- Associated Press - Thursday, September 25, 2014

Star Tribune, Sept. 24, 2014

At the U.N., a blunt Obama seeks new Mideast resolve

Addressing leaders of a world widely seen to be moving from crisis to crisis, President Obama told the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday that a collective response is imperative. Although the United States can and should take a leadership role, long-lasting solutions ultimately must come from those nations with the most at stake.

Obama pointed to several global challenges, including the spread of Ebola in West Africa, Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, Iran’s potential nuclear weapons program, and ongoing military efforts to thwart the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other terror groups.

To his credit, Obama didn’t flinch from describing the illegal and immoral moves by Russia - its annexation of Crimea, its efforts to cleave Ukraine, and its complicity in the downing of a Malaysian jet - that he said challenge post-World War II order.

He also rightly called for a diplomatic, not military, solution to Iran’s potential nuclear weapons program.

Obama challenged the delegates to reinvigorate the United Nations itself - an institution too often neutered by China and Russia coddling dictatorships with vetoes of Security Council measures. “We gain more from cooperation than conquest,” Obama accurately observed.

Diplomacy will also be a requisite element to responding to terrorism, be it from Al-Qaida, ISIL or Khorasan, the more obscure but equally dangerous offshoot of Al-Qaida that was also targeted in Monday airstrikes in Syria. But the diplomacy will likely be applied to recognized Mideast governments, not groups like the depraved ISIL. “There can be no reasoning - no negotiation - with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force,” Obama said.

The U.S. president was quick to point out that the language of force is shared by the more than 40 nations that have offered to join an anti-ISIL coalition. Already, five nations - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates - took part in the initial airstrikes.

ISIL’s nihilism may indeed require a martial response. But equally important, Obama called on Muslim communities to “explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of Al-Qaida and ISIL” by cutting off funding, “contesting” the space they have online and in social media, and countering intolerance taught in schools.

Just as he called out Russia, Obama did not shrink from the sectarian split that undergirds so much Mideast strife. “It is time to acknowledge the destruction wrought by proxy wars and terror campaigns between Sunni and Shia across the Middle East,” he implored.

Ground zero for this schism is Syria, where Shiite Iran and the terror group Hezbollah support the Alawite (a Shiite offshoot) government of Bashar Assad against Sunni citizens and states, as well as some terrorist groups. The ultimate solution to Syria’s civil war, Obama rightly acknowledged, is political. World leaders - especially Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s amoral protector - should redouble diplomatic efforts to end the bloodbath.

Obama also called on the Arab world to address the needs of a burgeoning younger generation that appears increasingly vulnerable to the lure of extremism.

Obama reiterated plans to use Iraqi and Syrian forces as boots on the ground, repeating a pledge he made to the American people. This week’s airstrikes show the enormous force of coalition air power. But terrorist organizations will adapt, and likely melt into teeming neighborhoods, raising the risk of civilian casualties.

The United States - and even the U.N. Security Council, which pushed a resolution to clamp down on foreign fighters entering the Mideast - can and will play its part. But the United Nations cannot unify societies. That, and the eventual end to seemingly ceaseless conflicts, is ultimately up to the afflicted societies themselves.


The Journal of New Ulm, Sept. 23, 2014

MNsure uncertainty

Minnesota’s MNsure program, the state’s health insurance exchange, had a rough rollout last fall, and it’s having a rough first year.

This month PreferredOne, the insurance company in with the lowest rates and the most enrollees in MNsure, announced it is pulling out of the program. Preferred One is pulling out because of business reasons. It says the program is not financially and administratively sustainable. Basically, it costs PreferredOne more than it’s worth to stay with the program.

Those who signed up with PreferredOne last year through MNsure for coverage in 2014 can still renew for next year, but they will not be eligible for the federal health insurance subsidies.

This is becoming a political issue in the state governor’s race. Gov. Mark Dayton has been the main cheerleader for the program, and his Republican challenger Jeff Johnson is tying him to the program’s failures.

This is a serious hit for the MNsure program. If the companies that are participating can’t make money from their participation, they will pull out, and their customers will wind up paying more.

The state needs to get this problem fixed.


St. Cloud Times, Sept. 23, 2014

Feds need to re-examine school lunch rules

Since the rollout of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, students and their parents have easily been the loudest critics of the new federal school lunch standards.

Portions that are too small yet cost more. Side dishes, entrees and even condiments that aren’t very tasty. And, of course, few to no “junk food” choices.

While that last complaint is hard to justify, the others are not - especially for students who are supposed to find an 850-calorie lunch adequate sustenance before an after-school activity that may require them to burn double those calories by day’s end.

But heading into this school year, the more troubling statement about the new federal standards came from a survey by the School Nutrition Association, a national nonprofit organization representing more than 55,000 members who provide high-quality, low-cost meals to students across the country. Among survey findings about the new standards were these:

- Last school year, 46 percent of respondents reported overall program revenue decreased while 87 percent reported an increase in food costs. Nationwide, about 23 percent of districts reported their meal programs operated at a loss for at least the past six months.

- 85 percent predict their costs will increase school year while 43 percent expect revenues to decline.

- More than 60 percent anticipate whole grain mandates will increase their average cost of preparing school meals this school year.

- And 81 percent report an increase in the amount of food being thrown away by students at lunch. Vegetables are most frequently identified as causing the increase in plate waste.

Supplanting those survey results, which include Minnesota input, is this fact courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federal efforts: Student lunch participation under the new standards is down in 49 states, with more than 1 million fewer students choosing school lunch daily.

While it might have been easy to ignore angry students and parents, those survey results and the USDA’s own records clearly show the federal program has gone too far. It’s time for Congress to dial back parts of the act and find a more balanced approach to providing appealing, healthy meals to students.

Failure to do that will not only force more students to find meals elsewhere, it will continue to be a drag on school districts’ resources, revenues and even morale.

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