Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Day Like No Other, a Birth Like No Other

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, December 24, 2009

Every other week, as my brother and I consider the many issues that divide us, we usually have several to choose from. Ultimately, one or the other of us will graciously accept the choice of the other and we then proceed to research and opine.
However, this week and this day we decided to “pull in the claws” and deliver a column upon which we both can agree – the season of Christmas.

There can be no denying that this special day is like no other on our calendar. Each year we lament the fact that commercial interests push the envelope of propriety and sanctity further and further out of shape, yet each year we submit to the pull and follow along, if not willingly, at least without much protest. The familiar songs and images greet us in every storefront and the advertisements that interrupt our TV viewing compel us to join in the annual charade.

Why do we get caught up in the flow of house-decorating, gift-giving, card-sending, goody-baking, family-greeting and party-making every year?

Why is this day and this season so special?

The history of mankind reveals our love for, and need for, tradition and ritual. I am sure that is one reason why this day grabs us no matter how hard we may try to resist. But biological or sociological needs tend to only draw us so far. There has to be another reason, a greater pull, a deeper calling that causes us to put up with the struggles of: untangling coils of lights in the bitter cold, finding the perfect gift, addressing and mailing cards to people we neglect 51 weeks out of 52, sweating over countertops and ovens as we cook and bake ourselves into sugar-highs, arranging and squeezing family get-togethers and parties onto calendars and day planners, etc. etc.

I suggest that this day is so very special only because the birth it represents was so special. The incarnation of the Supreme One may or may not have actually occurred upon the 25th day of December. I am not qualified to argue for its validity as the actual date of Christ’s birth – but I am qualified to discuss what I believe.

I believe that His birth changed our world forever, and no matter how commercial the season becomes, He will always outshine the synthetic glitter. There is a soft, still voice that whispers just beneath the clamor and it speaks volumes. It speaks of a Creator who became confined within his creation to redeem a rebellious creature.

I believe this small voice first broke the musty silence of a stable in Bethlehem in the form a baby’s whimper. Now, that voice speaks through the actions of those who reach out toward the less fortunate with gifts of mercy. It is that voice that comes through the sound of pocket change falling into a red kettle.

I believe our political and ideological differences melt away to insignificance as we get caught up in the spirit of this season. The message proclaimed on that Bethlehem hillside of “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward all men” is being repeated today too, as we send the cards and wrap the gifts. It is impossible for us to imagine a time when there will ever be Peace on Earth throughout our whole planet, but each year we should do our part to bring peace and good will to at least a small portion of it.
It is in that hope that I extend my hand to Keith and all our faithful readers. Let us forget our differences and share in the common belief that we are all God’s creatures and, for one day, at least, we are all speaking in one voice.

“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

Christmas Wishes

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, December 24, 2009

The holiday season is a special time of the year. My fondest memories as a child centered around gatherings of family and the returning home of my older siblings during the yuletide season. As an adult, despite the guilt and anxiety of the financial stresses of this commercialized time, I find the spirit irresistible as my own family congregates for Christmas Eve services, dinners and other festivities.

Every year, it gets harder to deny the uniqueness of the holidays and not just because seasonal commercials and ad fliers now start appearing on the scene in mid-October. During the last couple of weeks nearly everyone I encounter in businesses and stores has a smile to offer and a kind word. Salvation Army kettles fill with change and bills, even as a depressed economy leaves most of our friends and neighbors with fewer dollars in their wallets. Blood banks and soup kitchens find more participation and donations of time and resources.

However, I can’t simply attribute the power and spirit of the holidays to a Christian ideal. One must accept that the celebration of non-Christians during this season is as legitimate as those who celebrate Jesus’ birth. Devout Jews honor the sacred traditions of Hanukkah with every bit as much zeal as is evidenced in the carols and candle lighting of Christmas. Atheists even embrace the season despite the elements of Christendom.

In fact, the traditions of Christmas not only transcend Christianity, they have their origins in paganism. The yuletide was an observance of the winter festival of Germanic peoples. Customs such as caroling and trimming of trees come from these celebrations.

Still, there is a sense of miracle and magic that one can scarcely debate. Given this time of wonder, it seems natural to believe that our most ambitious wishes might come true. I would like to allow a glimpse at my Christmas list. Miracles and magic allow optimism to be limitless so my wishes aim high.

Since the season is a time for cheer, I have a couple desires on the lighter side. First, I wish for former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and TV and Radio personality Glenn Beck to announce bids for the 2012 Republican nomination. That would be a gift that would keep giving right through the primary debates.

Secondly, I wish for Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman to either adopt a Republican Party affiliation or step down from his position. I would rather see Democrats lose a vote to the other side of the aisle than continue to court someone who is trying to strip all that is meaningful from any legislation intended to bring change.

I wish for some important issues to be addressed as well.

I wish for politics to be removed from policy regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Policy-makers should examine the merits of these missions, and a responsible withdrawal from a futile occupation should be perceived as wisdom and not weakness.

I wish for financial and economic systems in the United States to be assessed honestly. We need to stop clinging to a false idealism of capitalism and stop rejecting progressive ideals out of fear of words like “socialism”, which have become perverted by years of abuse and misinformation.

I wish for the current health care plan in Congress to be thrown out. A new bill with a simpler solution should take its place. Medicare should be expanded to cover all who choose it. Private insurance companies should be limited in the influence of their lobby in Washington and should not be exempted from regulation or anti-trust laws. This would lower the cost of health care coverage and free up resources to help rid the Medicare system of waste and corruption.

In this season of peace, love and hope, there is room for optimism. One can wish for goodwill to all. One can wish for commonality among the divisiveness that plagues discourse. One can wish for peace on Earth. One can still believe in the miracle and magic of the season.

Obama’s Afghanistan Strategy

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, December 10, 2009

On Tuesday, December 1, President Barack Obama gave a primetime speech to the American public outlining his strategy going forward in the war in Afghanistan.

The thrust of the plan is a three-pronged approach intended to bring a successful end to our involvement there. The components were a commitment of 30,000 additional U.S. troops to stabilize the region; a civilian effort to provide security; and a partnership with Pakistan to combat the threat of terror in the border region.

While the address given before cadets at West Point Military Academy was far from Obama’s most eloquent and effective oration, I felt he presented a well-structured argument for an escalation of troops and a change of strategies with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He dismissed criticisms from those who felt he took too much time to deliberate something as simple as dispatching young men and women into harm’s way, by discussing the weight of the decision and the fact that none of the existing requests called for action sooner than this near-immediate surge. He answered other critics who think we should remain in open-ended occupation there, by determining a timetable and exit strategy, something antithetical to the previous administration’s stay-the-course approach.

I found myself taking a hard look at my own opinions on Afghanistan. I have always recognized that the attacks of 9/11 were orchestrated from strongholds in the region, and one of my greatest criticisms of the Bush administration was that it missed opportunities to capture al Qaeda leadership there because of a preoccupation with engaging in a war of choice in Iraq. So, when Obama spoke of the threat to national security that a strengthening al Qaeda would be, I couldn’t help but agree.

The president also spoke of the decline in conditions and the growing danger to Afghans and to our troops. I have to agree again. I see the growing dangers and I know that his mention of the problem reflects the assessments of the commander on the ground General Stanley McChrystal; ambassadors, and other experts. I accept that the security of our forces is – and should be – of primary concern to their commander in chief. I support any efforts to ensure that security.

That said, I found much of Obama’s announcement troubling. There is a tendency within mass media, and even with policy-makers, to oversimplify the situation. An outcry was spun into a frenzy by pundits who posited that Obama’s refusal to commit troops immediately upon McChrystal’s request was a sign of weakness. To me this deliberation signaled an understanding by the president that Afghanistan was a complex problem. The country is embroiled in a long civil war. Tribal conflicts beset the region. Corruption is rampant and hinders the function of government and civil bodies.

Furthermore, Obama’s description of that government was less than promising. While he admitted that the recent re-election of Afghan President Hamid Karzai was marred by corruption, he claimed that the Karzai government was “consistent with Afghanistan’s laws and constitution.” I would have felt more confident about support of an election that represented the will of the Afghan people. Unfortunately, the common mistrust among Afghanis of their governing powers is only exacerbated by our long-term presence there.

My apprehension about further commitment to this mission is echoed by many others. Former U.S. State Department representative to Zabul Province Matthew Hoh resigned in September from that position in protest stating that he failed “to see the value or the worth in continued U.S. casualties and expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war.” Likewise Congressman Eric Massa of New York’s 29th district has been vocal in his opposition to expanding the troop levels in Afghanistan. Among his reasons, he lists the enormous cost of the war at a time when our national treasury is strapped with debt and other commitments.

The economic cost of this war has become a focus of attention even within Congress. The Pentagon’s comptroller’s office submitted a recent report to congressional leaders in order to justify figures the administration has been using to valuate the proposed Afghanistan strategy. An estimated cost of $1 billion per 1,000 has been used to come up with the $30 billion Obama said would be spent in the next twelve months. As justification of part of that expenditure the Pentagon released the fact that a gallon of gasoline used to power vehicles and aircraft in the region costs an alarming $400. The details of the process of transporting fuel to the field (which contributes to this cost, are outlined in an October 15 article from The Hill) culminate in a figure known as the “fully burdened cost.” According to some analysts the fully burdened cost of fuel can be as high as $1,000 per gallon. The human toll of this war is alarming enough. The financial price tag in the midst of our crippled economy is staggering.

I look at my daughters, aged 19 and 21, and I realize the enormous price sending 30,000 American sons and daughters (the majority of them similar in ages). Then I look at the complexity of the situation and the near futility of the stated mission. Then I look at the double standard many employ with their support of committing human and financial resources to this war, while complaining about the tax burden of providing affordable health care to U.S. citizens. With these factors in view, I cannot lend my support to Obama’s proposed strategy in Afghanistan.

Too busy being fabulous

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, December 10, 2009

“You were just too busy being fabulous…
Too busy to think about us”

-Don Henley & Glenn Frey

The above words come from the song: “Busy Being Fabulous” performed by The Eagles on their latest album, Long Road Out of Eden. It is sad to say that our brave men and women struggling against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan could rightfully sing that chorus to Barack Obama. While they watch their leader travel the globe and as they watched him campaign in state governor races, they could justifiably wonder if he was just too busy being fabulous to think about them.

Our president appointed General McChrystal to take the leading role in the conflict in Afghanistan, who called upon Obama to provide him with the additional troops to carry out his mission. That request was made over 90 days ago.

Now, I am sure his supporters will look at his indecision as “careful deliberation”, and they will claim that Haste makes waste. I suspect that many of our fighting men and women would quickly counter with the opposite proverb that states He who hesitates is lost. Hesitation on the battlefield is a deadly and costly attribute.

What has Obama’s hesitancy cost us? The recent months have seen a rise in U.S. and British casualties and a loss of confidence among our allies. Growing frustration with Obama’s indecisiveness has surfaced in the foreign news media outlets, as British and French leaders expressed concern that the lack of determined leadership will harm the overall mission.

“What is the goal? Where is the road? And in the name of what? Where are the Americans?” Mr. Kouchner, French Foreign Minister, is quoted as asking in The Daily Telegraph. His words echo the same apprehension that caused Bob Ainsworth, the British Defense Secretary, to criticize Obama publicly for a “lack of clear direction” which has made it difficult for ministers to maintain troop morale and public approval for the mission.

The cost of “being fabulous” cannot be measured when one considers that, had McChrystal’s measured request for more troops been honored more swiftly, one single soldier’s death could have been prevented. As commander in chief of the sole superpower of the world, Obama must be aware that his decisions – or lack thereof – have far-reaching ramifications.
I am not suggesting a shoot from the hip approach to these heavy, policy-forming resolutions. I am, however, advocating a rapid, reasoned response that demonstrates a prioritized determination that lives are imperiled by protracted procrastination.

Now that his decision has finally been made, we can make the following observations: First of all, we can see that he really had no choice but to at least send some of the reinforcements requested by McChrystal. After all, he had repeatedly claimed during his campaign that Afghanistan was the necessary war, not that he really believed it, but merely because he had to oppose the Iraqi liberation that Bush had directed.

I almost felt sympathy for Obama as I read his words. This was a speech made by a man who was made by politics and a hungry media. He lacked both the executive experience and the definitive leadership qualities that are necessary to lead a nation or a battalion into battle, much less into a full-fledged war. Therefore, he was confined to trying to please the conservatives who would criticize him for “dithering” or being too dove-like, while at the same time, he had to keep one foot wiggling in the tents of the left-wing by offering up a “cost-vs.-reward” paragraph and then throwing them the bone of a totally unrealistic and unattainable exit date.

His procrastination has cost him the luxury of setting a real exit date as well as a valid cost analysis. By losing those precious 90 days, we have pushed the actual deployment dates of the 30,000 troops to, at best, late 2010 and, most likely, early 2011. So, to have them arrive in early 2011 and leave by July 2011 is not feasible, and you could see that he knew it wasn’t when he said it.

I agree with the overall goal of dismantling Al Qaeda and the Taliban, because I recognize the threat they represent to liberty. And I agree with the need to involve Pakistan in our strategy. I do not agree, however, with the assumption that we can work with the Karzai administration in any realistic form of nation-building from a central seat of power. The nations of Afghanistan and Pakistan are both bound by centuries of tribal alliances and rivalries. It is a very complex situation, and it cannot be solved in 18 short months.

We must, I believe, limit our approach to destroying the Islamic extremists while leaving the political future of the region to the vagaries of their populace. We should not be seen as propping up one party or tribe or sect.

I did applaud Obama, however, for finally acknowledging that America was not all bad and that we had “underwritten global security for six decades” and he even went as far as admitting that we were responsible for bringing walls down, opening markets, lifting billions from poverty and advancing the frontiers of human liberty. Hopefully, we can add the destruction of Al Qaeda to that list.