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Archive for August, 2019

Originally published on Vermont Digger on August 16, 2019

 

Recent repeated instances of terrorist mass murder in our country have made it mandatory that we enact legislation to fix the issue and ultimately save our society as we know it.

 

As a young boy, I was extremely interested in guns and hunting. Out of deference to that passion, my parents enrolled me in an NRA course in Vermont that taught youngsters marksmanship and gun safely.  That was one of the primary functions of the NRA in the l930s.

 

Later in my life, trading on the lessons learned from my NRA education and living mostly abroad, I participated in competitive skeet shooting and hunted all over the world, from Europe through the Middle East.  For years I had access to a goose blind on the Eastern shore of Maryland and took advantage of the wonderful dove hunting of northern Virginia.  I also served six years as a member of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Board. Throughout that period, I was a regular member of the NRA and in the 1960’s became a Life Member.

 

The focus of the NRA changed in 1975 after the passage of the Gun Control ‘Act of 1968 which created a system to federally license gun dealers and established restrictions on particular categories and classes of firearms.  At that point the NRA ceased being an organization that focused on sportsmen, hunters and target shooters.  It began to focus primarily on gun control issues. And that is where it is today.  The only major difference between the NRA today and its pre-1975 predecessor is that it has become incredibly wealthy and has gotten heavily involved in national politics – particularly those surrounding the Second Amendment of the Constitution and the election of Presidents and Members of Congress.

 

Stated succinctly, my interest in guns is in hunting rifles and shotguns.  During my perhaps overactive hunting days which pretty much ended when I turned 85, I had a double barrel, improved cylinder/modified choke 12 gauge shotgun for upland bird hunting; a full choke, 12 gauge automatic shotgun for waterfowl; a .22 caliber rifle for rabbits and a 30.06 rifle for deer, boar and other large animals.  Basically, that array of weapons covered just about any hunting situation you can imagine.  Guns and hunting have played a major positive role in my life.

 

For those reasons, I would be actively disinterested in any legislation that would take those rifles and shotguns away from me and I suspect there are literally millions of people in this country who share that view.

 

But we now have to deal with some new realities that did not exist fifty and more years ago.  We have people who seek to threaten much of our way of life.  Just try to imagine raising kids at a time when you would have to train them to deal with armed attacks on them in their places of worship, their shopping areas, their schools and who knows where else!  This new and horrendous reality has highlighted the wide existence of what are really military style weapons in our society.  It is perfectly legal for you to have a semi-automatic rifle that can fire a round as fast as you can pull the trigger and can be fitted with a cartridge holder that will give you 200 rounds!  The availability of these guns, of bump stocks and cartridge holders to just about anyone who wants to own one can turn anyone into a domestic terrorist.  Please don’t argue self-protection!  You don’t need 200 rounds for that.  A pistol or your hunting weapons will do that nicely.

 

Why are these guns available and why is their continued availability so fiercely defended by the NRA?  It is clear that the NRA decided years ago that to give in on any attempt whatsoever to control guns would soon lead to a total ban.  That view persists and we see it reflected in the NRA reminder to the White House this week that any (White House) action will anger his (the President’s) crucial base.  Clearly, the White House does what the NRA dictates.

 

Any move to control the environment that produces these mass murders is welcome, including background check and red flag legislation, but the only real solution lies elsewhere.  In a perfect world, we would ban all assault weapons and bump stocks, but if it’s OK to kill just a few people at a time but not to kill a large number, then the answer is clear – forget assault weapon and bump stock bans.

 

Ban high capacity magazines.  An assault weapon without a high capacity magazine simply can’t hack it for a committed mass murderer.

 

 

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Originally published in Vermont Digger on August 7, 2019

 

A completely fair and free election system is one of the most important elements in any true democracy.

The pressing question before us now is whether or not the Russians are involved in manipulating our election system. The long and the short of this matter is that the U.S. intelligence community (the combined collection and analytical power of all U.S. agencies involved in intelligence matters) has clearly shown that Russia meddled in our elections in 2016, that they are involved in that endeavor now, and most certainly will be involved in 2020. And it is crystal clear that they do it because their overarching goal is to weaken our democratic processes – a blow at the foundation of our democracy.

Our president has deluded himself into thinking that the issue of Russian interference in our elections is fiction. Not only does it challenge his feeble ego, implying that without it he might not have been elected, but Putin has told him it isn’t true. And he is clearly inclined to take Putin’s word ahead to the estimates of the entire U.S. intelligence community. But given his past actions, one has to wonder if President Trump has taken his stance in favor of the Russian position because he believes that, as in the case of 2016, continued Russian operations against our voting structure will increase his chances for reelection.

There always can come a time when our country is under threat from a real enemy. In this case, it is Russia. This is not the time for internal political wrangling. It is a time when our leaders have to look at the reality in a totally nonpartisan, nonpolitical way and act substantively to strengthen our voting system. Apparently, it will be expensive, but there is a strong bipartisan consensus that it can and should be done.

The key people against any proposed fix are President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The president can, of course, veto any legislation. McConnell’s role is far more complicated. It starts with the fact that he and his acolytes can block any proposed legislation that comes to the Senate for consideration. Up until now, they have blocked all such attempts, including five separate bipartisan efforts to strengthen the voting system which:

  • required internet companies to disclose purchasers of political ads, to identify foreign influence
    • eased cooperation between state election officials and federal intelligence agencies
    • imposed sanctions on any entity that attacks a U.S. election
    • proposed severe new sanctions on Russia for its cybercrimes
    • protect lawmakers from foreign cyberattacks.

In addition, proposed legislation was shot down that:

  • required paper backup ballots, and gave $600 million in election assistance to the states
    • required presidential campaigns to report to the FBI any offers of assistance from agents of foreign governments,
    • required campaigns to report to the FBI contributions by foreign nationals.

McConnell’s opposition is said to be founded on the basis of his long-held conviction that the federal government should not be in the business of telling the states how to run their elections. That is clearly a legitimate position for a conservative Republican senator to take, but in this case it is most unwise.

Not only are we truly vulnerable to further Russian attacks, but the intelligence community has made it clear that virtually any government or group in the world is capable of doing precisely what the Russians are now up to. It would seem pretty clear that U.S. politicians of any and all political persuasions should be willing if not eager to plug those holes against the potential operations of countries like China, Iran, Venezuela, etc.

Like much of our country’s infrastructure, our voting systems are in crumbling disarray. Every responsible election official agrees that paper back-up ballots, which now exist in only seven states, would go a long way toward bolstering the security of our system, as paperless systems are very vulnerable to hacking. In fact, one of our leading elections equipment manufacturers has said it is foolhardy to have paperless electronic voting systems as the primary voting device in any jurisdiction and has called on Congress to legislate the use of paper ballots and raise the security standards for voting machines.

In short, there seem to be no valid substantive reasons for not overhauling our voting system. All the “nays” seem to be political. Given the height of the stakes, it would seem insane that even our politically divided Congress is unwilling to fix the problem.

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Originally published in the Herald of Randolph on June 27, 2019

 

It is clear that there are powerful people both in the United States and in Iran who would like to force a real confrontation between our two countries. What is completely unclear is whether or not those hawks on both sides want a modified Cold War type confrontation, built perhaps on cyberwarfare, or an all-out military confrontation. What this situation, with all its incredibly profound dangers and possible disastrous outcomes, has done is once again prompt the question, “What is the United States doing in the Middle East and what precisely are our goals there?”

Americans tend to ethnocentrism. If something is good for us, it has to be good for everyone else. The problem here is that the Middle East is perhaps the most politically, ethnically, and religiously complicated geographic area on the face of the earth. It will not bend easily to amalgamation or regime change.

Let’s start with the year 634 AD when the Muslim prophet Mohammad died. Most of his followers (those who evolved as the Sunnis) wanted the Muslim community to choose his successor while a minority (those who became the Shia) favored Ali, Mohammad’s son in law, to be the new caliph. The Sunnis won and chose the first caliph, Abu Bakr. This simple disagreement became the single most divisive reality in the Middle East, with fewer than 250 million Shiites (10- 15% of all Muslims) pitted against the remaining 85-90% of Muslims, or 1.5 billion, who are Sunni.

Clearly, most of the Middle East is Sunni, while the Shia are concentrated in Iran and Iraq with significant minority populations in Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and India.

Iran is almost 100% Shia and is non-Arab at the same time. Their power in the region is contested by the Saudis who are Arab and Sunni. During the Cold War and in the spirit of winning without hot war, both the USSR and the USA sought to develop and maintain international relationships that strengthened themselves and weakened their enemies. Both sides had acolytes—ours largely in Western Europe, the Soviets’ in Eastern Europe. When either side seemed to be developing helpful acolytes around the world, the other side sought to disrupt the developing or ongoing relationships in question.

The same principle is in full force in the Middle East. Iran, definitely the minority player, sees it as critical to their survival, both as Shia and as non-Arab Indo-Europeans (Persians), to support and maintain all the Shia communities in the region. Hence their support of the Shia Alawite government in Syria, the Shia government in Iraq, the Shia in Lebanon, Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen. They are bonded together by their religious beliefs against the Sunni world led by Saudi Arabia.

Their support goes largely to paramilitary organizations like the Houthis, the Syrian rebels, and Hezbollah, all of which are fighting what are essentially paramilitary struggles. This has the unfortunate effect of allowing their enemies, the USA included, to label them as “terrorist” organizations and Iran as a “terrorist” government. If Iran supports terrorism, it must be bad. Thus, it plays emotionally on the minds of many who are concerned about the true forms of terrorism that threaten so many of us in the West.

Of course, the real issue between the US and Iran lies in the joint l953 American/British overthrow of Premier Mohammad Mossadegh, the only democratically elected leader the Iranians have ever had. That questionable act saw the reinstatement of the royal Pahlavi family in Iran and the immediate degradation of what democracy existed there. That lasted until the 1979 revolution which saw the Shah’s ouster and the installation of the regime that rules Iran today. With that history, it is really hard to figure out how they could possibly be favorably disposed toward the USA.

Complicated Factions

But the Sunni-Shia split does not end the issue. There are other matters that add to regional instability. Long established contradictions plague the region. We will examine just a few of the situations that make the design and implementation of foreign policy difficult at best.

With a population of 40 million spread out mostly over Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world that does not have a state of its own. They are designated “terrorists” by the Turkish government simply because any Kurdish state would include parts of Turkey. At the same time, they are integral to our policies in Syria where, with our support, they have been active combatants against ISIS, ultimately gaining control of much of northeastern Syria. This has deeply strained America’s relationship with Turkey, a longtime ally and NATO member.

ISIS was a product of the US invasion of Iraq which had a large majority of Shia, but which was controlled by Saddam Hussein and his fellow Sunnis. With the overthrow of Sunni rule and with support from Saudi Wahabbis, ISIS was created by the Iraqi Sunnis with the US and Iran as its primary enemies.

Saudi Arabia is the home of Wahabbism, which is a highly puritanical form of Sunni Islam. Combined with the wealth created by the sale of petroleum products, Saudi Wahabbis have long supported the most conservative movements in Islam, including some that we in the West would think of as terrorist organizations. Prior to his election as president, Trump said that “world’s biggest funder of terrorism” was Saudi Arabia.

Additional claims have alleged that the Saudis were a critical financial support base for al Qaida, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Toiba and other terrorist groups, including Hamas.

Whatever the facts, Saudi Arabia clearly undertakes activities and supports groups that add to the instability of the region. In addition, the dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and Saudi support of the violent Sunni coalition that fights against the Shia Houthi in Yemen, provide an additional look at the true nature of the country. None of that addresses the extraordinarily repressive rules that govern behavior in the homeland.

Americans have always supported the concept of a democratic, Jewish state. Under the current Israeli regime, the country has moved sharply to the right, building additional illegal settlements in the West Bank and thwarting any and all moves toward a two-state solution. The Trump administration has supported this newly conservative Israel through an ambassador who encourages Israeli expansion and through the move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem. The ambivalence of the situation can readily be seen when, during the 2006 war in Lebanon, the Saudis encouraged the Israelis to go ahead and hit Hezbullah!

One of the first things the Trump administration did in the Middle East was withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action governing Iranian nuclear activities that it had entered into under the Obama administration with Iran, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and Germany. Our withdrawal was followed by sanctions that have been devastating for the Iranian economy. Unbelievably, just now, having withdrawn from JCPOA, the Trump administration is demanding that Iran stick to its commitments thereto. Going back in history, Iran simply hates the USA and has for decades since we and the British engineered the overthrow of the Mossadegh regime. Curiously, the way things are shaping up right now, the Iraqi government, in effect created by the United States, will support fellow Shia Iran in its disagreements with the United States.

America’s deep contemporary involvement in the Middle East came as a result of 9/11. Presumably thinking that our invasion of Afghanistan to bring justice to Al Qaida and Osama bin Laden was not enough, we blundered into an additional war in Iraq. Sixteen years later, we are still there, involved in military matters across the region.

Our objectives would appear to be to severely limit Iran’s influence, to disrupt the operations of terrorist organizations, to guarantee Western access to oil and natural gas, and to increase the ability of national military establishments to defend their own territories. Finally, we are presumably interested in reducing instability in the region. In fact, we have supported Israeli expansion, supported an increasingly suspect Saudi Arabia, and brought ourselves to the brink of conflict with Iran.

One of Trump’s early goals, he said, was to get out of Afghanistan and the Middle East. In fact, he has just announced the impending dispatch of 1,000 additional troops to the region and has made moves that can only be viewed as increasing instability and the prospects for conflict.

We survived the Cold War for one basic reason. Policies and goals on both sides were consistent and therefore readable by the other side. There were very few misunderstandings and so, we only rarely approached open conflict.

What do we do today in the Middle East when our present administration is almost never consistent in what it says or does? How is it possible for both our old allies and our adversaries to evolve consistent goals and policies when faced with a totally ambiguous and unpredictable Unites States? That may work in New York real estate, but it is terribly dangerous in the conduct of foreign affairs where actual weapons, not just money, are involved.

Why should American militarily guarantee the continuing delivery of Saudi oil when we have an abundance recently discovered at home? Do we choose between Kurd and Turk, Sunni and Shia, Israeli and Arab, Persian and Arab, moderate and fundamentalist? If we do, precisely how do we go about it? Do we get back into the business of regime change? Do we impose military rule on these ancient antagonists?

All of this is sufficiently difficult in a predictable, consistent world, but when you are operating in a region where on-the-ground realities provide built-in conflict after conflict and, most importantly, where your own government’s policies are designed to be inconsistent, there is little hope for even the most rudimentary success—the avoidance of conflict. Under the scattered policies of the Trump administration, we are simply miles over our heads in the Middle East and might be far better off not to be involved at all.

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Originally published in the Herald of Randolph on May 9, 2019

 

It is sad to say that this country of ours is well populated with people and organizations that are often scofflaws and lawbreakers. On the gentler side of that group are those who are immoral and unprincipled, not necessarily illegal, in their dealings with their fellow Americans. On the other side there are many who see a route to greater riches as well as those who believe, not without reason, that the rules and regulations are often arbitrary and stand in the way of our economic progress.

Recognizing those unhappy realities, there are people here in America who are moved to create mechanisms to discourage the exploiters and protect the exploited. More often than not, true believers in honesty and integrity find their way into our government as the best medium for implementing their personal altruistic notions.

Unfortunately, those who do not share those beliefs are often attracted to the same regulatory government organizations. If your goal is to make it easier to exploit (or to make more money), where better can you reach it than in that place that is responsible for monitoring both the exploiters and the mechanisms used to protect those you wish to exploit?

So, for the advocates of both the exploited and the exploiters, the positions of maximum power where you can most successfully pursue your goals, lie inside the U.S. government. This is particularly true if the political party sharing your points of view controls the White House and has been instrumental in filling appointments to the federal bench, as is the case today.

The key is the establishment of rules and regulations. There is simply no viable organization of any kind, benevolent or not, that does not have rules and regulations for the behavior of its members. These rules and regulations are designed to control behaviors both of those who wish to exploit and those who wish to protect those most likely to be exploited.

Candidate Trump made it perfectly clear where he stood while running for office. He promised to cut the red tape, rules and regulations that affect the American economy. This would save money and stimulate the economy. It has been reported that the Trump administration has enacted 2.7 significant deregulatory actions for every significant regulatory one.

As of late April 2019, 30 U.S. government units ranging from the EPA to the White House experienced modifications in their rules and regulations. Areas of the economy affected were (in the order of the volume of change) environmental, finance, telecommunications, labor, health, transportation, education, agriculture and housing. Thirty-six rules and regulations had been repealed, 54 were in rulemaking, 13 delayed, 28 in effect and 7 unchanged.

The case of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) presents a good example of how these changes are being carried out. The CFPB is an agency responsible for consumer protection in the financial sector. The CFPB’s jurisdiction includes banks, credit unions, securities firms, payday lenders, mortgage servicing operations, foreclosure relief services, debt collectors and other financial companies operating in the United States. The CFPB was authorized by the Dodd-Frank legislation, passed in 2010 to protect Americans from predatory lenders. It recognized the significant negative role of lending organizations in causing the financial crisis of 2007-2008.

From its creation until 2017, the CFPB “has curtailed abusive debt collection practices, reformed mortgage lending, publicized and investigated hundreds of thousands of complaints from aggrieved customers of financial institutions, and extracted nearly $12 billion for 29 million consumers in refunds and canceled debts.” Not bad, unless you were one of the lenders.

Under the Trump administration, Mick Mulvaney, a longtime advocate of payday lenders and opponent of Dodd- Frank, was appointed to lead the CFPB.

On May 24, 2018, Trump signed into law further Congressional legislation exempting dozens of banks from the CFPB’s regulations.

At the EPA, the new managers appointed by Trump supervised the overturning of nine rules on air and emissions, water, chemicals and “other” and continued the process of overturning 17 additional rules and regulations in the same areas.

The realities here in the United States make rules and regulations a critical part of our environment. In their absence, questionable behaviors by, for example, lending institutions, contributed significantly to the financial meltdown of 2007-2008.

There is valid argument that past rules and regulations may have been curtailing economic growth. For that reason, there is every reason to modify them on a bipartisan basis, ensuring that all the involved equities get their say.

Given who we are, once again, with the continued, ongoing, pervasive, unilateral removal of those rules and regulations which control predatory lending behaviors, we can almost assuredly anticipate another national meltdown.

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Originally published in the Herald of Randolph on January 4 , 2019

 

U.S. Middle East foreign policy, suddenly unpredictable in the Trump era, is difficult to understand. In a strange way, U.S. pre-Trump policy was mandated when George W. Bush made the incredible mistake of invading Iraq.

If that mistake had not been made and if the US had followed the basic principle of not getting involved in the internecine struggles that have always plagued the Middle East, there would be no reason for us to have even entered Iraq or Syria or to have become involved in other ways in other places like Yemen and Africa.

The decision to invade Iraq has dictated implementation of much of the policy that we follow today. Why? Because that invasion and our subsequent policies have persuaded ISIS that we Americans are the main enemy. It seems likely that our decimation of ISIS, however temporary, will, on our withdrawal, result in the rebirth of ISIS and a renewed attack on all things American. The anti-ISIS policies that we have followed since our invasion of Iraq have guaranteed the creation of an implacable ISIS enemy.

In the absence of US troops on the ground supporting local forces, ISIS will likely regroup without too much difficulty and continue its struggle with us, their main enemy. In that context, much of the region, Afghanistan, for example, will again become sanctuaries for ISIS and other local terrorist organizations.

Under Trump policy we will vanish from the picture without any consultation with local governments. Those betrayed governments, facing terrorist rebirth, are likely to become more openly skeptical of America and less hostile to the terrorists. That will create an environment which will permit terrorist organizations to operate more freely against us and, if we believe what they have already said, to attack us here at home. Incidentally, they won’t be coming over the Mexican border.

When we withdraw from Syria, we will be sending a message that is not in our interest. Ditto Afghanistan, even though we invaded more understandably in retaliation for 9/11. The result ultimately will be the rebirth of ISIS. With us absent, there probably will be no counterbalance to that rebirth. Why should our many allies in the battle against ISIS, having been asked to participate by the United States, continue when we have abruptly and without consultation withdrawn unilaterally from that fray?

In fact, our withdrawal from the region will create all kinds of new problems. It is important here to understand that we have an image abroad that is the result of over 70 years of active involvement in world affairs. This is most emphatically true in the Middle East. That image is not always good. The 1953 Iran coup, our fervent support of Israel, our partiality to the Sunnis and our military involvement in the region have all effected diverse local views of us and our policies. The unilateral withdrawal of our troops will simply be the last straw for all those local governments that have supported our past presence in the region. We will have deserted them. Why should they support us any more on anything?

In that context, the result is likely to affect us almost anywhere in the world. How will the North and South Koreans react when they see us pulling unilaterally out of past commitments? For that matter, will our display of distain for those commitments affect our efforts to create and maintain constructive agreements with foreign governments elsewhere? What effect will it have on NATO when coupled with Trump’s highly negative past comments on that organization?

What will happen with Israel, with the Kurds?

We are following a bad policy, the continuing conduct of war, simply because over 15 years ago, we undertook a really bad policy, the invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately, the worst solution to ending that war will turn out to be Trump’s unilateral, uncoordinated decision to withdraw our troops. It will radically change our world. If any serious thought had been given to this matter, we almost certainly could have achieved the withdrawal without alienating our allies and inviting our own endangerment.

We are on the brink of entering a new world characterized by unpredictability and insecurity. What makes international relations possible? Predictability of oneself, one’s allies and one’s enemies has always minimized conflict, as was the case during the Cold War. When that predictability wanes, as it does when our president pulls his major international surprises, the world becomes a far more dangerous place.

We will be sending a dangerous message to the world as we withdraw unpredictably and unilaterally from the Middle East.

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