Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Never fear to negotiate — the Iran deal

Four days after the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, I'm still channeling quotes from JFK: "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate."

That sage advice from 52 years ago came to mind after reading about the angry objections to the deal negotiated by the United States and European powers with Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for an easing of sanctions. While Secretary of State John Kerry touted the deal's limits on Iran's enrichment of uranium and its openness to increased international inspections, the government of Israel and some members of Congress slammed the deal as an open door to Iranian nuclear arms.

The deal is an interim agreement, not a final treaty. In the interim, Iran agrees to stop enriching uranium beyond the 5% level and to dilute the 20% enriched uranium it already has. Along with open inspections of nuclear facilities, the agreement is intended to prevent Iran from enriching uranium to weapons grade and, thereby, prohibit Iranian nuclear arms. In return, the Western powers agree to an easing of some trade sanctions against Iran, including the release of some Iranian money embargoed in Western banks.

One can easily argue that it's an imperfect deal — Iran might find a way to expand its stockpile of 5% enriched uranium and then back out of a permanent agreement. But what international treaty was ever foolproof? The West retains its right to reimpose the sanctions that forced Iran to agree to negotiations in the first place.

Rather than imposing even harsher sanctions on Iran, as some members of Congress have proposed, the United States should recognize victory when it happens. The sanctions worked. Iran was forced to negotiate an end to any nuclear weaponry ambitions it might have had (something the regime never admitted to). The United States' purpose in imposing these sanctions was to force Iran to give up any nuclear weapon plans. That goal has been achieved, at least for the interim. Further negotiations, along with the threat of renewed sanctions, can bring that goal to full realization. Unless Congress decides that what it really wants is not a peaceful relationship with Iran but war.

If a permanent deal with Iran works, the world will be safe from the possibility of Iranian nuclear bombs, and Iranian oil will return to the world market, further stabilizing the cost of energy, with economic benefits worldwide. The United States might even re-establish a cordial international relationship with Iran, something it has not had for more than 30 years. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Fifty years later, our loss is still felt

It is a Friday again. It is Nov. 22 again. The insulation of half a century — longer than our youthful hero lived — is stripped away as we remember that terrible day of shock, quashed dreams and lost inspiration.

For my generation — the surging youth cadre that the young president inspired and challenged — the memories are clear. We all can recall how we heard the news. For me, it was a public address announcement at the end of a routine high school Friday. The principal passed along the news without emotion or inflection, just the flat, neutral statement of an educator: President Kennedy was killed. I rode the bus home that afternoon trying to put the news into context. It must have happened in Washington, I thought. I had not read anything about a political trip to Texas. Once I got home, I filled the emptiness inside me with news gleaned from non-stop television coverage, which was nearly unprecedented at the time (only manned space launches and political conventions had warranted such coverage), and fat newspapers filled with news of the crime. I ran to the television as I returned from church that Sunday and turned it on in time to watch, in what is now called "real time," the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Fifty years have given us time to reconsider Kennedy, beyond the emotions of 1963, and to learn that he was not angelic or flawless. He was a man with faults, like all of us. He was imperfect after all. He was sickly and kept private secrets. Historians have pushed him lower and lower in the ranking of presidents. His legislative achievements are scant. He was not the negotiator or legislator that his successor was.

But even with the perspective of 50 years, Kennedy stands tall in so many intangible ways. He embodies the term often used to describe him in his day: charisma. He was charming and disarming. His wit was as quick as a stand-up comic's, and he could turn a press conference into a situation comedy as reporters, some admiring, some hostile, tried and failed to get the best of the young president.

What we lost in Dallas that fateful day was inspiration. Watch Kennedy's Berlin speech or his inaugural address. Watch his news conferences or his brilliantly disarming response to Lyndon Johnson's veiled criticism at the 1960 Democratic Convention. The Berlin speech — brief and brilliantly using repetition ("Let them come to Berlin!") — is a lesson in rhetorical technique. His inaugural was a call to Cold War militancy but also a call for national service. Kennedy knew the power of words like few presidents before or since (only Lincoln and Reagan come close). He knew leadership required inspiration, and he inspired a nation, especially young people, in a way that has not been reached since. In his inaugural, he challenged Americans to ask "what you can do for your country." He challenged Congress to put a man on the moon within a ridiculously short time period. He boldly proposed cutting taxes and even more boldly cracked open the door toward peaceful negotiations to end the Cold War.

What would have changed if the FBI and Secret Service had done their jobs and kept a pathetic assassin away from the motorcade route? We might have avoided the tragedy of Vietnam, but that is not a certainty. We might not have achieved an end to legal segregation as soon as we did (JFK did not have the legislative skills of LBJ), but it would have come. We might have avoided the cynicism and the youthful rebellions of the 1970s. Kennedy, who bridged the divide between fiscal conservatism and a liberal world view and human rights, might have reshaped American politics.

On this 50th anniversary, as we are immersed in the verbal and visual reliving of those horrific days, the loss we felt so long ago is still a loss. The youthful confidence, the "great vigor" of a young president, the challenge to serve others and not think only of yourself cannot be recovered.

And now we, the last ones to remember him, are fading into the sunset, our inspiration soured by sarcasm and the next generation unable to understand the depth of our loss.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Not all who served fought

On this Veterans Day, as in all the others, much will be said about those who "fought for their country." But my military service did not involve any fighting, and that is typical of most veterans. We served behind front lines or outside of war zones supporting the massive logistical and record-keeping apparatus of the national defense. We sat behind desks instead of sandbags.

I spent three years in a Washington, D.C., office answering letters from Congress and the public for the Enlisted Personnel Division of the U.S. Coast Guard. I used the skills I learned as a journalism and English major and in newspaper internships to explain the Coast Guard's policies and its need for individual service members to serve where assigned and to follow orders.

It was, in many respects, the easiest job I have ever held. The pace was slow compared to the urgent, anxiety-filled race toward a newsroom deadline, and my biggest challenge was usually getting the approval for my words from all of the commanders, captains and admirals —and even the secretary of transportation, on occasion — who reviewed my prose. I wore a uniform just once a week — a concession to civilian officials who did not want Washington to look like a military camp. My most hazardous duty was navigating D.C. traffic with my car pool each morning and afternoon.

Nevertheless, I learned a great deal from my Coast Guard service, and those few years 40 years ago helped shape my life and still influence it today. I learned to value organizational skills, decisiveness, sacrifice, dedication and all the other traits of military culture. Had my draft number been three digits instead of two, had I managed to dodge the obligation to serve my country, I might have begun my newspaper career earlier, and perhaps followed a different route, but I would not have learned from the outstanding officers who were my mentors, colleagues and friends during those years.

On this Veterans Day, I am thankful for the opportunity I was given to serve and for the experiences and lessons of that service.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Campaigning is not the same as governing

It has been said before — American elections put the emphasis on campaigning skills and not on governing skills. We tend to elect the best campaigners, not the best managers or administrators or legislators.

Barack Obama is making himself a classic example of this flaw in the system. Obama presided over an exceptional 2008 presidential campaign, and he won again in 2012, despite having a lot of odds stacked against him. But his legislative or governing achievements are slim, with the exception of the Affordable Care Act, which seems to be slipping deeper and deeper into trouble.

Obama's instinct for addressing every governmental problem is to hit the campaign trail. He is doing it now to try to beat down the complaints about the problems with the launch of health care exchanges. After the tragic mass shooting in Connecticut a year ago, Obama pushed strengthening gun laws by, once again, hitting the campaign trail. A former neighborhood organizer, Obama seems to see every problem as a call for grassroots organizing and marshaling public opinion against or in favor of a particular issue.

I've said it before, that Obama should read Robert Caro's fourth volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography, "The Passage of Power." LBJ was the consummate legislator, able to wheel and deal on the Senate floor and willing to manipulate people and issues to achieve his legislative goals. Johnson had his repellent qualities, but he got things done. He got legislation passed — the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, Medicare, etc. — when more skilled campaigners (the adored John F. Kennedy) could not.

President Obama could take a lesson from LBJ, who was vice president when Obama was born, and concentrate on the 100 voters in the Senate and the 435 voters in the House instead of appealing to the millions of voters in 50 states to pass legislation.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Affordable Care Act needs some tinkering.

The rollout of the Affordable Care Act is a month old, and it's winning few friends while attracting a lot of critics. The logjams at the website for choosing an insurance plan, the cancellation of policies that fail to meet the ACA's requirements for minimal coverage, and the realization that the costs may be greater than expected all suggest that the ACA needs some tinkering under the hood to get it running smoothly.

Unfortunately, no one is talking about making adjustments. Republicans, especially those in the House of Representatives, who have voted dozens of times to repeal the ACA, are not in a mood for tinkering; they want nothing short of demolition. Democrats, at least most of them, insist that the law is fine just the way it is. They fear that giving in to demands for changes will open the floodgates that will allow the Republicans to sail through toward demolishing the act. President Obama has said he is willing to consider changes, but at the same time, he has denied that changes are needed.

Since the 1990s, I've thought that a national health care plan made sense. American health care is far more expensive than in any industrialized country in the world. Prices keep rising exponentially, and only the health care conglomerates, pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies seem to be happy with the system. The ACA sought to mollify the insurance companies by keeping private insurance as the payer in the system (instead of a single-payer system like Medicare) and to mollify the health care industry by not pushing too hard on pricing. On top of that, the act included provisions to attract voting blocs, particularly women, with free contraceptives (not even a co-pay) and mandatory maternity coverage. Little was done about efficiency and effectiveness.

I still think a national health care plan makes sense, but it's obvious the ACA needs revisions. Unless those revisions are made, the electorate could turn against the entire program, and health care would revert back to where it was, with the pharmaceutical, hospital and insurance giants ruling the country.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Odd-year elections are oddities

It is election day, but in North Carolina, these odd-year elections usually don't count for much. The only items on the ballot are municipal elections. In my case, the City Council election is moot — the incumbent in my district is unopposed.

Some other states have chosen to hold their statewide elections in odd years. Gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia are closely watched today. When I edited a newspaper in Virginia for a couple of years in the 1970s, I had to make the adjustment to following elections every single year. No sooner would the national election for Congress be completed than the state election for state offices would begin. It was like watching a football game with no halftime break, but after every quarter two new teams would take the field.

I found Virginia politics lively and interesting. Chuck Robb, Lyndon Johnson's son-in-law, was running for lieutenant governor that year. I later watched Robb, a former Marine officer, preside over the state Senate with the commanding presence and decisive quickness of a drill sergeant. Republicans had been resurgent in Virginia and were on the cusp of taking over the state entirely during the Reagan years. Robb won a gubernatorial race in 1981 and later won a U.S. Senate seat, but he has faded into oblivion.

This year's gubernatorial race sounds like it's as hard-fought as the contests of the 1970s. Terry McAuliffe, a close friend of Bill Clinton, appears poised to win back the governor's mansion for the Democrats. It has been 33 years since I moved out of Virginia. Events there are barely on my radar screen, and I cannot remember the names of the movers and shakers I knew so long ago. Still, I enjoy visiting the commonwealth and its charming and historic capital city, and each odd-year election brings back memories.