Commentary

Democrats have Stayed Moderate; GOP has gone Extreme

Aug 7, 2015 | Dan Moore (Aug. 4 and prior) was on a fool’s errand when he set out to establish that Republicans are more moderate than Democrats. Political science research has shown that among rank and file party members, Republicans have moved far to the right, and Democrats are about where they were in the 1970s...

A Political U.S. Supreme Court

April 8, 2014 | In its most recent decision, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the five-man conservative Republican majority on the Supreme Court of the United States removed any doubt that it is hell-bent on rubbing out traditional American democracy

Tea Party Chutzpah 
May 29, 2013
To deny tax-exempt status is not to deny an entitlement; it is to withhold a special benefit. It takes enormous chutzpah for a politically-active group to request such a benefit in violation..

Take Care in Measuring Universities
March 25, 2013
I do not know anyone in higher education who does not accept the need for performance evaluation. Those I know also believe in accountability to stakeholders, including taxpayers who provide funding to public institutions...


Matthew Bailey in his Feb. 6 letter asserts the Second Amendment is about only our right to defend ourselves against the “tyranny of the federal government.” People like Bailey define “tyranny” as having a democratically elected president with whom one disagrees...

Letter attacking Obama over gun rights off base
Dec 5, 2012, Helena Independent Record 

Your letter policy advises against “significant inaccuracies,” but now and then one slips through. The Dec. 2 letter from Doug Brearey, for example, states, “There is no doubt that Obama through the U.N. would like to ban all guns in this country.”


Strategic Ignorance

April 4, 2014
Today’s New York Times has an article about yet another United Nations report, warning of the real dangers of climate change, and the urgency for reducing greenhouse gases. This raises the question: can any sentient person still deny the reality of climate change?

GOP on the Wrong Side of History
March 20, 2014
I noted your story about the county Republican Party barring Republican congressional candidate Drew Turiano from its annual dinner. The issue is Turiano's racist comments. County chair Jennifer Owens is quoted as saying, "There simply is no room for racists in this party."

January 16, 2014
The Jan. 12 op-ed by Jonathan Zimmerman, reprinted from the L.A. Times, is right about the hegemony of football in college sports, but it is superficial in two regards. First, the mention of Title IX neglects to add that of the three standards for compliance the courts have used only the most strict, creating needless problems for universities, and effectively eliminating some of the options Zimmerman claims exist under the law.

May 29, 2013
To deny tax-exempt status is not to deny an entitlement; it is to withhold a special benefit. It takes enormous chutzpah for a politically-active group to request such a benefit in violation..

March 25, 2013

I do not know anyone in higher education who does not accept the need for performance evaluation. Those I know also believe in accountability to stakeholders, including taxpayers who provide funding to public institutions...


Matthew Bailey in his Feb. 6 letter asserts the Second Amendment is about only our right to defend ourselves against the “tyranny of the federal government.” People like Bailey define “tyranny” as having a democratically elected president with whom one disagrees...

Helena Independent Record
December 5, 2012

Your letter policy advises against “significant inaccuracies,” but now and then one slips through. The Dec. 2 letter from Doug Brearey, for example, states, “There is no doubt that Obama through the U.N. would like to ban all guns in this country.”

Writers of 'new' constitution wisely protected U system
Great Falls Tribune
April 18, 2012

in a move designed to provide for central administrative authority of a more substantial kind than the former "executive secretary," section 9 provides for a chief executive officer with the unfortunate title, "Commissioner of Higher Education...

The Fringe Goes Mainstream 
Helena Independent Record
Jan 31, 2012


The Jane Brody column of Jan. 25 titled “Got good teeth? Fluoride can take the credit,” sparked my aging memory. Some 50 or more years ago, when fluoridation of drinking water first appeared, the right-wing fringe, then called “The John Birch Society,” rather than the “tea party,”... 

'Debate' is attack on Obama
Helena Independent Record
Aug 7, 2011 


In today's context of frustration and anger over the economy (largely the result of Bush tax cuts, two unfunded wars and unregulated capitalist," ... 

 
On Our Minds: Libertarians, the War
Helena Independent Record
July 7, 2011 

Your June 24 story on the mediocre ranking of Montana on the Mercatus Center's "Index of Personal and Economic Freedom,"...


Agenda Already Exists
Helena Independent Record
June 20,2011

To be a liberal one assumes the obligation of open mindedness, tolerance, learning to see the world in shades of gray, and regarding truth as sufficiently elusive to warrant a continual search. Accordingly, I enjoy reading the conservative op-ed writers that both the New York Times and Washington Post carry to maintain balance. My favorite of those is David Brooks, and I was pleased the IR reprinted his latest NYT piece, titled “Pundit Under Protest” (June 15)...

Nullifying Funding
Helena Independent Record
Feb 20,2011

Regarding the spate of “nullification” bills introduced in the Montana Legislature, your readers are entitled to know that the U. S. Constitution still has intact the Supremacy Clause, which is the second paragraph of Article VI, and reads as follows: “The Constitution and laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding...

The Tucson Massacre and Hate Speech
Helena Independent Record
Jan 31, 2011

In your January 31 edition Ed Starke asserts that Jarod Loughner, the Tucson mass killer, is a “leftist” because his favorite books are “The Communist Manifesto” and “Mein Kampf.” Two things are wrong with this. First, Loughner’s known reading list was a mishmash, not indicating any clear philosophy. Second, anyone who understands the history and psychology of social movements and totalitarian regimes, knows that to like “Mein Kampf” would indicate one is a lunatic of the right, not the left. Hitler, fascism and Nazism were monsters of the Right, just as Stalin and soviet totalitarianism were monsters of the Left... 

Is Pro Choice Issue Eclipsing Catholic Church's Roots?
Helena Independent Record
August 31, 2009

Your Aug. 23 story on whether Carroll College would award an honorary degree to President Obama given his position on abortion fails to mention what that position is. "Pro choice" does not equate to "pro abortion." "Pro choice" means that although one abhors abortion, and wishes it to be extremely rare, one also believes the government has no business dictating the decision; this should be up to the woman in consultation with her doctor and clergy. This raises the question: How many persons who were honored by Catholic colleges over the past 50 years were "pro choice," and in how many instances were the college and the church even aware of the honoree's position? 

Special Reports

Curbing Campus Violence

February 15, 2008
Lawrence K. Pettit

The extraordinary tragedy of multiple deaths at Virginia Tech, now underscored by a smaller but no less calamitous event at Northern Illinois University, illustrates a dilemma universities share with our larger society: how do we enact measures to prevent acts of ultimate violence without sacrificing those things that maintain an open, liberal society? How do we block access to terrorists, random homicidal agents and lesser aggressors without simultaneously curtailing everyone’s constitutional rights of assembly, movement and privacy?

My answer is, we cannot. Unless we wish to live and work in the shadow of totalitarian social control, we cannot achieve zero terrorist attacks on the country any more than we can reduce to zero the number of random acts of violence on university campuses. In each case we can plan sensibly and take new measures to bolster our defenses. We can elevate public consciousness (without shameless fear mongering, one hopes), and we can continually readjust and improve the various elements of our protective shield. But the prevention side of our planning will always be imperfect – unless we are willing to change, and debase, the character of our open society.

In the aftermath of the April 16, 2007, mass killings at Virginia Tech, universities have been taking a number of preventive actions. These include more thorough mental health appraisals of their students, upgraded counseling services, and, in collaboration with state attorneys general, an examination of both federal and state privacy laws with an aim toward fresh interpretations that would allow freer exchange of red flag information. The higher education community will continue to work on better prevention, but it is the response side of an emergency plan where more concrete and satisfying progress will be made.

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) took the lead last year in commissioning a paper, “Lessons Learned from the Virginia Tech Tragedy” (which I was asked to write), dealing with the full range of actions presidents should take addressed to campus security. AASCU officials sent the document to its 430 member presidents and chancellors, and scheduled a related session at its annual meeting. Other associations have followed suit with some kind of collective attention. Nearly all colleges and universities are now engaged in security planning that involves a look at university relationships with security-relevant external agencies; improving internal and external communication systems; improving early detection and warning systems; improving early response to incidents; figuring out optimum communications in an emergency; and giving much greater attention to victim and family services.

Colleges and universities should be held accountable for quick and effective response, open communications with news media and the public, and for providing compassionate and timely services to victims and family. They cannot be held accountable, however, for one hundred percent prevention of violent incidents. When such tragedies occur, sympathy, understanding and assistance are more appropriate than finger pointing.

Expecting the Unexpected: Lessons Learned from the Virginia Tech Tragedy
by Lawrence K. Pettit for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.”
November 2007

Lessons From the Virginia Tech Tragedy (PDF) by Lawrence K. Pettit 

Website Link: American Association of State Colleges and Universities
Report in PDF Format



Following the mass killings at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, most colleges and universities have begun to review the various elements of their over-all campus security plans, just as many did after the tragedies of September 11, 2001. The Virginia Tech Review Panel, appointed by Governor Timothy M. Kaine, reports that there have been state reviews of campus security in Florida and Louisiana, and excellent campus reviews by the University of Maryland and the University of California. U.S. News (September 24) notes that all students who come to the health center at the University of Wisconsin, no matter what the ailment, soon will be automatically screened for depression, and offered treatment if needed. The same article cites both Cornell and Wisconsin as adding counseling offices in residence halls and academic buildings. An Associated Press story on the September 22 killing at Delaware State, praised that university for its swift action in shutting down the campus within 20 minutes of the first report of the incident. The reporter proclaimed, “The biggest lesson learned from . . . Virginia Tech is don’t wait. Once you have an incident, start notifying the community.”

Not all lessons have been learned; ideology and politics will still intrude into the process of making our campuses and society more secure. A New York Times editorial of October 1 commented on a gun-control loophole in the Virginia Tech case: “Despite a history of mental illness, a deranged student easily bought enough guns and ammunition to take 32 (sic) lives and then his own. He was previously deemed dangerous by a judge who ordered him to undergo health care. But this was outpatient treatment, not in-hospital, so his name was never placed on a federal watch list that might have barred him from buying guns.” A few months ago the U.S. House of Representatives voted to close this gap, but when the bill reached the Senate it was blocked (possible under Senate rules) by a single senator from Oklahoma, dubbed by the Times as [the] “premier orator on the preciousness of the Second Amendment.” Another lesson we must keep in mind is that the politics of gun control complicates—or perhaps contaminates—the environment as colleges and universities work to reduce or eliminate violence on their campuses.

On the assumption that most presidents will not have time to read the 200+ page report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel, AASCU leadership arranged for this distillation of the report’s major findings that bear on what presidents should do in this post Virginia Tech environment.

This paper is organized under six headings:

* The Importance of University Linkages; The Need to Upgrade and Institutionalize Internal and External Communication; The Importance of Early Detection and Warnings; The Need to Respond Quickly to Incidents; The Need to Centralize and Control Media and Public Relations; and
* The Necessity of Well Operated Family and Victim Services.

The topical approach results in a restructuring of the chronological narrative produced by the Review Panel. There is no attempt here to summarize the entire Review Panel report, rather, the focus is on those matters most appropriate to presidential interest and action. Findings and observations of the Review Panel are accompanied by related observations and suggestions of the author, the latter addressed specifically to presidents and chancellors.

Linkages

At least since passage of the Land-Grant Act, universities have ceased to be the cloistered sanctuaries once intended. The danger nowadays is that a frenzy of activity by a plethora of actors at multiple points of contact may result in the university being “represented” in several arenas by persons unknown to the president, or in a manner inconsistent with the university’s stated goals. Most presidents have a good degree of control over such activity in fund raising and government relations, but it may be more difficult in athletics, or in health policy if there is a medical school involved. In the newly important area of campus security, it is crucial not only that the university maintain the appropriate linkages with relevant community, state and federal players, but also that the president maintain control and arrange for maximum coordination.

Campus police should have an ongoing relationship with local and state police, and with other law enforcement agencies such as the FBI, ATF, and so forth. The Virginia Tech Review Panel found that joint training by the university and local police resulted in saving lives, and they recommend, “Campus police everywhere should train with local police departments on response to active shooters and other emergencies.” The president’s own relationships with the mayor, governor, and local legislators should include discussions about emergency preparedness and response. University student affairs personnel should sustain current and useful relationships with appropriate municipal and state agency personnel in charge of such areas as mental health and emergency medical response. University personnel should become aware of federal programs such as the Department of Health and Human Services’s National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) program. The president and his or her team should confer with the local member of Congress and/or one or both of the state’s U.S. Senators on how best to access federal emergency assistance. Key external players, for example, heads of state or local health agencies or emergency response units, should have an advisory role in the formulation of university emergency preparedness and response plans.

Universities may need to know whether there is a regional Incident Command System (ICS) for the coordination of diverse university and community/state agencies, and whether there is a regional hospital coordination system for emergency response, and if it is linked to a statewide response system.

Linkages among universities themselves (usually through system administration, but in some states through voluntary coordination) are key in conducting the reconnaissance necessary to identify relevant state services to avoid inundating state officials with information requests. The Virginia Tech Review Panel was critical of state universities in Virginia for the lack of any coordinated review of major security issues, charging “there have been no meetings of presidents and senior administrators to discuss such issues as guns on campus, privacy laws, admissions processes, and critical incident management plans.” Both the community colleges and the independent colleges were lauded for collective action and for meeting with the Panel.

It is reasonable to suppose that for those universities linked within a common system, certain protocols may have to be abandoned in times of emergency. For example, while the system CEO has the right to expect to be one of the first persons called by a campus CEO at the outbreak of an emergency, from that point on an additional layer of decision making becomes dysfunctional. The campus executive should be in charge of the response effort, and should be accorded the privilege of interacting directly with the governor or his representative. The system may have emergency preparedness and response experts whom they can dispatch to assist the campus. While the system must play a leadership and convenor role in directing that each constituent university have an emergency plan that incorporates standard elements and in staging forums on risk assessment, preparedness and response, it would be unwise to expect a “one size fits all” standard plan for all universities within a system. Such variables as urban/rural/suburban setting, community and campus cultures, size and layout of campuses, availability of local support services, and so forth affect these plans.

Communication

It is essential that both internal and external communication channels be identified and institutionalized, with no confusion in an emergency about who calls whom, and with an authoritative resolution of any confusion regarding what communication is or is not allowed under state or federal privacy laws. Universities in each state, acting together, should seek an attorney general’s opinion on what is allowed under the various privacy laws. In the Virginia Tech incident, the review panel found there was widespread confusion about what federal and state privacy laws allow, and that “University officials in the office of Judicial Affairs, …counseling center, campus police, the Dean of Students, and others explained their failure to communicate with one another or with Cho’s (the assailant) parents by noting their belief that such communications are prohibited by the federal laws governing the privacy of health and education records. In reality, federal laws and their state counterparts afford ample leeway to share information in potentially dangerous situations.”

The role of campus police is critical in an emergency, and the police need to be in the relevant communication loops, including involvement in security planning and threat assessment. According to the Review Panel, several campus police chiefs in Virginia complained of not being involved in such planning, and of lacking authority to “access important information on students.” In addition, the Panel faulted Virginia Tech because the university police lacked the capability to send an emergency alert message directly to the campus community. Instead, the police had to go through a vice president, who took the matter to the policy group, who, some hours later, made the decision to send a message.

On-scene agencies in an emergency should have a common communications system. We know by now that a major problem at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, was that the New York police and fire departments had separate communications systems that were not interactive. The Virginia Tech Review Panel concluded “Local political entities must get past their inability to reach consensus and assure interoperability of their communications systems.” In their emergency planning, universities can take the lead in trying to achieve regional interoperability of communications systems in emergency medical services, fire departments and law enforcement.

Emergency communications can be facilitated, according to the Panel, by quickly activating an Emergency Operations Center as an incident unfolds One responsibility of the EOC, which is to assure that necessary resources are available, is the establishment of a joint information center (JIC) that, in the words of the Panel, “…acts as the official voice for the situation at hand.”

A final note on communication: It is almost inevitable in a very serious incident, such as that at Virginia Tech, that governors or their people will wish to control the flow of information to the news media. The public do not trade in nuance. They believe that governors have the same control over state universities as they do over state agencies, and they hold them accountable for what goes wrong on campuses, and for fixing it.

An emergency is not an appropriate context for resisting state authority, and it is wise to defer to the governor and give him or her full support. A president should probably take the initiative and ask the governor how he or she would prefer to handle public information throughout the incident and its aftermath.

Early Detection and Warnings

Risk assessment is a critical element of any emergency plan, and, as the Virginia Tech case gravely illustrates, threats may come from within as well as from without , and may ensue from the psychological deterioration of a single person. The Review Panel noted “widespread confusion about what federal and state privacy laws allow.” This confusion, incidentally, creates a setting in which any university would likely have acted as Virginia Tech did. The Panel is critical of Virginia Tech in concluding “During Cho’s junior year…numerous incidents occurred that were clear warnings of mental instability. Although various individuals and departments within the university knew about each of these…,the university did not intervene effectively. No one knew all the information [see “Communication”] and no one connected all the dots.”

Confusion regarding the degrees of leeway under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) , that deal with educational records, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) that deals with health records, creates a bias towards nondisclosure as university employees opt to protect themselves from prosecution. But, as the Review Panel notes, problems presented by a seriously troubled student require a group effort with optimum sharing of information. Legal and student affairs staff on campus should read Appendix G of the Panel’s report, which contains copies of guidance letters from federal officials to universities on interpretation of FERPA and HIPAA rules. Appropriate student affairs staff should also read a short piece, “Red Flags, Warning Signs and Indicators,” by Roger Depue, in Appendix M of the Report. As mentioned above, a state’s public universities, acting in concert, should seek an authoritative opinion from the state attorney general on how to interpret FERPA and HIPAA, and how to construe related state laws.

The presence of guns on campus, and the ease with which deranged persons are able to purchase guns in some jurisdictions, must be regarded as a warning as universities undertake risk assessment and preparedness. Institutions should revisit their rules on this question, and national higher education associations, such as AASCU, should determine what constructive role they can play in helping to close the kind of loopholes that allowed Cho to arm himself (far beyond what would be necessary to kill a deer, for example) in Virginia.

Finally, a university’s emergency response plan should include a “threat assessment team” to identify classes of threats and assess the risk of specific problems and specific persons. The Review Panel’s report recommends such a team, to include representatives from law enforcement, human resources, student and academic affairs, legal counsel and mental health personnel.

Quick Response

A September 24 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that since the Virginia Tech massacre police departments, both on campus and in the communities, “have been consumed with trying to ensure that their emergency-notification procedures are updated.” The same article noted that Delaware State, where a shooting incident occurred on September 21, was about to start a campuswide emergency-warning network to be delivered through text messages. It said that many other colleges and universities had already installed such systems or were in the process of buying them. In addition, campus and community police departments have stepped up their joint training exercises.

The Review Panel, in addition to recommending an emergency message system, recommends a single Emergency Response Coordinator (ERC) for a university to reduce confusion and enable a quicker, more streamlined response.

Perhaps the only way to ensure a quick, coordinated response to crisis incidents is to conduct continual training in crisis management. The Panel recommends such training involve “university and area-wide disaster response agencies training together under a unified command structure.”
Media and Public Relations

An observation of the Virginia Tech Review Panel is that “For decades, disaster plans have underscored the importance of having a designated public information officer (PIO) who serves as the reliable source of news during emergencies.” A university should designate such a spokesperson, with the caveat that in the most serious incidents the university spokesperson may have to work out arrangements with, and defer to if necessary, the governor’s PIO. In any event, the university should have a single person in charge of working with news media, families of victims, emergency medical personnel, and people from assisting federal, state and community agencies.

Not necessarily as an element of the emergency plan, but at the president’s discretion, the university should work out how to provide periodic briefings to the governor and legislators, community leaders, and, if a system is involved, to the CEO of the system, and what role the president himself/herself will play in that process.

Part of a public relations strategy in the immediate aftermath of an incident is to work out for the university’s constituencies and clientele groups several visible means of reassurance that signal recovery and confidence with regard to future campus safety. Public relations staff should be ready to go into action at the onset of an incident with these goals in mind.
Family and Victim Services
The Virginia Tech incident teaches us that this should be a component of any emergency plan. The Review Panel concluded that “State systems for rapidly deploying trained professional staff to help families get information, crisis intervention, and referrals to a wide range of resources did not work.”

Virginia Tech was pretty much on its own in this regard, and attempted to provide services in the absence of any single agency of government that is charged with the responsibility of maintaining a family assistance center in emergency situations. The Panel regards this as an oversight in federal and state policies, commends Virginia Tech for its effort, but faults the university for haphazard and inconsistent implementation. Universities should charge someone, or some unit, with surveying sources of such assistance from various state and federal resources, and establish staff liaison in order to be prepared to access such assistance at the onset of an emergency. The Review Panel made several recommendations with respect to family and victim services, advocating that emergency management plans include a section on victim services, create an in-house victim assistance capability, and link with local victim assistance professionals.

Summary

Universities are in a new political environment. In the past, tragedies that occurred on campus were regarded as unfortunate and perhaps unavoidable, but not the result of lack of planning or inadequate response. Now the quality and effectiveness of our emergency planning, risk assessment and response to incidents will be under scrutiny, and public remorse over the incident may fade from view much sooner than public discussion of the university’s alleged culpability in not preventing the incident or not dealing with it quickly and adequately.

What immediate steps a president should take, or how one prioritizes the foregoing suggestions, will depend on the unique campus situation with respect to security policy and preparedness, and on the municipal and state contexts. At the risk of redundancy, let me submit a few suggestions:

* Get a handle on the breadth and depth of campus expertise—including faculty, staff and students—on matters relating to security planning, preparedness and emergency response. Are there individuals who have had relevant training in the military, or who may still be in reserve units or the National Guard in roles that address these concerns? Are there faculty members involved in research and training projects that relate to detecting, preventing or responding to the various potential crises? Who are the faculty and counseling experts who deal with mental health problems? Do the campus police have a crisis response unit?

* Involve some of these experts in developing or amending your security plan, in training others, and in crisis detection and response. Too often, I believe, we involve faculty as political spokesmen for the faculty or its union, rather than viewing the faculty as our valuable repository of subject matter expertise.

* Make sure there is a mechanism by which the presidents and chancellors in your state can entreat the governor to convene a meeting with all of you to discuss how he or she would have you relate to the governor’s office and state agencies on matters of campus security generally, and more specifically when an incident occurs. The most astute governors will already have done this.

* Be certain that you designate a second in command to lead the campus during a crisis that occurs in your absence.

* Develop a mechanism for scheduling and conducting periodic training and drills, both internally and in cooperation with state and local agencies. Be sure to include student leaders and resident assistants.

For the immediate future emergency planning must be one of our most important collective concerns in higher education. I hope this paper constitutes a useful starting point for the continuing dialogue.

—Lawrence K. Pettit

About the Author
Dr. Lawrence K. Pettit received his education at the University of Montana (B.A.), Washington University in St. Louis (M.A.), and the University of Wisconsin, Madison (Ph.D). Dr. Pettit has had dual careers in politics and higher education. Politically, he has served as legislative assistant to U.S. Senators James E. Murray and Lee Metcalf; campaign manager, head of transition team and assistant to Montana Governor Thomas L. Judge, was a candidate in the Democratic primary for the U.S. House of Representatives from Montana, and represented the nation’s colleges and universities in Washington, D.C. while on the professional staff of the American Council on Education.

Dr. Pettit was CEO of the Montana University System, Deputy Commissioner for Academic Programs at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Chancellor of the University System of South Texas (since merged with Texas A&M University), President of Southern Illinois University (titled “Chancellor” at that time), and President of Indiana University of Pennsylvania for 11 years, from where he retired in 2003. He has served as chair of the Commission on Leadership for the American Council on Education, president of the National Association of (University) System Heads, and on many national and state boards and commissions in higher education. Throughout his career, Pettit has been an active participant as speaker and panelist for a number of higher education organizations. He has authored and co-authored a number of articles in political science and higher education, and four books in political science.

Since retirement, Dr. Pettit, has donated time to nonprofit organizations, and has recently finished writing a memoir on politics.

Strategy and Tactics
by Lawrence K. Pettit
August 2008


Anyone who has headed a very large, multi-million dollar entity such as a government, corporation or university, knows there is an important conceptual difference between strategy and tactics. Strategy integrates all elements of the big picture, and is formulated at the top. Tactics relate to implementation of specific objectives. Let me suggest that understanding this distinction helps to place in context the debate between Barack Obama and John McCain on national security policy.


Obama has a strategic perspective. His opposition to the invasion of Iraq was based not on whether we could pull it off, which would be a matter of tactics, but on what effect the war in Iraq would have on our over-all security strategy, including the larger war on terror, diplomatic relations with our allies, and impact on our economic strength in relation to both the individual American family and the nation’s competitive position in the global marketplace. His resolve to withdraw from Iraq is again strategic. He would leave the tactics to the military, but, if he were president, he would reserve the prerogative to overrule the military when the larger tapestry of national security policy requires it. The constitution, which provides for civilian control of the military, requires the president, as “commander in chief,” to have the courage to overrule his generals. A historical example of such moral courage was President Truman’s firing of the arrogant, insubordinate (and hugely popular) General Douglas McArthur during the Korean War.


Obama’s successful trip to the Middle East and Europe displayed again his strategic approach to national security. Even as he visited Iraq and Afghanistan and met with General Petraeus and others, his major focus was on setting the stage for the rebuilding of the transatlantic alliance, and his demeanor throughout was presidential and diplomatic.


The reason the two candidates seem to be talking past each other on this set of issues is Senator McCain is mired in tactics. We would expect this of someone with a military background (beneath the level of an Eisenhower), as tactics are what the military specializes in and excels at. McCain employed no larger strategic context by which to question the appropriateness of going into Iraq. His focus throughout has been on how to “win.” He questioned the conduct of the war early on –but not whether we should be there in the first place. He pushed for the “surge,” and now he resists withdrawing until we somehow achieve “victory,” the definition of which is elusive. If “victory” was not the elimination of Saddam or the establishment of a quasi-democratic Iraqi government, then what is it? We are not battling a nation state that could surrender to us. We are not trying to conquer another people and occupy them indefinitely in order to command their resources (or are we?). The justification for withdrawal has to be based on our overall strategy for national security, not on the tactics of “victory” in a war of questionable legitimacy.


One with his head down and focusing on tactics will have a different definition of “victory” than will one who is looking at the broader picture and believes withdrawal from Iraq to be a necessary part of a larger design to make America secure and solvent.


It has been the conventional wisdom in the news media that McCain, because of his military experience and membership on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is an authority on foreign policy. While Senator McCain’s military experience gives him an edge on military policy and tactics, there is nothing in this to suggest that he has any advantage over Senator Obama when it comes to the larger concerns of foreign policy or diplomacy. And certainly Senator McCain has not yet placed the Iraq war in the larger context of national security, which involves international relations not only as they touch on conduct of a particular war, but also as a major factor in all aspects of American life, including the economy. Senator Obama regularly speaks of this larger, contextual importance. Even though “commander in chief” is only one aspect of the President’s role (contrary to what the national broadcast media would have us believe), there is no need for Obama, with his more strategic and comprehensive approach to national security, to concede superiority in this role to McCain.

Consider the two candidates’ responses to the very recent Russian armed action in Georgia. McCain viewed the event through a tunnel, reacting as though it were an isolated event. He jumped in before President Bush had an opportunity to give the government’s official reaction, and rattled the saber with tough talk. Obama, while critical of Russia, was more nuanced (more similar to Bush in this case), recognizing the larger, strategic picture in which the U.S. is dependent on good relations with Russia on several foreign policy fronts.


The tactical mind is more linear, and more often approaches each problem in its own silo. The strategic mind is more creative and pattern-oriented, and more at home with multivariate analysis. The strategic mind is the mind of a leader, of a President of the United States. From what we have seen thus far in the campaign, Obama is far more “presidential”, and more temperamentally and intellectually suited to the job, than is McCain.


Lawrence K. Pettit is a retired university president who lives in Helena, MT. He headed universities and university systems in Montana, Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania, and has had political experience as an assistant to two U.S. Senators, campaign manager for a Governor, candidate for Congress, and Washington representative for higher education. His memoir is currently under consideration at the Penn State University Press.



Letter to the Editor

July 21, 2008

That New Yorker Cover

By Lawrence K. Pettit, 2567 Overlook Blvd.
Either the Associated Press writer missed the point, or IR space limitations led you to cut the story before reaching the explanation, but your July 15 item on the satirical cover on the current New Yorker magazine left the impression that this was a satire of the Obamas themselves. Rather, as the editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, has been explaining, it is intended as a satire of the ridiculous lies that circulate about the Obamas at sewer level on the Internet – an attempt, as the editor explained, to hold a mirror up to the trash to reveal its absurdity.

The New Yorker has a sophisticated readership, which will get the point, but the problem comes when others see the cover without reading the magazine. That ten percent who are sufficiently stunted intellectually and culturally to actually believe that Obama is a Muslim and that all Muslims are terrorists, will simply see the New Yorker cover as pictorial confirmation of their Limbaugh-esque views. The more troublesome unintended consequence is that of laying a most effective tool at the feet of the right wing. The hordes of partisan bloggers and functionaries, who know better themselves even as they spread the untruths about Obama, will now be able to replicate and disseminate the impressive talent of Barry Blitt – something they lack in their own arsenal (whoever has seen a conservative cartoonist who can draw, has a light touch and is funny?) Thus, the too clever by half New Yorker cover, meant to defend the Obamas against the spread of savage lies about them, may instead result in adding a touch of class to what is a scurrilous, defamatory political game.

(The material in italics was deleted by the newspaper prior to their publication of the letter.)



Letter to the Editor

March 19, 2008

Climate denial

By Lawrence K. Pettit, 2567 Overlook Blvd.
It took courage for you to run the editorial of March 12, “Climate denial is persistent,” and I wish to offer a word of congratulations before the religious primitives and far right wing nuts unload their muskets in your direction.

God gave us a brain and the ability to reason. If we use either, we must conclude that He expected us continually to expand the limits of human knowledge, including science. If we reconcile science and faith (which is what makes the journey of life interesting), we must conclude that God intended us to use the fruits of human inquiry to the betterment of the least among us, and to the protection and celebration of the physical environment He bequeathed us. Those who reject science by claiming, falsely, to speak for God, are either clinging to a mean-spirited ideology, or representing those exploitive interests who lack social conscience. Who, then, is “politicizing” science? The scientists themselves, as has been charged (quite unlikely), or those who reject any scientific conclusions that are not in accord with their political or economic biases?


Letter to the Editor
December 5, 2007

A contradiction

With the Democrats having a large advantage on every other issue, courtesy of the inept and ideological Bush administration, it is clear that immigration will be the centerpiece of the Republican presidential campaign. Others have already suggested that we will see a level of demagoging on this issue that will make the Willy Horton issue of 1988 and the swift boat sleaze of 2004 wilt in comparison.

With the occasional exceptions of McCain and Huckabee, the Republican candidates have outdone each other as they escalate a macho, nativist rhetoric that would morph the hapless immigrant into an invading army.

Now, these same men who wish virtually to declare war on immigrants, children and all, also prostrate themselves before the evangelical “base” of the party. It occurs to me, even as a strong believer in the separation of church and state, that the immigration issue is the perfect opportunity for all of us to apply the test, “What would Jesus do?” The news media and the public should continually hold the candidates to that standard. Surely the candidates, now that they are all evangelical Christians, won’t mind the expectation of a little consistency and humility. After all, they have Pat Robertson as a model.