Herbert London is president emeritus of Hudson Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).
Sandy Slams New York
Hurricane Sandy struck New York with unprecedented force revealing the illogic of mankind's arrogant belief that the forces of nature are under its control. This was identified as a type "one" hurricane, mild in the lexicon of hurricanes, but the rising tide and full moon contributed to a "perfect storm" with devastating effect. For downtown residents, the Hudson and East Rivers reclaimed their natural boundaries turning Water Street into its given name.
The water surge in garages led parked cars to break through barriers and float down Broad Street as if remotely controlled motorboats. One person was killed at 90 Broad Street by the combined force of 90 miles an hour winds and the water surge. Residents of the area, who assumed broadcast horror stories about the storm were exaggerated, soon learned the devastation was real.
Battery Park was turned into a lake with fish deposited from the Hudson struggling to survive in an unanticipated venue. The tunnel connecting the west and east sides of Manhattan were filled with ten feet of water throughout. Cars and trucks were rendered inoperable. The water level at Morris Street and Battery Place was chest high.
The complacency with which New Yorkers generally greet storms was crushed by a rising tide around Manhattan and in the outer borough areas near the ocean or the harbor. A large vessel was tossed ashore on a Staten Island beach as if cranes lifted and put it there. Stories of fires and transformers exploding lit up the skies around the city. Behind the fireworks was despair.
New Yorkers are resilient, but tension is in the air. Gridlock of an unprecedented variety brought Manhattan south of 39th Street to a standstill because traffic lights, in the absence of electricity, are not available. Tempers flare in normal circumstances; you can only imagine the reaction when movement is glacial.
Roughly half the deaths attributed to the storm were in Staten Island. This all but forgotten borough was tormented by wind that leveled houses and took the lives of young and old alike. Some residents who were born and raised here couldn't believe their eyes. Never before had the island experienced this kind of destruction.
The lobbies of Manhattan hotels had lines of downtown denizens eager to find a place to sleep. Apple stores were filled with youthful computer hands searching for electrical current. Power hungry folks are sitting close to every outlet in Grand Central Station. Gas lines were longer than those in 1979 during the second oil embargo. Plastic gasoline containers are a hot item in Home Depot.
For New Yorkers, the world has been turned upside down. A city with every amenity the mind can conjure, cannot light its streets. Some middle class families seek food in dumpsters on the street. "Homeless" has an entirely new meaning after Sandy.
Clearly complacency has been shattered. For some, such as Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo, it has been replaced by a belief in Global Warming as a factor in explaining the surge. Politicians are in the solution business, even when the solutions raise more questions than they answer.
One thing is certain: Those who thought they could ride the Hurricane out aren't likely to do so ever again. New York wasn't broken by Sandy, but it is injured. The toughness of New Yorkers is still on display, yet the swagger is subdued. Sandy lives in the mind of New York and it will not be forgotten any time soon.
Coming Apart Over Sequestration
"Sequestration" is a government word that for those in the military has a synonym: castration. When a bipartisan committee was established by the administration to motivate Democrats and Republicans to compromise on limits for federal spending, it was assumed some understanding could be accomplished. One provision of mutual disagreement and a stalemate is sequestration or automatic budget cuts should stasis be the result of congressional deliberation.
Well, here we are without an agreement and sequestration about to be imposed on the budget process. Sequestration according to the Congressional Budget Office, will reduce federal discretionary spending by nearly $94 billion in 2013 and $1.2 trillion over the next decade. One might assume conservatives would rejoice over this outcome. But that assumption would be wrong. This provision effectively ignores the real drivers of our debt and deficit problems by exempting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and federal employee pensions, while placing the burden of retrenchment on national defense.
According to a George Mason University study defense cuts of this magnitude would result in the layoff of approximately 2.1 million workers. But these national security reductions have even more severe implications. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, said sequestration would pose unacceptable risk to the nation's defense capabilities. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert noted that sequestration will have a "severe and irreversible impact on the Navy's future." Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the cuts catastrophic. "We'd be shooting ourselves in the head," he said. Admiral Ace Lyons maintains that if sequestration is imposed on the Navy, none of today's missions could be carried out in the future.
Almost every military officer in the nation is persuaded that this form of retrenchment will so hollow out the nation's ability to project power that the U.S. will be obliged to sit on the sidelines as the Chinese assert their influence in the Pacific and Iran operates on its imperial aims in the Middle East. The world is certainly not a safer place when the United States engages in self-imposed disarmament.
Clearly this is the time for a legislative onslaught. Letters from the Secretary of Defense, General Dempsey, the Associations of the U.S. Army and Navy, Chairman McKeon, the Chamber of Commerce to leading congressional leaders make the case sequestration is unacceptable. Yet curiously the issue has not galvanized public opinion.
My guess is the media has simply let this matter ride. But now that U.S. embassies are at risk and the full effect of rabid Islamic sentiment is evident across North Africa, time for the reassessment of sequestration is here. This is not a partisan issue. There are areas in the budget that must be cut and even military installations that must be examined under green eyeshades. But when it comes down to cutting the core, the strength of our defense capability, sensible legislators must shout "Stop!"
The third rail in politics must be more than Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. In fact, as I see it, these programs should not be immune to budget slashing. Military spending is another matter. Power projection should not be compromised. A strong America accounts for a stable world and even a prosperous United States. If the sea lanes aren't secure, trade is put in jeopardy.
Sequestration is ultimately an arbitrary budget decision that sacrifices defense capability so we can retain ballooning social programs. This is the kind of trade-off that doomed the Roman Empire and the British Empire. Is their fate about to be ours? Are we so caught in the rhetorical web of entitlements that we have lost sight of national defense? I wonder if anyone in the Congress is listening to and observing this very dangerous scenario.
Obama's Ship of State Without a Helmsman
This presidential campaign season is a time for clarification. If campaigns have any value over and above the megaphone effect of why one candidate is more desirable than the other, it is the chance to use a campaign as an educational forum. From my perspective, even silence or ambiguity can be revealing. In this season, President Obama has indicated the threat and direction of American foreign policy through ellipses.
If the foreign policy of this administration can be described in one word, it would be "drift." Should one parse the president's campaign statements about foreign policy, only obscurity emerges. For example, what is the American policy in Libya? Why wasn't the embassy reinforced when requests for such action was made? At what point will the Iranian nuclear program be unacceptable? Why isn't aid to Egypt contingent on behavior this government considers acceptable? The questions beg for answers that are not forthcoming.
Friedrich Nietzche offered an explanation for this lack of responsiveness. He wrote, "Those who know they are deep strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem deep to the crowd strive for obscurity." Is President Obama without depth, yet appealing to the masses? Is substance a casualty of indecisiveness?
Surely what one might assume is a decisive vision of the president's foreign policy position. That vision may not be consensual; in fact, it may be divisive, but at least the public would know where the Obama team stands.
During the Civil War when President Lincoln was disconsolate about the state of Union forces, he turned to his minister for counsel. The minister told the president to turn to the Bible for solace. Lincoln did so. And there in the Book of Proverbs, he found the words that offered hope and inspiration: "When there is no vision, a people perish." President Lincoln realized he had to provide that vision. It wasn't enough to defeat Confederate forces, he had to limn a philosophical picture for the soon-to-be united nation.
In a sense, the same condition exists at the moment. Another president, Thomas Jefferson, echoed Lincoln's sentiment years earlier when he said: "It is the manners and the spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor." Alas, how does this republic maintain its vigor when all one encounters is drift, a predictable distance from clarity and public understanding?
Recognizing the failure - or should I call it a lapse? - is not easy. Leaders are wedded to positions, false or true, good or bad. History is replete with reverential assertions. "I believe it, ergo it must be true."
Yet another humanist from the past provides insight into this phenomenon. Leo Tolstoy writing in the 19th century noted:
I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.
Does President Obama suffer from the persistence of false conclusions? After all, he did infer the U.S. was (is) a neo-colonial state. He did engage in an apology tour across the globe for what he described as the "excesses" of American foreign policy. Yet aside from the apologies, there does not seem to be the articulation of a pathway to the future. Drift is not an answer since in drift one is a captive of historical influences over which there isn't control. A great power cannot be put in a turbulent sea without a rudder.
This foreign policy picture presented by President Obama hasn't any texture. Despite all the hyperbole and rapid-fire responses to questions and assertions, it is illuminating that the president has been unable to offer any guidance on American foreign interests, the defense of global freedom or how we should steer the ship of state.
In 1973 there was a feeding frenzy among journalists who could not consume the details of the Watergate break-in fast enough. Pulitzer prizes awaited those with a new factoid or an interview with someone in the administration who broke ranks with President Nixon. In retrospect, this was a clumsy effort to interfere with the campaign of the Democratic challenger. There wasn't any justification for the act and a clumsy cover-up ultimately brought down the administration. President Nixon's resignation was ignominious as the Washington Post and the New York Times congratulated themselves over the president's decision. This was catnip for Nixon haters.
In 2012 there is another apparent cover-up over the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, and the subsequent murder of the ambassador and three colleagues attempting to defend him. Although President Obama claims he did everything in his power to avoid the tragedy, several facts challenge this account. He was told several weeks before the attack that it was imminent and security at the embassy should be bolstered. Drones overhead provided the president with a bird's eye view of the marauding mob.
Most significantly, the president attributed this attack on the anniversary of 9/11 to an obscure video on You Tube about the Prophet Mohammed. It strains credulity that Libyan killers spend their evenings surfing the web for American-made films about Islam. Nonetheless, this ridiculous alibi was expressed by Ambassador Susan Rice at the UN and by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While this claim was thoroughly discredited, it was repeated several times over a two-week period and even led to a tax-payer underwritten apology that aired in several Muslim dominated nations, yet another example of a supine national response to the murder of American offices abroad.
President Obama may disagree with this account, but there appears to be consensus that the essential features of the story are correct. Moreover, the contradictions emerging from the White House and the State Department along with the claim by several observers at the site that "someone" told those who wanted to assist the ambassador to "stand down," not once, not twice, but three times, suggest this is on event that warrants intense journalistic investigation.
Yet remarkably aside from Fox news, this isn't a story the so-called newspapers of record - The New York Times and Washington Post - even recognize. Aren't Pulitzers beckoning? Admittedly the proximity of the presidential election may have compromised analysis, but one might assume, based on journalistic platitudes that spring from the lips of the Fourth estate, that reporters have an obligation to search for the truth, even if this muse is elusive. Surely journalists do not have an obligation to defend the president, nor is it their responsibility to attack him. However, they do have an obligation to a report on a story with significant policy implications.
Did the president or a member of his team mislead the public because the attack by al Qaeda does not square with the view this radical group has been rendered impotent by the tactics of the administration? Was this communication confusion a function of presidential ineptitude? Perhaps what is most interesting is whether this is a cover-up.
If so, this is a cover-up of murder. Watergate may have been transmogrified into a major historical event, but in most respects the deaths in Benghazi are far more noteworthy than a clumsy break-in forty years ago. Americans deserve the truth; they deserve a journalistic community devoted to the search for it. Should political bias influence the decision about what is worth covering or ignoring, journalism will have succumbed to propagandistic accounts.
There are many instances when newspaper reports display bias, but rarely has there been an example of systematic silence about the murders of U.S. officials. This saga offers texture and national appeal; President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, Ambassador Rice, CIA head General Petraeus are the actors in a complicated drama. Each should be interviewed; inconsistencies revealed and accountability determined. Elections be damned. There is more at stake in this case than who is the next president of the United States. *