Time To Skip A Few Fundraisers

Yesterday Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California was asked about whether President Obama should alter his current schedule, which includes attending a number of fundraising events, so that he can focus more on some of the crises in the world, such as the downing of the passenger jet over the Ukraine by pro-Russian forces, the surge by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the escalated Israeli-Palestinian fighting in Gaza.  Senator Feinstein’s response was delicately phrased.  She said that the world would very much respect his “increased attention” to these matters, because the Leader of the Free World needs to lead in such times.

President Obama has attended a lot of fundraisers during his tenure in office.  The Washington Post recently calculated that he has held 393 fundraisers while in office, which is more than George W. Bush’s total during his full two terms but not quite as many as Bill Clinton’s record.  It’s not hard to understand why Presidents like fundraisers.  By definition, it’s a friendly gathering — after all, everyone else in attendance is ponying up thousands of dollars to be there, and obviously they’re not paying that much for the food — and at the end of the event the President can see tangible results and tote up the money he’s raised to support candidates who will support his agenda.

The Obama Administration no doubt would contend that the President is fully in touch with his national security team and capable of dealing with these crises whether he’s in the Oval Office or wearing a tux at some glittering event.  Maybe . . . although the combination of world events and the mess at our border raise legitimate questions about whether the President is fully in control of events.  In any case, I think Senator Feinstein has put her finger on something significant.

Appearances and messaging are important in today’s world.  It’s hard to successfully characterize something as a crisis if you can’t be bothered to change your schedule and skip non-essential events in order to work the phones with international leaders and build working coalitions to deal with the problem.  When the President goes to fundraisers in the midst of these events, he’s implicitly communicating that he is more concerned about Republicans than he is about the Middle East, or the Ukrainian separatist activities, or the influx of unaccompanied minor illegal immigrants.

Senator Feinstein recognizes that — and, I suspect, so do the perpetrators of the events that have given rise to these crises in the first place.  I think it’s time for the President to skip a few fundraisers.

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Shooting Down A Commercial Jet Is Unforgivable

I’m not going to leap to conclusions about the terrible downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet, and I’m not going to rush to judgment about what caused the disaster.  Nor am I going to heap criticism on President Obama, as some have, for not saying more about the incident after he learned of it.  With an incident was awful as this, we can and should take the time to determine the true facts before assigning blame and taking action.

I will say this, however — if it is determined that pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists did shoot down the plane with a missile, it is one of the worst, most unforgivable crimes imaginable.  Hundreds of people from a number of different nations boarded this particular jet in Amsterdam, headed to Kuala Lumpur.  They didn’t know that boarding an international flight that was just like countless others would be their doom.  The jet flew through peaceful airspace, where there had been no warning of any danger.  The people on the plane were absolutely defenseless against an attack.  Anyone who would shoot down a plane under those circumstances — even if it was a case of mistaken identity — simply does not deserve to live in the modern, civilized world.

If a missile attack in fact occurred, whoever was responsible for this outrage must be punished, and the punishment should come from every nation that had citizens aboard that jet.  If Ukrainian separatists were the culprits, then the United States should side with the Ukrainian government and do whatever it can to defeat the separatists, learn who perpetrated this act, bring them to justice, and see that they are appropriately punished.  If Russia wants to be accepted as a responsible figure on the international scene, it should do likewise — and so should every other country that has an international airport.

I’m tired of mealy-mouthed responses to criminal, terrorist acts that demand swift and sure action.  If commercial jets can be shot from the skies without fear of prompt and painful retribution, then the world has become a grimmer, darker place.  We simply cannot permit such acts to go unpunished.  Let’s get the facts, get them quickly, and then take meaningful steps against whoever perpetrated this awful crime.

Cold War Timewarp

For a child of the ’50s who grew up in the ’60s, reading the news this week is weird and disturbingly familiar.

Stories about Russians testing ICBMs, engaging in adventurous activities in the Crimea, and issuing vague threats make me feel like we’re caught in a timewarp. It’s like it’s the Cold War all over again, and the Russkies are even being directed by one of those inexplicable, menacing leaders that Americans love to hate. Vladimir Putin is like this generation’s Nikita Khrushchev. What’s next? People building fallout shelters and making our kids watch Duck and Cover?

When the Berlin Wall fell more than two decades ago, people confidently predicted “the end of history.” Of course, that’s not what happened. A bilateral world splintered and shifted, and now there are many more threats and many more unpredictable leaders who apparently are bent on doing us harm. I wonder whether this little demonstration of naked Russian aggression will cause President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to revisit their plans to cut defense spending and Cold War weapons programs.

I hope that we don’ return to the unsettling Cold War world, with its doomsday clocks and periodic crises that could blow up into catastrophic confrontation. I hope we also aren’t so smug, however, that we confidently conclude that it just can’t happen. Such conclusions are wishful thinking. There are lots of people out there with lots of territorial ambitions who are willing to run stupid risks to try to achieve them, and we need to recognize that reality and deal with it.

Is The U.S. In A Foreign Policy Cocoon?

The unfolding events in the Ukraine, where Russian military activities in the Crimea have caused the Ukraine to mobilize its forces, obviously are of tremendous concern in their own right. We don’t like to see the rights of sovereign nations impaired, nor do we like to see pro-democracy movements bullied into submission.

The unfolding developments in the Ukraine, however, also give rise to a deeper, yet equally significant concern arising from the fact that the Russian military actions apparently caught the United States, and the western world, completely by surprise. People in the foreign policy world had confidently predicted that Vladimir Putin, flush from the favorable PR about the Sochi Olympic Games, wouldn’t risk the goodwill of the world by taking any kind of military action in the Ukraine, or lacked the will or resources or interest to do so. Of course, those people were wrong.

Is our failure to predict the Russian actions in the Ukraine due to poor intelligence, or of a cocoon-like atmosphere in our foreign policy establishment that doesn’t recognize that other countries and leaders might not see the world as we do? This article in The American Interest argues that it is the latter — and that the cocoon, unless and until punctured, is going to produce more foreign policy crises and setbacks in the future.

I don’t know if the hypothesis of the article is correct or not — but I do think that, when it comes to contingency planning about responses to fast-moving global events, it’s essential to have different viewpoints represented and presented to President Obama. If our current foreign policy apparatus doesn’t include the contrarians who are willing to offer their competing views and the decision-makers who will consider those views, we need to make some changes, pronto. Presidents can only make good decisions if they are given full information and a range of options.