Saturday, January 31, 2015

Hostages, etc.

One of the nice things about blogging is that one can speculate to one's heart's content without ever offering a shred of evidence to support one's "hypotheses."  It's kind of like being a talking head on cable news.  Anyway, here comes some (very) idle speculation regarding the IS hostage situation.

It begins to look a lot like the Islamic "State" is far less unified and coordinated than Abu Bakr al-Bagdadhi would have us believe.  First, there was the demand for a hundred million bucks a head for the two Japanese hostages.  When one head was sacrificed, the Japanese public scarcely blinked.  Haruna Yukawa, it seems, was a bit of a slacker, and nobody much cared what happened to him.

Then, the demand changed, with IS demanding the release of failed suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi for the remaining Japanese hostage, journalist Kenji Goto.  That's when the Jordanians, who are holding al-Rishawi pending execution, decided they would much prefer to have Jordanian pilot Muath Kassasbeh in the exchange, but needed proof he still was alive.  Proof was not forthcoming, and things remain up in the air as of this writing.

Okay, the first question is what in hell does IS want with al-Rishawi?  Some suspect she is somebody's sister or something, but the truth is, she's of no use to anybody.  The second question is, what makes anybody think IS would exchange two high-value hostages for a female who failed to blow herself up and then ran away?  And if Muath Kassabeh is alive, why can't IS produce him?

My guess is that ransom and exchange demands are coming from different factions of IS, and that they're not in especially close contact with each other — maybe not even talking.  No demands or explanations have been offered by al-Baghdadi, so who actually speaks for the Islamic State?

Schisms within IS would be good news for the ragtag band of "allies" fighting the jihadis, even if IS is not nearly as schismatic as its so-called enemies.  Can the CIA or the DIA shed any light on the situation?  Probably not — and, anyway, they're not talking.  They're never talking.


I got around to seeing "American Sniper," and I've concluded that all the hot air surrounding whether Chris Kyle was a hero or a psychopath is just that — hot air.  Pretty clearly, Chris Kyle was a victim of the Iraq War, but so were tens of thousands of other people, and their number continues to grow.  I thought I detected a strong component of preexisting OCD along with PTSD, but it's not possible to make a diagnosis based on a fictionalized version of a guy's life.

Is the film racist?   Seen through Kyle's eyes, or the eyes of a substantial majority of the Americans who fought in Iraq, the film had to be racist.  The fact that we never meet any "nice" Iraqis is not a deficit of Eastwood's filmmaking — he told his story from a GI's point of view, and I think he did a good job of it.  Talking to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention certainly should not disqualify him from winning a few Oscars.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Recent developments

Syriza victory

Germany continues to insist that Greece will necessarily carry on with with its existing austerity regime in order to get the next installment of its bailout.  What Merkel and Co. fail to note is that the next bailout installment is earmarked to make payments on earlier loans, and the Greeks themselves will see not a cent.  After five years of depression (not recession), the last think Greece needs is higher taxes and more cuts in government services.  Alexis Tsipras knows this, and can feel quite confident that the troika will not go out of its way to screw itself, and thereby destabilize the euro.  There will be renegotiation.

Netanyahu address

I have a feeling that Boehner's invitation to Bibi to address Congress will backfire against both of them.  Boehner has given Obama a splendid opportunity to snub the Israeli hawk, and close a little more of the distance between the USofA and Iran.  Was the invitation AIPAC's idea?  Probably.  AIPAC doesn't lobby for Israel, it lobbies for Likud.


Lisa Murkowski is livid, and Obama is grinning, even though he knows that permanently excluding oil and gas drilling from the Reserve won't be happening under this Congress.  Most of what we're likely get from Our President over the next two years is a succession of symbolic gestures, but while provoking Yosemite Sam impersonations from Republicans actually accomplishes nothing, it's still fun.

"American Sniper"

I have a copy, but I haven't gotten around to watching it yet.  Eastwood actually is a talented director when he's not having conversations with empty chairs, so whether or not the film is "politically significant," it most likely will be watchable.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

What's with Yemen?

There are a lot of Americans who never even heard of Yemen, and wonder why it should be getting all that news coverage.  Unfortunately, the news media seem to have little more information about Yemen than the aforementioned Americans.  This article seeks to unravel some of what has been going on there better than PBS, the BBC, or even Fox.

Let us begin.  In recent weeks, a Zaidi/Shiite group called the Houthi has pushed the "elected" Yemeni government out of power but, oddly enough, has not taken over the reins of power itself.  So-called "elected" President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi has resigned, probably a wise choice on his part because his Presidential Residence was overrun by Houthi fighters.  Hadi is often called a "staunch ally of the United States" because he makes no objection when the USofA sends drones against AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and anybody else who happens to be in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time.

Hadi ran unopposed in the election he "won," with financial backing by the US and the Saudis.  Yemen is a very poor country, which survives mostly on foreign aid, mostly from the USofA and Saudi Arabia.  Nobody was surprised when Hadi, backed by his country's most significant donors, found nobody running against him.

During the seventies and eighties, the southern regions of Yemen were independent, and under Communist leadership.  When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did South Yemen, and the country was more or less united again.  It is very unlikely that there are any Communists left, but you never know.

At the moment, Yemen has something of the look of a Saudi-Iranian proxy war, with the Saudis backing what remains of the most recent government, and the Iranians supporting the  Houthi group. which bears some slight resemblance to Hezbollah in that it opposes corruption.  The Saudis, of course, support corruption, and certain Saudi oligarchs probably are supporting AQAP as well.  The USofA, needless to say, dares not offend Saudi Arabia, no matter how many journalists are jailed and whipped, "adulterers" stoned to death, or "infidels" beheaded there.

Assuming the USofA does not wish to ally itself with AQAP, the only viable alternative is the Houthi resistance.  The trick is finding a way to do it without pissing off the House of Saud, Israel, and Iranian-hating members of Congress.  The Houthi are at war with AQAP, but probably won't be nearly so willing as Hadi to wave at departing American drones while yelling "bombs away.  On the other hand, it looks like Iran has far less control over the Houthi than it does over, say, Hezbollah.

Okay, did that help?  I didn't think so.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

State of the Union

Obama managed to sound somewhat more like a Democrat last night, and he seems to have given up entirely on his earlier "working across the aisle" mantra.  I like some of the ideas he floated, needless to say those least likely to be enacted into law by our current troglodyte Congress.  Raising the top capital gains tax rate to 28%, albeit only a modest increase, would be a step in the right direction.  "But wait," shout the Republicans, "that would stifle investment and kill jobs!"

Nah.  It's still a lower rate than the rich would be paying if they actually had to work for the income, and since corporations are so astute at avoiding paying taxes, the "double taxation" argument won't hold.  Dumping the inheritance dodge also makes a lot of sense, but I didn't hear anything about closing the "carried-interest" loophole this time around.  Oh well, it wasn't going to happen anyway, so why keep antagonizing Hillary's likely Wall Street donors?

Getting Congress to actively authorize military action against IS makes a lot of sense, because when things go terribly wrong, as they always are inclined to do, the administration gets to share the blame.  Free community college tuition sounds good, but community college tuition is cheap, generally covered by Pell Grants for the poor, as David Brooks pointed out in his NYTimes column a couple of days ago.  He is also on the mark when he observes that raising graduation rates from community colleges is a much more difficult, and a much more important, endeavor than just shuffling more failures through the system.

One area where Obama might get Republican cooperation is in getting fast-track authority for his Trans-Pacific-Partnership.  Will the TPP result in improved labor standards in Asia?  Maybe.  Asian standards just might improve almost to the same extent that US standards deteriorate.

All in all, though, inching to the left, however slightly, is likely to help Democratic candidates in 2016, while keeping what Paul Wellstone called "the democratic wing of the Democratic Party" at bay — and I suspect that may have been a major objective of last night's address.

Monday, January 12, 2015

How about Jim Webb?

Like a lot of other people, I'm horrified by the idea of a Clinton-Bush contest in 2016.  The big question becomes, if not Hillary and Jeb, then who?  On the Republican side, we might actually have some choices, albeit the choices are not terribly attractive.  There are the 2012 retreads, including Romney, Santorum, Perry and Huckabee; the "bomb throwers," Cruz and Paul; and some governors, including Christie, Walker, Daniels  and Kasich.  And yes, there could be more — lots more.

The Democrats are more constrained, most believing that Hillary has a lock on the nomination.  Yes, our man Bernie Sanders will wade in, mostly to let everybody know that the former senator from New York is a conservative hawk, who voted for the Iraq invasion and supported her husband's dissolution of Glass-Steagle.  I'm pretty sure Elizabeth Warren means it when she says she won't run this time, so efforts to draft her will almost certainly be fruitless.  Martin O'Malley has sent out feelers but, so far, the feelers haven't found anything solid to which to attach themselves.

The only probable alternative to Clinton I've found so far is former senator Jim Webb.  Click on the link, and see what you think.  Very important to me is that he could be the first president since JFK with any military experience (and this includes the Pentagon.)  Why is that important to me?

Jim Webb is the only potential candidate with the knowledge, the motivation, and the experience needed to resist the blandishments of the military-industrial complex.  What could we expect of Clinton?  More useless military spending and adventurism and, most likely, the return of David Petreus: keeper of secret prisons, planner of secret drone strikes, and architect of the largely useless 2009 "surge" in Afghanistan.

I like what Webb has to say for himself.  Maybe you'll agree.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Just who the hell IS "Charlie?"

Cries of "Je suis Charlie" are echoing across the world, and a million extra issues of what is likely to be the magazine's final issue are being printed.  It took twelve deaths, but Charlie Hebdo suddenly is popular.  A month ago, they were suffering the common fate of the world's print media, and begging their small number of subscribers for contributions so they could stay in business a while longer.

Well, I guess they found the formula — the same formula used by their fundamentalist antagonists.  It seems all they needed were some martyrs.  Now they have them, and the world is paying attention.  Too bad it took a dozen deaths to draw attention to some studiously offensive cartoons, but that's life in the twenty-first century.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Mario Cuomo

Mario Cuomo belonged to what the late Paul Wellstone called "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.  An unabashed liberal who vetoed death penalty legislation year after year based on his Catholic beliefs, he nevertheless supported a woman's right to follow her own moral compass in deciding whether or not to choose abortion.  Financial problems in New York during his three terms prevented him from implementing many of the social programs for the disadvantaged he hoped to achieve, but he remained an inspiration to Americans unwilling to unravel the New Deal.

Cuomo's 1984 keynote address to the Democratic Convention remains, for me, the greatest appeal to traditional Democratic values I ever have heard.  If you missed this rhetorical masterpiece, watch it here.