Archive | July, 2010

Buying Central Asia

29 Jul

The Wikileaks document dump has caused consternation throughout the federal government for revealing previous “secrets.” What the documents prove as a collective, however, is not at all a secret: what a confusing place Afghanistan is, especially to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines on the ground actually fighting the war.

Such confusion should cause rational observers to occasionally ask the most basic of questions: how did we get to this point, and why are we still there? All too often, such discussion uses as background and perspective only the last national election and the previous month’s worth of news article and Woodward-esque books. Even the exhaustive and exhausting policy review conducted by President Obama used as a starting point the campaign slogan that Bush took his “eye off the ball” of Afghanistan, without ever asking what the ball was.

Sometimes new ideas for looking at an old problem come from the strangest places. Enter former Secretary of States Madeleine Albright and George Schultz, who recently spoke at a forum at the Commonwealth Club in California. Reagan dinosaur Schultz had the freshest ideas on the Middle East, by reflecting on a very basic truth: our goals in the Middle East and Central Asia have been met with they have coincided with the goals of the local people we have partnered with. They fail when they don’t.

Allow me a quick rehash of the last ten years. We invade Afghanistan in October of 2001, and in the space of two months, have routed the Taliban and killed a large portion of the Al Qaeda leadership, though we missed the biggest fish. In the next two years, additional leadership in Pakistan is captured, Libya gives up its chemical, biological and nuke programs, Iran starts to make nice again, and the Phillipines begin an eradication of Abu Sayyaf. Over the next several years, as we get mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, Indonesia roots out Jemaah Islamiyah after the Bali bombings, and Saudi Arabia does such a good job cleaning up Al Qaeda on its own soil that the local franchised AQ outfit changes its name to the more inclusive “Al Qaeda of the Arabian Penninsula,” reflecting the fact that it has been reduced to a single enclave in Yemen. 

Those successes are obviously in contrast to our failures with Iraq, Iran and (since 2002) Afghanistan. Schultz believes the difference is the mirroring of our goals. The Northern Alliance wanted the Taliban gone, and we helped them. Pakistan did not want to be invaded by the United States, and helped us nab KSM, etc immediately. Libya likewise saw the writing on the wall, and thought it safer to cough up its secret programs on its own. Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and the Phillipines saw a genuine internal threat, and snuffed it out (and we didn’t ask them how). 

We have since failed because it is no longer in Pakistan’s interest to avoid our wrath (that they know is not coming), Iran sees it can act without significant consequence (see: War, Lebanon, 2006), and, most importantly, forming a secular democratic government was never a goal of the Iraqi or Afghan people. With all this in mind, allow me the following revisionist history for discussion:

The failure of the Bush Presidency since 2003 was not misinvading (to coin a Bushism) Iraq, lying to the American people about WMDs, poor reconstruction planning, or taking any eyes off any balls in Afghanistan. The failure of the Bush Administration was buying into the Friedman-coined and Secretary Colin Powell-implemented Pottery Barn Policy.

The “You Break It You Bought It” philosophy has poisoned policy debate by being an unexamined assumption, a starting condition, for every military action, planned or conducted, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is ironic that Secretary Powell would have espoused it when his greatest military success in uniform, the First Gulf War (when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs), was conducted in an opposite manner by the first President Bush.

The Pottery Barn policy indicates that when you defeat a country, you are responsible for its reconstruction, reform, remaking, and rebirth. The removal of a dictator necessitates the building of a pluralistic democratic government, not only where none has ever existed, but where one may not be wanted. The Pottery Barn policy has been espoused by nation builders on the Left and American Exceptionalist democracy spreaders on the Right. It is equal opportunity failure, and has not only mired us in Iraq, but confused the far more complicated Afghanistan and limited all talk on Iran to a false dichotomy of Economic Sanctions or Bush Nation Building War #3 choices. Former Secretary Schultz noted that in the 1980’s, when Iran was plugging up shipping in the Persian Gulf and attacking Kuwaiti boats, the US Navy captured an Iranian ship, sank it, detained its sailors, and told the Iranians to knock it off, with great success. The unspoken and unacknowledged infestation of the Pottery Barn rule into all our current policy debate ensures such options are never brought to the table for consideration, much less taken. Despite Powell’s well publicized complaints that he was not listened to within the administration at the time, he appears to have had the longer lasting policy impact. Exhibit #1: Obama’s current unimaginative Afghanistan policy.

On “Fairness” and Collins

29 Jul

1. I was told yesterday that one of the plaintiffs in the new Bass Pro lawsuit did not want to speak with Chris or Marc or anyone from WNYMedia.net because I hadn’t called him (or any of the plaintiffs) for comment before writing this blog post. Well, here’s why. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve called someone for comment on anything I was going to write – because this isn’t news. This is editorial commentary. If I’ve read the text of the lawsuit, haven’t I already consumed their “side of the story?” If I’ve read the straight reporting from the News or Artvoice or Channel 2, I’ve absorbed the facts I need to see in order to formulate an opinion and reach a conclusion.

In the case of the professional plaintiffs’ society, the lawsuit text speaks for itself. What could the Fishers, e.g., possibly add except some pro-Fisher, anti-ECHDC spin?

The reason we still maintain a comments section, and the reason my email is available on the site, is so that anyone who cares to do so can leave a comment on the site or via email. If any of the plaintiffs want to respond, they could do so in any one of those ways. Ray Walter is smart – his opinion differs from ours on just about everything, but he’s secure enough in his convictions to mix it up with us – even yesterday on Brad Riter’s show on WECK.

If you have something to say, say it. Passive aggression is silly.

2. (Hey, look! I’ve included two blog posts in one. I have streamlined the blogging process and thus saved you about 20 seconds’ worth of clicking.)

“Pundit hates Chris Collins”. I realize that my audience is much, much bigger than it was when Joel Giambra was county executive, but if you compare what I wrote then to what I write now about Collins, you’ll note that my current material is quite tame and reasonable in comparison.

I don’t hate Chris Collins. I don’t have any emotional response to Chris Collins. What I think is that Chris Collins is a bland, uninspiring technocrat – a micromanaging, hyperpolitical, beancounting pencil-pusher who is perpetually frustrated that he can’t just run the county like a dictatorship. He is neither used to, nor tolerant of, opposition or criticism. He can solve any personal or political problem through free spending, yet Erie County’s poor and working poor have their desperately needed, federally reimbursed services cut or privatized.

Not to bring up Ray Walter’s name again, but he called in yesterday on Brad Riter’s show to defend Collins and the budgetary choices he’s made. To Walter’s mind, Collins has “reformed” county government by virtue of his careful choices with respect to taxes and spending.

But that’s not reform. I don’t define reform as “playing the same old rules a bit differently” or “pinching pennies”. When you’re talking about a prospective $30 million + budget deficit that’s been forecast for months, penny pinching isn’t obviously solving the fundamental problems.

Reform to me means things like implementing performance-based budgeting – something that was added to the Erie County Charter overwhelmingly by the voters via 2006 referendum. This isn’t a partisan attack, by the way. Clarence’s Democratic Town Supervisor, Scott Bylewski has seen to it that Six Sigma process improvements have gone hand-in-hand with performance-based budgeting to reduce waste in both time and money. Reforms introduced in the legislature by long-ago names like “Locklear” and “Konst” and “Iannello” still languish in committee limbo, never to be debated or voted on.

And above all, the micromanaging Pigeon ally technocrat is more concerned with power and image than he is with making important changes to the very structure of Erie County through regionalism, consolidation of taxing entities, which would improve interagency, inter-entity efficiency and lurch our governmental structure out of the 19th century and into the 21st. Yes, I know that Erie County is a legal construct and subsidiary of the State, but state legislators have been working on making it extraordinarily easy for counties to change how they are structuredright down to abolition.

It’s nice that Chris Collins wants to save money, but it would be nicer if he looked at the big picture, fundamental changes that might save millions rather than thousands, and bring about reforms (or at least advocate for them) that would help make Erie County more competitive.

Say what you want about Giambra’s two terms of fail, but at least he was out there using his bully pulpit for big ideas like regionalism every once in a while.

Reform isn’t defined by the way in which you play the game. It’s defined by changing the game itself.

Cuomo’s Property Tax Cap

29 Jul

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This is not dissimilar from Republican New Jersey Governor Christie’s tax cap plan, which just passed a few weeks ago.

(Reposted from yesterday because evidently I forgot to include the video’s embed code).

The Six Sigma Deficit

28 Jul

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In running the county like a business, Chris Collins has strong-armed his way into a projected $36 million deficit for 2011.

I wonder how much the deficit would be without Six Sigma?

In implementing lean Six Sigma viz. county processes, he may have streamlined some of them, but ask anyone in county government to affix a dollar figure thereby saved, and they can’t.

The implementation of Six Sigma, which hasn’t resulted in any quantifiable dollar savings for the county, cost the state and county hundreds of thousands of dollars in training and personnel.

Back in 2004, when the county faced a $200 million shortfall, then-County Executive Joel Giambra tried to strongarm the populace into choosing between an austere “red” budget and a tax-hikey “green” budget, which preserved the status quo.

In 2011, we won’t have that luxury. Mr. Collins will have chosen the “red” budget for us.

All that being said, here is the real problem I have.

1. None of this is a surprise. It was reported on as long ago as January, when the Control Board and Collins discussed whether 2011 would see a $50 million or $23 shortfall.

2. The fact that we’re right back to where we are in 2004 – 2005, with respect to the way in which the county handles its finances – in this case with a so-called “Control Board” is phenomenally disappointing. Nothing’s changed. The whole county government construct must be abolished as a redundant tax-sucking anachronism.

Three Rs? He hasn’t reformed, he hasn’t rebuilt the economy, and he hasn’t reduced taxes. Instead, he’s reaffirmed the fact that counties are the needless micromanaging middleman of New York State government.

Deep Thought: Muezzin Edition

28 Jul

The Park51 “Mosque” nontroversy is a convenient distraction, enabling Rick Lazio and Carl Paladino to out-demagogue each other on how much they hate the killer Moslems. In the meantime, upstate New York loses people by the truckload and has endured a decades-long malaise thanks to a lack of vision and leadership.

Hatred has become only thing separating New York Republicans from New York Democrats.

Hatred of All Muslims: A Fringe Republican Platform Plank, On the Air in Buffalo

27 Jul

Yesterday, a rabid Islamophobe appeared on a local Islamophobe’s radio show. We all know this guy – his name in German means, perhaps appropriately enough, “little peasant”. He enjoys his cats and gardening. He hates Obama, thinks all liberals are insane, thinks that the government ought to be overthrown, and hates nothing more than the second-largest religion in the world. His guest yesterday is just as stupid.

He hates that religion and its adherents because a very small minority of people who practice it are terrorists and seek to murder Westerners, especially Jews in the West and also in Israel. He also enjoys pointing out that liberals who stand up for things that he considers to be quaint anachronisms – things like “freedom” and the “Constitution” – don’t criticize some of the Islamic customs and laws that subjugate women. The little peasant, however, ignores that Sharia law is not applicable to non-Muslims, and cannot be imposed upon them, either, unless one lives in an Islamic theocracy. Luckily, we live in a secular democratic republic – not a theocracy. So no religion’s laws can involuntarily control anyone’s life.

The little peasant and his guest went on and on about how the proposed Cordoba House community center/mosque set to be built two blocks from Ground Zero – a project that is overwhelmingly supported by the Mayor of New York City and the surrounding residents – is a criminal “triumphal” mosque and and affront to decency, democracy, etc. Their point of view is supported and echoed by the two Republican candidates for Governor of the State of New York, who are tripping over each other to see who can use stronger language to heap scorn and hatred upon not just that project, but Islam generally.

The “mosque” nontroversy is emblematic of a recent rise in Islamophobia. Thanks to 9/11, it is socially acceptable in certain circle to say things about Muslims that are not dissimilar to the race-baiting lies spread during 1930s Germany about Jews. There are a billion and a half Muslims on this planet, and a miniscule number of them advocate for any kind of holy war against Christians, Jews, or the West.

We can easily demonize the governments of places like Iran, but anyone who recalls last year’s green revolution also recalls the overwhelming desire that the participants in that revolution had for a normal life in a normal country. Because that’s what most people want – a normal life in a normal place.

Why is it that this rise in Islamophobia has occurred, and become more vocal and prevalent in recent weeks or months? TPM’s Josh Marshall originally wrote that it might be war fatigue, but I don’t buy that.

Instead, I agree what a TPM reader wrote here – that George W. Bush was very careful not to demonize all of Islam in the wake of 9/11 and during the Iraq war. The war was against al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism. Against Saddam Hussein and the insurgency. He always was responsible enough to maintain that Islam as a religion, as a culture, was not our enemy and would not be made to be.

Now that George W. Bush is gone from office, gone from politics, the radical hate wing of the Republican Party is free to spew the most vicious anti-Muslim lies it wants with impunity. Anyone who dares oppose these shriekers is labeled an apologist for terrorism and misogyny.

The weak, feckless excuse for “leadership” in the Republican Party / Tea Party has enabled the vicious Muslim-baiters to spew whatever reckless hatred they want, and there’s no one to stop them. The little peasant – who doesn’t understand the irony inherent in criticizing the “mainstream media” on the most-listened-to talk radio show on the biggest AM station in the Buffalo-Niagara region – is at the forefront of the local effort to paint all Muslims as al Qaeda sleeper agents, machetes at the ready to kill your family, and burqa on hand to cover your women.

Yesterday’s cavalcade of hate spewed on the little peasant’s show was not just factually ignorant, but ultimately irresponsible. In a normal world, the community would come to the defense of the overwhelmingly normal, law-abiding Muslim community living and working among us in Western New York. In this world, we get Cheektowaga septuagenarians calling in to see if they can out-hate the octogenarian Muslim hater who just called in from Tonawanda.

Wikileaks and The Afghanistan War Logs

26 Jul

Later tonight or tomorrow, I’ll delve into the Wikileaks story about the war in Afghanistan and what I think it means for our national foreign policy and its impact on journalism.  In the meantime, I wanted to post a link to it here and ask that you read through the mountain of information released.  It’s stunning in its breadth, depth and import.

The data need context in order for it to be valuable to most casual observers of government, military affairs and foreign policy, but the raw information is fairly easy to consume.

How to read the Afghanistan War Logs:

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Wikileaks Homepage

Guardian (UK) Wikileaks Page

New York Times Wikileaks Page

Jay Rosen of NYU’s School of Journalism on why it’s important for journalism and some meta information

Julian Assange (Wikileaks) speaks about the Afghan War Logs:

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Julian Assange at TED Conference, discussing why Wikileaks is important

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What’s Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander Mountain

26 Jul

There will come a time for a blog post that laughs at the fact that obstructionist lawsuits are continually brought in Buffalo by the same, small roster of professional obstructionist plaintiffs.  This is not that time.

Instead, this is a post about hypocrisy.

Yet another lawsuit has been brought in Buffalo to block a massive construction project.  In this instance, a lawsuit brought by, among others, Mark Goldman, Scot Fisher, Bruce Fisher, and others.  (Artvoice seems to have a disproportionately high number of its columnists end up as named plaintiffs in these types of laws…. oh, I forgot that this isn’t the time for that post).

This group of local progressive types are using the same legal rationale as Jim Ostrowski’s pending lawsuit that just got permission by the Court of Appeals to hop the pre-Answer “motion to dismiss” hurdle. Namely, that the state constitution prohibits outlaying public money to a private entity for any reason whatsoever – public or private.

But Scot Fisher, one of the named plaintiffs in the case, is the CEO of Ani DiFranco’s Babeville syndicate.  Babeville is the new name for the renovated Asbury Delaware Church, which is a privately owned structure, which now houses a wholly private corporate entity.  The church’s renovation, incidentally, came at a price for taxpayers.

Financing
The total project cost approximately $12.4 million and created 30,000 square feet of commercial space. Financing was achieved through a complex mix of public and private streams with HSBC as the equity investor. Project lenders included the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. and Delaware Lender, LLC. Sources of funding included:

  • $4.55 million in New Markets Tax Credits including historic tax credits made possible after the building was placed on the National Register for Historic Places in 2003.
  • $2.7 million from the City of Buffalo
  • $440,000 for interior renovations raised from Hallways independently
  • New York State Empire Zone incentives, such as sales tax exemptions and utility rate savings
  • Thirty year “Payment in Lieu of Taxes” which allows for all new real estate tax generated by the property to be channeled back into the project.
  • $350,000 from the EPA for geothermal heating and cooling technology

Because Babeville is associated with Ani DiFranco, a trendy, successful Buffalo export, no one ever bothered to complain – much less file suit – against Babeville or DiFranco for taking public money for a private purpose.  Now, someone will undoubtedly make the argument that the preservation of an historically significant downtown church accomplished an equally significant public purpose, thus justifying the outlay of public money.  That may very well be true.  But the same “public benefit” argument can be made for Canal Side and Bass Pro.  But because Bass Pro is not a lefty folk singer, but a Southern big-box fishing and hunting retailer, it does not enjoy the support of the Scot Fishers of the world.

The point is that the whole affair is quite palpably hypocritical.

Escape the Urban: Southern Adirondacks

26 Jul

One of my goals in the second year of this column is to spend a lot more time outside. Everyone needs a break from the Big Ideas and Buffalo politics and development we normally discuss on this site, and the hereto ignored environmental beat speaks to my inner Naturalist. Alan has his cars, Chris has technology and old movies, and Colin has . . . well I don’t know, because everything in his corner is racial identity politics and The Rich White Man keeping us down. I’m sure he has something, if one looked hard enough. I have backpacking, kayaking and biking through the outdoors.

A Connecticut-based friend of mine and I had a problem familiar to many Buffalonians: finding a good spot equidistant between us to meet up and enjoy eachother’s company. Halfway between Buffalo and NYC, Boston or Hartford is Cooperstown, the Saranac Brewery in Utica, and not much else. So may I suggest the Buffalonian agree to drive the extra bit, and plan a trip to the Southern Adirondacks instead.

New Yorkers are blessed to enjoy not just some of the best urban spaces in the world, but also some of the best wild. The High Peaks region of the Northern Adirondacks (more on them in a couple weeks) – Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, and the areas one typically thinks of for a trip to the ‘Dacks – are a mere six hour drive east and north (in that order). And while they are certainly not as tall, the Southern Adirondacks are a mere four hour drive door-to-door, and offer no less of a genuine Adirondacks experience.

My friend and I chose Good Luck Lake to make our camp and drink whiskey by the fire. Take the NY Thruway to the old Beech-Nut Factory in Canajoharie, make a left, and the follow New York Route 10 north, climbing out of the Mohawk Valley and into the rolling southern foothills of the Adirondacks. Caroga Lake offers last minute staples and a greasy spoon diner for breakfast and lunch if you need to fill your belly before living off camp rations. From there it is just another 10 minute drive north to the Good Luck Lake trailhead.

The couple mile jaunt to the camp sites on the lake’s southern shore is not a great feat worthy of pioneering exploration accolades. But the wonderful thing about a trip to the Adirondacks is that the boondocks get wild (if not pristine) in a hurry, and you may forget you are still in New York.

The namesake cliffs of Good Luck Mountain

Setting up camp on Good Luck Lake (named for the fortuitous end result of an explosive firearms accident, not the ease of fishing) allows a convenient basecamp for further exploration. Within several miles of relatively easy hiking one finds that satisfying mix of wood, water and stone that is the hallmark of the Adirondack experience.

The Good Luck Cliffs are an intense 700 foot ascent in a very short linear distance, but the payoff is regular and rewarding. I have found trips to the nearby Allegany Mountains often end in disappointment; the peaks are rounder, the rock more hidden, the streams muddier, and the views smothered in unending second growth forest. While hiking the Finger Lakes Trail is enjoyable esoterically – content with the knowledge that you are seeing a tiny bit of a much larger whole – in that section it does little to lighten the spirits of the heavily laden backpacker from footstep to footstep.

Not so Good Luck Mountain. The trail follows a brook that actually babbles down a boulder strewn gorge. Caves are formed from overhanging rock along the path, and the short needle pine grows directly out of the moss covered granite. The trail hides along the (only comparatively) more gradual north side, and then dramatically summits to present its view to the west and south, wild Spectacle Lake in the foreground, and the blue misty Mohawk Valley further on.

If at that moment that far pond doesn’t call your name, draw you in, tug at your blood and demand you explore further, then I’m not sure what help there is for you.

Spectacle Lake from the Good Luck Cliffs

The trip to Spectacle Lake is just a quick climb over the rise that breaks the watershed, and then down the stream that feeds it. The close shore is marshy, pure, and feels far more remote than the map would indicate. Deliciously inconvenient for boaters to access, the lake is a flat mirror for the Canada Geese to walk on, and you stand alone and just breathe.

60/30

23 Jul

Carl Paladino is touting a Rasmussen poll that gives him the edge over Rick Lazio.

“The edge” being better defined as, which Republican gubernatorial candidate gets to be ass-beaten worse by Andrew Cuomo in November.