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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Empress Cristina Fiddles While Argentina Burns

Links A: Cristina Fernandez Kirchner Wikipedia Entry
          B. Kirchner Always A Victim

Argentina has quite a history when it comes to politically powerful women.  Evita Duarte de
Evita Peron 1919-1952
Peron is probably the most famous, inspiring both a Broadway Musical and a feature film starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas.  Eva was the wife of Argentina's president, Juan Peron.  Her beauty and her charm, on display during her many philanthropic visits to the lower income areas of Buenos Aires to hand out candy to children and Pesos to peasants, served as a powerful distraction away from the brutal, repressive activities of her husband's Army and Secret Police.  Before tragically dying of Cancer when she was only thirty-three years old, Eva Peron had taken control of her husband's life.  She was even more ambitious than he was, and she knew how to mobilize the crowds as  a political battering ram.  Eva Peron declined the invitation to run as her husband's Vice President, but another wife decided to seize that opportunity.  But Isabel Peron was a far cry from Evita.  As her husband's health collapsed
Isabel Peron 1931-
Source: Romanian Communism
Online Photo Collection
and she was obliged to take the reigns of government, she was easily manipulated by the security forces.  She eventually ended up in Spain, where she lives today.

Doesn't the old cliché say that "three's a charm"?  Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was also married to the President of Argentina, Nestor Kirchner.  Cristina didn't have to run for Vice President, and then hope for lightening to strike.  She and her husband decided that after his term was complete, she would run for the presidency.  In 2007 she was elected President of Argentina, a reversal of roles for her and her husband Nestor.  From the beginning it was apparent that they shared political philosophies.  They believed in a leftist type of nationalism that evoked the idea of the Working Class and Unions as the caretakers of society.  Anything involving trade and international commerce was an obvious attempt by foreigners to enslave the Argentinean people. Kirchner's relations with the United States started badly as a U.S. Prosecutor alleged that
Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner
Source: presidencia.gov.ar
Kirchner and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez were involved in money laundering with funds meant for her election.  Although this dispute was ironed-out, its obvious that she has no love lost for the United States.  Both Kirchners were big government spenders.  Money was borrowed and agreements signed with multi-national companies.  The economy, once the laughing stock of South America, was growing and people were working.  As the end of her term approached, everyone expected that she would stand-down and that her husband would run again for president.  When Nestor Kirchner unexpectedly died of a heart attack in 2010, Cristina decided to run for re-election, which she won with 54.1 percent of the vote.

Since 2011, she has been confronted with one scandal after another.  She doesn't seem to care about the long-term impact of her actions.  Rumors and innuendo regarding campaign funds never seem to disappear.  She is true to her roots, and embraces the "Unions and Working Class" whenever she needs a pick-me-up.  Her political philosophy is not complicated.  Distract as much as possible, and then accuse the enemy of wanting to destroy the Working Class of Argentina.  She understands the politics of victimization like nobody's business, and is brave enough to use it in international forums.  The domestic policies of the two Kirchners were disastrous for Argentina.  Economies in recovery can't be burdened with huge amounts of social spending; it's that simple. But social spending is necessary in order to keep the people happy and win elections.  In June 2010, Kirchner's government completed a debt swap agreement that was originated by her husband in 2005.  This effort did clear ninety-two percent of bad debt leftover from Argentina's 2001 sovereign default.  But the spending which caused the problem to begin with, continued unabated. 

Kirchner will always question the motives of others and look to assign blame.  This is part of her modus operandi to distract and avoid serious examination.  Sometimes its difficult to address issues when you are obliged to constantly defend yourself. Kirchner's strategy is to attack and attack and attack, because everyone knows that at the end of the day, she (or Argentina) is always the blameless victim.  Argentina doesn't want to pay back a loan?  Why should they, if the loan was contracted under false pretenses?  In 2001, Argentina was selling bonds at bargain-basement prices.  One particular Hedge Fund picked up quite a few, as did many others.  Later, Argentina restructured the value of the Bonds, arguing that they were purchased at a time of desperation.  Except one Hedge Fund refused to accept the lower value of its Argentinean Bonds. They demanded payment, and Argentina refused; it ended up in New York District Court, where Judge Thomas Griesa ruled in favor of the Hedge Fund.  Cristina rallied the "Workers of Argentina" and refused to honor the court ruling.  In the eyes of many, Argentina is the victim, in reality, the Hedge Fund is only asking for full value of the Bonds it purchased.  Can you imagine if you owned a valuable painting or work of art, and out of the blue someone arbitrarily decided it was worth less than fifty percent of its previous value?

Kirchner should be spending this final year cleaning up her legacy, dedicating a few statues, and possibly writing a book.  Instead she is engulfed in the latest scandal, which threatens to be the worst yet.  An Argentinean Prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, was found murdered in his home. He was preparing to address Congress regarding his investigation into President Kirchner and her actions regarding a 1994 terrorist attack in Buenos Aires.  Surprisingly (or not), his murder occurred one day before he was scheduled address Congress on Kirchner's actions.  Kirchner's reaction to his death was to quickly introduce the idea that Nisman committed suicide.  The very next day, her opinion had changed.  In typical Kirchner fashion, she and her government were now the victim, as Nisman's murder must have been an attempt to make her look bad.

Baring an unforeseen change in the Argentinean Constitution, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner will not be re-elected President of Argentina.  The tone of her legacy, though, has yet to be determined.  She is a tremendously intelligent woman and a superb politician, and she always seems to be the last one standing.  I wish I could say with complete sincerity that I believe that Kirchner has no connection to the Nisman murder whatsoever, but I can't.  What I can say in complete honesty is that I hope she has no involvement.  Evita, Isabel, and Cristina: three beautiful women who reach the pinnacle of power in Argentina.  Cristina may very well be on her way to eclipsing the other two, although it may not be by choice.          

Friday, January 30, 2015

Why I Avoid Flying

I remember the days when I would get excited thinking about taking a flight.  The idea that anything could possibly go wrong never entered my mind.  Even as I grew older and started traveling frequently for work, I never minded flying.  When I was still a relatively young man, though, my attitude changed just a bit.  I was living and working in Africa, and it was necessary for me to fly to different countries for projects and seminars.  As I point out in my book, I discovered that Africa is where old planes go to die.  Once a plane has outlived its usefulness in North America and Europe, many times it ends up in Africa.  Let me tell you, Africans know how to keep a plane functional, even if comfort has long since ceased to be a concern.  Aficionados of older planes, including some of the really old prop jobs, can always be found in African airports, taking pictures and marveling at the ancient birds that still manage to reach the clouds.  Whenever I had the opportunity, I chose to fly South African Airways, because in those days, it was a first class airline.  Unfortunately, because of
apartheid, SAA was only allowed to land in Nairobi, and that was for refueling purposes only.  On flights to Europe, SAA was obliged to fly out over the ocean to avoid flying over any African countries and possibly attracting a Mig or a surface-to-air missile.  I remember driving to Gaborone, Botswana, Lusaka, Zambia, and most frequently, Harare, Zimbabwe, to catch flights to other African destinations.  I can't recall ever being overly concerned about the state of the aircraft, although the behavior of some passengers certainly scared the hell out of me.  I remember one occasion when a gentleman attempted to start a fire on the plane, in order to cook his dinner.  I never did find out what victuals he had in mind.  On another occasion, in Entebbe, Uganda, I watched the pilot and co-pilot come on board wearing parachutes.  None of the passengers had parachutes, but for some reason, we all seemed just fine.  Sometimes in Africa, you have to adapt to your surroundings, and do as the locals do.  Most Africans I knew believed in pre-destiny, so if the plane was going to crash, then there was nothing that could be done to prevent it from happening.

Flight Data Recorder ("Black Box")
Do you remember when a plane crash would result in the search for the black box, which would be listened to by the experts?  The investigators would listen to the black box recordings, form a hypothesis for what caused the accident, and then release the information to the public.  On some occasions, we would get to hear excerpts from the black box recording.  My, how things have changed.  I realize that Malaysian Airlines flight 370 has not been located, so therefore the black boxes are still missing.  But the black boxes for Malaysian Airlines 17 and the Air Asia flight 8501 have been retrieved, and I have no idea what was found on either recording. Why have things changed?  Are we no longer allowed to know what the investigators find on the black box recordings?  What could it be that would cause such secrecy?  With Malaysian Airlines 17, we already know the cause of the disaster, so what else could they be hiding?  Why not release a transcript of the black box recording?  And Air Asia 8501 - we were on pins and needles, waiting for the experts to locate the black boxes and then listen to the recording.  The boxes were found, and the recordings were accessed.  And as far as I know, we have no specific detail regarding the conversation on the box.  Forgive me for my mild paranoia, but why are the choosing to kept the contents of the recordings a secret?

I just doesn't add up.  Too many problems with airliners lately, and no accountability when they start to disappear or get shot down.  I don't have a fear of dying, but I freely admit my desire to avoid "death by plane crash".  The more that we are provided quick explanations for plane mishaps, the better I feel about flying.  But too many plane accidents go unresolved lately for me to feel comfortable flying.  That doesn't mean I won't fly.  I will be flying in February, but I won't be comfortable, that's guaranteed.  Every time I try and discuss this issue with friends, they retreat to the comfortable, stand-by cliché that, "Air travel is much safer than riding in a car".  Heck, that's probably true.  But normally, people get up and walk away from car accidents.  How many people do you know who have walked away from an airliner crash?  Not only does plane travel seem to be a bit less safe as of late, now I have concerns about what the National Transportation Safety Board has been hiding regarding the various black box recordings we haven't been allowed to hear.  And if these issues weren't enough, I fear that sky-terrorism is about to make its presence
PanAm Flt103 in Lockerbie, Scotland
bombed by terrorists in 1988;
Source  UK Gov/Crown 
known...again.  Many of you were too young to remember, but in the 1970s and 1980s, terrorist groups made a habit out of hijacking commercial airliners.  Thankfully, this form of terrorism seemed to go out of style, but something warns me that air travel will be less-safe in 2015 than it has been in years.  So, to be perfectly honest, I'm not really comfortable flying.  I have to make this trip to DC in late February, and I actually considered driving.  But I'm not really gung-ho about driving half-way across the country, a three-day trip, all by myself, especially when the flight is only five hours long.

I have great respect for airline companies and manufacturers, and I also admire commercial pilots.  It's an industry which truly mirrors the growth of our society.  In less-than 120 years, we have moved from the Wright Brothers to the Airbus 380 (which I like to call, "the village with wings").  I don't fault the industry for the recent plane crashes, and I know that companies like Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas and Airbus are constantly looking for ways to increase air travel safety.  But sometimes it's impossible to remove the human factor; in other words, if someone wants something to happen badly enough, then that someone can probably find a way to achieve their goal.  If a terrorist group decides to hijack a plane, I believe human ingenuity will eventually overcome all of the built-it safeguards and security.  I also believe that my reticence about flying can change in a heartbeat, if the news stories about plane crashes become fewer and far between.  At this point, that is where my hope lies.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Where The Hell Is Yemen And Why Should I Care?

Links: A. Yemen on Wikipedia
           B. CIA drone kills suspected CIA operatives

Yemen is the Muslim nation that occupies the strategic southwest corner of the Arabian
peninsula.  Depending on your tastes, the landscape can be described in various ways.  The coasts of Yemen include both barren, rocky cliffs and beautiful sand beaches.  The interior of Yemen is mountainous in places, as the Al-Sarat Range bisects northern Yemen.  The entire country is defined by a mountainous interior which falls to the sea on one side and to the Rub' Al Khali (the empty quarter) and Saudi Arabia on the other.  Not surprisingly, Yemen reminds me of the Dodecanese Islands of Greece.  Unless it was raining, Yemen always seemed to be sun-drenched, with little vegetation except for wait-to-shoulder high native shrubs.  Principal agricultural commodities include fruit (mangoes), sorghum, grain, cotton, and qat.  To use a favorite term from my childhood, the Yemenis grow a "buttload" of qat, and it gets exported everywhere.  Travel to Somalia, Kenya, Mauritius, and they will tell you that Yemeni qat is the best.  Heck, as far as I know, it may only grow in Yemen.  I can't recall ever seeing a woman chewing qat, but I'm sure it happens.  Its much like chewing tobacco.  You take a few leaves, squeeze together and put them in your mouth, either between your bottom lip and gums or in the pouch of your cheek.  When you collect enough spit, you do
Man chewing qat in Yemen
Source: Ferdinand Reus 
what comes natural.  Let me tell you, I've seen my share of stoners and potheads, but these qat chewers are just as dedicated.  They chew while working, from sun-up until sun-down, and they partake when relaxing.  I've been chewing tobacco (dipping) off and on for thirty-plus years, so I had to give it a shot.  To tell the truth, I never noticed much except for a bit of a headache that lasted all afternoon. I've heard that its supposed to be a bit like marijuana, but I've never smoked pot, so I can't compare.

Taking a look at Yemen on a map, you can see why I call it "the elbow country": since the end of the civil war between north and south, Yemen resembles an elbow and a bit of a forearm.  At one time, Yemen was a much-valued gem in the crown of the Ottoman Empire.  The area has always been active in trading, and old history books make mention of the port city of Mocha as being an important location for bartering just about everything under the sun.  This is what I love about places like Yemen; it's almost as if time has stood still.  An ancient map of this area identifies Yemen as "Arabia Felix", which translated from Latin means "Happy Arabia".  That same map, which may be centuries and centuries old, will identify cities that still exist today.  No wonder Yemen is a playground for Geographers and Archaeologists.  With the arrival of the Europeans, the usual scenario unfolded.  Portugal wanted it, as did the British.  It was part of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman for many years, until the arrival of the Ottoman Turks, who created a national border of sorts.  The Turks were removed following the end of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire (1922), leaving Yemen in the cold, gluttonous hands of the English, who realized that the value in Yemen was strategic, not economic.

Between 1918 and 1967, the territory was in a constant disarray.  The British garrisoned a few of the larger towns, but were unable to subdue the tribal forces who were under various different leaders and, of course, were also trying to slit each other's throats.  Two treaties were signed with the British (in 1934 and 1940), which effectively decided the issue, although conflict continued.  The Yemeni people were able to enjoy a few decades of peace that coincided with the second world war.  But in 1967, the southern half of Yemen (Aden), split from the north.  This led to a civil war which seemed to go on forever.  In May 1990, both sides agreed to unification, and a treaty was signed.  Things were looking up . . . and then Al-Qaeda arrived. 

Shockingly, Al-Qaeda's presence in Yemen was not part of a plot to kill Americans.  Al-Qaeda, which is based on Sunni teachings, became active in Yemen in opposition to the actions of the Houthis, (the Shia Muslims of Yemen).  Yemen is one of those Muslim nations with a large population of both Sunni and Shia.  As has been the model, for many years the Sunni were accused of keeping the Shia (Houthi) from succeeding in business or participating in government.  With a bit of help from Iran, the Houthi armed themselves and started making demands at the end of an AK-47.  The Sunni-led government was in a real pickle.  Al-Qaeda was active in the southern coastal areas around Aden, but Yemeni President (and Sunni) Hadi could not ally himself and his government to Al-Qaeda because the United States was also in town, and up to that point, had been supporting Hadi in his efforts to stay in power.  Believe it or not, the U.S. military largely avoided involvement in the Houthi/Hadi conflict.  The U.S. presence in Yemen was for one purpose; to capture and kill members of Al-Qaeda.  Your see, Al-Qaeda wasn't in Yemen just to represent Sunni interests militarily, Al-Qaeda was in Yemen to provide training to its operatives.

When George W. Bush and the United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2003, we exposed Al-Qaeda's most glaring weakness.  Since we forced the issue into Bin Laden's own backyard, he had no choice but to respond.  The U.S. military engaged fighters from the Taliban, from Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and from other loosely-named but directly AQ-affiliated groups.  The bad guys had to funnel all their resources into the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there wasn't much time to plan and conduct another 9-11.  But Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri (probably more Al-Zawahiri) realized that the struggle needed something resembling a conventional army.  Recruitment drives went into action, especially targeting ex-military in the UK, France and the United States.  Recruitment also increased dramatically in Africa.  If Al-Qaeda was going to build an army, they needed soldiers. The recruits who showed intelligence were directed towards Al-Qaeda, who continued to be the cerebral part of the machine, while the rest were sent to Yemen, to learn how to be soldiers.  The Houthi development complicated what was turning into a war between Al-Qaeda recruits and armed U.S. drones.

This past weekend, the Hadi government fell.  The capital of Sana'a is calm, and the Houthi appear to be following through with their pledge to keep the peace.  The Houthi are the majority in north Yemen, which bodes well for a bit of down-time to try and group (for all sides).  Fortunately, the U.S. military has been extremely discreet when it comes to Yemen.  A real effort is being made to locate, target, and kill Al-Qaeda operatives.  I don't believe any chances are taken which involve civilians, which at this stage is the correct move.  Why is Yemen important?  Because Al-Qaeda has decided to use it as a training location for its operatives.  As the war in Syria continues, and the connections between Al-Qaeda and ISIS become more apparent, intelligence analysts will start to notice that some ISIS fighters were trained in Yemen, and the overall picture will become much more clear.          

Monday, January 26, 2015

Sub-Saharan Africa 2015: What To Expect

Link: Brookings Evaluates Sub-Saharan Africa 2015

When I consider the prospects for Sub-Saharan Africa in 2015, by habit, I always start with
political considerations.  But Africa has changed, evolving and adjusting to international economic trends much more quickly than I expected.  I don't think we can under-estimate the impact that communication has had on Sub-Saharan Africa.  The relative simplicity and low cost involved with cell phone networks has brought every dark corner of Africa into the light.  I remember the cell phone revolution as it arrived in South Africa.  It seemed as if overnight, everybody had one.  The real-time contact engendered by the presence of cell phone networks as instrumental in getting the continent reasonably wired on the net.  I remember being in Bangui, Central African Republic, sometime in 2001, and suffering from water shortages and no taxis or public transportation.  But the internet café was up and running, thanks to the world's first home-made satellite dish and a motley combination of modern and World War II-era French Army generators.  From my perspective, the arrival of the cell phone ushered in a techno-economic revolution in Africa.  We had BACP (Before the Arrival of the Cell Phone) and AACP (After the Arrival of The Cell Phone).  I think this date-differentiation can be accurately used when examining economic trends in the Middle East and the Indian Sub-Continent.  The cell phone has made that much of a difference, folks.

Africa in 2015 is connected.  Abidjan is connected to Maputo, and Yaoundé is chatting with Tokyo.  Sadly, the last bit of "African mystery" is gone.  An archaeologist can be digging in Mali and be interrupted by a phone call from Dublin.  But in this instance, there can be no doubt that the benefits of technology outweigh the negatives.  African banks and stock markets have real-time communication with the big guys in Europe, Tokyo and New York.  The western investments in oil and mining no longer have to wait for value-impacting information from on-site.  That information is available as it occurs.  Wow.  More so than in many years, I am optimistic for the future of Sub-Saharan Africa.  The days of military coups and brutal dictators seems to be ending.  Africa still suffers from the ass-boil that is Robert Mugabe, but everyone dies eventually, right?  Some folks see Museveni in Uganda as a dictator, and also young Kabila in Kinshasa.  But these guys seem to be out of touch and behind the times.  The world has become so much smaller, and the money to be made in Africa isn't limited to African money.  There is Euro to be made, and Dollars.  The Chinese seem to be all over Africa, but I think we will see a bit less of them in 2015.  I think the trend away from despots and one-party rule will continue, because there is more money to be made in a competitive system, and even the nasty guys will end up chasing the bigger $.

Let's start with China in 2015.  The Chinese started 2014 on a rampage, flying from capital
Dakar Railway Station;  Source: J.W.H. van der WAAL
to capital, promising all sorts of funding for development projects.  In the past, the Chinese have been good on their word.  They have built roads, dams, and blocks of flats.  Everyone, I mean EVERYONE, took notice when the Chinese offered to finance the rebuilding of the Dakar-Niger Railway.  This ambitious and absolutely overdue plan included building an additional rail line, linking Bamako, Mali and Freetown, Sierra Leone.  As things stand at present, the Dakar-Niger Railway is a mess.  It rarely is able to keep to a schedule and its ability to transport is limited.  Any rain or weather-related incident is likely to shut the rail system down for weeks.  The real problem is the lack of repair of the track system.  Why does this issue attract the attention of EVERYONE (as I stated earlier)?  Because this rail system transports the gas that keeps the various mines in Mali and Guinea in operation, not to mention the other materials it transports that are essential to those particular mining operations that basically belong to western investors.  Ideally, Mali should be able to rely on transport of goods in three directions: Dakar, Freetown, and Abidjan.  I have no doubt that in my lifetime I will see this develop.  But the anticipated rebuilding of the Dakar-Niger railway hit a huge snag.  The Chinese went back to Beijing, took out their calculators, met with banking and economic officials, and announced that "they had never actually agreed to finance the project....that it was all just conversation".  In the end, I think the Chinese will realize that the benefits outweigh the cost, and will provide a definite amount of invaluable goodwill. 

Now for some serious conversation.  African countries need to continue the move away from one-commodity economies.  Nigeria, that doesn't mean you continue moving towards being totally dependent on oil, it means to diversify your economy, so that when the price of oil tanks, your economy doesn't crash as well.  Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana have been successful moving away from a reliance on cocoa, as has Mali with cotton and Botswana with Diamonds.  I am concerned about the falling price of oil and its impact on juvenile economies such as Cabo Verde and Equatorial Guinea. I don't really have much sympathy for Nigeria.  They are sitting on a gold mine of resources, and all they can do in Lagos is fight their own cousins for every Dollar, while the nastiest of insurgencies terrorizes and brutalizes children all over the north of the country.  How does a nation with the resources and international connections of Nigeria, not have an army worth a damn?  All this may
Goodluck Jonathan
Source: World Economic Forum
change if Goodluck Jonathan losses the election in February (it ain't gonna happen, folks).  I would be willing to take a chance on the other guy just for the sake of change.  Ebola in 2015: I believe this outbreak of Ebola is winding down, and Africa learned some invaluable lessons on how to respond.  This particular outbreak could have been monstrous.  For Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, it was.  But the protocols that were put in place and followed worked exactly as expected.  This bodes well for the future.  Unfortunately, West Africa will take some time to climb out of the economic and social disaster that Ebola wrought.  The rest of Africa needs to step up, especially South Africa, who pretends to be a leader, but always seems to be missing at the table during a crisis.  I think China will revisit its commitments, and return with a smile.  The Dakar-Niger project will begin, and positive economic fallout will help with the Ebola recovery.

I think this subject was a bit heavy to tackle in one post, but wither way, as a lover of Africa, I'm looking forward to 2015.  I purposely left South Africa out of the conversation.  They seem to be chugging along just fine down south, on their own schedule and in their own little world.  Zuma had a tough year in 2014, and I anticipate that his enemies are smelling blood, so to speak.  South Africa has always been a bit obsessed with its own identity and importance in the world.  It's sad, because I believe that Nelson Mandela truly wanted South Africa to be the leader of the continent.  Heck, even Nigeria seems to draw more attention from other African states.  South Africa does remain popular for illegal immigration though, as people from all over go searching for jobs and opportunities.  I believe that the fall in the price of oil will be a boost to South Africa, which has always been so sensitive to that commodity.  South Africans have a tendency to worry when the Rand hits a free-fall against the Euro and the Dollar.  They shouldn't.  It directly impacts the all-important tourist industry, not to mention the increasing number of investors from the United States, looking for a good value for their Dollars.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Russia Makes A Play For The Arctic

Link: Russia Militarizes The Arctic

In the past few months, I 've seen a number of disturbing reports about Russia's intention to
militarize the Arctic.  The Business Insider and stratfor.com have been right on top of the development, which comes in the wake of Russia's unilateral annexation of the Crimea.  During the Cold War, the Russian military had a tremendous presence north of the Arctic Circle.  The Russians kept a chain of airbases functional and well-defended, to support both bomber and fighter squadrons, should the need arise.  In the past six months, the Russians have re-occupied abandoned military and air bases on Novaya Zemlya Island, and also re-established a military presence on Franz-Josef Land.  Why is Vladimir Putin exhausting resources north of the Equator, when the Ruble is in the tank, inflation is taking off, and the Ukrainian Conflict is nowhere near being settled?  It's simple.  Geologists and other nerdy smart guys that used to always beat me at Trivial Pursuit in High School, have determined that thirty percent of the world's natural gas reserves lie under the Arctic shelf, along with thirteen percent of the world's remaining oil reserves.  It makes complete sense that Putin wants to militarily muscle-out the Denmarks and the Norways, before they find a way to get NATO involved.

We all have been reading the news lately that the Russian economy is in a freefall....yawn.  To be honest, the state of an economy is best represented by the attitude of the people, and the Russian
people seem to be just fine, thank you very much.  They continue to support Tsar Vlad the Shirtless in almost unbelievable numbers.  It has everything to do with a gene that the Russian people developed sometime around 1942, when German panzers were rolling across the Russian Steppe, seemingly hurrying to a date in Moscow.  Something in the collective soul of the Russian people clicked, and everyone became a dedicated nationalist.  That doesn't mean that the Russians can't go after each other with a long knife now and then, but when it comes to diplomacy and issues with foreign countries, the Russians demand a strong, aggressive leader.  Maybe Hitler's betrayal after the
successful treaty between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany to butcher innocent Poles and carve up Poland in 1939, still has the Russian people feeling nationalistic.  Certainly the Russian government's actions in Ukraine are supported by the majority of the Russian people.  They may grumble a bit about the latest group of Putin political opponents who are thrown in jail without being charged, and they may whine occasionally about the increasing cost of Borsht and Vodka. But in the end, the Russian people will support Putin.  That issue is decided.

The Russian government was obliged to cut spending in every department except the Department of Defense.  Putin managed to wrangle a twenty-percent increase in defense spending, almost the exact amount which was cut from the education budget.  As you can determine for yourself from reviewing the link, Putin has been spending this largesse on beefing up Russia's military resources north of the Arctic Circle.  Already, two-thirds of the Russian Surface Fleet is in the North Sea, and the Russian Navy continues to be the only navy in the world with nuclear-powered Ice Breakers; what a luxury!
Maybe they will trade us one for a few Zamboni?  During the dark days of Soviet militarism and the
Iron Curtain, the Russian military would send its special forces to camps in the Arctic to train and "toughen up".  Still doesn't hold a candle to Camp Pendleton, Ft. Benning, Ft. Bragg., or Ft. Hood.  Putin has created new, modern units of ground forces with the latest equipment, and it's my understanding that these poor bastards are up on Novaya Zemlya right now, trying to find a way to cook tundra for dinner. 

So the Russians have decided to make the issue of ownership of the Arctic natural gas and oil
 reserves a fait accompli.  Considering the amount of natural gas and oil the Russians already own, and their willingness to use it as a diplomatic battering ram in eastern Europe, this is an issue which should be addressed.  Can you hear the crickets coming from the Obama Administration?  When it comes to foreign policy, amateur hour has been in full session for six years.  A quick review of a map will illustrate that Russia does not have undisputed rights to the territory they claim (no big surprise there).  The United States, Canada, and even Denmark have unresolved boundary issues with Russia in the Arctic region.  We aren't really a player, because even if we were in complete possession of the
area, our own politicians wouldn't let us exploit that economic bounty.  The real loser in this picture is Norway.  The Norwegians have made a serious effort to delineate its northern boundary in recent years.  Norway has also spent a surprising amount of money on its military, and even conducted military exercises in Finnmark, the land of the Lapp Folks, reindeer and Santa Claus.  Its also within the toss of an empty Vodka bottle from Russian territory.  If the Norwegians were so inclined, they could declare possession of certain areas that appear to contain a shit load of natural gas. Norway could take their claim to the International Court, or the UN, or this group, or that group, and demand that Russia not infringe upon Norway's territorial integrity.  Russia could probably do without the little piece that belongs to Norway and still end up way ahead of the field, but that is not Putin's style.  Putin is like the prize-fighter who isn't satisfied winning a judges decision.  Putin wants to pummel the other guy until both his eyes are swollen shut and he is called down for the count in the five round.  Putin doesn't like taking prisoners.  What will be very interesting is if Putin allows Norway to keep partial possession of Spitsbergen.  The Russians will not come to an agreement with a member of NATO.  In the end, might will trump manners as it usually does, especially if the issue is resolved before 2016.  Not that the Norwegian people need anymore dough themselves.  Jeez, talk about the rich getting richer.  Norway is like the Oman of the north.  A small population made drunk by a never-ending supply of petro-dollars.  But I like Oman and the Omanis, and I like the Norwegians.  They gave the Germans hell in World War II, and for that I hold them in high esteem.  God help me, I don't like the Russians (save the e-mails...I adore Russian-Americans), which is sad, because I used to be fascinated by all things east of the Vistula.  I just recently devoured a new biography of Rasputin that I stumbled upon.  But Putin has me out of sorts, and for the time being, I can't help but see them as the enemy....again.   

Thursday, January 22, 2015

My Thoughts On "American Sniper"

Link: Official Site For "American Sniper"

Last Friday my friend Jennifer and I fought the crowds to see Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" on opening night.  I had no preconceived notions about the film.  I met Chris Kyle a few times.  I used to wear a Cowboys baseball cap and he would call me "Tex" whenever I was around.  Chris was about as Texas as you could get.  I can make that claim without really knowing the man.  I can tell you a few other things as well; I may have been a virtual stranger to Chris but you can be guaranteed everything I say is Gospel truth.  Chris Kyle was a kind, decent man.  He wasn't loud or obnoxious, and he carried that "Texas Gentleman" attitude everywhere he went.  He believed one-hundred percent that his job, and my job, were necessary as part of the effort to deny the enemy any rest.  The few times that I saw Kyle, I had no idea that he was highly decorated sniper, and it was apparent that he preferred it that way.  If he was guilty of anything, it would be of having too much pride.  Not personal pride, mind you, but pride in his country, and in Texas.  Even more so, he was proud of his kids and his amazing wife.  I don't respect Chris Kyle for doing his job anymore than I would the next guy.  But I respect and admire him for doing it without complaint.  It's a job that I couldn't do.  I admit that without hesitation.  I don't have the mountain of faith that Chris kept in his back pocket.  I'm a bit jealous of Chris Kyle, I admit it.  Who wouldn't want to have that lovely family, those beautiful kids and a wife as true as sunshine is warm.  But I'm most jealous of his faith and the strength of his relationship with his Maker.  I know Chris had that conversation with God, that gave him his piece of mind and ramrod faith. Chris understood that he was servant of God and a servant of the good on this planet, because he single-handedly gave thousands of children their father back.  And how many husbands came home from Iraq because of Chris' dedication and gift?  How many mothers were able to hug their children JUST ONE MORE TIME, just like they had asked God in their prayers, "please Lord, let my child come home, just one more time, please...."

The film itself was sensational in all the predictable ways.  I remember looking over at Jennifer and expressing wonder at the landscape of Baghdad from above Sadr City.  Is it possible that they filmed on-site, I asked Jennifer?  Much like the film "The Hurt Locker", the makers of this movie recreated Iraq and Baghdad as if the entire theater had been transported to Karadah.  And the combat scenes were terrifying.  Clint Eastwood pulled out all the stops when it came to emotional segments, both stateside and in Iraq.  In one scene, a woman gives a "potato masher" hand-grenade to a young boy, and he starts walking towards the unsuspecting U.S. patrol.  Kyle had to decide if this boy was going to throw the grenade.  I can say without hesitation that I would have assumed that the boy was actually trying to get rid of the weapon as opposed to using it. My mind created a scenario in which his mother didn't like her husband keeping the grenade at home because it was dangerous, and the thing to do is to give it to the soldiers.  Kyle had his decision; I would have made mine, as we all would have in the same circumstance.  This movie is full of moments that require you to ask yourself that difficult question, "what would I have done"?  I spent enough time in Baghdad to say that this movie really brought everything back to life.  As we were leaving the theater, I could see a number of veterans in the crowd that was filing out of the building, some with stone-cold frozen expressions and others wiping their eyes.  Psychologically, emotionally, Iraq and Afghanistan are the Vietnam of this generation, although soldiers today are much more prepared for combat than the eighteen-yr. old draftees were then.  The movie does a nice job of introducing us to Taya, Chris' future wife, and the happy times before the war.  The movie is broken into segments: first tour, second tour, third tour, fourth tour.  During each tour, we get a glimpse of what Kyle was charged to do: finding and killing the enemy before they take the lives of his comrades, his fellow soldiers, his brothers.  And on each return home, its obvious that he has left a part of himself behind, in Iraq.  Poor Taya has no idea what to do, as each time her husband returns, he seems to be more and more of a stranger.  Can you imagine the thousands of wives who had to struggle through very similar situations?

I have one serious criticism of the film.  We expended a great deal of time and emotion as Chris' and Taya's struggle with his Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) played out on the screen.  We had a bit of a climax after the fourth tour, then a short conversation with a PTSD specialist (I assume. . . he popped up and vacated the scene quicker than a popcorn fart), and Chris seemed to be cured.  I understand the message, that Chris was able to channel his struggles with PTSD into something positive, a way to help his fellow soldiers as they rebuild their lives stateside.  No doubt Chris was all about his duty to his fellow troops.  Chris explained that he felt a terrible guilt for not being in Iraq, and continuing his obligation to help his brothers.  Thankfully, Chris discovered a way to help fellow veterans of Iraq, especially wounded warriors and those with serious PTSD issues.  Many times they really needed someone to listen, and Chris was that guy.  On occasion they would go target shooting, which allowed Chris the opportunity to share his natural gift.  I didn't feel that the film paid enough attention to the issue of PTSD.  Kyle returned home after his fourth tour, was a complete mess, spoke with a specialist, and in all of five minutes the movie cleared up the PTSD issue that we had watched grow over the first one and a half hours of the film.  I'm sure it wasn't that easy for Chris, or anyone who suffers from PTSD.  Given the absolutely gut-wrenching manner in which this saga ended, I left the theater feeling that the average movie-goer needed to know more about the condition.  I think the movie was overloaded with external combat scenes in Iraq, and did not have a requisite number of internal combat scenes stateside, as Chris went through therapy, or some form of treatment (or someone did).  The audience was dealing with the issue of PTSD almost from the beginning, although it wasn't identified.  We watched the buildup of the illness in Chris Kyle for the better part of the film.  The resolution was too quick.  As for the heartbreaking end, I think it was handled beautifully, although if my memory serves me correct, as the funeral procession headed down I-35, there was an equal number of Lone Star State flags as there was Old Glory.

God Bless Chris Kyle; my life may have been one of the many he saved.   

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Erdogan Moves Turkey Closer To The Edge (Part II)

Link: A. Erdogan Blames Europe For Paris Attacks
          B. Troubling Comments By Turkey's President
          C. Turkey Purges The Military
          D. Turkish Intel Arming Al-Qaida In Syria?


I know I'm not making friends by comparing someone to Adolf Hitler, but if I'm anything, I'm honest.  I see too many similarities not to comment.  And while the free world was distracted by the Soviet purges, pogroms and hostile military movement against the Baltic States and Finland, Hitler was able to rebuild his military and remove the last vestiges of opposition.  Erdogan has his Soviet Union, and its calls itself The Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL).  As this first-of-its-kind, terrorist conventional army continues to defy Obama's air campaign, the Kurds, Assad's leftovers, and the newly-minted Free Syrian Army, the west tip-toes around Erdogan because he can be a deal-maker in this conflict, in one direction or the other.  The Turkish military is in a similar position as the Iranian armed forces.  An apparent threat to national security is snuggling right up their ass, and they need to decide to what extent they wish to get involved.  In January, 2014, rumors were circulating that the Turks were providing arms to Al-Qaida through the Turkish border crossing with Syria.  This last week, official documents were leaked that appear to corroborate that accusation.  For those of you who are regular readers of my blog, you know I have been on a bit of a rant regarding the media obsession with separating Al-Qaeda and ISIL.  The end-receiver of the weapons and ammunition in question was Al-Qaida.  Well, Al-Qaida in Syria has no need for that type of equipment, but ISIL does.  The bad guys already know that Al-Qaeda and ISIL are two limbs connected to the same body, and the sooner we stop pretending otherwise, the better of we will be.

On the sixteenth of January, Turkish President Erdogan publicly commented on last week's deadly terror-attack in Paris.  The first and second links contain the necessary details.  I'm so offended by what he had to say, that I refuse to repeat it.  But we must keep one thing in mind: Erdogan is a crafty politician.  He has followed some framework up to this point that has left him as a virtual dictator, in command of one of the world's largest militaries.  I know a Cuban leader, a Venezuelan, a North Korean and a crazy Argentinean hag named Christina who would love to be in his shoes.  I believe every step he takes, every public announcement, is calculated.  Hitler would make bold, sometimes irrational claims, just to see how far he could push the envelope.  Erdogan is playing the same game.  What can he get away with?  Its no secret that he wants Assad out of Syria.  Hell, if that's all he wanted in order to be  team player, I'm sure Assad would be on ice by now.  But Erdogan has his sights set higher.  I worry about possession of the NATO weapons in Turkey, and I worry about the potential thousands of hostages our military and their families who are stationed in Turkey, would make.  Erdogan as a wild-card comes at a terrible time for Obama, NATO and the EU.  What they need more than anything is a successful resolution to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.  Until the U.S. decides to fully deploy in those war zones, the conflict will continue to escalate.  The Iranians could be game-changers, if they gambles and fully mobilized into Iraq, but I just don't see it.  I also don't see a way out of this mess for Obama, at least not during his term in office.  As for Recep Erdogan, I believe he supports ISIL at the moment, because he wants Assad removed without having to make a military commitment.  He has surreptitiously allowed arms and supplies to reach ISIL because he sees the organization as his surrogate "for-the-moment". I used to be concerned that Erdogan was a closet Islamist.  I don't believe that anymore, even though it might have been true at one time.  Erdogan has plans for Turkey, and he is in every picture.  The removal of Assad is important because it provides validation of his authority, bona fides of his international influence, so to speak.  I also don't think he is as patient as he once was.  I expect he will lay his cards on the table sometime this year, at least as far as NATO missiles and U.S. bases are concerned.  With the scourge of Terrorism more dangerous than ever, we live in scary times.  Recep Erdogan only makes things scarier.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Erdogan Moves Turkey Closer To The Edge (Part I)

Link: A. Erdogan Blames Europe For Paris Attacks
          B. Troubling Comments By Turkey's President
          C. Turkey Purges The Military
          D. Turkish Intel Arming Al-Qaida In Syria?

Turkish Flag
The more President Recep Erdogan aligns Turkey with the cause of Radical Islam, the more I feel my heart breaking.  You see, I am a Turkophile.  I studied Ottoman history when I was younger, and have enjoyed a number of visits to Turkey.  One of the most startling impressions I recall during my initial trip to Turkey, was that the Turkish people appeared to be much more European than "Middle Eastern" (forgive the use of that term).  I had spent time in Jordan and the Gulf States, and also in Lebanon.  I expected Turks to be similar in appearance and culture to Jordanians and Egyptians, but I was mistaken.  I had no trouble imagining the Turkish people living in Greece, or the Balkans.  In fact, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Turks do live in the Balkans, in Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina.  A substantial number of Turks also live in the Thrace region of Greece, although no where near the numbers who inhabited Thessaloniki at the turn of the century 1900.  Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and its subsequent disposal in the bonfire of history (1922), Turkey's new leader was determined to steer a modern, secular path for new Turkish state.  Kemal Ataturk was successful at just about every turn, as the people were more than ready for his message of peace, accountability and reform.  Turkey managed to stay neutral during the Second World War (not declaring war on Germany until February 23, 1945).  The Turkish people were in no position (or mood) for another World War, and they used peacetime to expand and diversify the Turkish economy, reform the educational system, and rewrite the tax codes.  When first taking power, Ataturk decided to end the Turkish habit of wearing the Fez.  He was successful, and it became acceptable for women to dress in the European style.  Ataturk was so successful because basically the Turkish people were of one mind.  They wanted to put the rigid, excessively conservative traditions of the Ottomans back into the seventeenth century, where they belonged.  The economy of Turkey slowly began to resemble its European neighbors, as hard-work, determination and dedication became the keys to personal success.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Turkey took a hit in the international press because of the amount of hashish that was being grown and exported out of Turkey.  As an Example, the Turkish Courts locked up a few European (and one very vocal American) smugglers and threw away the key.  The Turks thought that they were responding appropriately, but instead, the curse of "The Midnight Express" continued to damage Turkey's international reputation and tourism for at least a decade.

Over the past three decades, the Turkish economy has experienced its share of highs and
Flag of NATO
lows.  Fortunately, the highs outnumber the lows. At times, the Turkish economy has been a juggernaut.  Even after the end of the Cold War, when the newly free economies of Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary were expected to stand out, Turkey continued to double other European nations in percentage of GDP growth.  The Turkish people do not shy away from hard work, and Turkey seems to be permanently poised on the precipice of developing a full-scale European style economy.  The EU is waiting for just such an indication to move the Turks closer to EU membership.  Roughly fifteen years ago, the Turkish government made a huge statement by normalizing relations with Israel and beginning a series of joint military exercises.  The west and NATO were thrilled with this development, because it confirmed in their minds what they had hoped: that Turkey, regardless of its democratically-elected government, was still controlled by the pro-west, secular Military High Command.  The Turkish Army had already exhibited its willingness to remove a democratically-elected government or two, if they weren't pleased with the direction of the country.  For the most part, the Turkish people seemed content with the "backstop" provided by the Generals.  The United States/NATO, with bases in Turkey and missiles on Turkish territory pointed at the USSR, were only too happy to train and equip what had become an outstanding armed forces.

Fast-forward to 2015.  Sometime since the turn of the millennium, the Turkish people have become more comfortable with religion in their politics.  When Recep Erdogan was first elected Prime Minister in 2003 (he had been mayor of Istanbul from 1994-98), everyone was aware that his political party was sympathetic to some of the groups on the
Putin, Erdogan, and Berlusconi 2005; source: Kremlin.ru
religious right.  But Erdogan played his cards like a master.  He was patient, and used the time to flirt with the west and the EU, all the while insulating the Turkish bureaucracy and military with his sycophants.  Erdogan had a plan, and it required that he stay in office until 2014, at which time he would run for president (successfully).  He didn't miss a beat; all the way, Erdogan loyalists started showing up in the police and intelligence agencies, on the bench, in the different branches of the military, and as political strong-men around Turkey proper.  By 2010, Erdogan felt safe enough to speak ill of the west and the EU.  The United States was next on his list, and the end of the good relations with Israel was only a matter of time.  What a far cry from Erdogan at his initial inauguration in 2003, when he spoke so respectfully of the EU and Turkey's rightful place in the Union.  Erdogan began to create a new foreign policy for Turkey: one that appears headed for the end of Turkish membership in NATO.  It's safe to say that unless something happens very soon that changes the direction of Turkish politics, the idea of Turkey being a member of the EU is nothing more than a joke.  What I find fascinating, is that Erdogan appears to be replicating what Hitler achieved in 1933-39.  Erdogan is determined to create a strong Turkey, so strong that alliances can be made at the moment and discarded when no longer needed.  He wants a rebirth of the nationalism that coincided with the Ottoman Empire at it's zenith, and he is to be the new Suleiman the Magnificent.  Just as Hitler discreetly promoted anti-Jewish and anti-minority movements, Erdogan quietly (but obviously) encourages right-wing groups to attack U.S. sailors and march against foreign influence in Turkey.  His lasting campaign has been internal, as he begins a determined assault on the traditionally non-aligned, vocal Turkish press.  Last year, a scandal involving corruption and persons close to Erdogan, almost brought down the government.  As I write this, the bill has come due.  Journalists have been arrested, dailies shut down, and untold numbers of persons threatened.  This pattern seems so familiar.  In the past, the west and the Turkish people could have relied upon the military to return the balance by staging a coup and replacing now-President Erdogan.  But that part of his plan has already gone into affect.  Erdogan purged the military hierarchy in 2013, and today one in five Turkish Generals sit in prison (see Link C for details).  The details concerning the prosecutor's case against hundreds of military officers is much too complicated for this blog.  But I've read just about every document I can find, and this is without doubt a well-planned and flawlessly executed operation to neuter the Turkish military.  The only Generals and Admirals left on the General Staff are cowed yes-men and Erdogan Sycophants.  Again, just like Hitler.  (End of Part I)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Just How Many Muslims Have Immigrated To Europe, Anyway?

Link A. Immigration To France, Wikipedia
         B. Immigration to Germany, Wikipedia
         C. Immigration In Europe From A U.S. Perspective
         D. Islam in Europe, Wikipedia

The issue of Islamic Immigration to Europe is both difficult and complicated.  When I decide to educate myself on a particular subject, my first task is to collect as much information as possible.  With regards to Muslim Immigration, what should be the starting point of my research?  Post World War One, when the dissolution of monarchies in Germany, Turkey, Austria-Hungary and Russia, encouraged people to relocate in search of better opportunities?  Or possibly just after World War Two, when Europe, which had been bled dry of healthy young men, needed immigrants to work in both the fields and in the factories?  Or should we start our conversation in the late 1960's, when Paris was fresh with revolution, and terrorists were beginning to make their presence felt?  Actually, I think it's better to start with the present and work our way back.  A number of prominent European nations have a Muslim population that is eight percent or greater.  The growing number of Muslims in Europe is a relatively new development, something that began in earnest within the last sixty years.  Three times in the last fifteen hundred years, Christian armies were fortunate to defeat much larger and better equipped Muslim forces that were intent on invading the heart of Europe.  For our history lesson today, take note of the Battle of Tours in 732 (against the Moors from Spain), the 1529 Battle of Vienna I (against the Ottoman Empire), and the Battle of Vienna II in 1683 (the Ottoman Empire's last foray this far into Europe).  During the years of Moor control on the Iberian peninsula, and Ottoman administration in the Balkans, no doubt the number of Muslims in Europe increased.  But the Moors were sent packing by Isabella and Ferdinand, and rebellions by Bulgaria, Romania, and Montenegro in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century all but ended the reality of "Turkey in Europe".  Muslims still exist in the Balkans, but basically only in the Albanian community, which is about as close to secular as you can get (I would guess that a mosque exists for every three houses in Kosovo, but I never saw one in use).

The increase in the number of Muslims in Europe was driven by two factors: economics and post-colonial paternalism.  Whenever Europe was in need of an influx of young men to work in the factories and on the farms, the people of North Africa and the Middle East were happy to oblige (no surprise; European wars had decimated the economies of those areas as well).  North Africans came to work in France, and Turks came to Germany and Scandinavia.  In most instances, they put down roots and had children.  In the 1960's, as France and England (and to lesser and later extent, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Portugal), granted independence to their African colonies.  For numerous reasons, guilt and a sense of paternalism being at the top of the list, Europe opened its doors to citizens of its former colonies.  England was probably more affected by post-colonial immigration from India and Pakistan than Africa, but France welcomed hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from recently independent Algeria, Morocco, Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal and Guinea.  Belgium was obliged to welcome Congolese.  Later, following the Biafran War, England did open its doors to thousands of displaced Ibo, although white Rhodesians weren't nearly as welcome.  As for the number of Turks in Germany and Scandinavia, I don't really have an explanation.  Historically, Germany has always had close relations with Turkey, which may be part of the answer.  Also, following the Civil Rights marches in the United States and the televised horrors of the Algerian conflict and the Vietnam War, European societies were determined to avoid the appearance of racism.  And the Immigration Statutes written into law during that time are still in effect today.  In less delicate terms, once it was turned on, the faucet was never turned off.  Europe continued to accept immigrants long-past the ability of its economies to comfortably provide jobs and housing.  This fact, along with other socio-economic and cultural issues, is responsible for the high percentage of minorities needing government support to survive.

In 2015, roughly ten percent of the population of France self-identifies as Muslim.  Austria, Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Switzerland are not far behind.  Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo all have a substantial Muslim population because of the historic legacy of the Ottoman Turks, but rarely do you see an observant Muslim community in the Balkans (I understand that recently, a number of really nasty extremists have popped up, who were raised in these areas, so things may be changing).  As of late, politics in western Europe have definitely swung in the direction of anti-immigration, and the events of last week will only increase that statistic.  Sweden, Holland, France, and even Switzerland have taken steps to tighten up their immigration controls.  Given the twenty-five thousand anti-Islamic demonstrators that marched in Leipzig last week, I'm guessing Angela Merkel has something in the works as well.  No doubt, the high percentage of Muslims living in European countries is connected to the rise in extremist activity.  But the increased police presence and the tightening of immigration laws is a knee-jerk reaction to attack the problem at the perceived source.  Why are children of Algerian immigrants, who came to France, assimilated and worked their asses off, sympathetic to Islamic extremism?  Since the symptom is the same in every country, then the problem must be the same as well.  These young men and women have no distraction.  They don't feel as if they belong anywhere, and once the European school systems, which are bedrocked to favor the native population, spit these kids out, they had nowhere to go.  And the media and entertainment industry that our generation has allowed to take over the minds of young people today, tells these kids (and the inner-city youths in the United States as well), that there is something WRONG with working in a fast food joint, or on a farm, and there is something wrong with working for an hourly wage and taking college classes at night.  The television and the MP3 players are constantly reminding these young, impressionable minds, that the life of a gangster is the life to be admired, and that money and sex should come easy.  If it doesn't come easy, then someone is denying you your due, and you are entitled to take it.

Remember the riots in the urban, ethnic communities of France just a few years ago?  Those kids had nothing to do.  Their parents were at work, sometimes holding down two jobs, and unable to battle the message coming from the entertainment industry, and when I say entertainment industry, I point the finger directly back at the United States.  The hip-hop and rap music that glorifies the selling of narcotics for easy money, and killing of rivals and anyone in authority.  And sex?  It is in no way connected to responsibility; it's all about the act, and the sense of domination.  What is occurring in our inner cities in the United States, is replicated in Europe.  We don't have many children of Muslim immigrants (in comparison), but our young people are latching on to a message just as theirs are.  The message they are hearing is that the easy riches come with their ideology.  That women are subservient, and should always be available for sex, and that the Jew has stolen everything from you, including your heritage.  These young people, in the suburbs of Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, and Stockholm, are looking for an easy, quick answer and a place to belong as well.  We will give you a gun, which will make you a man, and we will teach you to kill your enemy (who is the reason you can't have that Porsche you want, or those new three-hundred euro sneakers).  Has it been so long since we were at that age?  The mind is much like jello, waiting to be molded into the adult brain it is to become.  You will rarely find a terrorist (at least a dead one) who is over the age of thirty-five.  There is a reason for that.



Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What Type Of Battle Would Result From A Chinese Invasion Of Taiwan?

Links: A. China Plans To Invade Taiwan
           B. Taiwan Plans Defensive Strategy
           C. China Prepares.....
           D. As Does Taiwan

As the new year started, I jumped head-first into a series of commentaries on Al-Qaeda.  I've decided to mix things up a bit, just to keep everyone awake.  We haven't paid a visit to
China lately, and the Taiwan issue is always good for discussion.  At one time or another, we've all wondered why the Chicoms haven't invaded Taiwan already.  Beijing seems to be exhibiting a tremendous amount of patience, which does seem to be a strong suit.  Every year, trade between the two Chinas increases, as does tourism.  In fact, more Chinese visit Taiwan than vice-versa.  During the dark years of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, the Chicoms were forced to look across the Strait of Taiwan and imagine the budding capitalist society that was humming away. As China struggled through a bit of an identity crisis under Deng Xiaoping, the Taiwanese economy exploded, the island became weighed down with international companies worth billions, and the Kuomintang (Nationalists) lost an election.  The Kuomintang is the political party of former dictator and "father of Taiwan", Chang Kai-Shek, and for many years, only one party was allowed to contest elections. The Kuomintang carried on as if the war with Mao and the Commies never really ended, and the national goal continued to be the reoccupation of the mainland.  When the people of Taiwan finally insisted on a multi-party system, and almost immediately bounced the Kuomintang from the office of President, the message wasn't so much a repudiation of Chang Kai-Shek as it was a message to the world that Taiwan no longer had a beef with China.  Surprisingly, Beijing responded quickly to the overtures from Taipei, and commercial airline service was started.  Everything was moving ahead swimmingly, until the Chinese started referring to the day when Taiwan would become just another Chinese province, and the Taiwanese responded with a bit of noise about becoming an independent nation.  Since 1949, the United States has vouched for the defense of Taiwan, although recently an administration or two has toyed with the idea of cutting back on our military presence in the South China Sea.  If China attacked Taiwan, the shit would hit the fan in so many directions, I don't believe that the United States military would have a clue how to respond.  You see, Taiwan hasn't been sitting around waiting for the Red Army to come for tea.  The battle for Taiwan would be a military engagement like none that we've seen in our existence.  Here's why:

When it comes to military stuff, I'm a typical guy.  I love reading about tanks and ships and ancient battles, and I am always interested in the state of readiness of the world's armies. China has the world's largest army.  We like to refer to it affectionately as the Red Army, but the Chinese prefer it to be called "The People's Liberation Army".  For many years, China was able to rely on the size of its army to influence conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  In the last three decades or so, China has dedicated itself to reforming its military and bringing it up to specs with the modern age.  In many ways they have been successful.  China is a nuclear power and has atomic weapons.  Importantly, China has made great progress in the development of missile delivery systems.  A substantial amount of Chinese technology has benefitted from espionage, theft from reverse-engineering, and outright bribery.  China has inserted itself into U.S. presidential elections, and managed to convince a former President to "un-ban" certain technologies from being sold to China.  The Chinese continue to steal technology from our Laboratories and our universities, especially the ones with Department of Defense research contracts.  China has also taken advantage of the Moscow yard-sale that took place following the end of the Cold War.  Beijing was able to buy all sorts of Russian military hardware, re-engineer what was useful and throw away the junk.  China even managed to purchase a Russian Aircraft Carrier (for some reason, the Chinese just can't build an aircraft carrier).  As for Taiwan, they were able to use all that capitalism largesse to buy the latest and best military equipment on the planet, and it's all Made in the USA.

As of 2015 (estimates), China has 2,285,000 frontline troops (trained and equipped), and 2,300,000 reserves (also trained and equipped).  China has about 9100 tanks, but they are of various makes and models (and ages), and are also the local product.  From the few times we've seen them in combat, they were less-than impressive.  China also has over 6100 Artillery pieces, and almost 2000 multi-launch rocket systems.  But the troops and hardware make no difference if you can't deliver them to the battlefield.  The Chinese Navy has a healthy number of frigates and destroyers, and a scary number of submarines (69).  But does China have the necessary size and number of transport/landing craft to deposit the Chinese Army on the beaches of Taiwan?  And a beach-landing will require at least some control of the seas.  Sure, you can deliver troops with an airborne resource, but that requires control of the air.

Taiwan's standing army is 290,000 strong, and its reserve element is 1,675,000.  Taiwan has roughly 2000 tanks, with 600 MBTs (Main Battle Tanks) that are either old or of outdated design.  Taiwan has a real tank dilemma, but rumor is that the Taiwanese Army will soon acquire 200 surplus M1A2 Abrams tanks.  Taiwan has useful number of artillery pieces, considering its an island.  Taiwan's Navy is a decent size, and has undertaken an ambitious program to construct its own submarines by the year 2025 (this issue will be resolved by then, guaranteed).  If China were to attempt an invasion of Taiwan, everything would depend on one factor: air superiority.

For China to invade Taiwan, it must first transport its invasion force to within sight of the beaches.  Ideally, the landing craft then take over, transporting the troops, tanks and equipment to the beach head.  This cannot be accomplished without close to total control of the skies.  The same situation confronted General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1944, when he was planning the invasion of Europe.  The allies were able to pound any German air resources into dust before the invasion began, ensuring no trouble from above.  I assume the Chinese would also utilize a great deal of airborne troops, who would parachute in behind the beach defensive positions and attack the enemy from both directions.  Here is the million dollar question: is the Chinese Air Force strong enough to defeat the Taiwanese Air Force?  By the numbers (I'm leaving out transport, training, etc.), China has 1,170 fighters, 885 fixed-wing fighters and 856 attack helicopters.  Taiwan has 286 fighters, 264 fixed-wing fighters, and 68 attack helicopters.  On paper, it certainly doesn't look like a fair fight.  But the Taiwanese are flying the latest version of the F16, and who really knows what the Chinese are relying upon this week.  Earlier in 2014, word got out that China was purchasing twenty-four Russian Sukhoi-35 Flanker fighter jets.  Without doubt, the Chinese will take them apart and build their own version.  Again, the Chinese have problems developing an indigenous capacity to build certain items.  Aircraft Carriers are one example, and Fighter Planes are another.  On occasion, whatever it is that the Chinese have reverse-engineered ends up falling apart anyway, because the original design was a piece of shit!  Trust a Russian avionics design?  Fly Aeroflot (Aero-FLOP)?  Not me!

The Chinese Attack Helicopters are also no match for the Taiwanese.  Much of what we are discussing will rely on the pilots and their training.  Again, Taiwan is heads-and-tails above the Chinese, mainly because of the quality and dedication of the U.S. military.  We continue to conduct joint training exercises with Taiwan, and word is, the Taiwanese pilots are sensational.  Back to our scenario: if China decides to invade Taiwan, sheer numbers alone tilt the probability in China's favor (for the purpose of this conversation, I am eliminating the possibility of U.S. military intervention).  Weather could play a factor, but you would imagine that the Chinese would plan the date of their operation accordingly.  If the Chinese Air Force lays an egg against the Taiwanese fighters over the Taiwan Strait, the transport vessels and landing craft will be sitting ducks for modern jet fighters.  And if the Chinese Air Force is unable to pepper the defensive positions, then Taiwanese armor, anti-tank units and artillery will have a field day with the landing craft and vehicles trying to organize on the beach (assuming they have had time to be transported to the beach front).

A victory for Taiwan in the skies over the Taiwan Strait translates to successfully repelling a Chinese invasion.  If the Chinese Air Force is able to stay roughly even or better, then Taiwan reverts back to a province of the People's Republic (?) of China.  I'm fascinated by the different opinions I've heard on this subject.  Please don't hesitate to let me know how you feel.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Who Is Charlie Hebdo?

Link: Charlie Hebdo Cartoonist Rejects "Sudden Friends"

Most people in the world had no idea what "Charlie Hebdo" was before January 7, 2014.  For those of you who still might be in the dark, CH is a weekly French satirical magazine that focuses on French and European current events.  CH also comments on international issues.  As its "hook", the publication is known to summarize its opinions with cartoon caricatures.  CH has been a part of French media and politics for as long as I can remember, and can be found on most Paris coffee tables, after Le Monde and Le Figaro.  I have never enjoyed or appreciated Charlie Hebdo. You see, when I became an adult, I stopped finding it necessary to insult other people in order to make a point.  On many occasions over the years (too many to count) I believe that CH crossed the line in its insults.  The difference between political satire and CH is the difference between sincerely trying to make a point and insulting people to cause injury.  And yet, on January 8, I did not hesitate to tweet, "Je Suis Charlie".  As often as I have been enraged and insulted by the magazine, nothing CH has ever done comes near to justifying murder.  I realize that by repeatedly tweeting "Je Suis Charlie", I gave the impression that I considered this to be an issue of freedom of speech, or freedom of the press.  I don't.  I think CH was wrong to continually print cartoons that were intended to insult large groups of people.  I'm a practicing Roman Catholic and an American, I've been on the receiving end of a few less-than kind cartoons over the years.  Actually, I have a relatively thick skin.  I don't mind some sensitive humor as long as I understand the motivation.

After seeing some of the cartoons that have been printed over the last few years, I can understand why practicing Muslims would be angry with CH.  Many of the cartoons seemed to be drawn with one goal in mind: to include as many visuals as possible that will be offensive to Muslims.  The link that I chose to include provides a good example of the attitude that existed at the magazine before this horrible event occurred.  When I say "Je Suis Charlie", I am sharing in a universal solidarity for the protection of freedom of speech, and also declaring my abhorrence to murder.  My disgust with some of the methods used by CH has not changed.  I believe in a society that engages in political and social discourse without the need for insults.  How do I express my disagreement with CH's methods?  I don't buy the magazine.  What happened on January 7 was about more than a few cartoons.  The two monsters and their AK47s were determined to rack-up a sizable body count, which explains why so many were killed and injured.  The gratuitous execution of the unarmed police officer will stay with me for the rest of my life.  The police officer was a Muslim, but it made no difference.  They were on a mission to kill.

If CH had not printed cartoons with a Muslim theme, would this event have been avoided?
There is not way that I would make that assumption.  There are other newspapers and magazines in Paris who have printed cartoons that have shown Islam in a less-than-favorable light.  Its very possible that these two had a list, and if CH had not been convenient, they may have had a plan B to attack some other media outlet.  We are dealing with two separate issues, and I will take the opportunity to opine on both.  The media (the press) needs to govern itself with a bit more severity.  I cannot believe that it is necessary to trade in insults in order to get a point across.  Attacking the opposing idea or thought with a string of insults or vulgar cartoons is a lazy way of damaging the other side.  If you feel strongly about something, then take the time to explain yourself.  I don't approve of the methods utilized by Charlie Hebdo in its weekly political satire/commentary.  It shouldn't be necessary to malign and besmirch what other people respect, in order to make a point.  As for the second point, committing murder because of an insult is never acceptable, regardless of who or what has been insulted.  Instead of, "Je Suis Charlie", we should have all held up signs or tweeted the phrase, "We Are All Human".  What happened in Paris on January 7 was not so much an attack on Charlie Hebdo as it was an attack on our culture, our humanity and our sense of basic right-and-wrong.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

France

Links: A. France Wikipedia
           B. Angouleme Tourisme

I am French.  I'm also a Texan.  It's safe to say that I'm passionate about both bloodlines.
I can't count the number of people who have told me that unless I'm a rare Socialist American, that my mixed heritage is incongruous.  I always tell them not to worry, that I'm doing just fine.  In reality, France is much more conservative than people realize.  I was right in the middle of a series of posts about Al-Qaeda in 2015, and I have abruptly inserted a discussion which is in no way connected to international terrorism.  I apologize.  My actions are the result of circumstance.  I have been watching  live television feeds from for the past twenty-four hours.  Sadly, the screen is usually filled with the same video clips, on a loop, for hours.  It's a pitiful comment on the state of our media that it took CNBC and CNN some time before they edited the video of the French policeman getting executed, but we are a nation of voyeurs.  Today we were treated to a visual buffet of French police: the Gendarmerie, federal agents, police from the local department, military police, and some uniforms that frankly I didn't recognize.  I didn't mind seeing the parade of cops.  Since Thursday, January 7, the terrorists have murdered two unarmed police officers and one unsuspecting traffic cop.  It's a very dangerous job, regardless of the country, and until you've put it a hefty number of years, it rarely pays well.  But when the calls come in, they suit up and go stand in the line of fire to protect innocent people.  French or American, they have my sincere gratitude and my prayers for a happy, long life.

The events of the past two days have brought parts of Paris into the living rooms of the American people.  Many Americans have been to Paris; hell, the Greatest Generation actually liberated it from the Nazis in 1944.  It's an exceptionally unique, fascinating city, which never fails to surprise me.  Personally, I prefer Montmarte and the 18th Arrondissement as my favorite piece of "Paris within Paris".  The 18th Arrondissement is home to the breathtaking Sacre Coeur Church, and also to the famous (or infamous) Moulin Rouge show club ("there's a place in France, where the naked ladies dance.....").  For persons visiting Paris for the first time, I always say that you will have the time that you expect to have.  Paris is FULL of rude, nasty waiters who speak perfect English, but usually won't speak anything but French to Americans.  Well, I have had my share of rude wait staff
 Kontaktmöglichkeiten: über Wikimedia Commons oder über
 www.sojka.photo.
in Chicago and also Rome.  Approach Paris with the proper attitude, and Paris will show you the time of your life.  Lately, though, I 've been strongly recommending that visitors to France take advantage of the TGV (high-speed train) station in Charles De Gaulle Airport, and head to the southwest of France.

Unless its for historical purposes, I don't spend much time on the beaches of Normandy, and northern France has never carried any particular charm for me.  I love the southeast, with Aix and Provence and Monaco and Nice, but the holiday season has started to last year-round, and I can't help but be annoyed when I see touristy cheap trinkets made in China being sold in front of a 16th-century Chapel in Provence.  Please don't misunderstand; all of France is still lovely.  The hills and forests of the Ardennes, the magnificent mountains of Chamonix, Megeve and Val d'Isere, and the colorful fishing fleets home to Cherbourg and Brest must be visited by all Francophiles.  But if you are looking to spend a relaxing, peaceful, inspired and Gallic month in France, my advice is to head to the Département of Charente.  Yes, Charente is part of my heritage.  Most of my French family continues to live in Charente, which makes me a bit of an expert.  I provided a limited portrait of the town of Angouleme in a previous post, and I will try not to repeat myself too often.  Angouleme sits on top of a hill, like a nipple on a breast.  It is the seat of Charente Province, and a tremendously historic place.  The Romans were not the first to recognize the strategic significance of the hilltop location, but they were the first to build ramparts.  As far as my memory serves me, there are now three separate rings of ramparts, and the
Cathedral that overlooks the entire valley was originally a small Church built in the fifth-century.  The Cathedral was consecrated in the 11th-century and contains a multitude of invaluable stonework.  Angouleme is home to roughly 50,000 souls, and has just the right number of hotels and Bed & Breakfasts.

The Charente River bisects both the Département  of Charente and the city of Angouleme.  For many years it was the lifeline for the inhabitants, as it provided transportation and food to the locals.  Many times Queen Eleanor d'Aquitaine sailed her royal barge down the Charente, as she courted Henry II of England.  The real beauty of
Charente is found outside of Angouleme.  Little villages, each with its own identity and church, seem to be around every corner.  The roads are small but more than adequate, and suited to the forests and glens that mark the Charente countryside.  Castles are so numerous that you begin not to notice them, with the spires and towers reaching above the tree lines.  When I was a child, my family would take trips to the country and go castle-hunting.  Most were not occupied, as it is very expensive to heat and electrify old, large buildings.  I remember my mother taking us to her old swimming hole, under the ancient stone bridge in the tiny charming village of Marsac.  Every little village has a bar (and usually a modest, adjoining restaurant), a bakery, a butcher and a small Tabac (tea room or store).  I remember as a child, imagining that we were going back in time as we would leave the wider roads of Angouleme and enter the spotless, green, sun-filled countryside.  With the cobble-stone streets, and the constant smell of fresh bread, and ancient townspeople dressed in traditional attire, it was as if we had taken a trip backwards.  We never even turned on the car radio; everything we needed for our distraction and enjoyment was outside.  When I start to write about Charente and Angouleme, I invariably run out of space.  Maybe its time to start a new book, but for now, please accept this humble view into a France that you weren't able to see on the television these last two days.  It truly is a place of magic.  Evil never ceases in its efforts to attack peace and beauty, and we must all stay resolute and not forget what is in our hearts.