Archive for June, 2011


Last Wednesday, President Obama announced that in July he will start drawing down American troops from Afghanistan. Ten thousand will be gone by December 31, another 23,000 by summer 2012. It’s more than time.

America’s post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan was warranted to find Osama bin Laden and destroy the training camps he’d established under Taliban protection—camps that would allow more al Qaeda plots against America. This represented an anti-terrorist strategy. The country supported it.

Then things headed south. We removed the Taliban, but the Bush White House blew a prime opportunity to get bin Laden at Bora Bora by withholding American special operations forces and subcontracting to Afghan warlords, who let bin Laden escape. The hunt continued, but American troops were diverted to Iraq. Before the war, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki stated that we would need many hundreds of thousands of troops to pacify and recreate that nation. The Bush administration terminated his career then implemented one inept policy after another.

Over 4,000 American servicemen and women were killed in Iraq. Many more were wounded grievously as the U.S. pursued a counter-insurgency policy to support an unpopular government in a nation riven by religious and tribal antagonism. Yes, the 2008 troop surge reduced the violence. Our troops conducted themselves magnificently. But the folly of remaking Iraq in our image and the incredible cost remained unchanged.

President Obama re-focused on Afghanistan and removed combat troops from Iraq. But the continued anti-insurgency policy propping up the corrupt regime of Hamid Karzai piled one mistake on another. Over 1,500 American troops have lost their lives for an Afghan government with no validity in the eyes of its people. Peace talks with the Taliban are under way, although any agreement will likely prove worthless. In any event, Afghans will have to determine their own future for good or bad—and, regardless of our best intentions, whether we like it or not.

So here we have it. The U.S., in the midst of grave economic challenges, has spent $443 billion on Afghanistan. It costs $1 million to maintain a single serviceman or woman each year. A drawdown of 33,000 troops will save $33 billion better spent at home. Further troop reductions will save more money—and lives. We won’t completely leave Afghanistan for some time though. President Obama stated that he won’t tolerate a safe haven for Al Qaeda and the Taliban—at least the Taliban who won’t deal honestly with us. So we’re shifting to a policy of anti-terrorism. America isn’t withdrawing into isolation, the president emphasized—Sen. John McCain promptly accused the White House of retreating into Fortress America—but taking “a more centered course.” I agree with the president. Why?

Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, put it best. “Whatever happens in Afghanistan now or five years from now won’t determine America’s future; what happens with America’s crushing debt will.”

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With the summer solstice on the horizon, we can’t help thinking about what the recent Arab spring has meant. Protests and revolutions developed from Algeria to the Persian Gulf. Some deposed tyrants—Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Others keep trying in Libya and Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, where Bashar al-Assad seeks to maintain his family’s forty-year stranglehold with bloody force.

I’d like to tell you that democracy will bloom—that green shoots that appeared several months ago will turn into a garden of fragrant flowers and delicious fruits. But I’m doubtful. Not that I don’t think democracy can flower in the Middle East eventually. Ardent supporters of democracy can be found almost everywhere in the region. But I’d hate to have to define “eventually” because I believe in the Humpty Dumpty syndrome. Or to put it another way, sometime’s the media is the message. Here’s what I mean.

In the June 13/20 double issue of Newsweek, the historian and author Niall Ferguson offers a column, “The Revolution Blows Up.” Ferguson questions whether Egypt’s deteriorating economy is undermining the hope created in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that a new Middle East at peace with itself and the rest of the world would be born.

Ferguson asks what the West is doing to help Egyptians—and others—climb out of their deep economic hole. “The answer is,” he offers, “not enough.” Now, that may be a fair assessment. But here’s what strikes me. In an article of roughly 1,000 words, Ferguson—a brilliant man—offers not one word regarding a solution. He describes the Middle East’s various dire economies, suggesting that we must help them grow, but never declares how we should do this and why financial institutions and corporations should disregard the considerable risks their investments would run in such unstable environments. Egyptian money is, after all, fleeing the country.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing Ferguson because he didn’t come up with a detailed program to make the Middle East a garden spot of democracy and free enterprise. But it’s easy to day, “Do something” when the real task involves providing some form of concrete guidance. This is where Humpty Dumpty comes in.

We know from our childhoods that Mr. Dumpty had a great fall, and that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put him back together again. There’s a lesson here. Think of a few people fueled by sufficient pizza and beer demolishing an old, rotted house. They can do it in days. Maybe only hours. But how long would it take to rebuild that house—and turn it from a run-down building into a beautiful, weatherproof home?

In the months ahead, Americans will keep asking for fixes to all sorts of problems from our involvement in the Middle East to the sluggish economy. Many will be quick to pick up sledgehammers and crowbars. I hope we’ll all consider what it means to patiently draft blueprints, carefully pour foundations and take a craftsman’s approach to using our saws, hammers and drills. Anyone can destroy. Building demands attention to detail.

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In Mountain Lake Park the other day, I met three young people hefting backpacks—a man with a goatee, a walking stick and a purple hat that would have done Dr. Seuss proud and two women in colorful clothes. They were heading to the Golden Gate Bridge to hitchhike up to Spokane, Washington. I gave them directions.

I could relate. My son, Yosi (nee daughter, Rachel) used to ride freight trains across the country, stopping in small communities of like-minded travelers. Not everyone knows where life will take him at an early age.

On the other hand, I once wrote a speech for a Silicon Valley CEO who showed me a notebook with his entire life planned out, including holding high political office. His political career hasn’t panned out to the best of my knowledge. Whether he’s found that “failure” to be crushing, I don’t know. He was otherwise quite successful—as expected.

So what about young adults without clear goals who set off into uncharted waters? Here, too, I could relate. Throughout college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I went into the Army for three years hoping for enlightenment. No such luck. I married Carolyn and taught English at a private school in San Antonio for a year while she completed her undergraduate work. I was still clueless. Then we traveled throughout Western Europe for three months. On one of our many (passenger) train rides, I chanced on a magazine article about advertising by one of Madison Avenue’s top creatives. I started my advertising career several months later at 27. I had my ups and downs, but things worked out quite well.

As to Yosi—he tired of trains, settled in Tennessee then moved on to New Orleans where he lives now. The contacts he made on the rails and on the road led to working steadily as drummer/fiddler for a wonderful band, Hurray for the Riff Raff. Yosi transformed from vagabond to career-minded musician.

In May, a two-person version of Riff Raff—Yosi and Alynda Segarra, the band’s writer/singer/guitarist, who also rode the rails—toured the UK for Loose Records. Carolyn and I saw them in London where they were well received. (In Nottingham, Yosi later informed me, they were treated like rock stars.) At dinner in an Indian Restaurant near our Bloomsbury hotel, Yosi and Alynda revealed that they think about fame. They don’t have much time to think, however. Three days after returning, Riff Raff left on a US tour. We’ll see them in San Francisco this Sunday, June 12, at the Amnesia Bar on Valencia Street.

I don’t know what those three young travelers expect to find in Spokane. My guess is they’ll move on. And on. But eventually, something or someone will catch their attention. They’ll stop floating with the current and drop their separate anchors. And hopefully, like the rest of us who’ve sailed uncharted waters, they’ll find a home.

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At Torah Study a few weeks ago, several people took offense at the concept of Israel as God’s chosen people. My response: yes, the Torah portrays Israel as chosen. But as I write in GOD’S OTHERS, going beyond a surface reading reveals just what Israel is chosen for.

Throughout the biblical narrative, all nations remain free to honor God in any monotheistic form. They are bound only by the seven Noahide laws, which include prohibitions against worshipping idols, killing, robbery and incest/adultery. Israel, on the other hand, must adhere to 613 commandments—a matter entailing not privilege but responsibility.

The late Israel scholar Nehama Leibowitz comments that, “the Almighty did not release Israel from the burden of persecution [in Egypt] in order to set them free from all burden or responsibility. He wished them to become free to accept another burden — that of the kingdom of Heaven — of Torah and Mitzvot.” The “yoke of the Torah” binds Israel to righteousness and adherence to the highest standards of justice. This charges Israel with the duty to impel—rather than compel—humanity to notice, admire and emulate its example.

As such, the chosen people do not rule. They serve. And that can bring consequences. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, the father of modern German Orthodoxy, points out that if God grants the priest extraordinary rights and privileges, God also places him under greater scrutiny. Hirsch imagines God saying, “The more a person stands out from among the people as a teacher and a leader, the less will I show him indulgence when that person does wrong.”

What about other nations and religions? Rabbi Joel Rembaum emphasizes “that YHVH [God’s unpronounceable name—DP] maintains relations with all nations, with regard to whom God can act either as judge or as redeemer.” God’s approval is earned through conduct. One can claim no privilege simply for being born a Jew. Moreover, right conduct is available to all humanity.

True, the Sages of the Talmud railed against the nations’ improper behavior. They found many Roman and Greek practices abhorrent. But they did not—indeed could not—denigrate the basic human worth of non-Jews who also are created in God’s image. In fact, any society, no matter how wicked, may produce “God’s others” who have a relationship with the Divine since all human beings contain the Divine spark. God did not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), the mythic prototype of evil, because no single righteous person lived there but because as many as ten righteous people could not be found.

Understandably, Jews living in twenty-first century, egalitarian San Francisco feel uneasy about the concept of chosenness even if the Bible makes it explicit. But a careful reading of the text along with ancient and modern commentaries should allay those apprehensions. They demonstrate that Jews are not “better than” but “more burdened than”—which removes one weight from their shoulders and replaces it with another.

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