Monday, March 24, 2014

Critics of Obama's Handling of Ukraine Crisis are Disingenuous and Hypocritical

President Obama and Russian President Putin
I've certainly not agreed with everything President Obama has done over the past five years in terms of his foreign policy. But the relentless and callow criticism he's getting from his political enemies for allegedly being weak in his handling of the crisis in Russia and Ukraine is not only unfair and unfounded, it is utterly political and laughably disingenuous. And it shows the selective memory of so many of his critics. 

Obama, who kicks off a two-day summit on nuclear security today at The Hague in the Netherlands, where he'll reportedly meet later in the day with other leaders of the G7 nations, is doing exactly what any responsible, measured U.S. President would do regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin's rogue actions. Nothing more, nothing less. 

The widespread and transparent political shots being fired at the President from many of his Republican adversaries begs the obvious question: Where were these folks in 2008, when Russian forces invaded the former Soviet state of Georgia? Yes, invaded. At the time, President George W. Bush responded with virtually the same words and actions as Obama is giving us now, and no one on the right called Bush weak. 

We were still shooting and bombing the crap out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and that didn't deter Russia from moving in to Georgia. Get my drift? As Russian tanks began rolling into Georgia in the summer of 2008, Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino, now a Fox host and reliable Obama basher, said this: "We call for an immediate ceasefire. We urge all parties, Georgians, south Ossetians, Russians to deescalate the tensions and to avoid conflict. We are working on mediation efforts and to secure a ceasefire, and we are urging the parties to restart their dialogue." 

I'm sure Dana's comments had them Russkies shaking in their boots, eh? Some real fightin' words from the Bush camp. Can you imagine if Obama presser Jay Carney said this very same thing now about the Ukraine crisis? The right would eat him alive. 

And now, regrettably and inappropriately, former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is weighing in. Say it ain't so, Mitt. He accused Obama of being naive about Putin’s world views and “lacking the judgment” and foresight to have stopped the Russian president from taking over Ukraine’s Crimea region.

"There's no question but that the president's naiveté with regards to Russia, and his faulty judgment about Russia's intentions and objectives, has led to a number of foreign policy challenges that we face," said the former Massachusetts governor and failed presidential candidate on CBS’ Face the Nation.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate, quickly and appropriately responded to Romney’s suggestion that Putin would have been discouraged had the United States first shown military force somewhere else in the world.

“I disagree, and so does history,” Durbin told CBS. “In the midst of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Putin invaded the Republic of Georgia. … He is a bully, and we've got to call him for what he is.”

Durbin also said the idea that sanctions are going to stop a former colonel in the KGB is naive at best. “What the President has done is first, try to negotiate, try to stop the intrigue and the referendum in Crimea. It didn't work,” said Durbin, who praised the diplomatic efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Obama's trip this week was previously planned, but Russia, who was not invited, will now be the hot topic. "We're united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far," Obama said after meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. 

Sounds reasonable and reassuring. But obviously not to the knee-jerk anti-Obama crowd. There's obviously nothing Obama could say or do that would change the mind of his detractors. Why? Because many of them don't really care a lick about the people of Ukraine. They just see this as a golden opportunity in a congressional election year to appeal to the base and blast the White House.

Former Vice President and chicken hawk Dick Cheney, who never met a war he didn't like but who avoided the military draft in the 1960s five times with deferments, recently said there's "no question" that Putin thinks Obama is weak. Cheney, who should just keep his mouth shut when asked about U.S. involvement in a foreign country, also said on Face the Nation recently, “No military. He [Obama] seems to operate that way most of the time. There are military options that don’t involve putting troops on the ground in Crimea." 

Well, no, not really. Pretty much none of that is accurate. But it makes for a great sound byte, doesn't it? 

The equally war-loving John Bolton, who was ambassador to the United Nations in W's administration and who gets giddy whenever he mulls the possibility of a potential war between Israel and Iran, said Obama's handling of the Putin situation proves that he is not "interested in American national security affairs." 

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whose foreign policy credibility is less than zero, recently said that Obama "left a vacuum that Putin is filling." Other Obama critics say that the President needs to "man up," "get a backbone," and that he has "lost moral authority" and "lost all credibility abroad." 

It should be noted that none of these folks had a single word to say about the Bush administration six years ago when Russia went into Georgia. Cheney certainly didn't. Yes, he obligatorily condemned Russia's invasion, but never connected it with any sort of weakness on Bush's behalf. 

Conservative writer and James Bond movie villain wanna-be Charles Krauthammer made this curiously wimpy statement back in 2008: "Well, obviously it's beyond our control. The Russians are advancing (in Georgia). There is nothing that will stop them. We are not going to go to war over Georgia."

And then there's Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a man I admire greatly for his service to his country. But he's been rattling his rusty saber all over the place in recent weeks. In 2008, while he was on the Presidential campaign trail, McCain didn't have a single critical word for Bush over the fact that Russia had just invaded a sovereign country. 

Instead, he said there should be an end to the “partisan sniping” over the issue and called on the country to unite.

Of course, McCain and the rest of these political beings know that no Republican President would do anything substantively different than Obama is doing right now -- especially any Republican President who got millions in campaign money from big oil companies that have multi-billion dollar business deals with Russia. 

They also know that none of the Republicans who are slamming Obama for being weak has any effective ideas on how to deal with Putin, other than maybe reviving plans for a NATO missile defense shield in Poland. 

Uh, yeah, that'll work. All the NATO talk and Cold War-era silliness about nukes is just a red herring. Putin knows it is very unlikely that any country will intervene militarily in this regional fight. 

Obama's haters say there's a bigger-picture issue at stake here. They say that it's about "peace through strength," and that Putin has the upper hand and is not afraid of Obama and that broadcasting our intentions to reduce troop numbers will only embolden a guy like Putin. But Putin doesn't need us to embolden him. Whether we broadcast our intentions or not, it makes no difference, Putin doesn't care.

Despite what happened in Syria with Obama's "red line" comment - and thank goodness we DIDN'T send troops there, which McCain and others would have done - Obama is actually much more of a hawk than he promised he would be. Putin knows this, and he's also obviously aware of the 100,000-troop surge in Afghanistan under Obama's watch, as well all the drone killings. Neither phase him. He knows no country will militarily oppose his actions in Ukraine, just as Russia knew six summers ago that no one would oppose its actions in Georgia.

As for the notion that we can't reduce our troop level now and in fact should raise it, that's dangerously false. We will still have more than enough troops to invade another country if we choose. Our military budget is the same as the next 10 countries in the world combined. It's obscene, it is unnecessarily high. More of this money should be spent on our veterans who've already fought in wars.

Is Putin dangerous? Probably. Is he an arrogant buffoon who likes to roam around shirtless and steal Super Bowl rings? Definitely. But this is not our war. I am not sure how we stop this but clearly we have to join with most of the other nations around the world and strangle Putin economically and by other means. But we should not and can not get involved militarily. 

Interestingly, the same Republicans who are attacking Obama right now agree that there are no military options. Even McCain admits there are no military options. But he and others continue to bark at the moon.

This is a major international incident, and good Americans are standing by the President. As I said, most of the Republicans in Congress who are moaning the loudest over Obama's alleged weakness could not care less about the people of Ukraine. It's all just more political theater.

A slice of truth: Obama has killed far more of our real enemies - radical Muslim terrorists - than Bush ever did. He is fighting the right enemies, the real threats to America, and he got us out of Iraq, where we should not have been in the first place. And he is about to get us the hell out of Afghanistan. It's taken far too long, but he's doing it.

Make no mistake: we will always have a robust number of trained troops. Reducing our fighting force won't embolden Putin or anyone. But it will help our economy and our country. We will still be the strongest, most powerful military the world has ever known, by a long shot. 

This is all just political manure from some of the great chicken hawks of our time. And it stinks.

Friday, March 21, 2014

CBS, NCAA & Madison Avenue: Doing Their Best To Ruin The Greatest Sporting Event On Earth

I like capitalism. I like competition. I believe in free enterprise. Heck, I studied marketing in college and I even like television commercials, if they're creative. But this is ridiculous. March Madness, the greatest event in all of sports, has finally lived up to its name. The beloved college basketball tournament has become almost unwatchable thanks to the NCAA, CBS and Madison Avenue. It's de-evolved into an insane and relentless barrage of breaks in the action to drop in more 30-second commercials. And that becomes increasingly annoying as March Madness, um, marches on. 

After watching three games yesterday, my inner curmudgeon shouted in my ear, "Jamie, what the hell is up with these games? They last more than 30 minutes longer than regular-season games, just so they can squeeze in extra ads. It ain't right!"

I usually ignore my inner curmudgeon. He's obnoxious and irrational. But I have to agree with him on this one. 

March Madness, indeed.

All the extra ads have become a real distraction. Kinda like all these commercial logos I've strategically placed on this news blog. See them! Like them! Know them! Be them! Auuggghhhh!! 

This is the first time I've ever had an issue with this tournament, which has been my favorite event in sports since I was eight years old. I still love this sport and always will, but the saturation of commerciality has made the games just a little less enjoyable. I feel like Charlie Brown as he watched his loyal dog Snoopy "go commercial" at Christmas! 

Am I becoming more of a grouch as I get older? Probably. Will I continue to watch as many of these games during March (and April) as I possibly can despite my whining? Definitely. And therein lies the problem. CBS, the NCAA and Madison Avenue all know this. They have us basketball fans by the you-know-what's. Isn't that gouging...  or something?!

The game itself is still 40 minutes long during tourny time. That doesn't change. But everything else is painfully stretched. The NCAA's David Worlock told AP recently that timeouts and halftimes are both longer during the tournament. Halftime lasts 20 minutes, which is 5 minutes longer than most regular-season breaks. The TV timeouts after each 4 minutes of play will last 2 minutes and 30 seconds, which is roughly a three-minute break by the time the players get back on the court. Ugh. On top of that, each team gets five timeouts -- same as the regular season. But they all last longer. Gotta sell more trucks, credit cards, chicken wings and beer!! 
This of course allows CBS to pack in a ton of extra spots and make a ton of extra cash. And the difference for the viewer is immediately noticeable -- at least it is to me and my inner curmudgeon, who's decided to sit the rest of this tournament out and just "do some damn yardwork!"

What makes all this even more annoying is the fact that the same commercials sometimes run over and over and over during the course of a game. Most people don't seem to be as grouchy about this as my inner curmudgeon, who loses his marbles when the same Bud Light commercial comes on for the fifth time. I guess you guys don't mind watching a Buffalo Wild commercial 734 times. But my inner curmudgeon can't really be the only one who's annoyed by this, can he? 

It seems to me that the advertising strategy by the marketing folks at Company X have employed of buying ad time during March Madness because they know they can hit their target market repeatedly could easily backfire. I personally believe that commercials repeated over and over can alienate viewers and make us NOT want to buy whatever they are selling. I would think that Company X doesn't want fans like me to take off my shoes and throw them at the TV because I've seen the same commercial one too many times. Unless it's an ad for a new HD television.

And the viewing experience for college basketball during the tournament is even worse when you are the game. I've been to plenty. Trust me. As writer Matt Yoder hilariously pointed out recently, "Every time the game begins to develop a rhythm, it's brought to a screeching halt by a TV or coach's timeout. It's brutal. By the fourth TV timeout, you've run out of conversation with your pal and left to hopelessly try to tap into the arena's severely overloaded WiFi to check Twitter or e-mail or Words With Friends. It's perhaps the worst in-stadium experience in sports if you're not a drunk college student. There's only so many times you can be entertained by the dance team and cheerleaders passing out pizza boxes to people sitting courtside."

And I haven't even touched on the fact that while all these entities are making millions and millions of dollars, the people who are generating all of these riches - the athletes - do not get to participate. That's another issue, but it is directly related. It's all about money, not the fans or even the players.  

As my inner curmudgeon was desperately trying to tell me last night, nobody cares about the players or us viewers! They only care about our wallets and purses. Does CBS care that all these ridiculously long breaks are compromising the game itself? Heck, no. They're making gazillions during March Madness. And the fact is, none of us ever complains. 

Maybe we all need to bring our inner curmudgeons out of the garage and start complaining. What do you say we rise up and take our beloved game back? Are you with me? OK, great. But, um, can we do it after the game? Pass the Bud Light! 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

EXCLUSIVE: San Diego State Coach Steve Fisher's Private Acts of Kindness Pay Dividends on the Court

San Diego State Coach Steve Fisher - ESPN
Back in 2008, I caught a rare and revealing glimpse of the personal side of San Diego State University basketball coach Steve Fisher. Kelvin Davis, an SDSU player at the time, had just been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma (cancer). When Fisher heard the news, he called me and asked if I would please talk to Kelvin and send him a copy of my book on lymphoma survivors. Fisher knew that I'd fought a similar type of lymphoma (non-Hodgkin's) and he wanted me to give Kelvin some encouragement that he could beat this disease.

Fisher said Kelvin was having a rough time with the news, as anyone would. I told him I was honored to receive the call and was more than happy to speak to Kelvin and send him the book, which I did. 
I was immediately impressed with the quiet courage possessed by Davis, who successfully fought his cancer and was the worthy recipient of the 2009 U.S. Basketball Writers Association's "Most Courageous Award." 

Fisher's compassion was deeply moving. I was frankly floored that he sought me out the way he did. He and I had never spoken. I'm not sure how he found out about my book, and I don't think he knew that I went to San Diego State or that I was a diehard Aztecs fan. None of that mattered. We didn't talk basketball. This was about his genuine concern and affection for one of his players.

Fisher, who was unfairly maligned back in Michigan, where for the record he was exonerated, is the real deal. It's become a cliche' to describe a coach as a father figure to his young players, but in Fisher's case it is so glaringly true. He's a class act, a quality person, a role model for youth, and this year he's shown yet again what a great coach he is. 

SDSU's Steve Fisher & Kelvin Davis
And that makes it all the more infuriating to read the story this week by ESPN's Dana O'Neil in which O'Neil asks a bunch of college basketball coaches nationwide who should be named national Coach of the Year. Of the 22 coaches anonymously queried, 11 said Wichita State's Gregg Marshall should get the nod, three picked Florida's Billy Donovan and two chose Cincinnati's Mick Cronin, while Creighton's Greg McDermott, Virginia's Tony Bennett, Villanova's Jay Wright, SMU's Larry Brown, Kansas' Bill Self and Michigan's John Beilein received one vote apiece.

Inexplicably, not a single coach chose Fisher, who's unquestionably earned this award over all of these good coaches above. The case for Fisher as Coach of the Year in 2014 is pretty open-and-shut, really. But neither the coaches in this story nor O'Neil even mention him as a candidate, let alone a deserving winner. That's laughable.

No one expected much this year from the Aztecs, who lost more than 60 percent of their offense from last season as well as more than 50 percent of their rebounding and assists. This was expected to be a transition year, a year to rebuild while the school awaited the highly touted recruiting class coming in next season. The Aztecs were picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West Conference. Instead, they shocked the nation by winning the conference title on Saturday. The team is currently ranked 7th in the nation and hoping for a 2 or 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. 

No other coach has come close to accomplishing what Fisher has this season. Wichita State's Marshall? No. The Shockers' undefeated season is impressive, sure, but they haven't played anybody! Great team, yes. But who didn't expect them to be very successful with a cupcake Missouri Valley Conference schedule and a core group of players returning this year from a team that last year made it to the Final Four?

Kansas coach Self? No. He's done a terrific job with a young Jayhawks team. But Kansas is a basketball institution. Recruiting there is a heck of a lot easier than recruiting to San Diego State -- though that is quickly changing. And need I remind you that Fisher's Aztecs beat Kansas on its home floor this season? That's a rare achievement. The better coach won.

No one is really shocked by the Shockers or Jayhawks' success this year. But this Aztec team surprised everybody -- even Fisher. Despite the team's confounding shooting woes all season - and perhaps even because of them - San Diego State is by far the best story in college basketball in 2014. It's hard to overstate just how much this team, which finished the regular season 27-3, had to overcome with an offense that struggled as much it did. This squad plays absolutely ferocious, stifling defense and just finds ways to win. 

I admit that I am not an entirely objective writer here. But this Aztec team is the most determined and inspirational group of college basketball players I've seen since the legendary North Carolina State's "Cardiac Pack" that won a very unlikely national championship in 1983 for Coach Jim Valvano, who of course we sadly lost to cancer in 1993.

This San Diego State team has that kind of heart. They do the seemingly impossible. They overcame a 16-point deficit with 12 minutes remaining in the second half to win on Saturday against an imposing 20th-ranked New Mexico team. And a huge reason why SDSU won that game is because these guys are so well coached. They play hard and they play with confidence in part because they know their coach has got their backs.

I've said many times that Fisher is not the best circles-and-arrows coach in the nation. But there is no coach anywhere in this country who is more loved and respected by his players. And trust me, players will perform at a higher level if they feel their coach respects them as young men and cares about them as individuals. When a coach shows kindness, compassion and respect it often pays dividends on the court.

I know Fisher feels this way about these "kids." I've witnessed it first-hand. He is a decent man. And he's smart. His switch in the second half on Saturday to a rare 1-3-1 zone to combat New Mexico's dominant big men was evidence of that. It was an assistant coach's idea, but Fisher realized it was the right move, and he made it. That changed the entire game and was the catalyst for the best comeback in recent college basketball history.

And yet not a single basketball coach or ESPN journalist even puts Fisher into the conversation as Coach of the Year? Are you kidding me? Now that is March Madness! 

Despite these coaches' myopia and utter cluelessness, however, the honors began to roll in this week for Fisher, who captured his third Mountain West Coach-of-the-Year Award in the last four seasons. The 15th-year head coach led SDSU to its highest conference win total in school history (16) and helped SDSU win its league-leading eighth league title.

For me, Steve Fisher is an easy pick as national Coach of the Year. He's a great basketball coach. And far more importantly, he is a good man. But don't for a minute think that the two aren't connected. Fisher's kindness and character could escort him and his team far this month, and perhaps next.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

President Obama And General Shinseki Are Still Failing Our Wounded

VA Secretary and retired Army General Eric Shinseki
What the heck's going on at the Department of Veterans Affairs? Despite the promises from President Obama and VA Secretary Secretary Eric Shinseki to fix the broken disability claims system, the department remains woefully unable to process veterans’ claims in a timely or accurate manner. Things were supposed to get better by now for our wounded warriors. Shinseki promised that by 2015 the notorious backlog of disability claims would be at zero. Fat chance of that happening now. It's a national disgrace.

I've always admired Shinseki. A retired Army general and disabled Vietnam War veteran, he seems sincere about wanting to make positive changes at VA for his fellow vets. I know his job isn't easy. VA is a deeply entrenched bureaucracy that is very difficult for one man or even one administration to fix. But at what point is it time to say that he has failed in this job? I'd say that time is right about now.

Here's the hard fact: On January 21, 2009, there were 167,745 appeals pending.  Now, as of February 24, there are 272,110 appeals languishing at VA. This is a dramatic spike of more than 62 percent. That's just not gonna get it done, General! 

Last week, McClatchy News reported that wait times for veterans are soaring. The average time for a denied claim to work its way through the cumbersome VA appeals process shot up to more than 900 days last year. That is double the department’s long-term target. 

After hovering between 500 and 750 days for the past decade, what the VA refers to as its “appeals resolution time” hit 923 days in fiscal 2013. That was a 37 percent jump in one year, from 675 in fiscal 2012, according to a review of the department’s annual performance report.

VA has made efforts to modernize and computerize its antiquated claims system and hire more staff, including more mental health staff. The department's long-term goal is to get that figure above to 400 days. But the trend over the past decade has been in the opposite direction.

Last December, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, demanded that VA provide Congress with plan to fix the new backlog of claim appeals created while VA focused only on new claims. As of today, VA has not submitted a plan to senators.

VA’s disaster is described as the “claim delay and error crisis” because the American Legion testified before Congress last year that they found a 55 percent error rate in VA’s disability decisions. When VA makes mistakes on a veteran’s claim, the new appeal is then added back into VA’s inventory.  

Joe Moore, a former VA attorney and now a partner at Bergmann & Moore who represents veterans with VA disability claim appeals, noted that when comparing December 2012 to December 2013, VA’s disability claim inventory remained stagnant at nearly 1.4 million.  

"Poor leadership, untrained staff, chronic staff shortages, and overworked staff caused VA to make mistakes in 30 percent to 55 percent of claim decisions," Moore told The Reno Dispatch this week. "In addition, VA’s improper, myopic focus on veterans’ new claims means that VA ignores appealed claims, even though Congress ordered that appealed claims be given priority. VA’s claim appeal backlog rose 62 percent in five years, and it hit a new record of more than 272,000 claims in March 2014."

But Moore added that VA’s only response to the claim delay and error crisis that VA created "was to propose harmful new regulations making it far more difficult for disabled veterans to file claims and appeal VA decisions. Instead of blocking claims and appeals, VA leaders must quickly improve the accuracy of VA claim decisions by hiring and training staff to follow existing laws. That includes a 2004 law, ignored by VA, that requires VA to expedite claim appeals. While computers should shorten claim and appeal processing time, veterans are far better served when there is greater accountability for VA leaders unable to produce accurate and timely claim decisions."

Bergmann & Moore's blog on January 14 described the nearly one million new disability claims filed by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, which is certainly one of the main causes of the ongoing VA claims fiasco. And the firm's blog two days later reported the firestorm over VA’s proposed regulation to prevent 600,000 claims per year by mandating new forms. This is VA’s underhanded “Trojan Horse” to eliminate the backlog with a new regulation that effectively prevents about half of disabled veterans from filing a new claim or starting an appeal.

Do I even have to say it? This is completely untenable and unacceptable! It's time to get a new leader at VA!