The Iranian Threat

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Earlier this year, I posted a blog that talked about our new national security paradigm, focused specifically on the “4+1 construct,” revealed by then Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter at the Reagan National Defense Forum in November 2015. This new way of looking at threats to our nation focuses on “four contingencies and one condition.” Iran is one of those contingencies.

Iran is an enormous threat to the West in general and the Europe and the United States in particular. As Michael Oren suggested in his article in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend, “Iran is a Bigger Threat Than Syria and North Korea Combined,” leading off his essay by saying:

“The U.S. has signed agreements with three rogue regimes strictly limiting their unconventional military capacities. Two of those regimes—Syria and North Korea—brazenly violated the agreements, provoking game-changing responses from President Trump. But the third agreement—with Iran—is so inherently flawed that Tehran doesn’t even have to break it. Honoring it will be enough to endanger millions of lives.”

First, there are longstanding issues between the West, and especially the United States and Iran. Among the most prominent:

  • Long-standing enmity toward the United States going back to 1953
  • Vying with Saudi Arabia for dominant power in the  region
  • Ability to block the Strait of Hormuz
  • Ability to threaten U.S. naval forces
  • Robust ballistic missile program

But in addition to these long-standing issues, since the fall of 2015, Iran is behaving in ways that worry the United States. Among the biggest issues:

  • It is unknown how well nuclear sanctions will work, if at all
  • Marked increase in ballistic missile tests (flouted U.N. resolution)
  • Open and increased support for the Assad regime in Syria
  • Continued support for terrorist groups (Hezbollah)
  • Active harassing of U.S. Navy vessels in the Arabian Gulf
  • U.S. recently declared IRG a terrorist group

These are worrisome signs. Stay tuned to this blog over the next several weeks to learn more about other threats to our national security.

Happy?

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If there is a universal human longing, it’s to be happy. We all want to be so. But too many of us deny ourselves this happiness by finding reasons to be unhappy: bad genes, bad luck, bad “whatever.”

That’s one of the reasons I found Arthur Brooks’ piece, “A Formula for Happiness so energizing and uplifting. He gets to the heart of the matter and helps us all shed those excuses for being unhappy. Here is part of what he says:

Happiness has traditionally been considered an elusive and evanescent thing. To some, even trying to achieve it is an exercise in futility. It has been said that “happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

Social scientists have caught the butterfly. After 40 years of research, they attribute happiness to three major sources: genes, events and values. Armed with this knowledge and a few simple rules, we can improve our lives and the lives of those around us. We can even construct a system that fulfills our founders’ promises and empowers all Americans to pursue happiness.

Want more happiness? You can read this fascinating article here.

Google and Libraries

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Google can bring you 100,000 answers, but a librarian can bring you just the right one. We all know that intuitively, but Mahesh Rao brings it home in her piece, “Lost in the Stacks.” For me, it brought me a new appreciation, maybe a renewed love, of libraries. Here is part of what she shared:

Libraries are a place of refuge. It offers a respite from the heat, from office life, from noisy households, from all the irritations that crowd in. They also offer the intangible entanglements of a common space. One of my favorite descriptions of the public library comes from the journalist and academic Sophie Mayer, who has called it “the ideal model of society, the best possible shared space,” because there “each person is pursuing their own aim (education, entertainment, affect, rest) with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings and knowledge — the book.”

Libraries may have their idiosyncrasies, but the fundamentals of their ecosystem are universal. They are places of long breaks, of boredom and reverie, of solace and deliberation. They offer opportunities for unobtrusive observation, stolen glances and frissons, anticipation and nudging possibilities. And when the sensible realization strikes that a thrilling plan is better left unaccomplished, they might also become sites of abandonment.

Intrigued? You can read the full article here.

The Forever War

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Many of you will recognize the title of this post The Forever War as the same title of Dexter Filkens’ best-selling book. That book became an instant classic of war reporting, and was hailed as the definitive account of America’s conflict with Islamic fundamentalism and its human costs.

Through the eyes of Filkins, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, we witnessed the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s, the aftermath of the attack on New York on September 11th, and the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But Filkens’ book was published eight years ago – and that war still drags on. Today, Brian Caster, a former explosive ordnance disposal officer who fought in The Forever War takes Filkins’ thoughts to the next level in his piece, “Still Fighting, Dying, in the Forever War.” He point out how different this war is from all our other wars. Here is part of what he shares.

“The longest conflict in American history — from Afghanistan to Iraq, to high-value target missions throughout Africa and the Middle East — has resulted in the nation’s first sustained use of the all-volunteer military, wounding and killing more and more service members who resemble Scotty: parents, spouses, career men and women. When compared with casualties of the Vietnam War, the average age of our dead in this conflict, and the proportion who are married, have both risen 20 percent. And that trend is accelerating as the burden of the fight shifts more and more to older, highly trained counterterrorism forces. As The Times reported recently, of the 18 service members lost in combat since 2016, 12 were Special Operations troops like Scotty [Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Scott Dayton].”

“Our country has created a self-selected and battle-hardened cohort of frequent fliers, one that is almost entirely separate from mainstream civilian culture, because service in the Forever War, as many of us call it, isn’t so much about going as returning. According to data provided by the Center for a New American Security, of the 2.7 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, half have done multiple tours. More telling, 223,000 have gone at least four times, and 51,000 have done six or more deployments.”

You can read this important article here.

Internet Chains

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I’m not a Luddite. Yes, I used a slide-rule in high school and college and used computer punch-cards in grad school. But now I have all the great “I-devices,” use them frequently, and even work at a U.S. Navy laboratory where hundreds of people come to work every day and write computer code – and they’re my pals.

That said, I found Ross Douthat’s NYT piece, “Resist the Internet” absolutely riveting. He not only hit the nail on the head, he drove it deep into the board. Here’s part of what he said:

“So now it’s time to turn to the real threat to the human future: the one in your pocket or on your desk, the one you might be reading this column on right now.”

“Search your feelings, you know it to be true: You are enslaved to the internet. Definitely if you’re young, increasingly if you’re old, your day-to-day, minute-to-minute existence is dominated by a compulsion to check email and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram with a frequency that bears no relationship to any communicative need.”

“Of course it’s too soon to fully know (and indeed we can never fully know) what online life is doing to us. It certainly delivers some social benefits, some intellectual advantages, and contributes an important share to recent economic growth.”

“But there are also excellent reasons to think that online life breeds narcissism, alienation and depression, that it’s an opiate for the lower classes and an insanity-inducing influence on the politically-engaged, and that it takes more than it gives from creativity and deep thought. Meanwhile the age of the internet has been, thus far, an era of bubbles, stagnation and democratic decay — hardly a golden age whose customs must be left inviolate.”

“I suspect that versions of these ideas will be embraced within my lifetime by a segment of the upper class and a certain kind of religious family. But the masses will still be addicted, and the technology itself will have evolved to hook and immerse — and alienate and sedate — more completely and efficiently.”

“But what if we decided that what’s good for the Silicon Valley overlords who send their kids to a low-tech Waldorf school is also good for everyone else? Our devices we shall always have with us, but we can choose the terms.”

Want more? Read this intriguing article here.

My Fiction-My Life?

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Every so often, an article about writing reaches out of the pages, grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me, saying, “Yes, this is what writers like – and don’t like.”

Last Sunday’s New York Times book review had a killer-good piece on writing by Jami Attenberg entitled, “It’s My Fiction, Not My Life!” Here’s how she begins:

“The panic starts in London. I’m there publicizing my last book, and at a small press lunch, my British publicist tells me that she’s just read the novel I’ve recently finished writing. She leans close to me and says, quietly, ‘You should prepare yourself for invasive publicity.’”

“Oh, dread, I remember you. There are authors who blur the boundaries between themselves and their work: Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner come to mind. Elif Batuman has described her new novel, “The Idiot,” as a “semi-autobiographical novel.” But I’ve always found the presumption of autobiography when applied to my work a little lazy and a lot unfair.”

The question of autobiographical fiction seems to have been with us always. Here’s Wallace Stegner in a 1990 interview with The Paris Review: “The very fact that some of my experience goes into the book is all but inescapable, and true for almost any writer I can name. Which is real and which is invented is (a) nobody’s business, and (b) a rather silly preoccupation, and (c) impossible to answer. . . . The kind of roman à clef reading determining biographical facts in fiction is not a good way to read. Read the fiction.”

Want more? You can read the full article here.

The North Korean Threat

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Several weeks ago, I posted a blog that talked about our new national security paradigm, focused specifically on the “4+1 construct,” revealed by then Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter at the Reagan National Defense Forum in November 2015. This new way of looking at threats to our nation focuses on “four contingencies and one condition.” North Korea is one of those contingencies.

As Adam Johnson noted in the Reader’s Guide for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, “It is illegal for a citizen of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] to interact with a foreigner.” In a nutshell, this helps understand why North Korea is the most isolated nation in the world and why that nation’s decision-making is often completely unfathomable. THAT is what makes North Korea so dangerous.

Juxtapose this against the widely-heralded United States “Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific Region,” and you have the compelling ingredients for conflict—you don’t have to manufacture them. What North Korea does will continue to bedevil the United States—and the West for that matter—for the foreseeable future. The Hermit Kingdom remains the world’s most mysterious place. As a Center for Naval Analyses Study noted, “The Kim-Jong-un regime has not completely revealed itself to the outside world.” Not to put too fine a point on it, North Korea would likely qualify as one of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s, “Unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

First, there are longstanding issues between the West, and especially the United States and North Korea. Among the most prominent:

  • Long-term enmity toward the United States (Korean War)
  • Favorable geographic position vis-à-vis South Korea
  • Leadership intentions have always been opaque
  • Economy can’t provide for population’s basic needs
  • Most closed society on the planet

But in addition to these long-standing issues, since the fall of 2015, North Korea is behaving in ways that worry the United States. Among the biggest issues:

  • A young leader still consolidating power
  • Developing enhanced ballistic missile capability
  • Sustaining an active WMD program – and exporting WMD
  • Increasing rhetoric against the West and especially the U.S.
  • Numerous new ballistic missile tests
  • Engine tests for proposed ICBM that can reach the United States

These are worrisome signs. Stay tuned to this blog over the next several weeks to learn more about other threats to our national security.

One America?

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What is our American story today? Is there a narrative that unites us, or are many stories competing with one another?

As they say, where you stand depends on where you sit. And while few are willing to take on this huge question, David Brooks is. Here is part of what he shared in, “The Unifying American Story.”

For most of the past 400 years, Americans did have an overarching story. It was the Exodus story. The Puritans came to this continent and felt they were escaping the bondage of their Egypt and building a new Jerusalem.

The Puritans could survive hardship because they knew what kind of cosmic drama they were involved in. Being a chosen people with a sacred mission didn’t make them arrogant, it gave their task dignity and consequence.

The successive immigrant groups saw themselves performing an exodus to a promised land. The waves of mobility — from east to west, from south to north — were also seen as Exodus journeys. These people could endure every hardship because they were serving in a spiritual drama and not just a financial one.

The Exodus narrative has pretty much been dropped from our civic culture. Schools cast off the Puritans as a bunch of religious fundamentalists.

We have a lot of crises in this country, but maybe the foundational one is the Telos Crisis, a crisis of purpose. Many people don’t know what this country is here for, and what we are here for. If you don’t know what your goal is, then every setback sends you into cynicism and selfishness.

It should be possible to revive the Exodus template, to see Americans as a single people trekking through a landscape of broken institutions. What’s needed is an act of imagination, somebody who can tell us what our goal is, and offer an ideal vision of what the country and the world should be.

Want more? You can read this fascinating article here.

Readin’ and Writin’

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Why do we read? For pleasure, of course. Why else? Well, to learn about the world, to be entertained, to be moved, perhaps even to help us fall asleep…there are many more reasons.

This may be true for most, but for writers, most of us have a dirty little secret. We also read to feed our writing, and with any luck, make it better.

I always had this vague notion, but couldn’t put my finger on exactly how it worked, that is, until I read a great piece by Zoe Heller and Anna Holmes entitled, “What Do You Read While You Write? It spoke to me…and maybe it will speak to you.

Intrigued? You can read the full article here

Can Communism Rise Again?

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Ask any American what happened one-hundred years ago, and it’s unlikely that they’d mention Russia’s February 1917 Revolution — the prequel to the November coup of Lenin’s Bolsheviks, an event that forever altered the history of the 20th Century and one that still casts a long shadow on today’s geopolitics.

Most think the ideas that spurred that February 2017 uprising are dead and with it what we generally call “Communism.” Or is it? Here is part of what David Priestland shares in his piece, “What’s Left of Communism?”

“China and Russia both deploy symbols of their Communist heritage to strengthen an anti-liberal nationalism; in the West, confidence in free-market capitalism has not recovered from the financial crash of 2008, and new forces of the far right and activist left vie for popularity. In America, the unexpected strength of the independent socialist Bernie Sanders in last year’s Democratic race, and in Spain, the electoral gains of the new Podemos party, led by a former Communist, are signs of some grass-roots resurgence on the left. In 2015 Britain, Marx and Engels’s 1848 classic, “The Communist Manifesto,” was a best seller. Is a Communism remodeled for the 21st century struggling to be born?”

You can read this intriguing article here