Seeking sanity on Syrian refugees

ISIS flag ISIS boasts that it’s embedding its fighters in the flood of refugees escaping war-torn Syria. Frontline Greece says it doesn’t have the resources to properly screen the tsunami of humanity. Brussels, after years of looking the other way, is on lockdown looking for terrorists involved in planning  the Paris attacks and more,  who travel freely in a borderless Europe and beyond. And in Mali, Al Qaeda storms a hotel, killing hostages,  to make sure we don’t forget it’s still a threat.

Meanwhile President Obama, trying to sound measured, calm and resolute  in response to the shocking global  expansion  of the pernicious group he earlier dismissed as the “junior varsity,” comes across as tone deaf to reasonable Americans’ legitimate concerns that our government lacks a comprehensive strategy to keep us safe. Preferring leaders who are “strong and wrong” rather than “weak and right,” vast numbers of Americans are supporting Donald Trump because, among other reasons, he wants to bomb the you-know-what out of ISIS wherever it is and institute surveillance on American mosques, closing down some of them. Jeb Bush says we should limit refugees to Christians, the totally delusional Ben Carson likens Muslims to rabid dogs, and the rest of the GOP falls in line with one plan or another for all-out war, oblivious to the connection between the rise of  ISIS and our ill-considered invasion of Iraq post- 9/11. A majority of Americans now wants to keep out all Syrian refugees.

This wouldn’t be the first time in our history that the United States has acted shamefully toward refugees fleeing for their lives and toward our own citizens. Remember FDR’s exclusion of Jews fleeing Hitler and his caving in  to public hysteria by his WWII internment of Japanese-Americans.  But, for the most part, we have been an amazingly open country throughout our history, creating strength from diversity.  (An amusing but insightfully  sad Dave Granlund cartoon shows the Pilgrims’ crowded boat about to land in Plymouth with the Native Americans saying “I think we need stronger vetting of these Christian refugees.”)  Today’s rise of global terrorism does require greater prudence and vigilance. But not hysteria.

Yes, it appears that at least one or two of the Paris attackers came from Syria posing as a refugee, taking advantage of a flawed and porous European system. But it’s also true that perhaps the most difficult way to get into the United States is to come from Syria. Yesterday’s NY Times laid out the steps in a process that takes from 18 months to two years.   The House this past week passed still more stringent screening. Secretary of State John Kerry has just written to the nation’s governors to reassure them about the process.

Of far greater threat to our homeland is the  visa waiver program , that allows citizens of participating countries in Europe and elsewhere to travel to the United States without a visa for stays of 90 days or less. They’re not  subject to in-person interviews or other screening. That’s how the 9/11 terrorists got in.    Far better to amend the  law to require visas of everyone who has travelled to Syria or Iraq in the last five years.

The challenge is also to get the European nations to clean up their acts. The admirable Schengen (treaty) concept  of  open European borders aids commerce and labor, but needs adjustment in these critical  times.  Europeans need to clean up their handling of passengers and share their watch lists. Several of the terrorists in the Paris slaughter were European nationals with European visas, but they had traveled to Syria . Clearly, more meaningful cooperation and intelligence sharing is needed with other countries.

Finding a reasonable response to refugees is necessary for more than humanitarian reasons. Fran Townsend, former Homeland Security Advisor under George W. Bush, speaking yesterday on Face the Nation, argued that leaving refugees abroad in desperate circumstances in make-shift settlement camps creates a pool for ISIS and Al Qaeda to convert to terrorism.  Over time, we then ensure that those new recruits will grow up to become threats to our children and grandchildren’s generations.

There is  a reasonable recommendation in Congress to prohibit those on the FBI’s terrorist watch list from buying firearms and other weapons of mass destruction. But, because members seem more afraid of the NRA than they are of terrorists, I assume this proposal will not go far.

While some leaders on the left seem to dismiss all concerns about accepting Syrian refugees as un-American and illiberal, the Republicans go to the other extreme, damning all Muslims when they should be targeting Al Qaeda and ISIS (better known in the Arabic pejorative as Daesh.)  Surely there is a rational middle ground that involves a global, collaborative, multidimensional military, economic, social and political  strategy as well as a more effective screening process to weed out potential threats  at the same time meeting the crying human needs of refugees fleeing the enemy we share.

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Paris horror: sad, angry and seeking solutions

Eiffel TowerOur friends in Paris are safe: “shocked, sad, anxious, but safe.” But also angry, en colère.   A lot of their children’s friends and school mates were injured; a university friend, 21 years old, is dead. Here at home, we remember the Marathon bombing and try to multiply it thirtyfold. And, as we were Boston Strong, so too are Parisians rallying. As our dear friend put it,  “we are the people of the Revolution and freedom. We won’t let them stop us.”

Spirit comes first perhaps, but so too must come a decisive and effective response.   “The killing of innocent people based on a twisted ideology is not just an attack on France, not just an attack on Turkey, it is an attack on the civilized world,” said President Obama, and he’s right. (He can add the bombing of the Russian airliner over Egypt, suicide bombers in Turkey and the attack on Beirut in just the last month.) But where do we go from here?  I was pleased to learn this morning that the United States had bombed the transport line for the oil that funds ISIS barbarity to the tune of $30 million monthly. (Good Lord, does this put me with the Donald?)

In the Democratic presidential debate from Iowa immediately after the ISIS attacks, I wanted to hear candidates’ thinking about strategy and tactics. All three Democrats spoke about the need not to go it alone, to work in concert with regional allies including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Iran and others. Senator Bernie Sanders spent 20 seconds decrying ISIS barbarity, then pivoted to his core economic inequality issues. In response to a question, he declared that climate change is the greatest security threat, but he failed miserably to lay out the relationship between climate-induced desertification, shrinking arable land, diminished food supply and war for what the Nazis called lebensraum, room to live. But his answer was too cerebral and lacked immediacy.

Governor Martin O’Malley cited the failure of intelligence on the ground, said we need to invest more to sustain democracy in the Middle East, and called on the United States to “lead from the front.”  And Hillary Clinton, whom I had expected to outshine the others given her experience, was surprisingly reserved.  As former Secretary of State, she grasped the complexity of the situation but was put on the defensive regarding her vote to go to war in Iraq and the impact of that failed effort on Middle East destabilization.

Over the weekend, Republicans weighed in.  Senator Marco Rubio called for more air strikes and providing more support for Kurds and Sunni allies in the region.  Senator Lindsay Graham called for 10,000 more American ground troops in Iraq and Syria. Professor Andrew Bacevich, who lost a son in Iraq in 2007, writes compellingly in today’s Boston Globe that we’ve tried war, that it has been futile and counterproductive.  Despite myriad suggestions, a multifaceted, coordinated global strategy remains elusive.

Another challenge is sorting out the Syrian refugee situation.  ISIS claims to have smuggled more than 4000 extremists into Europe disguised as refugees.  Clearly the vetting process needs to be intensified and improved. It would be pitiful to punish Syrian refugees who are themselves fleeing the same terrorists.

The task is daunting, perhaps overwhelming for even well organized authorities trying to monitor and stop extremist activities.  As a report in Stratfor Global Intelligence Security Weekly observed, “The process is like a shark attempting to select a few fish from among a vast shoal of baitfish swimming in unison.”  Homeland Security has to be right every day of the year. Terrorists just have to be right once.

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Tom Brady weasels out on important issue

Tom Brady 2015Tom Brady, who can execute with finesse virtually any move a quarterback could dream of, apparently can’t make the most basic of all moves, standing up and taking a position against domestic abuse.  Asked in his weekly WEEI interview about Dallas tight end Greg Hardy’s beating up his girlfriend, Brady executed that famous insider sidestep, telling Gerry Callahan he doesn’t really know Hardy, and “I’m going to stay away from that one.”

This was notably after Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett said he’s not sure he would want Hardy as a teammate. Bennett is the father of three daughters.  Eagles offensive lineman Jason Kelce echoed the sentiment, saying “It’s a joke” that Hardy is back on the field.  Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, for whom Hardy is now playing, acknowledged that beating up your girlfriend is a serious matter, but said he believes in second chances. While  the attack occurred while Hardy is playing for the Carolina Panthers in 2014, the issue resurfaced with the recent release of photos of the victim  and Hardy’s conviction for domestic abuse was expunged this week in North Carolina.

Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones is a buddy of Patriots owner Bob Kraft, which could have deterred Brady from making a statement. And QB12 has his own ongoing issues with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. But come on. Brady has a daughter and a wife.  It’s one thing not to go on a crusade against domestic violence, but to refuse to say anything when questioned is unacceptable to many New England fans and Brady loyalists.

All the more so when you look at the University of Missouri football team. On Saturday night, black members of the team said they would neither practice nor play if the President of the University refused to resign in the wake of recent racist events to which he had inadequately responded. On Monday, President Timothy Wolfe stepped down.  The players had the support of their coach, Gary Pinkel.  This was a high stakes move, with the players futures on the line and the possibility of a $1 million payment if Missouri had actually forfeited its upcoming game with Brigham Young University.  But the ultimatum worked.

For better or worse, Tom Brady is a role model for children and adolescents. What kind of message does his apparent indifference send to teenagers just learning about harassment issues?  The stakes for him in speaking out on domestic violence did not rise to what the Missouri players were risking. But our enormously successful, record-breaking, highly accomplished star could take a lesson from those college athletes. Athletes can have an impact as thought leaders, they can align themselves on the right side of moral issues, they can take a stand for social justice. Shame on Tom Brady for taking a pass on domestic violence.

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It’s the future, stupid

American flagThe future lies ahead, but which candidate will embrace it? I want to share some analysis laid out this week at The New England Council. That venerable business organization has, with bipartisan support,  lobbied for years for practical solutions to bedrock issues like energy, transportation and infrastructure.  Its year-long relationship with consulting firm Purple Strategies is a logical one. Ideological purity of the right or left is not going to achieve success in Washington today. Principals Alex Castellanos, a high-powered Republican consultant, and long-time Democratic player Steve McMahon understand that but are not optimistic their hue will be embraced soon. People are in a foul mood and hate both parties.  Even when picking favorite candidates, they’re not fully committed.

Yet candidate and party brands, like corporate brands, are not static.  They’re either in the ascendancy or declining. Hence, Bush tanking, and Hillary, after a terrible summer, on the upswing.  According to the Purple Strategies folks, here’s what matters. First, is the candidates’ positions on issues. Second, do we trust them. The clincher is, do they have a vision for the future that is better than today?   FDR offered a New Deal. JFK offered a New Frontier. Ronald Reagan called for a Rendezvous with Destiny.  Even Bill Clinton got it, marrying his campaign to Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.”

It’s pretty clear that the American people have lost confidence (about job creation, retirement security, health care and more) and no longer think their children’s future will be better than their own. During this election, they will be looking for the candidate who says we don’t have to settle for today’s problems and uncertainties. According to their analysis, we’re just looking for the candidate whom we trust enough to give the keys to the car. In other words, the election will not be about who we are but who we can become.

How do they know that?  For one thing, they look at people’s buying behaviors.  They prefer to purchase products that take them to something new, that “awesome future stuff.”  That frontier spirit is still in our DNA, they assert, notwithstanding the anger and resentment out there.  Obama won in 2008 on the promise of “hope and change.”  Deval Patrick became governor on the slogan “Yes, we can.”

In that light, one might infer that Donald Trump’s “make America great again” (by returning to the way things used to be) promises to take us to the past, which could limit his success when people actually start voting.  That, plus he has no policy positions, only self-promotional superlatives. Low-key Ben Carson, a favorite of the evangelicals, has moved within striking distance of Trump, but Carson himself is probably just”a temporary port on the way to our ultimate destination.”  I think the stupidity of his statements is just beginning to catch up with him.

The bottom line: we want a President who is as big as (or bigger than) our fears. We want someone to whom we can trust our future.  Small wonder that Hillary has started saying the “Democrats are in the future business.”  And Marco Rubio said, “Yesterday is over, and we are never going back.”

Slogans aside, with one year to go until the election, it is still unclear which candidate will authentically inspire confidence and create a sense of optimism about what lies ahead.

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Charlie Baker: color him purple

Charlie Baker to NECCharlie Baker couldn’t be elected dog catcher  as a Republican  in wide red swaths of our country.  For evidence,  look at just the last 24 hours. Our Republican governor is expanding diversity in businesses contracting with the state, widening opportunities for people with disabilities and LGBT orientations to share in the $4 billion a year in contracts for goods and services.  In Houston, now the nation’s fourth largest city, voters repealed an anti-discrimination ordinance. In Kentucky, Republican Matt Bevin was elected on a promise to end the state’s Medicaid expansion, denying health coverage to nearly half a million people.

To Republicans across the country, Charlie Baker is a RINO (Republican in Name Only.) On a range of issues, he has managed to find the sweet spot where most people not at the extreme right or left of their parties are.  This is not just because he is motivated by the practicalities of being a Republican in a Democratic state. It’s a matter of style and conviction.  As Baker likes to tell it (and as he reminded The New England Council on Tuesday), his mother was a Democrat; his father, a Republican. It was, he says, “a purple household.” He learned that public service matters, and he also figured out at the dinner table how to disagree without being disagreeable.  “No one has the corner on all the answers,”  he says.

The founders envisioned collaboration and compromise, he reminds us.  “Today that’s viewed as selling out, sacrificing your principles.” But with the national partisan divide roughly 50/50, there has to be give and take if you want to get anything done. In Massachusetts, half the people are independent or unenrolled; 35 percent are Democrats; the rest identify as Republicans.  The independents tilt toward red or blue in roughly the same proportions.

The people of Massachusetts apparently appreciate that in Baker.  A solid 70 percent view the governor favorably, the highest favorability rating of any new governor in the country. But were he to run for President, he’d likely be a big loser. Regrettably,  primaries skew to party extremes, and  candidates feel the need to tilt hard, demonizing the opposition and forgetting that, if they win, they still have to govern.

The obstacle that extremism presents to the governing process is clearly illustrated nationally by the House of Representatives. Of 435 seats, only 16 percent are swing districts.  The rest are split between Republicans and Democrats, safe seats with no incentive to compromise. Moderation earns you a primary challenge or unemployment. No wonder there is gridlock.

Many have found hope in the election of Wisconsin Rep Paul Ryan to be Speaker of the House.  He’s young, attractive and smart. And he’s saying many right things. Things like opening up the process, improving the way the House works, creating transparency, working to get things done. If only wishing were to make it so. Given the mentality of the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus, however, I fear it won’t be long before Ryan has the same problems that his predecessor John Boehner had.  With apologies to Barry Goldwater, extremism in defense of ideology is every bit a vice, whether it’s red or  blue.

Charlie Baker is a testament to the power of purple. Too bad it’s in such short supply outside of Massachusetts.

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Can public schools be saved?

It takes a strong woman, a person of standing, experience, intellect and courage to change her mind in the public arena.  No, I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton.  I’m talking about Diane Ravitchanother Wellesley College graduate, Diane Silvers Ravitch.  A former assistant secretary of education under President George Herbert Walker Bush, she also served under President Clinton as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) process.  Ravitch was one of the principal drivers of national educational standards and achievement through multi-grade testing. (Full disclosure: she is a classmate and friend.)

Five years ago, Ravitch did a 180.  She had been a supporter of No Child Left Behind. No longer.  She once supported charter schools. No longer. She now sees these efforts as a way to vaporize teachers unions and public education in general.  She brought her ideas to Wellesley on Thursday.  In a riveting speech, this author of 21 books and more than 500 articles decried the infatuation with standardized testing, rating teachers based on student scores, and the wholesale firing of teachers scapegoated for student scores that reflect intractable social problems (like low household income and lack of parental involvement, among others). She excoriated the rise of for-profit education and the proliferation of charter schools, which, she says, are starving out our public school systems.

Yesterday morning, President Obama called for a reduction in testing and said Education Secretary Arne Duncan will be working with school systems to reduce both the number of tests and the time teachers take to prepare their students to take them.  Ironically, Duncan, according to Ravitch, has played a particularly disastrous role in driving the excesses in testing.  She doesn’t expect any better of John King, Jr., the deputy secretary slated to succeed the retiring Duncan.

Ravitch paints an appropriately dire picture of testing today compared to when she first espoused it. She decries both the money that is diverted to testing from other important educational programs and the stifling of creativity in teachers incentivized to teach to the test.  National curriculum guidelines, she said, should leave teachers free to teach the way they want to because they are professionals.

Her analysis of the charter school movement is equally vivid. While she briefly concedes that there are some good charter schools, her overall critique is heavily against, especially those that are “funded by billionaires” and hedge fund managers. She suggests that the media have been  deluded by the siren call of charter schools and thus are becoming a tool of the far right, whose goals, she says, are elimination of teacher unions and privatization of education.

My beef with her is her nearly wholesale condemnation of charter schools. In an ideal world, charter schools wouldn’t be necessary.  But in sub-par school systems, concerned parents should have a choice. If school improvement is taking too long, those parents should be able to choose a good charter school alternative.  That doesn’t signal opposition to public education.

While Ravitch is absolutely right to praise those underpaid, idealistic, hard-working teachers in the classrooms, I have never heard her criticizing the often stultifying work rules of some unions. Yet, over the years, it has been fair to criticize them for tying the hands of principals when, for example, they want to move out an ineffective teacher to bring in someone with fresh energy and drive.  There are other union work rules that keep a principal or teacher from being nimble and creative. (I would have liked to pose such questions to Mass. Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni, who introduced Ravitch.)

Few advocates are more compelling than Ravitch in laying out importance of strong public school systems to the effective and just workings of a democracy. States must delink the quality of education from poverty.  Legislatures must ensure that cities and towns have enough money for the arts, phys ed, libraries,  social workers and more. De facto segregated  schools must be integrated as an important tool in changing the odds, so all children have equality of educational opportunity.

Some testing may be appropriate, she says,  but not every year. Saturday a report by the Council of Great City Schools said that, between kindergarten and grad 12, students take 112 standardized tests. The 25 hours of testing doesn’t measure the countless other hours preparing for tests.  Standardized testing doesn’t hold systems accountable for academic rigor, just for that time spent on test prep. The purpose of education, Ravitch reminds us, is to shape good human beings, of good character, and help them reach their full potential.  As she convincingly notes (and the President echoed yesterday), life doesn’t consist of choosing the right answer from bubble a, b, c or d. Life is often making difficult choices where there are no right answers.

Massachusetts is debating a possible shift from the MCAS tests (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) to the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). The latter, according to a Boston Globe  editorial, is a better measure of student progress and would reduce the incentive to “teach to the test.” Perhaps Ravitch would agree with a UMass professor who wrote to the Globe that the debate was like arguing for the new Coke rather than Pepsi.  Neither one of nutritional value. Better to reject them both.

The Wellesley College audience on Thursday was exhorted to push for education improvement politically, making sure they support legislative candidates who share these values and goals. The same might be said of presidential candidates. The Republicans have been beating each other up on Duncan’s Common Core standards and measurements.  The Democrats’ debate last week was silent on the issue.  We, all of us, have to demand more from those seeking our votes.

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It’s Hillary: get over it

WitHillary 3h Joe Biden announcing it was too late for him to get into the Presidential campaign, her effective performances at last week’s debate  and  yesterday’s Benghazi hearing,  former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seems the inevitable nominee of the Democratic Party—unless the ongoing FBI investigation leads to an indictment. Given the  sour public mood and  upside-down world of her would-be GOP opponents,  her prospects for becoming President seem brighter than ever.  Even public doubts of her honesty and trustworthiness haven’t diminished her lead in head-to-head matchups.

Clinton’s carefully prepared testimony at yesterday’s day-long Benghazi hearing showed her strength as a leader. Under rabid partisan grilling, punctuated by stunning rudeness and a tone reminiscent of the old House Un-American Activities Committee, she resisted any inclination to show contempt for her challengers or anger at their questions.  She was, for the most part, calm, patient, fact-driven, nuanced and impressive, refusing to provide any damaging sound bites that could be easily used in negative campaign ads.

She still shows a tendency to parse her language, making one uneasy that we’ll never know the full story. But there have been eight investigations, and this most recent one turned up nothing new. Even some of the Republicans admitted that afterward. Not all questions were answered to a skeptic’s satisfaction.  She’s not perfect, and the performance of the State Department when it came to security for diplomats in Benghazi or elsewhere in volatile areas of the world was seriously flawed. But she has taken ownership of the failure to provide adequate protection for the late Ambassador Chris Stevens and the three others who died with him in 2012 and said State has since made systemic reforms.

GOP defenders decry the partisan behavior of the Democrats on the special committee.  They could hardly be expected to sit by silently as Republican chairman Trey Gowdy repeatedly attacked Clinton’s performance and character.  California Democrat Adam Schiff pointed out the number of times the majority members had talked about Clinton coat holder Sid Blumenthal’s access to the former Secretary of State and how she looked to him for advice. Even if she fell short in explaining their complex relationship, it was a wasteful digression from the stated purpose of the hearing, and reinforced how politicized this whole process has been.

The venom spewed at Thursday’s  hearing was as close to a McCarthy-like attack on a government official as we’ve seen in decades. Hillary was well prepared and presented a model of a tough leader, one who has to make decisions quickly, based on information available at the time, and who has to bring others on board to support that decision. In many situations, there is no right decision but making the best of a bad situation.

In some ways, that’s what this election may be all about. Given what the Republicans seem to be offering, Hillary might take comfort in the exhortation, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty; compare me to the alternative.”

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