Saturday, August 31, 2013

Foreign Policy Follies

In principle, Barack Obama is not an amateur on the world stage. Having been president for well over four years, he is now, we might say, a seasoned player. In his case it means that he is reaping what he sowed.

Yesterday, the British House of Commons decided that it did not want to line up behind Obama as he conducts his police action in Syria. The American press immediately denounced the faithless British and declared that Prime Minister Cameron had suffered a grievous defeat.

In truth, the vote was a rebuke to President Obama. Nile Gardiner explained that, in the conduct of foreign policy, Obama has been making George Bush look good. Would that not be a crushing irony?

When your allies refuse to follow your lead, it means that they do not trust your leadership.

Gardiner explained it:

There can be no doubt that David Cameron’s defeat in the House of Commons was a huge blow to President Obama, and has dominated the US news networks this morning. The absence of Britain in any American-led military action significantly weakens Obama’s position on the world stage, and dramatically undercuts the Obama administration. The vote reflected not only a lack of confidence in the Commons in the prime minister’s Syria strategy, it also demonstrated a striking lack of confidence in Barack Obama and US leadership.

Drawing out the comparison, he continued:

In marked contrast to Obama, President Bush invested a great deal of time and effort in cultivating ties with key US allies, especially Britain. The Special Relationship actually mattered to George W. Bush. For Barack Obama it has been a mere blip on his teleprompter. …  Obama simply hasn’t bothered making friends in Europe, and has treated some nations with sheer disdain and disrespect, including Poland and the Czech Republic. He has found common currency with France’s Socialist President Francois Hollande, an ideological soul-mate, but finds himself in a very lonely position elsewhere across the Atlantic.

As I said, you reap what you sow.

In fairness, the administration has not touted its forthcoming strike as a military action. It has defined it as a police action. Remember when we weren’t going to be “the world’s policeman?”

Obama has noted that Bashar Assad has gassed his own people. Assad did it even after Obama told him not to do it. So, Assad has committed a genocidal crime and he must be punished.

This is what you get when your foreign policy guru is Samantha Power. Now, American military power can only be used to exact justice, to punish people who do very, very bad things. By implication, it cannot be used to defend American interests or to advance American goals. We are citizens of the world before we are citizens of the USA.

Obviously, the policy is incoherent. It makes our nation look like an adolescent bumbler with an identity crisis.

Mark Steyn points out that when you see the world as a courtroom you follow the rules of “discovery” and announce what you are going to do before you do it.

Steyn writes:

In the world’s most legalistic culture, it was perhaps inevitable that battle plans would eventually be treated under courtroom discovery rules and have to be disclosed to the other side in your pre-war statement. But in this case it doesn’t seem to be impressing anyone. Like his patrons in Tehran and Moscow, Assad’s reaction to American threats is to double up with laughter and say, “Bring it, twerkypants.” Headline from Friday’s Guardian in London: “Syria: ‘Napalm’ Bomb Dropped on School Playground, BBC Claims” — which, if true, suggests that even a blood-soaked mass murderer is not without a sense of humor. Napalm, eh? There’s a word I haven’t heard since, oh, 40 years ago or thereabouts, somewhere in the general vicinity of southeast Asia.

You know and I know and everyone else knows that Assad is now filling his important military sites with political prisoners and other innocent souls. In the pursuit of criminal justice Obama will be punishing the people he wants to be helping.

I didn’t think it possible, but he has gone beyond intellectual incoherence.

The amazing thing, Steyn adds, is that the administration’s stated goal in Syria is … not to be mocked. Having made itself an international joke the administration is now worried that the world will start laughing at it.

Naturally, the people who want to punish Assad did not in any way want to punish Saddam Hussein for gassing a far larger number of Kurds. It’s what happens when you run policy by the seat of your ego.

Steyn explains:

I see the Obama “reset” is going so swimmingly that the president is now threatening to go to war against a dictator who gassed his own people. Don’t worry, this isn’t anything like the dictator who gassed his own people that the discredited warmonger Bush spent 2002 and early 2003 staggering ever more punchily around the country inveighing against. The 2003 dictator who gassed his own people was the leader of the Baath Party of Iraq. The 2013 dictator who gassed his own people is the leader of the Baath Party of Syria. Whole other ball of wax. The administration’s ingenious plan is to lose this war in far less time than we usually take. In the unimprovable formulation of an unnamed official speaking to the Los Angeles Times, the White House is carefully calibrating a military action “just muscular enough not to get mocked.”

Excepting the French, the whole world is laughing.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Is Allison Benedikt a Bad Person?

Perhaps it’s age, but when I hear the phrase “you are a bad person” I see children taunting each other in a schoolyard.

Apparently, it’s meant to be a crushing moral judgment. To me it feels puerile.

Anyway, if you send your children to private school, Allison Benedikt thinks you are a bad person. You are especially bad if you live in a place like New York City and do not send your children to one of the city’s many substandard public schools.

Why does that make you a bad person? Forgetting about Benedikt’s reasoning, which barely merits the name, she seems especially torqued that she and her husband cannot afford to send their children to private schools. Thus, they have made a virtue out of necessity. And if you do not do the same, you are a bad person.

Of course, New York City has some excellent public schools. But, only those who live in the right neighborhoods can avail themselves of these schools. Otherwise, if you cannot afford to live in the right neighborhood and cannot afford private schools, then the logical solution is to move out of the city.

There is no shame in not being able to bring up three children in New York. For those who do not live in the Big Apple, three children in private school will cost you over $100,000 in after-tax dollars. Buying an apartment that is big enough for a family of five will likely cost you millions.

People who want the best for their children do not rail against the system; they move out of the city.

Sending a child to private school is not a crime. You are not a bad person if you do everything in your power to procure the best education for your child.

Depriving your child of the best education by putting them in a dysfunctional school where learning is impossible is grossly irresponsible and morally reprehensible. Doing so makes you a less than good parent.

If so many good liberal and progressive New Yorkers refuse to send their children to New York’s public schools, the real reason is that they refuse to sacrifice their children for a cause. Anyone who proposes this sanitized version of human sacrifice is a bad person.

Examine Benedikt’s argument:

 But it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good. 

Apparently, she does not believe in giving your child the best. You ought merely to give him what he needs.

You want the best for your child, but your child doesn’t need it

Doesn’t that remind you of the old dictum: “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.”

Benedikt seems to believe that a few more wealthy students—the number of children in private schools is around 10%-- would naturally improve bad city schools. If not today and if not tomorrow, then perhaps within a few generations.

What makes her think that a few generations of mediocre education will improve anything.

The 10% is a very small group. Will these childrenlead the charge toward excellence or will they be dragged down by an atmosphere that makes it impossible to learn.

And why does Benedikt believe that wealthy parents will be able to take over the public school system? It is more likely that they will move to places where their children can get the best education. Besides, the school system is controlled by the teachers unions and bureaucrats.

As it happened, Benedikt herself went to a bad public school. For reasons that escape me she is proud of the fact that she did not receive much of an education. If anything, her musings on the public school system demonstrate that she does not know how to think.

Here she describes her own education:

I went K–12 to a terrible public school. My high school didn’t offer AP classes, and in four years, I only had to read one book. There wasn’t even soccer. This is not a humblebrag! I left home woefully unprepared for college, and without that preparation, I left college without having learned much there either. You know all those important novels that everyone’s read? I haven’t. I know nothing about poetry, very little about art, and please don’t quiz me on the dates of the Civil War. I’m not proud of my ignorance. But guess what the horrible result is? I’m doing fine. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that I got a lame education. I’m saying that I survived it, and so will your child, who must endure having no AP calculus so that in 25 years there will be AP calculus for all.

We are all happy that Benedikt is doing fine. But, since when is education a survival issue? What parent believes that the best a child can do in school is survive?

Benedikt explains what she learned:

Reading Walt Whitman in ninth grade changed the way you see the world? Well, getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park near my house did the same for me. In fact it’s part of the reason I feel so strongly about public schools.

Since she obviously learned nothing from public schools, she does not want to blame her classmates or her parents. She wants to blame  the wealthy families who did not provide their children with the experience of getting drunk with kids from the trailer park.

If everyone went to public school it is far more likely that, in 25 years there would be no more AP calculus. And, while we are waiting for Benedikt’s Paradise to descend upon us, how will America’s deprived students survive in the world market? Will they be able to compete or will they become a  bunch of slugs.

Benedikt might be doing fine, but many children today are not. Perhaps the solution is to make public schools more like private schools… as in charter schools. But, the bureaucrats and the unions will never accept that.

Unfortunately, if you are as poorly educated as Benedikt is, you are likely to fall under the influence of a man who tells you what to think.

If you do a Google search for Allison Benedikt you will get a slightly different perspective on what she calls a bad person. You see, Benedikt grew up Jewish. Then she married a man named John Cook who, by her testimony, hates Jews. At the least, he hates Israel, everything it stands for and everything it has ever accomplished. His hatred is so visceral that he constantly harangues his wife and anyone else in earshot with venomous tirades against Israel.

Apparently, Benedikt does not think that this makes him a bad person! She married him. Since she received an inferior education she cannot stand up to her husband. He has browbeat her into thinking as he does.

To add spice to the story, Benedikt’s sister lives in Israel and has become an Israeli.

Here Benedikt describes how her “Jew-hating fiancĂ©" helped her to change her mind:

John and I move to Chicago; my sister moves from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and marries that "friend" who she visited during my junior year abroad. She becomes an Israeli citizen. I stop believing anything my parents or Abe Foxman say about Israel. John and I get engaged. I change my home page from the New York Times to Haaretz, whose columnists seem to agree more with my Jew-hating fiancĂ© than with my community-leading parents. John and I get married. We are now a united front against the organized Jewish community, and I find myself saying and thinking things that I'm not even sure I believe because I'm not really sure what I believe. Still, my sister lives in this place I'm railing against. 

As you might imagine, a fanatic like Cook does not know how to behave in the company of Israelis. He feels no need to practice good manners when facing such devils:

Once in Tel Aviv, John confronts my sister and her husband on their "morally bankrupt decision" to live in Israel.

Benedikt consoles herself with the thought that many of her other leftist Jewish friends are also down on Israel:

Most of my Jewish friends are disgusted with Israel. It seems my trajectory is not at all unique.

Does this make Allison Benedikt a bad person? Is her “Jew-hating” husband a bad person?

Good Friends Show Up

Woody Allen gets the ultimate credit for the idea, but Wendy Atterberry offers great advice on what it takes to be a good friend, how to know whether your friend is a real friend and what you should to do make and sustain friendships.

Her advice: Show up!

The injunction is more important in an era where people are accustomed to communicate via text messaging. True friends are the ones who are there for you.  They are not, Atterberry says, the ones who you had the most fun with, and they are not, she implies, the ones who share their most intimate feelings. They are the ones who put in the time to be physically present at important and even not-so-important moments.

Atterberry writes:

… the best friends aren’t necessarily the ones you have the most fun partying with but are the ones who SHOW UP. Showing up is THE single most important thing you can do as a friend.

Show up for film premieres and plays and races and weddings. Show up for your designer friend’s fashion show and your artist friend’s gallery opening and the dinner to celebrate your friend finally getting her PhD. Go to baby showers even though they’re kind of a drag. Better yet, offer to throw one because you love your friend and this is a big deal. Go to your friend’s mother’s memorial even though it’s a two-hour drive away and it will eat up half your weekend. Go to retirement parties and milestone birthday parties and parties celebrating the end of a nasty divorce. Offer to pet-sit or babysit or house-sit. Cook casseroles and coo over new babies. Drive to airports and weddings and reunions. Drive your friend to her chemo appointment and sit with her afterward and talk to her about whatever she wants to talk about. 

When choosing friends, take account of why shows up and who is too busy or is constantly canceling on you.

The show-up test matters because it offers an objective standard to guide your choice of friends. It does not depend on how you feel or how the other person feels. Get closer to those who consistently show up and take your distance from those who keep letting you down. Atterberry is obviously recommending that you choose among people you like.

She explains:

The key to long-lasting friendships, I think, is to weed out the ones who keep letting you down — not just once, but over and over — and to hang on to those who keep showing up, as long as they are people whose company you enjoy. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Secrets of the Male Psyche

Make of this what you will, but our friends at the Daily Mail report this morning that when a man is involved in a relationship with a woman he will be demoralized by her success. If a woman is involved in a relationship with a man she will be thrilled by his success.

Apparently, the difference between the sexes is not so easy to overcome.

Take a normal couple, husband and wife. If the woman succeeds the man thinks less of himself. If the man succeeds the woman thinks more of herself.

Subconsciously, he reads her success as a sign of his inadequacy. She reads his success as a sign of her success.

As it happens, if you ask the men how they feel about their female partners’ success, they will respond positively. But when researchers measured these men’s subconscious reactions, they discovered that the men were, effectively, lying to themselves. Apparently, the workings of the male psyche are occasionally hidden from men themselves.

The Daily Mail reports:

Men feel worse about themselves when their female partners succeed, according to a new report. 

Men’s subconscious self-esteem is related to their female partners' successes and failures, the study showed.

However, the same does not ring true for women - they do thrive in the shadow of a successful husband.

It made some sense that a man would feel despondent if he lost out to a woman when both were working on the same task.  The researchers expected that a man would feel demoralized when his partner beat him in a competition. But, they were surprised to see that men subconsciously think less of themselves when their wives succeed at tasks in which the men have little interest.

I assume that the validity of the studies depends on which tasks we are talking about.

A study of Dutch men and women compared the two situations: a woman succeeding at a task where the man had participated and a woman succeeding at a task where the man had not. They wanted to measure the effect of success or failure on relationships. They reached this conclusion:

In one study, participants were told to think of a time when their partner succeeded or failed at something at which they had succeeded or failed. 

When comparing all the results, the researchers found that it didn’t matter if the achievements or failures were social, intellectual or related to participants’ own successes or failures - men subconsciously still felt worse about themselves when their partner succeeded than when she failed. 

However, men’s implicit self-esteem took a bigger hit when they thought about a time when their partner succeeded at something while they had failed.

Researchers also looked at how relationship satisfaction affected self-esteem. 

Women in these experiments reported feeling better about their relationship when they thought about a time their partner succeeded  than when they thought about a time when their partner failed, but men did not.

We will offer some reservations here. One finds it difficult to imagine, despite the study's conclusion, that a woman’s success as hostess of a dinner party will lower a man’s self-esteem. Or that a man will feel worse about his marriage if his wife is a great mother.

On the other hand if a woman decides to work harder and to gain more career success because she does not want to depend on her husband for support, one accepts that he will feel that she is telling the world that he is inadequate.

At some level and to some extent, the male psyche is hard wired to see his woman’s success as a sign of his own inadequacy. A woman who succeeds, who can provide for herself will be depriving him of a vital male function: protector and provider.

Does this make him feel like less of a man? To some extent, it does.

One wonders whether the results are different between men who are very successful and men who are not. How does Tom Brady feel about Gisele’s success? How does he feel about the fact that she earned more than he did last year?

The results tell us that, for example, girls who outperform boys in school are not putting themselves on a relationship track. It suggests that women who follow Sheryl Sandberg’s advice and “lean in” to career success will be demoralizing their husbands and probably damaging their relationships. How many men would really want to be married to Sheryl Sandberg.

Take the situation in schools, where girls are clearly doing better than boys. Are the underachieving and outperformed boys more likely to feel hostile to their female competition? Are they more likely to act abusively toward these girls?

If the dating culture is dead and if many of the most successful college women are most prone to engage in hookups, are they thereby paying a price for their academic success?

[Addendum: For those who prefer to get their news from New York Magazine, here's a story about the study, published in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.]

Why Syria Is Not Kosovo

Yesterday, when I posted about the differences between fact and fiction in Syria, I was thinking of Fred Kaplan’s column in Slate.

Arguing the case for intervention, Kaplan wrote that the Obama administration had decided to do for Syria what Bill Clinton had done for Kosovo.

To me this was a sign that the amateurs of the Obama foreign policy team did not know enough to grasp the complexity of the situation in Syria. They compensated by falling back on historical analogy.

This morning, Robert Kaplan of Stratfor offers an in depth comparison between Syria and Kosovo. He concludes that the two situations differ significantly:

Syria has a population ten times the size of Kosovo's in 1999. Because everything in Syria is on a much vaster scale, deciding the outcome by military means could be that much harder.

Kosovo sustained violence and harsh repression at the hands of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, which was met with a low-intensity separatist campaign by the Kosovo Liberation Army. Violence was widespread but not nearly on the scale of Syria's. Syria is in the midst of a full-fledged civil war. The toppling of Milosevic, moreover, carried much less risk of ever-expanding anarchy than does the toppling of Syrian ruler Bashar al Assad.

Kosovo was more or less contained within the southern Balkans, with relatively limited chance for a spillover -- as it turned out -- into neighboring countries and territories. Full-scale sectarian anarchy in Syria threatens to destabilize a wider region.

The Kosovo Liberation Army may have been a nasty bunch by some accounts, with criminal elements. But it was not a threat to the United States like the transnational jihadists currently operating in Syria. For President Bill Clinton to risk bringing to power the Kosovo Liberation Army was far less of a concern than President Barack Obama possibly helping to midwife to power a Sunni jihadist regime.

Kosovo did not have a complex of chemical weapons facilities scattered throughout its territory as Syria does, with all the military and logistical headaches of trying to neutralize them.

The Kosovo war campaign did not have to countenance a strong and feisty Russia, which at the time was reeling from Boris Yeltsin's incompetent, anarchic rule. Vladimir Putin, who has significant equities in al Assad's Syria, may do everything in his power to undermine a U.S. attack. Though, it must be said, Putin's options should Obama opt for a significant military campaign are limited within Syria itself. But Putin can move closer to Iran by leaving the sanctions regime, and ratchet-up Russia's anti-American diplomacy worldwide more effectively than Yeltsin ever wanted to, or was capable of.

The Kosovo war did not engage Iran as this war must. For all of the missiles that America can fire, it does not have operatives on the ground like Iran has. Neither will the United States necessarily have the patience and fortitude to prosecute a lengthy and covert ground-level operation as Iran might for years to come, and already has. A weakened or toppled al

Assad is bad for Iran, surely, but it does not altogether signal that America will therefore receive a good result from this war. A wounded Iran might race even faster toward a nuclear option. It is a calculated risk.

The Kosovo war inflicted significant pain on Serbian civilians through airstrikes, but the Syrian population has already been pummeled by a brutal war for two years now, and so it is problematic whether airstrikes in this case can inflict that much more psychological pain on the parts of the population either still loyal or indifferent to the regime.

The goal in Kosovo was to limit Serbia's geographic influence and to ignite a chain of events that would lead to Milosevic's ouster. Those goals were achieved: Milosevic was forced from power in the fall of 2000, largely because of a chain of events stemming from that war. His ouster, as I wrote in The New York Times on Oct. 6, 2000, meant the de facto death of the last ruling Communist Party in Europe, even if in its final years it had adopted national-fascism as a tactic. Because the war was in significant measure a result of the efforts of a single individual, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, it demonstrated how individuals can dramatically alter history for the better. …

Elegantly toppling Milosevic incurred no negative side effects. Toppling al Assad could lead to a power center in the Levant as friendly to transnational jihadists as the one in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was in the late 1990s until 2001.

As I write this, news reports suggest that the promised American attack on Syria has been postponed.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Don't Vent!

Apparently, American businesses are suffering an epidemic of incivility. Employees are impolite, discourteous and disrespectful to each other. The result is more drama and less focus on the job at hand.

Companies may be reluctant to admit their offices are anything less than pleasant, but incivility—think belittling barbs or gruff responses—can lead to lost productivity, creativity and talent. As employees who are forced to do more work with fewer resources become more stressed, the rudeness is ramping up. So firms are urging staffers to play nice.

Uncivil behavior can "spread like a virus across teams," says Elizabeth Holloway, a professor of psychology at Antioch University and civility consultant.

Some 96% of workers say they have experienced uncivil behavior and 98% have witnessed it, according to a continuing study by Georgetown University and Thunderbird School of Global Management of nearly 3,000 participants.

How can people overcome their bad manners?

First, don’t vent. It may not be the answer, but it is a good place to start.

Second, practice kindness. Make gestures that show care, concern and respect. You do not need to share your most intimate secrets, but you do need to smile, to greet each other and to offer an open hand of friendship.

Incivility is a bad habit and bad habits can be overcome by replacing them with good habits.

Ask yourself this: why is incivility running rampant in American business.

Might it not been caused by our therapy culture. The media is constantly telling us that we must express our feelings, openly and honestly. Otherwise, we are warned, the bottled up feelings will make us sick.

When they act uncivilly, people are following a rule laid down by the therapy culture.

The therapy culture has encouraged people to vent. It has told us that venting makes us authentic.

Better yet, this culture has told us that a good life is a life full of drama. It portrays harmonious relationships as a sign of repression.

It should go without saying that good manners and courtesy will also serve you well in your private life. You ought not just to put them on when you arrive at the office and take them off when you leave.

Therapy and Your Place in Time

Even at a time when cognitive and behavioral therapies are systematically supplanting psychoanalytically-inspired treatments, when anyone mentions therapy we imagine, Elizabeth Bernstein writes: “… an hour spent on a couch dredging up unhappy childhood memories.”

It should be obvious now and it should have been obvious for a long time that fixating on what went wrong in your past is not going to make you feel more confident, more proud or more able to face life’s challenges and dilemmas.

In fact, Freud-inspired therapy will more likely produce a mild depression, coupled with a fatalistic attitude toward the future.

Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo notes that people who obsess about negative past experiences become mired in their memories. And then they become fatalistic about their ability to take any action that will change their future.

Isn’t this the mindset that Freudian treatment has always wanted to produce, an enhanced consciousness about past traumas and a fatalistic acceptance of one’s Oedipal destiny?

Doesn’t it make intuitive sense to count your past successes, not your past traumas? If you think over the times you got it right, you will develop your confidence in your ability to succeed. If you mull over the times you got it wrong you will end up thinking that you are fated to get things wrong.

The new approach does not recommend ignoring things that went wrong. It suggests that you see them as exceptions, not as your truth.

Zimbardo offers exercises to enhance one’s good mood:

A person can raise a past-positive score, Dr. Zimbardo says, by focusing on the good in your past: create photo albums, write letters of gratitude to people who inspired you, start an oral history of your family.

But then, in advice that seems suspiciously close to what coaches and consultants do, Zimbardo recommends that people plan their future and take steps to implement their plans.

His approach seeks to instill a balanced attitude toward your place in time:

The best profile to have, says Philip Zimbardo, psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, is a blend of a high level of past-positive, a moderately high level of future orientation and a moderate level of selected present hedonism. In other words, you like your past, work for the future—but not so hard that you become a workaholic—and choose when to seek pleasure in the present. 

The Complexity of Syria

In the fog of public debate we often lose sight of the facts. 

Passionate conviction is very persuasive, so those who support one or another policy usually express theirs with uncommon fervor.

In these circumstances we ought first to seek out the best information and the best analysis of the situation at hand. Otherwise, we will be doing what the pundits are doing: seeking historical analogies.

Much of the debate now concerns whether intervention in Syria will be like Clinton in Bosnia, Clinton in Somalia, Clinton in Afghanistan, Reagan in Beirut and so on.

For the best information we turn to Stratfor’s George Friedman. Yesterday his article, “Obama’s Bad Syria Bluff” was posted.

Friedman begins:

Syria was not an issue that affected the U.S. national interest until Obama declared a red line. It escalated in importance at that point not because Syria is critical to the United States, but because the credibility of its stated limits are of vital importance. Obama's problem is that the majority of the American people oppose military intervention, Congress is not fully behind an intervention and those now rooting the United States on are not bearing the bulk of the military burden -- nor will they bear the criticism that will follow the inevitable civilian casualties, accidents and misdeeds that are part of war regardless of the purity of the intent.

The question therefore becomes what the United States and the new coalition of the willing will do if the red line has been crossed. The fantasy is that a series of airstrikes, destroying only chemical weapons, will be so perfectly executed that no one will be killed except those who deserve to die. But it is hard to distinguish a man's soul from 10,000 feet. There will be deaths, and the United States will be blamed for them.

On the idea of retaliating for a chemical weapons attack, Friedman explains:

A war on chemical weapons has a built-in insanity to it. The problem is not chemical weapons, which probably can't be eradicated from the air. The problem under the definition of this war would be the existence of a regime that uses chemical weapons. It is hard to imagine how an attack on chemical weapons can avoid an attack on the regime -- and regimes are not destroyed from the air. Doing so requires troops. Moreover, regimes that are destroyed must be replaced, and one cannot assume that the regime that succeeds al Assad will be grateful to those who deposed him. One must only recall the Shia in Iraq who celebrated Saddam's fall and then armed to fight the Americans.

How did Obama get us into this mess? Friedman writes:

When Obama proclaimed his red line on Syria and chemical weapons, he assumed the issue would not come up. He made a gesture to those in his administration who believe that the United States has a moral obligation to put an end to brutality. He also made a gesture to those who don't want to go to war again. It was one of those smart moves that can blow up in a president's face when it turns out his assumption was wrong. Whether al Assad did launch the attacks, whether the insurgents did, or whether someone faked them doesn't matter. Unless Obama can get overwhelming, indisputable proof that al Assad did not -- and that isn't going to happen -- Obama will either have to act on the red line principle or be shown to be one who bluffs. The incredible complexity of intervening in a civil war without becoming bogged down makes the process even more baffling.

He closes on a cautionary note:

Obama now faces the second time in his presidency when war was an option. The first was Libya. The tyrant is now dead, and what followed is not pretty. And Libya was easy compared to Syria. Now, the president must intervene to maintain his credibility. But there is no political support in the United States for intervention. He must take military action, but not one that would cause the United States to appear brutish. He must depose al Assad, but not replace him with his opponents. He never thought al Assad would be so reckless. Despite whether al Assad actually was, the consensus is that he was. That's the hand the president has to play, so it's hard to see how he avoids military action and retains credibility. It is also hard to see how he takes military action without a political revolt against him if it goes wrong, which it usually does.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Don't Do What You Love

For many years now America’s richest and most successful businessmen have been handing out bad advice. They have been recommending that people do what they love, follow their passion or go with their gut.

From Warren Buffett to Bill Gates to Jack Welch these leaders have been happily, but unwittingly misleading the people who idolize them.

If it’s any consolation, they have shown that  you can be successful without knowing how you got to be successful.

Those of us who are older and presumably wiser have never bought it. But, young people have. They can be forgiven.

Now they need to learn that the secret to success is not to do what you love and not to follow your passion.

The advice-givers have gotten it backwards. It is one thing to do what you love; quite another to love what you do. It’s good to love what you do but you do not necessarily get there by finding out what you love and then pursuing. If you have no real talent for doing what you love you are not going to love it for very long. Or if you convince yourself that you really love making buggy whips, your passion will not pay the bills.

Keep in mind, the market always has something to say about your success. Only fools rely on sentiment.

Tom McNichol explained it well in The Wall Street Journal this morning:

The problem is that "do what you love" is incomplete advice, and sometimes misleading. Marty Nemko, a career coach and author in Oakland, Calif., says he often deals with clients who pursued a passion, only to find disappointment or financial disaster—because they went into it blinded by that love.

Ah yes… blinded by love. What a novel notion. Yet, not one of those titans of industry who has been handing out this bad advice has ever given a moment’s thought to the fact, as the poets used to say, that love is blind.

Most obviously, if you are going to end up loving what you do, you are going to have to be good at it. If you have no talent for statistics, you are not going to excel at a job that involves it… no matter how much you love numbers. If you have no creative talent you will not succeed in advertising… no matter how much you love being an ad man.

Worse yet, to be really, really good at something, to be good enough not only to make a living but to feel some real satisfaction, you will have to work at it. Malcolm Gladwell’s ten-thousand-hour-rule that I posted about last week is a good rule of thumb. No matter how natural your talent, if you do not put in the time and effort to master a skill at the highest level you will not attain the satisfaction that accompanies excellence.

Young people who are duped into thinking that they need merely to discover what they love often end up being too lazy to work hard at anything. They fail, not for lack of talent or love, but because they are suffering from a chronic case of sloth.

McNichol offers some sobering advice:

Cal Newport, an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University and author, thinks entrepreneurs should think about passion in an entirely different way.

Mr. Newport has spent the past several years studying the career paths of scores of workers to test whether "follow your passion" makes sense as career advice. The short answer: no. Many people believe that the best strategy is to pursue a pre-existing passion, and that will lead to career satisfaction, he explains. More often than not, he says, they find they're not actually good at it, don't like the work or can't make a go of it.

Rather than focusing on pre-existing passions, he says, people are better served thinking about how to acquire skills they can turn into careers. If you master something valuable instead of focusing on a dream that may not be marketable, he argues, love and passion will follow. And you'll have a better shot at making a successful business out of it.

What if you're already in a business, and the passion starts to wane? Mr. Newport says transforming the job is sometimes the answer. People thrive when they find the work challenging, feel recognized for their abilities and have control over how they fill their time, he says. Adjusting the work to maximize those factors will rekindle passion better than matching your job to a pre-existing inclination.

If you are working toward a career, first figure out what you are good at. Then, find a way to develop that talent toward a skill the marketplace rewards. Resolve to spend thousands of hours getting great at it. Eventually, you might love what you are doing.

Those who advise you to follow your bliss or your dreams or your passions are leading you astray.

The Higher Education Scam

Finally, the business community is catching on.

Job applicants from America’s colleges and universities present resumes filled with excellent grades. Unfortunately, employers quickly discover that these graduates are radically unprepared for the business world. Their grades were ginned up artificially to ensure that they not feel bad.

Douglas Belkin reports:

Only one in four employers think that two- and four-year colleges are doing a good job preparing students for the global economy, according to a 2010 survey conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The solution is an exit test. Graduating seniors will now be offered the option of taking a new test, the College Learning Assessment that will measure what they have learned, objectively.

It resembles the Graduate Record Exam, the test students take if they want to attend graduate school in the humanities and social sciences. Thus, it feels slightly redundant.

Taking the test is voluntary, but those who do well at it will be able to include it in their resumes. In a highly competitive job market, the more employers give a preference to students who do well on the CLA, the more universities will be forced to teach more serious subject matter.

Belkin tells the story:

Next spring, seniors at about 200 U.S. colleges will take a new test that could prove more important to their future than final exams: an SAT-like assessment that aims to cut through grade-point averages and judge students' real value to employers.

A new test for college seniors that aims to be the SAT for prospective employers is the latest blow to the monopoly long-held by colleges and universities on what it means to be well-educated. Doug Belkin and Michael Poliakoff, American Council of Trustees and Alumni V.P. of Policy, discuss on Lunch Break. Photo: AP.

The test, called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, "provides an objective, benchmarked report card for critical thinking skills," said David Pate, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at St. John Fisher College, a small liberal-arts school near Rochester, N.Y. "The students will be able to use it to go out and market themselves."

The test is part of a movement to find new ways to assess the skills of graduates. Employers say grades can be misleading and that they have grown skeptical of college credentials.

"For too long, colleges and universities have said to the American public, to students and their parents, 'Trust us, we're professional. If we say that you're learning and we give you a diploma it means you're prepared,' " said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. "But that's not true."

Obviously, the American educational system, infected as it is with political correctness and identity politics is no longer preparing students for the real world. Surely, this is one reason that companies feel obliged to move jobs overseas.

Now, the business world is striking back. We will see how it all works out.

Yet, even without the test more and more college students know that degrees in the Humanities, and especially in politically correct studies are a ticket to the unemployment line. More and more of them are trying their hand at STEM subjects and business and finance majors.

The result: the politically correct dimwits who colonized Humanities departments are discovering that no one wants to take their classes any more. They have effectively been “hoist with [their] own petard.”

Speaking of education, The Los Angeles Times has just offered a chilling expose of the downside of affirmative action at the University of California, Berkeley.

Heather MacDonald offers an excellent commentary on the story of Kashawn Campbell. Having graduated first in his class in a Los Angeles inner city school, Campbell was admitted to Berkeley. There he found that that he could not do the work. It wasn't even close.

Campbell’s is sad story indeed. It confirms s point that Thomas Sowell and many others have been making for years. Affirmative action policies produce what What Stuart Taylor called a mismatch.  Putting underprepared minority students in college programs where they cannot do the work might appeal to liberal idealism, but it ends up hurting the students.

The LA Times reports:

He [Campbell] had barely passed an introductory science course. In College Writing 1A, his essays — pockmarked with misplaced words and odd phrases — were so weak that he would have to take the class again.

He had never felt this kind of failure, nor felt this insecure. The second term was just days away and he had a 1.7 GPA. If he didn't improve his grades by school year's end, he would flunk out.

Campbell has a good attitude. He works hard. He is determined to succeed. Yet, he is simply too far behind his classmates to do the required work. His experience with his English comp tutor is poignant and sad.

The experience is demoralizing. It is traumatic. One admires Campbell’s perseverance, but still, one needs to ask why the system needlessly traumatizing young members of minority groups. In truth, this has been going on for decades. Why has it taken so long for the major media to draw back the curtain on what is really happening to these affirmative action applicants.

Keep in mind, Campbell was the best in his high school class. Imagine what the rest of the class was like.

At is happened, Campbell did not flunk out. He got excellent grades in his classes in African-American studies and these pulled his GPA over the 2.0 threshold.

Perhaps he will major in African-American studies and even earn a degree. But, how much will Campbell have learned during his years at Berkeley? How demoralized will he be by the time he graduates? What will an everyday employer see when he looks at Campbell’s academic record?

Monday, August 26, 2013

The AP Sees the Light

Former members of the crack Obama foreign policy team have begun the arduous task of salvaging their reputations. Their opening gambit has been to criticize the president's conduct of foreign policy.

After all, there comes a time in the life of every presidency when you can no longer blame everything on George W. Bush. For Barack Obama, that time is now.

So says the AP’s Julie Pace (via Powerline):

Nearly five years into his presidency, Barack Obama confronts a world far different from what he envisioned when he first took office. U.S. influence is declining in the Middle East as violence and instability rock Arab countries. An ambitious attempt to reset U.S. relations with Russia faltered and failed. Even in Obama-friendly Europe, there's deep skepticism about Washington's government surveillance programs.

In some cases, the current climate has been driven by factors outside the White House's control. But missteps by the president also are to blame, say foreign policy analysts, including some who worked for the Obama administration.

Note Pace’s remarkably misleading turn of phrase. Whoever would have imagined that the world would be what Barack Obama envisioned? He’s not a magician, is he? Given his lack of experience, Obama only had his imagination to rely on. No sentient adult should be surprised that reality has refused to do his bidding.

In her second paragraph Pace explains that the president can be blamed for some of the changes but cannot be blamed for others. You would have a difficult time disagreeing with a statement whose truth value does not depend on reality.

More importantly, whatever it is that a president envisions, he and his  foreign policy advisers should have been prepared for many different eventualities. It is better to be prepared to deal with reality than to pretend that reality must correspond to your vision.

Pace then begins to list the failures of the Obama/Clinton foreign policy team:

Among them: miscalculating the fallout from the Arab Spring uprisings, publicly setting unrealistic expectations for improved ties with Russia and a reactive decision-making process that can leave the White House appearing to veer from crisis to crisis without a broader strategy.

I would qualify the statement by saying that the administration mismanaged the Arab Spring and the relationship with Russia. Yet, Pace is correct to see that the amateurs who are running the administration foreign policy seem more to be lurching from one crisis to another than following a coherent strategy.

As a result America has lost the ability to influence events around the world:

But the perception of a president lacking in international influence extends beyond the Arab world, particularly to Russia. Since reassuming the presidency last year, Vladimir Putin has blocked U.S. efforts to seek action against Syria at the United Nations and has balked at Obama's efforts to seek new agreements on arms control.

Strangely, Pace closes with a reference to Obama’s approval ratings. Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that people around the world like Barack Obama. They like him less than they did before they had the chance to see him conduct foreign policy, but they still like him.

Obama has long enjoyed high approval ratings from the European public, though those numbers have slipped in his second term. So has European approval for his administration's international policies.

A Pew Research Center poll conducted this spring, before the NSA programs were revealed, showed that support for Obama's international policies was down in most of the countries surveyed, including a 14 point drop in Britain and a 12 point drop in France.

The real question is: do they respect him?

The Botox Backlash

Here’s some good news to brighten up your Monday morning. More and more women have had it with Botox. Let’s hope that the men who have been using Botox follow suit.

Apparently, people have noticed that Hollywood stars who have Botoxed their faces do not look very good. In fact, they do not even look like themselves. What good is Botox if it makes you look like you’re wearing a mask? Aside from the fact that it limits your ability to express emotion-- through facial expressions-- Botox also makes it look as though you are hiding something.

The Daily Mail reports on the new trend:

After years of Hollywood stars looking so uniformly stretched, puffy and arched of eyebrow that they no longer remotely resemble their former selves, the Botox backlash is gathering pace. 

Women are increasingly rejecting Botox and turning instead to anti-ageing treatments that deliver a more natural result. 

A survey in July by The Cosmetic Surgery Guide found that three out of four women in Britain who have tried Botox would welcome a non-invasive alternative to injections. 

Even Hollywood stars are going off it — Gwyneth Paltrow recently said it made her look ‘crazy’, adding: ‘I looked like Joan Rivers (the famously cosmetically adjusted American comedian).’

If 75% of those who have tried Botox would prefer another treatment, you should probably start shorting the stocks of the companies who produce it.

Of course, women have not given up on looking good. They have discovered that Botox not only does not make them look good, it makes them unrecognizable:

Women want treatments that help them achieve a fresh, radiant version of themselves rather than the frozen look associated with Botox.

In place of needles, there are lasers, peels and radio-frequency energy treatments, all of which work by stimulating the production of collagen and elastin, the proteins that make skin firm, plump and youthful, in turn rejuvenating the complexion.

The report quotes one Amanda, a woman who has renounced Botox. She sums it up nicely:

'As women get older, we just want to look like the best possible version of ourselves — not somebody else entirely.’

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Eating Alone

It’s one thing to recognize the importance of free will and individual choice. It’s quite another to make a fetish of radical individuality and to encourage people to see themselves as completely self-contained, self-defining human entities.

Unfortunately, our obsession about defining ourselves as unique, irreplaceable individuals has obscured the fact that we are, first and foremost, social beings.

If I recall correctly, Aristotle once said that there is no such a thing as a human being who can exist on its own, without belonging to a group. Or, as John Donne said, “No man is an island….”

And yet, there is very little interest in the problem of loneliness. In the world of physical and mental health loneliness is a problem without a constituency. Obviously, there is very little understanding of what one can do to overcome it. As of now there is no pill you can take for loneliness.

Jessica Olien found loneliness when she moved to Portland, Oegon and tried to make connections, to find a group of people to hang out with.

She discovered that she had underestimated the difficulty of being a stranger in a strange place. If you are an unfamiliar presence, a new kid in town, people tend not to reach out to welcome you. They tend to keep a safe distance.

Unless, of course, they try to exploit you. To some people, being alone is a sign of being detached from the herd, and thus, fair game.

Of course, it does depend on who you hang out with. If you are a creative type, a writer like Jessica Olien you are likely to try to hang out with other self-defined radical individuals, people who take pride in not conforming to custom, who do not like to follow rules.

If, however, you change cities and get a new job, you will immediately belong to a group. If your children are going to a new school you will make friends with some of the other parents. If you are so inclined you might even join a religious congregation.

People connect when they have something in common. If you practice a profession where everyone prides himself on the fact that he has nothing in common with everyone else, then you, like Olien, are going to have a problem.

Our therapy culture, of course, tells people that if they don’t have friends, it’s because they have unresolved issues.

Even Olien, whose loneliness is easily explained, fell into this trap:

While dealing with my own loneliness in Portland I often found myself thinking, "If I were a better person I wouldn't be lonely."

Her experience of loneliness led Olien to look up the research, especially the work of John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago.

In the end, Olien developed an interest in the topic of loneliness. She concluded that if we want to promote good health and well-being we should figure out how to overcome loneliness.

Olien writes:

As a culture we obsess over strategies to prevent obesity. We provide resources to help people quit smoking. But I have never had a doctor ask me how much meaningful social interaction I am getting. Even if a doctor did ask, it is not as though there is a prescription for meaningful social interaction.

She adds:

Loneliness is not just making us sick, it is killing us. Loneliness is a serious health risk. Studies of elderly people and social isolation concluded that those without adequate social interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely.

The increased mortality risk is comparable to that from smoking. And loneliness is about twice as dangerous as obesity.

Somehow or other, we got into the habit of seeing ourselves as isolated individuals comprised of bodily appetites and conscious minds that are struggling to control those appetites. One notes, with no joy, that this view of the human organism dates at least to Freud.

Great theorists spin out compelling narratives about individuals with eating disorders, individuals who are engaged in an often losing struggle with their appetites.

All these adventures in psychic exploration overlook the blatant and obvious fact that the best way to control appetite is to eat with others, to share a meal, to make nourishment part of a social ritual.

One might say that if you know people well enough to sit down to dinner with them, then you are probably not very isolated. Point well taken.

Yet, if social ritual is one of the fundamental ways that human beings assert their membership in a group and connect with others, as Alison Gopnik wrote in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, we understand that human connection, the cure for loneliness, is not just shared intimacy.

Humans connect when they find common ground. It might involve talking about the weather or the local football team or a movie you have both seen. It must involve participating in the rituals and ceremonies that, Confucius said, define community.

This does not mean that getting close to another human being is not a goal, but no one is going to establish such a bond with you if you are not a familiar presence, a regular participant in, for example, religious services or dance classes or Friday night football games.

One knows individuals who try to deal with their loneliness by spending a couple of hours hanging out in a local pub. They discover that they do not have any meaningful conversation and do not really meet anyone new. They conclude that hanging out in a pub is a bad idea. They fail to notice that the key to overcoming loneliness is to make yourself a familiar presence in a pub or at a club. The less you seem to be a stranger the more people will open up to you.

As Olien points out, celebrities and creative individuals who work alone have the most difficulty overcoming loneliness.

If, as Dr. Richard Mollica famously said, “the best anti-depressant is a job,” then celebrities and artists whose days are not organized and structured around the rituals and routines of the work world will be most as risk of loneliness.

A job, a plain ordinary job, gives your life a structure, an organization and a purpose. You know who you are, where you belong and what you need do to continue to belong. With a job your days are often filled with different levels of human interaction, from the easygoing superficial contacts with people whose faces are familiar but whom you do not know well to the deeper connections forged with those who you trust enough to share more personal information.

Celebrities rarely have this much structure in their lives. They have fans, not friends. They have an entourage, but not intimates.

Olien also explains that loneliness has been stigmatized, thus, that it is not a subject that people talk about. I am not sure what she is getting at here. The cure for loneliness is not to complain about being lonely. If you are complaining to another person about how lonely you feel you are engaging in behavior that is off-putting, at the least.

Heaven help us if people start believing that we should have a national conversation about loneliness.

And yet, it would be a good thing for people to cease carping about the joys of being radically individual. It would be good for people to cease extolling the transcendent virtue of not being like anyone else, of not conforming to social codes, or not respecting custom or mores. It would be a good idea if people take more interest and more pride in belonging to a great nation.

If more people felt more connected on more levels to more of their fellow citizens, it would do wonders for our national epidemic of obesity.