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March 21, 2011

Random Observations Part Two

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Last week, local issues took center stage here. Today, state and federal political challenges warrant some scrutiny.


Maryland state government is on a financial collision course. Too many years of drunken-sailor-on-shore-leave spending sprees, one-time budget transfers and can-kicking have left the legislature and Gov. Martin O’Malley with nothing but bad choices, unfulfilled promises and painful distribution of spending reductions.


The governor’s budget makes cuts in spending, but also shifts the cost burden of a number of programs to county and municipal governments. He has recently embraced a modest pension reform proposal, and a meager down-sizing of the state workforce. Granted, downsizing impacts are best left to those impacted to describe.


The O’Malley budget does not confront the problem in a proactive and comprehensive way. His approach pushes the problem further into the future, probably because he knows the negative impact on labor unions would be catastrophic to his political future.


House and Senate Republicans, unburdened by a relationship with organized labor, have taken a meat cleaver to these programs and budgets. Local Sen. David Brinkley (R., Frederick/Carroll) has once again proposed a budget alternative, one that the governor is unlikely to embrace.


A shift of teacher pension burden seems to be a priority for the GOP, but the Democratic leadership has so far refused to take the bait. Bait it is, since it would force state Democrats to renege on a major party platform promise.


One of the more interesting political twists involved the recent state worker union rally on Lawyers Mall in Annapolis. Thousands of state teachers and public sector union workers marched from the Naval Academy Stadium to the foot of the State House.


The pictures are reminiscent of a major outdoor rock concert, with a sea of faces gathered as far as the eye can see in front of an elevated stage, surrounded by speaker towers and stage lighting. Union dues being put to good use, I guess.


First question: Since the rally started around 3 P.M., I suppose state taxpayers can be assured that all of these workers took annual leave from their jobs in order to flock to the capitol, right?


Second question: Why did Richard Trumka, the fiery head of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor organization, refuse to criticize Maryland Governor O’Malley? Mr. Trumka has spent the last three months turning Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker into Satan, calling him everything but a Christian.


Both Governor O’Malley and Governor Walker are proposing programs that shift state spending on state employee benefits to workers. Surely, the Wisconsin proposal goes much farther, but Mr. Trumka refused to criticize Governor O’Malley at all, saying “you don’t attack your friends.” Could it be that Mr. Trumka reserves his most inarticulate and spiteful commentary for Republican governors?


Does a bear defecate in the woods?


On the federal level, an international crisis allows us a chance to evaluate our state of technology and ability to balance safety with energy dependence.


The potential nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in northeastern Japan reminds us that clean, cheap electric power can come with a terrible price. The consequences of a core meltdown in several co-located reactor vessels are hard to imagine, but the impact on the life of a rural Japanese farming and fishing economy may be catastrophic.


For the better part of four years of my life, I wore a dosimeter clipped to my belt. Eating, sleeping, working, or relaxing, the dosimeter was capturing and measuring the level of radiation bombarding my body inside a Navy nuclear powered submarine.


A harmless little piece of plastic, the dosimeter was a constant reminder that living in an environment where danger is a constant presence requires additional precautions. It’s one thing to work in a power plant or serve on a vessel powered by a nuclear reactor; it’s another to have lived for generations in a fishing village that now must be displaced due to cesium, strontium, or plutonium pollution. Depending on the severity of the release (s), that displacement may last decades, possibly even centuries.


All of this requires the focus of our national leadership. How we respond matters, as Japan has – since World War II – been a key ally in the world economy, and are major investors in American debt issues. It’s kind of an old saw now: We have to give careful consideration to the needs of some nations, as we’re dependent on their cash to prop up our thirst for borrowing.


So, we’re sending aid, military, technological and moral. President Barack Obama communicates frequently with his Japanese counterpart, as do the cabinet levels of both governments.


If only the lines of communication to the Japanese government could be replicated in Libya. It seems as though we’ve been living in a bad déjà vu moment, insert Gadhafi where it read Hussein in 2001/2002. An increasing number of U.S. senators and representatives are now clamoring for some level of intervention. Some call for clandestine incursions, assuming the U.S. capacity in operational intelligence would allow that.


Truth hurts, and the plain truth regarding our spy agencies is that we’ve never possessed the range of human assets to tunnel into Middle Eastern countries and cultures the way we did in the Soviet Union and East Germany during the Cold War.


Decentralized management and the high level of suspicion of those not born and bred into fundamental Islamic terror groups like al Qaeda leave western cultures looking in from the outside of life in places like Afghanistan, Indonesia and Libya.


Other defense hawks claim we need to establish a “no-fly” zone, as if the declaration itself would discourage Gadhafi from bombing his own people.


Military personnel shake their heads in disgust when these politicians start trying to make strategic military decisions. A no-fly zone results from an overt military act, the elimination of surface search radar and anti-aircraft batteries. That takes bombs and missiles, not speeches from the well of the U.S. Congress.


Once we start dropping bombs or employing special forces warriors inside a sovereign country that has not directly attacked the United States, we surrender our moral leadership in the arena of peace and freedom.


A congressional call for a no-fly zone in Libya is merely the first step down a path we’ve trodden in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. At some point, we need to start learning some lessons as we bury those brave young men who have given the last full measure of devotion fighting a war with little chance of victory.


We at least owe them that.


[Editor’s Note: This column was written prior to Saturday’s missile attack on Libya’s air defenses by an international coalition of nations.]


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