Monday, March 30, 2009

The headline read: “Denominations Trim Presence on Capitol Hill.”

Daniel Burke, writing for beliefnetnews on the web, relates the paradox facing many faith-based nongovernmental groups that lobby in the public interest. Just as they finally get a seat at the policy and program table and a chance to be heard in governing, the sharp drop in the markets has forced many to severely cut back the number of employees to carry the message to politicians.

I mention this because (1) the opening paragraphs of Burke’s article discuss the situation at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and (2) the Quakers’ Colonel Blog will be off-line for half to all of April.

The two are unrelated. The blog will not be posted as I will have major surgery on April 1 and will probably not be released to return home until April 10 or 11 at the earliest. Prognosis is very good for me, but unfortunately not so for FCNL in terms of the work still to be done.

Check the blog from mid-April on – I will be up as soon as possible.

Warm Regards

The Quakers’ Colonel

Friday, March 27, 2009

Democracy Depends on the "Demos" II

(Continued from March 25)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his radio “Fireside Chats” set a pattern that the nation’s subsequent presidents have used to good advantage in their never ending struggle with the Congress over policies and program funding. The broadcasts on radio, television, the internet, and all the newer technology have also enabled presidents to by-pass the message mediators – whether these wish him and his programs good or ill.

That Barack Obama is as fully engaged in the “direct” approach using today’s technology as his predecessors were with the technology they had is indisputable. In fact, based on Wednesday’s performance at what the White House termed an Internet Town Hall, it appears that this form of communication fits Obama as comfortably as the Fireside Chats fit Roosevelt in the 1930s.

But as noted in Wednesday’s blog, the Obama Department of Justice (DoJ) is starting to exhibit some of the bad habits of the Bush DoJ with regards to openness and transparency in government. This suggests that it may be time for the citizenry to take a leaf from the Obama presidential campaign and remind the DoJ that communications is a reciprocal exchange that involves at least two parties and two directions or positions. Secrecy inhibits communications.

While the president as chief executive works for all those living in the United States as well as citizens residing or traveling abroad, every person residing in any of the50 states is represented in the House of Representatives by a congressman or congresswoman. Given that every member now represents about 700,000 of us, one way to remind your “person in Washington” who they work for – and also remind the president of the same thing – is to suggest and then help (with other ordinary but concerned men and women, the “demos” of a democracy) your representative’s staff organize and publicize a series of moderated telephone “town hall” meetings of one to two hours duration. A “big name (star quality) moderator could attract callers, and with simple rules (e.g., callers have one minute to ask a question and your congressperson has two minutes to respond), a lot of ground could be covered. More importantly, your “person in Washington” would be more reliably informed of the people’s concerns because he has heard from them directly.

Politicians usually are very good at letting constituents know what they have done for the voters, but all too often they may not know what still remains unfinished – especially in the less densely populated parts of the congressional district.

By the way, if you want a subject for a “dry run” to check out whether the administrative details have been covered, you might try a variation of the clarion call of “no taxation without adequate representation.” That is to say: “The last time the House of Representatives added to the number of permanent seats in that chamber was after the 1910 census when the number of voting members was set at the current number of 435.”

Thanks to Bob Alpern for information about telephone town hall meetings where he lives.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Democracy Depends on the "Demos" -- I

Barack Obama assumed power with a pledge that his would be the most transparent, open, non-secretive administration in the modern era if not in the entire history of the United States. From 12:01 pm January 20, 2009, there was going to be a fresh breeze blowing through Washington.

Well, reality must have hit about 12:02 pm, for after a mere 66 days, there are troubling signs that some of the bad habits of the Bush administration are alive and well. It would appear that at least some secret Presidential National Security Directives are still on the books and are affecting adversely the rights of individuals and organizations seeking redress, including those subjected to wide ranging warrantless wiretapping done by the Bush Department of Justice (DoJ) -- that could not be discussed without breaking the administration’s secrecy strictures.

The first indication that the fresh breeze hadn’t penetrated all the nooks and crannies in government came on a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by a well known nongovernmental organization, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). They had originally asked the Bush administration’s Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to release the “top-line” budget for the Intelligence community for Fiscal Year 2006. The request was not submitted until after the DNI had already declassified and made public the intelligence “top-line” for Fiscal Years 2007 and 2008. The response to the request to declassify the 2006 figure was that it was correctly classified. When the Obama – appointed DNI was on the job, FAS resubmitted its request – and was surprised when the response was no – and was cast in the exact language used by the Bush administration.

But that is just the beginning. For the second time since Obama became president, his DoJ Office of Legal Counsel has stepped into “terrorist” trials warning that the trials may not introduce into the proceedings – including pre-trial discovery by the defendants’ legal teams – certain classified court papers or other documents because to do so would breach national security secrecy. The most recent case is from Oregon where an Islamic charity was closed down by the Bush administration after allegations (based in part on warrantless wiretaps) were made that the funds collected by the charity were in part used to fund terrorist groups and activities overseas. The charity is suing and is seeking documents related to the Bush government’s actions that are currently in the possession of the courts. Not only has the Obama DoJ gone into court – as did the Bush DoJ – and warned that the charity’s lawyers cannot be shown the documents because of national security reasons, the Obama DoJ reportedly is contemplating seizing the documents which, according to DoJ, should never have been sent in the first place..

So how bad is it really?

Within the last week, the Public Interest Declassification Board, a congressionally mandated body established to advise the executive on declassification policy and programs affecting mainly historical records, issued a statement that easily applies to current practices of DoJ: “We have concluded that this fundamental principle [public access to reliable government information] of self-government…is at risk and, without decisive action, the situation is liable to worsen.”

Next: what the public can do.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Out of Office March 23

I expect to be tied up all Monday March 23 at the National Naval Medical Center, so there will probably be no Blog.

Check back on Wednesday.


Friday, March 20, 2009

The 2010 Budget: Already in Trouble?

Last week the Congress finally mustered sufficient political will – not normally over flowing even in prosperous times, let alone when deficits top a trillion dollars every year – to send to the White House the Fiscal Year 2009 (the current fiscal year) Omnibus appropriations legislation for President Obama’s signature.

Unlike most recent years, Congress and the administration skated relatively unscathed by traditional critics because the latter had refocused their attention and their outrage from what looked to be a winning issue – the large number (more than 8,000) and value (more than $5 billion) of “earmarks” in the 2009 Omnibus legislation – to the retention pay and bonuses paid by insurance giant AIG to top executives after the company had received on the order of $170 billion in taxpayer money to keep the company solvent.

The Omnibus legislation was successful in raising the appropriation ceiling for a number of budget line items for diplomacy and development initiatives. In his proposed budget for 2010, President Obama has asked for a 10 percent increase in international affairs, which includes contributions to international organizations such as the UN.

But the Chair of the Senate Budget Committee reportedly stated that the President’s first budget does not have enough support in Congress to pass. That type of pessimistic rhetoric in the past has bee a signal for budget conservatives of both parties to go after the international affairs budget. It, after all, has no constituency that will be offended enough to vote against those in Congress who cut this part of the spending proposal.

In contrast, the nation can look forward to a generous funding spree for the armed services – not because the threats are any worse this year than last but because the Congress has turned defense into a jobs program.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

March 19th -- Looking Back, Looking Forward

Most references this year to March 19th will note that this is the sixth anniversary of the U.S. –led invasion of Iraq with the subsequent continuous death and destruction inflicted on a people and a land that had not attacked the United States or in any way posed a threat to the nation’s well-being, prosperity, or vital interests.

Now this way of reckoning the passage of time is today the more common mode of keeping track of events, a mode that fits well with cultures that are tied to the use of portable calendars that can be marked to remind us of significant occurrences in history.

But there is another way of expressing the passage of time, one that would note not that this March 19th is the sixth anniversary of a past event such as the Iraq invasion but that it is the beginning of the seventh consecutive year of war in Iraq. This way of expression places more emphasis on looking forward to the unfolding of time and events and less on looking back to what is history. The distinction is clearly embodied in the way one expresses the age of a child. In the “historical” framework, a child who has survived in the world for 365 days (or 366 days in leap year) since birth is declared to be a one year old. In the future-oriented mode of expression, the new-born is one – he or she is living life from the moment of birth, and thus at the end of the 365 or 366 day cycle the baby is starting her second year of life.

I do not recall who pointed out to me these two different orientations, the different psychologies expressed by these approaches to life and to living. But I do recall that the future oriented viewpoint was generally associated with the east while the historical was better adapted to the competitive west where we are always measuring our performance over time compared to the success (or failure) of our “competition.” And it does suggest that the non- historical view might have been relatively widespread in earlier times when the pace of life was slower, when the majority of the population of the majority of countries around the globe were engaged in subsistence or near-subsistence agriculture.

So what does this have to do with Iraq this March 19th? Over the course of the last year, the fighting and the killing have gone down. But next door in Afghanistan the opposite is occurring. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, the Pentagon and the White House thought the coalition had defeated al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. They made the mistake of looking back instead of looking forward trying to see the way ahead in Afghanistan.

In reversing the weight of coalition efforts back into Afghanistan, President Obama runs the risk of letting Iraq slip back into sectarian, tribal, and ethnic violence such as dominated that country in 2005 through 2007. Some commentators are calling for an approach in Afghanistan similar to the “Petraeus tactic” credited with winning over to the U.S. side large numbers of Iraqi insurgents. This suggests that the president may face controversy over his troop build-up that will require extraordinary effort to preclude entrapment – as has happened so often in the past – of “dominant” military powers in Afghanistan.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Iraq Anniversary II - A Few Numbers

Three days short of the sixth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.

Put another way, this March 19 begins the seventh year of the Iraq war.

In the interval, 4, 259 U.S. military, 179 UK military, and 139 other soldiers from coalition countries have been killed or otherwise lost their lives for a total of 4,577.

Iraqi security forces and reported Iraqi civilians killed in a single month last rose above 500 in May 2008 and above 1,000 in August 2007. The worst year for U.S. fatalities was 2007 wghen 904 U.S.militarypersonnel were killed.

Just think: all U.S. troops are to be out of Iraq in 33 more months. That's almost three more anniversaries after this year.

How many more Iraqi and U.S. deaths we can only guess. (Just about everyoneelse has left.)-

Friday, March 13, 2009

Iraq: The Sixth Anniversary Approaches

This March 19 marks the sixth anniversary of “Shock and Awe,” the much ballyhooed opening bombardment of Baghdad by the U.S. Air Force and Navy in a failed bid to kill Saddam Hussein and a select group of Iraqi civilian and military leaders.

I have heard more than once the observation that any war in which the United States is a significant factor that lasts more than five years (some reduce this to four years) is a conflict from which America will emerge – at best – with a “draw” but more likely with none of its policy objectives intact.

Now I never ascribed to the belief that the unfolding of either individual or collective history is predetermined. This is not to say that in the unfolding of individual, institutional, or natural histories there are no rules, no basics, that come into play or that the translation from the ideal to the practical and concrete may take a decade or more to achieve – well beyond even the less restrictive of the two time standards.

What it does mean is that within the laws governing nature, there is much room for success or failure due to what individuals perceive is happening around them and what they do (or do not do) in reaction. Unfortunately, all too often the propensity – rather the imperative – to act becomes overwhelming, and as action induces reaction over and over, we can become so fixated on the process that we to “take our eye off the ball” – off the reason why, of all the perceptions that registered on the psyche, why a particular one caught our attention and generated a reaction.

I came across the blog I wrote on the first anniversary of “shock and awe.” What follows is an annotated (where warranted) recap as of March 19, 2004, of what had been achieved, what needed to be done, and what had fundamentally changed.

What has been accomplished

- Saddam Hussein’s brutal, self-serving, and surprisingly incompetent regime has been removed from power. Most of the former regime’s key players have been killed or captured, including Saddam himself.

- Oil production has finally been restored close to the pre-war levels, but it remains below pre-1990 levels. COMMENT: the basic oil laws remain in limbo because of the inability of the central government and the Kurds to resolve the status of the oil fields around Mosel.

- Electric power, rationed before the war and completely lost during the U.S.-UK bombardment, is back on more than it is off. COMMENT: Power distribution remains incomplete.

- Schools have been rebuilt and re-opened, and hospitals are receiving medical supplies. COMMENT: the supplies are needed because the killing continues.

- At the provincial and local (town and village) levels, the Iraqi people are choosing councils to discuss and resolve local issues. Baghdad alone has 88 such councils. Civil society is beginning to emerge in many areas, but its development remains susceptible to the security situation.

- A “Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period” has been adopted by the U.S.-appointed 25 member Iraqi Governing Council. Due to go into effect July 1, 2004, it is to serve as the guide for elections of a National Assembly, the appointment of an interim government, the writing of and referendum on a new Iraqi constitution, and the election of a full-fledged federal-style government. On the other hand, it may only lead to divisive wrangling and the disintegration of Iraq. COMMENT: province elections have been held and another round of elections for parliament is set for later this year – security permitting

What remains to be done? How long will it take?

- Find the weapons of mass destruction that the Bush administration said made Saddam Hussein an imminent threat to the U.S., the original justification for starting this war. COMMENT: there were no such weapons.

- Obtain as soon as possible a full and public explanation of the use or abuse of information by U.S. intelligence agencies in forming their judgments, and the use or abuse of intelligence by policy makers in their communications with the U.S. public and with other governments. COMMENT: still waiting

- Provide reliable, consistent physical security for the Iraqi population. The old regime had, at most, passing interactions with al Qaeda “adherents.” Now Iraq has become a battleground not only involving disaffected Iraqis but also extremists targeting U.S. forces and Iraqis working with the U.S.-led CPA or foreign military forces. COMMENT: the next sentence reads:

This may not be achieved for as long as five years, and certainly not until a better trained, reliable police force, border police, and regular army are available.

- Rebuild Iraq. While a start has been made, the remaining tasks are enormous. Other nations have pledged about $14 billion for this effort; the U.S. contribution so far is more than $20 billion. Estimates of the final cost vary, but most are in the $75 to $100 billion range, with some predicting as much as $200 billion over the next decade. COMMENT: Estimates were too low

- Ensure to the extent possible a real and complete transition to democratic governance from the CPA to the transitional authority to the interim government to a permanent, popularly elected government by December 2005. The UN should exercise independent authority to help in this transformation. COMMENT: The Iraqis finally achieved almost full recovery of sovereignty on December 31, 2008.

- Assist nongovernmental organizations in their attempts to count Iraqi civilian fatalities, provide restitution to survivors, and compensate those Iraqis wounded by coalition forces for their injuries.

What are the most far-reaching changes in Iraq and in the U.S. to emerge because of this war after one year?

- Iraqi society, but exactly how remains undetermined other than a change in leadership. Political, ethnic, religious, and gender relationships, rights, and responsibilities are all in flux. The new constitution, yet to be written, if approved (which may be a major hurdle) will establish a framework on which these considerations can be arranged and woven into a national fabric. But how strong the fabric will be will not be known until it is tested – which might take years.

- Enmity toward the U.S. has increased in the Islamic world as a whole, even in Turkey, a NATO ally.

- The U.S. administration has enshrined – and, in invading Iraq, attempted to justify – as policy the concept of preventive war which previous administrations had only “reserved the right” to use.

- Increased wariness among other states of U.S. unilateral motives for action, with a predictably less hospitable reception for U.S. suggestions and less support for positions favored by Washington.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

With Apologies to Socrates

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates

Wednesday –

By the time I begin looking for a substantive item to write about when at the office, it is not unusual for as many as 10 hours of the day to have flown.

Six of those hours are spent (or I try to spend them) in a sound, relaxing, rejuvenating sleep – give or take 15 minutes Dressing, eating breakfast, and gathering the stray computer memory stick and occasionally the laptop itself, and having combined these items with a few others (e.g., an apple or orange for lunch), I put the lot in my travel bag. This requires 45 to 50 minutes – unless the newspaper has a number of interesting reports that I scan with the intention of calling up on the office computer to read more (add 5-10 minutes).

Should the day be cold and/or include a forecast for heavy rain, I will don the appropriate outerwear (2-3 minutes depending on the coat and whether or not I have to dig out gloves or an umbrella.) and head for the garage. Driving the approximately 1.3 miles from our house to the commuter rail station is highly variable because I usually leave when all the school buses are stopping on virtually every street to pick up students. Moreover, there is a high school whose outdoor playing fields are just across the street from two of the three commuter parking areas, which adds to the congestion. The usual route I drive has 5 stoplights and one stop sign. Depending on how many (if any – of these I “hit” on a green signal, the driving time varies from 8 to 14 minutes. Should I have to park in the furthest lot from the rail-station, I must add 6-8 minutes for the walk to the station.

Figure I arrive at the station and validate my fare ticket with an average wait time of 10 minutes to spare before the train is due to depart the station. The rail trip to the Washington station where I disembark (word choice is tricky here, for I normally associate “disembark” with leaving a ship, but “de-train” sounds gruesome) is 60 minutes. (When the crew has an operational safety test, which happens about twice a month, add 10-15 minutes to the running time.) I then walk four or five blocks to the office (15 to 20 minutes) where, after getting coffee or making a cup of hot chocolate, I turn on the computer, plug in one or two memory sticks, and begin perusing the news stories that I saw in the paper delivered to our home or other stories I pick from the ether – another 10-15 minutes.

Adding the elapsed time durations noted in each of the three paragraphs above yields in the first 5¾ to 6 hours rest and another 50 to 60 minutes to get everything ready to depart for the office. The local travel from house to rail station is another 14 to 25 minutes – normally closer to the lower figure. Adding the “wait time” to the final leg of the trip absorbs from between 95 and 105 minutes with a final 10 to15 minutes to get settled at my work station.

Grand total time comes to between 8 hours 14 minutes and 9 hours 25 minutes –and that is without being sociable at all.

The point of the exercise is not profound. It has taken me about two hours to write something that is quite mundane and frankly of little interest to even me. But it points to one of the problems of suburban living that in some cases is exacerbated by changes in health as the working population ages – a less than optimal use of time and other resources when there is flexibility in the communications infrastructure that is the equivalent of the transportation infrastructure built 60 years ago. Then we wanted to move things and people. Now we need to move ideas and processes.

Monday, March 09, 2009

More on Contracting

President Obama’s comments last Wednesday on the GAO report that the government wasted $295 billion on contracts that have not stayed within agreed costs and have slipped behind schedule – sometimes by years – has resulted in a flood of articles on government contracting practices in general and on Pentagon contracting in particular.

I have participated in this focus, and will do so again for the following reasons.

1. Members of Congress are not reticent about acknowledging that they have to get contracts directed to their state or district if they hope to remain in office. This is the “iron triangle” that President Eisenhower warned of in the 1950s – the military-industrial-congressional complex.

2. The President appointed a commission to look into the abuses o the contracting process. Congress – the House of Representatives to be exact -- also has formed a seven person committee to do the same. Based on all the “reforms” that have come from the multitude of committees, both will agree more or less that a problem exists, that it is draining taxpayer money, and something has to be done. The committees more likely than not will disagree on remedies, a few of which will be enacted (as long as no Member gets hit too hard). Give it two more election cycles and the reforms will be on the closet shelf with little to show for even the cost of the commission and committee/

3. One trick that has yet to be discussed in any of the reports I have seen is the old practice – especially by the Army (although the USAF for many years played the same game with C-130 cargo aircraft) – of not requesting funds to buy major equipment (armored personnel carriers and even tanks) for National Guard units. The Pentagon relied on and was never to my knowledge significantly in error in their judgment that Congress would add on the funds required to ensure the National Guard received upgraded or even new equipment. And the Members of both Houses who played this angle most assiduously were those who sat on the armed services committees – the very people who should have been holding contractors and the Pentagon to strict account.

4. The laws on the books and the reports that Congress requires provide sufficient red flags for any Member to be aware when Pentagon contracts are running into cost or schedule problems. The real problem is that Congress refuses to use the levers it has to haul up defense contractors who are not filling requirements to which they agreed and the Pentagon officials who are suppose to be watching the contractors and the military brass.

5. But we are in a recession, and jobs are disappearing overnight. No one will suggest reforms that cost even more jobs.

There is more, but it is late.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Obama on Government Contracting

Reforming How Government Does Business

“I don't know what the hell this ‘logistics’ is that
Marshall is always talking about, but I want some of it.”
Fleet Admiral Ernest King
Commander of U.S. Pacific Forces

Mentioning acquisition, contracting, or logistics to a group of military officers used to produce glazed eyes, yawns, and an almost visible shut-down of brain functions – the same reaction observable every day in lecture halls across the country where a droning graduate seminar instructor follows on the heels of a heavy mid-day meal.

Nonetheless, last Wednesday (March 4th ) President Barack Obama gathered (albeit before lunch) a large and diverse assemblage of Members of Congress, government contracting officers, and large and small business owners to launch yet again a Pentagon pipe dream: reforming the acquisition and contracting system used by the federal government in general and the Pentagon in particular.

With the national and international economic systems upside down, many outside the administration regard the push for acquisition reform as ill timed. The President, conversely, believes there is no time like the present to initiate reforms. His logic is impeccable: none of his predecessors, no matter how favorable the state of national and international finance and trade during their time in office, seriously attempted acquisition reform. And with no other president since FDR having to endure anything approaching the current state of international and national economic disarray , this would seem the optimum time to go for reform because the rules are so fluid that real reform can spur recovery. It is a calculated gamble by the president who believes that he will reap returns in the tens of billions of dollars that can then be devoted to other immediate priorities.

Two extracts from the president’s remarks laid the problem out for those in the room.

“Over the last eight years, government spending on contracts has doubled to over half a trillion dollars. Far too often, the spending is plagued by massive cost overruns, outright fraud, and the absence of oversight and accountability. In some cases, contracts are awarded without competition. In others, contractors actually oversee other contractors. We are spending money on things that we don't need, and we're paying more than we need to pay. And that's completely unacceptable….

"Last year, the Government Accountability Office, GAO, looked into 95 major defense projects and found cost overruns that totaled $295 billion. Let me repeat: That's $295 billion in wasteful spending. And this wasteful spending has many sources. It comes from investments [in] and (sic) unproven technologies. It comes from a lack of oversight. It comes from influence peddling and indefensible no-bid contracts that have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars.”

The president then cited the hundreds of projects in Iraq that were never completed and the “profit skimming” by Iraqis and even by a few Americans. He also mentioned the “no performance – no penalty” attitude that has come to prevail for large acquisition programs that go over budget and are not delivered within the contract timelines.

In the late 1970s I had the good fortune to work directly for 30 months for the Army’s most senior general responsible for acquiring weapons and supporting military materiel. It was tantamount to a small-seminar tutorial by one of the world’s experts on military contracting and acquisition ills. Among other lessons I took away from that experience was the need to avoid the specialized language of those who negotiate contracts – both government and business representatives – if one is talking to non-specialists.

Obama’s entire statement conveys his understanding of this fundamental rule of leadership. Where others talked the game, he is walking the walk -- and is not inviting but requiring those who have responsibility for the public purse to walk with him:

“It’s time for this waste and inefficiency to end. It’s time
for a government that only invests in what works. And
what’s encouraging is, is that there is broad bipartisan
consensus on behalf of reform, and we are committed to
taking swift action that changes our system of contracting
to save taxpayers' money.”

Monday, March 02, 2009

Another Border, Another Battle

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates yesterday reiterated the administration’s commitment to see the current war through to its end.
Appearing on NBCs Face the Nation, Gates was most explicit in describing what the additional U.S. troops were prepared to do to assist indigenous security forces: training, intelligence, equipment, and other resources that might prove useful in trying to regain and hold the people’s loyalty to the central government.

Unfortunately, this may not be enough. The estimated death toll in 2007 from drug-related violence was 3,200; this nearly doubled to 6,290 in 2008, and with just two moths gone in 2009 and another 1,000 already dead, this year will most likely prove to be more bloody than the last. But the good news is that the country’s president has stepped up to the plate and is tackling these challenges.

There are today at least three countries to which the above description could be applied. Afghanistan comes to mind first, primarily because the U.S. presence there is about to increase by 17,000 troops with the possibility of an additional 13,000 after that. But Washington is learning that Hamid Karzai may not be “rolled” as easily in the future as he has been perceived to have been in the past.

Karzai’s motives are transparently political; with elections scheduled for late August, he must rid himself of the reputation of being Washington’s man in Kabul rather than the Afghan people’s representative to the world. His latest move has been to try to push forward the date for the presidential ballot from August to April. One suspects that he is anxious to get through this test before the additional 17,000 troops start arriving and begin dropping more bombs that kill more noncombatants. He may also remember Saigon 1963 when “uncooperative” rulers were deposed and killed in a bloody coup d’état.

The second country that matches the state of affairs described in the opening paragraphs is Colombia. Here the main drug is cocaine; here also is a multi-prong political insurgency dominated by two groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). In the 1990s, army-supported right-wing death squads complicated the scene by attacking suspected FARC and ELN cadres living among the people. Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe, with monetary backing from the United States under Plan Colombia, has been successful in weakening the ties between the drug cartels and the insurgents, which renders both groups more susceptible to government inducements – and to heavy-handed encounters. On the other hand, the government has had greater success in locating and freeing hostages that have been held by the insurgents for years.

The third country – and the one to which Secretary Gates was referring – is Mexico. According to press reports, the drug cartels have moved operations close to the U.S.-Mexican border and are vying with each other for control of the border towns – and not just south of the border. Mexican President Felipe Calderone has moved 2,000 Mexican army troops to the border communities to reinforce Mexican police who are outnumbered and out-gunned by the cartels.

Secretary Gates also referred to operations on the north side of the border in which U.S. law enforcement officials arrested 750 people who are alleged to be working for the cartels.

This is where I begin to be concerned about Northern Command and the possible use of the permanently assigned Brigade Combat Team. With Mexico using its army in what is effectively ground combat with the cartels, the temptation to do the same in the U.S. is apt to grow.