A worthwhile New Years resolution

…would be for the United States to admit we’ve achieved everything we’re likely to in Afghanistan (i.e. not much), and end the operation:

No other country in the world symbolizes the decline of the American empire as much as Afghanistan. There is virtually no possibility of a military victory over the Taliban and little chance of leaving behind a self-sustaining democracy — facts that Washington’s policy community has mostly been unable to accept…

Indeed, Afghanistan represents the triumph of the deterministic forces of geography, history, culture, and ethnic and sectarian awareness, with Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras and other groups competing for patches of ground. Tribes, warlords and mafia-style networks that control the drug trade rule huge segments of the country…

The United States’ special adviser to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is trying to broker a diplomatic solution that allows the United States to draw down its forces without the political foundation in Kabul disintegrating immediately.

That may be the real reason the United States keeps spending so heavily in Afghanistan. The Pentagon is terrified of a repeat of 1975, when panicked South Vietnamese fled Saigon as Americans pulled out and North Vietnamese forces advanced on the city. The United States military did not truly begin to recover from that humiliation until its victory in the Persian Gulf war of 1991. An abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan could conceivably provide a new symbol of the decline in American hard power.

There is also the fear that an Afghanistan in chaos could once again provide a haven for an international terrorist group determined to perpetrate another Sept. 11-scale attack. Of course, Yemen, Somalia and a number of other places could also provide the setting for that.  The point is, we remain in Afghanistan out of fear of even worse outcomes, rather than in the expectation of better ones.

Afghanistan has become America’s “tar baby.”  The more we try to do there, the more we seem “stuck” with no vision or endgame in sight.  The writer of the linked article is correct that our misadventures there are likely to signal to our adversaries we aren’t the power we used to be.  But what is far worse is that our indecision and inability to know “when to fold them” demonstrates poor strategic judgment as well.  Nothing encourages aggression like thinking your potential opponent is both weak AND a fool.

(Chinese) Rear Admiral Lou Yuan has told an audience in Shenzhen that the ongoing disputes over the ownership of the East and South China Seas could be resolved by sinking two US super carriers.

His speech, delivered on December 20 to the 2018 Military Industry List summit, declared that China’s new and highly capable anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles were more than capable of hitting US carriers, despite them being at the centre of a ‘bubble’ of defensive escorts.

“What the United States fears the most is taking casualties,” Admiral Lou declared.
He said the loss of one super carrier would cost the US the lives of 5000 service men and women. Sinking two would double that toll.

Our extended presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan underscored our country’s emphasis upon what the military calls “force protection.”  It’s natural for any military to seek to limit casualties, but when it becomes apparent that even a few deaths are enough to change national policy, outside observers begin to doubt one’s resolve.  The thoughts expressed by Admiral Lou Yuan echo those of the Japanese militarists in 1940: the U.S. is a paper tiger, and will acquiesce to its rivals if smacked hard enough on the nose.  Japan’s miscalculation led to a brutal Pacific War that ended in atomic fireballs over two of its cities.  To see the line of thought being resurrected by the Chinese, whose potential to oppose the U.S. dwarfs that of Russia, should give plenty of people pause.

Afghanistan is known as “the graveyard of empires” for a reason.  The sooner we recognize that, and take steps to restore the deterrent credibility we’ve lost there, the better.  The misguided 17-year (and counting) occupation may have sought to avoid another 9/11.  But at this point, it risks far worse outcomes by emboldening rivals who believe they’ve taken our measure by watching us there.  Perhaps America in 2019 lacks the ability to muster the resolve shown after Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Then again, perhaps not.

The only certain thing is it’s better to ensure we never have to find out.

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Remember

Today isn’t National Barbecue Day.  Take a moment to remember all those who left behind all they knew and gave all they had in the service of their country.

Sad, but true

Many students from other nations come to study in the United States — a robust tradition that helps bridge cultural divides.  One would hope that coming here would leave a good impression.  Sadly, that’s far from the case.  When comparing their experience here to the expectations they face back home, the U.S. frequently comes up short:

Students from abroad are even more likely today to describe U.S. classes as easier than they were in 2001. The combined “much easier” and “a little easier” responses grew from 85.2% in 2001 to 90.0% in 2016. The change in the “much easier” rating, increasing from 55.9% to 66.4%, is statistically significant.

I currently teach in a private high school.  This year, I have two Vietnamese exchange students (one male, one female).  Not only are they consistently at or near the top of their class standings, they sometimes visibly react to their fellow students’ occasional whine (my words, not theirs) about things being “too hard.”  Frankly, it’s embarrassing. Whereas these guests don’t hesitate to ask well-thought questions or double-check their understanding, my local students’ questions are often a variation of “is this something we have to know for the test?”  (My standard answer is to ask them: “is it in the reading?”  After they respond “yes,” I remind them any such material is fair game.  No, I’m not the most popular teacher among the seniors.)

Surprisingly, as my US History class recently began the Vietnam War era, the exchange student in that class seemed reluctant when I approached him privately to encourage him to share his nation’s perspective on that time.   Only after communicating with his host family did I learn that not much at all is taught about that period in Vietnam.  Perhaps they’re consciously putting it behind them.  Regardless, it’s somewhat interesting to know my exchange student is learning about that era for the first time, alongside his American classmates.

That said, I have no doubt he’ll ace the exam, or come close to it.

The main difference I can see between public and private schools is that discipline is much better maintained in the latter.  But while there are some standout exceptions, most students aren’t interested in doing any more than the bare minimum, the same as their public school counterparts.  Like many teachers, I try to use gimmicks and games to increase interest, but the sad fact is that we simply don’t expect as much of ourselves as we once did.  When I look at what was expected of eighth graders just over a century ago, I marvel at how far we, as a nation, have fallen.

And I wonder sometimes if our current public educational systems are designed to produce historically illiterate, logically challenged graduates who’ll take the word of “experts” at face value because they don’t know any better.

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” – Thomas Jefferson

A tale of two countries

In “the land of the free, home of the brave,” if the government thinks you have too much cash on hand for an ordinary serf citizen, it reserves the right to relieve you of it:

For almost 40 years, Carole Hinders has dished out Mexican specialties at her modest cash-only restaurant. For just as long, she deposited the earnings at a small bank branch a block away — until last year, when two tax agents knocked on her door and informed her that they had seized her checking account, almost $33,000.

The Internal Revenue Service agents did not accuse Ms. Hinders of money laundering or cheating on her taxes — in fact, she has not been charged with any crime. Instead, the money was seized solely because she had deposited less than $10,000 at a time, which they viewed as an attempt to avoid triggering a required government report.

“How can this happen?” Ms. Hinders said in a recent interview. “Who takes your money before they prove that you’ve done anything wrong with it?”

The federal government does.

I’ve written before about these types of “civil forfeiture” laws, and how they are an example of the way our militarized social policy (i.e. the ‘war on drugs’) has eroded basic freedoms.  Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?  It’s come to this: if a bureaucrat deems your financial transactions to be unusual, they can just take your money.  This is freedom?  Other nations have certainly noticed this and raised an eyebrow.  Why haven’t we?

Between forfeiture and the rampant abuse of eminent domain, no American should feel secure that their own government won’t simply try arbitrarily to take away years of work and savings.  This nation simply is not as free as it thinks it is.  The irony is that other nations we’ve been conditioned over generations to believe are hopelessly less free than us may, in fact, now be doing better on this score:

the Vietnamese view of capitalism is based on their experience, while the American view, sadly, may be based on our own. The Vietnamese have their recent experience with the lies and deprivation that always accompany communism to contrast with the growth and opportunity that a newly opened free market has provided. Many Americans, on the other hand, look at our free market and see that it’s not all that free sometimes, and that a lot of what passes for capitalism is really what Jason Mattera calls Crapitalism, a politicized crony-capitalism in which insider connections and government subsidies and compulsion play a bigger role than they should.

Vietnam has a flat tax that makes life easy for small businesses; America has a convoluted code that requires professional help to understand — and that is administered by a politicized IRS that people don’t trust anymore. The Vietnamese see small businesses as essential to the country’s future; the American government is made up of politicians who meet objections to their policies by saying things like “I can’t be responsible for every undercapitalized entrepreneur in America.”

But the Vietnamese advantage may boil down to this: Free markets are new there, whereas America has had them for a long time. Scientist Thomas Ray once said that every successful system accumulates parasites, and the free market in America has been successful for a very long time. Established businesses get tied down with regulations that keep out new innovations — like Michigan’s GM-backed anti-Tesla law that bars carmakers from selling directly to the public — while politicians line up to line their pockets with taxes and fees and campaign contributions.

Don’t believe the rhetoric and the rah-rah that ‘Merica is the world’s greatest bastion of freedom, capitalism and self-governance.  Instead, take a good look at what’s going on around you — even if it’s not happening to you… yet… — and ask some hard questions about how we got here.  Who benefits from the way things are run now… from “Crapitalism?”  Why are Americans tolerating the level of lawlessness we currently do?

I’m not quite to the point of believing elections no longer matter here (though I’m getting there rapidly), so I’ll close with this: once you’ve asked the questions above, act accordingly next week.

NO INCUMBENTS, PLEASE!