Monday, June 27, 2011

Much desired troop withdrawal from Afghanistan won’t be all happy endings

Withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will likely result in tragic outcomes, especially for women and children. But keeping U.S. forces there to prevent those problems would take many years, an unacceptable amount of resources and, in any event, would not, even then, guarantee success. That’s the bottom-line message to be taken from Congresswoman Niki Tsongas’ conversation this morning with the New England Council.

A member of the House Armed Services Committee, Tsongas has made several trips to Afghanistan. She spoke glowingly of the positive impact that the United States has had on women. Prisons have been upgraded so women, many of them locked up simply for fleeing domestic violence, don’t have to be separated from their children. Jail now offers a standard of living better than they had outside prison walls.

Tsongas visited a site near the Pakistan border where more than a thousand girls are getting a good education at a school we helped organize. The students there speak, in English, of wanting to become teachers and doctors. Moved by what she saw, Tsongas said we “can’t walk away from Afghan” women, but, in effect, she’s prepared to do just that.

She supports President Obama’s plan to draw down U.S. forces there, which will probably involve just such a walking away. In fact, Tsongas supports an even more aggressive rate of troop withdrawal. Asked about the warnings from General David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert Gates that even the President’s proposed draw-down creates undesirable risk, Tsongas explained that, despite those officials’ initial statements, both conceded in testimony that achieving the ends we might desire could take “forever” and that we can never do enough to bolster the fragility of Afghan society and government. Indeed, she added, "if we do everything right in Afghanistan but Pakistan doesn’t do its part, it's all for naught."

Also vulnerable are the national security forces we are training. Many of the Afghan recruits are just 16 or 17 years old. A quarter of those recruited leave every year. It’s a “revolving door,” making the fragility of the nation building even more apparent. Contrast those perilous gains to the lifelong impact on Americans injured in serving there, for whose care we will be paying for the rest of their lives.

Given the impossibility of “victory” in Afghanistan, the killing of Osama bin Laden provides an opportune moment to leave there. The successful mission in April shows that we can deal effectively in a more targeted strategy than placing tens of thousands of ground troops in harm’s way. The real problem today in Afghanistan is not Al Qaeda but the Taliban. Think about the girls school that so impressed Congresswoman Tsongas.

The late Sally Goodrich of North Adams started a school for girls in Afghanistan as a tribute to her son Peter, killed in the second plane to crash into the World Trade Center on 9/11. She raised $236,000 and got the school up and running, also supporting two other schools and an orphanage. She had no illusions about prospects for Afghanistan. Eventually, in 2009, the Taliban bombed the area and overran the school. Goodrich initially went to Afghanistan broken-hearted and quite probably, after the school’s early success, left there broken-hearted. (Sally herself succumbed to cancer last fall.)

As others have learned before we did, the sad truth is: no matter how long the U.S. stays in Afghanistan, the Taliban can wait us out. The American people are out of time, money and patience. President Obama is right: we need to do some nation building here on the home front, not thousands of miles away in a place that lacks the will to govern itself according to our rules of law, and where we never really defined what the end game was to be.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Whitey is evil incarnate, not Robin Hood

One Southie resident interviewed on television about Whitey Bulger’s capture shrugged, “he’s a mobster; everyone has to have a profession,” or words to that effect. Others remembered Whitey’s reputed largesse, leaving money with a priest so people would have a turkey on Thanksgiving or an overcoat in the winter. This is James “Whitey” Bulger’s mythology, and it’s just that – myth, distortion and an insult to the families of Bulger’s victims.

Admittedly, this is a great news story, and it’s a story sure to keep on giving as the judicial process unfolds. No movie, not even starring Jack Nicholson as Whitey, could be as compelling as this real-life drama. The Herald’s Peter Gelzinis captured the latest moment, when, prior to being escorted from the courtroom, Whitey flashed a twisted smile, which Gelzinis calls “an ice-cold grin, tinged with defiance and a kind of sinister glee,” probably not unlike the last view Whitey’s victims had of him before he killed them.

 I used to cover the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in Southie, especially during the late ‘70’s and ‘80’s. It was fun listening to politicians from all camps roasting each other, trying to match barbs with the rapier wit of host and emcee, Senate President Bill Bulger. The breakfasts stopped being fun when the jokes were about Whitey. This cruel beast was no laughing matter, and it was infuriating that politicians from Governor Weld on down made it so to ingratiate themselves with the powerful Senate president. [Remember,Weld was the crime-busting US Attorney at the same time the FBI was cutting deals with Whitey.]

The 19 specific individuals he is accused of killing are just some of his victims, who may number 80 or more. We’re talking shootings, strangling, cutting off fingertips and gouging out teeth to hide the victim’s identity, terrorizing, extortion, drug-running and heaven knows what else.

Whitey Bulger is a study in contradictions. His physical fitness and grandfatherly demeanor; the steely eyes of a killer. His much touted love of animals; his total disregard for the two-legged kind. His reported touch of senile dementia; his decades-long socio-pathology. The $800,000 stashed in the walls of his Santa Monica apartment; the fact that his apartment was rent-controlled. The millions he supposedly has hidden away, possibly in vaults in foreign countries; his request for a public defender. His status as the FBI’s most wanted killer; his unassuming posture as an unremarkable elderly citizen. His long history of unremitting evil; the utter banality of his capture.

Brother Bill went to the arraignment. What would the life of this super intelligent, powerful leader have been without the big brother he had? Will we ever know what he knew and when he knew it?

The Boston FBI has still not recovered its reputation from the deals some of its members made when Whitey was an informant for them. But now it has brought him in.

Southie has moved beyond Whitey according to every conceivable measure, tribal hatred, street crime, violence, terror, racism. One of the most thoughtful pieces reflecting on this was Jim Carroll’s in today’s Boston Globe.
Perhaps the trial will disgorge long-hidden secrets and, in the process, be a catharsis.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Obama’s real deficit problem is the lack of enthusiasm among his supporters

If President Obama loses his reelection bid in 2012, it may be because he has disappointed so many who had such high hopes for him in 2008. This surely is not true for a relative handful of individuals, who bundled campaign contributions and raised a lot of money for the President, and who were richly rewarded for their efforts.

This week, the Center for Public Integrity issued a report that 200 of those bundlers got posts in the administration, as ambassadors, key staff appointees, or members of influential advisory boards.
According to the report, 184 of 556, about a third, of Obama bundlers or their spouses got administration appointments. But four out of every five of the biggest bundlers (who raised more than half a million dollars) got “key administration posts.”

This, despite then-candidate Obama’s pledge to end this business-as-usual approach to politics. Clinton did it. Both Bushes did it, and Presidents before that. That Obama has kept pace with his oft criticized predecessors is disappointing. In fact, Obama’s catering to big donors is even greater than that of George W. Bush.

Nor should we be mollified by a White House statement that having donated $50,000 or raised/bundled $500,000 didn’t ensure such plum posts as the reward but that having contributed handsomely shouldn’t disqualify someone. How unbelievably lame. And how unbelievably na├»ve of us even to have believed things would change.

There are other reasons for Obama supporters to be disappointed. As Congressman Michael Capuano pointed out at this week’s New England Council breakfast, in Washington’s polarized environment, the President has not been an effective negotiator. When Obama couldn’t get the Republicans to agree to a budget that included restoring the Bush tax cuts to family earnings over $250,000, he should have gone for a $500,000 cutoff, or even $1 million, just to walk away with something that established the principle that we can’t afford to continue the Bush tax cuts if we want to curb the deficit. Obama’s failure to bargain tough on that issue weakens his position in the debt ceiling showdown.

Obama’s actions in Libya, in apparent violation of the War Powers Act, is another disappointment, highly evocative of past Presidential adventurism and surprising from a President who taught Constitutional law. As Capuano, who is one of those suing the President for not going to Congress for approval of our Libyan military involvement, avers, “No one person should have the power to take the country to war…..If you can do it in Libya, you can do it in China or Iran. If Obama can do it, any president can do it.”

The overwhelming part of Obama’s base, like Capuano, will not defect to a different candidate, but at this point there’s clearly an enthusiasm deficit. How much might be measured by this quarter’s financing by small donors. An enthusiasm deficit could also play out in reduced Democratic turnout in next year’s election, particularly in such battleground states as North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado and Florida. How much excitement gets revived for Obama may hinge on whom the GOP selects for its nominee, and that is far from clear.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Photos from Getty Images and Reuters

Friday, June 17, 2011

Lesson of DiMasi: we can’t always bet on the character of those who lead us

If there’s one thing to be learned from the sad demise of former House Speaker Sal DiMasi, it’s the need for transparency, doing the people’s business in the people view. If there’s one place it should be applied immediately, it’s in the dealings around casinos for Massachusetts that surely are going on behind closed doors.

There has been a lot of debate about the impact of casinos on our economy, the jobs they would generate, the revenues that would redound to the treasury. We’ve also heard dire warnings about how our quality of life would be affected, how business would be drawn away from proprietors of small enterprises, like restaurants and other entertainment venues, how casino gambling and accompanying slot machines (possibly at racetracks, called racinos) can mean crime, bankruptcy, domestic violence and suicide (not unlike heroin addiction).

Let’s for the moment willingly suspend our disbelief and accept that all the wonderful things touted by proponents will actually materialize, there’s still a lesson from the fall of DiMasi. Last year, disagreements over casinos between House Speaker Bob DeLeo and Governor Deval Patrick caused the legislative wheels to grind to a halt. This year, presumably to avoid that kind of debacle, the two branches are negotiating their differences behind closed doors.

But who’s in with them? Lobbyists for the casino industry? For Indian gaming? For the racetracks? For the labor unions? Who’s in there representing the public interest? Who's making sure that, as in the DiMasi case, the public is not deprived of "honest services" of our elected officials?

Perhaps transparency would shed light on what regulatory body is being designed to oversee, regulate and enforce rules for expanded gambling in the Commonwealth. Former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger decried “backroom dealing” in an interview with WBZ’s Jon Keller. He warns that we don’t have in place an appropriate mechanism to make sure that the promises being made for jobs and economic development actually occur. If there is to be a new regulatory body, who will be on it, what rules will they promulgate, how will they enforce them? Do we think that some of the problems that have happened in other states won’t happen here? Who besides the casino operators will benefit?
Whether we support or oppose casino gambling, we deserve answers to those questions in advance and a transparent process for making the plan.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

GOP Presidential field no more the “seven dwarfs” than the Dems in 1992

No matter how unimpressive a party’s candidates for President in the beginning, by fall of 2012 at least one of them will seem Presidential. The Democrats’ underwhelming field in 1992 yielded Bill Clinton, who was a successful, two-term President despite being impeached for sexual lies. The current crop of GOP candidates, who debated Monday night in New Hampshire, were all presentable for this stage of the process. There were no egregious errors. My sense: at the end of the day, both Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann came out as "winners."

Putative front-runner Romney made no mistakes, was composed, didn’t waver with supposed vulnerabilities, looked the part and, even if you disagree with him on one or another issue, didn’t offend. What’s more, the other candidates focused on Barack Obama’s short-comings rather than taking pot shots at Romney. Even Tim Pawlenty, who had the day before linked Romney care with Obama care, danced away from it in the debate. When the other candidates refused to fault Romney on his flip-flop on abortion, moderator John King got them to agree that “the case is closed” on the authenticity of his position. So Romney sailed through the evening, even disingenuously saying that any of the field would be better than Obama.  (Full disclosure: I like Romney personally. For years, he was a back-up panelist on my Five on Five program on WCVB-TV.)

Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, while sparkling with slogans and sound bites, was no less substantive than Rick Santorum or Pawlenty. Nowhere evident was the wild, even out-of-control Tea Party Caucus chairman or the person whose really dumb quotes have been rivaled only by Sarah Palin. And who knew that, in addition to being a Congresswoman and, formerly, a corporate tax attorney, she is mother of five and foster-mother of 23! She soared here because expectations were so low.

The others neither distinguished themselves nor embarrassed themselves. Pizza businessman Michael Cain had the least to recommend him, but no one is taking him seriously.

With some slight differences among them, all of the Republicans would create jobs by cutting taxes – especially corporate and capital gains - and regulation, as well as repeal Dodd-Frank and the EPA. None would have supported the bail-out for the auto industry, which may have saved over a million jobs and which is being paid back.

All would repeal Obama-care and, in varying degrees, introduce more market dynamics into Medicare. Most preferred the old “don’t ask; don’t tell” approach to gays in the military but would listen to the military before going back to it. Gay marriage would be a no-no for all, with Pawlenty, Romney, Gingrich and Bachmann favoring a Constitutional ban on it.

The consensus was that Obama had failed in growing the economy, controlling the growth in government and, but for the demise of Osama bin Laden, failed in foreign policy. Former Ambassador John Huntsman, who did not participate in the debate, no doubt will have more light to shed on the latter. With Independents able to take either ballot in the New Hampshire primary and no contest to lure them into the Democratic side (Remember Obama v. Clinton in '08), they could play in the GOP arena and provide surprising support for Huntsman.

This debate was too much to cover with too many candidates. Future debates should focus on particular issue areas, e.g., the economy, energy and the environment, foreign policy and so on. For now, though, the Republicans are off to a decent start.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Spare us all the Anthony Weiners, on both sides of the aisle.

Sleazy. Sordid. Tacky. Now, sick. In the wake of the revelation that Congressman Anthony Weiner had sexted a 17-year-old from Delaware, he announced he would take a leave of absence "to focus on becoming a better husband and healthier person." How do you treat undisciplined libido, narcissism, and insane risk-taking behavior?

This latest Weiner move represents what George Will calls “the medicalization of the crisis,” as in “I didn’t do it. My disease made me do it.”
There’s a long history of risky sexual behavior on both sides of the aisle, possibly related to the aphrodisiac of power and sense of entitlement that too many politicians develop. What we have seen in the Weiner scandal is disturbingly familiar: revelation (usually by media), denial, confession (usually with tears), apology and ultimately, for some, censure or resignation.

At least this time we were spared “the good wife” routine, in which the wronged missus stands by her man to help him uphold his reputation. Wife Huma Abedin, a key aide to Hillary Clinton, has been in Abu Dhabi travelling with the Secretary of State, and all eyes will be on her upon her return. But from a public perspective, whether she stands by him or gives him the boot doesn’t matter. The damage has been done.

Many scandal-mired politicians have come back, to be re-elected, to run for President, or to get lucrative television contracts. For renewal and redemption stories, we in Massachusetts need look no further than former Congressman Gerry Studds, Congressman Barney Frank, and certainly Senator Ted Kennedy. But part of their brands will always be defined by their transgressions – and how they responded when they were exposed. For today, at a time of unprecedented peril (two+ wars, the worse economic recession since the Great Depression, and jaw-dropping ideological polarization),  this story is about more than Anthony Weiner, how he has compromised his effectiveness in the public debate or what he has done to his family.

Media frenzy about the Weiner scandal has stopped the Democrats in their tracks and changed the conversation from Medicare, the debt ceiling, the federal budget and jobs to the Congressman’s peccadilloes. The story has hijacked the public agenda and confirmed our sense that we are, as former Republican speech writer Peggy Noonan put it, “in an era of public decadence.”

MA fifth district Congresswoman Niki Tsongas is distinguished among the MA delegation in calling for Weiner to resign. Others have said they don’t want to get ahead of a House Ethics Committee investigation. Maybe so. But Tsongas seems to understand that Weiner’s excess of testosterone has created terrible fallout for public discourse at a time of enormous challenges. And, if Weiner isn't concerned enough about these critical  issues to resign, then one hopes the census-driven redrawing of New York’s congressional districts will do the job for him.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Menino and business leaders in love fest

Can you say “Mayor for life?” That was the unspoken message of the love-in Wednesday when Mayor Tom Menino spoke to the Boston College CEO’s Club. He has been at the helm in the Hub for an unprecedented 18 years, and still, according to Weber Shandwick executive Micho Spring, who introduced him, has a 74 percent approval rating. Of Boston’s 600,000+ residents, fully half say they have met him personally. Clearly he loves his job, and the city seems to love him. Or so it seemed in the Wharf Room at the Boston Harbor Hotel, where the luncheon was held.

The metrics of Menino’s success seem are compelling : AAA bond rating. Population growth outpacing that of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco; third among cities in job growth; greatest expansion in housing stock since 1960; violent crime down by 20 percent; homicide down 50 percent over last year; 3rd in’s job markets index; $70 million in savings expected from new employee health insurance contract; extra payments paid to employee pension fund; significant reduction in high school drop-out rate; dead last in Wall Street Journal & Down Jones’s “misery index,” making Boston the least miserable city – and on and on and on, with Boston continuing to outperform its peers in many ways.

Especially celebratory were Menino’s remarks about the growth of his Innovation District  in the Seaport area, and its concomitant creation of companies and jobs, patents issued to Boston inventors, FDA approval of Vertex’ hepatitis drug and the Vertex move to the Innovation District. As captured by Tom Grillo in The Boston Herald,  he’s looking to bring venture capitalists into the district and expand opportunities for solar energy there.

With all the celebration, Menino remains 2400 jobs short of his program of summer jobs for youth, and he made a pitch for that. At the end, not only did he get a standing ovation, but the usually inquisitive CEO’s Club crowd didn’t bother to ask the Mayor any questions in the narrow Q & A window allowed. In the midst of such good cheer, might it have been unseemly?

It would have been helpful to hear Menino’s assessment of Memorial Day weekend’s holiday violence, especially in the Carson Beach area. What does it augur for the summer ahead, and what strategies does he have to deter and contain such incidents? How does he seek to resolve the conflicting jurisdictions of the Boston police and the staties? What about filling in the hole that used to be Filene’s basement, and what does he expect to achieve on “voluntary” expansion of PILOTs (Payments in lieu of taxes)?  Also, what about the litter that mars the city’s public gathering places?

The Boston Municipal Research Bureau’s Sam Tyler would have liked to hear how hard Menino will push for fundamental reform in the teachers' contract now being negotiated. The bargaining teams have been at the table for more than a year. Tyler wonders if the union starts to play hardball and talk strike, will the Mayor stand up for the Superintendent and demand significant contract change in the contract or settle for less?

There are many challenges to talk about. I don’t blame the Mayor for not going there. From his perspective, the event has to be considered a huge public relations success. For would-be questioners in the audience, who also care about the city’s future, it was a lost opportunity.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.