Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Wrong strategies lengthen wars

Three years and nine months: That's how long it took the United States and its allies to defeat the combined forces of Japan, Germany and Italy. That defeat was total and without doubt. Entire nations were laid waste. Military and civilian leaders were killed or brought to trial. Allied forces occupied the defeated countries and replaced the native leadership.

Ten years and counting: That's how long the Afghanistan war has raged. Eight years and counting: That's how long U.S. troops have been dying in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

What changed in 60 years to make our 21st century wars interminable, despite the enemy being a weak shadow of the power of Japan, Germany and Italy? The United States is fighting differently in Iraq and Afghanistan than it did in the 1940s. It's a different kind of war, an insurgency, and insurgencies are harder to suppress than massive armies and navies. It's a strategy that requires dividing the population between combatants and civilians — a distinction only perfunctorily attempted in World War II. In Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers and Marines are not just "killing the bad guys," they are trying to build governmental and cultural institutions that will lead to democratic reforms and self-rule.

Imagine what World War II would have been like if the Allies had fought Japan, Germany and Italy the way they have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. GIs would have worked with the Japanese population to engender democratic institutions. American money would have poured into Germany to support political parties to oppose the National Socialists. Italian-speaking Americans would have slipped into Italy to gather intelligence and to build political opposition to Mussolini's Fascists. There would have been no firebombing of Cologne, no Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

And the grandsons of those "Greatest Generation" soldiers would still be fighting and dying in Europe and the Pacific.

This comparison is not meant to suggest that the United States should lay waste to Iraq the way it did to the Ruhr Valley or that it unleash nuclear devastation in Afghanistan as it did in Japan. My suggestion is that military forces are not designed for "nation building," and wars are not meant to alter institutions or to initiate grassroots democracy. War is meant to demolish institutions, destroy power and subjugate a population. Attempting to use military power to transition a Medieval tribal culture into a 21st century liberal democracy is like trying to use a howitzer to drive a nail.

After a decade of war and the loss of thousands of lives, Iraq is still a corrupt, totalitarian, brutal, sectarian, divided country little changed since the first millennium, and Afghanistan is still a corrupt, totalitarian, brutal, class-based, misogynist culture that wants nothing to do with the 18th century, much less the 21st.

Nation building, counter-insurgency and all the other tactics are failures.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A musical promise at last fulfilled

Some eight or nine years ago, my wife and I discovered the music of jazz pianist/vocalist Diana Krall and quickly became such devoted fans (buying every one of her CDs) that we swore if she ever did a concert within a couple of hundred miles, we would go see it.

The time came last Thursday night at the Durham Performing Arts Center, and although Krall did not sing the sultry classics ("I've Got You Under My Skin," "Let's Fall in Love" or "'s Wonderful") we had fallen for, her performance did not disappoint. Accompanied for most of the show by a bass player, a drummer and electric guitarist Anthony Wilson, Krall never left the stage for about two hours as she interpreted familiar tunes and improvised jazz arrangements as charmingly as Miles Davis. She is an extraordinary pianist and has a vocal style that is soothing and alluring, but she showed off her jazz roots at the DPAC, giving each of her accompanists a chance to strut their stuff while she listened attentively or deftly accompanied on the Steinway. A couple of long, extended riffs left the audience entranced and wondering where the rhythm might lead.

Our seats were in the upper balcony, far above the stage, but the sight lines were good, and a pair of binoculars allowed me to see her well as she shuffled through sheet music and lines of lyrics on the piano and smiled while she chatted with fans in the expensive seats. The arena was filled, and the fans were knowledgeable, enthusiastic and appreciative.

With my wife, who bought the tickets as a late birthday gift for me, her sisters, stepmom and brother-in-law, it was a glorious evening that left us feeling sublimely fulfilled. I've punched one ticket on my bucket list.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The big surprise: Santorum is still in it

I never would have thought, watching the first GOP presidential debates last year, that Rick Santorum would still be around and now firmly positioned to take the party's nomination if front-runner Mitt Romney should falter. Had I been picking the early dropouts and the long-term survivors after that first debate, I would have placed Santorum in the former category, not the latter.

I would not have expected Santorum to still be around after Michelle Bachman, Tim Pawlenty and Herman Cain had all thrown in the towel. And I would not have guessed Newt Gingrich's staying power. Although Gingrich fancies himself a great debater whose supporters salivate at the prospect of putting their guy up against Barack Obama, I still see Gingrich differently. A smart guy, yes, but also a lecturing, condescending and sanctimonious guy. Those are not traits that endear candidates to voters. Just ask Al Gore.

Santorum's appeal and staying power surprises me. He has said impolitic, even outrageous things so many times that he should be long gone from the presidential field. His views on birth control, the role of women and defense policy are well outside the mainstream of American voters, but the GOP primary electorate keeps his hopes alive. Democratic strategists are probably hoping Santorum will surge past Romney and get the GOP nomination, thereby handing most women voters over to the Democrats.

I never would have thought that a man who lost his last re-election bid by 18 percentage points could possibly be a serious contender for his party's presidential nomination. Shows what I know.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

I-95 is a victim of discrimination

I can't say I've agreed often with U.S. Rep. Renee Elmers, the "accidental congresswoman" who won after Rep. Bob Etheridge was caught on tape putting a stranglehold on an impudent tea-party inquisitor. But Elmers has proposed a bill that would forbid the implementation of tolls on Interstate 95 in North Carolina, to which I can only say, "Hear, hear!"

Hearings are being held at various stops along the 182 miles of I-95 in North Carolina to gain public reaction to the proposal. Needless to say, few people come to these hearings and say, "Thank you for putting tolls on that highway! I can't wait to begin paying tolls!"

The aim of the tolls is to provide the billions needed to upgrade I-95, one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the state. If you've driven I-95, particularly the segment from Kenly to Lumberton, you know the meaning of "nerve-wracking." The lanes are narrow, and there are only two lanes in each direction for most of the way. Traffic is always heavy and can overwhelm the capacity of the highway. Improvements are needed, and the state has responded with a proposal to widen I-95 to six or more lanes for the length of North Carolina.

But to pay for that widening, the state wants to impose tolls that will charge every user of that stretch of interstate an additional fee, above the state and federal gasoline taxes the user is already paying. In a state with the highest gasoline taxes in the Southeast, that just doesn't seem right.

Proponents say tolls will collect user fees from out-of-state travelers and from truckers and others who fill up in South Carolina or Virginia, where gasoline taxes are lower. But most of the users of I-95 in North Carolina carry N.C. license plates, and they are already paying plenty — more than in neighboring states — for the use of that highway.

More importantly, placing tolls on I-95 amounts to rank discrimination against the most economically distressed portion of the state. Many of the counties through which I-95 passes — Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Harnett, Robeson — are among the poorest in the state. Many workers depend on I-95 to get to and from work because there is no work available locally. Tolls will create another economic barrier for these workers and for the region's recovery and economic well-being.

While state Department of Transportation officials have allowed I-95 deteriorate through neglect, the state has managed to find money to widen Interstate 85 from Durham to Greensboro and from Greensboro to Charlotte, and Interstate 40 from Raleigh through Winston-Salem. North Carolina also found the money to build I-485 around Charlotte, an I-85/40 bypass around Greensboro, the I-40 bypass around Winston-Salem, the I-540 bypass (northern half) around Raleigh and the I-240 bypass around Asheville. It is even turning U.S. 220 and U.S. 74 into an interstate running from Virginia through Greensboro to Wilmington, all while I-95 was crumbling with neglect.

Such favoritism is patently unfair, and the public should rise up in protest against this inequity. Elmers' bill might not succeed in halting this ill-advised discrimination against residents of the I-95 corridor, but it will at least shine a light on the iniquitous inequity of this proposal.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Limbaugh with foot firmly in mouth

There was a time when I listened to Rush Limbaugh. It was the late 1980s or early 1990s. Limbaugh was new to his national radio network and was little known. WPTF, the AM station in Raleigh, carried his show, and I would listen for five minutes or so while driving to and from lunch.

I found him entertaining, and, at the time, Limbaugh did not seem to take himself seriously. He could be funny and self-deprecating. And although he was partisan, he refrained from the meanness that has characterized his sermons lately. He rapidly expanded his outreach, briefly had a television show, a line of neckties and Rush cruises. I suspect it all went to his head; it certainly went to his wallet. In the past 10 years, I probably have not listened to two minutes of his monologues.

I have listened to and watched his diatribe against a Georgetown University student who testified before Congress about her need for contraceptive coverage in her student health plan. To say that Limbaugh's criticism was insulting, over-the-top, mean and ugly hardly does it justice. Now, he has apologized (when was the last time that happened?) and has lost advertisers because of his name-calling.

Unfortunately for those who might want to debate the wisdom of including free (no co-pay) contraceptives in all health plans, Limbaugh has destroyed any grounds for debate. There is a public policy issue there: Should insurance companies and taxpayers (through various health plans) pay for contraception? Should any medical service be offered without a co-pay? I think including contraceptive coverage is good policy, but you can argue against it — or at least you could before Limbaugh turned that argument into a repugnant insult. Remember that it wasn't so long ago (before my youngest was born) that many health insurance plans did not cover pregnancy. Exclusions from coverage are still common. From a fiscal basis, it's cheaper for insurers to cover contraception than to cover pregnancies.

As for Limbaugh, I'm not sure he can recover from his self-inflicted wound. At best, he might stop taking himself so seriously and go back to being the humorous, never very serious commentator he began as.

Where was the winter?

A soaking rain and a series of mild, spring-like days has been enough to leave me wondering whether we will have winter at all this year. The winter rye grass in my lawn has perked up like a field of wheat, and the forsythia are blooming early, turning dull gray corners into bright yellow celebrations. Spring, the vernal equinox, is still two weeks away, so these daffodils and tree buds are out early.

Winter has been little more than a rumor this year. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's passed without a single bone-chilling day and without any snow or sleet. The past few years have given us at least one good snowfall, and 2010 gave us series of unusually heavy snowfalls, which thankfully did not remain on the ground very long.

But this year there has been little winter, and already it's time to mow the lawn, cut back the liriope, pull the weeds and feel the warmth of a spring day. I won't blame this on global warming or excess carbon dioxide. It's likely a fluke of the jet stream or other meteorological factors. Whatever the reason, it appears that North Carolina will miss out on seeing the landscape turn white this year. We'll still welcome the spring, enjoy the warmth and hope that a sudden late freeze doesn't wreak havoc with easily fooled early buds.