Sometimes it takes somebody to step back from the tactical morass of the pending primaries and presidential elections and take a look at the significant issues. I am referring to actual decision trees that must be traversed to establish policies that affect the United States, as opposed to emotional and class-divisive issues that are used for political short-term electoral positions.

Now political pundits will say that there is nothing other than the tactical political position — after all, the goal is to get elected and you can’t resolve real issues if you aren’t in a position of power or authority. But candidates mired in the short term tactical issues — addressing irrelevancies for a point here or there against their opponents — can become intellectually bankrupt of vision. Then, even if elected, they cannot address the real issues, or perhaps have compromised their political capital to the extent they are totally ineffective.

By and large, I want to address issues that can be managed in some concrete fashion, not issues that parties believe should be managed. Party issues that are litmus test issues, such as abortion, cannot have a resolution in the current political system. 40% of people oppose abortion, 40% are “pro-choice”, and the rest either don’t care or have mixed positions. Given this distribution, any executive is not going to be able to generate a policy that has an immediate impact on the United States. One might be able to create an environment where one position or another might be enabled in a future act, but such environments are very fragile. The issue of stem cells is a case in point — for all the posturing, the issue became irrelevant when Japanese scientists persuaded ordinary skin cells to transform back into undifferentiated stem cells (and with the added benefit that they were donor specific.)

So enumerated below are some issues and my tags:

AbortionAbortion — (easy since I’ve already addressed it in brief) Doesn’t matter. Can’t be resolved in the current system. Trying to make this a plank is a waste of time. Yes, there are moral and ethical issues on both sides and the current treatment is inconsistent and there are deep feelings on both sides. Doesn’t matter. Irrelevant.

ImmigrationImmigration — The United States needs to get its act together here. We have two contradictory processes at work that need to be reconciled. Our food supply is dependent on manual labor imported from outside. To increase the pay scale to the point compatible with a job an American Union Worker would take will increase the cost of food. Economically we are chained to cheap imported labor. The presence of people in the country who exist outside the legal system creates massive economic costs, yet it still somewhat to our benefit to educate and care for a certain number of these people — the cost of not doing so may be greater still.

Further, much of America’s growth is due to legal immigration, its innovation due to contributions from immigrants. From the technological and innovative point of view, why would be want to train and educate students from other countries, and rather than employ them here with a H1B, send them back to India, or China, or Pakistan where they can use what we have taught them to develop competing businesses.

The current set of immigration policies are horrible with no consistent underlying vision or plan. We need to restore the United States to that land of opportunity that calls people from all walks of life to participate in achieving their dreams, and makes them want to be legal participating citizens in the American democratic process.

The Plank: Recognize that America is built on immigration and adjust policies to reflect this fact. Increase or eliminate H1B visa limitations. Devise a guest worker program as a means to satisfy our current economic dependency while at the same time requiring such workers to exist within our legal framework (i.e., valid driver licenses, auto insurance, immunizations, etc.). Finally, enforce the subsequent laws.

BusinessBusiness Investment — The current governmental bureaucracies (both State and Federal) have created an environment where investment is going elsewhere: London, China, Russia. Our policies and laws like Sarbanes-Oxley have made the hurdle of listing in the United States financially onerous. The FDA has made developing new drugs near-impossible with the result that corporations are being fined millions of dollars for reporting their research protocols to doctors (off-label touting is a crime); deciding drugs need not be approved because existing drugs are already available (competition anyone?); and generally making the process so complex and lengthy that the evil pharmaceutical companies have to charge an arm and a leg to break even of the research and development. The Justice department obtains some of its own budget from the fines levied in actions. (oops)

These, and many more government bureaucracies have to be checked, reduced or eliminated. The government can and should regulate commerce so that the playing field is level, but by and large, issues such as who can compete should be left to the market to decide.

The sub-prime/securitization/derivatives financial liquidity crisis is providing another opening for government to over-regulate. The market is already sorting out (in the British SAS sense of the phrase) the people who were stupid. Banks are moving assets back to their balance sheets. Hedge funds are unwinding and assets are being marked to real market value. Government interference here is what created the mess. Let’s not multiply the problems.

The plank: The Government’s role should be to provide transparency. Hold hearings, investigate processes and systems but without moralizing and demonizing the industries. And then do nothing while the system, now aware of the problems, corrects itself.

In general, any law passed by Congress establishing a regulatory or oversight mission (and its associated bureaucracy) needs a sunset provision and a requirement for periodic review to determine whether its still needed. Establish a goal to cut by 10% annually both the budget and employee count of every major department. (The Jack Walsh method.)

TaxA Rational Tax Policy — The current situation is not sustainable. The class-based tax warfare must stop. Now we have the situation where the top 1% of the country’s earners pay 39% of the Federal income tax; and that 60% of the people pay less than 1%, if any. And what do we hear from Congress: “Taxes need to be more progressive.” and “We can’t have executives making $30 million dollars.” and (of course) “We have to ensure that the rich pay their fair share.” So what occurs when 0.1% of the earning population pays 99% of the income tax? What happens if they get pissed off and leave? (oops!)

Also, it is unconscionable that a PhD in accounting and mathematics, let alone a typical citizen can’t read their tax return instructions. The entire system (and the IRS) needs to be abolished and replaced with a simplified taxation system that requires no more than one page to fill out. And keep Congress out of it. Their attempts to “fix” things got us into this mess. Remember the AMT, supposedly legislated to insure that 140 people who paid no tax forty years ago, never ever got a free pass again? And now 30 million Americans have to figure their taxes twice and pay because they are now “rich”!

The Plank: Set up a commission to oversee the collection of taxes — ten members max — like the Fed. Make any revision to the code require a supermajority of 80% Congress. Make it flat or at most two tiered with no exclusions. Most people would pay a higher rate just to not fill out the forms ( or pay their tax accountants to do it for them — they would save money.) Dump the AMT, eliminate capital gains tax or any reinvestment double taxation. Simplify — forbid social reform and manipulation via taxation.

WarThe War in Iraq — Doesn’t matter. We are there, we can’t leave until its stable. Why beat a dead horse. We kill more teenagers on the highways than in the armed forces. Fix foreign policy and this will go away. Irrelevant

Foreign PolicyForeign Policy — Which one? The White House, The State Department, The Trade Office, the CIA?

The Plank: Downsize the bureaucracies and reduce the competing agendas. Let’s get some consistency in the message America sends to the rest of the world. Like Patrick Swayce in Roadhouse: Be nice, be nice, be nice until it’s time to stop being nice. Let’s treat Russia and China and other countries with respect and some understanding that they have legitimate concerns. America, for better or worse, is a superpower and is likely to remain so.

Castle RomeoNuclear Proliferation — Doesn’t matter. The first world knows this through detente. The third world has to learn. And it’s not as if we can really do anything about it — any physics grad with some practical engineering experience can do it.

Few alive today have an understanding of the effects of these weapons. If a state uses one against another state, that state is toast. Self-correcting problem. Irrelevant.

JudicialThe Judiciary — At first I was going to assign this a ‘doesn’t matter’ but I rapidly came to the conclusion that it does in the long term. Two things:

Any president should have the right to select and should have the expectation that his selection be confirmed unless there are really significant problems with the choice. By problems, I mean competency, legal and qualification problems, not fundamental philosophical differences. When the people select a president through an election, they are (hopefully) voting for a vision and a philosophy and they expect that that vision will have its day in the sun. Selecting like-minded people is an executive’s prerogative. This includes judges and attorneys-general. This is part of the implementation of the vision (and philosophy). Using the confirmation process as a weapon deprives the People of the United States of their choice of a vision. Conflicting visions each deserve a chance so confirmation should be competency-driven instead of philosophically-driven.

Since certain judicial positions are life positions, judicial appointments establish long-term trends and enable conditions for follow-on legislation by establishing the interpretative environment for that legislation. When the judicial system is strictly constructionalist, this does not matter, but whenever judges use their authority to bypass legislative strictures, and have become ‘activists’, different concerns arise. For those who believe that certain positions are warranted and have an intrinsic value independent of that determined by the will of the people (as expressed by a majority of the legislative body), judical activism is a key component in achieving these positions. Consequently, judicial appointments become critical in preserving this channel of change, and this is reflected in the acrimonious confirmation process of today.

I note in passing that a conservative position of strict construction with regard the the US Constitution is not inherently an adverse position. At most it is a neutral position with respect to ‘active change’. At most, supporters of changes currently enabled via judicial activism have only to assure that their laws pass Constitutional muster. Of course, the entire reason for judicial activism is not for reviewing laws, but for circumventing the legislative process in the first place. If they could get their laws passed, there would be no need for judicial activism. This activism is also not the exclusive province of the left. In the early 20th century, laissez-faire courts blocked Federal regulation of interstate commerce on the basis of the ‘santity of private commerce’, an appeal beyond any reasonable Constitutional interpretation.

The Plank: Confirm presidential appointments on the basis of competency and not philosophy. Develop policy to prevent and avoid judicial activism. Let the process work by confirming presidential selections, and let Democracy work by reducing judicial activism.

[Many thanks to AOC for his erudite analysis and review.]

After the big kerfuffle at Columbia over Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit, the issue of Iran’s nuclear program has once again come to the fore of media attention (though it hasn’t seemed to make in onto Mr. Ahmadinejad’s blog recently). Besides the utterly bankrupt position of hiding your head in the sand and pretending it isn’t so (much like Mr. Cline on Obama’s run for the presidency), the number of options remaining on Iran have dwindled tremendously. Here they are, as I see them and why they’re all bad. In our long standing tradition of multi-part series on complicated issues, I’ll be looking at America’s options in four parts. Unfortunately for us in America, they range from bad to worse…

Option #2: Invade Iran.

The neo-conservative blowhards like Norman Podhoretz have their own solution for Iran: invasion. We can repeat invasion of Iraq, only this time Iran really has WMDs! Wait a minute, the National Intelligence Estimate says they probably don’t. Nevermind. As the Angry Political Optimist pointed out, the NIE can be conveniently ignored because we know Iran’s history as a bunch of very bad people.

The irony is that the neo-conservatives aren’t the only one to be rattling their sabers. Even Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister and avoid socialist (and founder of Doctors Without Borders) has come out in favor of preparing for war with Iran. Mr. Kouchner said, “We have to prepare for the worst, and the worst is war.” His boss French president Nicholas “Look-at-my-supermodel-mistress” Sarkozy, noted that the world faces a choice between “an Iranian bomb or the bombardment of Iran.” You know, when Mr. Sarkozy isn’t hitting the bottle at the G8 summit. Over in London, the ex-prime minister Tony Blair has refused to take the option of invasion off the table.

The problem is that this option is a non-starter. Since it’s suspected that Iran has a secret nuclear program and we have no idea where those facilities are (assuming they exist at all), there’s no way a Israeli-style air campaign could eliminate Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Likewise, no matter how bad-ass the British SAS is compared to those pussies in the US Army Rangers (so the Brits’ claim), without accurate intelligence on the location of Iranian SNM (that’s special nuclear material), all of the Richard Marcinko’s in the world aren’t worth a hill of beans.

This means that any invasion of Iran would need to involve lots and lots of ground troops. According to our friends over at Iran has about 350k troops in their army. Now granted, 200k of those are conscripts who probably can’t fight for shit, but that leaves them with about 150k serious professional soldiers. This is no third world bunch of thugs with guns like in Somalia, the Iranians are well-trained and outfit with *lots* of kit — medium tanks, main battle tanks, sophisticated anti-tank weapons, missiles combat helicopters and aircraft. Most frightening is that the upper ranks of the Iranian officer corps knows how to conduct a serious fight — after all, they were all junior officers in the war against Iraq. Any ground invasion of Iran will be very, very messy, and lots of young men will be coming home in flag-draped coffins.

So, despite the saber rattling that’s been coming out of London and Paris, the UK and France cannot credibly threaten Iran by themselves (especially with the British forces tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan). US involvement is required to invade Iran. And with the US Army and Marine Corps also tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the only way the US can invade Iran is to abandon Iraq to the militias, insurgents and al-Qaeda. While the irony of the neo-conservative Iraq hawks endorsing “cut and run” for the purpose of throwing down with Iran is amusing, the utter chaos that would be unleashed on Iraq as a result of such a policy would not be.

Without debating whether the Central Intelligence Agency has become a bastion of mush-brained liberalism, politicized to a fare-thee-well, it is instructive to consider a maxim of operational intelligence:

In the absence of knowledge of an enemy’s intent, one must plan based on his capability.

There are several points of concern about this maxim. Is Iran an enemy of the United States? Do we have knowledge, or absence thereof, of Iran’s intent? Do we have an understanding of Iran’s capabilities?

The ‘people’ of Iran not withstanding the hyperbole of its rulers, Mullahs and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seem to be decent people trapped in a overbearing, self-destructive and intolerant political system. The ongoing efforts of the reformists, the continuing saga of student political prisoners, and the jailed media representatives suggest that the ‘enemy’, if in fact it is an enemy, consists solely of the Mullahs, the government and its direct representatives [Iranian Revolutionary Guards]. Any people will, from time to time, express nationalistic pride, and one can hardly hold that against a population— the fact that Ahmadinejad stands up against the US and postures has some component of this. The fact that Ahmadinejad was directly responsible, in that he participated in the 1979 hostage situation at the American Embassy, is of more concern. As are his continual tirades against the US, comments advocating the extinction of Israel, and his participation in conferences with Hugo Chavez — participation which brings potential consequences of an alliance much closer to home. Given Ahmadinejad’s public stance, his history with the US, and the general antipathy of the Mullahs for western civilization, categorization of Iran’s ruling class as ‘enemies’ is certainly warranted. And since the ruling class is in control of its military, weapons program and a delivery means, caution is warranted.

Do we have knowledge of Iran’s intent? Iran has publically supported Hezbollah and delivered arms and ammunition to them in Gaza. Iran has publicly stated that the destruction of Israel is on the agenda. Hezbollah has initiated attacks, using Iranian provided weapons, including advanced missiles, on Israel displaying a general pattern of consistency: I say X, I do Y in support of X. This pattern is repeated in Iraq where advanced IED and self-forging projectile weapons were provided by the IRG for use against American troops. The pattern is repeated again with regard to the Persian Gulf and the capture of a British patrol boat.

Iran has repeatedly stated its intent to obtain nuclear weapons, has demonstrated before the IAEA the capability to produce weapons grade material, has increased its capacity to produce that same material, and has tested complex explosive devices and detonators whose only purpose can be to trigger a nuclear weapon. Again the consistent pattern: I say X, and I do Y in support of X.

Consequently, overt intent appears to be in place. Now consider the absence of intent. We have an bureacuracy of the United States, tasked with the collection and analysis of foreign intelligence stating that it appears that Iran has suspended (not given up) its weapons program in 2003 in the face of international pressure. If, in fact this is the case, why would Iran not make statements in an international venue designed to reduce pressure on the trade and financial restrictions already imposed. Further, given the decision was made in 2003, why maintain the hyperbole through the last several years? The CIA’s finding doesn’t state that the intent is not to obtain weapons — just to suspend the attempt to do so. The CIA’s finding in its NIE doesn’t establish absence of intent.

But even so, say that it did. The maxim states that in the absence of intent, use capability. What are Iran’s capabilities? Iran has already obtained fissionable materials. They have already obtained designs and working models of separation centrifuges. They have already designed and tested critical explosive components. The only thing that hasn’t been mentioned is any attempt to obtain tritium. [No modern weapons designer would forgo the yield improvements a boosted core would provide.] A quick Google search reveals an attempt to do just that with their ARAK heavy water facility.

Add to these specific components the general component of physics and engineering education. Iran has certainly produced its share of PhDs, some at American Universities. Iranian designers are clearly as capable as other national designers, especially augmented with information from Pakistan’s A. Q. Khan.

Finally, Iran as demonstrated the capability to deliver weapons with their 2000 km range Shahab-4 missiles. Delivery is most often neglected in the analysis of nuclear weapon systems overshadowed by the physics package of the bomb itself. Iran has tested a trans-stage bus design. This is the component that allows a (heavy) payload to be successfully launched. In short, Iran has the capability to design, manufacture, and deliver a nuclear weapon. The only thing missing is the weapons test, which would be a dead giveaway.

As such, given the maxim, the only prudent thing any administration can do is to assume based on the capability, and plan accordingly. Many political pundits and international optimists have fixated on the poorly written NIE and it’s assertion that Iran has stopped WMD fabrication and have pushed for policy to reflect that misguided belief. Our allies in the region are waiting to see how the administration will respond in policy statements (often in bewilderment as to how an administration could even allow such a document to be released). Our only reasonable reaction is to continue to assess Iran as the threat that it is. Deriding this administration, or any administration for that matter, for proceeding in accordance with a capability assessment, is policy suicide.

“Sir, what were you thinking? The World Trade Center site is the most sensitive place in the American heart, and you must have known that visiting there would be insulting to many, many Americans,” Pelley [asked].


“Why should it be insulting?” Ahmadinejad [replied].

Interview with 60 Minutes

Many innocent people were killed there. Some of those people were American citizens obviously. We obviously are very much against any terrorist action and any killing. And also we are very much against any plots to sow the seeds of discord among nations.

Ahmadinejad later in the Interview

Pity poor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, puzzled President of Iran. He’s awfully confused about what all the fuss is about. All he wanted to do is visit Ground Zero in New York City, pay his respects to the victims of the 9/11 attack, and, just possibly, make some sort of statement about how bad terrorism is and how tragic 9/11 was. Of course, just whom he believes is responsible for 9/11 might be a question, given his penchant for odd revisionist theories about other historical events. But charity compels us to accept that he really isn’t sure why his presence there should be so disturbing. In fact, he’s sure it’s all just a misunderstanding.

And, doubtless, there could be some misunderstandings, so let’s take a moment and clear them up. Here’s a list of things Iran isn’t responsible for:

  • 9/11 – that was al Qaeda, a fanatic Sunni Muslim group not Iran, a fanatic Shia Muslim country
  • al Qaeda – that was Pakistan’s creation, in part with American funds sent to help fight the Soviets not Iran’s, which supported different vicious fanatics with other funds
  • Saddam Hussein – really, Iran did its best to get rid of this jerk in the 1980s, and sadly their best just wasn’t good enough
  • the Gulf War – Iran sat this one out, happy to see the Sunni nations beat themselves up, and even got a few fine Iraqi planes out of it

So, if anybody is mad at Mahmoud for this stuff, you should drop it, because it’s not really his fault.

On the other hand, there are a few small things that Iran is responsible for, and I’m thinking these might just have some bearing on why we just don’t like poor Mahmoud. These minor things include:

So, quite a legacy of support for terror and violence, frequently against American interests or allies. (I guess that’s why they’ve been on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism every year since 1984.) But all of this is dwarfed, of course, by the piece de resistance:

Since these insurgents are, after all, killing and maiming American soldiers (not to mention droves of Iraqi civilians), well, Mahmoud, you can pardon our suspicion that your tears for the victims of 9/11 are not exactly heartfelt. Especially when we recall your governments various working agreements with al Qaeda in years past. Call us sensitive, but we feel that if you’re actively trying to kill our soldiers, maybe you don’t have our best interests at heart. Let’s face it, there’s a term for countries like yours, and that term is: enemy nation.

And let us not forget Iran’s ongoing quest to develop the biggest bomb of all. That also makes us just a tad bit nervous, and makes us worry a bit that perhaps your stop by New York is for more than just sightseeing. A little pre-target recon, perhaps? Surely not, but you can see why we might be a little nervous, Mahmoud. Perhaps you and the nation you lead might consider actually acting like you want peace and stability instead of sowing chaos and terror in your neighbors and region.

And maybe, one day, you might consider apologizing for sacking our embassy, kidnapping its staff, blowing up a bunch of our other embassies, sponsoring hijacking and murder around the world, and taking an active interest in killing our soldiers in Iraq. In other words, before you start tooling around our cities, you might want to take some action to move your country out of its well-deserved doghouse.

The United States Senate is conducting a public spectacle, —err hearing, on the efficacy of sun blocker in lotions and cremes. It seems that the nasty cosmetics and personal products industry is mis-labeling its sun blockers. They are stating that the effects of the sun blocker lasts for several hours when in fact, a young mother once used a creme and after two hours, suffered a sunburn. This is clearly a national crises, which should and must override any consideration of those lesser concerns such as tax policy, immigration, transparency in earmarks, and minor issues such as a two front war on Islamic radicalism.

People use sun-tan lotions and sun-blockers to control the amount of UV radiation penetration into the skin. Sun-blockers, it seems inhibit only short wave UV-A waves whereas the sun spews out both UV-A and the longer UV-B which penetrate more deeply into the skin, and which are completely unaffected by sun-blockers. After a mere 40 or 50 years of buying sun-tan lotions, most consumers, I would speculate, understand that sun-tan lotion wears off and washes off (after all, why would companies sell a waterproof lotion?)

Further most people understand that if you stay out in the sun too long you will get a sunburn, no matter what you are wearing. Why this is a matter for the Senate, America’s most exclusive debating body, to consider is frankly, confusing.

This is especially true because the only action that the Senate can take is to task and mandate the FDA, which controls the labeling on these products, to modify the labels to say something to the effect that “This product lasts 2 hours” verses “This product lasts a few hours”. And of course, your milage may vary because the manufacturer has absolutely no control over the application of product in terms of uniformity, consistency, or timeliness.

Or maybe it is a concern for them. Maybe they are prescient and are looking forward to a time when sunblocks may be a significant factor in their tenure. I am reminded of a quote by the character Sarah Connor in Terminator II where she laments that “Anyone not wearing SPF two million is going to have a very bad day.”

There seems to be a bit of national security camaraderie in the Nuclear Club. The United States, in the early years, worked out a number of procedures, like the two-man rule and emergency action messages (EAMs) to make the control and handling of nuclear weapons safer (presumably for the issuer, not the receiver). But alas, various events over the era of the Cold War showed that even the best of intentions are usually insufficient to overcome a really determined foe, especially if it’s your own military. This entire set of procedures was generated to insure that nuclear weapon release was under civilian control. In at least one instance, launch codes, established to insure that the National Command Authority was the only authority able to release weapons, were set to 00000000 for extended periods of time. The military did this because they were concerned that release authority would not be granted expeditiously in a real crisis.

So clever people got together and developed some clever techniques. Buried deep within US nuclear weapons is a system that enables “a significant yield”. Which essentially means that, yes—you can blow up the warhead, but without the system enabled, you can’t get a nuclear yield. At best you get a small explosion (and a lot of radioactive debris blown all over). This system is called a PAL or permissive action link. Its operation involves cryptology and interesting tricks to insure that a significant nuclear yield cannot occur unless NCA has authorized release.

Now the really interesting part is that when the Soviet Union clearly demonstrated that they were capable of designing and exploding nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, the United States designers met with and offered their USSR pals information as to how these things worked so that each country would have a high confidence that the warheads were under civilian control and that release could not be compromised. Similarly with the other Club members.

So the argument might apply to Iran, who seems actively engaged in developing such a weapon. Should the US or other countries exchange these techniques with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? The answer is a resounding NO! No PALs for our pal Mahmoud. First of all, assuming that Iran does in fact develop a viable weapon, who is likely to control that weapon? (The Mullahs would be the equivalent of civilian control). The Iranian Revolutionary Guard will likely be tasked with actual release coordination. But one may ask — who is it that the Mullahs are most likely to fear? Aside from the usual suspect, it is the Iranian people. And anything the US can do to enable the Iranian people against the ruling regime should be considered. Let the Mullahs find out that owning weapons in Iran is like having a glass house with a $100,000 stereo system in Chicago’s south side. Maybe having a nuclear weapon will turn out to be a nice sharp two edge sword that keeps them looking inwards. So the US should only consider this technology transfer AFTER a intercontinental delivery system is developed . Until then the greatest threat of Iran’s nuclear weapons system will be to itself.