Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Russia, the United States, and Europe: The Rise of Distrust

President Vladimir Putin said the following about the intentions of the United States on Tuesday, November 18:

“They do not want to humiliate us, they want to subdue us, solve their problems at our expense…No one in history ever managed to achieve this with Russia, and no one ever will.”

His remarks are unsurprising, even expected considering current domestic and international issues facing Russia.  Vladimir Putin’s accomplishments in returning stability, pride, and hope to Russia and its people are significant and multi-faceted.  The final years and collapse of the Soviet Union put Russia into a state of disarray and weakness, economically and militarily.  When Vladimir Putin came to power initially as the prime minister and then as president, he inherited responsibility for a country whose currency and military had collapsed.  Many worried that it would take decades for any significant changes or real growth to occur.

Over a relatively short period President Putin managed to turn around so many of the problems.  He reasserted the control of the government, worked to ensure that pensions and wages were paid, and began the arduous task of rebuilding the effectiveness and influence of the Russian military.  His efforts were aided by increased access to world markets built on friendlier relations and rising oil prices.  Events in Chechnya gave him the opportunity to begin rebuilding Russia’s military reputation at home and abroad. 

Stability allowed the stirrings of national pride once again.  Democracy, however, was perceived as a significant threat to Russia’s future.  Putin, his lieutenants, and many of the Russian people, didn’t trust a system with a future made uncertain by the whims of the average citizen in a voting booth.  Thus began the Russian transition to managed democracy, a transition that required control of the media and the government structure in the various regions.

Putin’s control in Russia is not as firm as it may appear from the outside.  Openness and free exchange of knowledge with the rest of the world has weakened traditional reliance and acceptance of an autocratic government.  In today’s Russia, the government is given a deep level of control in exchange for economic and political stability.  If that stability goes away, it is likely that the support for Putin’s managed democracy will slip away as well.  True democracy, for Putin a threat to stability, lies at the doors, entering places it shouldn’t, places like Ukraine.  If the Ukrainians can find success and stability as a democracy, then enough Russians may begin to believe that as well.

Unfortunately for Russia, their semi-autocratic forms of managed democracy and reliance on energy exports have limited its chances for success greatly.  Autocratic government by nature distrusts its citizenry, suppressing any opposing viewpoints.  As a result, one group of people is left with the ability to set and enforce policy without the input of others and without any semblance of checks and balances.  Too often such a system produces poor decisions and results in dealing with serious, long-ranging problems.  The limitations imposed by this system exacerbate problems with the economy and in turn international relations.

While high oil prices provided Russia the means to reestablish economic and political stability, it came with a price.  Continued dependence on energy exports has retarded domestic economic development.  Falling oil prices threaten to pull down the ruble and the Russian economy with it.  The introduction of new extraction techniques in the United States presents a direct threat to the Russian economy and national security.

Putin and his government recognize that they are on a slippery slope that must be shored up soon.  Even without the current sanctions put in place by the West, Russia’s economy was facing decline, a decline that is going to impact Russia’s average citizens.  Like the potential voters, Putin realizes that if the government has broad powers over the economy, then they also will receive the blame for any failures.  In order to maintain power, Putin is forced to find a different way to gain the support of the Russian people.  Regrettably, Putin has elected to resort to fanning the flames of nationalism in order to gain and maintain the support of the Russian people.  In essence, he is attempting to make the Russian people angry at someone else by blaming them for Russia’s problems.

Key to utilizing nationalism as an instrument is the ability to define the “other” as an opposing force, a force intent on doing harm.  Russia, under the leadership of Putin, has elected to identify the United States and much of Europe as the other.  (Refer again to the statements above.) 

In terms of international relations, Russia is taking an approach aimed at accomplishing two purposes.  First, he is seeking to reestablish Russian control, or at least influence in the near-abroad.  Using this approach he can protect Russia’s interests by keeping democracy and free markets safely away from areas that should be under Russia’s control.  The invasion of Georgia in 2008 and current events in Ukraine are intended in part to keep NATO and the EU at bay, to stop them from spreading to areas that historically considered part of the Russian Empire.  Second, such actions allow Russia to stand up boldly to the West and figuratively stick them in the eye.  This prompts negative responses from the West, which in turn allows Putin to identify them as opposed to Russian interests.  Russia is increasing its influence abroad by acting aggressively and decisively and it is increasing its influence domestically by increasing support for a country that now feels that it is under siege by outside forces.

The sad result is that today Russia has few international friends that provide any kind of meaningful benefit.  The West, once interested in helping Russia build a functioning democracy and free market, is now forced to react to Russia’s aggression.  Distrust is the order of the day, resulting in relations that may prove to be less open that they were during the Cold War.  Things have become so bad that President Putin left the G20 Summit in Brisbane early and Russia may end student exchanges with the United States.

As Russia loses friends in the economically viable West, it is seeking new friends elsewhere.  Closer ties with China and Iran may not, however, prove to be in the country’s long-term interests.  China has its eyes on Russian natural resources and territory in the east.  Demographic trends in Russia fuel Chinese expectations of expansion in the region.  Iran does not see Russia as a strategic friend, or even a desirable partner.  Rather Iran views Russia as an evil country that is foolish enough to provide resources to enable the development of far reaching nuclear weapons that possibly could be used against Russia in the future.

The new Eurasian Economic Union consists of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia.  None of these countries have the ability to provide much in the way of strategic value to Russia.  Belarus and Kazakhstan are taking advantage of the current sanctions against Russia to act as a trade conduit with the West, profiting by Russia’s needs and desires for western manufactured goods.  They are benefiting from Russians paying more for merchandise.

None of this has to happen.  The West truly wants a strong and stable Russia.  Putin fails to see that the biggest threat to Russia is its unwillingness to complete the transition to a more democratic form of government with more open markets.  On its current path, Russia, as it always has, will lag behind other countries that allow more freedom.  This economic and political lag creates a sense of inferiority.  The inferiority leads to a sense of being threatened.  The sense of being threatened leads to aggression and distrust. 

Russia has legitimate gripes with the EU, NATO, and the United States.  It hasn’t always been treated fairly, especially when it was nearly down and out in the 1990s.  Some actions by the West were meant to protect against a resurgent, aggressive Russia, (the type we are seeing today).  Other actions were simply the results of international politics, a process that is always messy and does not favor those with less economic and political clout.  It seems that in some instances Russia wanted its way simply because it told the West, “Please.”  How many times did the Soviet Union or the Russia of today change behavior or decisions because of a well phrased, “Please”?

Today Russia has regained some respect internationally, but it’s respect based on fear, not dignity and honor.  Russia and its people have much to offer the world in terms of culture, history, and economics, but it must find a different path to achieve mutual respect and admiration.  Of course, even with mutual respect and admiration comes significant differences of opinion and frustration, just ask the US, Germany, the UK, and France how well they get along…they just manage to do it within a set of well-defined rules and expectations.

Please see other posts regarding Russia and Ukraine:
Ukraine: The Delayed Civil War?
Russia and the West: Historical Misunderstandings
The Limits of Russian Expansion

Friday, November 14, 2014

Gruber, Being Honest about the Deception: The Costs of the Affordable Care Act

Please read the article regarding the confessions of Jonathan Gruber, one of the architects of the Affordable Care Act.  I guess they're not really confessions, but rather boasts of how he and the administration successfully fooled the American people into supporting the ACA by hiding the negative impacts of the bill.

"Obamacare Architect Mouths Off Again"

I'm not shocked by what Gruber has said.  For those who educated themselves on the issue it seemed rather obvious that the administration and the advocates of the ACA were not transparent with the American people, (Nancy Pelosi - "We'll have to pass the bill to find out what is in it".) 

The reaction from some of those on the left who have advocated for the ACA is troubling and, to put it mildly, upsetting...but not unexpected.  Here are a few snippets from Jay Carney, former White House Press Secretary:

"It's not good" - referring to what Gruber is saying.
 Gruber "speaks from the ivory tower with remarkable hubris about the American voter and by extension the American Congress."
 "To speak that way [is] very harmful politically to the president."

Mr. Carney, and others, I appreciate your concern for the president in this matter.  I would rather focus, however, on the harm done to the American people.  What about the impact of dishonesty and manipulation in order to get your way with the electorate?  What about the negative impacts of the bill that you attempted to hide from the American people?  Your accepted form of government is wrong, it's autocratic.  Your concern shouldn't be for the president that headed up this whole fiasco, but for the American people and the Constitution which swore to uphold and protect.

This is why a free and independent media is essential to a free society.  Isn't it ironic that a self-employed investor, and not a professional journalist, was the one to uncover these tidbits?

What lessons should the voters take away from this? First, if you weren't aware that the government was attempting to mislead you regarding the ACA, you need to pay more attention.  It pays to get your news from multiple sources with different biases so you know what is happening.  These facts about which Gruber is boasting were not hidden, they were just being reported by people with whom you likely disagreed.  Listen to opposing viewpoints and different sources.  Second, you get what you vote for.  Many who supported the concept of the ACA as described by the Democrat Party are not so thrilled about the impacts of the actual implementation.  Ignorance does not negate your responsibility. Third, if you helped put in the politicians who put in place harmful legislation, you must push for the political change necessary to fix the problem.

Finally, one post script question: Of all the ACA advocates, how many of them had these same types of discussions personally with Gruber?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Russia and the West: Historical Misunderstandings

Despite attempts to save the USSSR by Mikhail Gorbachev and Nursultan Nazarbayev, then First Secretary of the Communist Party in the Kazakh Republic, the Soviet Union was dissolved on December 26, 1991.  The event, in the minds and hearts of so many, meant a tectonic shift in world and regional politics.  Old realities were set aside and new possibilities were considered.  Unbelievably, the Soviet Communist threat was gone and something seemingly new rose from the ashes.

As Gorbachev and Communism faded, Boris Yeltsin ascended to center stage.  An outspoken advocate of the free market, he plunged into the task of pulling apart Moscow’s centralized economy.  Democracy arrived as well.  Individuals with a multitude of interests were elected to the Duma.  Personally, I remember the presidential elections of 1996 quite well as I was living in Russia at the time.  There was a significant degree of uncertainty as to who would win the election.  Many of the Russian people seemed apprehensive of the uncertainty in government; after all, it was something that none of those alive truly remembered.

During those first years, Yeltsin and the new Russian government made several mistakes, often at the advice of American and European advisers, in the pursuit of a vibrant economy and functioning democracy.  Many of those mistakes have had significant and negative consequences.  Throughout the 1990s, however, it seemed clear that Russia was making a serious attempt at becoming a free market democracy.  As Yeltsin pushed Russia to join the Western democracies, past differences were set aside.  Open dialogue on economic and political issues occurred across a broad spectrum.  New treaties and agreements were reached to control nuclear weapons proliferation.  On a cultural level, Russians searched out all things American, German, French, and British.  Russians felt and understood, perhaps for the first time in centuries if not ever, that they could be friends with foreigners.

Perhaps most telling to the West that Russia was serious about this transformation, was its relationship with former Soviet Republics.  Fears of fighting over geographic control proved baseless.  Territorial gains from the times of Peter the Great through Josef Stalin were allowed to slip away peacefully, including the Ukraine and Khrushchev’s gift of Crimea.  Control of a significant number of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, did provide Russia some clout in negotiating security and basing agreements.  During those years, the Russian military suffered serious degradation as focus and funding was shifted away.  The loss of military capabilities in Russia became such a serious concern, that NATO and others actually worked with Russia to make improvements and increase military effectiveness.

As Russia made its herculean push to join the Western democracies and economies, an attempt that eventually failed, the East European states applied for and begin to gain membership into NATO and the European Union.  The expansion of NATO is important for a number of reasons.

NATO was organized originally to balance the threat of force, political and military, from the Soviet Union.  With the Soviet Union gone, Russia inherently took its place. East European states, many pulled unwillingly into the Soviet sphere and the Warsaw Pact, were not quick to forget history.  In the first round of post-Soviet enlargement Poland, Hungary, and the new Czech Republic joined.  Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia were granted membership in the next round.  Albania and Croatia joined in the last round of enlargement.  Russia was still seen as a threat.

Arguments raged in the West, and with Russia, about the necessity of NATO expansion.  Russia saw it as both an insult, an arrogant declaration of victory in the Cold War, and as a merging security threat.  NATO marched eastward; providing security threats and improved military capabilities at the same time that the Russian military forces seemed on the verge of collapse.  The expansion, while distasteful to Russia, didn’t immediately sour relations with the West.  New NATO members were not states that had strong ethnic and historical ties to Russia.

NATO action in Kosovo was the first major security disagreement between the West and Russia.  Russia found itself in a position of near complete weakness, unable to impact events and decisions significantly.  The events in Kosovo occurred the same year as the largest post-Soviet NATO expansion, which include three former Soviet Republics—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.  Russian impotence was evident at home and abroad.  It is interesting to note that Vladimir Putin was appointed Prime Minister in August 1999, two months after active NATO bombing in Kosovo ended.

For the West, NATO expansion was desirable because there remained an institutional memory, especially among the military services, of Russian aggression and oppression in East Europe.  For East Europe the memories were personal and deeper, plumbing the depths of culture and nationality.  While the West expanded NATO as a deterrent to the unlikely possibility of future Russian aggression, East European states joined NATO because they knew that Russian aggression would return.  Expansion also provided a rational for maintaining the NATO alliance.

As the 1990s came to a close Russia came to see NATO and EU expansion as a direct threat to national security in both military and economic terms.  Putin and his coterie, once they gained control of the highest echelons of power in Russian government, became convinced that NATO and the EU were acting with the express intent of limiting Russian influence and power.  Following the US invasion of Iraq, Russia was again left feeling powerless to impact events.  (This reality especially was painful following Russia's willingness to support the US military action in Afghanistan.  Putin allowed for flyovers and US basing in former Soviet republics.) While they were able to affect outcomes in the UN, the US and its allies succeeded in mounting a campaign that successfully changed regimes in Iraq.  In 2008 Putin attempted to send a clear message to the West.  The invasion of Georgia was meant, in large part, to communicate that NATO and EU expansion eastward into areas long considered part of Russia must cease.  It was also an announcement that militarily, Russia was back on the scene.

Today the world looks on as events in Ukraine have highlighted a stark fact—Russia under Putin’s leadership is interested and willing to exert power to regain influence in region and to gain physical control of geographic space.  The West, despite NATO and EU expansion, seemed shocked by Russia’s actions in Ukraine and has proven unable to provide any meaningful deterrent. 

So, the looming question is, did the expansion of NATO and EU membership and influence lead to the current crisis involving Russia, Ukraine, and the West?  Or, was NATO and EU expansion simply the result of properly set expectations for the rebirth of Russian aggression?  The answers are complex and intricate.  We can, however, examine the failures of the West and Russia that contributed to the current rift between the two.

Failures of the West
The US and its NATO partners faced a difficult task in restructuring its relations with Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The West was eager to accept Russia as a new and merging economic and political partner.  Many of us remember the heady days when we were friends with Russia.  We understood they were struggling to rise from the morass created by decades of Communist rule.  Life wasn’t easy for them, but we were pulling for them.  The effects of the Communist rule on the people and environment was so bad, that none of us could foresee them going back to that form of government.  Many of us in the West were convinced that Russia would never go back to what they had before the collapse.  We were right and we were wrong.

Russia in large part abandoned socialist and communist economics.  To Putin and the new generation of Russian leaders it was clear that Communism as a system failed to keep pace with the freer markets of the West.  Unfortunately the West, due to hope and naiveté, failed to understand that national political culture does not change immediately, especially when the change was not due to a popular uprising.  The Soviet Union didn’t collapse because the masses demanded greater political and economic freedoms—the USSR simply couldn’t bear its own weight and the collapse left the people and government functionaries bewildered.  A nation with centuries of autocratic rule suddenly was expected to become a functioning democracy with a free market economy.  Forgotten was the fact that Russians never had known political and economic freedom.  The transition from tsar to commissar wasn’t much of a change politically for the Russian people.  Autocratic rule was the comfortable norm.  (The creation of the Soviet Union did create massive economic and social turmoil in the country in its early years, but the ascendency of the state restored order and a semblance of predictability.)

The experimental transition for Russia failed miserably.  Rising political and economic leaders refused to play by the new set of rules.  Chaos and uncertainty gripped a nation and a people that knew only order and predictability.  Rule of law remained elusive.  Economic opportunities were limited to a few.  Elections, rather than bringing desired results increased the chaos.  The West failed to see that the disorder, as it did in Weimar Germany, resulted in a demand for a return to something that worked, something that brought a sense of stability.  Vladimir Putin represented the return to stability.  Putin successfully morphed the flailing political system into an autocratic system of government that was and is largely acceptable to the Russian people.  The West was slow to realize that Putin represented a return, not the old Soviet political and economic models, but to the strong, unquestionable leadership of a central government reminiscent of the Russian Empire. 

As it slowly became clear that Russia was regressing politically, Europe committed a blunder in placing its energy dependence directly into the hands of Vladimir Putin.  There was, and remains, a false hope that economic interests will dominate the relationship between Russia and Europe.  Unfortunately, Putin has proven that he is willing to utilize economic and energy dependence to obtain overtly aggressive political goals.  Putin and Russia failed to play by the agreed upon rules.

In essence, Europe and the US, related with Russia based on the way they hoped and expected them to behave rather than on the reality that was taking place before their eyes.  Hundreds of years of history, was set aside and ignored, assuming that Russia would behave properly in the accepted way.  When Russia refused to play by those rules, starting with the 2008 invasion of Georgia, the West already was at a disadvantage.  Rather than fully understanding the nature of Putin and Russia following events in Georgia, the West continued to base relations on a hope of how things should be rather than on how they were or were going to be.

Finally, following the bellicose presidency of George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin saw the opportunity to act openly and aggressively in the face of the weak kneed, apologetic foreign policy of the Obama Administration.  While the powerful West European nations celebrated this new, weak American foreign policy, nations in East Europe clearly saw the writing on the wall.  Putin took advantage of the opportunity to exert aggressive foreign policy in the region as West European and US resolve has weakened.

It is also worth mentioning that Ukrainian nationalists who pulled down the Russian supported president, failed to understand the inability and unwillingness of the West to protect them from Russia.  NATO and the EU have kept Ukraine and Georgia at arms length on purpose, knowing that it could lead to a strong, negative reaction by Russia.  Unfortunately, Ukraine and the West didn’t seem to foresee Putin’s breaking point.

Failures of Putin and Russia
Today Putin is Russia in terms of domestic and foreign policy.  Russia has returned to autocratic rule for the time being.  Putin, along with any personal ambition for power that he holds, has returned Russia to a position of strength and stability using measures and methods that both he and the Russian people understand and accept.  The collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaos of the Yeltsin years taught Putin a couple of key concepts, some of which are incorrect:

-       Soviet Communism is not a viable economic system.  Russia must be able to participate in the free market system to some degree.
-       Democracy is not a good form of government especially for the Russian people.  The Russian state demands a strong central government that can and will control events and people.
-       Rule of law is based on what the government says it is.
-       The West, as evidenced by the expansion of NATO and the EU, is dedicated to the weakening of Russia.

Putin sees the West and the world through a mirror.  To the actions of the West, Putin attributes the purposes that he would have in doing something similar.  He believes in a zero-sum game, where any advantage to the West in the region is a disadvantage to Russia.  He fails to see or believe that the West could or would want an economically viable and stable Russia.  (He need only look at China to see that the West is willing to work with politically different states for economic benefit.)

In fact, the West and the rest of the world would benefit from a strong, cooperative, and law-abiding Russia. 

Putin desires economic strength and stability for Russia but fails to understand how it can be achieved.  Energy resources has provided Russia the means for pulling itself out of past economic crises, but persistent reliance on energy has created a false sense of security.  Russia’s domestic economy has failed to develop the industries necessary to sustain the economy without energy exports.  As a result, Russia’s economic stability is extremely sensitive to price fluctuations.  The development of new extraction methods in the US, and elsewhere, threatens the core of the Russian economy, and in turn its national security.

Instead of using energy resources to develop new political and economic partnerships in an acceptable way, Russia has used energy as a political weapon, punishing and coercing would be friends.  Putin has failed to understand how the international market works.  He has rejected the rules and decided to use raw power and might to exert Russian influence.

Along with a failure to understand world economics, he has failed to understand that the civilized and developed nations of the world are seeking to move past the use of military force for simple geographic gains and control.  The invasions of Georgia and Ukraine violate all international norms and expectations.  Putin, in very clear terms, has indicated that he is no respecter of international law where he has the power and opportunity to use force to make a change.  He has revealed his true character. 

Now the Russian argument is to point at US actions in Iraq and Kosovo to show that the West is guiltier of the same thing.  Unfortunately for Russia and Putin, most of the civilized world sees the difference between Russian aggression and US military action.  The US intervened in Kosovo to protect a weak and vulnerable people.  The US pulled down a violent dictator in Iraq and then largely left the country, much as they have in Afghanistan.  Russia invaded the sovereign state of Georgia to protect people that were never truly threatened and to send a message that they would not tolerate deepening relations with the West.  The invasion of Ukraine is more of the same.  It is a blatant aggression aimed at restoring Russian influence and direct control over a sovereign nation that presented no overt threat to the Russian state.

Russia’s shrinking list of international partners and supporters does not consist of those who can make a positive long-term improvement for the country.  China has long-term aims in Russia’s Far East.  Once Russia degrades sufficiently due to demographic trends and a failing economy, China will move in to seize territory and resources.  Their relationship is reminiscent of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact just before the Nazi invasion.  Russia’s other partners in the region are similar autocratic nations whose greatest hope of economic improvement is to suck from the teat of the Russian Bear.  As Russia isolates itself from the West, it is being force to partner with nations who may cooperate but have nothing worthwhile to commit to the relationship.

While the future of Ukraine looks bleak in the face of the West’s impotence, Russia’s future appears stark as well.  Over the short-term Russia may attempt to reassert control over former territories.  The West must accept the Putin and Russia are willing to be aggressive and violate international law and norms.  They should explore and develop methods for deterring the Russians while inviting the to join the international community.  Russia must find a way to break out of its historical mold.  Economically and politically Russia is trying methods that are proven failures. 

Meanwhile, the people of Ukraine wait and wonder.  The people of the Baltics and East Europe wait and wonder.  Will they once again fall under the unpleasant control of a reemerging Russian empire?

See also:
Ukraine: The Delayed Civil War

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Louis L'Amour - The Wisdom of a Pulp Fiction Writer

"If you write a book set in the past about something that happened east of the Mississippi, it's a 'historical novel.'  If you write about something that took place west of the Mississippi, it's a 'Western'-and somehow regarded as a lesser work.  I write historical novels about the frontier."  
     - Louis L'Amour
Many is the time I found myself lost in the desert fighting the elements and other men for survival.  In fur and self-made clothing I have traveled the length and breadth of Siberia on foot.  I have descended into the kiva on a haunted mesa and entered the Third World.  I have stepped onto new shores, crossed mountain passes, and rivers.  Ancient cities have housed me.  I have built new towns and communities.  Treasure, love, and challenge have called out to me.

The power of Louis L'Amour's books are palpable.  His stories capture important aspects of the human experience.  They are simple stories about struggle, striving, failure, and triumph.  His plots are simple, yet direct.  To me they transmit important historical and cultural mores and values that define part of America and part of who I want to be.  A couple of his novels took place where I grew up.  It was easy for me to place myself in his novels of the west, of the frontier.  There, where I was a boy, the frontier was in the not too distant past.  Old roads and trails, dilapidated buildings gave evidence of the closeness of the wilder days.

L'Amour captured the American drive to become somebody, to create something of lasting value.  His characters were men and women who willingly suffered hardship, risk, and misfortune in the pursuit of something better.  They exemplified personal responsibility, ambition, and, in the midst of the wild, the value of civilization.  These ideas of civilization and the opportunity offered by the frontier today seem a paradox.  Many have given in to the pull of collective responsibility where risk is avoided, responsibility belongs to "them", and ambition is a sin to be covered and hidden.

While his plot lines may not have some of the complexity that we enjoy in our literature, he shared a vision and a sense of wisdom that is classic and, if applied, still valuable today.  For an entertaining and inspiring read, pick up a L'Amour.  Follow the story of the Sacketts, come to know Bendigo Shafter, learn of the difference between healthy ambition and unbridled greed.  There is something to be said for men and women who do, and those are the type of people that L'Amour created.

To whet your appetite here are few of my favorite quotes from Louis L'Amour.  (I have to admit that a number of years ago I started reading some of his books with a pencil in hand to underline a few things.)

"A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own.  The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time."

"The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail.  Travel too fast, and you miss all you are traveling for."

"Up to a point a person's life is shaped by environment, heredity, and changes in the world about them.  Then there comes a time when it lies within their grasp to shape the clay of their life into the sort of thing they wish it to be.  Only the weak blame parents, their race, their times, lack of good fortune or the quirks of fate.  Everyone has the power to say, 'This I am today.  That I shall be tomorrow.'"

"The way I see it, every time a man gets up in the morning he starts his life over.  Sure, the bills are there to pay, and the job is there to do, but you don't have to stay in a pattern.  You can always start over, saddle a fresh horse and take another trail."

"Violence is an evil thing, but when the guns are all in the hands of the men without respect for human rights, then men are really in trouble."

"Too often I would hear men boast of the miles covered that day, rarely of what they had seen."

"We are, finally, all wanderers in search of knowledge.  Most of us hold the dream of becoming something better than we are, something larger, richer, in some way more important to the world and ourselves.  Too often, the way taken is the wrong way, with too much emphasis on what we want to have, rather than what we wish to become."

"Books are precious things, but more than that, they are the strong backbone of civilization.  They are the thread upon which it all hangs, and they can save us when all else is lost."

Finally, for all those stories that he took with him to the grave:

"I have told many, yet when I go down that last trail, I know there will be a thousand stories hammering at my skull, demanding to be told."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reed Van Wagoner: A Life of Service - More to Come

I’m having a difficult time with my father’s retirement as a police officer.  For thirty-three years he has been involved in law enforcement.  That covers the bulk of my life.  

Here’s a quick timeline of his service:

-       1981: Police Officer, Duchesne City Police Department (Who remembers when Duchesne City had their own police department?)
-       1983: Deputy Sheriff, Duchesne County Police Department
-       1988: Master-at-Arms, United States Navy active duty
-       1991: Deputy Sheriff, Duchesne County Police Department
-       1995: Police Officer, Provo City Police Department

He still continues to serve in the US Navy Reserve.  During all of his time in law enforcement he has been a trainer, an investigator, chief deputy, sergeant, and lieutenant.  For twelve years in Provo he worked as detective investigating sex crimes.  His conviction rate and service set a new standard for the City of Provo.  During those years he was activated and deployed by the US Navy Reserve three times, two of those to active war zones where Islamic militants rained mortars down on his installation.  He had one brief period where he worked in the private sector for a friend, but continued to serve as a reserve deputy.  Often during his career he did extra construction jobs and things on the side to bring in enough income to provide for his growing family.

When I returned from serving my LDS mission in Russia, another officer in Provo asked me if I was ready to apply to the police academy.  There was no way, I told him, that I could do what police officers do: shift work, working holidays, missing family events, dealing with blood and gore at accident and crime scenes, dealing with belligerent and foolish people on a regular basis, insufficient pay.  I think I made the young police officer question his decision to join the long blue line.  In short, I wasn’t willing to make the same sacrifices my father had to serve others.

I won’t attempt to speak for him regarding his career or for those he served and helped along the way.  I will share some of what I observed, experienced, and felt.

Being the child of a law enforcement officer is exciting, frightening, annoying, humorous and sometimes painful. 

It’s exciting because your father is out there protecting you and everyone else from the bad guys.  Growing up in the home of a law enforcement officer you learn that the bad guys are real.  You also learn about the fragility of life and the sadness that comes from accidents and sickness.  On a regular basis I was able to ride in his police vehicle with a souped up engine, flashing lights, and siren.  When he was a deputy sheriff in Duchesne County, he would prepare me for what could happen during the course of a shift.  He would make sure I knew where we were located in case something happened and I needed to call dispatch to get help.  I had specific instructions to hide if anything dangerous happened.  During those early years I mostly saw him pull over a few speeders, saw a few self-inflicted gun shot wounds caused by hunters who had decided that extensive drinking and firearms were a fun mix, and went on a few search and rescue missions. 

Another deputy was killed while he worked for Duchesne County, shot on accident by another deputy.  It brought home the reality of the risks associated with his work.  More than once I saw worry on my mother’s face when my dad was late coming home from a shift.  At the beginning of my dad’s career we had a police radio scanner in the house.  It was fun to listen to it and know what was happening.  After awhile my parents got rid of it with the excuse that it was nice to take a break from work.  It was also nice to relax and not worry about what you were hearing when dad was on duty.  My poor mother was a dispatcher for a short period while my dad was working for Duchesne City or the County.  She listened on the phone while my dad was at a domestic dispute.  The caller kept telling her to call out backup because the officer was getting the crap beat out of him.  I think she moved on to something different shortly after that.  While all of us face risk going out the door every day, law enforcement officers face it even more, knowing that they might have to put their life on the line for someone else all while dealing with thoughts of their own loved ones at home.

Having a parent or relative in law enforcement in small town enhances the experience in some aspects.  You tend to find out a lot more about people than you really want to know.  Also, friends, neighbors, and others like to blame you for their troubles with law enforcement, especially when it was your relative who was involved.  I don’t know how many times I was told that my dad, and by association me, was a terrible person because he arrested so and so for doing such and such and it was none of his business anyway.  Usually I would just shrug it off, realizing that people don’t like to be caught doing something they shouldn’t.  Several of these types of complainers would assume that I knew what had happened…usually I didn’t until they informed me of all the wonderful details, some of which was occasionally incriminating.  In rare instances, I did feel that perhaps my dad had been too harsh with the offender and would ask him about it and he would patiently explain why he had take that course of action. 

Here is one of my favorite complaints from friends and others in the small town environment.  Duchesne is a small, mostly agricultural community with the occasional oil boom.  It is common for teens to start driving on the farm at a very young age.  Many of these teens and others, usually with their parents’ permission, will decide it’s okay for them to drive on the roads with regular traffic.  Invariably, my dad would pull these youth over and usually send them home with a warning and occasionally a written citation.  Once caught these people would whine and complain to me about how stupid and unfair it was that he would dare to stop them.  So, finally I asked him about it.  His response?  If they caused an accident driving before they were licensed, there would be serious consequences.  First, they might be delayed in getting their drivers licenses.  Second, their parents may have to pay for the accident out of their pocket with no help from the insurance company.  Third, unprepared and unqualified drivers are more likely to cause serious accidents that result in harm.  It wouldn’t fair to allow them to drive putting themselves and others at greater risk.  Anyway, I’ll get off of that soapbox now except to say that I never got to drive on the roads by myself before I had my license, so who had it fair?

Law enforcement officers interact with some of the most bizarre people and situations on a fairly regular basis.  Some of them are disturbing and some are extremely funny.  Listening to my dad’s stories is one of my favorite past times, especially when there are other officers there to share their stories.  Here are just a couple of stories that I remember.  (Of course, my memory may not be completely accurate.) 

I’m reasonably certain the first one happened to my dad.  If not, that’s okay because it’s still entertaining.  Back in the early 80s it was common to hear my dad tell stories of the latest arrests for DUI and public intoxication.  For one of these they had arrested a woman who was very drunk and larger than my father, who is not a small person.  In the booking room at the Sheriff’s Office, this lady backed into my dad and sat on him.  Before he could get up and before the other deputies could rescue him she proceeded to urinate all over him.  Good times. 

Another story I love occurred when he was in Provo.  He and another officer were called to a lady who was complaining about aliens performing experiments on her while she slept.  When they arrived she related how they were sending microwaves up through her floor into her bed.  Because of these microwaves she couldn’t sleep.  She wanted to be left alone.  My dad said,  “Now, I’m not saying I believe you and I’m saying I don’t, but I do know how to stop microwaves.” 

Thrilled that someone had finally listened to her, she asked, “How?”

“Do you have any aluminum foil?”


“Go get some.  We’ll lay it shiny side down under the bed and it will block the microwaves and reflect them back down.”

He spent the next few minutes helping her lay the aluminum under the bed while the other officer watched in disbelief.  As far as I know they were never called back to help with the alien experiments again.

Okay, we have time for two more stories that involve me directly.

As I mentioned I loved to ride along with my dad when he was on duty.  Sometimes he would have me wait in the vehicle while he ran into different places.  Often the wait would be extensive.  On one occasion he went into the Duchesne County Courthouse.  I waited forever and became bored.  Looking around I found a partial roll of breath mints.  My dad wasn’t a big breath mint person so I was sure he wouldn’t mind if I took one.  One wasn’t enough so I took another.  Finally, as I was unwrapping the packaging for a third one he got back in his vehicle.  He looked at what I was doing and smiled.

“Did you eat one of those already?”

“Yes, two already.  Why?”

“They’re not mine.”

“Who’s are they?”

“They fell out of the purse of the extremely drunk and dirty lady that I arrested last night.”

“No, it didn’t.”

Laughing, he responded, “Oh, yes it did.”

They tasted clean, kind of minty.

Fast-forward several years to when my father was in Provo.  I had been home from my mission to Russia for just a short time.  I was riding with my dad on the swing shift, which is when all the fun, crazy stuff happens in Provo.  Dispatch contacted my dad.  The night clerk at a local motel suspected that some teenagers were about to have a drinking party in one of the rooms.  We drove over to the motel to take a look.  The clerk pointed out the room.  Some of the teens saw us when they opened the door, and went back inside quickly.  As we were standing there, a case of beer was suddenly thrown on top of a solid brick fence on one side of the motel.  Putting his finger to his lips, my dad motioned me to follow him quietly to the wall.  Reaching up he took the case of beer.

A voice whispered, “Is that you?”

“Yes,” my dad whispered back.

“Good.  Hurry, take it.”

Quickly they set several more cases on top of the wall.  We took them, setting them quietly on the ground.   Finally, one of the two young guys handing us the beer jumped up on the wall to help carry the beer to the party.  As he looked down at my dad, his eyes got huge.  He looked at us and at the room where his friends were staring through the window at what was happening.

Still whispering, my dad asked, “Is that all of the beer?”

The kid on the other side, who hadn’t seen us, whispered, “Yes, that’s all of it.”

Coming to his senses the kid on the wall slid back over before my dad could grab him and yelled, “Run, it’s the cops.”

We didn’t even try to chase them.  Calmly, amidst our laughing, we put the confiscated beer into my dad’s vehicle while the kids watched from the hotel room.  Before we left he went to the room of crestfallen, would-be partiers.

“It looks like you won’t be having the fun you had expected.  Hopefully you didn’t lose too much of your money.  I suggest everyone go home now or I’ll start calling parents.”

My dad loved to serve and help other people.  That was why he loved being in law enforcement.  His goal was to keep people safe and help them wherever he could.  He was never quick to write a ticket or arrest someone if it wasn’t necessary.  He would rather give out friendly advice than a ticket.  Friends and neighbors knew they could ask him for help at any time.  It was a life that impacted me deeply.  Because of his service, I joined the Air Force and served for a short time.  His example causes me to question my motives on a daily basis.  It makes me want to make a difference in the lives of my family and in the lives of others. 

A quick word about my mother.  I don’t speak or write about her publicly very often.  She is a private person and I get emotional when I speak of her.  For almost forty years of marriage my parents have supported and loved each other.  I think of all the nights and days when my mother was on her own with her children or by herself.  I think of those times when my father was called out in the middle of the night to go provide aid to someone else even as they dealt with their own struggles.  While she wasn’t always quiet and cheerful in her support, because that’s not who my mother is, she made him a better person and allowed him to bless the lives of so many other people.  They will be off to new and exciting adventures that will involve more service.

One of the last times I rode with my dad was just after he had been promoted to lieutenant.  It was a couple of years ago.  An elderly neighbor from his ward called to ask him if he could help find his daughter, a middle aged women with a disability.  She was due to return from a trip on a bus but didn’t arrive on the bus.  They had no idea where she was and had no way of getting in touch with her.  My dad promised to find her.  For the next couple of hours my dad went to the various bus stops where she may have gotten off early.  We asked people if they had seen her.  Finally, we pulled into the McDonald’s just off of University in Orem and saw here sitting in at a booth.  She was frightened and scared.

As we walked in my dad called her name.  She looked up and her face brightened.

“Reed, you found me!  How did you know to look here?”

“We just kept looking until we found you.”

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

World Protests and US Influence

To date 2014 has proven an eventful year on the international stage.  Two events bear mentioning again.  First, the Maidan protests in Kiev.  In response to dissatisfaction with their president over the debate between ties with EU or Russia, the people managed to pull down the president and change the government.  Tumultuous results have followed as Russian and Ukraine have struggled for control of territory and of the message regarding events and intentions.  Second, is the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong.  The people are demanding the right to elect a new leader in the city.  Naturally the Chinese government is refusing in order to maintain control of the situation.

Occupy Central


The Russian government and media has made bold claims that the US government is behind the movements in Ukraine and now in Hong Kong.  Looking into my crystal ball, I am unable to determine to what extent the US has had a hand in directing or causing events to happen in these places.  It’s possible that the Russian government has sources that know more than I do.  By making this claim the Russian government is giving the US a lot of credit.  To begin with, I don’t think that our current president is that interested or devoted to impacting events in foreign countries.  His statements and his actions seem to be more of the hands off type of policy rather than the engage to make a difference type of thinking.  The Russians are giving him credit for something that I don’t believe holds his interest.  I’m not claiming we’ve been hands off completely in these areas, but I don’t think we have enough influence to make something of this magnitude happen.

Next, President Putin and his fellows are making claims that would require us to believe that leaders and people in some of these countries have a lot of trust in President Obama to support them.  Again, his word and actions have indicated that under his watch the US will be largely hands off, trusting the rest of the world to deal with events on their own.  If protest leaders in Ukraine and Hong Kong were acting under the direction or influence of President Obama’s Administration, they were taking a significant and unwise risk in assuming that US support will be available in a meaningful and timely manner.

Finally, the Russian government gives the US credit for being much more effective than we ever have been in the past at starting and controlling major international events.  Perhaps they forget how surprised we were when the Soviet Union imploded.  In fact, around that time President Bush the First was calling on the people of Ukraine to remain a part of the Soviet Union in order to avoid bloodshed and uncertainty.  They didn’t listen to us then.  If the Russians truly believe that we are that effective in instigating events around the world, then they should be extremely terrified of us.  Instead they seem quite willing to poke their thumbs in our eyes, knowing that we won’t do much about it, except maybe throw down a sanction or two.

I do, however, believe that the US is largely responsible for what happened in Ukraine and what is happening now in Hong Kong.  I don’t think this is happening in any way because of what our government representatives have said or done.  Rather, I think that many of these people are emboldened by the idea of the United States and the freedoms that we hold dear.  They, as well as us, recognize that the United States is not perfect.  Our pull instead is in the pathway to a better life, a better existence, one in which people are allowed to be responsible for themselves and to impact the government.  The people of Ukraine grew tired of living in a country that fit the pattern of a former Soviet State where they had a limited ability to impact the decisions and direction of government.  When the president defied the wishes of the majority in attempt to align Ukraine with Russia, the people had enough and demanded the right of self-determination.  In Hong Kong, the people have known freedoms that come from the tradition of the United Kingdom and the United States.  Now they are facing the loss of those freedoms.  They know what they mean and are refusing to let them go without a fight.

President Putin and Minister Lavrov, you are correct.  The idea of the United States and other free countries is the cause of the discontent in Ukraine and Hong Kong.  They want similar freedoms.  They desire the right to have elections that mean something.  They want government officials who answer to the people.  They want freedom and diversity of the press.  They want economic freedoms.  The idea of the United States and freedom, unfortunately, is seen as a threat to the security of the government in Russia.  It is the clash between two separate ideas:

-  That it is the right and responsibility of a select few to determine a course for the many with little to no input from the people.  That it is the right of all the people to select a few to do their will in setting a course of the country.

The United States is unique and exceptional.  So is the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Australia, Canada, and so many other places because the people have a voice in shaping and directing their government.  In these countries government officials live in uncertainty regarding their future.  In other places, the people live in uncertainty because the government is free to do whatever it chooses.

See also:
Ukraine: The Delayed Civil War