Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Big Lie of Occupy Central With Love and Peace

A good distillation of the Western perspective on the pro-Democracy protests underway in Hong Kong can be found today in an unsigned Gray Lady editorial, "China’s Crackdown in Hong Kong."

So far USG has been reticent to lecture China in the usual hectoring and hypocritical American fashion. No need to. The talking points can be disseminated through the Fourth Estate; and here the Gray Lady editorial board does the job.

First, the central falsity must be peddled: Beijing has reneged on its commitment to hold free and fair elections in Hong Kong by 2017 because candidates for chief executive must be screened for pre-approval by a PRC-friendly nominating committee:
If China had honored the political commitments it made before taking control of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, it is likely there would be no protests in the city streets and no crackdown over the weekend by riot police using tear gas, pepper spray and batons against pro-democracy demonstrators. 
Instead, the government in Beijing, ever fearful of its people, reneged on promises and allowed or ordered Hong Kong authorities to attack students and other citizens demanding democratic elections in Hong Kong. The pro-democracy protesters were so enraged that thousands defied a government call on Monday to abandon street blockades across the city. On Tuesday morning, tens of thousands, including many new recruits angered by the police actions, had again filled the city center.
. . . China also promised free elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017, but, late last month, China’s legislature called for limiting the candidates who would be allowed to run, among other restrictions. With the government insisting on controlling the nomination process, the protesters’ demand for fully democratic elections looked to be slipping away, so they took to the streets.
Next, the editorial goes on to fire the other talking-points bullets found in the Western arsenal: 1) Chinese president Xi Jinping is a ruthless autocrat itching to bring a bloody Tianamen crackdown to the good folks of Occupy Central with Love and Peace (this is the entire focus of a story today by Ed Wong and Chris Buckley), and 2) such a crackdown would be devastating for corporate stability and would threaten the independence of Taiwan.

Peter Lee's story yesterday in Asia Times Online, "Beijing reaps bitter fruit in Hong Kong," directly refutes the whole "Beijing reneged on its commitment to full democracy" mantra. The PRC never imagined a situation where candidates to lead Hong Kong's government would not be vetted:
Selective memory has also found its way into reporting (or at least headline-writing) Occupy's claims that the current democracy movement was triggered by Beijing "reneging" on its promise of democracy for Hong Kong by scheduling universal suffrage for 2017, but insisting that only candidates vetted by the commission could run for office.
As far as I understand it, the commission set-up was integral to Beijing's foundational plan for Hong Kong. In other words, the PRC would commit to 50 years of free rein for business/society only if the direct democracy genie could be kept in the bottle by controlling the list of candidates eligible for office.
I also suspect that the PRC told the Thatcher government that, if the UK tried to belatedly introduce full direct democracy in Hong Kong prior to 1997 (as Chris Patten championed) and burden the PRC with the unpleasant task of rolling back a democratic status quo when it claimed sovereignty over the territory, that would be a trigger for the real Occupy Hong Kong - by China. 
As noted above, Deng Xiaoping was the conceptual architect of the strategy to install a "kill switch" on Hong Kong democracy and balance Hong Kong's economic and social freedoms under the "one country two systems" formula with political control by keeping hostile administrators out of the Hong Kong political mix. 
Here's what Deng Xiaoping said about the Hong Kong rule in 1984:
"Some requirements or qualifications should be established with regard to the administration of Hong Kong affairs by the people of Hong Kong. It must be required that patriots form the main body of administrators, that is, of the future government of the Hong Kong special region. Of course it should include other Chinese, too, as well as foreigners invited to serve as advisers. What is a patriot? A patriot is one who respects the Chinese nation, sincerely supports the motherland's resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong and wishes not to impair Hong Kong's prosperity and stability. Those who meet these requirements are patriots, whether they believe in capitalism or feudalism or even slavery. We don't demand that they be in favour of China's socialist system; we only ask them to love the motherland and Hong Kong." 
And here's how that intention was implemented in Article 45 of the Hong Kong Basic Law, which became the effective constitution of Hong Kong upon reversion in 1997:
"The Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People's Government. 

"The method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures."
Clearly, the PRC's envisioned terminus (the "ultimate aim") of the democratic reform line is universal suffrage to vote for candidates put forth by a nominating committee, not universal suffrage in the nomination as well as election process, which is the Occupy Hong Kong movement's demand. 
If the PRC government revised, promised to revise, or hinted it would revise this understanding to do away with its most important tool for controlling electoral politics in Hong Kong, the nominating committee, please let me know. Until then, I will regard the "China reneged/broke its democracy promise" line as a canard peddled to provide unnatural enhancement to the legitimacy of the Occupy movement.
"We don't like the Basic Law and want to overturn it after 17 years through street action" is, I suppose, a tougher sell than "China broke its promise" but, in my opinion, it's more honest.
Of course the most obvious point in all of this is that we here in the United States, the "fountainhead of democracy," pre-screen candidates by select committee as well. These select committees are called either "Republican Party" or "Democratic Party." Concentrated wealth calls the shots for both.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Obama Feigns Ignorance + Kurds Battered by ISIS + Ghani Inaugurated + Hong Kong Occupied

Waking up this morning to a new chill in the air, it is clear that fall is upon us. Dark mornings are matched by news that promises more of the same dismal prospects we've been wallowing in for many years now.

Obama on "60 Minutes" last night apparently feigned ignorance and a lack of foresight in dealing with the meteoric rise of Islamic State. Invoking the name of the director of national intelligence, Obama threw James Clapper under the bus: “Our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that, I think, they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.” I guess with the billion-dollar budgets and super-computers at the myriad spy agencies they don't have time to read the newspaper; because if they did they would have learned all they needed to know about the rapid rise of ISIS over the last year.

No, USG knew exactly what was going on. The administration thought it could control the process; this sporadic bombing of select targets in Iraq and Syria is an attempt to assert that control. But it is not very compelling. ISIS is surging in Syrian Kurdish communities close to the Turkish border. Turkey has closed the border both to refugees wanting to escape the fighting and for Kurds hoping to enter Syria from Turkey to engage the jihadis and defend Kobani. As Karam Shoumali and Anne Barnard report in "Refugees Flood Turkish Border as Islamic State Steps Up Attacks on Syrian Kurds":
MURSITPINAR, Turkey — Shelling intensified Sunday on Kobani, the Syrian town at the center of a region of Kurdish farming villages that has been under a weeklong assault by Islamic State militants, setting fire to buildings and driving a stream of new refugees toward the fence here at the border with Turkey.

The extremist Sunni militants have been closing in on the town from the east and west after moving into villages with tanks and artillery, outgunning Kurdish fighters struggling to defend the area. The Kurds fear a massacre, especially after recent Islamic State attacks on Kurdish civilians in Iraq. More than 150,000 people have fled into Turkey over the past week. 
There were no sounds of jets overhead to indicate to the Kurds that help was coming from the American-led coalition, whose stated mission is to degrade and destroy the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Two airstrikes on the eastern front hit Islamic State armored vehicles on Saturday, but did not appear to halt the advance.
“Where’s Obama?” one Turkish Kurd demanded, watching in anguish near the border fence as the headlights of cars could be seen streaming out of Kobani toward the border, although there was no way to cross it. “Does he care about the Kurds?”
Obama is on television playing the part of the commander-in-chief. Does he care about Kurds? Some Kurds, like those in Iraq where the U.S. has a military base and a strategic interest. But more and more the slow response to deal with the ISIS offensive against Kobani makes it seem as if the rumors are true: The Turks cut a deal with Islamic State to zap the Syrian Kurds who are defended by P.K.K. fighters, a longtime foe of the Turkish state. So far the U.S. appears to be backing the play:
Even as it has accepted tens of thousands of refugees, Turkey has closed seven of nine crossing points in the area. Several times, the authorities have used tear gas to disperse crowds trying to cross, while also preventing Turkish and Syrian Kurds from crossing the border to fight the Islamic State. Kurds accuse Turkey, which has remained vague on how it will assist the American-led coalition, of tacitly supporting the Islamic State to weaken Kurdish efforts to gain more autonomy in northern Syria.
Ralph Nader's buddy Ashraf Ghani was sworn in today as president of Afghanistan, a peaceful transfer of power that is being publicly celebrated as a triumph of democracy, but, as Ahmed Rashid noted in a column on Friday, the power-sharing arrangement between Ghani and Adbullah Abdullah cobbled together by USG to prevent Kabul from collapsing in chaos, "[H]as no basis in Afghanistan’s election law."

Rod Nordland has the story today, "Ashraf Ghani Sworn In as Afghan President," which is noteworthy for its handy summary of events since April's presidential primary when Abdullah Abdullah established himself as the clear front runner:
Mr. Ghani won a June 14 runoff election against Mr. Abdullah, with 55 percent of the vote to Mr. Abdullah’s 45 percent, but Mr. Abdullah and his supporters cried foul. He had won the original April 6 election with 45 percent of the vote to Mr. Ghani’s 31 percent in a crowded field of contenders, and accused his opponent of fraud.
Nearly a million votes were discarded as fraudulent, twice as many for Mr. Ghani, but Mr. Abdullah’s supporters said the true number of fraudulent votes was two or three times higher than that. 
The dispute forced a full audit of the vote, supervised by the United Nations, but Mr. Abdullah’s supporters felt the audit was not fair and boycotted it. After two visits to the Afghan capital, Kabul, by Secretary of State John Kerry, and further negotiations by phone and video link with Mr. Kerry and other American officials, the two sides agreed to a national unity government in which Mr. Abdullah would have substantial powers. 
Under terms of the deal, it was agreed that the election commission would not publicly announce the vote totals until after the inauguration, a highly unusual procedure but one that the election commission agreed to, under United Nations’ pressure. 
Then on Friday, Mr. Ghani’s campaign posted those totals on its official Facebook page, leading Mr. Abdullah to nearly pull out of the inauguration ceremony. That was further aggravated by a scuffle at the presidential palace between Mr. Abdullah’s followers and those of Abdul Rashid Dostum, Mr. Ghani’s first vice president, over who would have offices that Mr. Abdullah had expected to get, according to a Western diplomat. 
Mr. Dostum, an Uzbek warlord whom Mr. Ghani described in 2009 as a “known killer,” brought a substantial block of votes to Mr. Ghani’s campaign. The presence of many of Mr. Dostum’s followers on the streets of Kabul, in civilian clothes but heavily armed, has been a cause of concern for many residents of the capital. The carrying of weapons is theoretically outlawed except by uniformed security forces or those with special licenses. The police, however, have been reluctant to challenge the gunmen.
The ceremony of primary importance for the United States comes tomorrow, the signing of the bilateral security agreement:
Both Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah support the signing of a bilateral security agreement with the United States, which Mr. Karzai had refused to sign. That was expected to happen on Tuesday, when a similar agreement with NATO is to be signed as well. The agreements call for a continued American and coalition military presence in Afghanistan after the end of 2014.
The the next installment of  the color revolution is right on schedule in Hong Kong where police overreacted this past weekend by using too much tear gas against peaceful protesters sitting-in in front of government buildings. This, as it always does, brings more people into the streets. Now the authorities have a dire situation on their hands, possibly Bangkok-type gridlock for months on end. Austin Ramzy and Alan Wong have the story, "Hong Kong Protesters Defy Officials’ Call to Disperse":
The protesters are calling for fully democratic elections for the city’s leader, the chief executive, in 2017. Hong Kong, a former British colony that was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, had been promised universal suffrage by that date. But under China’s plan for conducting those elections, only candidates vetted by a Beijing-friendly committee would be allowed to run. 
Alison Fung, a magazine editor who said she had been at the Admiralty sit-in since Sunday night, said that she and other demonstrators were angered by what she called the “wordplay” used to present China’s election proposal as a democratic advance. 
“Probably about 10 years ago, Hong Kong was not so concerned about politics,” Ms. Fung said Monday. “But we want a more fair election so we can decide our own future. People feel that our opinions aren’t listened to.” [Me too.]
The Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the organizations leading the protests, called Sunday night for an indefinite student strike. On Monday, images of students holding gatherings at their schools in lieu of classes, many of them wearing black in support of the protests, could be seen on social media and in local news reports. 
In another indication that the protests could broaden, the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union called Sunday for a general strike by teachers in the city. The organization, which has around 90,000 members, called the police “enemies of the people” and said they had used “ruthless force” against unarmed civilians.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Colt 45 Chronicle #76

It is NFL Week Four Sunday, which means if I am going to live up to my pledge and be done by the end of the season with this old letter project, the one I have dubbed "The Colt 45 Chronicle" after my beer of choice consumed while writing these epistles 25-years ago, I might have to start posting two a week. An audit of the remaining letters is called for at least to get a count. So far I have just been selecting them off the top. No culling, no cherry picking, no organization.

The letter below, addressed to my friends Greg and Tresca, is concerned primarily with the necessity of new music, pursuing new sounds. My wife and I often acted as hosts, and one my principal duties was as disc jockey. I liked to have the latest "leader of the pack," whether at the time it was Sonic Youth, or The Pogues or The Pixies, and then embed that in a foundation of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and The Velvet Underground.

I was reminded of the importance of fresh sounds this morning on a run around Lake Union. A couple years back I downloaded a free 2011 Merge Records sampler, on which appears a song, "Civilian" by Wye Oak. It shuffled on my iPod while I was working down the parking lots that line the lake just east of Westlake Avenue:

I close the letter with an expression of love. Greg and Tresca were important to me because they seemed to be doing their own thing. They were refuseniks. They worked but didn't believe that it would amount to anything. They drank. Greg was a tremendous athlete. A big guy at 6'3" or 6'4" and over 210 lbs. Drinking was what they did, drinking and listening to music.
Winter 1989
I finally shelled for some new music. It happened last Monday, down on Broadway and West 4th Street. It was a Monday, but I wasn't working; and the snow was sure snowing. But I braved it all -- the avoidance of worklife and the sloshing in West Village snow streets (like the cover of The Free Wheelin' Bob Dylan, Levi's feeling much too thin) -- so I could get some new music in my life, or at least some music that I hadn't heard for quite a while. 
Too many times in the near past I have found myself overcome, forlorn, because none of the stuff I have does the trick anymore. You know, people come over, bring a few bottles of wine or some quarts of beer (some of Ashley's med-school chums -- though, sadly, not very often; it's usually I who does most of the bringing) and you want to put something on that sparks, that inspires, that captures the mood, but you don't have anything. Sure, you have the old standards, the solid-and-always-reliable: the B.Dylan and N.Young and L.Reed and J.Rotten (everybody knows 'em and everybody loves 'em). But as your're fingering through the pile, you realize/know that they don't cut it, not when you're trying to get people up. People feel too secure around them, too normal and historical, like a high school yearbook; they've got too many memories, too many stories and sorrows attached to each tune you put on the turntable. It's like trying to get people to beer bong and dance, shoot a tequila shot and smoke a joint, all while eating Christmas dinner in the parents' living room and wishing mother a happy birthday, the bright light shooting off the freshly painted white walls down to your white china platter with the slice of white breast meat and the sliver of dark, the patch of stuffing and mash potatoes pig-penned in turkey-neck gravy, the cranberry sauce breeding on the perimeter. 
Music, I hope, isn't supposed supposed to be so comforting and tight-in-the-loins and unthinking as that. I would hope, and do think, that music -- and this is what makes looking for new music (or music you haven't heard before) necessary -- that music is something very outwardly social, energetic and revolutionary.
We, Greg and I, would drive out to San Ramon drinking 12-ounce coffees in paper cups. One morning he put on R.E.M., and I was just getting high from the caffeine. It was Green, and I hadn't heard it before. -- Because of my situation (staying over in S.F.), I was always drunk in the morning (as I know you guys were too). So the coffee would hit me hard -- but friendly -- and so would the sun (we were driving due East in the morning).
Without being hokey, because I'm good and drunk in one night, I love you two.  You're important to me.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Trinity of Sin: The Phantom Stranger One-Shot

This marks a first for me. I've never devoted an entire post to a DC title. The current run of The Phantom Stranger is part of DC's "The New 52" reboot where 52 titles are started over at issue #1.

I've been accumulating issues of "The New 52" The Phantom Stranger for some time but had yet to dip in until I took the day off to renew my driver's license earlier this month. Following a long run I settled down with my endorphins high and a couple of comic books. One of those books was Trinity of Sin: The Phantom Stranger one-shot I had picked up the day before at my neighborhood comic shop.

I've always been a Marvel devotee, but when I collected comic books as a kid I read plenty of DC too. DC might not have done superheroes as well as Marvel, but they did the macabre much better. DC had several titles, Ghosts and House of Mystery come to mind, of new horror (meaning, the comics were not primarily composed of reprinted material), while Marvel could only muster the lightweight Supernatural Thrillers. Pretty much everything else Marvel did in the way of horror, monsters, mystery, SciFi was by way of reprints. (I've been sporadically engaged in the exploration of one of these Marvel reprint titles, Where Monsters Dwell.)

DC also did a better job of butting up against the weakened Comics Code Authority (thanks to Stan Lee's Amazing Spider-Man) in the late Silver Age and early Bronze Age with Michael Kaluta's Watergate-era The Shadow, Spectre, Bernie Wrightson's Swamp Thing and The Phantom Stranger. Marvel had its superhero monster titles -- Werewolf By Night, The Tomb of Dracula, etc., the best of which was Man-Thing by Steve Gerber -- but they couldn't match DC's dark intensity, captured in this cover of The Phantom Stranger Vol 2 #26, September 1973, by Mike Kaluta:

Below you will find ten scans from The Phantom Stranger one-shot, the cover and nine interior pages. Phil Winslade is the artist; Dan Didio, the plotter; J.M. DeMatteis, the scripter. The interior pages are all suitably dark, transporting me back to the early comicbook Bronze Age of my youth.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Youth Lagoon's Androgyny

The first part of "Montana" by Youth Lagoon (a.k.a., Trevor Powers) is unremarkable, but the second half is exemplary.

I was reading an uncharacteristically good column ("The Good Order: Routine, Creativity and President Obama’s U.N. Speech") by the loathsome David Brooks on the train ride home tonight when "Montana" came over my iPod ear buds. I should say the column starts off well, with Brooks discussing the the regimented lives of creative people, before clown-car crashing in the usual bang of shallow bombast that discerning readers have come to expect from the "thinking man's" conservative.

Brooks concludes the column conflating ISIS with Putin (calling, once again, the Russian president a "thug"), while hailing Obama as courageous leader of the indispensable, order-bestowing United States of America. But before he reaches that point he does have these fine opening paragraphs:
When she was writing, Maya Angelou would get up every morning at 5:30 and have coffee at 6. At 6:30, she would go off to a hotel room she kept — a small modest room with nothing but a bed, desk, Bible, dictionary, deck of cards and bottle of sherry. She would arrive at the room at 7 a.m. and write until 12:30 p.m. or 2 o’clock. 
John Cheever would get up, put on his only suit, ride the elevator in his apartment building down to a storage room in the basement. Then he’d take off his suit and sit in his boxers and write until noon. Then he’d put the suit back on and ride upstairs to lunch.
 Anthony Trollope would arrive at his writing table at 5:30 each morning. His servant would bring him the same cup of coffee at the same time. He would write 250 words every 15 minutes for two and a half hours every day. If he finished a novel without writing his daily 2,500 words, he would immediately start a new novel to complete his word allotment.
I was reminded of these routines by a book called “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work,” compiled by Mason Currey. 
The vignettes remind you how hard creative people work. Most dedicate their whole life to work. “I cannot imagine life without work as really comfortable,” Sigmund Freud wrote. 
But you’re primarily struck by the fact that creative people organize their lives according to repetitive, disciplined routines. They think like artists but work like accountants. “I know that to sustain these true moments of insight, one has to be highly disciplined, lead a disciplined life,” Henry Miller declared. 
“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” W.H. Auden observed.
"Montana" is a track on The Year of Hibernation (2011), Youth Lagoon's debut album.

I saw The Year of Hibernation on a favorites list posted on the Seattle Public Library web site. I checked it out; downloaded it to my iTunes; played it a several times; liked it well enough, but it never transported me. It came close, but it never quite got me there.

A song here and there will tap into the majesty of Beirut's March of the Zapotec/Holland (2009). But for the most part it never quite takes off. Except for the second half of "Montana."

Listening to The Year of Hibernation tonight what I am struck by is its tremendous androgyny.

Before I knew Youth Lagoon was a young guy I couldn't tell who was singing. Sometimes I was sure it was a young woman, depending on the song, sometimes a guy.

Sopko on Afghanistan + Nader Praises Ghani

Ahmed Rashid has an OpEd piece, "Afghanistan’s Failed Transformation," today that is worth reading. Rashid achieved prominence in the United States post-9/11 when his book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (2000) was on the Gray Lady's bestseller list.

Rashid says,
John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, apparently is the only official in Washington who dares speak truth to power. In a Sept. 12 speech at Georgetown University, he said that Afghanistan “remains under assault by insurgents and is short of domestic revenue, plagued by corruption, afflicted by criminal elements involved in opium and smuggling, and struggling to execute basic functions of government.” His comments were largely ignored by the American media, and there was no immediate reaction from the Obama administration.
I decided to see if Sopko's Georgetown speech is available on YouTube. It is (see above).

Rashid says that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan needs to be judged on the basis of four post-Taliban transitions: political, military, economic, and the ability of the country to disentangle itself from meddling foreign powers. Rashid says Afghanistan has failed in all four transitions.

Interestingly, Ralph Nader had a piece on the Counterpunch web site yesterday hailing new Afghan president Ashraf Ghani ("Will Ashraf Ghani be Given the Room to Govern? Afghan Voters Choose a Better Future"):
I’ve known Ashraf Ghani and his family since his teaching days at Johns Hopkins. I knew of his wide-ranging interests and ability to see through propaganda and verbal pomposity. As a comprehensive, functional progressive, he is not strapped to any prejudging ideology. During our visit to California in 2012, he spoke of traveling to scores of Afghan villages to sense their expectations, their rhythms and their responsiveness to practical engagements to develop community economies, health care and education. His experience in the creation of the National Solidarity Program, which provided block grants to villages for plans devised and implemented by village councils, helped him in his visits to various Afghan villages. Today, that little-noticed program covers over half of Afghanistan’s 21,000 villages.
The Afghan population is an asset because the people are ready for government officials with honesty, smarts and the ability to get results. They want exactly what Ashraf Ghani can deliver for them: basic necessities, public works and stability for their families and communities in as self-reliant a manner as possible.
The editorial in the August 15, 2014 issue of Science magazine noted a potentially positive national asset for Ghani: “the hyperspectral survey of Afghanistan by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in 2007… quantified 24 world-class mineral deposits (including iron, cobalt, gold, copper, and rare earth elements), positioning Afghanistan to become a major supplier of minerals…” 
No one knows better about the worker or the distributional, environmental, and contractual protections needed before such minerals are subjected to extraction than this practical, inclusive renaissance man with an inherent personal touch, who is about to lead this war-ravaged country. 
Will Ashraf Ghani be given the elbow room to exert his remarkable leadership capabilities to bring out the best from Afghanistan? Or, will the forces of disintegration, once again, reassert themselves to dissect and divide a country that conniving outsiders and corrupt insiders will not leave alone? 
For more information, please see http://en.ashrafghani.com/.

Why Aren't Turkey, al-Saud and Qatar on the Office of Foreign Assets Control Sanctions List?

One of the interesting juxtapositions raised by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday is how the United States seeks help to combat violent jihadis in Iraq and Syria, a force it helped to create, at the same time it subjects Iran to withering financial and trade sanctions. Somini Sengupta has the story, "Iran’s President Says West’s ‘Blunders’ Aided Rise of Islamic State":
UNITED NATIONS — President Hassan Rouhani of Iran delivered a searing indictment of Western and Arab states on Thursday in his annual speech to the United Nations, blaming them for sowing the seeds of extremism in the Middle East with “strategic blunders” that have given rise to the Islamic State and other violent jihadist groups. 
“Certain intelligence agencies have put blades in the hands of madmen, who now spare no one,” Mr. Rouhani said, adding that “all those who have played a role in founding and supporting these terror groups must acknowledge their errors” and apologize. 
He also used the occasion to denounce the Western-led sanctions imposed on Iran’s nuclear program and reiterated his government’s desire to resolve Iran’s protracted dispute with the United States and other nations over the program. 
He implied that the nuclear negotiations were linked to Iran’s cooperation in combating the Islamic State and its affiliates, saying that no security cooperation was possible until the sanctions were lifted. 
“The people of Iran, who have been subjected to pressures especially in the last three years as a result of continued sanctions, cannot place trust in any security cooperation between their government with those who have imposed sanctions and created obstacles in the way of satisfying even their primary needs, such as food and medicine,” he said.
Julie Hirschfeld Davis had a small story, "Treasury Imposes Terrorism Sanctions," in yesterday's paper about the U.S. Depart of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control designating numerous individuals and a few organizations tied to Islamic State and Nusra, as well as Indonesian jihadis, to be added to its sanctions list.

Hirschfeld Davis constructs her brief piece by culling Treasury's press release, but she one-ups USG by dutifully trotting out at the top of her story the canard that Islamic State is difficult to sanction because its revenue stream is all illicit, principally its sale of black-market oil:
WASHINGTON — The Treasury Department on Wednesday imposed sanctions on 11 people and one entity it said were sending financial and other support to terrorist groups, including the Islamic State. The sanctions are aimed at the funding streams that have allowed the terrorist organizations to flourish and recruit fighters from the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. 
The impact of the sanctions is unclear, particularly since the Islamic State largely circumvents the international banking system and traditional commerce, deriving much of its wealth from black-market oil sales, extortion and kidnappings for ransom. But the action is also designed to publicly expose key players in the group, with the goal of isolating them and restricting their access to money and freedom of movement.
Prior to Islamic State's attack on the Kurds in August when the the group was racking up victory after substantial victory on the ground in Syria and Iraq and the United States was doing its best to ignore the jihadi blitz, the canard was floated that IS was self-funding based on its control of oilfields in northern Syria and an extensive system of extortion in Mosul and elsewhere. This canard was necessary in order to steer blame away from sponsors among U.S. allies in the Gulf as well as the U.S. covert programs in Jordan and Turkey to unseat the Syrian government.

But as Kemal Okuyan, a member of the central committee of the Communist Party of Turkey, made clear in a post yesterday on the Counterpunch web site ("The Master's Plan: ISIS, the U.S. and Turkey: Are They All Crazy?"), without money and weapons from the Arab monarchies ISIS could not survive:
Let’s us dig in the issue of ISIS a little more. Among the countries who have joined the U.S. led coalition against ISIS, aren’t there some that still finance ISIS? Yes, there are. In case Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan were to stop the flow of money and arms to ISIS, it would not take more than a week for the whole business to be over. However, other than a few symbolic measures, nothing substantial has been done on that front. In other words, the reactionary coalition keeps feeding the organization that they have declared as the “enemy”. Who would believe you after this?
Yesterday the United States, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates bombed refineries in the northeastern Syrian provinces of Deir al-Zour and Hasakah. Helene Cooper and Anne Barnard in "Warplanes Blast Militants’ Refineries in Syria, Targeting a Source of Cash," point out today the Pentagon's wildly inflated estimates of the value of ISIS's oil revenue:
Officials with the United States Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East, said the refineries produced 300 to 500 barrels of oil daily, generating as much as $2 million per day in black-market oil sales for the group’s operations. That estimate is higher than American officials had previously made public, and would put the price around $333 per barrel. Oil sells for about $100 a barrel on the open market.
Why do this? Why inflate the value of crudely refined jihadi black-market oil to three-times the market worth? The obvious answer is the one provided by the Okuyan: So that the reactionary coalition can keep feeding the jihadis that they are bombing, making the problem bigger and the war larger.

Why not add the nations publicly acknowledged to finance and provision Islamic State to the Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctions list? Cuba, Iran and Syria (along with Russia under the heading "Ukraine-related") are on the list -- and these nations do not attack the U.S. Why not Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- and Turkey, for that matter -- the nations behind Islamic State?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

NFL Week 3: Seahawks Triumph, Pittsburgh Better Than Anticipated

The point of these posts on the National Football League is something akin to a dream journal. I don't spend a lot of time on them. Very few people read them, fewer even than the other posts on this page. Around mid-season I will shift, as I did last year, to predictions for the coming week. It takes a couple of months of spending every Sunday in front of my small color TV watching the games to get a feel for who is up and who is down.

For instance, the conventional wisdom on the Steelers is that they're rebuilding, and they are not a serious threat to anybody. But based on the Sunday night game, Pittsburgh is not a team to look past on the schedule. LaVeon Bell after dropping weight in the off season looks quicker and stronger than last year. And the defense played well against Carolina. Granted, Cam Newton is playing hurt, but that doesn't explain Pittsburgh's offense moving the ball up and down the field against the celebrated Panthers defense.

Earlier that day I rode the Seahawks roller coaster as hometown Seattle hung on in OT to win their rematch of February's Super Bowl with the Broncos. I shouted at the television when Russell Wilson threw his pick in the 4th quarter and Marshawn Lynch was tackled in the Seahawks end zone for a safety. Peyton Manning lived up to his hype by executing a drive in the last seconds that brought Denver even. But in the end Russell Wilson channeled his inner Joe Montana, something he does better than most if not all NFL quarterbacks, and engineered a game-winning drive in OT following Tarvaris Jackson correctly calling the coin toss and electing to receive the ball.

Really, in the end, watching the NFL on Sunday is an excuse for me to recline on my mattress on the floor. All day. A welcome rest for my legs, a chance to forget and merge with the American hive mind.

Kirkpatrick Shines a Light on House of Saud

Regularly on this page I have praised the reporting of David Kirkpatrick, the Gray Lady's Cairo bureau chief who covered the Tahrir Square revolution in 2011 as well as the military-led counterrevolution in 2013 and everything that went on in between. He is a rare journalist in the mainstream press in that he does not not first adhere to whatever the company line is at the time and then sculpt his writing to suit that purpose; rather, he propounds a thesis and then sets to proving it. The thesis Kirkpatrick chooses to articulate seems to be of his own making and not yoked to the State Department talking points in circulation.

Of course there is always the possibility that Kirkpatrick is an intelligence agency asset -- just a very good one -- an example of how the CIA, though much maligned, is one step ahead of the competition. I prefer to think of him as a very shrewd operator, a reporter who knows the ropes and who can press right up to the censor's red line. He is -- and this for a salaried worker of the Gray Lady is incredible -- reliable.

Kirkpatrick's offering in today's paper, "ISIS’ Harsh Brand of Islam Is Rooted in Austere Saudi Creed," is a must read. The House of Saud is finally getting some of the mainstream attention that it deserves:
For their guiding principles, the leaders of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, are open and clear about their almost exclusive commitment to the Wahhabi movement of Sunni Islam. The group circulates images of Wahhabi religious textbooks from Saudi Arabia in the schools it controls. Videos from the group’s territory have shown Wahhabi texts plastered on the sides of an official missionary van. 
Kirkpatrick goes on to outline the divergence between Al Qaeda and Islamic State, which is grounded in Saudi Wahhabism; ISIS is the more faithful scion of al-Saud:
This approach is at odds with the more mainstream Islamist and jihadist thinking that forms the genealogy of Al Qaeda, and it has led to a fundamentally different view of violence. Al Qaeda grew out of a radical tradition that viewed Muslim states and societies as having fallen into sinful unbelief, and embraced violence as a tool to redeem them. But the Wahhabi tradition embraced the killing of those deemed unbelievers as essential to purifying the community of the faithful. 
“Violence is part of their ideology,” Professor Haykel said. “For Al Qaeda, violence is a means to an ends; for ISIS, it is an end in itself.” 
The distinction is playing out in a battle of fatwas. All of the most influential jihadist theorists are criticizing the Islamic State as deviant, calling its self-proclaimed caliphate null and void and, increasingly, slamming its leaders as bloodthirsty heretics for beheading journalists and aid workers. 
The upstart polemicists of the Islamic State, however, counter that its critics and even the leaders of Al Qaeda are all bad Muslims who have gone soft on the West. Even the officials and fighters of the Palestinian militant group Hamas are deemed to be “unbelievers” who might deserve punishment with beheading for agreeing to a cease-fire with Israel, one Islamic State ideologue recently declared.
“The duty of a Muslim is to carry out all of God’s orders and rulings immediately on the spot, not softly and gradually,” the scholar, Al Turki Ben-Ali, 30, said in an online forum.
The Islamic State’s founder, Mr. Baghdadi, grafted two elements onto his Wahhabi foundations borrowed from the broader, 20th-century Islamist movements that began with the Muslim Brotherhood and ultimately produced Al Qaeda. Where Wahhabi scholars preach obedience to earthly rulers, Mr. Baghdadi adopted the call to political action against foreign domination of the Arab world that has animated the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda and other 20th-century Islamist movements. 
Mr. Baghdadi also borrowed the idea of a restored caliphate. Where Wahhabism first flourished alongside the Ottoman Caliphate, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded shortly after that caliphate’s dissolution, in 1924 — an event seen across the world as a marker of Western ascent and Eastern decline. The movement’s founders took up the call for a revived caliphate as a goal of its broader anti-Western project. 
These days, though, even Brotherhood members appear almost embarrassed by the term’s anachronism, emphasizing that they use caliphate as a kind of spiritual idea irrelevant to the modern world of nation-states. 
“Even for Al Qaeda, the caliphate was something that was going to happen in the far distant future, before the end times,” said William McCants, a researcher on militant Islam at the Brookings Institution. The Islamic State “really moved up the timetable,” he said — to June 2014, in fact. 
Adhering to Wahhabi literalism, the Islamic State disdains other Islamists who reason by analogy to adapt to changing context — including the Muslim Brotherhood; its controversial midcentury thinker Sayed Qutb; and the contemporary militants his writing later inspired, like Ayman al-Zawahri of Al Qaeda. Islamic State ideologues often deem anyone, even an Islamist, who supports an elected or secular government to be an unbeliever and subject to beheading. 
“This is ‘you join us, or you are against us and we finish you,’ ” said Prof. Emad Shahin, who teaches Islam and politics at Georgetown University. “It is not Al Qaeda, but far to its right.”
The story concludes by Kirkpatrick bringing it back to Saudi Arabia and the dilatory response of the clerics there in criticizing ISIS:
Some experts note that Saudi clerics lagged long after other Muslim scholars in formally denouncing the Islamic State, and at one point even the king publicly urged them to speak out more clearly. “There is a certain mutedness in the Saudi religious establishment, which indicates it is not a slam dunk to condemn ISIS,” Professor Haykel said. 
Finally, on Aug. 19, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the Saudi grand mufti, declared that “the ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way, but are the first enemy of Islam, and Muslims are their first victims, as seen in the crimes of the so-called Islamic State and Al Qaeda.”
To paraphrase a writer Thomas Friedman quoted in his column yesterday, "How can we expect the Saudi royal family to condemn ISIS when they believe the exact same thing?"

The shortcoming of Kirkpatrick's piece is that it fails to mention the longstanding relationship between Wahhabism, the Muslim Brothers, Al Qaeda and the United States. But the fact that more stories are appearing in the press tracking Islamic State back to its sponsors within the House of Saud I take to be a positive development.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

U.S. Hits Nusra + Crocker Remembers Karzai

An interesting, and I would say unexpectedly positive, report of the U.S.-led airstrikes on Islamic State is the inclusion of Al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, Al Nusra Front, in the target list. Whether the bombing of Nusra positions was due to the group's connection to the shadowy Khorasan Group (an organization that appears to be a spook confection, breathed into life last week when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper mentioned that "in terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as the Islamic State") or payback for the false flag Ghouta poison gas attack (that Seymour Hersh argued last spring was a Nusra operation) is not clear.

Ben Hubbard has the story, "Startling Sight Where Blasts Are the Norm":
While Mr. Obama had announced that the Islamic State would be targeted, the United States also hit at least two bases belonging to the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, exposing the gap between how the United States and many of Syria’s rebels see the group, as well as the hazards of attacking it. 
The United States considers the Nusra Front a terrorist organization, and American officials said the strikes disrupted an imminent plot to attack the West by an offshoot of Qaeda veterans known as Khorasan
One strike hit an area of abandoned villas on the western edge of Aleppo Province, killing at least 50 Nusra Front members, most of them foreigners and including at least a dozen leaders, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. 
A second strike in a village farther west, Kafr Dariyan, killed 15 people, including seven Nusra fighters and eight civilians, among them four children, the observatory said. An American military official said this was the strike against Khorasan. 
A video posted online showed residents removing a body from the rubble of a collapsed building.
The Nusra strikes immediately highlighted the shortcoming of Obama's announced strategy of combating IS by supporting "moderate" Syrian rebels. As Hubbard reports, the "moderates" like Al Qaeda and consider Nusra an ally in the fight against the Syrian government:
Even rebels who supported the strikes on the Islamic State criticized the targeting of the Nusra Front, which they consider a loyal partner in the battle against Mr. Assad. 
“It is not the right time to target the Nusra Front,” said Lt. Col. Fares al-Bayyoush, whose rebel group has received support from the United States and its allies. 
Colonel Bayyoush was also angry that the American strike had killed civilians and that the United States was not attacking Mr. Assad and his allies, like the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which the United States also classifies as a terrorist organization. 
“Isn’t Hezbollah a terrorist organization and the coalition wants to target all terrorist organizations in Syria?” he asked.
Hubbard concludes his story with a sensible quote from Shiite villager in northern Syria who worries that the U.S. coalition -- which includes well-known jihad sponsors al-Saud and Qatar -- against Islamic State is inherently unstable and will lead nowhere except to more war:
One activist who had fled Raqqa when the Islamic State took over said he hoped the strikes would weaken the jihadists but worried that Mr. Assad would benefit. 
“Maybe the regime will take over ISIS’ locations if the weak rebels aren’t able to after the strikes,” said the activists, who gave only his nickname, Abu Bakr. 
Many government supporters were worried about where events might lead because some of the countries in the coalition, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have called for Mr. Assad to step down or actively supported his enemies with money and arms. 
“I don’t trust the coalition,” said a man who gave only his first name, Jamal, from a Shiite village in northern Syria that is besieged by Sunni rebels. “They might take advantage of the situation and hit important locations, like the airport where the regime is, and I am afraid of errors.”
A coalition designed to wage war against a Sunni fundamentalist state, but the reality is that the coalition is secretly at war with itself -- does that sound familiar? It should because it describes the coalition that has fought the Taliban and occupied Afghanistan for the last 13 years.

Which brings us to Hamid Karzai's farewell address yesterday. There is a good interview with Shamil Sultanov on Pravda's web site. In describing the rise of Islamic State, he mentions that Karzai, like Nouri al-Malaki, is an American creation who grew alienated from his parent: "Al-Maliki is a protege, a puppet of the United States. Sometimes, though, a puppet may start wagging its master. We know this by the example of Hamid Karzai."

The Afghan president could not resist telling it like it is when it comes to the wiles and the ways of the U.S. overlord. Rod Nordland has the story -- an excellent report -- "In Farewell Speech, Karzai Calls American Mission in Afghanistan a Betrayal":
KABUL, Afghanistan — In his nearly 13 years as the leader of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai’s most memorable public stances always seemed driven by some deep emotion, and an almost compulsive need to express it. There was heartbreak for families killed by errant airstrikes, outrage at the scheming of hostile neighbors, palpable longing to preside over a peaceful end to the Taliban insurgency. 
On Tuesday, though he delivered a farewell speech in a loose and sometimes jocular way, there was, again, no doubt of the emotion that inspired his words: bitterness at what he saw as an American betrayal of Afghanistan. 
“America did not want peace for Afghanistan, because it had its own agendas and goals here,” he told an audience of hundreds of cabinet and staff members at the presidential palace in Kabul, warning them not to trust the Americans. “I have always said this: that if America and Pakistan want peace, it is possible to bring peace to Afghanistan.” 
Mr. Karzai’s denunciation of the United States came in terms that had become wearily familiar to the diplomats watching the televised speech from the heavily fortified American Embassy just a few blocks and many blast walls from the palace. But what the president did not say, omitting any recognition of the more than 2,000 American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars the United States expended in fighting the Taliban, may have grated more.
In his speech, he offered his first piece of advice to Mr. Ghani and to Abdullah Abdullah, the presidential rival who is to join a unity government after months of political crises and wrangling over widespread electoral fraud. It was more a warning than a reflection on the recent political peril: “Both wise brothers should be very careful in maintaining their relationship with Western countries and the United States,” Mr. Karzai said. 
He sought to explain to the government officials his dogged refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States, which would allow American troops to remain in Afghanistan after this year. Mr. Ghani has promised to sign it as soon as he is inaugurated, and many inside Mr. Karzai’s own government were critical of his stance. 
“I believe the stability of Afghanistan is directly related to the United States and Pakistan,” Mr. Karzai said. “This war is for the personal interest of the foreign policies of others, and this is a fight of outsiders in which Afghans are sacrificed.”
The remainder of Nordland's piece is composed of an interview with foreign-policy guru Ryan Crocker. Of all the Establishment figures I find Crocker one of the most sensible. He has called for peace with Iran and caution regarding regime change in Syria. It's worth to quote Nordland at length:
Ryan C. Crocker, dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M, was the first American ambassador to the post-Taliban government, and he was among those American officials who supported Mr. Karzai’s initial appointment as Afghanistan’s leader. Mr. Crocker also returned as ambassador in 2011, as Afghan relations were souring under the Obama administration, which Mr. Karzai saw as less attentive than the Bush administration had been. 
“I saw over the years an increasing bitterness on his part particularly vis-à-vis Pakistan and the U.S.-Pakistan relationship,” Mr. Crocker said. 
Mr. Karzai’s view was that the United States should have been able to force Pakistan to stop giving sanctuary to the Taliban’s leaders. The American view has been that the expectation was unrealistic, given the deeply troubled relationship between Washington and Islamabad. 
During Mr. Crocker’s second tour here as ambassador, and throughout Mr. Cunningham’s time since then, Mr. Karzai adopted an increasingly strident tone toward the Americans, particularly on the issue of civilian casualties in American airstrikes, and on two occasions actually threatened to join the Taliban, whom he often referred to as “my brothers.” 
He blamed the Americans, too, for his inability to start any sort of meaningful peace talks with the Taliban. The insurgents have consistently refused to talk to him, denouncing him as an American puppet. 
For all of that, Mr. Crocker still believes Hamid Karzai was the right man for the job Americans effectively chose him for at a conference in Bonn in December 2001. “I don’t think there was a better choice than Karzai,” he said. “I didn’t think so then; I don’t think so now.”
Mr. Crocker remembered Mr. Karzai saying in 2011 that he was counting the days until he could leave office: “I think I remember his words verbatim: ‘The worst thing that could happen to Afghanistan would be for me to continue in office.’ Then he said: ‘No, that would be the second-worst thing. The worst thing would be if one of my brothers was elected.’ ”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Far Enemy Attacks ISIS Bases in Northern Syria: Don't Expect Anything to Change Much

With the U.S. bombing Islamic State's stronghold in northern Syria, it is important to read the story by David Kirkpatrick and Omar al-Jawoshy that accompanies it on the front page. 

"Weeks of U.S. Strikes Fail to Dislodge ISIS in Iraq" confirms the pessimistic assessment provided yesterday on Counterpunch by veteran Middle East reporter Patrick Cockburn, "The Absurdity of U.S. Policy in Syria":
Likewise in Iraq, air strikes can only do so much. The government in Baghdad and the Iraqi army are still Shia-dominated and, however much the Sunni in Iraq dislike IS, they are even more frightened of its opponents. The US will try to split Sunni tribes and neighbourhoods away from the fundamentalists as it did in 2007, but there were then 150,000 US troops in the country and al-Qa’ida in Iraq was much weaker than IS. At the same time, it will find it difficult to advance further because, aside from Baghdad, it has already seized the areas where live the 20 per cent of Iraqis who are Sunni Arab. In Syria at least 60 per cent of the population are Sunni Arabs, meaning that IS’s natural constituency is much bigger.
Kirkpatrick and Jawoshy outline the problems the U.S. is having in kick-starting the Sunni Awakening:
The Sunni tribes of Anbar and other areas drove Qaeda-linked militants out of the area seven years ago with American military help, in what became known as the Sunni Awakening. But the tribes’ alienation from the subsequent authoritarian and Shiite-led government in Baghdad opened the door for the extremists of the Islamic State to return this year.
The foundation of the Obama administration’s plan to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is the installation of a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who has pledged to build a more responsive government and rebuild Sunni support. But, though at least some Sunni Arabs are fighting alongside the army in places like Haditha, influential Sunni sheikhs who helped lead the Awakening say they remain unconvinced.
Myriad local Sunni sheikhs are reading from the playbook written in Riyadh (or Langley -- who can tell anymore?):
“The Sunnis in Anbar and other provinces are facing oppression and discrimination by the government,” said Mohamed el-Bajjari, a sheikh in Anbar who is a spokesman for a coalition of tribes. “This government must be changed to form a technocratic government of nonsectarian secular people, or the battles and the anger of the Sunni people will continue.” 
Sunni tribal leaders said they were already disappointed by Mr. Abadi, whom Mr. Obama has hailed as the face of a more inclusive government. They said the military had not lived up to a pledge by the prime minister to discontinue shelling civilian areas in the battle against the Islamic State. (An American official involved in the effort, speaking on the condition of anonymity according to diplomatic protocol, said some governors had asked for renewed airstrikes to stop new Islamic State advances.)
Bear in mind this is the same line used by USG to pressure Malaki to step down. The Sunni sheikhs are now using it against Abadi. Kirkpatrick and Jawoshy leave the reader with the impression that ISIS still has a tremendous amount of support among Iraq's Sunni sheikhs:
In Dhuluiya, a town famous here as where the mostly Sunni Jabouri tribe has held out during a three-month siege by the Islamic State’s forces, local fighters said their Sunni neighbors had abandoned them. 
“The Sunni tribes’ role here is almost nonexistent,” said Ali al-Jabouri, a local fighter. “There are many tribes in the villages near here, but they were not serious about joining us to combat the Islamic State, and until now none of them have joined us.” 
In some places, the Iraqi Army has turned over captured territory to the police, who quickly lose control back to the Islamic State. Other Sunni leaders, however, insisted that things would improve. 
Wasfi al-Aasi, a Sunni Arab tribal leader who leads a pro-government council of sheikhs in Baghdad, said the biggest tribes had signaled their support against the Islamic State and were establishing “national guard” units in six provinces. “The next few days will bring good news,” he said. 
He said the tribal leaders who expressed disappointment in the government were “all with the Islamic State.”
The story ends with ISIS tallying a significant victory in Anbar by overrunning Camp Saqlawiya north of Falluja and slaughtering the Iraqi troops inside:
A week ago, for example, a force of about 800 soldiers found themselves stranded at Camp Saqlawiya in Anbar, cut off from the rest of the army behind Islamic State lines without food, water, fuel or, eventually, ammunition, according to soldiers who escaped. Finally, on Sunday, an army tank unit based in Ramadi, outside Anbar, made its way through a road mined with explosives to within 500 yards of the base, said a soldier in the group who gave his name as Abu Moussa. 
Seeing the rescuers, the soldiers inside opened the gates and ran out, he said. But groups of Islamic State fighters suddenly poured out of neighboring buildings and surged forward in armored vehicles with heavy-weapon mounts. At least two armed vehicles rigged with bombs made it into the base and exploded. 
The tanks retreated, Abu Moussa said, crushing bodies of dead soldiers underneath them. “I have not seen such fire and blood for 10 years” in the military, he said. “It is a disaster.”
So yesterday when I said that the caliphate had been successfully stymied by American air power, I was not being accurate. ISIS always reaches for the long-hanging fruit; it is a fighting force that is always on the offensive. In addition to the victory at Camp Saqlawiya, ISIS also sent over one-hundred thousand Syrian Kurds across the border into Turkey when it attacked the Kurdish enclave of Kobani. Ben Hubbard, Alan Cowell and Helene Cooper report in "U.S. and Allies Strike ISIS Targets in Syria" that:
On Syria’s northern border, meanwhile, more than 130,000 Syrian Kurds have fled into Turkey to escape an advance by Islamic State fighters. The humanitarian catastrophe could worsen within days. the United Nations relief agency in Geneva said on Tuesday that it was making contingency plans for all 400,000 inhabitants of a Syrian Kurdish border town to try to flee into Turkey.
The story's celebration of the power of the U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS camps in northern Syria (". . . a fierce opening blow against the jihadists of the Islamic State, scattering their forces and damaging the network of facilities . . . .") gives way to a more pessimistic evaluation:
Some of Syria’s allies have suggested that the government in Damascus would benefit from strikes, although analysts question whether the Syrian military has the forces it would need to do so. 
Syria also has hundreds of rebels groups, many of which hate the Islamic State, and the United States has been working with allies to build up a small number groups deemed moderate. But these forces remain relatively small and are far from the Islamic State’s locations, so there is little chance that they will soon be able to seize control of any areas vacated by the Islamic State.
Now comes the part where Islamic State will pivot to the "Far Enemy." threatening attacks on the Western coalition of nations that is attacking it:
Reuters quoted an unidentified ISIS fighter as saying “these attacks will be answered.” The militants have already released videos showing the beheadings of two American hostages and of one British captive, and have threatened a fourth hostage, a Briton, with the same fate. 
Additionally, an Algerian group linked to Islamic State has claimed to have kidnapped a French citizen. Prime Minister Manuel Valls told French radio that there would be “no discussion, no negotiation and we will never give in to blackmail” about the hostage’s fate.
We'll see if ISIS sticks to its strategy of plucking the low-hanging fruit. Jordan was part of the coalition of Sunni sheikhs (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain were the others) that participated in the airstrikes on northern Syria. If I were al-Baghdadi I would think Jordan is the juiciest piece of fruit hanging lowest off the branch. But if the caliphate is centrally controlled from the House of Saud, no such attacks will be in the offing. There will be more decapitations of Western aid workers and journalists and maybe some subway bombs in Europe.

Monday, September 22, 2014

New Government in Afghanistan + Climate March + Matt Bai on Gary Hart's Fall

On this last day of summer it seems as if events are finally settling down. Maybe not settling down so much as taking shape.

A third Gulf War is in the works for the United States. And while there are a lot of unknowns as to what this Gulf War III will end up looking like, for now at least the caliphate no longer appears to be inevitable. Islamic State is no longer making broad territorial gains. U.S. air power along with promises to reassert itself in Syria seems to have made an impact.

In the Donbass a nominal ceasefire is holding, giving the warring parties time to reflect. The lust for more violence has diminished greatly. The junta remains the critical player here. The fact that Poroshenko has maintained the ceasefire as long as he has tells me that Kiev is seriously in danger if the fighting continues.

Even Afghanistan, with Kabul a few weeks ago close to violence because of the contested presidential recount between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, now appears temporarily stable. Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah signed off yesterday on a new unity government. Adbullah Abdullah will be the prime minister, and he will apparently be more than a ceremonial official. Ashraf Ghani will be the president will all the powers granted to the presidency according to the Afghan Constitution. One wonders about the legitimacy of this agreement. Can the exiting president, Hamid Karzai, create by fiat these changes in the organization of government? Doesn't there have to be a constitutional or legislative process to implement the agreement? In any event, a big win for the United States. Now the Obama administration can get its bilateral security agreement signed and figure out its force structure for the next few years.

There was a big climate march publicity event yesterday. Counterpunch ran a story by Arun Gupta over the weekend that is worth reading, "Business as Usual in Manhattan: How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign," the gist of which is that the large organizations behind the march, 350.org and Avaaz, billed it as an "Occupy"-type direct action while working assiduously behind the scene to make sure that it was nothing of the sort. The goal was to have a "family friendly" march that would provide pretty visuals but no real threat to business as usual.

There was an associated climate march here in the Emerald City. But, having spent all Saturday downtown among the tourists, I spent Sunday, after completing a run around Lake Union, in front of the television watching the NFL. I did manage to muddle my way through Matt Bai's lengthy feature in the New York Times Magazine, "How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics."

I was expecting more because I do think the 1988 presidential election campaign is something of a dividing line. Certainly Bush I's presidency is the last of the post-war (WWII) consensus-type administrations. But Bai spends most of his time rehashing all the ridiculous, sordid details of the stakeout of Hart's D.C. townhouse by Miami Herald reporters.

There is not a lot of big picture stuff. Bai does explore the shift in journalism following Watergate. But he doesn't explain why it took another 15 years for Fourth Estate to go after the sexual infidelities of politicians. What changed in that 15 years?

The Carter administration was treated to the first ersatz Watergate just a few years after Nixon resigned. That was the Bert Lance affair. The public has been treated to one -Gate scandal after the next ever since.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Colt 45 Chronicle #75

I met Gary and Eleni when my wife and I first moved to New York City. Gary was in Ashley's medical-school class. His wife Eleni was Greek. She came from Thessaloniki. 

Gary and Eleni also lived in married-student housing, but in a different building, one farther north from the hospital, across from J Hood Wright Park.

Gary and I liked to get together and drink and bullshit, and Eleni, who didn't feel a big connection to the women among Gary's classmates, usually hung out with us.

Gary was more of a dope-smoker than a drinker, but he could drink pretty well too. After I broke up with my wife, my friendship with Gary and Eleni remained strong. They were good friends while I lived in New York. Eventually my drinking would ruin our relationship. Alcoholics have a knack for blowing things up.

The partial transcript below of a conversation between Gary, Eleni and I recorded one cold, dark Saturday night was my attempt (which was intended to be a much more robust effort) to get a handle on writing dialogue as it is actually spoken. I was motivated in this by having recently read Visions of Cody (1972), part of which is Kerouac's transcription of conversations he taped between him, Neal Cassady and Carolyn Cassady while he stayed with the couple in their San Francisco home.

Typing taped conversations is hard work. Never a skilled typist, more a quick practitioner of the hunt and peck, the goal of creating a transcript of an entire evening's free-flowing drunk discussion was far too ambitious. I'm sure the idea was to send it off to my buddies on the West Coast once the entire tape was transcribed. That letter was never sent.

I have zero memory of who Urgeen the Turk was and why Gary, Eleni and I are badmouthing him. Our conversation is mostly gibberish with a sizable dose of immaturity.
Spring 1989
G. This is going to be--this is going be a test, just to see if it's working. Okay? --
M. Okay! Excellent. Excellent.
E. Okay. One-two-three. One-two-three --
G. Okay, wait.  .  .  Tes-- Testes, testes. I have one, two (Mike laughs). Testes, testes. I've got--
M. Genius, already! 
G. -- I've got (laughs), I've got one, two.
E. What is this . . .  (voice drops to a whisper; you can't hear the rest of what she says, something about disgusting")
G. Ha ha!
E. Huh? 
G. Alright.
M. Isn't it horrible (Pixies playing on the stereo; "Boxcar Waaay-tin" can be heard in the background) when you, when, when you --
E. It's nice when a person . . . (peels off into a chuckle; Mike joins in)
G. Alright, so what were we talking about?
M. Urgeen . . . (nobody says anything; Pixies wail, "Wait so-oooh laaaw-ong") What I found so amazing --
E. I don't know, I think you, ah, you really, though, you, I mean, you over . . . you know, like, you misjudge the guy, you -- 
M. Yeah! I was, I was --
G. He's not that bad.
M. No, I know. I think he was --
E. Like, I not, I mean, he doesn't have, like, of course, like manners because --
G. Because he's a Turk!
E. Yeah. (Gary laughs) Yeah, a Turk, and --
M. But, but you know what I felt kinda bad about though is it there was -- he was so, being so obviously flirtatious . . . with you, and his wife was, you know -- 
E. Right next to him --
M. -- Right, right there.
G. Yeah.
E. -- with the children.
M. Well , sa-- I mean, I mean --
G. Take-- Taking care of Lily. Ha ha!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Captain Marvel #17

Comic books have always been about New York City. Whether Superman's Metropolis, Batman's Gotham or the actual city as portrayed by Marvel -- home to the Fantastic Four's Baxter Building, the Avenger's mansion abutting Central Park and Peter Parker's place of employment (J. Jonah Jameson's Daily Bugle) -- modern-day comic books, since the medium's inception in 1930s New York City, have acted as a introduction to and a primer for life in the cultural capital of the United States.

As a boy growing up during the 1970s, reading The Amazing Spider-Man and Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, it was clear to me that there was a center, a platform for all human action, and that was New York City. I knew I had to get there. (And I did get there, and lived there for five years at an appropriate time of life, my early to middle twenties.)

A fundamental aspect -- I'm tempted to say the fundamental aspect -- of situating superhero comic books in New York City is one of scale. It is all about the size of the buildings, the long canyons of commercial high-rise architecture, and the puniness of Homo sapiens in such an environment. To dramatize a situation where the hero can soar above all this, can swing freely among and tread effortlessly up and and down the skyscrapers, is the essence of super.

To see what I mean, check out the two Silver Age covers from the great John Romita, Sr. The first, with help from Frank Giacoia, is from Daredevil #16, May 1966; the second, a favorite of mine, is from Amazing Spider-Man #48, May 1967:

Captain Marvel #17, the concluding issue in the 7th volume of that title, with a publication date of January 2014, is amazing because it taps back into this essence of the superhero: it is set in New York City, and it pays homage to the grandeur of the metropolis' architecture -- it almost has a George Reeves Adventures of Superman quality.

The issues of volume 7 of Captain Marvel where writer Kelly Sue DeConnick works with standout artist Filipe Andrade are exceptional.

Andrade departs after #12 and the title clunks along in service of the Thanos Infinity Star Warsesque crossover event, but he returns to spectacular effect in #17.

As you can see from the scans of nine interior pages below, Andrade is one of the best. The cover page is by the incomparable Joe Quinones.