Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gary Hansmann, Artist, RIP

I just found out that my friend Gary Hansmann passed away on December 22.  Gary was an artist.  He was big, explosive, impulsive, loud, obnoxious, and generous.  Gary would agree wholeheartedly with all but that last.  He was a Individual (with a capital "I") in a world that didn't necessarily appreciate individuals.  Gary loved fine art, fine drinks, fine food, Paris, cats, and friends.

I learned etching from Gary.  He taught me, not only the techniques, but also the mental approach.  Art, good art, is not something you just throw off.  You come at it like a priest comes to church.  You give it your all and you make it as good as you can.  Expression is important, because without expression it is nothing.  But technique is important, too: technique is the sum knowledge of all the other master artists who have gone before you.  And if you're not willing to give it your all in either expression or technique, then get the hell out of here because you're wasting everybody else's time.

Gary and I swapped emails shortly before I came out here to Baghdad.  He was pissed at me.  He thought I was abandoning my art, my principles, for money.  That was not the case, but Gary was never one to hold his feelings back, and I never expected anything less from him.  And I always valued his thoughts.

The obituary says that Gary died choosing "scotch over chemotherapy and still beating the estimate by nearly four months."  That's classic Gary.  "The hell with the doctors, I'm going out the way I want."

If you're an artist, raise a glass to Gary.  One of our own, one of our finest, has passed on.

Hardships of Life in the International Zone

Yeah, life can be tough in the IZ.  How tough, you ask?  Well, an Embassy veteran sent my roommate a T-shirt today that lists the top 18 things that get us down.  He showed it to me while I was putting together the previous post.  I thought that you, my dear reader, would need to know this.  Note that the list was obviously put together by somebody of the fair sex.  And for those of you who are IZ vets yourselves, you'll certainly remember these experiences:
18.  The cleaning staff never puts things back the way you like them in the bathroom.
17.  Karaoke is only offered once a week.
16.  When cable TV is out, no Fashion TV.
15.  No drinking while armed.
14.  The cafe barristas put too much nutmeg in your latte.
13.  Manicures and pedicures are only available at lunch and after 1900.
12.  Lobster dinner is only offered once a week.
11.  Have you ever tried to eat lobster with plastic utensils?
10.  It takes a week to get your cashmere sweaters dry cleaned.
9.  Slow internet service in the trailer affects the speed of your online shopping.  
8.  Can't find your car in the parking lot.  (Yes, you have that problem in the States, but imagine a situation where the entire parking lot is filled with the same model SUV's ...)
7.  The PX shelves are empty ... again ...
6.  The dining facility offers only potato wedges, no French fries.
5.  Cell phone coverage is poor in the Embassy coffee shop.
4.  Can't find a "lay-flat" lounge chair at Liberty Pool, only a semi-recliner.
3.  KBR repairman interrupts your mid-day nap to fix the cable TV.
2.  No Baskin-Robbins due to convoy delay.
And the number 1 hardship of life in the IZ:
1.  I went to war and a garrison broke out!

Watercolor Sketches

I haven't posted any sketches or watercolors in a while, have I?  Time to fix that.  I did these three watercolors prior to heading out on R&R last month.

IZ Lamp Post

North Wing of the Palace

Here's what you get if all the stuff that's happening in Iraq ever happens in the U.S.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Iraqi Political Analysis

The New York Times has an interesting article on what's going on in Iraqi politics at the moment. Offices in the Embassy have been closely following these developments. Why would we care about internal politics in a dysfunctional 3rd world nation? Because our withdrawal is closely tied to it. The better they get, the quicker we leave. It's that simple.

But, really, nothing is simple in Iraq. This country has forever been dominated by strongmen, whether a monarch or a thug (Hussein). Democracy and sharing power are difficult concepts for them to understand, much less implement. Our elections process in the US is difficult, ugly, and often bitter, and we've been doing it for over 200 years. If an Iraqi politician talked about his rival like American politicians do, he's liable to get shot. (Actually, they do talk about rivals like that, and they do get shot. Or bombed.)

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is trying to consolidate his power. Nothing unusual in that, really, all politicians in charge do that. He's getting a pretty strong and growing push-back from all sides of the political spectrum: Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia alike. Evidently what's saving him right now is that there's no obvious replacement. But they're working on it.

I overheard a couple of very experienced guys talking the other day. One said that, in the "old days", he could just tell the Iraqis to do this or do that. Now he has to suggest. And he couldn't be too direct, either: "maybe it would be a good idea if you considered this other option ..."

All of which sounds encouraging to me. It appears to be a normal political process being worked through by some politically savvy people who've never really had to do this sort of thing before. Our role should be to let them do it, with maybe some words of advice here and there. The sooner they can handle their own politics, the sooner we can get out.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Hey, Christmas in Baghdad, what could be better?

Phil and I played a round of "golf" this morning, here on the new Embassy compound.  How do you like our fairways?

Here's one of Phil's tee shots.  Our goal is to hit the tree on the right.  I managed to hit both trees on my second shot.  

Our DFAC staff made a HUGE cake for everybody's Christmas.

While they were at it, they made this gingerbread house, too.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve

It's been a sorta-busy week for me.  Work-wise, things have really slowed down.  To a crawl, actually.  Loads of people are gone for R&R over the holidays, so there isn't a whole heckuva lot to do.  But our big thing was the move.  Our office was one of the last to move from the old Palace over to the New Embassy Compound.  We finally did it yesterday.  

Prep work took a lotta time.  We had to go through all our old files, some of which dated back to the old Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).  Which, in terms of our current situation, is ancient history.  There were files that had to be archived, files (as few as possible) that are still relevant and were to be moved, and the vast majority that feel into the Old Useless Crap category and were to be shredded.

My stuff was pretty easy.  I have almost nothing in the way of paper files since most of it is electronic.  (I have a huge collection of emails, though ... just 'cause ya never know ...)  So my packing took all of five minutes, and that included taping up the box.  And since we've been shredding stuff for weeks, we had very little paper remaining to shred or move.  So I went out to see if I could help anybody else and wound up shredding stuff for the front office.  I was there for four hours and seemed like I barely made a dent in it, even though I filled up seven huge garbage bags with shred.  (And this was for the same office that had been telling us for weeks that we should plan ahead and shred early and often ... yeah, sure).  Yesterday was The Big Move.  Of course, it moved like all other Big things: s-l-o-w-l-y.  Didn't get completed until late last night.

One of the holdups was that all the boxes going into the new building had to be X-rayed.  We had been told "NO ELECTRONICS", meaning no cell phones, calculators, iPods, headphones, or anything else of that nature.  So what did they find once they started x-raying?  Cell phones, calculators, iPods, headphones, and all sorts of other things of that nature.  Yeah, buddy, we sure know how to follow directions!  But then the security guys went overboard.  Now, I can understand the bit about electronics: anytime you have chips and so forth, you have the potential for security compromises.  But they were confiscating batteries and Christmas lights, too.  What, I ask you, kind of security threat is posed by a Duracell coppertop AA battery?  

But we're in our new digs.  Quite a change from the old place.  There, we were scattered in rooms all over the Palace.  Two or three here, maybe four over there, and way down the hall were a few more.  Now we're all in one big room.  We don't even have proper cubicles.  We have "cubicles lite": basically a small desk with a computer, some drawers, and waist-high dividers just around the desk only.  The building is regular office-modern, meaning it has no soul whatsoever.  Bland is an understatement.  One thing you could say for the old Palace: it had plenty of character.  Most of it was really cheesy character, but it jumped into "cheesy" in the biggest way possible, so there was always something interesting to look at.  Even if it was just to say "good Lord, what were they thinking??"

But now it's Christmas eve.  It's a day off for us.  Not that there's a whole helluva lot to do.  But it's a nice day, temperatures in the upper 60's, clearing (it's been pretty gloomy the past few days), and it's nice to have a chance to just walk around with nothing much to do.  I went for a jog earlier and that might be the highlight of the day.  That, and getting out all my email Christmas cards.

So have yourself a very merry Christmas!  I'm looking forward to another day of doing nothing tomorrow!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Army-Navy Game Results

One of my co-workers found this video on YouTube and it's too good not to share ...

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Quiet Sunday Morning

The title of this entry sounds like a normal American weekend, doesn't it? Except in the Middle East, the "weekend" is on Friday and Saturday. Sunday is like our Monday. Are you confused yet? It messes me up all the time. So here it is, on a Sunday morning, which is really supposed to be like Monday, and there's nuthin' goin' on. Nothin'. This is Christmas week and many people have gone home for an R&R. And most offices have moved from the old Palace to the new Embassy compound. So right now, it's pretty dead around here. When I rode the bus in to work, there were six people on three buses. A month ago, they'd have been packed.

Things change quickly around here.

Right now we've got two people from my office down in Basrah. We've been building a children's hospital down there for the past couple of years. It'll specialize in cancer cases. Think of it as the Iraqi version of St. Jude Hospital in Memphis. Construction is wrapping up and it'll start serving patients in six months or so. My office partners are at a conference to decide a number of issues to ensure the hospital is completed, staffed, equipped, and opened on schedule.

What's annoying to me is that, with Iraqi provincial elections coming up next month, we (the US) are not getting credit among the general population for efforts like this hospital. Nobody wants to be seen as being a friend of the US. We're spending $34M on the first children's hospital in the country, and it is physically dangerous for Americans to be seen in its vicinity. Meanwhile, Iranian influence in the same region is growing. The reason is that southern Iraq is predominately Shia, like Iran. Iran sends Shia pilgrims to holy sites in Iraq, while Iraqi markets (especially in the south) are becoming dominated by Iranian-supplied stuff. Despite thousands of years of historic strife between Iraq, Iran, and their predecessors, the Iranians have a pretty good PR effort going and are being seen as the good guys. We're being seen as the occupiers, therefore the bad guys.

So if the Iranians are the good guys, where are the hospitals that they're building? Where are the schools? How much effort did they put into rebuilding the Basrah Airport? What did they do to get the port of Umm Qasr reopened? How many electrical power plants did they build? What are they doing to help the Iraqis boost their oil exports? I think you know the answer.

We did a helluva lot to get the infrastructure of this country back (somewhat) on its feet again, even during the civil war. Now Iraq is sorta tottering along on its own two feet. Their ministries have been re-established ... they're often dysfunctional, but they're there. They have money coming in and some in the bank. So if they really wanted some of these things we're building for them, they could hire their own contractors. (Or they could lean on their "friends" the Iranians ... let's see how much support they provide.)

US funds for reconstruction in Iraq are rapidly coming to an end. I say, it's time. There's still a lot of money available in a number of different funding pots, but I'd rather see it spent on American roads, saving American jobs, than in a country that doesn't want our support anymore.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Slide Presentation

I recently made up a quick'n'dirty slide presentation of a small selection of my paintings and posted it on slideshare. You know I've been in the business world when I start making PowerPoint presentations of my artwork! Anyway, here it is - let me know what you think.
Paintings by Skip Rohde
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: art paintings)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Monday Update

President Bush made a surprise visit to Iraq yesterday. I found out about it from looking at the CNN web site in early afternoon. Apparently he came by the Embassy last evening, as the security forces locked down the facility. I stayed here in the office and avoided the trouble, but some people were caught in their vehicles for several hours.

I'm still fighting jet lag from my trip, but it isn't nearly as bad as it was when I first arrived. My sleep schedule is more or less on the right track. I hit the rack the other night and woke up refreshed and raring to go ... until I saw that the clock by my bed said it was 1:30. I was able to get back to sleep with the aid of a Melatonin tablet. These things seem to work pretty well for me ... since they're a natural chemical, they're a lot better for the body than some prescription sleeping pills.

The weather here is very cool: around 30 in the morning and around 60 in the afternoon. Jacket weather. But it's still very sunny and as long as the wind's not blowing, it's pleasant outside. I went for a jog at the new Embassy compound yesterday and it wasn't bad at all. However, it seemed like everywhere I tried to go, there was something blocking my way. Cranes were putting up T-walls, roads were blocked off, some truck was delivering new containers of supplies. Very annoying to me, the jogger. But it's all part of the effort to get everybody out of the old Palace and into their new offices by the end of the year.

Since the 2003 invasion, the Republican Palace has been first the headquarters for the American effort in Iraq and then the official U.S. Embassy. Our new Embassy is about a mile west of the Palace. Offices are closing up in the old Palace left and right and moving to the new Embassy, to Union III (which is a base right across the street from the Embassy), or out to Victory Base at the airport. So with the office moves and with many people heading out on Christmas leave, this place is rapidly turning into a ghost town. It's eerie to be walking through a formerly bustling place (like the Green Bean coffee shop) and see nobody in there. It's like walking through Grand Central Station and seeing only five people. We can walk into the palace DFAC for dinner and have a choice of seating, where a month ago, we'd have been fighting for a spot. A few more weeks, though, and almost everybody will be gone, the DFAC will be closed, and the only ones left will be the construction crews who will prepare the place to be turned back over to the Iraqis.

And does anybody besides me see the irony in the fact that the U.S. Embassy has been in the "Republican" Palace for the past five years?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Iraq Reconstruction

The New York Times had an article today about Iraq reconstruction.  Titled "Official History Spotlights Iraq Rebuilding Blunders", the article discusses an as-yet-unpublished Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) report that covers the entire reconstruction history, starting in 2001.  Which, as you may remember, is long before Bush started talking publicly about military action against Iraq.  The article itself is a bit disjointed, but it contains some teaser quotes that are interesting.  Much more interesting is the fact that they have the full report available online as a pdf download.  Or you can read it right there on the web page.  But since it's 508 pages long, you better make yourself comfortable.

My job is involved in reconstruction, and I deal with SIGIR on a fairly regular basis, so I'm always interested in what they have to say.  (Note that I have a link to the SIGIR site in my sidebar).  So as soon as I spotted this report, I dove right into it.  Most of you won't unless you're a policy wonk.  As noted, it's over 500 frickin' pages.  

I've only gotten a little way into it, but am already seeing some very damning information.  Not about reconstruction, but about the Bush administration, specifically that idiot Rumsfeld, and how much of this mess we're in now is directly attributable to him.  And this SIGIR report is from a guy who's a Republican political appointee!  However, it is not a political hack job.  The information in here is carefully researched and based on interviews with the people involved, including Colin Powell, Rumsfeld, his aides, Ryan Crocker (the ambassador to Iraq), and hundreds of others.  And it's based on their papers and notes, all very well footnoted.  In fact, I spoke this evening with one of the people involved in putting this report together - it was a 2-year-plus effort.  In other words, it's as accurate as humanely possible, and it will become a staple for Iraq War researchers for years to come.

The same cannot be said for the Times' article.  The writers went for sensationalism at the expense of accuracy.  The article starts off with the inflammatory statement that calls the reconstruction effort a "$100 billion failure".  Now, excuse me, but that's completely out of line.  Yes, it was poorly planned (actually, not really "planned" at all), subject to political intrigues, delayed by violence, suffered considerable waste, chaotic, and often not in line with reality.  However, even SIGIR realizes that there has been a lot of good stuff done.

Take, for example, the Sadr City R3 water treatment plant.  This plant cost US taxpayers a bundle (about $66M), but it is online now and providing water for almost 200,000 people in the Sadr City slums.  That doesn't sound like failure to me and it didn't to SIGIR when they did a report on it recently.  We've built over 130 primary health care clinics.  We've built a ton of schools, courthouses, humane prison facilities, sewage treatment plants, electrical power stations, electrical substations, roads, bridges, airport facilities, hospitals, you name it, we've probably built it.  We built a security system around their oil export lines that paid for itself in less than a week.  I'd say the large majority of projects that we funded are currently being used for what they were intended.

As the SIGIR report notes, the Republican-led Congress voted overwhelmingly to throw vast sums of money at Iraq for reconstruction, even though there was no coherent plan for how it would be used.  The money went to military and civilian officials who were dumped into the deep end and had to make it up as they went along.  They had to use their own experience, skills, and judgement to figure out what projects were most needed and then get them done.  And once projects were started, the vast majority were completed.  By SIGIR's own figures, only a small percentage (less than 20%) of projects were terminated for any reason: bombings, the security situation, incompetent contractors, whatever.  And this in a country that was undergoing a civil war the whole time.  

Yes, SIGIR and GAO and others can go back and find all kinds of fault with the way these projects were done.  There's plenty of blame to go around and they're still finding it.  That's their job.  But even SIGIR doesn't call the Iraq reconstruction effort a $100 billion failure".  It's not.  My predecessors did a helluva job with in very trying circumstances with no master plan to guide them.  They invented it and made it work.  And that's the American way, isn't it?

The New York Times writers owe the military and civilians who accomplished this remarkable feat a great big apology.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bailout Blues

One of the things I noticed while back in the States was that there is a palpable feeling of fear about the economy. Those of us over here are pretty much insulated from that. Yeah, we read the news, but we're so busy getting Iraq back on its feet that most of us don't focus on America. But at home, everybody is immersed in the American economy, and when it's sick, everybody is sick.

The auto industry bailout took center stage in the media starting a couple of weeks ago. GM and Chrysler are next to bankrupt, while Ford can hold on a while longer. I saw polls that indicated people are pretty tired of bailouts and didn't support another one for carmakers, but at the same time, there's a lot of fear that if GM and Chrysler go under, with their hundreds of thousands of jobs, then the rest of the economy won't be far behind. Yesterday, the Senate Republicans killed the auto bailout bill. Today, the White House says it may tap into the Wall Street bailout fund to support the automakers. I gotta rant about this.

There's a ton of blame to go around, of course. GM and Chrysler have been management disasters on wheels for a couple of decades now. They focused on providing flashy trucks and SUV's that had mediocre quality (or worse) but were profitable, while pretty much ceding the car market to the imports. Ford, at least, has been working on its quality for a couple of decades, so although their designs may not be world-class, their quality is, which goes a long way toward explaining why they're not in as bad shape as GM and Chrysler.

The recession hits carmakers pretty hard, as it always does. People in fear of losing their jobs aren't going to go out and spend $25-50K for a new set of wheels. Even Honda and Toyota are hurting. But they (and Ford) seemed to understand years ago that someday the gravy train would end and they positioned themselves for it. GM and Chrysler didn't. Bad on their (high-paid) management.

But I don't think we can let them go under right now, either, which is what the Senate Republicans advocate. The loss of hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of jobs would very probably push us from a recession into a depression. That was the logic that the Administration and Congress used to support the Wall Street $700B bailout, which was rushed through without much debate. The problem is that the $700B was a purely arbitrary figure. It wasn't supported by any research or anything, it was just a great big number used to put fear into the general population. And it worked. Now, however, we've got a figure of $34B that the auto industry needs and it's supported by facts. And with the Senate Republicans refusing any more bailouts, I think it's reasonable to take the money from the Wall Street funds.

And if the banks object, well, screw them. They're the bastards that got us into this in the first place. We've already pumped $335B of taxpayer money into their coffers with the specific intent of keeping the credit markets open and functioning. And what's the big problem with our automakers? Credit. The banks won't give it to them. Or anybody, for that matter - witness the debacle in Illinois recently, where Bank of America essentially shut down a window manufacturer by refusing to extend their credit. So if we're giving the banks money to pump into the credit market, and they're not doing it, where the hell is it going? Besides bank executives' bonuses, I mean.

So I say, take the money for the automakers from the Wall Street bailout funds. Use it to save jobs. The automakers need to stop putting out crap like Hummers and start making better cars that people want to buy. And they need to streamline/slim down their bloated bureaucracies, too. While we're at it, the UAW needs to bend a bit. The UAW refused to negotiate to help the American automakers become more competitive, which tells me that they're perfectly willing to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. So screw them. If I'm sending my tax dollars to help them keep their jobs, they've gotta do their part, too.

You know, if it wasn't for the auto execs, the UAW, and Congress, we might have a viable automobile industry.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Back in Baghdad

Playtime is over and I'm back in Baghdad.  My R&R was great.  Janis and I had a wonderful relaxing time, mostly visiting with friends, getting some little stuff done, and doing a lot of nothing.  Can't think of a better way to spend a couple of weeks.  I didn't update the blog since nobody wants to read about how I lay on the couch sleeping through a football game.  But now it's back to work.

I left Asheville on Tuesday afternoon.  It wasn't as hard on either Janis or me as it was the first time.  Maybe we're getting used to it ... at least she wasn't saying "get on the damn airplane, already!"  The flight to Charlotte was bumpy but short.  Had a couple of hours' layover in Charlotte, so I grabbed a chicken caesar salad from the barbecue place but it didn't sit very well later on ... nothing major, just a slight feeling of "I'm still here and I'm not going anywhere soon ..."  The flight to Dulles was uneventful.  I was a bit worried since Dulles can sometimes be a bear to get around in and I had a short time to get to the next gate, but my incoming flight arrived just down the hall from the outgoing one and I had plenty of time.  Then it was 12 hours on the United flight from Dulles to Kuwait.  Ugh.  The bright spot?  I had an aisle seat in the center, and the only other person in the row had the other aisle seat.  So with lots of empty seats next to me, I was able to get horizontal and pretend to sleep for about three hours.

The State Department makes it as easy as possible to transit Kuwait.  We arrived about 6 pm and, after clearing customs, were met by some guys who whisked us off to the hotel,  where State has a suite where we can sit in La-Z-Boys and watch TV or surf the net or whatever.  Then at 2:30 in the morning, we were loaded onto a bus and taken out to the military base, where our handlers processed us through customs again, collected our bags, and got us manifested onto the military flight.  We finished up at around 5 a.m. and had just enough time to grab something from the McDonald's trailer before being loaded on the bus to go out to the plane.  More sitting around waiting, and then we were off.  I like C-17's - they're roomy and (for a cargo plane) relatively comfortable, and they're reliable to boot, unlike my experiences with C-5's.  

Anyway, we arrived in Baghdad in mid-morning and it was cold.  Yes, cold.  Low 30's.  We were processed through the arrival system, got manifested onto the helo for the ride in to the IZ, collected our bags, and then had a couple of hours to kill.  I grabbed a crappy cuppa coffee but since I'd been up for basically two days I needed it.  Finally we were crammed into the blue State Department helos and had that wonderful, bouncy, noisy, COLD, but fun ride into town.  We settled down at Landing Zone Washington and I hoofed it across the street to the Palace and my office.  I was home again.

Baghdad had some interesting things happen while I was gone.  For one thing, it got a lot colder, as I noted earlier.  But it also had one helluva rainstorm that included some serious hail.  Can you believe it, hail in Iraq?  Yup.  I saw the pictures.  Not only that, but it rained so hard that it flooded the basement of the Palace, did some damage to a few other buildings, and created a bunch of sinkholes around the NEC.  Some storm!

Work-wise, a lot happened, but then, a lot hasn't changed.  I'm trying to get caught up on today's situation.  Some things that were hot three weeks ago seem to have just gone away, while things that were going just fine have turned to shit.  In other words, everything's normal.  
I've got a lot of other things to write about, but not tonight.  I got a lotta questions about how I see things going in Iraq today and I'll try to answer them.  And I got an interesting questionto answer  about what I found surprising about life at home, after being over here for a while.  But that'll all have to wait til next time.  I've got some serious sleep to catch up on!

Saturday, December 06, 2008


While I've been enjoying R&R here at home, President-elect Obama has been busy getting ready for his tenure in the White House.  He has picked his economic team, then his national security team, and now he's picking them in ones and twos.  Earlier this week, he picked former Governor Bill Richardson to be the Secretary of Commerce.  This evening's news is that he's going to tap retired General Eric Shinseki as head of the VA.  

I gotta say, I have been extremely impressed with both the quality of the people he's been picking, and how he has been presenting them.  The press has been talking a lot about how these are all strong-willed people, not "yes-men", and for once the press is right.  Today's selection of Shinseki shows just how different things will be under Obama than they were under Bush.  Shinseki was the Chief of Staff of the Army in early 2003, during the buildup to the war, and he testified to Congress that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to secure the country.  That was NOT what Bush & Co. wanted to hear, and Shinseki was immediately forced out.  Now Obama is naming him to head the Veteran's Administration.  Not only is he hiring somebody who has followed his conscience and not toed the party line, but he's putting an accomplished veteran (one who was wounded in combat, no less) in charge of the organization that's supposed to take care of our vets.  Bush chose party hacks for most jobs, but Obama is going for proven abilities.  What a difference.

I have a personal stake in Obama's choice for Attorney General.  Eric Holder was the judge who granted my divorce way back when he was a judge in DC.  He struck me as a very sharp guy then, and he still does.

All the rest are equally good.  Robert Gates has been a superb Secretary of Defense.  Hillary Clinton will be an excellent Secretary of State, so long as her husband can keep his mouth shut.  General Jim Jones, the new National Security Advisor, is another outstanding choice.  

What was just as impressive to me, besides the quality of the nominees, was how he presented them: as members of the economics team, or members of the national security team.  This is important.  From the get-go, these strong-willed people are buying in to the concept of working together.  In the Bush administration, everybody pretty much went their own separate ways and didn't play well together ... witness Gen. Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld.  And Bush didn't appreciate anything that went counter to his (or Cheney's) preconceived notions.  But Obama has no fear of that.

When it works, it's a wonderful experience.  Years ago, when I was the Executive Officer at NSGA Misawa, we had some very strong-willed department heads and senior enlisted.  Frankly, I enjoyed staff meetings when there was a lot of rather ... ummm ... "animated" discussion about whatever topic was at hand.  Those men and women were not afraid of speaking their minds and were very articulate about what they believed.  I remember one time in particular where something came across my desk that required a decision.  There were good reasons for going any one of several different ways.  I called a staff meeting, described the situation to them, and asked for their thoughts.  It was like throwing a big ol' bone to a pack of very well-reasoned dogs.  Everybody had an opinion, and since their background experiences were all different, their opinions were different.  I had a great time being the moderator of that discussion.  They finally came to a recommendation and the CO and I adopted it.  Obama might get to do that on a daily basis.  

There's also the possibility that it could all spin out of control.  But I draw a comparison to sports teams.  The best ones have a lot of "difficult" members, but the coach gets them to work together, channel their energies, and focus on something that's greater than their own selves.  That's a common thread in almost all championship-winning teams, at any level, and in any sport, from high school football to NASCAR to the New York Yankees.  

And face it: we need a championship-winning administration right about now.