Sense from Seattle

Common sense thoughts on life and current affairs by a Seattle area sexagenarian, drawing on personal experience, years of learning as a counselor to thousands of families and an innate passion for informed knowledge, to uniquely express sensible, thoughtful, honest and independent views.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Demise of Tyrants

The death of former American President Gerald Ford and the hanging of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein are much in the news, so I have been in no hurry to mention them here, until a different angle came to mind.

Ford was a good man with whose politics I almost totally disagreed. The most apolitical move Ford made was to pardon Nixon for Watergate related offenses soon after Ford became President on the Nixon resignation. That extremely unpopular pardon prevented Ford from being elected President in 1976. I actually agreed with Ford on the pardon; we needed to put Watergate behind us and not allow Nixon more air time. Let him sulk away in disgrace to be virtually ignored the rest of his life. I think the real mistake Ford made was deciding to run for the Presidency in 1976. In spite of the pardon, people appreciated him serving as caretaker President, but his decision to seek election just did not feel right. A caretaker should not hold onto the keys too long, only until the successor is elected. Ford retiring to golf and highly paid speech making was unimpressive, though he probably did not have much to offer as an elder statesman anyway.

The hanging of Saddam was a most political move. The weak Shia dominated Iraqi government did it to curry favor with its base. American authorities wanted the execution to happen as another mythological milestone, but also to silence a man who could have testified to much American assistance and head turning when Kurdish genocide was taking place. Burying the historical American role in support of Saddam is as important to American authorities as burying Saddam himself. Never mind that the world and the Kurds in particular will never get a chance to address in court the atrocities of the tyrant against the Kurds. If retribution is a proper reason for punishment, the Kurds have been denied.

The hanging of Saddam also raises one of the more exotic arguments against capital punishment. His co-defendants in the upcoming trials involving the atrocities against the Kurds will now be denied the opportunity to use Saddam as a witness in their defense, for example to prove that their actions were forced by Saddam under threat of death. Executing a vital defense witness under such circumstances seems a denial of justice.

So here is a little different angle of connection on the Ford and Hussein deaths - different ways for tyrants to end their lives. Ford’s pardon of Nixon forced that tyrant to live out his life in shame, which was good for the people and appropriately bad for Nixon. But the execution of Hussein, with him resolutely holding the Koran and without ever having to answer for his atrocities against the Kurds, was disrespectful to a significant portion of the Iraqi population and may enable Saddam’s death to be raised to mythic proportions by some Islamic terrorists and political opportunists.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Surging to Victory

I just did what our last Secretary of Defense did. I skimmed the Iraq Study Group Report. Rumsfeld and I did more than the President, who pretended to care about the report before the election and then dismissed it out of hand after.

Today in his last press conference of the year, Bush once again showed his inflexibility. He sees the situation in Iraq as simply a matter of continuing the “hard work” and maintaining our will to achieve “victory”. He is incapable of seeing any big picture other than a rosy portrait of a world of democratic nations fawning over the US as the Great Enabler. He just cannot grasp ideas of international relations and internal politics within other nations on any but the most elementary level. Bush admits we are not “winning” in Iraq, or maybe only that we are not winning right now, or maybe that we are not winning as fast as he thought we would, or at least that if we are not winning then we are not losing either. Does that mean we are tied? Yes, tied down, in a fiasco.

There is ridiculous talk of a “troop surge”, that will enable us to turn some undefined corner. Comparisons to Vietnam become more apt as the debacle continues. We had troop surges in Vietnam several times, in fact ten years straight thru 1969 until we had over half a million troops there. Then our troop numbers ebbed out over the next five years. During the 15 years we had troops in Vietnam, the South Vietnamese armed forces increased each year, though their four fold increase did not enable them to achieve victory.

The Iraq Study Group Report provides a systematic potpourri of recommendations which will not be followed by Bush, except possibly a few cherry picked ones, modified to suit his obscured vision. I expect during his last two years troop levels in Iraq will increase somewhat under the pretense of only being temporary. The American people clearly expressed their desire in November that we start seriously to end our military involvement in Iraq. The 2008 Presidential election will give us an opportunity to choose a new President, based in some large part on what the candidates present as their plan for getting our troops out of the Iraq mess.

Iraq differs from Vietnam in that the American people are much less inclined to be sucked into massive troop level escalations. In Vietnam we faced an enemy with a unified nationalistic purpose, but in Iraq there is great disunity among those who fight us. Eventually, we will ebb our troops from Iraq, probably in the first four years of our next Presidency, and Iraq will continue to be a disunified and tumultuous nation for many years to come.

The Vietnam War is still controversial to many Americans, and those who criticized it, like John Kerry, continue to pay a political price. As a Senator, Kerry voted for the resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq. There were 23 Senators who voted against that resolution. All were Democrats, except the one Independent, Jeffords from Vermont. Bush and the Republicans made the invasion of Iraq a partisan political litmus test of patriotism. Senators voting on the resolution in October, 2002, obviously had one eye on the election of the next month. Only 4 of the 34 Senators running for 2002 re-election voted no (under 12%). Twice as many (8) up for 2004 re-election voted no (23.5%), while of the 33 not up until 2006, 11 voted no (33%). Three of the four resolution opponents up for 2002 re-election won, and are still in the Senate, Durbin of Illinois, Levin of Michigan and Reed of Rhode Island. The fourth, Paul Wellstone of Minnesota was killed in a plane crash a couple weeks before the 2002 election.

A blogger has put together this helpful list of the Senators who opposed the Iraq resolution, including some very prescient quotes from statements in opposition by 13 of the 23. The entire quotes are worth reading, but for those in a hurry, here are the high points:

Akaka (HI)- no plan for occupation - objectives not made clear
Conrad (ND)- war last resort - pre-emptive attack make world more dangerous
Dayton (MN) - no imminent threat -for political advantage in election
Durbin (IL) - possession of weapons is not enough - we are a non-aggressor
Feingold (WI) - arguments for war don’t add up -shifting justifications
Jeffords (VT) - no immediate threat - put energy into non-proliferation work
Kennedy (MA) - exhaust alternatives on Iraq - pursue al Qaeda
Leahy (VT) - blank check - no facts
Levin (MI) - work through UN for long range security
Mikulski (MD) - need international legitimacy - also focus on al Qaeda
Reed (RI) - acting alone bad for many reasons
Stabenow (MI) - wrong approach will make a more dangerous world
Wyden (OR) - no clear and present threat.

None of the Senators who voted against the resolution was considered a viable candidate for the Presidency in 2004 or would be in 2008. Barach Obama was not in the Senate at the time of the resolution, but he publicly opposed it and is now considered a viable candidate if he chooses to run.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Power to the People

When we hear about power we usually think of political control or economic clout. But the windstorm that hit the Pacific Northwest last week reminded us of another meaning for that word. We live in a natural world, and nature has the ultimate power. We can produce our own power, by harnessing some small part of nature’s, such as generating electricity with a river dam or a windmill, but the power of natural phenomena can easily overwhelm us, as we saw with the Asian tsunami and with last week’s storm.

The fragility of our electrical grid, and especially of the overhead wires, was made abundantly clear by this storm, as was our utter dependence on the flow of the current. No electricity meant loss of heat via furnace fans, no house lights, refrigeration and freezer storage, computers, wireless phones, battery chargers, TV, radios (once the batteries failed), gasoline (since station pumps would not work), heat-o-lators for fireplaces, traffic signals, and some parts of our commercial food chain. Loss of heat was the biggest problem, since this is the coldest time of year.

Puget Sound Energy reported 700,000 people (about 70% of their customers) lost power in the storm, and as this is written four days after the storm, about 150,000 are still without power and may have to wait a few more days. The unprecedented impact of this storm on electrical service should prompt investigations into needed upgrades to prevent a recurrence. We live in a heavily treed part of the earth and rightfully appreciate its beauty and contributions to our health and well-being, but we need to do a better job of making our electrical system compatible with those arboreal treasures.

Gas powered generators were in high demand, joining wood smoke from fireplaces in contributing to pollution of the stagnant air following the storm. People mistakenly bringing generators and other fume producers indoors caused some medical problems and even a few deaths. Shelters did not seem to spring into action, and those that did were not put to much use, indicating an area open for improvement. The absence of input from Homeland Security and other emergency service agencies makes one wonder about our preparedness for a terrorist attack on our infrastructure.

With a few exceptions, such emergencies bring out some of our better behavior. Dark traffic lights become four way stops and most people are good about complying. Drivers seem a little more courteous in accommodating each other. Those fortunate enough to have kept their power willingly take in family and friends who lost it. We were in the lucky minority and opened our home for a few days to my son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren, enabling us to spend some close time that otherwise would have escaped us.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

New Faces at the UN

Kofi Annan is finishing his service as Secretary General of the United Nations. Annan went to college in the United States and is very friendly to our country. In his first five year term as Secretary General of the UN, he got along quite well with the Clinton Administration. He also won the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the UN “for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world”, which was well set out in historical context in the presentation speech by the Nobel Chairman. In his second term he had to contend with the hostile Bush II administration. Here is an interesting NPR interview about Annan with one of his biographers. Annan chose to give his farewell speech at the Truman Library in Missouri, in part as a reminder to Americans that the US was the driving force behind the creation of the UN, during the administration of Harry Truman.

Annan has been compared favorably with the revered second Secretary General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden. Hammarskjoldwas on his way to negotiate a cease fire to an armed conflict in Africa when his plane crashed and he was killed September 18, 1961. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961, having been nominated before his death. The Prize was accepted on his behalf after his death by the Swedish Ambassador to Norway.

The new Secretary General will be Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, who has 35 years of foreign service experience and enjoyed broad support in the UN to succeed Annan.

Here are the 8 holders of the office of Secretary General of the UN, with links to biographical articles at the UN and Wikipedia for those not discussed above:

1. Trygve Lie (Norway) 1946-1952
UN bio

2. Dag Hammarskjold (Sweden) 1953-1961

3. U Thant (Burma) 1961-1971
UN bio

4. Kurt Waldheim (Austria) 1972-1981
UN bio

5. Javier Perez de Cuellar (Peru) 1982-1991
UN bio

6. Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt) 1992-1996
UN bio

7. Kofi Annan (Ghana) 1997-2006
8. Ban Ki-moon (South Korea) 2007

The US has sent 29 Ambassadors to the UN. The last one, recess appointee John Bolton, now fortunately has resigned, knowing he would never be confirmed. Our first UN Ambassador, Edward Stettinius, was an industrialist who was part of the delegation that helped form the UN. In contrast to the people who have served as Secretary General, some of the US Ambassadors have had little or no diplomatic experience. Many have come from political backgrounds (Austin, Bush, Danforth, Lodge, Moynihan, Scranton, Stevenson and Young). Scali and Wiggins came from journalism backgrounds and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who just died, was an academic. One, Arthur Goldberg, made a terrible career move when he let President Johnson talk him into resigning from the US Supreme Court to take the UN post, a position he left 3 years later in conflict with LBJ over Vietnam. If Goldberg had kept his Court job, he could have remained on the Court an additional 25 years until his death in 1990.

The total UN Budget to run an organization of 191 nations and all its programs, including trying to maintain a peaceful world, is about $5 billion a year, with around 40% going to regular programs and 60% to special programs like particular peace keeping missions. The UN assessment to the United States costs each of us in America $1.42 a year for the regular UN budget, and $2.31 for the special missions. The US is almost a billion dollars in arrears to the UN; we always pay our assessments late, a practice started under the Reagan administration. For financial comparison, the War in Iraq has already cost each one of us about $1,200, enough to fund our UN assessment for over 300 years.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Wind and Water

Trying to keep life in balance is an ongoing concern for me, but lately it has seemed more of a struggle. Life doesn’t seem to be flowing as smoothly as I would prefer and I can’t quite put my finger on the reason.

In our Western Christian cultural philosophy we don’t have a healthy concept of balance. We celebrate celebrities who are out of balance, whose talents and lifestyles are often one-dimensional and without harmony. We usually approach the issues and topics of our own lives in a one-sided manner, using our energy, space and time in a “straightforward course” as if we were a horse wearing blinders (yes, the Bush fiasco in Iraq is a classic example). We disregard the reality that life does not always follow a straightforward, linear path, but is instead a journey offering many forks in the road. In fact we narrow our vision too much by using a land-based vision of life’s course. It would be better to consider life as traveling through wind and water, where there is no path to tread on foot, but instead there is an open expanse of sky and sea, with variable circulation and flow through which we navigate.

Eastern non-Christian (and especially the non-theistic) cultural philosophies seem to me to have better concepts of balancing life, such as working with the flow of energy through space and time, yin and yang, and Feng Shui (which means wind and water). The Eastern approach pays more attention to interconnectedness, inner and outer aspects, centering, simplifying, intention, taming and detaching from outcome.

My navigational concerns include: age and health; use of limited space, time and energy; and relating to other people. Age and health has become more of a concern as the calendar progresses. The darkness of winter contributes its annual blow to energy. Some progress has been made in the use of my space, with help from the book, “Wind and Water”, by Carole J. Hyder. Energy should increase as the daylight lengthens. Balancing the use of time remains my greatest challenge.

For non-vegetarian readers, I will close by putting some positive meat on the bones of this article. I think the American rejection of Republicans in the election was somewhat of an Eastern approach, recognizing our politics needed to be more balanced and centered. Our disastrous meddling in the Middle East may be teaching us that spreading the West too far produces unbalance. Awareness of the importance of protecting the environment may be rekindling (especially if the talk of opening the moon to building and commercialization is quickly squelched). We are becoming more aware of the dangers of forcing religious beliefs on those who choose not to share them. The serious talk of Hilary and Barach as Presidential prospects shows we are making progress against gender and racial discrimination. Popular support for a raise in the minimum wage shows we are concerned about economic polarization.