Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Barack Obama: Two Time Nobelist?

You'll no doubt recall the hue and cry when Barack Obama was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for his stand on nuclear non-proliferation and his attempts to engage the Muslim world. Both the right and left in this country had great sport at this -- and here I'll agree -- premature awarding of a prize to a man with few signal accomplishments in foreign policy, apart from being "not Bush".

Six years later and I think it's time to give him the Prize for real this time. Think about this past year: for a man who started his administration hoping to hit singles and doubles in foreign policy (consumed as he had to be by the domestic economic crisis), he's kind of knocked a couple out of the park, provoking admiration from aboard and from mainstream Americans, and consternation from the idiot fringe that will sit on perches and poop all day, parroting "Obama bad, BRAWK!"

In general, his foreign policy across six years has been pragmatic rather than bold: he's taken a backseat in Syria and Libya despite being the single largest presence in either conflict. Of course, this makes the Ex-Parrots all squawk that he's done nothing, despite the fact that America has, if not the largest, certainly a large military and diplomatic presence in both of those conflicts.

He hasn't quite confronted Putin in Ukraine, a potential European Union and NATO member, to be sure, but then Russia has its own internal mess that prevents Putin from being as aggressive as he probably believes he can be. It's hard to invade a neighboring nation when your own people are having a hard time buying bread because you've banned food imports (shades of the Soviet!) Obama really hasn't had to take much action against Putin. You know the old saying: when your enemy is drowning, don't throw him a life saver.

This also served to silence his, critics domestically, as well, all of whom marveled at the magnificence of Putin's strong aggressive display. The traitors. The same traitors who decided to cast their lot with Netanyahu over their own President, only to have it blow up in their faces as Americans decided, "You know? Enough is enough, guys."

The other intractable problem remains ISIS (and their sworn ally, Boko Haram), but here too, Obama has been working quietly in sync with allies in the region. It's a muddle, to be sure, so bad that Jon Stewart has remarked that the United States is actually fighting the United States, but it's better than our boots on the ground and gives political cover to the local nations to solve the problems that were ultimately imposed by western nations on their own terms.

Which brings me to Iran, of course.  Here, Obama has taken bold action, action that scares the living daylights out of his conured critics, so much so that they attempted to undermine any agreement with Iran (and five other nations, I want to quickly add) only to have that, too, explode in their faces like a trick cigar.

A nuclear non-proliferation treaty with a nation that is far smaller than Russia, a treaty backed by Russia and China, one that can now be implemented to if not prevent, delay development of nuclear energy by Iran until we have had a chance to incorporate them into the world at large. Think it can't be done?

Is Iran any worse than Germany or Japan of the 1940s? Yet there we have two thriving members of the global community, trusted allies and partners.

And finally, there's Cuba. A sixty year old Cold War ended with the last regime standing. While de facto this freeze out ended after the Elian Gonzalez fiasco (and I say "fiasco" with respect to the Cuban-American mafia that forced politicians to genuflect to their whims in order to deliver Florida's electorate), it took an additional twenty years and a new generation of Cuban Americans to say "We'd really like to visit our relatives now." It was inevitable. Obama did the pragmatic yet bold thing, and he did it the right way.

Going forward, we see John Kerry making overtures to the what can only laughingly be called "government" of Somalia. I anticipate next on the agenda will be the conflict in Mali (rebel forces there have aligned with Islamist extremists) and perhaps forcing Mugabe out of Zimbabwe, or at least holding his feet closer to the fire.

Obama will not be able to single-handedly in eight years create peace in the world, but the overall arc of his efforts has been towards that goal, reducing violent extremism in the world while creating economic opportunity in places it did not exist before. For instance, his advances in Africa and in South Asia will help make shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean a little safer from piracy when pirates no longer have chaotic ports to seek safe harbor in.

Despite the daily news reports, he's been generally successful in that goal: remember, when he took office, all those extremists had two honey pots to fly to, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the terrible tolls in those nations never really entered our consciousness because we became inured to the numbers and the stories and they all blurred together. Today, the death tolls from extremists worldwide (with the exception of Syria) are down and trending down.

This 2009 Nobel Prize, possibly not his last one, may have been the most prescient pick for the Nobel committee ever.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The Future Has A Price

NASA, the space agency that has developed such technological wonders as Velcro, braces, Dippin' Dots, and is close to forcing man kind to answering some deeply philosophical questions, is at the mercy of blatant political partisanship and a poor understanding of science.  

The agency's budget for Earth science and research is being reallocated (read: cut) for space flight technologies to the tune of 40%. The National Science Foundation's funding for Earth Sciences will also be slashed dramatically, and will no longer receive any funding for social sciences.

While it may sound obvious for the agency to conduct spaceflight missions, part of NASA's Vision includes "Conduct[ing] airborne remote sensing and science missions." In other words, NASA is responsible for studying Earth, which is in space. This recent budgetary issue appears to stem from the GOP's near-unanimous refusal to accept climate change as real and happening.

This literal denial of climate change can be seen most recently in Florida, where administration officials were ostensibly banned from even uttering the phrase.

For another example, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith wrote an op-ed titled "The Climate-Change Religion." In the piece, Smith rails against Obama for making climate change so scary and claiming that it's even real. The title is especially weird because I thought Republicans were respectful of deeply held religious beliefs, going as far as passing bills to allow people to discriminate against others who do not adhere to those beliefs. But this time it's different because Mr. Lamar (nor his donors) does not share those beliefs, and so he disregards them; despite the fact that there is an ever-increasing amount of data telling us that climate change is real and human activity plays a part. But, then again, these are peer-reviewed science papers, not the Bible or campaign checks, so point taken, I guess.

In the op-ed, Mr. Lamar makes some rather dubious claims about the threat, or lack of, from climate change including, that, over the last 15 years, the warming of the planet has stopped. Data shows that it have slowed, thanks to efforts by governments to curb emissions. He also claimed that climate change does not cause more severe storms, which is wrong. Climate change has been linked to stronger hurricanes and longer droughts, for instance.

It should be noted that Mr. Lamar, like many Republicans, is not a scientist. He was a lawyer before getting elected to the House in 1986. It is strange that he would ignore the advice of the world's scientists at the peril of the country and the world for petty politics. Would you ignore your lawyer's law advice?

What is especially confusing is Mr. Lamar's introduction of the STEM Education Act of 2014 of which he, admirably, says "we have to capture and hold the desire of our nation's youth to study science and engineering so they will want to pursue these careers. A health and viable STEM workforce, literate in all STEM subjects including computer science, is critical to American industries. We must work to ensure that students continue to go into these fields so that their ideas can lead to a more innovative and prosperous America."

Except, of course, if the work of those future scientists hurt some of his donors.

It appears that instead of selling out the planet, Mr. Lamar and his colleagues should start investing in it. Otherwise, some day, it may never be cold enough to enjoy some Dippin' Dots.