Who Are The Real Snowflakes?

donald trump
Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore)

The Supreme Court’s June 26 decision to partially uphold President Donald Trump’s March 6 executive order to block people of six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. is the most recent manifestation of the fear that Osama bin Laden succeeded in creating with his September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

The 9/11 attacks were the worst terrorist attacks in world history, killing 2,996 people and injuring more than 6,000 others. The World Trade Center attack in New York was the most psychologically traumatic one for most Americans because millions watched it happen on live television.

Rudolf Giuliani was New York’s mayor when it happened. The following year he visited London and toured the local museums and memorials dedicated to the 1940 Battle of Britain and the Blitz. He wanted to do it, he explained, because the toughness exhibited by Londoners in those dark days of the Second World War had inspired him in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack.

The suffering that Londoners endured during WWII was truly awful. From September 1940 to May 1941 they were bombed by Hitler’s Luftwaffe almost daily. Then from January through May of 1944 the Germans bombed them regularly again, in what came to be know as the Baby Blitz. After the Western Allies landed in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Hitler unleashed thousands of  V-1 flying bombs against southern England. And in September he began sending thousands of V-2 rockets. Hitler ordered these attacks as vengeance for the Allied bombing of German cities, but he also he hoped to instill a level of terror in Londoners that would destroy Britain’s will to fight. The Nazi attacks on London killed about 30,000 and seriously injured another 50,000, but the city kept calm and carried on.

The same can be said of most Americans after the 9/11 attacks. Nothing would ever be the same again, as intensive security measures were permanently implemented across the nation. But it helped when President George W. Bush addressed Congress in a nationally televised speech on September 21, 2001, and warned Americans about succumbing to fear and hatred:

I ask you to live your lives and hug your children. I know many citizens have fears tonight, and I ask you to be calm and resolute, even in the face of a continuing threat. I ask you to uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here. We’re in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.

Bush simultaneously took military action against the 9/11 terrorists. In October of 2001 he launched an invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban regime that had given Osama bin Laden a safe haven. In 2003, however, he launched an ultimately disastrous war for dubious reasons against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Barak Obama subsequently won the 2008 presidential election partly due to his promises to get U.S. troops out of Iraq, and to focus on killing Osama bin Laden while destroying his Al-Qaeda Islamic extremist terrorist network. Obama’s focus on fighting terrorism paid off when on May 2, 2011, he was able to tell a national television audience that, under his direction, U.S. Navy SEALS had killed Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan.

Under Obama, U.S. military and foreign intelligence agencies also inflicted enormous damage to the Al-Queda terrorist network. But the chaos created by the Syrian Civil War and the incompetence of the new Iraqi government created a vacuum that allowed for the meteoric rise in 2014 of a new Islamic extremist group in the Middle East who called themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – more popularly known in the West as ISIS. They were different than Al-Queda, because they had an army that captured and held large portions of Syria and Iraq, which facilitated their declaration of Raqqa, Syria, as the capital of their new “worldwide” Muslim caliphate.

ISIS was also more ruthless than Al-Queda, subjecting the people in the territories it occupied to torture and mass-executions for any perceived offense to their religious rules. And they generated terror worldwide by posting videos of brutal executions on social media, while encouraging Muslims around the world to carry out spontaneous attacks against non-believers.

They succeeded in inspiring numerous Islamic extremist terror attacks across the globe, but the ones that alarmed Americans the most, as usual, were the ones that happened in Europe and the U.S.  In Western Europe, the November 2015 attack in Paris killed 130 people, the March 2016 attack in Brussels killed 32, and the July 2016 attack in Nice killed 86. In the U.S., the December 2015 ISIS-inspired attack in San Bernardino killed 14 and injured 24, and the June 2016 attack in Orlando killed 49 and wounded 58 – making it the worst terrorist attack in the U.S. since the 9/11 attacks.

President Obama responded to the San Bernardino attack, and subsequent reports of the harassment of American Muslims, by giving a speech at a mosque in Baltimore in February 2016 wherein he said:

As Americans, we have to stay true to our core values, and that includes freedom of religion for all faiths. An attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths, and when any religious group is targeted, we all have a responsibility to speak up. We cannot be bystanders to bigotry. We have to reject any politics that targets people because of religion. We have to make sure that hate crimes are punished, and that the civil rights of all Americans are upheld.

But Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner in the  2016 presidential election, decided to exploit the terrorist attacks.

Clinton’s response to the 2015 Paris attack, however, touched on the same American ideals that were recognized by Bush and Obama.

“After a major terrorist attack, every society faces a choice between fear and resolve. The world’s great democracies can’t sacrifice our values or turn our backs on those in need. Therefore, we must choose resolve. And we must lead the world to meet this threat.”

Unfortunately, Trump’s inflammatory statements about Muslim extremist attacks helped him win a narrow election victory, even though more Americans have died from domestic right-wing terrorism. And his rhetoric hasn’t cooled off since the election. This March, an ISIS-inspired attack took place in London near the Palace of Westminster, the seat of the British Parliament, killing 4 and injuring more than 50. London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, responded to the attack by making a statement to ease the fears of Londoners.

There can be no justification for the acts of these terrorists and I am quite clear that we will never let them win. My message to Londoners and visitors to our great city is to be calm and vigilant today. You will see an increased police presence today, including armed officers and uniformed officers. There is no reason to be alarmed by this. We are the safest global city in the world. You saw last night as a consequence of our planning, our preparation, the rehearsals that take place, the swift response from the emergency services tackling the terrorists and also helping the injured.

Trump attacked Khan on Twitter for telling Londoners there was no reason to be alarmed by the increased police presence in the city. A spokesperson for the mayor responded to Trump’s tweet by saying the mayor “has more important things to do than respond to Donald Trump’s ill-informed tweet.”

Donald Trump’s abandonment of long-held American values during the election campaign, and his continuing use of fear as a political tool have done immeasurable harm to the country in innumerable ways. That’s not an exaggeration. For example, far-right groups promoting racism, hatred and xenophobia now feel legitimized. Is this making America great again?

But even more troubling, he’s shown there are a lot of American voters who are willing to sacrifice other people’s rights for their own security. I bet a lot of Londoners would call them snowflakes.

The Medicare Part D Scandal

george w. bush
George W. Bush (Wikipedia)

One of the worst things the George W. Bush administration inflicted upon the American people, second only to the debacle in Iraq, was the sweetheart deal for drug companies that was included in the 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act (also called the Medicare Modernization Act or MMA). The primary feature of the MMA was the creation of a prescription drug benefit for Medicare beneficiaries, now called Medicare Part D. While prescription drug coverage, of course, is vital to many senior citizens, the way the Part D program was implemented is disgraceful.

Speaker Dennis Hastert introduced the MMA, with Bush’s support, in the Republican controlled U.S. House of Representatives in June of 2003. While Congress was debating the bill, Thomas Scully, the Bush administration’s head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), lied to Congress about the projected cost of implementing the Part D benefit. Scully also threatened to fire Medicare’s chief actuary, Richard Foster, if he revealed that the true estimated cost of the Part D program was $500-$600 billion over 10 years, instead of the $400 billion that the White House was telling Congress. (A subsequent report by the Congressional Research Service found that the Bush administration broke federal law by withholding this information from Congress.)

A Sweetheart Deal for the Drug Companies

Congress finally approved the MMA in November after some close and suspicious votes. The drug industry lobby, the biggest lobby in Washington, D.C., undoubtedly paid a major role in its passage. The new law, for example, didn’t include any significant cost-control provisions. In fact, it specifically prohibited Medicare from establishing a drug formulary or from negotiating prices with drug companies. Also, after the bill’s passage, former Congressman Billy Tauzin, R-LA, who steered the bill through the House, retired and took a $2 million a year job as president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the main drug industry lobbying group. Furthermore, Thomas Scully was found to have been looking for a new job as a pharmaceutical lobbyist while the bill was still working its way through Congress. And a total of 14 congressional aides went to work for the drug and medical lobbies after the bill’s passage. Subsequently, according to a 2013 CMS report, the Medicare Part D program added about $318 billion to the national debt through 2012, and is projected to add $852 billion over the next 10 years.

The social service agencies of most foreign governments negotiate for volume discounts with drug companies. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is allowed to do it, and it’s been estimated that the VA pays between 40% and 58% less for drugs, on average, than Medicare Part D. Economist Dean Baker estimated in 2012 that Medicare could have saved taxpayers at least $332 billion and possibly as much as $563 billion if the agency wasn’t required by the MMA rules to pay whatever prices the drug companies want.

Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices would obviously be fair way to significantly cut government spending and reduce the federal budget deficit. But that would reduce the profits of drug companies, and most Republicans believe drug company profits are more important.

Updates

On May 11, 2018, President Donald Trump announced his plan to lower drug prices for Americans. During the 2016 presidential election campaign Trump had promised to allow Medicare to negotiate discount prices for the drugs it buys. But Trump’s proposal failed to include that measure. The stock prices of drug companies rose after his speech.

On May 17, 2018, the FDA released a list of 52 drugs it said faced delays in getting generic versions on the market because of “gaming” by drugmakers.

On June 5, 2018, the U.S. government’s annual report on Medicare and Social Security said that, unless some changes are made, Medicare will become insolvent in 2026.

Do We Really Want an Imperial America?

rumsfeld, bush, cheney
L-R: Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney (Wikipedia)

I stopped on my way home from work last night at a local sports bar to have a cold draft beer and some grilled chicken wings and got into a conversation about America’s foreign policy in the Middle East with two older white guys at the bar. They were both complaining about President Obama. It’s his fault, they told me, that the Sunni Muslim terrorist group called ISIS has grown into a serious threat because he withdrew all of our troops from Iraq in 2011.

I pointed out that the government of Iraq wanted our troops to leave. But they both said it didn’t matter what Iraq wanted because we should have kept some troops there to ensure that the thousands of American lives and the trillions of dollars we spent there weren’t wasted.

Their opinions disturbed me because they didn’t seem to be based upon facts. By 2008 the majority of the American public considered the Iraq War a mistake, and there was growing unrest among Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority against the five-year-long U.S. military occupation. In November the George W. Bush administration signed a status of forces agreement (SOFA) with the duly elected government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that called for U.S. combat forces to withdraw from Iraqi cities by July of 2009, and completely leave the country by December 31, 2011.

Democrat Barak Obama won the fall 2008 presidential election, in part, by promising to get U.S. troops out of Iraq as soon as possible, defeating Republican Senator John McCain, who was against any timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal. Obama proceeded to implement Bush’s SOFA. But in the fall of 2010, as the time for a complete U.S. troop withdrawal drew near, Obama initiated negotiations with Iraq for a new SOFA and said he was prepared to keep up to 10,000 U.S. troops in the country. The Iraqis, however, were against the continuation of any restraints upon their national sovereignty, and the Iraqi government said it would not support maintaining legal immunity for U.S. troops – knowing that it would be a deal breaker. So Obama continued to draw down troop numbers until the last ones left in December, 2010, in compliance with Bush’s SOFA.

The guys at the bar repeated the popular complaint that Obama should have realized the removal of U.S. troops would create a dangerous power vacuum in Iraq. But U.S. intelligence assessments indicated the country wasn’t at risk of disintegrating if U.S. troops were withdrawn. And these were objective assessments, not biased ones, like those that were produced by the neoconservative Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

I didn’t have the time or inclination to discuss all of this, so I just responded that we’d already wasted a lot in Iraq without accomplishing much, and Obama had tried to make the best out of the mess Bush had left him. They both agreed that Bush had created the problem, and that the situation in Iraq was nearly hopeless, but they thought we should have stayed there anyway. They repeated their belief that we owed it to the American troops that had fought and died there.

It was time for me to go home, so I couldn’t respond to them, but I still didn’t agree with them. First of all, the mess in Iraq is primarily an extension of the longstanding religious war between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam. The continued presence of American troops might have kept a lid on it, but they would have just waited until we left to start fighting again – just like they did after our troops left in 2011. Should U.S. troops have stayed there to referee a stupid religious war that’s been going on for centuries and with no end in sight? I doubt the troops that died in Iraq would want more U.S. deaths there in order to try and give meaning to their sacrifices. All wars involve senseless deaths, and soldiers know this better than anybody. There’s an old saying that you shouldn’t throw good money after bad.

But the thing that bothered me the most about the opinions of these two guys was that they seemed to believe that the United States should behave like an empire and use our military as a disposable resource to do whatever we want across the globe. The U.S. cannot, however, have an imperial foreign policy overseas and continue to be a viable democracy at home. Besides that, trying to run the world is too complicated and expensive to be a practical strategy for any nation these days. President Obama understands that, and that’s why he’s refusing to put American troops on the ground with the current situation in Iraq. Instead, he’s building a coalition of nations and groups that are willing to cooperate with us in the destruction of ISIS. This strategy isn’t a sign of American weakness, it shows that we’ve learned from our mistakes.

Update

In July of 2017 the Iraqi government announced it had liberated the city of Mosul from ISIS forces. In October of 2017 Syrian forces announced they had liberated the city of Raqqa from ISIS forces. Raqqa was the capital of the ISIS government and its capture essentially ended the group’s dream of establishing its own nation. These defeats were inflicted upon ISIS by the coalition assembled by President Barak Obama.

On December 9, 2017, the Iraqi government announced that it had achieved total victory over ISIS forces within Iraq. It was subsequently reported that the Iraqi government is negotiating with the U.S. to keep an American military presence in their country.

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