Saturday, December 22, 2018

Goodbye Syria and good riddance

President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of approximately 2,000 U.S. military personnel in Syria this week. An immediate withdrawal appears to have begun.  There also appears to be debate about whether U.S. air power might still be used within Syria to further U.S. limited objectives there.
When the Arab Spring erupted in Syria in 2010 the United States chose not to participate in the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad of Syria as he suppressed the uprising among his people.   President Obama did not want to become engaged in the web of Middle East tribal warfare.  He later erred in declaring red lines that he did not enforce, but he was right about not becoming engaged.

Later, in 2014, as ISIS grew and began to control territory in Iraq and Syria the U.S. position changed and President Obama advanced a military presence to confront the growth of ISIS under authority originally given President George Bush in 2001.  U.S. forces were deployed to Syria.  They also returned to Iraq for one purpose – to defeat ISIS.

A secondary effect of both the Syrian rebellion and the growth of ISIS was the creation of a refugee crisis as millions of Syrians fled to neighboring countries and Europe.  The instability created as far away as northern Europe by the Syrian fighting was further impetus for U.S. resolve in defeating ISIS.   Stabilize Syria and stop the flow.

President Trump campaigned on defeating ISIS and withdrawing forces from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  Almost immediately upon entering office he ordered a top to bottom review of the war with ISIS.   He then issued an Executive Order that is still classified secret but reportedly shifted decision-making to appropriate levels and stopped the whack-a-mole approach to chasing ISIS out of one location only to have them appear in another.  Instead, they would be destroyed where they were.
In short order, under the leadership of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the changes began showing results and ISIS was essentially defeated in little more than a year.  The president withheld decisions regarding withdrawals based on the advice of his cabinet, but now appears intent on moving forward on those promises.

ISIS is defeated in Syria and Iraq having lost nearly all the territory it previously held.  Yes, expect that it will raise its head again somewhere.   But the explicit mission is complete.   There is no Congressional or UN mandate to expand that mission to remove Bashir al-Assad, to eject the Russians and Iranians, or to fight our NATO ally Turkey to protect our Kurdish partners in Syria in their pursuit of an independent state.

For two decades the United States has been over-committed in the Middle East and Asia – the operational tempo endured by our forces has worn very thin both the equipment and the human beings who must meet those commitments.  It is time to pull out of not only Syria, but Iraq and Afghanistan as well.  This was part of the President’s mandate when elected in 2016.  He withheld fulfilling those promises based on the counsel of others.  He no longer sees their arguments as anything more than illegitimate mission creep that is contrary to the national interest.

Trump said this week, “Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever?”   He has said it all along and he has acted on it.  Many agree with him.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis, having served two years, submitted a letter of resignation this week effective in February.   The former Marine Corps general indicates in his letter of resignation that his views for the direction of the DoD are not consistent with President Donald Trump’s.  The differing views were well known, but the announcement seems to have been sparked by Trump’s decision to immediately withdraw from Syria.

Mattis places tremendous emphasis in his resignation letter on alliances and partnerships as part of the structure of American power.   In particular, he may perceive it as an abandoning of the Kurds.   No doubt Mattis (former Central Command Commander) has probably placed his own personal credibility on the line with the Kurds.   They have played a tremendous role in supporting U.S. objectives in Iraq (where we abandoned them after the first Persian Gulf War) and an even greater role in the Iraq War.

Senator Lindsey Graham has also criticized the President’s decision, expressing specifically his concerns about the Kurds as well.

The Kurds are always suspicious about U.S. reliability as a partner.  But they once again joined us and played a front row role in defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq.  Make no doubt about that.  Also, have no doubt that the Kurds, and other partners such as Arab and Syriac Christian militias that have supported U.S. objectives in Syria, face tremendous threats from Syrian government forces, Russia, and Turkey after a U.S. withdrawal.

The Kurds have been sturdy partners to the U.S.   They should be recognized and aided in any manner that does not conflict with other major U.S. interests.   Our interests are not fully aligned.
Kurds are a persecuted ethnic group that seeks to establish self-government and even an independent state of its own for its people.   Nearly 30 million Kurds are spread across Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, and Syria. 
Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States, views some organized Kurdish groups as terrorists.  The U.S. and Turkey both classify the PKK as a terrorist organization.  Turkey also classifies the YPG as a terrorist group, but the U.S. does not and has partnered with the group in its fight against ISIS.

One must place all of this in historical context.   At the end of World War I the Ottoman Empire was dismantled.   There was talk of creating a Kurdistan for the Kurds that basically would have encompassed about half of modern-day Turkey.   The leader of the Turkish people, Ataturk, warned the Allies that a bitter fight would ensue if this was attempted.   The War of Turkish Independence developed, extending fighting for two years after WWI.  The British suffered a great loss at the Battle of Gallipoli.  Greek forces that led the charge were routed.

The objective of U.S. involvement in Syria was to destroy ISIS.  That goal was achieved.  Those who seek to retain a presence in Syria see remaining as a means by which to prevent an ISIS resurgence and to use the presence to thwart the expansion of Iranian and Russian influence in the region.

That is a mission creep that the President is not willing to support.   There is no U.S. policy to remove Assad by force.  There is no U.S. policy to establish a Kurdish enclave in Syria contrary to the interests of a U.S. ally – Turkey.   There is no U.S. policy to remove forcibly Russia and Iran from Syria.  There is no policy to destroy Hezbollah in Syria. 

The Middle-East is a tangled web of historic animosity, ancient grudges and fanaticism.   The U.S. has been dragged into this web in Afghanistan and Iraq and now peripherally in Syria and Yemen.   There is tremendous disagreement about the efficacy of such actions.

Place the historical animosities within the context of a blatant struggle between Turkey and Saudi Arabia over who will lead the Middle East’s Sunnis and a concomitant struggle between Shiite Iran and the Sunnis over who will dominate the Middle East more generally.

The President appears to have decided that the never-ending engagements in Syria and probably Iraq and Afghanistan are no longer worth continuing.  Only time will tell if he is right.  His Secretary of Defense disagrees with him strongly and has resigned.

The Secretary of Defense is resigning after serving two years in the position.  That is not unusual.  President Barrack Obama had four Secretaries of Defense, each serving about two years.   President Obama fired General Mattis when he was Central Command Commander without as much as an email or phone call heads up.  Obama’s team did not like the general questioning their approach toward Iran as they secretly worked on a nuclear deal.  Fine, it was President Obama’s prerogative to fire him.  It was not the end of the world. 

What is important is the fact that President Trump is forcing a debate on the direction of U.S. national security strategy.   For decades hawks have been able to justify almost anything based on 9/11.   That time is rightfully coming to an end.   There are much bigger fish to fry.    Asymmetric cyber warfare is the greatest existential threat to the United States.  U.S. National Security Strategy and resources should shift to that very real and dangerous threat.

Seeking Economic Balance

A healthy economy is balanced.   A pendulum that is close to its settled point is most stable.   Frequent record high this and record low that are not good in the long term.  There are competing interests.   Balance is good.

After a decade of the extreme pendulum swing from the economic collapse of 2008-2009 to the record setting 2017-2018 the U.S. economy is settling into a comfortable position.   It will not last forever as there are many forces that will keep each of these trends in constant and sometimes contrary directions.

For now, this is a good place.  Contrary to the panic many incite about stock market corrections or political turmoil the overall economy is in good shape right now.

When one sees a 100% increase in a stock to which they have a high stake suddenly turn around and decrease 20%, it is not a catastrophe.   If one holds an S&P mutual fund that increased 45% in three years and a sudden decline of 8% occurs, it is not a catastrophe.    The fund is still up tremendously.

The Federal Reserve is doing its job seeking to break us from the teat of artificially low interest rates that helped us to recover from the disaster of 2008.  Their actions are prudent.   They should keep their heads out of the political turmoil and ignore Wall Street’s clamor as it is weaned.

To keep a level head on these matters I keep a personal table of economic activity you see here. I also do not watch any cable or network news as they make a big deal out of everything to incite your emotions.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Harvard case to end affirmative action?

An inflection point may be at hand.  For decades the U.S. Supreme Court has permitted the compromise of Constitutional equal protection rights to permit what can be broadly described as affirmative action.   The ongoing lawsuit by people of Asian ancestry against Harvard University’s admissions policies may well be the case that ends any consideration of race in education or employment.  If so, a broad social and political upheaval may occur as any form of race conscious government action is banned.

Students for Fair Admission (SFA) is pursuing a lawsuit against Harvard University contending that the admissions process discriminates against Americans of Asian descent contrary to the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Title VI bans discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion or national origin. Title VI, and the associated Title VII that bans discrimination in employment, flow from equal protection rights contained within the U.S. Constitution.

About 100 years ago Harvard ended its tradition of admitting students based strictly on academic performance in favor of a holistic method that considered elements such as personality and geography.  This shift originally occurred in response to a perceived over representation of Jewish students.   The change in policy reduced the percentage of Jewish students from nearly 30 percent to 10 percent in short order.

Regardless of how the current case concludes, it inevitably will be appealed and potentially wind its way to the Supreme Court.  If it does unfold in this manner the case may well settle definitively what has been a building trend in the court against compromising the equal protection rights of one group to address past wrongs inflicted on members of another group.
In the aftermath of the civil rights movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 major transforming actions were ordered.  Chief among them was the desegregation of schools.   The impact of the order was not immediately as fruitful as expected in correcting long standing issues.  People of all races were not comfortable with sending their children to different schools.  Some courts ordered busing and other actions to bring about integration. 

The law failed to integrate college campuses.   In response, many colleges began voluntary affirmative action to attempt to raise the very low or even non-existent presence of minorities on their campuses.   Many colleges basically implemented programs to raise the number of minorities by establishing quotas and target percentage goals.  Student applicants that were qualified but rejected brought legal suits against colleges that employed these methods.

Regents of the Univ of California v Bakke was a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case of primary significance in these suits.  The Court ruled in Bakke that there was a compelling state interest in promoting diversity in higher education.   The Court went to great lengths to state that race could be one of many considerations in building diversity but demanded strict scrutiny and narrow application.   It specifically ruled that quotas and any single consideration of race were unconstitutional.

This interpretation held sway with minor objection for many years and was reaffirmed in a 2003 case, Grutter v. Bollinger.  However, the Court is unsettled on this conflict with equal protection.  The roots of undoing affirmative action were clear in the non-majority decision in Bakke and the 5-4 decision of Grutter.   In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007) Chief Justice John Roberts said, ‘‘The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.’’

In Ricci v Destefano (2009) the Supreme Court ruled in favor of 20 New Haven firefighters that claimed discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 after the city declined to promote them despite their passing required tests.   The court ruled in their favor but did not address head on the conflict with equal protection.  Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in a concurring opinion said the Court “merely postpones the evil day on which the Court will have to confront the question: Whether, or to what extent, are the disparate-impact provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 consistent with the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection?”

The case of SFA v Harvard may well prove to be the case of reckoning on this issue.  In Grutter Justice Scalia said the college’s admissions policies, “show it to be a sham to cover a scheme of racially proportionate admissions.”  He would likely say the same of Harvard's policy of the 1920s and 2018.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his Grutter opinion, “the majority has placed its imprimatur on a practice that can only weaken the principle of equality embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Equal Protection Clause. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”

The current makeup of the court – now dominated by textualist and originalist judicial philosophy - may indicate the probability the Court will take up the issue on appeal of SFA v Harvard is high.   Its decision in such a case may be led by Justice Clarence Thomas.  Thomas has throughout his judicial career adamantly opposed race-based affirmative action.

A narrow decision may rule that any form of consideration of race in admissions to higher education is unconstitutional.    Broader decisions may extend that judgement to employment and may even overturn the Court’s past judgement that there is a compelling state interest to promote diversity.

In a society seemingly obsessed with identity and diversity one cannot doubt that such a decision will have major repercussions.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Supreme Court’s Politicization – can we fix it?

The Republic is in a bind.  The nation is divided almost evenly from left to right.   The division over a generation has grown worse and infected the Supreme Court of the United States.  After the present confirmation process is completed there must be an effort to find a way to end this politicization of the Supreme Court and ensure that it remains the legitimate arbiter of the Constitution.

Article III of the U.S. Constitution states the “judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court.”  Article II of the Constitution gives the President the power, “with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, … [to] appoint … Judges of the supreme Court.  The power imbued to the Supreme Court as the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution is uniquely American.
Before the Constitution was adopted there was great debate.  Alexander Hamilton wrote Federalist Paper No. 78 about the judicial power under the pen name Publius.  An opposing view was written in Brutus No. 15 by an unknown author.  Brutus’ overarching concern was that the Supreme Court, as ultimate authority of what the Constitution meant was unchecked due to its position and lifetime tenure of its members.  He said, “In short, they are independent of the people, of the legislature, and of every power under heaven. Men placed in this situation will generally soon feel themselves independent of heaven itself.”

Hamilton saw this state as a positive aspect of the Constitution.  He answered Brutus arguing that the independence and lifelong appointment would “secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws.”  He contended that the judiciary “will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution” because it held no power of the purse (Legislative) or the sword (Executive).

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Obituaries - a favorite read

OK, Ok, you might be questioning this somewhat off the path title on my blog.  But I love to read obituaries in the weekend newspapers.   In a time when we are so distracted with technology I recommend reading them to get a better perspective.

One of my favorite obituaries that remains firm in my mind was that of Maureen O’Donnell.  She passed away in Annandale, Virginia on February 20, 1989 at the young age of 58 of cancer.  She had suffered greatly in life – losing 4 of her 6 children to cystic fibrosis.   But that did not stop her.  She only channeled her love to her students at W.T. Woodson High School where she taught Latin.  She was viewed as both a mother and teacher by her students.

She was remembered as a “small woman infused with boundless energy, [who] built one of the nation's strongest high school Latin programs from scratch, inspiring hundreds of students not only to study a "dead" language but to revere such traits as honor, compassion and understanding.”  She was awarded with an honorary doctorate by Yale and as Virginia Teacher of the Year in 1982 for the program she created.

Friday, August 3, 2018

The workforce is doing well

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) today released its “Employment Situation Report” for July, 2018.   It is a very positive report that continues to reflect an improved workforce environment.
Workforce health is related to the overall health of the economy: Gross Domestic Product (GDP) reportedly increased 4.1% in the second quarter of this year – a high growth rate;   measures of business and consumer confidence are high;  wages may finally be rising in a tight labor market;  inflation is holding at about 2%; the stock market remains at very high levels.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Constitutional Education Opportunity – Kavanaugh Confirmation

The impending confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court promise once again to be an education bonanza for the American people – as long as Senators do not muck it up with too much partisan bickering.

The Supreme Court history can be broken down, according to Cass R. Sunstein’s “Unanimity and Disagreement on the Supreme Court” into two periods: 1800-1941 and 1941 to present.  The earlier period was one of great harmony with a very high rate of unanimous decisions and almost no dissenting opinions.  After 1941 there was a major shift to a Court that was less based on consensus and more like “nine separate law offices.”  Consenting opinions, dissents, and 5-4 decisions were far more common.