicle well, this tension remains.  Whether Nahda is able to bridge the divide remains problematic.  The emergence of "political" Islam over the last decade has transformed the landscape throughout the Maghreb and the Middle East.  The secularism of the Arab nationalists of the 1950's, 1960's and thereafter, epitomized by Bourguiba, Nasser and Sadat, the Baathists, the leftist leadership in Algeria, and the opposition parties in Morocco, has faded or at least faces being overwhelmed by a renewed focus on Islam, whether as a moderate force or an extreme ideology.  I certainly hope that accommodations can be reached between the moderate Islamists and more secular groups in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Islamic world that will succeed in keeping the extremist fundamentalists at bay.  But, as you document, continued unemployment and rural poverty will feed unrest and make fundamentalist Islam more appealing to those most affected.

Thank you again for your fine reporting.



Tunisia democratic activists fear a tilt toward militant Islam

Fundamentalist Islamists in Tunisia try to exert influence on the country as it moves unsteadily toward democracy.

By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
4:41 PM PDT, August 30, 2012

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia — Bearded and sweaty, they pressed in, their faces shining in the shadow and light beneath billowing tunics hanging for sale outside a mosque. The sun edged higher. A veiled woman hurried past and a boy stepped closer to listen to men complain about no jobs in fields or factories, no water in thousands of homes.
"I didn't trust the old government and I don't trust the new one. They lie. I trust in another revolution," said Khalid Ahmedi, his disgust sharpening as shopkeepers slipped past him to pray. "The constitution must be based on the Koran and our prophet. I say to the enemies of Tunisia: We are the sons of Osama bin Laden."
In this town where a fruit seller set himself on fire and inspired uprisings that swept the Arab world, men quote scripture to ease the ills around them. Tunisia has been regarded as a model for its relatively smooth shift from generations of autocratic rule toward democracy. But even as the downfall of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali in 2011 revived political discourse, it roused deep-seated strands of puritanical Islam that are challenging civil freedoms.
The moderate Islamist Nahda party dominates a coalition government but is under pressure from Salafis and other fundamentalist Muslim groups to tilt the nation closer to sharia, or Islamic law. A proposed bill would protect "sacred values" and criminalize acts such as images and satire against religion. A draft constitution designates women, who make up about 25% of the constituent assembly and are among the most liberated in the Arab world, as complementary to men in family life.
"The extremists here are like the Ku Klux Klan in America," said Bayrem Kilani, a folk singer whose satirical lyrics have upset both Islamists and Ben Ali loyalists. "We have two ways to go now: the way of modern democracy or the way of medieval theocracy."
Art galleries have been firebombed and ransacked, film directors have been threatened, and a prominent Nahda member was assaulted by an extremist at a recent conference titled "Tolerance in Islam." The fervor echoes the passion of Salafis emerging in Egypt and other nations. But it appears more volatile in Tunisia, even though the population of ultraconservatives is significantly smaller.
What is unfolding here is yet another test of what will shape emerging governments in North Africa and the Middle East. The unresolved struggle between fundamentalist and moderate Islamists is the center of a larger debate with liberals and secularists over religion's influence on public life. It has been agitated by newly free societies that feel both the tug of the traditional and the allure of the contemporary.
"I think there may be a civil war," said Bochra Belhaj Hamida, a lawyer and human rights advocate. "Modern Islamists aren't in a hurry to change society, but the Salafis want to do it as quickly as possible. They're focused on Tunisia because of our advanced civil and women's rights. They want to win here to show the rest of the region."
Much of the puritanical wellspring emanates from rural outposts that for years swelled with hate for Ben Ali while dispatching militants to conflicts in Algeria, Iraq and other countries. Fearing that ultraconservatives will question its Islamic credentials, Nahda has done little to stem extremist tendencies. Secularists suggest Nahda is using Salafis to advance an agenda more radical than the party publicly acknowledges.
Nahda's popularity is slipping amid a high unemployment rate, discontent among youths, labor strikes and battles over religion. Tunisians are expected to vote in a referendum on the new constitution next year and, although the country is vibrant with open debate, there is a sense that the revolution has veered in the wrong direction.
The Islamists are "not strong enough to mention sharia in the constitution," said Motah Elwaar, a leftist. "But if they win the next election, they will change the laws."
The capital, Tunis, resonates with Islamist ethos and cosmopolitan flair as if competing personalities are vying for the future. Despite their disarray and infighting, liberals and secularists are strong in Tunis; a recent march to protect women's rights drew thousands into the main boulevard, modeled after a Paris street and bearing the vestiges of colonial rule.
Beyond the capital's ring road and the Mediterranean coast, where highways narrow and dry valleys widen, fields and olive groves stretch through the dust on the way to Sidi Bouzid. Poverty is rampant and young men, like Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit seller who set himself on fire in despair and touched off Tunisia's revolution in late 2010, stew in empty hours.
Down the street from Bouazizi's memorial — a statue of a fruit cart — the graffiti of revolt had turned into a sparse poetry of despair: "It's a shame they stole our revolution." Soldiers stood guard at the courthouse, where scores of dissidents are on trial for storming a government building. Young secularists seemed unfocused and unsure of how to make things better.
"There's no freedom of expression. No jobs," said Ali Abidi, a blogger. "The Islamists are sitting on the town. The police can't control them anymore. The Salafis don't like what I write. One of them told me, 'Your end is not going to be pretty.' But we just want our rights."
There was certainty in the voices around the mosque.
"We are Muslims. We trust only God," said Abdel Omri, a husky man with a full beard and skullcap shopping for sandals on the sidewalk. "We only use the government to get our ID cards. It has no bearing on our lives. We don't believe in man's democracy. God gave us democracy in the Koran. God accepts and God forbids. That is all."
Omri said he runs a telecommunications repair company and hires only fellow Salafis.
"I was liberal before," he said. "I didn't know my religion. The former regime made Islam disappear. But now I know my faith. I'm very happy. I converted two Christians to Islam not long ago."
Behind the mosque, in a row of shops, Ussayf Issaoni couldn't see beyond his rage: four children, high rent, water shortages, a hurting business, a failing government. He said the revolution that rose from these streets has forsaken him. New dangers, once held at bay, have moved closer.
"A young bearded Salafi was sitting in front of my store," said Issaoni, who owns a phone accessory shop. "I asked him to leave. A lot of my customers are girls and they might feel intimidated by him. He came back with his friends and they beat me. I was in the hospital for two weeks."
Ben Ali's security forces arrested thousands of Islamists accused of plotting to overthrow his government and export extremism across the Middle East and Europe. Younger militants were inspired by foreign Islamic fighters and by decades during which the government suppressed even moderate Islam and dispatched state-sanctioned preachers to mosques.
The Salafi groups that have emerged after years of being underground include those run by older ultraconservatives who, like their counterparts in Egypt, want a place in the new government. But younger Salafis are more militant and resistant to compromise, regarding secularists and liberals as Zionists and infidels. They speak of spiritual renewal.
"We follow the prophet. We try to change what you believe on the inside," said Mohamed Amim, sitting in a whitewashed mosque on a warm evening with his friends. "Our goal is not to change music and cinema, but to change the spirit."
Nahda and other moderate Islamist organizations have yet to ease the militant passions of a group that, although small, presents a threat to a fledgling government beset with deep economic problems.
"It will be very dangerous if we try to deny the Salafis a political say," said Abdel Cherif, a ranking Nahda member. "Our goal is to make them forget about weapons and conflict. We want them to participate in political life."

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Maureen Dowd Captures Obama's Flaws

While I remain an Obama supporter, I also retain many of the concerns about him I have expressed over the years in my blogs. I must say that Maureen Dowd has captured many of my concerns in her column and then some. Unfortunately, I am skeptical that Obama is at all able to change these profound personality traits and philosophical bents. Despite them, he's been a good President, faced with an intractable opposition and the worst economic times in 75 years, and I will vote for him again without hesitation.
As funnel clouds form over Washington, Obama still seems absorbed in his endless odyssey of self-discovery.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Chen Guangcheng to the United States

Looks like the Chinese Government permitted activist Chen Guangcheng to depart China for New York University. I hope that removes this as an issue in the American presidential campaign. I support human rights and our Government's efforts in support of human rights. By the same token, I was troubled that the plight of one activist in one repressive country threatened to become a political issue. In my view the United States cannot be put in the position of being some kind of guarantor of human rights throughout the globe and American politicians and other Americans should be criticized for trying to use the plight of activists around the globe as a domestic political football. That holds true, for me, whether the politician be Republican or Democrat. I'm sure some of you will disagree!

On Hush Puppies and Shoe Laces

Now when is the last time you changed shoe laces? Seemed like I used to do it often decades ago but seldom if ever anymore. Because of loafers? Or that shoes wear out sooner and fashions change? Or that, as an adult, I am more careful in handling my shoes? Whatever the reason, I had occasion this evening to want to change shoe laces in an ancient pair of Wolverine Hush Puppies that I haven't worn in a long time. 

Oh how I loved my Hush Puppies. I found the attached article in European Car from May 2011 that talks about the shoes' history with a photo of the very shoes I still have. Started in the late 1950's and died out but revived in the mid-1990's for a spell. Gone again. While I had some in the late 1950's my current pair likely dates from the mid-1990's! 

But this story is more about the laces than the shoes! I had a few pair of laces that I had never used but, not knowing where they were, I bought a pair at Ralph's Super Market the other day for $2.50. I found the laces I bought years ago this evening only to discover that a pair of laces purchased at Fedco (you remember Fedco don't you? Yesteryear's Costco) cost $0.37. The label was still attached. Yikes!! And one of my old pair of laces worked fine for the Hush Puppies. Like new again! Well, almost.❖

Hush Puppies - Icon

It’s supposed to be cats that have nine lives, not basset hounds. But in the world of iconic footwear, it seems anything is possible. Hush Puppies are among the highlights of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, as the author theorizes on how this once-popular but struggling brand achieved a fresh momentum thanks to a handful of New York City hipsters. 

The Hush Puppies brand is owned by the Wolverine Worldwide company that makes many kinds of work and recreational apparel. In 1994, when sales were in the sort of place not even people wearing worry free Scotchguarded suede shoes would step in, Wolverine was about to pull the plug. But some young Manhattanites started wearing them (no doubt with a sense of irony) around the East Village and Soho, getting them from small independent shops, and scouring vintage clothing stores. This trend caught the eye of a few street-wise designers, who incorporated the shoes into their new styles. 

Suddenly, from shipping 30,000 pairs a year, Hush Puppies were virtually scampering out the door at a rate of 430,000 pairs in 1995, four times that number in 1996 and even more in 1997. Hush Puppies took the prize for best accessory at the 1996 Council of Fashion Designers Awards. 

Not bad for a brand that has been around since 1958, just as society was becoming less buttoned-down and the demand for casual wear grew. The shoe itself came out of Victor Krause’s obsession with pigskin. As part of the family that owned Wolverine, Krause learned about tanning and believed pigskin could be a viable alternative to cowhide. Pigskin becomes soft and more flexible after tanning and is perfect for a comfortable leisure shoe.
As is so often the case with new ideas, Wolverine’s directors were less than enthusiastic, but his being a Krause probably helped. The new style might have been called Lasers, which was one name on the table, but sales manager James Gaylord (really) Muir came up with the canine appellation. 

Funny enough, Muir was near the Appalachians at the time, having dinner with a regional manager from the southeast. Part of the meal was hush puppies. As anyone familiar with Southern cuisine is aware, these are balls of fried corn dough that got their name by being thrown to quiet down barking dogs. As he heard this explanation, he also remembered that barking dogs was a slang term for aching feet. Cue light bulb going off over his head.
After registering the name as a trademark, the company bought the photograph of a basset hound that became the brand’s symbol (for only $50) and introduced its new product at the 1957 National Shoe Fair in Chicago to instant acclaim. By the middle of 1959, the first one million pairs had been sold. Soon they were seen on the feet of celebrities like Perry Como and Warren Beatty. Queen Elizabeth’s other half, Prince Philip, wore a pair on a visit to the United States. 

Those were the wonder years and they lasted long enough for Hush Puppies to become a recognized part of modern culture. However, despite being invited by President Mikhail Gorbachev to be the first American company to make and sell shoes in Russia, their subsequent popularity sank lower than a basset’s ears, until, quite by chance, a new generation embraced them. 

The second wave saw Kevin Spacey and Nicholas Cage wearing Hush Puppies to complement their tuxedos as they accepted their respective Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor statuettes at the 1996 Oscars ceremony. The late Princess Diana once ordered a special HP collection. 

But it isn’t just owners of barking dogs who give thank-you speeches for Hush Puppies. These shoes are responsible for so much more, albeit inadvertently. Back in 1965, the Rolling Stones were doing a gig in Sacramento, California. Keith Richards touched an ungrounded microphone while still holding his electric guitar, something that could easily have been fatal. Richards was knocked unconscious, but medics believe his was life was saved by the crepe soles of his Hush Puppies, a material chosen for comfort and lightness, but had an insulating effect here. A world without Honky Tonk Women, Brown Sugar and Tumbling Dice would have been all the poorer. Just think, one of the few things in this world capable of killing Keef was thwarted by a pair of cozy shoes.

By the middle of 1959, the first one hundred million pairs had been sold.