POLITICAL ODDS AND ENDS: Suggestions, Corrections and Observations

First, ISIS revealed tonight on TV:  If you have been wondering what the draw of ISIS in Syria is for thousands of budding jihadists, and what life is like in ISIS controlled territories watch:  Blind Sided:  How ISIS Shook the World on CNN tonight at 9 EDT and PDT (other time zones must fend for yourselves).   Fareed Zakaria interviews former jihadists and reporters, such as a German news man who was allowed to visit ISIS held territories and lived to tell about it.

Second, a correction:  I Indicated in my immediately previous post that hundreds of migrants have died in sinking boats while aimed Italy (mostly Sicily I think) in recent weeks.  I had called them Libyans since they departed from Libya, but assumed way too much.  Actually, they come from many countries in Africa, like Eritrea, and the Mid-East, like Syria.   Libya has become the primary point of departure because political chaos there has allowed smugglers to operate easily.

Also, this immigrant wave, along with drownings, has been going on for years.  More immigrants tried the trip during the same period last year (25,000) than this (20,000), but it has garnered more attention because the number who have died trying has increased nine fold.  Don’t ask me why.

Third: Hail to the Comedian-in-Chief:  You probably have seen high lights of the White House Correspondence Dinner Monday night, such as when the President said that despite not having that much time left in the White House he doesn’t have a bucket list, but he does have a list that rhymes with bucket.   That got a good laugh as did some of his other jokes.  He was a  tough act for SNL’s Cecily Strong to follow.

I think this was his best W.H.C.D. performance, though he deserves the most credit for the one back in 2011, when he performed well while an operation to get Bin Laden was taking place at the same time.   I think it the most amazing moment of his presidency.  Can you imagine how his constant critics would have crucified him if the operation had gone badly?  They gave him little credit for its success.  And with so much on the line there he was out there getting laughs.

I often ponder what it must be like to make decisions every day that may well prompt the death of others, either from the interventions you make (like Libya) or the ones you resist making (Syria, until relatively recently).  And trying to pay attention to your family amidst constant criticism in this 24/7 age.  I’d fall apart in a day.  As disgusted as I get with our presidential election process, I think it provides a necessary test of the stamina, resilience and overall self-integration being president requires.

Fourth, an observation about our politics:  We often hear pundits and pollsters talk about how Americans are tired of the gridlock in Washington and want the parties to get something done, but the important point usually ignored is that while most of us our frustrated by our national government and want change, our visions of the changes to make are not only polarized but often contradictory.  One example is pointed out in a recent column by E. J. Dionne in which he discusses the fracturing of western democracies in general:

“In a PRRI/Brookings survey I was involved with in 2013, two findings locked horns: 63 percent of Americans said government should be doing more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, but 59 percent also believed government had grown bigger because it had become involved in things people should do for themselves. We want government to do more about injustice, but we also seem to want it smaller.”

Helping to explain that divergence is our belief that government primarily serves special interest groups and that big government is in its nature wasteful and inefficient.  Some of us are more willing to put up with those shortcomings than others, another aspect of the polarization, so while we might want government to play a bigger role, not this government, not as it works now.

So, the overall temper of the nation is that we might be able to come together on the idea that government should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor, but only if it is not the inefficient pay-to-play government that we have now.

A much better government that we are not likely to ever have.

Fifth:   I suggest you watch VEEP on HBO (or checked out from the library for cheap people like me:   It provides booster shots of humor to make thinking about Washington more tolerable.  I’ve only begun to watch the first, but this is the fourth season of a zany portrait of Washington politics focusing upon a vice-president played to gut busting perfection by Julia Louis-Drefus with funny-fine performances by the rest of the cast.   Some Washington folks say it captures the gist of political life there better than other shows, which is a scary thought, especially as the VEEP becomes the Prez this year.   Not for children unless the F-bomb is common in your house.

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China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and on and on.

I think often about China because it is, next to us, the world’s biggest player and our foremost frenemy as well (you know, friend and enemy).  But I never get around to China because there is always some attention grabbing distraction popping up like Putin’s bothersome games in Europe and the increasing Middle East conflagration.

Today illustrates the point, but before going there I at least want to point to Fareed Zakaria’s argument for why we should finally pivot our attention to China, something that the Obama administration has tried to do but never quite does because of problems elsewhere. I made a bit of a plug for Fareed’s Sunday morning show in my previous post.   His  take on the China pivot can be found here.

I can’t think much about pivoting right now because we, along with Sunni powers Saudi Arabia and Egypt have warships in the Arabian Sea placed to block an armed convoy from Iran heading towards the collapsed state of Yemen, the convoy suspected (like, you know damn well) of carrying arms to the Shia rebels in Yemen, who still seem to have the upper hand in that civil war despite an intensive bombing campaign by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations.

A confrontation may be brewing between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two nations who have been content to do battle in proxy states like Syria and now Yemen, but this matter in the Arabian Sea puts them face to face for a change, a disturbing situation.

We are dragged in because at this time the President must think he needs to show Sunni nations that just because he’s working on a nuclear arms agreement with Iran (with negotiations beginning again this very day), that they should know we are friends with them not Iran.  He is holding a gathering of their leaders, or their representatives, in May to stress this point and assure these Sunni nations that we have their backs, so as to discourage them from starting their own nuclear arms programs.

This is a very tricky dance and of course Vladimir P. is happy to stir up the pot (don’t you love mixed metaphors) by having representatives at the nuclear negotiations who seem of help while also just signing a deal selling sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, arguing that he has confidence in Iran’s willingness to make a deal, meanwhile pulling in about a billion bucks for a faltering Russian economy and providing Iran with greater air cover if this house of cards nuclear deal collapses.  Vladimir, what a card.

Hard to concentrate on China with all of this going on, not to mention the sad story of Libyans fleeing what has become their hell hole of a nation, with about 1000 recently dying at sea trying to reach Italy.

At least we have our Presidential race to amuse us, what with Queen Hillary impersonating Where’s Waldo in her bus trip to Iowa, she the fox and news people trying to catch a glimpse, the hounds. And now in New Hampshire, where she is being warmly greeted by questions tied to a new book titled:  Clinton Cash :  The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary.   And of course, this reminds people that she deleted all those “personal” emails, making it tough to put these attacks to rest.  On her plus side, she’s had years of practice fending off attacks and my money would be on her if she winds up on Survivor some day.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, there are around 20 candidates all primarily basing their campaigns at the moment on attacking the queen, which is all fun and games for them, but the real fun for most of us will come when they start slicing into each other.   After all there will be only one seat left in this roller derby version of musical chairs, and as we go along flying elbows will become the order of the day.

One of these days i will write about China.

A Plug for Fareed Zakaria GPS (Global Public Square)

Soon today Hillary Clinton is supposed to announce her candidacy for president.  Whoopty Doo!   Who besides a relative handful of political news junkies cares?  Like there has been a shred of doubt in recent months.   The p-junkies are excited because they love to dissect the candidates, like football draft analysts, coming up with ticklers like Jeb Bush, the supposed leader in the Republican half of the race, prompts no enthusiasm in focus groups in New Hampshire….or Rand Paul is too thin skinned to do well under the stress of campaigning or the surprising amount of money (31 million) Ted Cruz has scraped together already.

My long shot Republican candidate is Ohio governor John Kasich, but he hasn’t even declared, so no use wasting any thought on him right now, either.  I just want to establish early credit for making the pick if by some miracle he jumps up in the Republican primaries.

That’s enough for now on the presidential race.   Barring something startling, I doubt I will comment upon the race again for months.

That was a roundabout way to making a plug for Fareed Zakaria’s show called Global Public Square on CNN on Sunday’s at 7:00 a.m. Pacific Time.  It is my favorite political news show because it puts events in perspective, which I generally find lacking in most political chat shows.  And it takes on worldly important topics instead of dwelling on our American media preoccupations with campaign analysis, shootings (often racially related), graphic disasters or the abuse of some group’s “individual rights”.  I record the show and often watch it in segments during the week.

This morning Fareed kicked off with his perspective on the Iran Nuclear deal.   Similar to the presidential election, I don’t want to spend much time analyzing that issue until things sort themselves out more in the next couple of months.  But Fareed puts the deal in perspective, something which may help as pros and cons of the “deal” are aired in weeks to come (what will be the deal, if there is one, is unknowable at this point).

You should be able to find the video segment here.  And a written version is available here.

Unfortunate March Madness Post Game Comments: Just F-ing Foget Abaat It.

A big deal has been made by the media of comments by Kentucky player Andrew Harrison after losing to Wisconsin Saturday and then by Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan after losing in the final game yesterday to Duke.   My aim in this post is to make them smaller deals.

Starting with Harrison.  If you haven’t heard, in their post-loss press conference, a question was asked of another Kentucky player about the challenge posed by Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky, at which time Harrison was caught on a mike saying:  “F….that N-word”  (not exactly, but you get the picture).

That was an example of poor sportsmanship, just as when he and his brother and another Kentucky player or two went straight to the locker room without shaking hands.  But it got such attention because he used the N-word, which is as we all know, radioactive.

Let’s put this in context.  Not only did Kentucky just lose its chance to be arguably called the best college team of all time, it did so to a bunch of white boys, or at least predominantly so.  To paraphrase the great Larry Byrd from years ago:  This is a  “black man’s game” and I’m just trying to fit in.  True now more than ever.  That multiplied the agony of defeat.  How could this happen?  Harrison wanted a target for his frustration and Frank the tank provided a big target.

And he used the N-word because that’s common trash talk in black urban settings.  When you think about it, it’s odd for him to use it on a white guy.  But what was he supposed to mutter:  F ….that big, dumb Polock?   I don’t think he knew quite what he was saying.  He was still in a game frame of mind, disappointed as hell and muttering trash and it was caught on a mike.

OK, Harrison acted a pouty brat, but to lose the chance at eternal glory to a bunch of white boys?  You  think Harrison and his teammates are ever going to stop hearing about this, ever?  Later Harrison called Kaminski and apologized and Frank accepted it and said it was not a big deal.  I’ll take Frank’s word for it.

Moving on to Bo Ryan.  He too was experiencing the agony of defeat when complaining about the refereeing, but his big misstatement was to use the term “rent-a-players” referring to the phenomenon of the most talented kids playing only one year and then going to the pros.  They are also called “one and doners”, a term Ryan usually uses to suggest the difference between his program and other top ones, most notably Kentucky, but Duke employed that strategy this year, too, obviously with great success.  The agony of defeat does not put one in a good mood, so Ryan used the more pejorative “rent-a-player” metaphor.

So what?   It seems clear from previous interviews that he’d take a one-and-doner if that player would fit into his system, but that’s unlikely and Bo’s not going to shape his system around the one-and-doners, like Calipari does so brilliantly at Kentucky and Coach K as well at Duke.   Ryan and his staff have been great at developing players, something that would have been more highly regarded years ago, but now not so much in our climate of winning is everything.  At moments Bo probably feels a bit bitter about that, and when would that be more likely than just after losing a rare chance to be national champion?  Doing it “the right way.”

So, once again the media makes big deals out of little ones.  Surprise, surprise.

But I have to admit that is not all bad.   In trying to develop my own opinion on the two media “events,” I ran across a thoughtful discussion on the nuances of race talk between a white sports show host and a black former football player.

I think it would be worth seven minutes of your time.  You can check it out here.

The Wisdom of Muddling Through in the Middle East

President Obama’s conservative critics often lambast him for being indecisive when it comes to foreign policy and dictatorial when it comes to domestic policy, so I guess in their eyes he’s sort of an indecisive dictator, or more to the point, whatever he does or doesn’t do they don’t like.

I think the president’s biggest foreign policy mistakes have come when he has succumbed to the temptation to talk tough, a manly thing, and only realized later he spoke too hastily, saw more clearly the consequences and then acted more prudently. Syria in particular comes to mind. He tends to be criticized for not arming the “moderate rebels” early enough, but who knows if the more effective radical forces wouldn’t have wound up with those arms as they did later when ISIS became weapons rich after Iraqi troops fled Mosul.

The mistake was asserting from the beginning of the rebellion that Assad must go, this while miscalculating the actual international support to make that happen, and the will of Putin to resist it by providing much support to Assad. So, the president encouraged the rebels’ dream of freedom while not doing much to assist them.

Now we have the odd situation of actually helping Assad stay in power by focusing on destroying ISIS, which is deemed the greater of two evils. And since Assad is the most stable force in Syria, we are not nearly as eager to take him down as we were before, this coming from a change in perspective regarding democracy and chaos in the Middle East. The Arab spring. which seemed so promising, now looks like the roots of Mid-East disintegration and the bad old dictators don’t seem as bad as they used to because they at least maintained order.

Eugene Robinson covers similar ground in a Washington Post column March 30“U.S. policies on the Middle East are inconsistent but wise”.    He addresses the Yemen Issue as well and how it raises one more foreign policy dilemma for the U. S..   He leads off with:  “As gung-ho ‘experts’ press President Obama to do this, that or the other in the Middle East, keep a simple rule in mind: Whatever the avid interventionists suggest probably won’t work — and surely will have unintended consequences.”

I can’t imagine more fertile ground for unintended consequences than the increasingly chaotic Middle East.