Monday, June 30, 2014

Iraq is the mistake that won't go away

Iraq is the foreign policy disaster that won't go away. Eight years after President George W. Bush set the United States on a campaign to reform the Middle East by toppling a cruel and ruthless dictator, Iraq is in many ways worse off than it was under Saddam Hussein and before more than 4,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis died in the unending warfare the 2003 invasion touched off.

President Obama, who had opposed the war from the beginning and was eager to get U.S. troops out of the country, now has decided to send U.S. troops — advisers only — back into Iraq in a last-ditch effort to halt the spread of Islamic extremism. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has taken control of a large swath of Iraq and parts of Syria. ISIS leaders have proclaimed a new country, the beginning on an Islamic caliphate, and they have imposed a totalitarianism whose cruelty rivals Saddam's.

Thomas Ricks' book on the first phase of the Iraq War was titled "Fiasco," perhaps the most appropriate title in nonfiction history. The invasion of Iraq has been called the worst foreign policy blunder in American history. The invasion was based on several assumptions, all of which proved to be wrong: (1) Al-Qaida had a base in Iraq; (2) Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction"; (3) Iraqis would welcome American troops with open arms and flowers; (4) establishment of a democratic Iraq would transform the Middle East.

As bad as Saddam was, he had kept a lid on sectarian violence. Removing him and his entire governmental structure, including police, security and military, unleashed the Sunni vs. Shia violence that nearly tore the country apart in 2006. Sectarian violence is at work again as Sunni-dominated ISIS attempts to wrest control of the country from the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.

President Obama, who wanted no part of the Iraq War, has to re-examine his own actions. His eagerness to leave Iraq behind and his hesitancy to involve America in the Syrian civil war may have contributed to the rise of ISIS and the failures of the Iraqi government.

George W. Bush started this hubris-filled fiasco, but Barack Obama seems unable to find a way to stop it.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Lawsuit nibbles away at presidential authority

Thursday's Supreme Court decision might mark a pivot point in the Obama presidency, and in presidential policies in general. The court's ruling was limited but made it clear that presidential appointments cannot be made without Senate approval except in very limited circumstances. The Constitution's allowance for "recess appointments" without Senatorial concurrence seem quaint in the 21st century's instantaneous communications and rapid travel. In 1789, Congress met for only a few months a year and was in recess for much of the year.

Recess appointments is only one issue that riles congressional Republicans. They also complain that the president has only selectively enforced laws and has even rewritten laws to suit his needs. The Affordable Care Act's provisions are just one example of how the president has ignored, omitted or altered provisions of laws passed by Congress.

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner has announced that the House will sue the president for failing to carry out laws passed by Congress, which the Constitution requires him to do. The fact that this lawsuit will likely drag on through the 2016 elections is an indication that the case is based more on politics than on constitutional integrity.

The Constitution includes a remedy for a president who fails to do his job — impeachment. Failing to carry out the constitutional requirements of his office should qualify as a "high crimes and misdemeanors." The fact that only a few right-wing yahoos in Congress are proposing articles of impeachment indicates that Congress is not all that serious about retaining the powers granted by the Constitution and about demanding that the executive branch not usurp Congress' constitutional powers.

It is entirely possible, however, that private citizens might bring suit to overturn a presidential action, as in Thursday's decision. If the unanimous recess appointments decision is predictive, the Supreme Court might just undo what the president has done of his own accord.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Latest debate exposes lottery's lies

The debate in the state legislature over education funding shows, if there was ever any doubt, that the lottery's promises were based on a lie. Then-Gov. Mike Easley and other supporters claimed lottery proceeds would be used in addition to current education funding from traditional taxes — current appropriations would not be reduced and replaced by lottery funds. Skeptics doubted the veracity of those promises. The skeptics were right.

Education funding has been reduced at all levels, from pre-K through universities. Teacher aide positions have been eliminated. Classroom size has increased. University appropriations have dwindled. Community colleges have been swamped by anxious students hoping to learn marketable skills in a job market dropping like a broken elevator.

This latest debate over how much money the lottery should raise for teachers salaries bares the dirty secret of the "North Carolina Education Lottery" — the lottery has not improved education funding in North Carolina. It has merely added another funding source legislators can play with as they try to reach a balanced budget.

With Republicans running state government, taxes are dropping, especially for the wealthy, and the lottery, anathema to many conservatives, holds the only stable source of revenue. The stability of that source is what the debate in the General Assembly is about. Can the lottery produce more if it is allowed to spend more money on advertising, which encourages people to play the lottery in the false belief that they will win big bucks if they merely play often enough? Restrictions on advertising to present some facts about the long odds against winning will merely discourage the sale of lottery tickets. Having jumped onto the lottery bandwagon, the legislature cannot afford to discourage foolish activity by their constituents.

Friday, June 20, 2014

High-speed chase along a familiar highway

This story in today's N&O caught my eye because the crazy driver led authorities in a chase through Union and Anson counties along U.S. 74. She drove at speeds of around 90 mph straight past the house where I grew up. The article even gets the town of Peachland (our address) in the news — a rare occurrence. 

That highway, which we always called "Highway 74" not "U.S. 74," is a four-lane now, but it was just two lanes until after I left for college. The traffic is much heavier and moves much faster than it did 50 or 60 years ago. When my parents bought the house and 26 acres of land in 1940, the highway followed the lay of the land, a gently rolling landscape. Sometime later, before my memory, the road was improved, and the roadway was excavated through a small hill on which the house sat. Instead of being on a plane with the roadway, the house now sat about 10 or 15 feet above the roadway, and the road cut tended to erode into gulleys leading down to the ditches along the highway. Our driveway made another cut into the bank for the gravel drive. When the highway was four-laned, the house had to be moved back about 100 feet, and the old barn was razed.

As children, my sisters and I would stand by the road at the edge of the bank and wait for cars to go by. In those days, there might be gaps between the cars of up to a minute or more. Our game was to take turns waving at the cars. The drivers we had to wave at constituted the scoring of the game. A shiny Cadillac was a positive score. A loud, rusty pickup was a negative. Likewise, the occupants of the vehicles — nice families were a plus; unsavory characters were a minus.

The game was as lacking in sophistication as was our entire existence.

If there were 90-mph chases along that road so long ago, I never heard of them. I do recall playing outside one afternoon with my BB gun when two men went running across the yard from the direction of the highway. I stood dumbfounded at the chase. The man in the lead was clearly faster and disappeared into the woods beyond the field. The other man, gasping for breath, gave up the chase and walked back toward the road. We learned later that the faster runner had been stopped by law enforcement (the second man) and was found to have a trunk full of moonshine in mason jars in the trunk of his car. The driver took off running as soon as the officer saw what was in the trunk. I don't know if he was ever caught.

An aside: This post is the 900th Erstwhile Editor blog post I've done since October 2008. I'm still writing, regardless of whether anyone is reading.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A back yard we long to share

I stood at the deck railing, leaning with my palms on the top rail, and looked out over the back yard, thinking of all the work my wife and I had poured into that space — whole weekend days in the heat of summer and in autumn's cool breezes. The yard would never be described as "manicured." The lawn contains more weeds than grass. Volunteer briers and seedlings pop up out of the natural areas. The shrubs need pruning again. The mulch is thin in spots.

But it has been our project, and because we are not perfectionists (at least, I'm not), it is satisfying to look over this little expanse of lawn and mulch and trees and shrubs and to think, like God at the creation, "it is good."

Eleven years we have been in this house, and the house, like the yard, is an unfinished project and always will be. The satisfaction of that moment at the deck rail dissolved into melancholy at the thought of all the work that lies ahead of us and the length of our "to do" list.

And I thought of this: Of how I would like to show this yard, with all its imperfections, to all those who never saw it. My parents, who were in a nursing home when we uprooted ourselves and moved across town to this larger house on a larger lot, never visited us here. We told them about our move and showed them pictures that they seemed not to comprehend. We came home to this yard from their funerals. My brother Bill, who had assisted me in repairs to our previous home, never saw this one. And we never saw the house he lived in when he died so unexpectedly. Brother Larry, who once spent the night with us in a house we were renting years ago, never visited this house, though the invitation remains open.

I had trailed after my older brothers, always reaching milestones years after theirs — graduation, marriage, children, grandchildren, homes. This back yard is not a place for showing, "Look what I've finally done," but a place for sharing, a place to sit and relax and watch the sun set behind the trees as the sky grows dim. That is a satisfaction I long to share.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Civil war in Iraq threatens to undo U.S. hopes

Back in the latter part of the George W. Bush administration, Americans were debating whether Iraq was in a state of civil war as Sunni and Shiite Muslims praised God and passed the ammunition. They were killing each other faster than a Stalinist purge.

A surge in troops and a new strategy for American forces quelled the fighting and the killing, at least for a while, long enough for U.S. troops to make a halfway respectable exit from the country they had invaded in 2003, expecting to find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Now the Americans are gone, and it's up to the Iraqis to run their country and protect their citizenry.

Unfortunately, things are not going so well "over there." The end of American combat involvement and the rise of a Syrian insurgency have opened the door for what has to be considered a real civil war in Iraq. The ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is conquering territory and advancing on the capital of Baghdad, having already taken over Mosul, Fallujah and Tikrit. The ISIS has proclaimed that it will obliterate the borders established by the victors following World War I, which broke up the Ottoman Empire. Those borders have been criticized for years as having little to do with ethnic or religious populations but were little more than convenient lines on a map.

If the ISIS succeeds in conquering all of Iraq, which seems to be a strong possibility, America's 10 years in Iraq and thousands of deaths will seem like a waste of time, lives and treasure (estimated at well over $1 trillion). Instead of stamping out Al-Qaida, which was not active in Iraq in 2003, America's overthrow of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship is resulting in establishment of an Al-Qaida-related regime in Iraq and, perhaps, in Syria as well.

North of the old Iraqi border, Bashar al-Assad appears to have weathered an insurgency that threatened his family dynasty. The Obama administration had opposed Assad and called for him to step down. Instead, with the help of Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah army, Assad is regaining territory that had been lost to the rebels. But the ISIS could, conceivably, establish a rebel territory encompassing parts of Syria and Iraq, a formidable and oil-rich swath of the Middle East.

American military might seems helpless to staunch the destruction and overthrow of the Iraqi government U.S. lives helped establish, and that Shiite-dominated government seems incapable of fielding an army capable of defeating well-organized insurgents. The final outcome of this drama cannot bode well for American interests in the region.

The United States' strategy in the Middle East has failed and floundered for more than a decade, if not for a century.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Easier classes have been around for decades

My first reaction to former Tar Heel Rashad McCants' accusations about "no-show" classes at UNC-Chapel Hill was that McCants never had any credibility, anyway. ESPN gave McCants, who failed to make it in the NBA after leaving UNC early after the team's 2005 national championship, asserted that he was steered to easy African-American Studies classes to keep him eligible to play basketball

I have little doubt that McCants was encouraged to take easier classes at UNC. The academic support system is designed to keep student-athletes eligible for NCAA play and on track toward getting a degree. But recommending an easier class load to someone who is failing classes hardly seems sinister; it is being realistic about a student's capabilities or his determination and persistence.

When I was at UNC, there were no African-American Studies classes for weak students to hide behind, but there were classes that were rumored to be easier than others, just as there were classes that were rumored to be harder than others. Students have always sought easier classes, outside their major, to fill their schedules. In the harder classes category were organic chemistry and statistics. In the easier category was speech. Football players joked about how they did in speech class, so I took speech one semester as a sophomore. It sounded interesting, and I could have used a less demanding class to fill my schedule. That "easy" class resulted in my lowest grade I received at UNC, a C-. It turned out the class was not as easy as I had imagined it might be, and I was nervous standing before a class and delivering a speech, which was what we did in that class.

I also took a couple of classes on a pass-fail basis. I don't know whether pass-fail remains an option, but in the late 1960s, it was heralded as an egalitarian concept of higher education. You either passed or failed, and neither result affected your grade point average. I took the classes my senior year, thinking I would be able to "slide" through my final year by not having to work so hard in those classes. I passed with as little work as I could get by with.

Non of this is meant to excuse the AF-AM classes that didn't meet and provided athletes (and others) inflated grades. They remain an embarrassing stain on the university's academic reputation. But the students who benefited from these easier classes knew what was happening. They were trying to avoid dismissal for failure to maintain a minimum grade point average. When I was in school, we had added incentive to maintain decent grades (a 2.0 or C average). If we were dismissed from school, we'd lose our draft exemption and our local draft board would be calling. That's a more serious consequence than failing to make the cut in the NBA.

Friday, June 6, 2014

D-Day plus 70 years

Last night, on the 70th anniversary of the night hundreds of thousands of Allied troops, sailors and airmen set out for the Normandy coast, I began reading Rick Atkinson's "The Guns at Last Light," the third volume of his Liberation Trilogy, tracing the war in Europe from D-Day to the German surrender.

Today, on the Normandy shore, European and American leaders celebrate the success of that greatest amphibious invasion in history with the last survivors of that battle, all of them now in the late 80s or 90s. Commemorations of D-Day have been held every year since then with larger celebrations on these 10-year segments. I recall watching Dwight Eisenhower, by then the former president, walking the beaches and hedgerows of Normandy with Walter Cronkite on the 20th anniversary. On the 40th anniversary, it was Ronald Reagan's turn as he gave perhaps the most moving speech of his presidency, praising "the boys of Point Du Hoc."

These commemorations risk turning mundane, the visual images becoming too familiar to shock. The black-and-white pictures from wartime photographers and the row upon row of white crosses at the American Cemetery have all been seen before. We know what happened there.

What we can't know is the uncertainty of that endeavor. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, was not sure it would succeed. The British, for whom Dunkirk was still a painful, bleeding wound, were doubtful. The Germans had spent four years planning for this day while the Allies found themselves mired in Italy and working to build the ships and landing crafts and airplanes that would be needed for such an invasion. The French coastline was a bastion capable of pushing back a mighty army.

The success of D-Day and the ultimate success of the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany testify to the skill of military leaders, the productivity of American industry, which was untouched by bombs and artillery that devastated Allied and Axis factories, the determination of American and British troops and the amazing resilience of the Soviet army on the Eastern Front, where millions of lives were lost. As Atkinson shows in the first two volumes of his trilogy, Allies' experience in North Africa, Sicily and Italy also paved the way for success at Normandy.

On this D-Day anniversary, we praise the dwindling few survivors of that cauldron, and we marvel at the bravery of the men who stepped off those landing crafts knowing their chances of surviving the day were not good.

Monday, June 2, 2014

A small newspaper bites the dust

After I was laid off after 33 years as a newspaper editor, I kept my eye open for newspaper jobs within a reasonable commute from Wilson, where my wife and I were settled and loved our home and neighborhood and friends. There were few newspaper jobs anywhere that didn't require relocating, but one sort of promising opportunity cropped up several months after my layoff.

The Daily Southerner in Tarboro, about 25 miles away, had an opening for a publisher. I had never been a publisher, but I had edited papers larger and smaller than the Daily Southerner and thought the business end of the news business couldn't be too difficult to learn. I had been exposed to a fair amount of the business end in a couple of my stops along the career ladder. So I applied and got an interview with a man who was a regional supervisor for the conglomerate that owned the paper.

I was not too keen on the job, partly because I thought the commute would grow old fast. And while there were things I liked about Tarboro, I thought it a little too clannish and small. It seemed like a town frozen in time, as more than a few small towns in eastern North Carolina are.

After a nice talk at his hotel and a tour of the newspaper's facilities (which were more comparable to the weekly papers where I had worked than to the small dailies) and a ride around Tarboro, we bade farewell and I drove home, thinking that if I were offered the job, I'd have to take it, despite seeing all the frustrations I'd surely face. Among the revelations in the interview was the fact that the Daily Southerner was almost entirely dependent upon a printing contract with a regional supermarket. That contract provided most of the paper's revenue.

I was not upset when the regional corporate guy called and said they'd offered the publisher job to an applicant with more business experience than I had.

The news last week that the Daily Southerner is folding reminded me of my brush with a dead end, and I was glad once again that my last shot at a newspaper job had gone out the window five years ago. Not long thereafter, I took a job with a nonprofit and put newspapering behind me.

But this news saddened me because the Daily Southerner was not a bad little paper. It was underfunded with a lack of advertising and a slender news hole with few stories that were not about the routine or the mundane. With stronger editing and more resources, it could have survived in a town as small and poor as Tarboro.

This is not an unusual event. Small newspapers are closing all over the country. Advertising is migrating to the web, and the promises and reassurances newspaper ad salesmen and publishers have offered for years are no longer trusted. The public is turning away from traditional news about local government, crime, education and business and toward entertainment as news or obsessions as news. Small dailies can't compete against CNN's obsession with the Malaysian airliner or Justin Bieber's latest misbehavior. Public interest in issues that used to define "the public interest" has waned, and with it has waned readership about local issues. And even less-sophisticated advertisers know the potential of web advertising targeting individuals based on their interests revealed in web searches, demographics and other data.

When small papers die, it's almost always a financial problem that strangled the enterprise, but the real tragedy is the vacuum left for discussion of local issues and the reporting of important issues in the community. Some enterprising website might arise to cover Tarboro's news, but these websites have not been able to make enough money to stay afloat for long. Tarboro will be one more news desert, where things happen, but nobody knows, and no one lifts the curtain to see what's going on out of public view.

Twitter trumps blogging in public discussions

As the number of posts in this blog approaches 900, I again question the rationale for writing thoughts that no one reads. The figures don't lie. Daily page views are usually in the single digits, occasionally in the double digits, never rising into hundreds or thousands.

When I took up this blog, it was solace for having been unhinged from my creative outlet as a newspaper columnist. I had written columns at least once a week for most of my 33 years in the newspaper business. Some were thoughtful, even perceptive or challenging. Other columns just filled a space on the editorial or op-ed page. A blog, which I had actually taken up as a newspaper project, gave me an outlet, a continuity with what I had done for decades.

At the time, blogs were a sort of "next new thing." Newspapers were posting blogs by editors and reporters. Websites aggregated good blogs. A few people actually made money by blogging. I had some thoughts that my blog might get noticed, might even be picked up or republished on a wider stage. But while I received some positive comments and my list of "followers" grew, the blog never went anywhere, and neither did I.

When my unemployment ended, my blogging slowed to a crawl. No more daily posts. I was doing well to write weekly.

Another thing happened to slide my blog (and most others) into oblivion: Twitter. Instead of a thoughtful, insightful 300 or 600 words, the new "micro-blogging" site condensed every thought down to 140 characters. Twitter is a challenging exercise in brevity, but it is also indicative of the shallowness of public discussion. And Twitter has taken off. You can't read a news article or watch a news show on TV without hearing about someone's tweet about some topic. A Twitter account is mandatory for everyone in political office as well as for public officials.

This is the new way of communicating: 140 characters or less. A small bite of a thought, not examined or explored but merely announced for all the world to see, which is why tweets often have to be withdrawn or apologized for.

But Twitter has crippled blogging. Why take the time to read a long blog post when you can digest 140 characters in less time than it takes to type in a password?

The demise of blogging is not a tragedy, but the demise of serious discussion about civic issues — if that is what we're coming to — is.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Blue Ridge Parkway lodge is closed

Three years ago, my wife and I planned an anniversary trip. We would start at Skyland in Shenandoah National Park, near the northern end of Skyline Drive, and drive the length of Skyline Drive and most of the Blue Ridge Parkway (which is a continuation of Skyline Drive). We would spend nights at the National Park Service lodges along the way, all the way to the Pisgah Inn southwest of Asheville, and would hike trails all along the drive.

Our plans fell apart when we realized that some of the NPS facilities would not be open in April. They would not open until, in some cases, Memorial Day. So we decided to postpone our trip until we could do it later in the year.

This year, it appeared, would be that year. We scheduled a vacation in late September and began looking into reservations at all of the NPS lodges along our route. It was then that we discovered that the lodge at Doughton Park, not far from where the North Carolina portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway passes into Virginia, is no longer open. The notice my wife found on the Internet said a combination of the federal sequestration and other factors led to the closing of the lodge.

This amounted to a broken femur in our trip plans. The lodges we had planned to stay in were spaced a reasonable day's drive apart — Skyland, then Peaks of Otter, then Doughton Park, then Pisgah Inn. Without Doughton Park, the southern leg of our trip fell apart. We looked at commercial lodging in the Doughton Park area, and there are a few choices not far off the Parkway, but it had been our intention to experience each of the NPS lodges along the Parkway, not to venture off into commercial areas.

The problems with the sequestration, and with the entire federal budgeting process, are more serious than my disappointment with the closing of a publicly run, rustic lodge on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Parkway lodges are classics of early motoring history, designed with respect for the environment and with minimal luxuries for the motoring public. They have a certain charm and should be profitable for the private vendors who do the actual running of the facilities.

We may go ahead with our plans for a portion of our long-anticipated drive down the Parkway, but the elimination of a key, midway stopover along the way will leave us disappointed.