Saturday, December 31, 2011

To Change Congress, Change Who We Send There

This post originally appeared on PolicyMic on 28 December, 2011.

After a long hiatus to begin my run as a Democrat for U.S. Congress in the Illinois 12th District, I couldn’t resist sharing some thoughts here on PolicyMic. I’m no stranger to politics, having put up yard signs and knocked on doors for candidates since I was 15. But it is quite a different experience actually being a candidate in my home district. In the last two months, I have knocked on doors, gathered nearly 2,000 petition signatures, and called voters throughout Illinois 12, a district that takes 4 ½ hours to drive through end-to-end.

Americans are intensely tired of the same old politics. Congress’ approval rating is lower than the IRS, communism, and Nixon during Watergate. Less than a quarter of our members of Congress ever served in the military, despite being charged with vital national security decisions. Their average age is 60 years old. 47% of them are millionaires, and their net worth is up 15%. Contrast this with an economic downturn, unemployment double the norm (and even worse among returning veterans such as myself), declines in income and increasing poverty, and a U.S. median age of 36 and it’s easy to see why.

To create real change means more than changing the party in charge in Washington every couple of years. Real change will mean Americans focusing on issues and who candidates are. If voters pay attention to issues and those who want to represent them, political parties will have to put up candidates that represent the people’s interests and not simply their party’s interests.

Sadly, most of the electorate doesn’t do this. I often have to explain to folks the difference between State Representative and U.S. Representative. Many people don’t know what district they live in or when Election Day is. A surprising number are not registered to vote and the most common excuse is that they don’t want to get jury duty. Others say they’re so frustrated they just plain don’t care to vote anymore because it won’t make a difference.

Unfortunately, it is this frustration-turned-apathy that has led to an out-of-touch Congress, the province of old millionaires who can’t seem to get along even on issues they agree on such as the payroll tax break. All that is necessary for our current woes to continue is for voters to continue to do nothing. If we want to change the way our Congress and our government works, we have to change the kind of people we elect to represent us in Congress.

2012 presents another opportunity for Americans to choose. While the media focuses on the top of the ticket and the White House, the real fight should be about who we send to Capitol Hill. A good number of the old guard are retiring from Congress this year. It presents a chance to pass the torch to a new generation of leadership who will get America moving forward again.

Americans will have a clear choice to make this November. Hopefully they’ll make the right one.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Remembering the Lessons of Iraq

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 26 October 2011.

As a veteran of the Iraq War, I am in a reflective mood since it was announced that all American troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by Christmas. Having spent three Christmases in the region, I can appreciate what that means. I think often of the friends I know that served or are still serving there, and especially those that didn’t come back.

I look back over the entire 68-year span of military service in my family reaching back to my grandfathers. I try to think about what they would think. In the nature of war, some things will always be the same. But some things have certainly changed. We have to recognize that winning in modern conflict is just as much about international development as it is about military victory. To succeed, both tools must be applied together.

If we had known then what we know now, and had been willing to apply it from the beginning, the U.S. and its allies could have been more successful in Iraq. Hindsight is always 20/20. There was no plan in place to deal with what followed the initial successful military campaign. Relations between a thankful ‘liberated’ populace and their ‘liberators’ broke down quickly. Washington envisioned throngs of grateful citizens as when my grandfather arrived in liberated Italy, but instead my generation of soldiers received quiet suspicion and then resistance akin to my father’s Vietnam.

It took us a while to learn the lesson that building a school or fixing sewage lines was just as valuable to us militarily as taking a would-be jihadist off the street. The people often rewarded us with actionable intelligence when they felt we were improving their conditions sooner than they would when we locked down their neighborhoods and homes searching for insurgents. As we came to understand this, our efforts began to feel more like diplomatic missions than combat patrols. As military advisors to an Iraqi army unit, we measured success in our sector by the number of shops opening up just as much as by the number of terrorists captured or killed.

It took us many years of hard fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to learn these lessons. Yet, now it seems that some in Congress are ready to forget them. Those who send our troops off to war never learn the lessons of the people who had boots on the ground. They should at least listen to those who know firsthand. If military and international development spending are put on the cutting board, we will be forgetting the lessons we have paid so dearly in lives and money to learn.

Our troops have been brave enough to volunteer to fight for America come what may. Our Congress needs to respect that by being brave enough to find solutions to our fiscal problems that don’t put our security or our troops at risk. I think our veterans of Iraq and throughout the past 70 years would agree with that.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Globalization Has Traded Away American Jobs

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 18 October 2011.

Twenty years ago, America entered into decisions involving international trade with good intentions. Stemming from the belief that “A rising tide raises all boats,” America and other nations opened their doors for trade with one another in hopes that the result would be economic prosperity for all. Some nations have goods and services they desperately want to sell while others have the capital for investment and the income to consume. Open, free trade pays dividends economically and politically while promoting peace and stability. Unfortunately, these benefits are being outweighed today by the costs to workers in America and abroad.

Millions of Southeast Asians and Africans leave their families behind for years in order to travel to places like the Middle East where, though they find more opportunity than at home, they are often exploited and treated as second-class citizens. They often find the income they make in their host countries does not cover the costs incurred for travel, sponsorship, and visas to get there. Rather than improving conditions in their home countries, the economies of these nations have become dependent upon the “remittances” workers send home. Rather than helping these states grow and become independent, it has caused them to become even more dependent on foreign money.

Like many of their European counterparts, American businesses have abandoned the idea of manufacturing anything but high-tech goods in the U.S. for the much cheaper, unregulated, and union-free labor of places like China and India. This has been the trend for much of the last two decades, but the lack of industrial jobs is most apparent with the nation’s unemployment rate currently almost twice the average unemployment rate over the past 60 years. The evaporation of industrial jobs has led to deteriorating cities, towns, and entire swaths of American countryside (think Detroit). The upside of outsourcing American jobs was supposed to be cheap consumer goods. However, the benefits do not outweigh the costs, and the lack of disposable income leaves even these cheaper goods still out of reach for the nation’s unemployed.

America’s problems do not just lie within the realm of unemployment. You do not need to be an economist to see that the tremendous growth of China and India’s economies are fueled, in large part, by the U.S. money invested there. While the financial sector may profit from the outsourcing of American money, the majority of workers do not. This, in conjunction with the billions of American dollars sent to the Middle East annually for oil, displays the undeniable fact that our wealth is being siphoned away, and our strength as a nation is systematically decreasing.

If we don’t do something to fix this problem, our wealth and jobs will continue to drain away from us. Twenty years ago, our heart was in the right place. Perhaps today our heads need to follow suit.

Friday, October 14, 2011

America Needs Evolution, Not Revolution

I recently turned 30. Americans of my generation need a high school diploma to get a part-time minimum-wage job without benefits. If you want better, you not only need a bachelor’s, but probably a master’s degree. Even with these qualifications most workers change jobs every few years due to market conditions. Employers are not hiring now. Necessary costs and prices have gone up or remain volatile, while wages generally have not. It is increasingly hard to save for retirement and what many Americans have insufficient savings. With credit tight and interest and market returns low, nothing is working in our favor. For many, kids, houses, and vacations are outside the budget.

Our parents entered a workforce in which one didn’t need even a high school diploma to obtain full-time employment that provided for basic needs. Many were able to find work straight out of school or college. Often, they stayed in the same job for 30 years. Costs, prices, employer programs, and market conditions were such that many could afford a house, a car, kids, and a retirement, sometimes with only one spouse working or one only working part-time. Sometimes there was even enough for vacations or a fishing boat.

Our parents’ generation, as young adults, led a movement to change American society into one that offered more opportunities to more people than offered their parents’ generation. Americans wanted class mobility; they wanted the chance to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They wanted more economic freedom. They also wanted a system with a “safety net” that also guaranteed a minimum level of subsistence. The result was civil, women’s, and labor rights legislation, as well as increased Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs. Not everyone wanted all or some of these programs, but the majority did.

Today, our parents’ generation is battling to preserve a system that no longer works and are unwilling to make any sacrifices to fix it. Unfortunately, this is to the detriment of their own children. Their main argument is they were promised things, held up their end of the bargain, and are ready to collect. People of our parents’ generation hold every major position of power inAmerica, whether in elected office or the private sector. All the problems coming to the surface now were foreseeable and began and have grown on their watch, yet they’re unwilling to change anything even now to solve them.

The world has changed. Applying 1980s ideas to 21st century problems is a recipe for failure. The 1990s arguments between liberals and conservatives should have ended by now. What we need today is American pragmatism. We don’t need a 1960s people’s movement or to “go back” to 1950s values. These old battles are long over. We don’t need 20th century “revolution;” we need 21st century evolution.America can’t be a country led by ideologies that look back over our shoulder. To continue to lead the world today, we need to keep looking ahead. Right now, we’re stuck in first gear and going nowhere.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Push-Button Killing Does Not Make Us More Violent

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 6 October 2011.

The modern media splashes us with live, up close reporting from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, violent political and social unrest in places like Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, and the aftermath of terror attacks such as 9/11, the Bali bombing, and the mass killing in Norway. We are all familiar with violent and controversial movies, TV shows, and music lyrics. Video games are another violent and arguably more controversial new medium. Though there is virtually no strong scientific evidence to support it, many continue to argue that “gamification” and exposure to violence increase violent tendencies and “desensitize” us to violence, and that this has led to an overall increase in violence in our society.

Many approach the issue of violence in society from a false perspective. Some claim that violence is always wrong and has no place in society whatsoever. Others believe that violence has a place against those they disagree with. For still others, violence is the main tool through which they deal with the world.

Violence is a natural force, regardless of what people think of it. It has been with us for all of our history and isn’t likely to leave us anytime soon. The idea that violence is something that can and should be treated like a disease is na├»ve and false.

Most people have likely had a conversation with someone who asserted “it didn’t used to be like this” and they’ve gone on to theorize about where we’ve gone wrong, with movies, TV, and video games being the likely culprit. The fact is that the world today is no more violent (but no less violent) than it ever was. The difference is that news of violent acts that used to takes months, weeks, or days to travel to us reaches us instantly, sometimes in graphic video form, on computers and phones. And there are a whole lot more news outlets than there used to be. This has the effect of making one believe the world has gone mad. The truth is these things were always going on. We just hear about them all now almost instantly. It is both a blessing and a curse.

There has been much discussion about America’s use and the “collateral damage” of unmanned drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen and how “push-button killing” is desensitizing us from the results of military action. Drone strikes sometimes kill several untargeted civilians to take down a single military target. The U.S. killed 150,000 in Hiroshima. The Allies killed nearly 100,000 in Dresden. Sending U.S. troops into Afghanistan and Iraq has resulted in the deaths of over 6,000 service-members. I personally can’t think of a more “sensitive” way to conduct warfare, no matter which side you’re on.

Video games and movies are not responsible for violence in our society. We are responsible for it. Violence is in our nature as human beings. Instead of decrying the existence of violence, we should focus more on the reasoned, proportionate, and realistic controlled use of it.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

We Must Do What's Best for the Nation

This article originally appeared in The Southern Illinoisan on 4 October 2011.

Military service runs in my family, like many American families. My grandfather and great uncles served in World War II or Korea, my father and uncles in Vietnam, and my cousin and I in Iraq.In my family, we serve because we owe everything to the opportunities America has provided us. Today I see a lot of flag-waving, bumper stickers and T-shirts with patriotic slogans.However, some opinions many Americans express seem to run contrary to this sentiment. Everyone loves America, but only to a certain point. Most Americans express undying devotion to America, until it requires some sacrifice on their part.

Americans like the benefits of government, but don't want to contribute to them. They enjoy the protection of our national security apparatus, but don't want to fund it. They want good roads, bridges and parks, but don't want taxes to fund them. They are upset Wall Street created this recession and got bailed out, but don't want new regulations because it may hurt their own wallets. They know we have to fix our debt problem, but don't want even a small tax increase, if only for the wealthiest 10 percent. They want all these things, but don't want to pay for them. Paying for stuff is seemingly "un-American."

The money should come from somewhere, but not from them and don't tax those with more because they might be among them someday. Americans still claim to love America. They do this because every American believes they are America, their lifestyle is truly mainstream American, and their beliefs and way of life are the American dream or the path to realizing it. If only the government and the rest of us would get out of their way. Every American is a little storehouse of strength and economic vibrancy just waiting to explode if only they weren't being held back by the others or the government.

No one is America. We are all Americans. This country isn't an idea; it's a nation. That means we must all do what is best for the entire nation, not just some of us, not just for ourselves.The system, services and the things we all need and cannot provide ourselves alone have to be provided for through contributions from all of us. Sometimes the monetary contributions won't be equal. This sometimes means those with more money have to pay for those with less. I and my family, like most Americans, are among those with less money. Others have paid more into the system. However, for three generations, men in my family have served America at war. My grandmother was a bookkeeper. My mother is a nurse. My aunts are teachers or worked with troubled kids. Though there are others who have paid more money in, the rest of us have contributed as much in kind to building America to have a place here. If we all love America, we have to start acting like it by treating our fellows Americans as such. We are all America.

Monday, September 26, 2011

U.S. Military is Lean and Mean - and Green

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 26 September 2011.

I, like most people, enjoy green spaces and fresh air and clean water. This is what most people associate with the push for “green” energy sources and energy independence. This push also transcends into a ruggedly mobile energy-independent American fighting force.

While climate change doubters and advocates of the oil and coal industries in Congress continue to block progress on American energy independence for the general population, the U.S military is leading its own charge from the front.

A recently-released report from the independent Pew Project on National Security, Energy, and Climate finds the Department of Defense increased spending on new energy 300% between 2006 and 2009, and it continues to increase. One of the most vocal proponents of creating a force independent of fossil fuels is Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who likes to point out that there were doubters when the Navy switched from sail to coal, from coal to diesel, and diesel to nuclear. They all look rather silly today. The same kind of change is happening now.

After reading the report, it is not hard to understand why the military is so eager to dump oil dependence. “Operational energy costs” — costs for running actual military operations — account for three-quarters of the DoD energy budget.

Some 81% of that is spent on jet fuel. The Air Force is the largest military consumer of oil, but plans to use biofuels in 50% of its U.S. flights by 2016. The Navy successfully built and tested an FA-18 “Green” Hornet fighter jet that performs the same as a regular fighter, but runs on alternative fuel. The Navy and Marine Corps plan to use alternative energy in 50% of their operational platforms by 2020. It is understandable why the “ground-pounders” in the Army and Marines want to cut fuel use when, in 2010, 1 in every 46 convoys in Afghanistan produced a casualty and 80% of supply convoys were transporting fuel.

The other quarter of the DoD’s energy costs goes to fuel its bases in the U.S. and abroad. The Pew report points out that DoD manages 3 times the square footage of the entire Wal Mart corporation. At home, the Army plans by 2020 to convert at least 6 of its massive installations throughout the country to “net zero” energy use — they’ll produce as much of their own energy as they use. In Iraq and Afghanistan, simply insulating buildings has saved 77,000 gallons of fuel daily. The DoD produced or procured already close to 10% of its energy from renewable sources in 2010.

The U.S. military is taking investment in new alternative energy sources very seriously. If there was any doubt as to its dependability or capabilities, you can bet our military leaders would not put our troops at risk. This stuff works for them. If it works for the military, it can work for the rest of us. If only our Congress would just get out of the way.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Good Defense Requires Good Policy, Not Rhetoric

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 16 September 2011.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney recently spoke at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in San Antonio, Texas. As Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the presidential race, Perry immediately began touting his Air Force service and among his first comments was a promise to be a president the troops could respect.

Months before, both Romney and Perry snubbed the VFW’s invitation. Speaking at VFW suddenly became much more interesting to Romney.

Romney's speech was touted as showing a more aggressive candidate. A reference he made in the speech to “career politicians” was seen as a dig at Perry. Most of the speech was taking jabs at President Barack Obama on jobs, government debt, and proposed defense cuts. He minimized the killing of Osama bin Laden, criticized Obama’s “apologetic” speeches, the Afghanistan withdrawal plan, the “muddle” in Libya, and his handling of Syria. Sprinkled between were anecdotes about his admiration for veterans, about visiting wounded troops, and receiving the casket of a soldier at the airport.

As a veteran and member of the VFW, among other vets groups, I cannot help but feel patronized by both candidates' comments.

Perry’s remark about being a commander-in-chief our troops can respect fits into the stereotypical mold of soldiers as swaggering fist-shakers. This is no surprise from Perry who is a swaggering fist-shaker himself. The way to earn the troops’ respect is through good policy decisions that don’t put them in harm’s way unnecessarily or at least not incompetently, as the last swaggering Texas president did. This isn’t 2004.

Romney never served in the military and the best he could offer was opposition to his own party’s proposed defense cuts, as well as promises to modernize military equipment and veterans’ benefits and use his business experience to cut waste in procurement. He greatly admires those who serve, but never enough to sign up. This fact can be overlooked if it is followed up with good policy. Romney’s speech was thick on praise and strong rhetoric, but thin on policy.

Obama did not serve in the military either and his relationship with military leaders has been a bit rocky, as the exits of Gen. Jim Jones and Gen. Stanley McChrystal show. However, he has presided over much military success. He has authorized more drone strikes in the last three years against terrorist targets than in President George W. Bush’s eight years in office. Al-Qaeda is weaker than ever. He has executed a relatively calm major drawdown of troops in Iraq and is beginning another in Afghanistan. He has succeeded in legitimately affecting regime change in Libya with international support and without boots on the ground. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is beginning to show signs of cracking as well. And, above all, he got Osama bin Laden.

Our defense policy requires more than just Perry’s re-used rhetoric from the Bush years or Romney’s business eye for the bottom line. It requires good, smart policy that is not going to put our troops into combat without necessity. For Obama, the proof is in the pudding. I can respect that.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sanity Needed In Our Immigration Debate

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 13 September 2011

Every elected official regardless of party agrees we need comprehensive immigration reform and increased border protection. The difference lies in exactly what this means to them. The subject is a multifaceted collection of several issues, with legal migration, border protection, and what to do with illegal immigrants already in America. Our elected leaders on both sides have done an excellent job of making such a muddle of the issue that they have succeeded only in confusing Americans and seem confused themselves.

Partisan politics have gotten in the way. The Dream Act was once heartily supported by many in the GOP, but in their efforts to oppose President Barack Obama at every turn they have turned against it. Many liberals are guilty of falsely pulling the race card in opposition to efforts to strengthen border protections, despite it being an apparent and legitimate security interest. What is needed on this issue, like many others, is a little bit of sanity from both sides, in Washington and outside.

The Dream Act allows people who entered the U.S. illegally who have since learned English and either served in the military or completed a degree to stay in the country, putting them on the path to citizenship. These are the type of immigrants we need in America. It does not offer an open door to millions of new illegal immigrants; it is only for those who are already here and have shown a commitment to becoming socially and economically productive Americans. Illegal immigration is illegal, but it is not unreasonable, and in fact it is beneficial to allow the few that fit within this category to remain. Immigrants who pull themselves up by their bootstraps is part of the American story.

On the other side, strengthening border protection measures and stopping illegal crossings is a legitimate security concern for the U.S. and for any country. A country has a right to know and control who comes and goes from its borders. Increasing border protection isn’t racist or oppressive; it is a genuine national security concern. Besides, concerns about terrorism, drugs, weapons, and violence that straddle our southern border are real. But strengthening our border doesn’t just mean with Mexico; it also means our northern border, sea ports, international airports, and thousands of miles of unguarded coastlines. It also means that we’re going to have to pay for it.

Unless 100% Native American, all our ancestors came here from another country. Most of them came legally, some involuntarily. I’m married to an immigrant and I’ve migrated to other countries for work or school myself. We’ve always followed the rules. It is understandable that others want to come to America for a better life. However, the government has a responsibility to protect the people, citizens or immigrants, who are already here. America is a land of immigrants, but it is also a land of laws that we all need to follow. A little bit of sanity in how we apply them is not too much to ask.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Conservative Myth of National Security Strength

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 12 September 2011.

A man sitting in a cave in a remote corner of the world easily predicted the general thrust of the conservative-led response to a major terror attack on America. Once one knows the general thrust, it becomes easy to develop a plan to respond to the response. Muhammad Ali called it "the rope-a-dope": just when they think they have you where they want you, you have them where you want them.

Our enemy has been engaging us for ten years in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq, with thousands of our soldiers and Afghan and Iraqi civilians dead, and billions of dollars spent. Their most important goal has been to bring terrorism into the lives of average citizens at home in order to affect the political process by creating internal turmoil. Mission accomplished. Since 9/11, conservatives have laboured to build the image that Republicans are strong on security and, conversely, that Democrats are weak.

But the facts show that conservatives have been ineffective and inconsistent on national security policy – and now, their myth is crumbling.

During the Bush years, neoconservatives labelled detractors of the wars as unpatriotic and weak, and accused them of forgetting 9/11. A Republican refrain was "fight them over there, not here." The enemy would rather have it that way, too, because it is much easier to fight us on their home turf, in places such as Tora Bora or Sadr City, than for al-Qaida to continually plan terror attacks that take years to put in place and are often discovered at their genesis.

Because of the difficulty in tracking and identifying our foes, much of our effort to engage the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan has consisted of pushing our troops into enemy territory and baiting them into attacking. It has taken us this long to understand that this fight involves much more than just "taking the fight to the enemy"; it means building local institutions, government, infrastructure, economies, trust and public support. It has just as much to do with international development as it does with military action.

Conservative thinking regarding the Middle East and the Arab Spring has been a model of inconsistency. Some called the events a "Muslim Brotherhood nightmare" or blamed the Obama administration's approach for not holding it together (despite homegrown movements and previous decades of inconsistent US policy). Some have called for swifter decisive action, with others against taking any action, even calling it "unconstitutional". Conservative positions on Afghanistan range from supporting withdrawal, to "staying the course"; and on Pakistan, they vary from continued support for the government, to taking diplomatic or even military action against it.

Over the last three years, the US has caught or killed more al-Qaida members and launched more targeted drone attacks against terrorists than in the previous eight years. Muammar Gaddafi has been in America's sights since Ronald Reagan was president and Osama bin Laden was the most wanted man in the world since 9/11. Both were taken down under a Democratic administration – without spending a trillion dollars, sending in thousands of ground troops, or taking a decade to accomplish the task. And these outcomes were achieved with international support and legitimacy.

As campaigning for 2012 ramps up, Republican candidates are divided, with some having been accused of turning into isolationists after supporting withdrawal from Afghanistan and arguing against the successful intervention in Libya. They still claim to be national security champions, despite many championing defence cuts before accepting even small targeted tax increases. Conservatives were willing to support "regime change", boots on the ground in massive numbers in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and their associated costs, with much less legitimacy and international support. Yet they opposed the intervention in Libya despite support from the UN, Nato and the Arab League – and without the need and cost of ground troops. It would seem that the conservative view of when and how military force should be applied is based simply on who occupies the White House.

The proof is in the facts. Ineffective and inconsistent policies, and choosing politics over security, have led to the crumbling of the myth of conservative strength on defence and national security – a myth Republicans had worked so hard to build.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Emergency Services Need Dedicated Communications

This article originally appeared in PolicyMic on 4 September 2011.

Ten years ago, the non-partisan 9/11 Commission, citing difficulties of essential emergency services in communication, recommended that a portion of the communications spectrum be set aside for the exclusive use of public safety services. The problem came up again more recently during Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill. To save lives, the so-called “D Block” needs to be dedicated to first responders so they can communicate effectively during emergencies.

Co-chair of the 9/11 Commission Lee Hamilton recently noted, “the radio spectrum is very valuable property.” The current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plan is to auction off the D Block to wireless providers and use the estimated $4 billion in proceeds to improve the existing broadband slice next to the D Block already used by public safety services. In turn, the FCC plan will require wireless providers to give priority to these services on the D Block during emergencies. But, many public safety officials oppose this plan.

The current spectrum allocation is enough for daily operations, but not enough during serious emergencies where life and death is on the line. They cite the network overload often experienced during major events that prevent emergency services from connecting as people try to communicate with family, friends, and news networks. Public safety services want to control their communications themselves. Wireless providers are divided too, with some supporting the FCC proposal and others supporting the safety services.

Much of the debate in Congress is centered around costs. The FCC claims its plan would cost only half as much as creating a separate network as public services want. Public services claim the extra cost of the standalone network would be worth it for the required dependability, and the cost could be offset by leasing access to private providers when it isn’t in use.

Dependable and controllable communication devices are a necessary part in taking care of emergencies. 9/11 and other disasters since have shown the continued need for a standalone network. Our first responders shouldn’t have to ask private providers for network access. Private providers can lease use of the band when the extra capacity isn’t needed under normal conditions. After all, it is a matter of safety and national security.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Protect Purple Heart Imposters, But Change The Law To Deter Them

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 30 August 2011.

There are two medals soldiers don’t want — the Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart — because usually you have to die or be injured to receive them.

The respect one gains after being awarded such medals naturally leads to false claims, impersonators faking that they actually hold the award. Thus, the Stolen Valor Act 2005 makes false claims a federal crime. Unfortunately, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found it unconstitutional. The Justice Department wants to bring the matter before the Supreme Court.

I am a Purple Heart recipient myself following a suicide car-bombing outside of Baghdad, Iraq, in 2004. During that tour 10 men in my unit were killed. They all received the Purple Heart posthumously. My unit handed out many Purple Hearts that tour. I, like most veterans, don’t take such matters lightly. We sacrificed a lot for these awards. All gave some, some gave all. When false claimants are wrongly accorded the respect attached to military awards, they steal from the legacy of brave men and women who paid a high price for them.

The Court of Appeals based its ruling on the fact that the law is “content based,” meaning it is a government restriction on free speech on a certain topic, that topic being the claim of holding military awards whether false or not. The majority opinion argued that everyone eventually lies about something to others, whether as benign as age, weight, or size, or as far as education or military awards and the government doesn’t have a sufficient interest in deciding which lies are OK and which are not.

Laws relating to fraud and deception do not allow a person to intentionally deceive others for what they perceive as gain. Those who make a false claim to have won a military decoration hope to gain the respect accorded recipients of such an award. This argument is based upon the intent to gain from another through false statements, something altogether different from a “content based” restriction.

Unfortunately, Congress didn’t write the law that way. They wrote it in such a way that restricts making such statements outright instead of focusing on fraud and deceit. Though a subtle difference, the Supreme Court closely guards freedom of speech. The Court of Appeals ruling is correct. Unfortunately, this means the Justice Department will likely lose and the law will be struck down.

The good news is that the law can, and should, be rewritten within constitutional limits. It is correct so. Freedom of speech must be protected and it is one of the rights our troops fight for. The issue at hand is not the fact that someone makes a false claim; it is that they are fraudulently attempting to gain from it. The victims of the crime are the veterans who truly paid the price they steal from. Law is sometimes strangely elegant. This law should be struck down, but it should be rewritten to honor the sacrifice of those who have earned it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Soldiers and Suicide

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 17 August 2011.

Thirty-two American soldiers committed suicide this July, the highest number since the Army started releasing monthly figures. That is one soldier per day, and one more than died in the recent helicopter attack that killed 31 American troops, including more than 20 Navy Seals. The annual number of suicides in the Marine Corps, which doesn't release monthly figures, is on pace with the Army. These figures do not include the suicide rate among veterans, which averages 18 per day.

Institutionally, the military recognises this is a problem; culturally, it does not.

My battalion deployed to Iraq in April 2003. We came home after an extended 15 months of combat in July 2004. We returned home for a year and redeployed in November 2005. During these two tours, my unit lost 13 soldiers in combat and handed out twice as many Purple Hearts, including my own. I left for the Army Reserves in 2007. There I was told that my "deployment clock" was at zero and, though I had just returned, could deploy again. Fortunately, it didn't come to that, though I know it did for others. My story is not unique. Ask another vet and you'll hear the same.

I have friends still serving. Some have done as many as four tours in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Everyone who went knows someone who didn't come back. Relationships have also been casualties. Of the first five years of my marriage, I spent more than half that time away. The wars have caused many divorces, and many military children are growing up with one or both parents missing because of death or deployment. The memory of what happened "over there", and the difficulty dealing with that memory, lead many to divorce, to drink or, worse, to commit suicide.

Each time we came home, we were told that if we needed counselling, we would be given time. But as we got back to the daily grind of military life, this proved untrue. The problem was never a lack of services. There were always counsellors available and everyone received mandatory "reintegration" training. But I know leaders who expressed suspicions about soldiers who sought help.

The problem is that military leaders at the lowest levels still see the expression of grief over the difficult experiences of military life and combat as a weakness. In the military, those seen as weak do not thrive. Weakness, real or perceived, stands in the way of advancement, awards and promotions. For our military to really fix this problem, this view must be changed. "Mental maintenance" needs to become part of military culture, so that our men and women in uniform can cope with an environment of continuous, long deployments in combat – and with the invisible mental scars.

It also has to be acknowledged by our leaders that we are asking our men and women in uniform to face situations in which they will be confronted with things no normal person could experience without effect. Only an abnormal normal human being could experience the things I've seen and not be affected. This is the price we ask those who serve to pay. For the last decade, America has been asking its troops to face these situations without the promise of proper support. Mental wounds are not visible, but they should not be trivialised.

When leaders send troops into combat, they are asking them not only to risk their lives, but everything that is dear to them in life: their family relationships, their future and even their mental stability. We owe it to our troops to address this problem at every level in the military, and our leaders owe it to them to make sure they are not asking our troops to take such high risks unnecessarily.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Remember Berlin: America Has Lost its Heroic Face

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 17 August 2011.

This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall. I married into a proud family of West Berliners. My wife can remember French soldiers closing down their street every time their general needed to leave. The first chocolate her mother ever ate was given to her by an American soldier. They’ll tell you if it wasn’t for the Berlin Airlift, West Berliners would have starved to death in 1948. The CARE packages Americans sent over for decades showed a people that were once our enemy that we can move on.

In Berlin, the tanks of two world superpowers stared each other down on Checkpoint Charlie in 1961. West Germans shared Americans’ fear of impending nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Throughout the Cold War, Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge was used to exchange captured spies. Everyone remembers the day the wall came down in November 1989. In our cynical world today, where every action America takes is suspected of self-interest, there are Germans who can attest that what Americans did for them went well beyond that.

America positioned itself as a power that was not only strong enough to defeat the Soviet Union, but also deserved to defeat them. This wasn’t achieved through an attitude of superiority, but through exhibiting shared values and contrasting them with the opposing side. While Communists were building walls and towers, America built libraries and dancehalls. We wanted to win and Europeans wanted us to win. Our side offered carrots while the other side offered only sticks.

Today, the world feels America acts only in its own interest. When America makes a moral argument, it often comes across as moral superiority. The "with us or against us" attitude of the Bush administration and the isolationism that has infected Republican presidential candidates are examples. President Barack Obama has done a better job working with allies and partners, but making conciliatory speeches and holding more summits isn’t enough.

America’s enemies today are different. They are non-state actors in under-developed nations or developed states with ambiguous intentions, mostly in regions of the world that have different languages, cultures, and values from us. America should not apologize for itself, nor accept or adjust to conditions contrary to what it stands for. However, we do have to act like the side that is deserving of victory again.

The other side in this fight, mostly dictatorships and Islamic fascists, want to control how people live their lives. We won’t defeat them by doing the same thing. Acting only in self-interest with self-righteousness won’t get it done. We have to convince the world again that when America wins, they win. This may lead to hard choices. It means no more befriending dictatorships for energy or stability. It may mean more interventions, not less. It means remaining engaged in the world, not withdrawing from it. America is a force for good. We have to convince the world that it’s true once again.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Systematic Change is Needed, At Least in the Short Term

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 11 August 2011.

When buying a dishwasher, a factor not likely to be considered is how the dishes will get washed after the machine breaks, as every dishwasher eventually stops working at some point. So it is with every machine or system. There is nothing in this world that, once created, works forever without end.

Americans believe deeply that low taxes, less regulation, and capital in private hands will translate into economic growth. As a general idea, this has arguably proven true, but there are reasonable limits. It is recognized that taxes must be high enough to fund necessary government activities, though it is debatable what those necessary activities are. Our economic system, like a broken dishwasher, is in need of repair. The symptoms are well-known, and it was inevitable that it would happen sometime. To fix it, things will have to change, at least until the problems have been resolved.

Our largest banks understand that they triggered this recession. Some argue they can regulate the problem themselves – that would be plausible, if this were just a downturn. Instead, we have an international crisis that has driven major banks to extinction and shaken the world markets. These banks turned to government to save them from ruin. They pleaded for government assistance, citing certain collapse if help were not provided. It is because of this that new regulations are needed for the immediate future. You don’t fill up the tank again without fixing the leak first.

The debt is a problem and has been for a while. Taking radical measures is ill advised during a recession, if not always. The world was not worried about America’s debt until Republicans started screaming about it; we were not in danger of a lowered credit rating until we earned it by shaking world confidence.

To fix the debt problem, the easiest, most efficient, and most commonsense way to go about it is to cut government spending in the few places we can afford it as well as increasing tax revenue. This will undoubtedly calm the markets. The policies would not be permanent, but they are needed until the problem is fixed. Failing to do both is a half-assed approach that will do nothing to improve our economic situation.

Businesses are laying-off workers and freezing spending to save cash, and citizens should not get the same treatment from their government. A business can think only about its own survival; government must think about its citizens’ survival. Unfortunately, this may require government to spend money as a safe guard while the private sector recovers. Unemployment must be lowered before making deeper cuts to reduce debt, and when government spends, the money comes into private hands.

These are components of one large, interconnected problem. Unfortunately, many politicians see it as piecemeal, smaller, and separate problems and are treating it as such. They’re trying to fix the machine by hitting the buttons harder or plugging it back in. Regulation must prevent financial excess from happening again, and the debt must be reduced through increased revenue and cuts. At some point you have to get serious and fix what’s broken. After that, life can go back to business as usual.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Wanted the Debt Talks to End Differently? Voters Must First Sacrifice Self-Interest

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 4 August 2011.

The debt standoff came down to the wire and, as expected, a deal was reached in time to avert predicted negative international repercussions. No one likes the deal. Representatives held their noses as they cast their votes. Extremists on both sides of the political spectrum call it a betrayal. Average Americans do not know what to think yet. How it will play out over the next year or decade is unclear. What is clear is that our representative bodies are not serving us as a nation very well.

However, it is not entirely their fault. After all, elected officials do not elect themselves. We have a democracy where less than half of those eligible vote. Those that do vote are often motivated by self-interest or support of a narrow set of interests. The issues that seem to propel most Americans to the polls are keeping taxes low, social issues, and business interests, and our elected leaders are a reflection of that. That is how democracy works and it also is why our goals are often short-term, shortsighted, and seem to be utterly divided or quite often just adrift.

It was not a surprise the agreement came down to the last minute. What was surprising, especially to the rest of the world, was America — the world’s leader — seemed willing to march over a cliff despite many opportunities to reach practical agreement. This brinksmanship has called our judgment into question and caused many to ask if we should be trusted to lead or if our model should be followed. The crisis has cost us more than money; it has cost us credibility.

Our elected leaders in both parties have adopted nearsighted, short-term goals along a narrow, self-interested line of policies that are a reflection of an electorate uncertain about the future. Our politicians know how to win elections, but they don’t know how to lead. The American people punish those who require sacrifice in the short term for the national good in the long run.

For the last 10 years we have fought a “War on Terror” and security is consistently among Americans’ top issues of concern. Our willingness to cut our Defense and State budgets before we will suffer even a small, targeted tax increase for less than 10% of Americans reflects dangerous self-interest. That this standoff will be repeated this fall and once again next year reflects limited thinking. That we would be willing to lose even more credibility by doing it again reflects shortsightedness. That some Americans seem willing to accept cuts to programs for the middle and lower classes in hopes it may create jobs reflects the desperation of the situation.

With this budget deal we are all losers. America needs a clear, farsighted strategy that reassures Americans of the future and reassures the world we are still a good partner and leader. Average Americans will have to cede self-interest. We need to put leaders, not politicians, in office who think about America, not themselves. To do this, Americans will have to do the same.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

America: A Nation, Not A Business

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 28 July, 2011

As the 2012 presidential campaign rolls on and the debt debate continues, we continue to hear comparisons equating running America with running a business. Conservatives assert that if we ran America like a well-managed company we would not be in our current economic troubles. The current conservative talking points give the affluent among us nice cuddly names like "job creators," and focus on "fiscal discipline" in government.

Contrary to conservative belief, America should not be run like a business because it is not a business. The main goal in any enterprise is to increase profit. The survival of the company is more important than the well being of its individual employees. In tough times a business can batten down its hatches with relative ease through layoffs, furloughs, cutting hours, and hiring freezes. It can increase efficiency, cut costs, and suspend new investments. Many companies are taking these actions now to survive.

That is not so with America. Americans are not employees able to seek employment elsewhere. They cannot be cut loose by their government, especially not when many of them are already receiving such treatment from employers. Though the long-term health of America is vital, the purpose of this country is to protect and serve its people, not to profit from them or stay in the black while they go under. Sometimes it is necessary to fall into the red.

It was an uncontrollable desire for profit by our biggest firms and banks that plunged us into our current economic recession, not government spending or debt. Spending only increased after these same crippled firms begged government for a bail out. Fiscal discipline was pushed aside as the conservative Bush administration provided the first bailout package. Businesses are laying-off employees, not government. Excessive debt, taxation, and regulation did not cause this problem; high risk, over-leveraging, profit seeking and business excess did.

Conservatives argue average Americans need to endure benefits cuts, tighten their belts, and forgo revenue to decrease the national debt while tax breaks and loopholes continue for "job creators" — the very people who caused the situation in the first place — because doing so might create jobs. Conservatives are willing to support the needs of business over those of the people; they’re willing to let the crew drown to save the ship. If Americans allow them to put government on the chopping block now, there will be no one to stand in the way of further harmful excesses by profit-hoarders in the future.

The claim of "fiscal discipline" by conservatives during the debt ceiling debate should be called into question. Anyone who is willing to drive the country into potential financial Armageddon and risk further negative consequences based upon ideological, not practical, arguments cannot justify a claim for “fiscal discipline.” Government debt needs to be addressed, but that can be done without ruining our credit rating, which would likely serve to increase the debt. America is not a business. It is a country with a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It should stay that way.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Oil: America's Kryptonite

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 15 July, 2011

The pace of change in America is slow and the larger the change the slower the pace. Eliminating oil dependence is a change we’ve been talking about for forty years. Much of the discussion on the issue revolves around economics. But this ignores another, arguably more important side of the issue. America’s continuing dependence on oil is an enormous strategic liability. If you look up the term strategic liability in the dictionary, there should be a picture of oil under it. There are many reasons why this is so.

Oil costs are prohibitive and unpredictable. Gas costs us $400 a gallon in Afghanistan. We pay $88 per soldier per day in Iraq for fuel. Defense spending has long been a sacred cow, but now it is on the chopping block. A smaller military budget means a smaller military where every dollar counts. Even small increases in fuel costs translate to thousands of dollars. As oil prices continue to trend upward and remain volatile, this may put our commanders in the position of having to worry if they can afford the gas to conduct operations or using a smaller force than necessary for the job due to the cost. This may put our troops downrange and our security at home in jeopardy.

Oil creates soft targets for our foes that can directly affect us. Experts have long been concerned about the liability of oil transport by land and sea to militant attacks. NATO convoys in Pakistan and fuel convoys in Iraq have been constant targets. There have been attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, India, and Indonesia. The thousands of oil wells and miles of pipelines throughout the world are impossible to be adequately secured. There have been attacks on oil infrastructure in Nigeria, Turkey, and even Mexico among other places. Any interruption in supply causes prices to shoot up and costs us billions every time it does.

Oil puts us in partnership with people that oppose our values or even with our enemies. America is the world’s largest consumer of oil. There is no question that our need for oil causes us to look the other way when our suppliers step on human rights, equality, and democracy. We also sell them arms and give trade concessions to keep them happy. If we didn’t need oil we wouldn’t need to do this. Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain are examples. Our need has put us into bed with regimes we have later fought. Think Iran, Iraq, and Libya. Dependence on oil has caused us to surrender our freedom to act.

Continuing to depend on oil is an enormous strategic liability, limits our freedom of action, and is harmful to our security. Eliminating our need for oil will make us independent again and take a weapon out of the hands of those who oppose America. We’ve been debating the issue for forty years and it is finally time to act. Breaking our dependence on oil is vital to our national security.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Conservative Message Paradox

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 7 July 2011

The debate about America’s government has degenerated from legitimately discussing the limits of power and criticizing waste, to depicting all government as evil and innately wasteful with public servants as overpaid loafers. To have a democracy means debate never ends, but there is a difference between legitimate criticism and ideological accusation. We need to take a fresh, common-sense look at these arguments.

The conservative assertion is that government is to blame for America’s economic woes; getting government out of the market and allowing “job creators” to keep more of their money would solve our problems. In short, government is the problem, not the solution. The problem with this oversimplification is that its proponents offer the same formula in good times and bad. Further, conservatives have a vested ideological interest in ensuring government does not function as it should to prove their thesis correct. Turning to conservatives to fix government is like hiring criminals to be police officers and wondering why crime is so high.

The conservative argument that cutting taxes, removing regulation, and shrinking government are always the solutions, no matter the conditions, defies logic. How can it be that, in the best of times and the worst of times, the answer is always the same? It is the equivalent of a doctor prescribing aspirin for both headaches and double amputations. If it does not work the first time, just cut, slash, and shrink even further. It is their answer in our current downturn, but it was also their answer in much better times than these. There is no such thing as a cure-all.

Why would we, as Americans, turn to people to make policy for us who have a stated opposition to government and expect them to generate cogent policies and programs? It should not be surprising that our government does not work as it should. Turning to conservatives to fix benefits programs they oppose is not rational.

When we elect conservatives to government office, we are saying we want our tax dollars wasted even more than any “tax and spend liberal” ever could. Putting someone in charge of making policy for an institution they do not believe in and ideologically oppose guarantees waste. We cannot expect government to be run competently by people that oppose it or want to see it dispensed with.

There is always room in a democracy for criticism, but there is no room for ideological sabotage. In our debate about how government should work and how to fix our debt, we cannot expect people that are diametrically opposed to government and its programs to work in good faith to fix them. The inmates cannot run the asylum. Turning to conservatives to make government work better, reduce our debt, and to save programs like Social Security and Medicare would be doing just that.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Now is No Time for Isolationism

A version of this article appeared on PolicyMic on June 24, 2011.

Many politicians are beginning to sound the call to ‘bring the troops home.’ The once-hawkish GOP’s Presidential candidates for 2012 have turned isolationist, as criticized by Sen. Jon McCain. It seems that this will be the year where many begin to argue that America can no longer afford to be a superpower with global reach.

But don’t you dare believe it. We’ve been in this position before. In the midst of the Great Depression in the ‘30’s many argued that what happened in Europe and Asia was their business and we have our own problems to worry about. It took Pearl Harbor to pull Americans out of isolationism after Axis invasions and refugee reports couldn’t do it. Just imagine what the world would look like today if the Greatest Generation hadn’t shrugged off isolationism. Imagine what it will look like if we don’t shake it off again now.

Though there have been comparisons, 9/11 is not this generation’s Pearl Harbor and the profligate action in Iraq and the early mishandling of Afghanistan have eroded any such feeling. Our world today is a very confusing place for an America used to having a clear enemy to shake a stick at. We have no clear enemy today. Islamic extremism is a movement, not a state. Whether or to what degree we should worry about China, Iran, Pakistan, or other places is uncertain.

This ambiguity requires us to be more vigilant, not less. In fact, it can be an opportunity. If we begin to approach problems in the world not just as military problems, but as security problems and take a holistic approach we can identify emerging threats and keep problems small. Besides our military, we need to use the tools of sanctions regimes, diplomacy, development, and economic assistance. If we’re not going to spend more money on these things, we certainly shouldn’t be spending any less.

If we retreat from the world now our problems are not going to go away. They’ll grow and maybe to proportions we can’t handle without large-scale war. The argument is made that our allies need to do more and they’ll step in. They won’t. Our British allies are already having trouble handling the military requirements of the Libyan bombing campaign, doveish Germans won’t send their under-equipped military anywhere, and Machiavellian France isn’t going to commit to anything that isn’t very much in French interests. Our European allies have turned to harsh austerity and there is no room in their budgets for stepping in where we don’t. Nobody will.

Except our potential foes, that is. In Africa China doesn’t care about human rights, just mineral rights. Iran fans the flames against us in the Middle East at every turn. When we didn’t step in to help those in need in Pakistan, Palestine, and Lebanon, Islamic extremists and terror groups did. If we go back to sleep now, a lot will go on without us. Wherever the light of America doesn’t shine our enemies move in the darkness.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Best Way to Fight Terror

This article originally appeared on 15 June, 2011 on

Usually, a person cannot name the exact point when his life changed.

For me, it was 6 p.m. on June 15, 2004. The man who changed the way I see the world was an Arab in his early 30s whom I would never meet, learn his name, or know his story. He gave me only a brief, desperate look before driving his explosives-laden truck into my military vehicle. The blast peppered me with glass shrapnel and blew out both of my eardrums. I walked away with my life and a Purple Heart. But I still see his face, even when I do not want to.

Afterwards, I often reflected on what drives a man to become a suicide bomber and what can be done to stop it. It was the look I saw in his eyes: Desperation led him to terrorism. He was born into a harsh situation from which he saw no escape; Islamic extremists easily took advantage of this and gave him a target for his anger. Desperate conditions are fertile ground for terrorism. Therefore, the greatest tool we have in our arsenal to fight terror is international development and assistance.

Most Americans believe we are spending a good chunk of our budget on foreign assistance and should reduce what we spend; the truth is it makes up just 1% of our budget. We need to fully fund these aid programs and work to reform the system. Foreign development is not charity; it is an important component of our national security. It costs over half a million dollars to put a soldier in the Iraq or Afghanistan field for a year. Spending the same amount to build schools, water treatment plants, and local businesses will last longer than a soldier’s one year tour.

In 2006, I was part of a Military Transition (MiTT) Team tasked to advise and assess an Iraqi Army battalion in the Ameriyah district of Baghdad. We assessed progress by the number of shops open, the length of gas lines, the amount of electricity generated, the availability of water, and the effectiveness of sewage and trash removal. Improving the Iraqis’ situation helped us complete our job more than traditional military operations did. However, this is not a soldier’s job. My job was to find, fight, and eliminate the enemy. As a soldier, I should spend my time providing security, not trying to run a power plant. Sadly, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates likes to point out, there are more military band members than development experts at the State Department.

Foreign development is not simply giving money to regimes; it is providing funds for specific purposes and can be tracked by the U.S. government and taxpayers. Development programs help to support and stabilize countries with weak governments or that are in danger of failing, which often makes them havens for terror. Afghanistan and Pakistan are perfect examples. Ending stabilization programs in these countries would undoubtedly make them more dangerous to America, as they would foster an environment conducive to terrorism and crime.

The same applies in situations outside of war. Positive public opinion among Pakistanis doubled because of U.S. assistance following its devastating 2005 earthquake. In contrast, the West’s slow response to Pakistan’s severe flooding in 2010 had the opposite effect. Islamic groups stepped in and the U.S.’s goals and image suffered as a result. Terror groups have even begun to provide their own food aid in such situations.

The U.S. has a successful history with foreign development programs. Just look at the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild a Europe devastated by World War II, and the Berlin Airlift, which defied a Soviet land blockade. Germans remember these things and will tell you they owe their lives to America, my own German family members included. In terms of publicity, U.S. assistance even spreads to those who did not directly receive it; other countries know America is willing to help.

It took years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for us to learn that to defeat an indigenous Islamic insurgency, we must win the people’s hearts and minds. This is a lesson we should not quickly forget. Our commanders on the ground are asking for these programs because they know they work. Foreign development assistance is not a handout; it is a tactical tool our leaders need and is one of the most important components of our national security policy. We need to fully fund foreign development and assistance, as well as reform the system so it continues to work for America.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Gasoline Is Costing Us Our National Security

If you think $4 a gallon is a lot for gasoline, you should try paying $400. Sadly, we are paying 100 times the domestic price to get fuel to our troops in Afghanistan, if you include the costs from the source to the pump. In 2008, it was estimated that we paid $88 a day per soldier on the ground for gas in Iraq. 70% of Americans say they’re feeling the financial pain at the pump every time the price goes up a penny. For the military, those pennies add up to millions of dollars each month.

Even defense spending, long a ‘sacred cow’ exempt from budget cuts, seems to be on the cutting board. The question our leaders in Washington will have to struggle with is how much to cut. Either way, increasing fuel costs will continue to eat up a large chunk of our military’s shrinking budget, especially for the Navy and Air Force which require large amounts of fuel for their ships and aircraft. Though budget shortfalls for the military due to energy costs can often be made up with discretionary spending, it appears even this will be subject to cuts. This creates a scenario where our military leaders will have to choose when, where, and how to respond to threats in the field based upon whether or not we can afford it. Energy costs are beginning to put the squeeze on our national security. We shouldn’t have to worry about whether we can afford to keep our country safe anymore.

Fortunately, many are waking up to this fact. It is well documented that every branch of the military is making efforts to reduce fuel use and find energy from alternative, renewable sources. Every part of our national security apparatus, from the State Department, CIA, and the National Security Council to the Departments of Energy and Transportation, are working to find solutions to this problem. As cuts are made, the efforts of these agencies and departments to win the race for future energy should remain off the table. This is money we should spend to save us money tomorrow.

We cannot afford to let high fuel prices put the squeeze on our security. We need to continue to invest in finding alternative energy sources so our troops can fight and our military leaders can worry about keeping us safe, not whether they can afford the gas. High oil prices are compromising our national security and thats why its time to cut oil out altogether.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Our Veterans Are Not 'Freeloaders'

Fox Business’s John Stossel says that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is a “clumsy government bureaucracy, and I have little faith they make good judgments when deciding who needs help, and who freeloads.” He lumps veterans’ benefits with agriculture subsidies and government insurance programs that help the wealthy who don’t need it. To fairly criticize the VA and government agencies is one thing, but to call veterans “freeloaders” and the VA guilty of handing out money to fraudsters is quite another.

I recently began receiving VA medical benefits for the first time and I was pleasantly surprised by the efficiency and responsiveness of the Department of Veterans Affairs. I served nine years in the Army and received a Purple Heart after two tours in Iraq. To get into the VA system, I simply had to show my discharge paperwork and financial details to demonstrate that I was not above the financial need threshold. This prevents those who have an income over a certain amount from, as Stossel would put it, “freeloading.”

It is a well-known fact that healthcare is exceedingly expensive in America today. It is also an unfortunate fact that many veterans, such as me, don’t make much money. Young veterans’ unemployment has been reported to be near twice the national average. Without VA medical benefits, many of us would have to make the choice between paying for healthcare and paying other costs. I’ll admit that it weren’t for the VA I would probably assume the risk that nothing bad will happen to me in favor of paying for rent, groceries, and gas.

Much of the debate about the VA is wrapped up in the wider entitlements debate, which includes Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Critics inflate the size of the issue. These other benefits are available and required to be paid into by every American who later uses them when they become eligible. Only roughly 1% of Americans have served in the military and, even then, not every veteran receives or is eligible for VA medical care.

Although it has not been my experience, there are stories out there about the VA providing lavish healthcare benefits to veterans. Critics have complained about the VA funding chair lifts or ramps where the veteran claims they would have been fine without it. One of the best qualities of VA medical care is that the doctors are in charge. In private healthcare, the insurance companies tell the doctor what they can do. And I can vouch for the fact that most veterans would treat broken bones with ibuprofen, a glass of water, and a little walk.

Veterans aren’t looking for a handout; they have earned these benefits. Everyone recognizes the sacrifices our troops make for the country. Military service causes the very illnesses and injuries VA medical care treats. Think of all the running, marching with rucksacks, jumping out of planes and off trucks, and exposure to loud noise, dangerous chemicals, and foreign environments and diseases, not to mention the hazards of combat.

Veterans are entitled to VA benefits not simply because they wore the uniform and are taxpayers, but because serving in the military directly caused their health issues. It doesn’t matter if a service member never saw combat or was never injured while on duty; all the running, jumping, and marching will cause health issues. It’s a rough life. The same cannot be said for other entitlement programs that are based on the criteria of simply paying in to get benefits out later.

If we no longer want to pay for these benefits, how can we ask our young men and women to volunteer to serve? Some critics make the argument that our troops know the risks and drawbacks when they sign up. I don’t recall knowing at 18 years old that I would have my eardrums blown out at 23 or that my lower back and knees would be 60 years old by the time I turned 30. The risks are not always apparent, and to require our troops to assume the risk without compensation is to make suckers out of them to save the rest of us a couple bucks.

I waited three years before I went to the VA because of the stories I heard from fellow veterans about thick bureaucracy, red tape, and horror stories about VA mistakes. I know other eligible vets that still don’t use the VA for those same reasons. However, I have found these worries to be inflated or just plain untrue. There are problems with every government agency, and a look at other government agencies and even private sector healthcare providers shows that these things happen everywhere. To call vets “freeloaders” and the VA a waste is disgraceful, dishonest, and disrespectful to our troops.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Oil Transport: A Big, Fat, Slow Soft Target for Attacks

Despite a slight let up, the national average gas price is still close to $4 a gallon. That is up more than a dollar a gallon from a year ago. Last week, Chicago topped the list as the most expensive city to buy gas in with an average price of $4.44 a gallon. 70% of Americans say that these extreme costs are causing their families financial hardship. It’s no wonder Congress wants to investigate the oil companies because these prices are criminal. Beyond the continued assault on our paychecks, oil leaves us vulnerable to armed assaults by groups that oppose America and its allies and their economic and security consequences.

Unfortunately, to put gas in your car requires it be moved thousands of miles by giant sea tankers and then trucked overland to your local station. It burns a whole lot of gas just to get gas to the pump. Worse yet, imagine the difficulty and expense of getting diesel fuel to our troops downrange in hostile territory. By some estimates, it costs us $100 a gallon to get fuel to our soldiers from the source to their vehicles. As a Purple Heart recipient, I can personally vouch for the danger our troops face in convoys transporting fuel because I had to do it daily in Iraq.

Oil and gas transport is a huge and soft target for terrorism, which we all need to be mindful of after the threats of retaliation following the death of Osama bin Laden. Experts have long been concerned about the vulnerability of sea tankers and land-based fuel convoys. In uniform in Iraq and Kuwait and again as a military contractor there I witnessed incredibly long, slow-moving, and under-protected convoys of fuel trucks. Last year NATO fuel convoys in Pakistan came under multiple attacks and more have come just this week. Elsewhere this week, an oil tanker was attacked off the Gujarat Coast in Indian waters. Last summer a Japanese oil tanker was attacked in the Strait of Hormuz off Oman. There have also been attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Malacca off Indonesia. Attacks by Somali pirates in the Persian Gulf continue to be a security issue for oil transport.

The ridiculous cost of gas to consumers is already bad enough, but if you add to it the huge national security vulnerability it creates, continuing to be dependent on oil is dangerous and especially so for our troops downrange. It is time to move on.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Funding for DoE/ARPA-E for Our Security and Future

This article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice on 6 May, 2011.

When it comes to the budget and debt, the knives have come out in Washington. And the key phrase seems to be, “everything is on the table.” Conservatives want to put our energy security and independence on the table, as well. And it seems they want to do it for reasons more political than fiscal. The debt must be trimmed, but it cannot come at the expense of our national or future energy security.

Recently The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, published a report supporting greatly scaling back funding for the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), calling much of what it does “wasteful and unnecessary.” They claim that the DoE must stick to its role of promoting national and economic energy security from “traditional” sources. They also cling to the conservative article of faith that the private sector can innovate better without government support.

With the national gas price average hovering around $4 a gallon following two years of steady price increases, the DoE’s efforts to research new fuel technologies seem to be very necessary and no waste. DoE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is working on non-oil liquid fuels from abundantly available domestic sources that would eventually produce significantly cheaper prices at the pump.

ARPA-E is based upon the model of a more famous agency: DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Though others claim it, the truth is that DARPA invented the internet, as well as GPS technology, advanced microchips, and even Velcro. Additionally, they developed stealth technology, guided missiles, and unmanned aerial drones, all of which have greatly contributed to the success of our military.

ARPA-E and DARPA have been praised as models of “lean” bureaucracy and focus on high-risk, high-reward ideas within a relatively small budget. They also highlight the fact that the government can drive innovation. This pays dividends not only for our energy needs and national security, but for our economy as a whole, since the private sector tends to build on these innovations. The private sector application of the internet, GPS, and nuclear energy are examples. We wouldn’t have nuclear power if it weren’t for the government’s Manhattan Project, and imagine business without the internet or transport without GPS.

The Heritage Foundation report claims that the private sector can do the job better. The facts tend to disagree with them. Many of the research projects cited in the report as private sector examples of new energy research and development are in fact public-private partnerships, receiving vital funding from federal agencies such as the DoE, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the military.

Recent business trends, especially since the economic downturn, show that private companies are not willing to invest large amounts of money in new research and development. The energy sector invests only 0.3% of its revenue in new R&D projects. Another inconsistency is that the report claims to support a continuing role for ARPA-E but wants to cut out virtually all of its funding. ARPA-E was only recently fully funded as part of the 2008 stimulus plan, and conservatives essentially want to pull the plug already, while claiming to support it.

Why would anyone be against these agencies? Cutting the DoE budget would only save a very small amount of money and would come at great expense as oil prices continue to rise and America falls behind in the energy race. Clearly, part of it is ideological. Conservatives believe, falsely, that energy research should stay with the private sector, despite government research and funding being responsible for its development. The other part is political. President Obama has unveiled the development of new energy technologies as a vital part of his Energy Security Blueprint. GOP conservatives have shown themselves ready to stand in the way of anything the White House wants.

Again, conservatives are playing political games with national security. Our energy future requires an investment now and shouldn’t fall victim to ideological or political gamesmanship. The benefits of continuing energy research are clear for our national security and independent energy future. It will benefit American families by cutting our dependence on volatile and expensive petroleum; eliminate our dependence on importing foreign oil; keep our troops from having to secure our energy sources overseas; cut business’ energy costs; create new jobs and private-sector industries; and lead to clean, American sources of energy and technology we can market elsewhere. We can afford to pay a small price now for these dividends in the future.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Pipeline to Terrorism

This article also appeared on the Operation Free blog ( on 8 May, 2011.

High fuel prices threaten our fragile recovery and, unfortunately, there are people in the world that would love to do just that. Oil is already expensive, despite the fact that right now supply is plentiful and demand weak. Any interruption in the supply of oil now would cause prices to shoot up even higher. Opponents of oil-hungry America and its allies are catching on to this.

The world is crisscrossed with hundreds of thousands of miles of oil pipelines and experts consider them an easy and vulnerable target for terrorist attacks. Their great lengths through harsh terrain make them impossible to adequately protect and if a single break can shut a line down for weeks, imagine what a well-placed explosive device can do.

Just this month, Qaddafi’s forces in Libya attacked rebel-held oilfields there to halt production. There have been multiple insurgent attacks on pipelines in Iraq this year. Yemeni oil production has declined since 2006 due to attacks there and pipelines are a favorite target of the Kurdish PKK rebels in Turkey. Outside the Middle East, there have been multiple militia attacks against lines in Nigeria, a major oil supplier to the U.S., and rebel attacks on oil targets as close to the U.S. as Mexico.

Our own pipelines here in America show the vulnerability as well. In 2002 a drunken Alaskan hunter was convicted for shooting an oil pipeline, one bullet causing a hole that halted flow for three days. In 2006 a break spilled 250,000 gallons across the North Slope. A government report identified the trans-Alaska pipeline, which carries 12% of America’s domestic oil supply, as a major safety concern.

Our continued dependence on oil leaves not only our wallets vulnerable to price spikes, but puts our economy as a whole in danger and remains a threat to our national security. We need to turn off the pipelines for good and move away from oil.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Congressional Climate Cranks

This Article originally appeared on the Operation Free blog on 21 April, 2011.

Climate change is happening. It is a fact; sad but true. The U.S. Department of State has opened an office tasked specifically with responding to its effects, and the CIA has done the same. All branches of the U.S. military are taking steps to address their carbon footprint and reduce energy use. They all understand that climate change is a scientific fact. They’re not alone.

All major energy and oil companies claim to be taking steps to address climate change caused by the use of their products. The American Petroleum Institute touts its members’ efforts on the issue. A look at the television ads and websites for oil firms such as ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron state these firms believe climate change is occurring as a result of their products. They may disagree as to how much fossil fuels are contributing to carbon emissions, but they acknowledge they are and climate change is happening.

All of America’s national security institutions have taken action to address climate change and private-sector oil companies acknowledge it is a truth and are acting as well. So why can’t some Congressmen accept these facts? A look at their records on the issue is instructive. Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee and four of his top five campaign contributors are energy or auto companies. He and former chair Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) also own thousands in stock in energy companies. Barton is famous for apologizing to BP’s CEO after they agreed to pay for their Gulf oil spill. Committee member John Shimkus (R-IL) is also remembered for his stated belief that God won’t allow climate change and that reducing carbon will take away plant food.

With these characters in charge of America’s climate and energy policy, it isn’t hard to see why nothing gets done. These guys aren’t climate “skeptics”; they’re climate cranks.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Oil Profits From Disaster

Oil has pushed itself well over $100 per barrel this week. Middle East unrest, the intervention in Libya, and the Japan tsunami and nuclear disaster have combined to create chaos in the energy market and that equals a big profit from tragedy for oil companies yet again. With gulf coast industries still recovering, BP has decided that now is the right time to resume drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, less than a year after their massive spill dumped millions of barrels into the waters there. However, critics claim that the moratorium on offshore drilling is choking off domestic production and BP has learned its lesson.

In fact, domestic oil production increased markedly in 2009 and 2010, climbing higher than when George W. Bush, a well-known friend to big oil, was President. Additionally, more than two-thirds of current offshore claims are not being used and 45% of land-based claims sit unused as well. There is no shortage of claims for the industry to exploit; they’re not even using the ones they already have.

As far as learning its lesson, BP and its partners in the spill seem to have learned little. Just this month Transocean, a BP partner and one of the parties identified in the U.S. government investigation as responsible for the disaster, paid bonuses to their executives for exceeding internal safety targets and even called it their ‘best year’ for safety, despite the disaster. Talk about setting a low bar.

The oil industry profits from the chaos and uncertainty often brought on by violent world events and natural disasters and have a poor record in correcting their mistakes. As the economic downturn continues worldwide and Americans head into the summer travel season it doesn’t take much to understand we can’t afford to continue to depend on oil. It’s expensive, unstable, exploitative, and harmful to our environment and the industries and jobs that depend upon it. As Americans, none of us can afford to stick with oil.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

World Market for Oil Keeps Iran Afloat

This post originally appeared on the Operation FREE blog ( on 6 April, 2011.

The United States has done just about as much as possible to apply pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear program and give basic human rights such as free and fair elections and an unfettered media to its people. Yet Iran has seemingly ignored these efforts at persuasion. How they can afford to do so is hardly secret: Iran floats atop the world’s third-largest oil reserve. And while we don’t buy Iran’s oil, other nations have no qualms about purchasing petroleum: in 2009 China became Iran’s leading trade partner and in 2010 invested $40 billion in the Iranian oil industry. At the same time, Russia and Iran agreed to long term energy cooperation.

Oil trade with Iran continues elsewhere, too. Some European oil firms have continued to stretch the rules of the embargo. Just last week the U.S. sought to stop a German bank from transferring Indian oil payments to Iran and the State Department ‘blacklisted’ a Belarus oil firm for continuing to trade with Iran. This shows the importance not only of why America must break its oil dependence for our own security, but why America must also lead the rest of the world to cut the oil tether as well. As long as enough states continue to purchase oil there will be a market for it and regimes such as in Iran and dictators such as Qaddafi will remain in power.

The President’s new Energy Security Blueprint sets out a plan to do that. The U.S. has led in developing electric vehicles and America will soon be producing 40% of the world’s rechargeable batteries. We are leading and cooperating with other nations throughout the Pacific and South America in biofuels development. U.S. programs promote the use of alternative fuels in mass transit in developing countries such as Egypt, Thailand, and Colombia. As long as America, its allies, and developing nations continue to depend upon oil, Iran and other regimes will continue to stay afloat atop their sea of oil. In order to sink Iran, America must lead the world away from oil for our own national security and the safety of the world.