America's to-do list

First, stay out of Syria; then focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks; then ...

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One task that comes with September's new burst of activity is to make a list of what needs to be done.

1. Forget Syria. The first thing on the list is to end the slow-news-summer obsession with Syria. With a bit of luck Congress will have the courage to help President Barack Obama be plain and simple about the matter. They should have been helped along by the British Parliament's decision not to let Prime Minister David Cameron repeat previous Prime Minister Tony Blair's mistake with President George W. Bush on Iraq and become Mr. Obama's third Portuguese water dog.

The long and short of it is that, even though what the Syrians are doing to each other is perfectly dreadful, they need to be left to do it until they get tired of it and return to building their country. If we feel the need to do something, let us concentrate on working with the Russians to get the Syrian parties to the conflict to a conference to discuss their differences. The United States launching cruise missiles at $1.4 million each would simply kill more Syrians and knock down more of the place. It is time for Mr. Obama to tell the people who are pushing for yet one more U.S. war in the Middle East to stifle themselves. Most of them are just looking to make money from it.

2. Focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: Secretary of State John F. Kerry needs to focus his attention on the talks that he managed to launch, after great effort, between the Israelis and Palestinians. That is the main event in the Middle East. Syria is a side-game. Mr. Kerry hurts himself and weakens his punch by playing Colin Powell when it comes to Syria.

3. Fix bridges: One reason the United States does not need a new Middle East war was illustrated in southwestern Pennsylvania last week when the Department of Transportation posted lower weight limits on 46 bridges in this area, absent state funding for needed repairs. One was the key Liberty Bridge across the Monongahela. There are about 1,000 bridges in poor condition across Pennsylvania. This is, of course, ridiculous when a cruise missile costs $1.4 million each and drones go for up to $16.9 million each.

4. Raise wages: Speaking of money, something needs to be done immediately about the federal minimum wage. Fast-food wages concentrated attention on it last week. It has not been raised since 2009. It stands at $7.25 an hour. Please will someone explain exactly how someone is supposed to live on that amount? Working 40 hours a week produces $15,080 a year, below the poverty line. The average American CEO earns $14.1 million a year. This is absurd. If Americans weren't grounded by obesity, dead-tired from working more than one job, their senses deadened by pro sports, they might revolt.

5. Cut spy spending: One of the favors Edward J. Snowden did for Americans was surface how America's 16 -- yes, 16 -- spy agencies are spending the $52.6 billion they got this year, even though the media that had the information were patriotic -- or gutless -- about revealing all they had been told. I can face what they spend to spy on evil foreigners, although the Germans, Brazilians and Mexicans, for example, have not found it amusing to be spied on. What I find much more difficult is the percentage of their budgets that the 16 agencies spend spying on us. I haven't seen a breakdown with that figure. Perhaps analysis could be done of earlier Gestapo or Stasi spending in Germany to get the likely division between domestic and foreign spy spending.

6. Cut Fed "quantitative easing": The Federal Reserve Bank has been pouring $85 billion each month into the economy by printing money and purchasing U.S. Treasury and other bonds. The theory has been that America's banks will take that money and loan it out to help companies hire more people or to start new businesses.

It hasn't worked. The banks and companies have instead gobbled up the extra cash and deposited it offshore, raised their executives' pay and bonuses or simply socked it away. The stock market has cheerfully spiralled upward, feeding off the $85 billion per month, benefitting America's stockholders, the famous 1 percent of the population. Perhaps the worst of it is that, as the Fed considers reducing or cutting off the $85 billion per month, banks and markets are whining that if it does, they will be unhappy and the market will fall. Poor babies. It is well time for the Fed to get rid of "quantitative easing."

7. "Lose" Egypt: Gen. Abdel Hassan al-Sisi, having overthrown Egypt's elected president, killed upwards of a thousand Egyptians to keep the military in power and arrested the leaders of the party that won the 2012 elections. He now plans to put the deposed president on trial. The United States has continued to condone what the Egyptian military government is doing by pretending that there was no military coup d'etat and by not cutting off the $1.2 billion in aid that goes to Egypt's military each year. Granted that the United States is not noted for living up to its democratic principles in the Middle East, with its unquestioning support of monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, but continued support of Gen. al-Sisi and the Egyptian military is going a bit far. So, end it.

8. Proceed with the Afghanistan withdrawal: Mr. Obama is on the right track in continuing to head for the door, with withdrawal to be completed by next year. I wish it were this year, but as long as we do it, I can live with 2014.

9. Start Iran talks: Iran wants economic sanctions removed, the United States wants Iran's nuclear program halted or carefully overseen. Iran has a new, apparently more reasonable president. Isn't there a deal there somewhere and shouldn't we be looking for it?

10. Onward to Mars: There is some whinging about spending the money needed to keep NASA moving forward. To save money on that would truly see America lapse into second-class power status.

This September, as the song goes, we "haven't got time for the waiting game" on any of these things.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).


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