Friday, December 12, 2014

Stage Left to Stage Right: A Tale of Fun at DHS

This is a short recollection of an event from my 7th grade year at Duchesne High School.  It's mostly accurate, I think.

“Did you get it?” I asked impatiently while trying to keep a look out for our teacher. 

We had less than a minute before she would come back to find us.  Quickly I glanced back at my two friends, JS and MW.  They were attempting to unlock the bar on the exterior door to the high school auditorium so we could sneak back in later during our lunch break.

“Got it,” JS said, closing the door quietly.

Turning we ran back down the aisles between the seats and upon to the stage just as our teacher stepped out from the dressing rooms.

“Come on you guys.  Quit playing around.”

As I followed her I looked back at the long rope hanging from the rafters at center stage.  One more class period until lunch, then we would be back.  The rope held so much potential.

We wolfed down our lunches over at the elementary school and then hustled back up the sidewalk to the side door of the auditorium.  With a quick look around, we ducked through the door, locking it behind us.  The large room was dark and eerily silent.  Carefully we made our way up onto the stage.  Feeling around we found the light switches, bathing the stage in bright lights for our pending adventure.

MW grabbed the end of the rope.  It was thick, maybe three inches with a large knot tied at the bottom.  Rope in hand we climbed up the ladder at stage left, to the small platform about 20 feet up on the wall.  The platform was small, crowded with old, abandoned stage props from productions past.  There was barely enough room for the three of us. 

The length of the stage lay before us.  We were ready to experience it at high speed.  I was anxious for my turn.  Since MW pulled the rope up we decided to let him go first.  Holding tightly to the rope, he carefully climbed over the railing of the platform.  With a deep breath and a scream, he jumped.

He flew across the stage with a full-throated yell.  As he reached the apex of his swing at stage right, the backstage door from the hallway opened.  In walked Principal JD and another teacher.  They looked up to see MW fall from the sky right in front of them and then streak away toward the other end of the stage.

Quickly JS and I ducked behind the props on the platform, hoping to remain unseen.  MW gave one brief look at us as he came back up toward the platform; his eyes were a cross between terror and amusement. 

Passing back out over center stage, MW offered a weak greeting to our esteemed principal.

“Hey, JD.  What are you doing in the auditorium?”

The initial look of shock was receding slowly from the principal’s face as he began to realize what he was seeing.  Unfortunately the teacher with him remained confused for at least a few more swings.

“Well, hello MW!  What are you up to?”

“Not much.  Just going for a swing.”

“Really?  Just a swing?  All by yourself?”

JD looked around, expecting to find some co-conspirators.  MW was a very social person, not likely to be engaged in any mischief alone.

Coming back by again, MW answered: “Yes, I’m alone.  Couldn’t get anyone to come over with me.”

I felt JS shaking next to me, trying to keep his breathing quiet.  Neither of us wanted to get caught, even for something so trivial.  Luckily for us MW was an expert at being in trouble.  I hoped he could keep us safe, the same way he had when we built the clubhouse off campus in elementary school. 

As his kinetic energy began to zero out, MW dragged a leg across the floor to bring him to a full stop. 

JD remained unconvinced that MW was swinging by himself on the stage during the lunch period.  MW was never alone.

“Come on, you’re really in here swinging all by yourself?”

He was squinting his eyes looking around the stage and into the darkness of the empty auditorium seating. 

“Yeah, I like to come here to swing by myself sometimes.  You know, just to clear my head.”

JS forced out another controlled breathe next to me.  I realized I was doing the same thing.

MW compliantly walked over to JD.

“So, I guess we’re going to your office to talk for awhile?”

“Yes.  I guess this is worth a chat.”

As they walked away, MW looked straight ahead, giving no indication of our hiding place.  JD stopped at the door and turned to look around one more time.  As he walked out, he turned the lights out plunging the stage and auditorium into a deep darkness. 

JS and I stayed in place for a few more minutes just in case JD tried to slip back in to catch us coming out of hiding.  Climbing down from the platform was a bit iffy in near pitch-black darkness.  With a few bangs and a slip or two we made it safely back to the stage and made our way quickly to the exterior door.  We slipped into the bright sunlight and walked away safely.

It turns out that MW had to sit through a half serious lecture for about twenty minutes in JD’s office.  He talked about the importance of rules and being safe.  He asked him a few more times about swinging alone on the stage.  He never gave us away.

Looking back on the events of that day, I still think about that rope.  Part of me wishes I had carried the rope up and taken the first and only swing.  Flying across that stage with a dark auditorium to one side would have been amazing.  Looking down to see JD and the other teacher standing there would have added to the thrill. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Swing Shift: Race, Body Cameras, and Safety in Law Enforcement

For the third time he watched the video with his captain, trying to explain what had happened.  It was simple domestic dispute.  Now his partner was dead and he was sitting in a hospital bed.  The day had started out so differently for everyone.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he leaned over to tie his shoes.  His shift started in thirty minutes, just enough time to finish suiting up and make it to the precinct.  It was his second day back on swings.  The transition from graveyard to swing was the toughest for him, throwing his sleep pattern into disarray.  Also, for the next four weeks he wouldn’t see much of his children except for in the mornings.  He made himself wake up early enough to eat breakfast with them and see them off to school, and then he tried to get a couple of more hours of sleep.  Usually he wasn’t successful.

With shoes on he walked quickly down the stairs to retrieve his gun belt from the top of the refrigerator.  Along the way he paused, as he did before every shift, to look at the pictures of his family on the wall.  The picture in the center showed a happy family, posed together in matching clothing with a scenic backdrop from a nearby park behind them--mother, father and four young children.  Individual pictures of the children surrounded the larger family picture.  He and his wife had been married for eight years.  The children had come quickly, welcomed into a cheerful and loving home.  Well the home was as cheerful as you can expect with four young children keeping mother busy while father was transitioning between shifts every four weeks or so.

Tonight had the potential to be special.  His oldest daughter, Maddie, had a dance recital in an area of town that fell into his assigned patrol area.  His partner had suggested that they stop by the recital to watch.  Maddie loved to show off her daddy in uniform.  If the calls fell right, they should be able to see her dance and stay around for punch and cookies after the recital.  His wife was excited for a little extra help wrangling the two-year old Jeb.  Jeb, who hated to hold still for almost anything, was enthralled by his dad’s uniform with the various pins, patches, and accouterments.  The twins, who had followed just a year after Maddie, were now six years old.  Both Adam and Allison were surprisingly well behaved for their age, perhaps to make up for all the hard work they created for their mother during their first three years.

Looking in the mirror he adjusted his gun belt one more time, trying to shift the bulletproof vest to make it more comfortable.  Luckily the autumn weather was cool, making the vest more bearable.  Turning to the door he remembered one more thing, the newly issued body camera.  He and a few dozen other officers had received the cameras just a week ago as part of a pilot program.  Reaching back up on the fridge he pulled down the camera and strapped it to his chest.  With the heavy vest, he hardly noticed the small, light camera.

His wife was out running errands before picking up the kids from school.  With a last glance at the pictures he left the house.

Two and a half hours into an uneventful shift he was feeling hopeful that they would make it to the recital.  So far they had responded to a disturbing the peace call that was called in by an old man who hated disliked the young teenagers next door.  With the music turned down calm was restored, at least for now.  During a short foot patrol through one of the parks they had managed to nod their heads to several joggers and they gave one person directions to an elusive street address.  With just under an hour until the start of the recital, things were looking good.

Unfortunately, trouble waits for nobody, especially for police officers.

“Unit 342, Control.”

“Control, this is Unit 342.”

“342 we have a report of a 10-16 in progress at apartment 112 in the Greenbriar Complex.  Other units are 10-6.  Are you able to respond?”

He looked at his partner, feeling his daughter’s recital start to slip away. 

“Well, Daniels, doesn’t look like we’ll make it to the recital.”

“Don’t despair yet, Hansen.  Watch us work a quick miracle.”

He keyed the mike and responded:

“10-4, show us en route.  What other details do you have?”

“Caller states that her husband and son are arguing loudly.  They’re starting to push and shove with a few punches thrown.  She is unable to get either of them to leave.”

“Copy.  Are we aware of any guns in the home?”

“Caller indicates that she is not aware of any firearms in the home.  The son does have some priors for assault and petty theft.”

When they arrived, the fight had escalated and moved to the front yard.  Several neighbors were out watching as the police cruiser parked along the curb.  Both officers quickly exited their vehicle and headed in the direction of the altercation, ignoring a few of the taunts and jeers from a few of the neighbors who weren’t fans of law enforcement.  Father and son were mostly yelling, though both had blood on their faces. 

“Break it up!  Break it up now!” Hansen yelled.  For a second anger and sadness welled up inside of him as he thought of his daughter looking around the room for her daddy knowing that she would be disappointed again.

Both men were large and physically dominating.  Neither even acknowledged the presence of the officers.  Neighbors and others began to shout encouragement to the combatants and jeers toward the officers.

“Control, 342.  We’re going to need back up as soon as you can send it.”

Hansen glanced nervously at the growing crowd of neighbors.  What he saw made him nervous for two reasons?  First, there were several young children who didn’t need to be exposed to this violence.  Second, he and Daniels were two white officers in an economically challenged African American neighborhood with a high crime rate.  They were unlikely to get any help from the neighbors and may even get the opposite. 

A woman, who must have been the caller, began to scream at the officers, “Stop him!  Stop him before he beats my husband to death.  What are you waiting for?”

Suddenly he felt the weight of the body camera on his chest.  It was now clear that he and Daniels were going to have to use force to break up the fight.  Everything they did would be recorded and potentially dissected by the police department, the media, lawyers, and maybe even a jury.  His training told him what he needed to do in terms of use of force.  When he was issued the camera he was told to stick to that training.  For his own safety, the safety of his partner, and for the safety of the community, he knew he needed to forget that the body camera was recording what was happening.

But he couldn’t so easily forget.  Here he was with two large men trying to beat each other senseless surrounded by a group of people that seemed to hate him and his partner.  If this goes down badly, the video will become the focus of a public trial by the media, in social media, and by the police department.  The need to stop the violent actions of these two men in this moment was not dictated by race.  It was their sworn duty to enforce the law regardless of race.  If things were to get out of hand, however, the fallout would be driven by race and the perception of racial injustice.  Perhaps institutional racism, inequities in the past and future had led these two men to their current actions.  Even if that were the case, how should it impact the actions of two law enforcement officers trying to enforce the law?  To use force will be seen as an exhibit of racism.  To ignore the need to enforce the law in a black neighborhood will result in charges of racism as well.  What could they do but their duty? 

Hansen had been in such situations several times over the past six years.  In an effort to prepare him, thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours had been spent to teach him how to reduce the tension verbally without the use of force.  In this circumstance, however, he recognized that events had moved beyond their ability to restore order with words only.  Force would have to be applied to one or both parties.  The goal would be to avoid escalating the use of force beyond what was necessary to restore order, protect those involved, and to protect his life and Daniels’ life. 

He and Daniels would follow their training, but he would make sure they were extra deliberate about their decisions and vigilant about appropriate use of force.  Hansen wanted to go home to his wife and children and he wanted to go home without the fear of any unfair retribution for doing his job.  And, he wanted to get Daniels home safely.

Carefully both officers moved forward, hands on their holstered weapons.  Hansen’s thoughts kept returning to how the video would play out after the altercation.  Would he be able to justify what would be on the video?

“Hansen.  Hansen, tell me again, why did you hesitate here?” asked the captain pausing the video.

Sitting in his hospital bed, he could hear two other officers speaking in the hallway.

“Daniels’ wife didn’t take the news well.  The baby is only eight months old.  Won’t even remember his father.”

Monday, November 24, 2014

Crimea's Russian Destiny

Tonight I’m going to take a controversial stance on the issue of the Crimea.  Without condoning the methods employed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the annexation, it is my opinion that, when all is said and done, Crimea should belong to Russia, at least more than it should belong to Ukraine.  History, demographics, and public opinion fall heavily on Russia’s side of the ledger on this issue.

The history of Crimea, as with any geographic area that has hosted civilizations, is complex.  Tribes and nations have come and gone, leaving in their wake no certainty regarding ownership of the land.  How do we track right to a land that has been populated by the Cimmerians, the Scythians, the Greeks, the Golden Horde, Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and Russians?  The Cimmerians and Scythians would be difficult to locate today.  Ancient Greek colonies along the Black Sea coast of Crimea no longer exist; abandoned ruins are all that remain in places like Chersonesus and Feodosiya.  The Greeks obviously have no viable play left for the Crimean peninsula.  Crimean Tatars put in place the Khanate, a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, followed the Golden Horde. 

Under Catharine the Great, the Russian Empire wrested control of the peninsula away from the Khanate and the Ottoman Empire in 1783.  In the 19th century, the Russian Empire sought to gain additional territory as the Ottoman Empire began to climb.  Using the rights of Christians in the Holy Land as a reason, Russia went to war in Crimea against an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia.  It was a shock that the Christian nations of the West sided with the Muslim authority, giving rise to the idea that Russia was the defender of Christianity and civilization.  In open conflict with the West, Russian blood was spilled on Crimean soil, tying the land tightly to Russia.

From 1783 to 1954, Crimea was part of Russia.  Today there wouldn’t be any question about ownership of the Crimea if it weren’t for Nikita Khrushchev.  For a variety of reasons, Khrushchev basically gifted Crimea to Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954.  It seems certain, that at the time, the gift seemed largely symbolic due to the expected longevity of the Soviet Union.  Nobody expected it to become a geographic pawn between the Russian and Ukrainian nations.

Demographics in Crimea make Russia’s case of territorial possession stronger.  As of the 2001 census, Russians make up 60.4% of the population.  Only 24% of the population is ethnic Ukrainians.  Russians have outnumbered Ukrainians since Russia gained control of the territory.  In terms of national and ethnic identity, Crimea is not Ukrainian--it's more Russian.

The only other argument for territorial control that is viable today belongs to the Crimean Tatars.  After World War II, the Crimean Tatars were deported from the peninsula forcibly and allowed to return en masse only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Today they make up more than 10% of the population in Crimea.  While the Tatars could mount a convincing argument for political control of the peninsula, their current numbers and the power of the Russian state make that highly improbable.

Public Opinion
In 2008 I was in Ukraine on a business trip for the US Air Force Academy.  As part of the trip we spent some time in Yalta and other parts of the Crimea.  One evening a few others and I went to dinner at a Georgian restaurant in Yalta.  This was just after the Russian invasion of Georgia.  Neither Georgians nor Americans were popular at the time.  As we sat in the restaurant, we could hear loud cheering and chanting at a nearby public arena.  Our hostess seemed very nervous at our presence and partway through dinner asked if we were Americans.  When we answered in the affirmative, she almost started to cry.  I asked here about the noise and what was wrong.  She informed us that there was a large pro-Russian/anti-American gathering taking place at the nearby arena.  She begged us to eat quickly, leave quietly, and to lie about being American.

The meal was delicious as Georgian food usually is.  Unfortunately, our departure coincided with the end of the rally.  Walking back to our hotel, we put our heads down to try to avoid any attention.  In the middle of the boardwalk a group of young Russian men stopped us, grabbing one of my associates by the arm.

“Who are you?  Where are you from?  Are you Americans?”

An entire group of about 15-20 men stopped around us, waiting to hear our answer.

Looking up, I smiled at them, and with poor pronunciation I said, “No, we’re from Canada!”

The mood immediately lightened and several of them clapped us on the back.

“We love Canadians!  Welcome to Crimea!  We hate the Americans.”

“And we hate the Ukrainians,” yelled another one to the cheers of his fellows.

Over a period of three years I traveled to Crimea on four separate occasions.  There was an overwhelming sense of belonging to and support for Russia.  Russian national flags flew from dozens of buildings in Sevastopol alongside the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

One poll in 2008 indicated that over 60% of the population in Crimea was open to the idea of seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.  The same poll revealed that a significant portion was willing to stay with Ukraine if given greater political autonomy. 

The fall of the Yanukovych and the rise of Russian attention on Ukraine lead to a popular uprising of support in Crimea to join with Russia.  Calls for a referendum on annexation arose almost at once.  Polling prior to the referendum, by local and third party sources, again indicated overwhelming support to leave Ukraine and join Russia.  The credibility of the actual referendum is questionable because of the percentage voting in favor of annexation—over 96%.  Such results indicate that results were manipulated to some degree or another.  Even without the manipulation, it is likely that the vote would have shown overwhelming support for annexation to Russia.

Among all of the issues impacting the question of territorial control of Crimea, the only one that is not on the side of Russia is the legality of the annexation.  The referendum and seizure of Crimea was not done in accordance with international law and norms.  Without the assistance of a legal expert, I’m limited in my ability to hit all of the relevant issues.  I would venture to guess, however, that Russia would not recognize a similar vote for independence in a place like Chechnya or Dagestan.  The annexation of Crimea flies directly in the face of Russia’s claims of control over its own territories populated by non-Russians.

The legality of the annexation is made more questionable by Russia’s role, perceived or real, in aiding and abetting separatists in eastern Ukraine.  

Ukraine's Need for Crimea
Crimea is important to Ukraine for two primary reasons.  First, it provides a strategic location for the basing of naval forces in the Black Sea.  It provides a method for Ukraine to protect the rest of its Black Sea coast and establishes a degree of legitimacy in terms of military projection.  Second, and more importantly, the annexation of Crimea by Russia represents a direct threat to Ukrainian statehood.  If Russia can seize Crimea from a sovereign state, using historical arguments of national ties and based on a referendum that was conducted illegally and outside of accepted international norms, then Ukrainian statehood is under a real and direct threat of extinction.  

The annexation of Crimea is Russia's gate on the path to seizing greater swaths of Ukraine if they so desire, starting with east Ukraine where they can (and are) fomenting separatist movements with political and military support.  Further if the Russian government and military can weaken the Ukrainian government sufficiently and cause enough violence and instability, then President Putin may well use it to justify sending in forces in order to protect Russia from the expanding chaos.  Essentially, President Putin will pull regurgitate bastardized versions of NATO arguments for bombing Serbia and for the US invasion of Iraq.

With all of the factors weighed, Russia has much stronger ties and stronger claim to Crimea than does Ukraine.  Unfortunately, Russia used a political crisis in Kiev to gain control using illegal and questionable methods.  With greater patience and willingness to play by the rules, Russia could have regained control of Crimea legally.  Instead Russia showed the world that the rules only apply when they want them to apply.  It’s interesting this is a charge that Vladimir Putin often throws at the United States.  Russia’s actions and methods in gaining Crimea, and its continued effort to sow chaos in Ukraine, heighten concerns throughout Europe about further territorial aspirations.  Crimea has become the poisoned fruit that increase distrust and uncertainty in Russia’s international relations.

Russia's seizure of Crimea also highlights the weakness and lack of preparedness of the West.  NATO and the EU failed to foresee Russian reactions to events in Ukraine.  They failed to react in any meaningful and timely way.  The result is an emboldened Russia.

See additional posts regarding Russia and Ukraine:

Thoughts on Ferguson

There is a definite racial imbalance in this country. Most of us who don't have overt racial biases or tendencies, especially those of us who are white, don't notice it as much as those who are in the minority. Unfortunately, there is often a negative interaction between some minorities and law enforcement. In the vast majority of these cases, race isn't driving the issue, but poor decisions by people. Race, too often, is claimed as the cause. Usually these interactions occur in economically disadvantage areas that are overwhelmingly African American. The economic conditions of these minorities in many cases are the result of the past's institutionalized racism. Find a way to invigorate these communities economically and crime will drop. If we can drop crime, these types of interactions will decrease. 

Riots in Ferguson are not merely a sideshow cause by a few nut jobs. It's much larger than that. This involves thousands of people taking advantage of the situation in order to steal and commit further violent acts. There are individuals and groups that gain from fanning the racial flames beyond what is necessary or helpful. Going after a cop and an institution before getting the facts of what happened doesn't help a bad situation. When the truth came out about what happened, it merely made people angrier when things didn't turn out the way they demanded. They made a terrible situation much worse. Instead of heightening the awareness of racial problems among other parts of society, they instead have drowned out the voices of those with reasonable concerns. There is a massive gap in the methods and purposes of today's protesters as compared to those in the days of Martin Luther King, Jr.

If these same "concerned" citizens focused on the issues that are having a widespread and devastating impact on the black community, then the rest of the world would take them more seriously.

Institutional racism exists today, but it is largely the result of what happened in the past. Fixing economic imbalance isn't an easy thing. Both parties have failed at it. Many would argue that Johnson's War on Poverty did as much to maintain and exacerbate the imbalance as anything that Reagan attempted. But, it's important to understand that neither of these presidents implemented policies with the intent to disadvantage the minorities. Simply, it's a complex problem with no easy fixes.

Somehow poverty rates among minorities have worsened under President Obama and a Democrat controlled Congress. Should we assume that he is racist? Absolutely not. Rather we should realize that the problem is beyond his scope of abilities and understanding, just as it has been for so many other presidents. Large government programs, tough new laws, or billions of dollars won’t fix this problem. It can only be fixed in individual homes.

Here's my biggest problem with the terrible death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the terrible death of Trayvon Martin in Florida--two young men died who shouldn't have and those deaths brought down the condemnation of millions of people in this country, people with good and some with bad intentions. But, when young black men are killing other young black men nearly indiscriminately in places like Chicago, those same voices are largely silent. That is where we see the true cost of institutionalized racism, not in these handfuls of sensationalized cases where the media and people on both sides of the racial equation distort the truth. What are Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, President Obama, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Mitch McConnell and others doing to stop the type of violence that is killing hundreds and thousands of young black people? Instead, everyone goes crazy when an isolated incident occurs. We pat ourselves on the back and convince others and ourselves that these are the real issues and that by tackling these issues we're going to impact the problem. We're not; we're making the problem worse.

At the same time we can't dismiss the reaction of protesters.  For some this simply is a reason to run rampant, be violent, and steal a few items they may want.  For many they are reacting to a situation that symbolizes the oppressive reality of their economic condition and their interaction with authority.  People, at all levels of society, must use this unfortunate event and the needless fallout, as an impetus for meaningful dialogue.  This issue is a behemoth, something that will not be fixed quickly or easily.  

Addendum - The Day After
 As I was driving home from work last night, I was listening to local talk radio as the nation waited for the results of the grand jury decision.  One of the callers hit the nail on the head with his description of what is happening at the street level, where law enforcement and minorities interact.  The caller described himself as a large, black man.  He said he weighs around 260 lbs and has several tattoos.  Each time he's been pulled over he can sense the nervousness of the officer making the stop.  As he said, here is an officer who deals with terrible things and terrible people every day.  Unfortunately, too many of those criminals happen to be young African American males.  The caller expressed his understanding of the source of the officers nervousness.  Society's economic and criminal realities are what they are--that officer on the street is not responsible for making them what they are and in most cases doesn't want the interaction to be about race, but about protecting and serving the public by enforcing laws fairly.  

The caller wasn't trying to justify this type of interaction at a societal level, but at an individual level.  Neither that caller nor the officers that pulled him over created the current situation.  They are dealing with an unfortunate reality that sometimes negatively impacts good and honest people.  The caller went on to explain how he acts in situations where he has interacted with police officers.  First, he recognizes that they deal with terrible people and terrible things on a daily basis.  Second, he does his best to show respect to the officer for two reasons--one good and one bad in my opinion, but both make sense.  He respects the officer and the job he is doing and he wants the officer to respect him as a person.  He also shows respect out of fear because he, the caller, doesn't want to be a victim of an escalating situation.

Our citizens and our law enforcement agencies can do a much better job of communicating and interacting.  Citizens of all social backgrounds need to feel ownership for the legal system.  They need to know that their voices will be heard on issues important to them.  By bringing those on the fringes of the system in to participate, law enforcement will gain greater support which is invaluable when terrible tragedies occur.

Many of those who feel disenfranchised in our country don't realize it, but we do have one of the best legal systems in the world.  It's not perfect, but it works better than almost anything else being used.  It works better when everyone understands it, supports it, and is engaged with it.  The reaction to Ferguson shouldn't be to further marginalize either side.  Instead we should find a way to have a deeper, more meaningful dialogue.

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