Sunday, March 29, 2015

Don't Cry for Obama

Jay Solomon and Gerald Seib seem almost to feel sorry for poor Barack Obama. In so doing they are adopting the party line: the situation in the Middle East is so complicated that no one could manage it.

They explain:

The Middle East has descended into a state of disarray unusual even for that troubled region, imperiling President Barack Obama’s policy dreams and leaving him with limited ability to control events.

The latest complication has erupted in Yemen, where rebel forces backed by Iran have driven out the country’s president and are expanding their control southward across the country. The prospect that those Shiite rebels might succeed in taking over a neighboring country has so alarmed the Sunni leaders of Saudi Arabia that they have launched airstrikes and assembled an international coalition to intervene—a coalition that the U.S. has vowed to help.

That means the Obama administration finds itself in a highly awkward position: It now is lined up against Iran in Yemen. Meanwhile, it is trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with Tehran and is working on the same side as the Iranians to defeat Islamic State fighters in Iraq.
Moreover, at this moment of high regional anxiety, Mr. Obama finds his ties to Israel and Egypt, two traditional bulwarks of pro-American sentiment, under great strain. And his dream of smoothly exiting the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered a double blow this week as U.S. planes had to spring back into action in Iraq in an attempt to push back Islamic State forces, and Mr. Obama agreed to keep in Afghanistan thousands of troops he had hoped could leave by year’s end.

The upshot is that Mr. Obama is engaged in a juggling act, trying to keep aloft a nuclear deal with Iran, the fight against Islamic State and an effort to prevent Yemen from sliding into hostile hands—all without the kind of military presence or solid phalanx of loyal allies the U.S. once had at its disposal.

The esteemed journalists fail to notice that President Obama is the one person who is most responsible for the mess.

After all, his policies produced it. His surrender in Iraq produced part of it. His mismanagement of the Arab Spring helped advance it. His petulant attacks on Israel moved it along. His betrayal of an ally showed that he could not be trusted: His willful drive to make a deal, any deal with Iran contributed mightily to the problem.

Now, the situation is out of control. Our allies no longer trust us and our enemies no longer fear us.

It’s what happens when America elects as president a man who has no experience in foreign policy and who acts as though the real world must fulfill his dreams, or the dreams of his father.

Clintonian Shamelessness

For my part I have doubts about the inevitability of a Hillary Clinton presidency, but I have been wrong before.

If, perchance, you need to prepare yourself for a new Age of Clinton, George Will offers a primer:

The [Democratic] party, adrift in identity politics, clings, as shipwrecked sailors do to floating debris, to this odd feminist heroine. Wafted into the upper reaches of American politics by stolid participation in her eventful marriage to a serial philanderer, her performance in governance has been defined by three failures.

Will is referring to Hillary’s attempt at healthcare reform, her handling of the Russian reset and her management of the Obama administration Libya policy:

He explains it all with a psychological evaluation, one that I have often repeated:

These episodes supposedly recommend a re-immersion in Clintonism, a phenomenon that in 2001 moved The Post to say, more in anger than in sorrow, that “the Clintons’ defining characteristic” is that “they have no capacity for embarrassment.” This judgment was rendered as two episodes were demonstrating that the Clintons in power were defined by their manner of leaving it.

For the Clintons the rules do not apply. They live in their own amoral universe, protected by the media.
Recently, we have learned that Hillary wiped the hard drive of her personal server clean-- thus, destroying the historical record of much of her tenure at the State Department. As Republicans have noted, even Nixon did not destroy the tapes.  

The material, we posit, was suffiently embarrassing for her to believe that the hit she would take for erasing the files would be less than the hit she would take once people found out what was in them.

One might ask now whether she was trying to hide professional incompetence or personal dereliction, or both.

Psychoanalysis on the Rocks

Hope dies hard. Psychoanalysis has gone the way of alchemy, but an intrepid band of loyalists believes that it can make a comeback.

In itself this is a bad sign. If people are wishing for your comeback, that suggests that you have nowhere to go but up.

I will save the debate on the clinical effectiveness of psychoanalysis for another time. For today I want simply to consider the PR hit that Freud and psychoanalysis took in today’s New York Times book review.

Tasked with reviewing Jeffrey Lieberman’s book Shrinks, Natalie Angier, the Times science correspondent recalls her own experience of orthodox Freudian analysis:

One of the most miserable experiences of my young adulthood, in the mid-1980s, was the year I spent in formal Freudian psychoanalysis. How well I remember lying on that uncomfortable couch with its built-in simulacrum of a pillow, as I struggled desperately to just “let my mind go,” to free associate, to disinter childhood memories or impulses that might prove remotely useful to me or at least satisfy my psychiatrist, who often seemed to be picking distractedly at lint on her skirt. She was a brilliant woman, no doubt about it, yet I always left her office feeling like a failure, and the science writer in me couldn’t help wondering, Where is the clinical evidence that this excruciating and expensive ordeal really works?

Folks, this is the New York Times. Its science writer is calling psychoanalysis an “excruciating and expensive ordeal.” Excuse her pragmatism, but she is asking if there is any evidence that it works.

She finds an answer in Lieberman’s book:

… the evidence, quite simply, doesn’t exist. Whether for the treatment of relatively mild afflictions like my dysthymia, or for serious conditions like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or depression, psychoanalysis never had much, if any proof of efficacy. Yet the Freudian conceit that repressed desires and conflicts were the source of mental illness, and that talking those urges out of hiding could lead to a cure, dominated American psychiatry for over half a century, Lieberman says, stranding the field in “an intellectual desert” from which it has only recently emerged. “Sigmund Shlomo Freud,” Lieberman writes, was “simultaneously psychiatry’s greatest hero and its most calamitous rogue.”

How did Freud deal with the fact that psychoanalysis could not provide evidence to suggest that it worked: First, he attacked anyone who questioned him. (My Lacanian friends have made this into an art form.) Second, he transformed psychoanalysis into a “petrified religion,” or what I more correctly called a pseudo-religion.

Angier writes:

Freud knew he lacked evidence for many of his “daring ideas about mental illness,” Lieberman says. Yet rather than conducting research to fill in the gaps, he instead began attacking anybody who questioned him. “He demanded complete loyalty to his theory, and insisted that his disciples follow his clinical techniques without deviation,” Lieberman argues, thereby “fossilizing a promising and dynamic scientific theory into a petrified religion.”

Don’t say I didn’t tell you.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Psychiatry and Madness

Here we are again, at the point where public health intersects with psychiatric illness and individual rights.

Apparently, Andreas Lubitz, he mad co-pilot of the Germanwings plane that crashed into a mountain in Southern France suffered from severe mental illness. As the story is now being presented, Lubitz chose not to inform his employer that he had been declared unfit to fly.

But why, pray tell, did someone charged with the safety of passengers have the choice?

Apparently, German privacy laws prevent psychiatrists from informing an employer of a patient’s condition.

And yet, his illness was anything but a mystery. A French newspaper, Le Figaro, reported this morning that Lubitz's instructors at his flight taining in Phoenix had declared him unfit to fly. His psychiatric history should have been well known to his employer. Since German privacy laws allow psychiatrists to breach confidentiality in some cases, one wonders why this did not count as one of those cases.

It also seems clear that Lupitz had been taking psychiatric medication. Whether he was on or off his meds I do not know. But oughtn’t we to recognize that these medications, whatever their virtues and value, are of limited usefulness. Since Lupitz was clearly not a everyday depressed patient, ought we perhaps to redefine what we mean by treatment in such cases.

As for the question of motive, the New York Post offers this insight:

The stunning revelation came as a German newspaper quoted another of Lubitz’s ex-girlfriends recalling that within the past year, he had promised her that one day he’d “make everyone remember him.”

The ex, identified by Bild newspaper as “Maria, 26,” also said Lubitz would wake up in the middle of the night screaming, “We’re crashing!”
“When I heard about the crash, one thing that he said kept going through my head: ‘One day I’m going to do something that will change the whole system, and everyone will know my name and remember it.’ ” the woman told the paper.

“I didn’t know what he meant, but now it makes sense.”

An anonymous individual, preferring infamy to anonymity, wants to make an impact, wants to be remembered, wants to change the system.

Unfortunately, he did what he said he wanted to do.

Friday, March 27, 2015

What Is Resilience?

What is resilience? Who has it and who doesn’t? How can you improve yours… just in case you need it one day?

Is resilience a state of mind or is it a series of behaviors? Does it reside in how you feel or in how you act in the world?

Let’s accept that psychologists have been using the concept of resilience to explain why some people recover from trauma more rapidly and more effectively than others.

Clare Ansberry writes about it in the Wall Street Journal:

Everyone experiences loss and setbacks. We are diagnosed with serious illnesses and injured in accidents. We lose homes, jobs and loved ones. Yet even the most traumatized often manage—over time and with help—to slowly piece together their lives. It is a painful and rarely linear process, but it can strengthen people in unexpected ways. Many are able to transcend their hurt by providing help to others, and in doing so give direction to their waylaid lives.

Some people are more optimistic. Some people have better social support networks. Some people refuse to let even a tragedy get them down.

These people tend to be optimistic—thinking things will work out—and are able to accept what can’t be changed and focus on what can be, he says. They recognize that even though they didn’t have a choice in their loss, they are responsible for their own happiness.

When we ask how one can go about becoming more optimistic and more positive, one way is to choose one’s friends well.

In Ansberry’s words:

For example, people can develop a more optimistic view by cultivating friendships with positive people and challenging negative thoughts.

Of course, there are traumas and there are traumas. When Carolyn Moor, a young mother with two small children, lost her husband in an automobile accident, her world fell apart. She herself nearly fell apart.

What did she do? Ansberry describes Moor’s way of dealing with trauma:

She went through the motions, getting her daughters out of bed, dressing and feeding them, and volunteered at a grief group called New Hope For Kids. “I put on a good face in public,” she says. Inside, she says, she was a wreck, not sure of what to do with her life. She met other widows at the grief group but didn’t know anyone who could show her how to move forward.

Evidently, Moor had responsibilities to her daughters. She did whatever she could to make their lives as orderly as possible. She wanted to limit the disruption they had experienced when their father died.

So, she went through the motions. In the therapy world, people tend to believe that insight cures. In this case, going through the motions and putting on a good public face constitute resilience.

She did not need to understand what she was doing or why she was doing it.

Obviously, some people cannot go through the motions. Some people refuse to do anything. Some people refuse to go out in public. One would be correct to say that they are not resilient.

I would suggest that people who have strict and very regular schedules must be more resilient than are those who do not. Those who have a goodly amount of routinized behavior, behavior that feels automatic when it is performed are probably more capable of continuing it even when they have suffered a trauma.

Surely, it is also true that people who are directly responsible for the well-being of others, who can perform their daily rituals with an attitude of benevolence are more resilience than are those who focus on their personal pain and grief.

This suggests that resilience involves the ability to perform, to behave in a certain way, regardless of the emotional stress. It does not resemble spiritual enlightenment as much as it resembles the training that a soldier undergoes… the kind that will allow him to do his job regardless of the stress.

If resilience involves tasks that need to be performed, it can be undermined by doing the wrong thing.

Carolyn Moor had made one mistake in the aftermath of her loss. As it happened, a rabbi helped her to correct it:

Rabbi Boteach asked her to look at the choices she was making to see if they were the best for her and daughters. One stood out. Every year on Valentine’s Day, the anniversary of her husband’s death, she opened a memory box. Inside, along with her husband’s watch and architectural drawings, was a stained sweater that she had worn the night of the accident. It was, she reasoned, a way to honor her husband by never forgetting the pain of that day.

Doing so, though, left her—and her daughters—focused on Chad’s tragic end, rather than their happy times together.

Keeping a reminder of a tragedy did not help her. It did not, as the rabbi said, help her to focus on the good in the relationship.  One object in the memory box was working against her and she needed to release herself from its hold.

She also sold her house and did other things to put more distance between her and the life she had lost.

Eventually, her mind caught up with her resilient habits. We will say, for now that we do not know how this happened.

When you are learning how to play a game, you begin by going through the motions. At some point you learn how to play the game and are said to know how to do so.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Cultural Trade Offs

You’ve heard it before. You have probably nodded in assent each time you have heard it.

Life, you have learned, is a trade-off. You can’t have everything you want.

It’s a great idea. Mouth it and you will sound like a mature adult.

And yet, once you start having to make choices—if you get this you cannot have that—your mind will recoil in horror. Indignantly you will respond that you should not have to make such choices, and besides, you can have it all. In fact, you know someone who does. Or, at least you think he does.

Such were my first thoughts as I read Sahana Singh’s article about the time she and her family spent in Singapore.

With the death of Lee Kuan Yew, the father of modern Singapore, some media types have been jumping up to explain that while Singapore is freer than anywhere else when it comes to doing business, it is an autocratic horror when it comes to personal freedoms and first amendment rights.

We Americans seem to believe that social customs should become a free-for-all and that the business world should also be a free-wheeling free enterprise paradise.

In truth, as Camille Paglia opined, American students have become world leaders in decadence. She might have mentioned that America can also be a rather dangerous place. Apparently, college campuses are especially depraved.

All the while, American free enterprise is being stifled by endless regulations. American millennials are lagging just about all of their international peers in measures of competence.

Is that what the world looks like when you don’t make trade offs?

Singh describes her experience of everyday life in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore. In particular, she notes that the Singapore described by Yew’s detractors—mostly leftists who prefer socialism to free enterprise—is a rank distortion.

She writes:

From clean water and crime-free streets to reliable public transportation and easy access to libraries, the state government anticipates all the basic needs to provide its residents a good quality of life and eliminate the stresses that can impede personal progress. But in the coverage that followed the death of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on Monday, Western media has painted a very different picture. They describe a crushing autocrat that chained his people and stripped them of basic freedoms. My experience was quite the contrary. Outside of this tiny island utopia, I never felt more free.

What was it like for a mother with a baby? Singh describes it:
In my first days in Singapore, I worried about safely getting around town, especially with a baby. I had never used local trains and feared ending up in a dangerous neighborhood. But what would be reasonable fears for a newcomer in most countries were gratuitous in Singapore. Everywhere were street signs and directions in English, clearly marked and intelligently placed, as if invisible planners were anticipating your next question. On my first try, I navigated to Orchard Road, the nation’s retail hub, and back to my hotel without having to ask anyone for directions.

There was no litter in Singapore’s streets. Every building looked clean and every walkway looked newly washed. The national library hadnumerous branches, stocked with wonderful books. With my baby in a stroller, I could go practically anywhere. It was like an India I had always dreamed of: clean, green and hassle-free.

Of course, Singh does not define freedom in terms of Spring Break or the ability to get high and to pee in public:

There I was, freer than anytime I had been in my life. I had just found a job I loved. I could go see a movie with friends and return by myself late at night. I could fall asleep in a taxi, after reeling off my address, and the driver would safely take me home and gently wake me up. Singapore maintains an efficient – if strict – judicial system, fundamental to living in a low-crime society while practicing individual freedom. I had tasted the real freedom that came with security.

Singaporeans pay a price for this kind of freedom:

Many point to the price Singapore’s citizens and residents pay for achieving that security. The government imposes strict laws with steep fines and punishments for even minor transgressions: Breaching the ban on selling gum can fetch a fine north of $70,000. Vandalizing property can lead to caning. These kinds of sentences may be an affront to American ideals, but in Singapore, like many Asian countries, ensuring the greater good is paramount to self-determination. Americans, it should be noted, also pay a price for the premium they put on individual liberties.

The government of Singapore is certainly autocratic. It does not respect individual liberties and individual rights. It is decidedly intolerant of criticism and dissent.

Yet, it allows people from different ethnic groups to live and work together in harmony. Its schoolchildren regularly outperform America’s best by all measures of academic achievement. And it has produced the kind of place where you can bring up a child without being in constant fear. It does not have gang violence or drug wars. It doesn’t even have transgendered locker rooms.

Surely, Singapore is not an ideal society. Its people have also made trade-offs… only the trade offs are different from the ones that we have made.

Malign Neglect

Studying the Obama administration Middle East policy, one can only conclude that it should be called: malign neglect.

After all, when you declare that retreat is an advance, that surrender is victory and that you lead from behind, something seems clearly wrong with your thinking.

It brings to mind a line from Hamlet. Spoken by Polonius, about the melancholy prince, it is:

Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.

Yesterday, as the remnants of the government of Yemen fled the port of Aden, with Iran-backed Houthi rebels fast on their heels, the White House declared that its Yemen policy was working.

Madness is when you take your delusions for reality.

In the meantime Max Boot, a distinguished foreign policy analyst explains the method in Obama’s madness:

Boot lists the data points we should consider:

Data point No. 1: President Obama withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 and is preparing to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016, even while keeping a few more troops there this year and next than originally planned.

Point No. 2: The Obama administration keeps largely silent about Iran’s power grab in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, even going so far now as to assist Iranian forces in Tikrit, while attempting to negotiate a nuclear deal with Tehran that would allow it to maintain thousands of centrifuges.

Point No. 3: Mr. Obama berates Benjamin Netanyahu for allegedly “racist” campaign rhetoric, refuses to accept his apologies, and says the U.S. may now “re-assess options,” code words for allowing the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state over Israeli objections.

Put them together and you might get sick to your stomach. But they do constitute a coherent policy:

Taken together, these facts suggest that Mr. Obama is attempting to pull off the most fundamental realignment of U.S. foreign policy in a generation. The president is pulling America back from the leading military role it has played in the Middle East since 1979, the year the Iranian hostage crisis began and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. He is trying to transform Iran from an enemy to a friend. He is diminishing the alliance with Israel, to lows not seen since the 1960s.

Call it the Obama Doctrine: The U.S. puts down the burden, and Iran picks up the slack.

What does a policy that supports Iranian hegemony look like?

Boot explains:

Mr. Obama is also doing little to contest Iran’s growing imperium in the Middle East, symbolized by the ubiquitous presence of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, which is charged with exporting Iran’s revolution. Tehran backs proxy militias such as Hezbollah, which has moved from its Lebanese base to support Iranian client Bashar Assad in Syria; the Badr Organization, which is leading the charge against Islamic State in Tikrit; and the Houthi militia that has taken over San’a, the capital of Yemen, and is now at the gates of Aden, a strategically vital port near the entrance to the Red Sea.

All U.S. officials will say in response is that Iran’s actions are “helpful” as long as they are not too “sectarian”—akin to praising Al Capone for providing liquor to the thirsty masses while piously expressing the hope that his conduct isn’t too criminal. Now the U.S. is even supporting the Iranian-directed offensive against Tikrit by providing surveillance flights and airstrikes for attacking forces.

To keep us up to date, in the absence of American leadership Saudi Arabia and its allies have launched an attack on the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

As everyone knows by now, Obama has turned away from Israel.

Boot explains:

The flip side of this shift toward Iran is a move away from longtime allies, most notably Israel, which views the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat. The president vowed to put some “daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem, and boy has he delivered. His aides deride the Israeli prime minister as a “chickens—” and a “coward,” and Mr. Obama has exhibited more visceral anger at Mr. Netanyahu than he has at Vladimir Putin or Ayatollah Khamenei.

We’d be better off if it was just plain madness. 

It’s going to take a long time to clean up the mess caused by Obama’s malign neglect.