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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Three Of My Favorite Places......Durban, Angouleme, and Fussen

Links: A. Municipality of eThekwini (Durban)
           B. Information about Angouleme, France
           C. Official Website For Fussen, Germany

I have been enormously fortunate in my life to have visited cities on four of the seven continents (Australia, Asia and Antarctica have eluded me), and I enjoy nothing more than to share my experiences.  I have visited north, west, central, east and south Africa.  Cities in the European sense are new to Africa, and they have developed a unique, symbiotic relationship with elements of village life which can't be abandoned.  I have decided to occasionally write about some of the cities I have known, and Durban, South Africa is my first choice.  It's not my most favorite city in the world (Houston, Texas holds that place), but Durban is fresh in my mind and just the right kind of unique to fit in well with this post.
Durban is a busy port city, and during the summer months (November through February), tourists from Johannesburg and Pretoria descend on the beaches in droves.  In reality, the beaches to the north and south of Durban have become more popular recently, but for surfers and fisherman, the city beaches are still the best.  The Durban mile, the area directly adjacent to the city beaches, is indeed occupied by the required skyscraper-type hotels, but it is kept meticulously clean and landscaped.  I enjoy staying at the beach hotels, because I can walk to downtown Durban in ten minutes to visit a museum or go shopping, and then drive in the other direction 15 minutes to Morningside for dinner.  Durban is a friendly city, and compared to Johannesburg and Cape Town, it's where I feel safer.  For international tourists, you can't chose a more ideally located port of entry.  Sure you can fly into Johannesburg and take a combi taxi to Kruger National Park, or you can fly to Cape Town and just visit Cape Town.  However, if you have the time, I recommend flying into Cape Town, and taking a rental car along the Garden Route and up through the Transkei to Durban; It's a drive you will never forget.  Most people don't
Me in Transkei, South Africa, 1991
realize that the Mother City (Cape Town) is geographically, and in numerous other ways, very removed the rest of South Africa.  When friends visiting South Africa ask for advice, I always provide the same itinerary:  Fly into Durban and spend a few days visiting the small, lovely "very British" little seaside villages on the South Coast (Southbroom is bewitching).  Then take a few more days driving north to Pietermaritzburg and the Midlands.  Not much to do but it is a lush, beautiful part of the country to see, and Pietermaritzburg is a very colonial, historic city.  I always spend about a week north of iDurban, visiting the Zulu War Battlefields of Blood River and Isandlwana.  In fact, Zululand (Empangeni, Ubombo, and Mkuze) is my home away from home.  If you want to see wildlife, Mkuze, Umfolozi and Hluhluwe (Sh-shlu-we) will give you your fill.  Returning to Durban, you notice that it is home to the highest percentage of South Africans of Indian heritage.  The latest statistic put the ethnic Indian population of Durban at more than one million.  Their impact is everywhere and they have been instrumental in creating the Durban of today: a unique city that continues to draw me back.

As my second selection for today, I have chosen one of my two hometowns.  Angouleme, France, population roughly fifty thousand, is the seat of the Department de Charente, and a very historic place.  Located in southwest France, northeast of Bordeaux, Angouleme is deeply imbedded in both the Cognac and wine industry.  The Romans are the first recorded residents, although they claimed the site had been inhabited previously.  No surprise; Angouleme is in a very strategic location.  It sits on top of the highest hill within the general area.  The Romans were the first to construct ramparts, and the village began
Angouleme, France
to resemble the nipple on a breast. In medieval times, another set of more elaborate ramparts were built, to protect the local Duke from his feudal enemies.  Before I get ahead of myself, for students of European history, Angouleme is just south of the location in which the Muslim Moors were finally defeated in their effort to extend their reach out of northern Spain.  Angouleme is bisected by the meandering, sleepy Charente River, which still recognizes my mother, who as a small girl learned to swim in its refreshing waters.  Angouleme is not a typical tourist attraction.  It is the kind of town which attracts foreigners searching for less-temporary digs.  In the last few decades, I have been amazed at the number of wealthy English folks who have moved in, purchased run-down farm houses and even barns, and renovated them into the loveliest of homes.  These new residents aren't always friendly.  I recall once walking just outside of a recently renovated home in
Charente River
Sers, just southwest of Angouleme, when an English voice yelled, in broken French, "private property!"  When I answered in English, the still-unobserved woman replied, "a bloody Yank....well that's even worse than one of the stupid locals".  Angouleme is famous worldwide as a center for graphic artists and comic book illustrators.  The town has a long history of paper construction, which led to its eventual designation as the "comic book capital" of Europe.  I don't mind; the young people who are involved in this type of art are very respectful of the enormous amount of historic architecture that exists throughout the old town.  The countryside around Angouleme is full of old castles, and the locale is traditionally vibrant, healthy and green.  A drive to the ocean takes about an hour and a half.  Your seaside choices are endless, including La Rochelle, Ile De Re, Royan, Ile d'Oleron, and Arcachon.  When I was a young boy of seven, eight and nine, we would spend our summers on the Isle of Re (Ile de Re); we had a small camper which stayed empty until bedtime.  I lived in my swimsuit and turned as brown as a chestnut.  My memories of these summers are some of the most valuable I have.

Last on my list for today is the Bavarian village of Fussen.  It is a lovely, typically spotless Bavarian town, which sits at the foot of the famous castle "Neuschwanstein" (New Swan Castle).  Virtually everyone on the planet has seen at least a photo of Neuschwanstein,
which served as the inspiration for Walt Disney's Disneyland and then Disneyworld castle.  Whether it's summer or winter, Fussen is the perfect tourist destination.  It sits next to a beautiful lake, and claims another Bavarian dream-castle as a neighbor: Hohenschwangau (also built by King Ludwig II).  Visiting the castles is an experience like no other.  I go back at every opportunity and become more enchanted.  I find it difficult to describe.  Each room in these two castles has its own identity, its own priceless art, and its own individual "raison d'etre".  You have the option of walking up to Neuschwanstein, or taking the horse-drawn taxi.  For all persons who are able, I strongly recommend taking the journey on foot.  The brilliant German composer Richard Wagner was an intimate of the young, ever-romantic King Ludwig II, and many of the walls of Neuschwanstein are painted with scenes from Wagner's Operas.  I prefer to visit in the winter months, just before Christmas, when the snow is just deep and frequent enough to be welcome.  The small German towns in the vicinity all have their own particular traditions at Christmas time, and the hot chocolate and warm feelings are impossible to avoid. 
Old Town, Fussen, Germany
Fussen has plenty of reasonable accommodations (in fact, I find most German hotels, Bed-n-Breakfasts, and Guesthouses to be surprisingly cheap.....and of course, everything is spotless).  Its easy to get to Fussen.  You can fly into Munich and take the train, or you can get a rental, which is my preference.  I like to be as mobile as possible.  If you want to take in some skiing, Nesselwang is a great spot and only thirty minutes or so from Fussen.  From Fussen you can easily visit Garmisch, Innsbruck, and even Salzburg.  For engaged couples looking for a romantic getaway for their Honeymoon, Fussen is ideal.

So there you have the first installment of Mukhabarat's travel guide.  And ours is so much cheaper than Fodor's, Lonely Planet, or Frommer's.  And I'll let you in on a little secret: if you have any questions about these places, I'd be happy to answer them.  Thanks for visiting my blog.  

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Review Of "Secret Wars: An Espionage Story", by Joe Goldberg

Link: A. Link to "Secret Wars: An Espionage Story"
         B. "Secret Wars", by Joe Goldberg, Vimeo Clip

"It isn't the libraries that revolutionaries storm to get their message
out to the people when they are overthrowing a government; its the television studios and radio stations."

This comment, by Mike Garnett, the first character you meet in Joe Goldberg's soon-to-be released fiction novel "Secret Wars, An Espionage Story", brings into focus the character who serves as your guide into a world of espionage, politics, terrorism, and war.  I liked Garnett immediately, mostly because he wasn't James Bond or even Jason Bourne.  Garnett is real and it's likely he will remind you of someone you know.  Although the book is crammed full of all sorts of juicy details about espionage, Goldberg's characters live in the real world: our world, of pushy bosses, dozing students, and traffic jams.  I love this book because as fiction, Goldberg could have included absurd chase scenes, bizarre spy gadgets, and loads of gorgeous women on every page.  Instead, he creates his story in a true-to-life scenario, with real events as a backdrop.  After meeting CIA officer Judy, whose most prominent feature is a "unibrow", I smiled and settled down into what I discovered is an exciting, realistic and human story.  Joe Goldberg is a retired spy, and this is his first novel.

For fans of espionage, this book is right up your alley.  Goldberg's personal experiences in the world of spying must have come in handy, as each chapter unfolds with such detail that it could have been written only by someone with time "on the inside".  As a bit of background (I want to be very careful not to reveal too much of the plot),  Garnett is a veteran Intelligence Officer with the CIA, who is presently occupying a management level position in an Agency counter terrorist media/propaganda office.  He is very aware of the effectiveness of images in the framing of events.  Garnett realizes that any message can be interpreted differently just by changing the juxtaposition of the video presentation.  He has some difficulty influencing others with his perspective, as the Agency always has the
urge to default to "the old ways".  He finds himself involved in a potentially high-profile CIA operation to formally recruit the Libyan Foreign Minister right under the nose of Muammar Gaddafi.  The plot takes us on a tour of Europe, and introduces some very interesting, and surprisingly familiar characters.  Again, kudos to Goldberg for reminding us that the CIA (and the world of espionage in general) is made up of flawed, sometimes lustful, occasionally chunky, emotional human beings.  I found myself most interested in Abdallah Mukhtar and the subplot involving his son Tareq.  It is a very genuine story, which reminds us all that in the end love does conquer all (Insh'Allah).  Mukhtar is a survivor and I can say (without getting into trouble) that during my career I was fortunate enough to meet a few amazing people who manage to live in the heart of absolute darkness, keep their sanity, and occasionally assist the good guys.  I'm glad that Goldberg chose to locate so much of the early part of the book in Agency spaces.  Its important for the reader to move beyond the mystery of "Langley"; its just a building with lots of offices and cubicles.  And in those offices are grumpy folks dealing with computer troubles or an approaching deadline; the same scene which is repeated in countless offices around the world everyday.

As a retired Agency officer, I am under legal (and moral) obligation to carefully govern my choice of worlds and phrases when discussing anything related to my career.  This fact complicated the completion of this review, but I am determined to share my reading experience and opinion with my friends who visit this blog.  Joe has created an exciting, heart-wrenching, realistic and detail-oriented story about a CIA operation.  He starts at the beginning, and takes the reader through the operational process, all the while building a story that skips from location to location, and continent to continent.  Thankfully, Goldberg does not introduce his characters with a "data dump" of background information.  The audience learns about each character as the story evolves, and this effect in particular indicates the natural gifts of the writer.  Many of you remember the terrorist bombings in Rome and Vienna in 1985, and the subsequent action involving the bombing of Libya.  Using the actual events as a backdrop, Goldberg takes the audience on a bit of a detour from the historical record.  I haven't mentioned some of the more interesting characters, including a "bad guy" that would make James Bond think twice.  But my review is not an attempt to dissect "Secret Wars".  I want you to read this book.  Why?  Because I loved it, and I am convinced you will as well.  I want to read more novels that accurately present the experiences of CIA officers, and this is a great place to start.  Pick up this book and you will expand your knowledge of the CIA, the U.S. government, and Libya in general.  And you will thoroughly enjoy the instruction.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Weapons Of Mass Destruction...Revisited.

Link: Chemical Weapons In Iraq

Anyone in Iraq in 2003-2004 would have come across evidence that the Saddam Hussein regime was not only in possession of chemical weapons, but that they were preparing to use them against U.S. forces.  The truth is, Saddam had a number of nasty little ambushes planned for our brave soldiers, but our victory was so total and engulfing that he and his coward sons were obliged to leave town before any of their "surprises" could be visited on our young men and women in uniform.  The Iraqi army disappeared from the battlefield almost as quickly as they did recently outside of Tikrit.  Let's face it, no one wanted to die for Saddam, which was fortunate for everyone because the end result was fewer casualties on either side.  The fact is Iraq had compiled a frightening arsenal of chemical weapons which were stored at various locations around the country.  There is no doubt in my mind that Iraq was developing less complicated, easy to deliver batches of biological agents as well.  It's not difficult to keep these labs simple and mobile, and we have yet to get satisfactory clarification on what exactly the Iraqis were transporting in convoys from central Iraq to Syria in the dead of the night.  Who was surprised when Syrian de facto President Bashir al-Assad began using chemical weapons against the Syrian opposition?

I'm not writing this post in support of the argument that the Bush Administration went to war against Iraq because Iraq was a threat to develop Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).  I won't make that argument because I don't believe that Operation Enduring Freedom had anything to do with Iraq's weapons initiatives, be they chemical, biological, nuclear or all three.  I believe the intention was to force the war onto a battlefield that was less comfortable for Al-Qaida (AQ): away from U.S. population centers and into AQ's backyard.  Bringing the conflict to Iraq and Afghanistan forced the enemy to fight a conventional war in which he would be totally ill-suited.  Iraq would be freed from the rule of a bloodthirsty despot and would be rebuilt; the Taliban would be destroyed once and for all; and both nations would embrace the promise of democracy, education, and free trade.  I believe the idea was to create a long-term military presence in this part of the world, possibly in the form of an Army and Air Force Base to compliment the current U.S. Naval facilities in the Gulf States.  I don't think the Bush Administration was prepared for the scope and the breadth of the Sunni Insurgency coupled with the Sunni-Shia conflict purposely exacerbated by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI).  A change in the White House and a definite change in policy ended any hope of achieving the original goals of Operation Enduring Freedom.  But this is all conjecture, which is a nice way of saying bullshit.  I have no proof for my supposition, nor do I care anymore.  The discussion today focuses on the claim by the left that Iraq did not possess WMD when we invaded in 2003.

After the decision by George Bush Sr. to leave Saddam Hussein in power (following the first Gulf War in 1991), Saddam showed his appreciation by using chemical weapons against the rebellious Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south.  Saddam's appreciation of chemical weapons did not end with his collection of a nice supply, tucked away in various bunkers.  Iraqi scientists continued to do research with both chemical and biological agents.  Initially, because the U.S. Army chose not to get involved in the controversy, the discovery of cache upon cache of chemical weapons went unreported in the U.S. press.  Granted, the Iraqi Survey Group was in place for the express purpose of locating WMD, but they were focused on locating mobile and stationary labs for creating biological and chemical agents.  Unfortunately for the Bush Administration, the "smoking gun" was either never discovered or never revealed.

For the simple point of argument about the presence of WMD in Iraq, anyone who says that Iraq was not in possession of WMD is mistaken at best.  The latest version of the conversation from the left, is that the chemical weapons discovered by the U.S. Army were caches dating back to 1991 and before.  Even though I don't believe that all the chemical agents discovered in Iraq (and they're still digging stuff up, folks) have a birthdate of 1991 and before, I think the argument is absurd.  The United Nations Security Council Resolutions did not specify if Iraq was currently cooking up chemical agents, it was addressing Iraq's possession of chemical agents.  Saddam Hussein did indeed have WMDs; in fact, he had a proverbial butt-load of WMD.  If you want to argue that the real reasons for going to war had nothing to do with WMDs, then I won't stand in your way.  But to continue the false narrative that Iraq did not possess WMD and was not a threat to its neighbors (including, with an adequate delivery system, Israel) is to ignore real evidence.  A decade after the fact, poor souls are still stumbling into Saddam's stash of unconventional weapons.  We may yet uncover a well-buried mobile biological laboratory.  I've given you my opinion regarding the true motivation for the war, which is certainly open to debate.  But the caches of chemical weapons found in Iraq isn't.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Just How Evil Has Russia Become?

Links: A. Problems with New START Treaty
           B. Russia's Support for Syria's Bashir al-Assad
           C. Russia Assisting Iran's Nuclear Program
           D. Russia Launches New UK Channel

Today's post will probably be broken up into two segments, as much as I despise "Part I and Part II" reading selections.  This subject can't be addressed with only a handful of paragraphs.  Recently we've discussed Iran, the resurgence of Al-Qaeda in sub-Saharan Africa, and the Ebola crisis.  All of these issues deserve serious attention.  In fact, as we dither, I'm assuming the Iranians have been making tremendous progress in their efforts to enrich Uranium.  In the mind of President Obama, though, the real threat to the liberty and safety of the American people is......the need to "legalize" persons who are living in this country sin documentos.  Hey, we all have out priorities.  I won't be tackling that issue in my blog, at least not anytime soon.  Let's take another look at Mother Russia.

In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got to work negotiating a Nuclear Reduction Treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (of course we actually mean Prime Minister Vladimir Putin). Many analysts questioned the timing and the need for this treaty, and once the guts were on the table for us to examine, the United States did not come off well (I won't drop this pile of manure squarely on Hillary's doorstep; thirteen GOP Senators voted in favor of the treaty; of course, that was during the days when we had separate branches of government).  If you want to know what is wrong with the treaty, have a quick look at the first link above. More than anything else, any treaty with Russia is a roll of the dice because the Russians lie, hide and cheat.  Ask any of the officials who have previously been involved in weapons reduction verification.  And yet we trust them with our Nuclear Security on a handshake.  In a case of terrible timing for Hillary, the Russians are not winning any philanthropy awards this year.  It will be very difficult not only bragging about the New START Treaty in her 2016 Presidential Campaign; it is something she will have to defend (at least from questions by the Fox News folks).  My personal question to candidate Hillary: "As Secretary of State, you undoubtedly knew of Russian assistance in Iran's efforts to enrich Uranium.  How could you agree to sign a Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty with a nation that was actually helping to create another third-world country with nuclear weapons?"

I don't have to spend too much ink on Russia's support for Syrian de facto President Bashir al-Assad.  During the dark days of the Soviet Union, Russia supported Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad (at least daddy had a chin, for goodness sake), and anyone else who was willing to oppose Israel.  I have a challenge to all of you armchair generals out there.  Lets try and determine just how many Russian tanks have been laid waste in Sinai, Golan, and the West Bank over the past five decades?  What used to fascinate me was the Soviet's willingness to replace the tanks that the IDF destroyed.  And most of the time, it was an upgrade: T-54/55 to 7-62 to T-72 to T-80; what a bargain.  Assad in Damascus still has as many as 1600 T-72/T-72Ms, not to mention 2000 T-54/55 clunkers and 1000 T-62s.  I have no idea how Assad's armor has been reduced, but you can be sure he has taken full advantage of the recent international focus on ISIL to get his front-line units in shape.  Why do the Russians continue the Soviet policy of support for Assad and the Syrian Ba'ath Party?  It all boils down to location and strategy.  Syria sits in a very strategic location, south of Turkey, north of Saudi Arabia and Israel, and west of Iraq.  Having Syria as a close ally has been advantageous to Russia in the past, and the opportunity to create a Mediterranean Russian Naval Base at Tartus is a tempting inducement.  Russian patronage of Assad is paying off.  It gives Russia a seat at the Syria/ISIL/Iraq table, wherever that table may be.

Why are the Russians so anxious to create additional member of the nuclear weapons club?  It has to be more than an issue of money, although I'm sure the Iranians are willing to pay.  Russia has its own oil, so petroleum can't be the reason for assisting Iran's Nuclear efforts.  Historically, the Chinese have also been willing to share their knowledge of all things nuclear (most of it stolen from our labs and universities), but with Beijing it was always about money.  And Iran has contracted with Russia to build a number of reactors.  Heaven only knows where the payment for all of this "help" will end up...probably in a Cyprus Bank Account under a Russian name.  Iran claims to be solely interested in peaceful use of nuclear energy, but the reality is, the Iranians are only interested in enrichment of uranium.  In fact, the Iranians have been using laser technology to create weapons-grade Uranium, which takes less time and is more difficult to detect, therefore encourages proliferation.  It would be such a welcome change if a Russian government would make a decision based on the notion that "its simply the right thing to do".

We have discussed the situation in Ukraine ad nauseam, and I refuse to send the few readers I have left, running for the exits.  My original suspicion was that in order to punish Ukraine for removing a pro-Russian president, Putin decided to annex Crimea and swallow up the modest Ukrainian Navy (poor Ukrainian Navy; I'm the only blogger who gives them any face time).  Putin created the "independence" movement in eastern Ukraine as a bargaining chip; if Ukraine accepts the annexation of Crimea, then Russia will withdraw their criminals and thugs from the streets of Luhansk, Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk.  After the fourth or fifth round of punishing sanctions (and one jetliner full of passengers, shot right out of the sky), Putin was reminded of the complete lack of nerve in Washington DC and the EU, and decided to keep mixing things up in the Ukraine.  Lets face it, what does he have to lose?  Putin could order a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States and Moldova, and what would President Obama's response be?  Noodle on that one for a while.

The reason I decided to discuss Russia today was the news of a new Russian UK television channel and a new Russian international news service, ostensibly to "combat western propaganda".  One can only hope that people won't pay attention to this new news service called "Sputnik", unless it becomes an outlet for comic relief.  Last week, some Russian news service (probably all of them) highlighted a video clip showing a Ukrainian jet shooting a missile at Malaysian Airlines MH 17.  If it weren't so disgusting and vile, it would have been funny, because the clip was obviously fabricated.  These gross morons don't seem to understand that if the Ukrainians wanted to shoot down that jetliner, they could have done so from at least a few miles away.  The absurdities regarding this alleged photo of a military jet shooting a missile at a civilian jetliner go on and on and on.  And this is the kind of honest reporting that we can expect from Sputnik and the new UK-based Russian television channel.

When the Iron Curtain fell, I was so excited for the future.  I have always been fascinated by Russia, and I was thrilled with the idea of an entirely new relationship between Washington DC and Moscow.  I'm not sure how, but things have fallen completely off the rails.  The Russian people don't seem to be happy unless they have an oppressive, militaristic government.  Can you imagine if Gorbachev had come to power instead of Putin?  But we are stuck with Vlad, and everyday he finds a way to remind me that he is nothing more than a sociopathic bucket of shit with serious homosexual tendencies (nothing personal, Gay folks), who managed to be at the right place and at the right time.  Putin used his KGB and Russian Mafia connections to elbow his way into the power vacuum that was left over after Boris Yeltsin.  And we are all suffering for it.  One fact is becoming more and more apparent all the time; the United States needs a leader who is proud of his/her country and is prepared to stand up to the bullies of the world.  2016 can't come fast enough.......       

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Book Excerpt #3 (Part II) - "Mukhabarat, Baby!", by Eric Burkhart

Because of the numerous requests I received regarding the end to Excerpt #3 (I was forced to cut it short because of size constraints), I have decided to provide the end to that particular story.  Please pick up the story from the end of yesterday's post:

I don't recall anything about the rest of the day.  I know I had a lot on my mind.  I could not explain how it happened, but during those few, indelicate, precious seconds immediately following the birth, I watched that life announce its presence.  I saw the majestic beauty in human creation, and realized that it made no sense to my analytical brain, that events like this could occur without a divine catalyst.  Certainly Madalyn Murray O'Hair would consider my argument to be weak and emotional.  And that's part of the picture.  This vein of "feelings" that we have, to love and hate, to envy and despise, to adore and to admire.  It is what sets apart from the more nature-reactive living things, including plants and trees.  Something else I realized at about the same time: the need for nature to be appreciated and admired.  This epiphany of sorts was encouraged by my environment.  Africa does nothing in small measure.  The cheer of the yellow marigold and color explosion of the Lilac-Breasted Roller demand to be acknowledged and appreciated.  I speak of the sights and the smells of nature that we learn almost from birth to take for granted.  I would imagine the ideal, "Darwinesque" creature would have accounted for what was necessary, not what was appreciated.  Survival of the fittest, evolving out uselessness and redundancy, doesn't leave much place for sympathy and humor. 

Please don't get me wrong.  I'm not trying to pick a fight with Evolutionists.  I guess its more of a self-defense against Atheists, all of whom seem to be died-in-the-wool Evolutionists.  But this long-winded lecture is not something I'm used to or comfortable giving.  I still have a bucket full of questions to ask, but at least I've been able to check off a few.  We have a creator because we love and we hate, and because we covet and we empathize.  We are gluttons for food, money, sex and material things.  It is what sets us apart.  Its like a thumb print, from him (or her), to remind us of our starting point.  How do I account for all the different religions around the world?  I can't, and I don't have to.  I have studied Hinduism and Islam.  I am fascinated by the idea of reincarnation and I have read the Quran (three times-ouch!).  But where I am is right for me.  And I do not feel the urge or the obligation to proselytize.  It is the most personal of decisions and absolutely none of my business how someone else chooses (or not) to worship.  I still attend Mass every week and do not miss a Holy Day of Obligation.  And I go to Confessional...not nearly enough.  But the decision to show my appreciation to God in the traditional manner in which I was raised is my business.  Its difficult for me to understand how those with no answers whatsoever are so self-righteous in their criticism and activism against Christianity.  No more school plays in December about the birth of Jesus.  No more "Pledge of Allegiance" ("one nation, under God" violates the Constitution).  Just for fun, the next time you get into a discussion about "The Meaning of Life" with an atheist, ask them where do we came from?  I want to know, how did all this start?  There must have been energy...where did it come from?  What or who is the antagonist that put "The Big Bang" in motion?  You see, I can answer that question and they can't, but I'm the idiot....they will have plenty to say about "natural selection" and the fish that chooses (I wonder why?) to leave the water for the land.  The key is, if you have the patience and the stamina, to force them further back, all the way to "The Big Bang".  Then ask them why did it happen and what were the causes.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Book Excerpt #3 - "Mukhabarat, Baby!" by Eric Burkhart

(This third excerpt was pulled randomly and touches on a religious moment I experienced as a young man in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.  As I've previously noted, until the Agency has approved the manuscript for publication, I can't share any excerpts dealing with my Agency career.)

I was raised Roman Catholic and I made my Holy Communion with my brother and sister in Bad Hersfeld, Germany.  I made my Confirmation separately.  My mother and stepfather are very involved with their church.  My stepfather Chuck teaches a weekly class and dedicates much of his time to educating himself on Christianity, the Bible, and religion in general.  Chuck is a fascinating man.  He is the most intelligent person I have ever known, and as a member of the Peace Corps, lived and worked in rural India in the 1970s.  Because he is so intelligent and has unique life experiences, I find his perspective on all things to be invaluable.
Like many young people my age, I rebelled a bit against traditional religion after graduating from high school.  I was overwhelmed with the same questions most people deal with at one time or another in their lives.  I had difficulty understanding why all people did not subscribe to the same faith.  I recognized early on that some religions told a very similar story and I came to a decision that at one time all people did share the shame belief.  But as the various tribes spread throughout the world and time passed, the story changed a bit.  We humans, if we are anything, are imperfect, and the story was bound to take on separate characteristics and conform to different customs. 
I have suffered through two crises of faith in my life.  As a young man I witnessed firsthand tremendous suffering by children.  I could not understand why God would create life to be born, only to suffer and in many instances, die.  Why did God create the spark of life in the womb of a woman who was determined to have an abortion?  I remember having a conversation with myself when I was twenty-four and trying to make sense of life.  I remember deciding that I no longer believed in God.  I'm not the first person to struggle with the question of why terrible things like the Jewish  Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda are allowed to occur.  I made the decision that I wanted to live a simple life, and a complicated Father in Heaven caused me more anguish than joy.  My flirtation with atheism lasted roughly two weeks.  Again, children were the catalyst for the rediscovery of my faith.
I was working as a volunteer in Edendale Hospital just outside of Pietermaritzburg.  My running group volunteered once a month to help with cleaning, storage, and similar manual labors at Edendale, which was the "black" hospital in the community.  You can imagine how overloaded this place was.  Most of the physicians were foreign and most of the nurses were black South Africans.  The place was a fascinating, never-ending transfer of knowledge.  I used to drive by the Hospital everyday to work and it was always busy.  One of the gross disparities of apartheid- the Indian community had their own hospital, and the white community, which was smallest, was served by two hospitals and a handful of dispensaries/clinics.  I enjoyed my Sundays in Edendale.  I would drive down right after Mass (until I was no longer attending), and knew right where to go.  Fortunately the hospital was located just on the outskirts of Edendale township.  Otherwise I think the Polish, Italian and American physicians would have had an eventual nasty confrontation with life as it was for the vast majority of South Africans: going to sleep, not knowing if you will wake up.  I remember one particular Sunday afternoon at the Edendale hospital crystal clearly.  I just happened to be in the right place and and the right time, to see a baby born.  My sincerest apologies to the unforgivable invasion of privacy, but I did not expect to enter the wrong room and see a woman in labor.  You see, this was at a time when childbirth was a bit down on the list of medical priorities.  Most rural black South Africans did not go to hospital to give birth, as they do now.  Labor was assisted by a midwife and family relations.  The physicians themselves would tell me that they could not do as good a job as these midwives, who have the luxury of treating the patient in her own home, surrounded by the family that loves her.
I was in the room maybe 45 seconds at most.  I learned later that this baby was born in hospital because the mother was over 50 yrs old, so there were concerns for the health of both.  Well, there shouldn't have been, at least not for the baby.  The cord was cut and tied, the boy swatted on the butt, and as planned, he cried.....or rather he screamed.  He actually sounded angry.  This baby wasn't upset over the ouch to his backside, he was pissed that some asshole had the nerve to hit him.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Just what is Iran's strategy in Syria and Iraq?

Link: What is the Iranian Strategy?

The article which I have linked is so concise, well-written and full of relevant details, that I had no need to added a second link.  You might be assuming that it was written by me, but in this instance, I can't take the credit.  With regard to the ISIS/ISIL conflict playing out in Syria and Iraq, Iran is a major player.  The Iranians support Bashir al-Assad in Damascus, and currently appear to be calling the shots in Baghdad, Yemen, and Lebanon (Iran is also close with Oman's Sultan Qaboos).  The recent military gains near the oil refinery in Baiji have been attributed to support provided to the Iraqi Army by Shia militias directed by Teheran.  While Turkey purposely steps on everyone's toes, the United States fumbles around, searching for a coherent strategy, and ISIL spends every waking moment looking for a woman to rape or a head to chop off, the Iranians have stealthily strengthened their position in every theater.  Don't get me wrong, I'm still very pessimistic regarding the future of Baghdad, but the Iranians are beginning to apply a few more resources to the struggle, which traditionally signals a new, more aggressive policy on the part of Teheran.  Actually, the Iranians almost seem to be in the catbird seat.  ISIL has been stopped, temporarily, from its efforts to control the northern Iraqi oil fields, and the Iranians have yet to deploy one regular army brigade (although the Badr Corps and Kataib Hezbollah are bound to have Iranian military advisors on hand).  Assad, Teheran's man in Syria, has been given a new lease on life due to the allied air campaign against ISIL, al-Nusra Front, Khorasan and the Partridge Family (excuse the sarcasm, I'm still full of myself after the geniuses in the Pentagon discovered that the groups were part of the same network, which I've been declaring for two months).  In fact, by the time the Free Syrian Army has been trained to adequately fight defensively, the regular Syrian Army will be reconstituted to the point of being the strongest military element in Syria.  And once Assad is back on top, I doubt seriously that Putin and Teheran will allow his removal without a legitimate fight.

Where do the Kurds fit into all this?

I worry about the Kurds.  The fortunes of the Kurdish people can change in the blink of an eye.  They fight like madmen, are courageous to a fault, have never really betrayed anyone, and only want to be left alone in their own little piece of nationhood.  However, since that nationhood dream includes access to oil, it is unlikely to become a reality.  This conflict has Syrian Kurds fighting in Kobani, Iraqi Kurds fighting around Mosul and Erbil, and the never-ending shooting contest with the Turkish Army.  I see an opportunity for the Iranians to add Suleymaniyah, Kurdistan to their list of friends:  If the Iranians were to intervene militarily against ISIL in defense of the Kurds and the Yazidi, can you imagine the public relations jackpot Iran will enjoy?  What a development: Iranian ground forces move in to mop up ISIL, when the Americans couldn't be bothered (and we all know that this is the American's mess to begin with).  The Iranian Army fighting alongside the Iraqi Army, removing the ISIL butchers, should push aside any distaste from the influential Sunni Shaykhs and politicians.  It would solidify the pro-Iranian political forces in Baghdad, and stabilize its own northeastern border with Kurdistan.  Assad finishes off ISIL in Syria, and the Iranians become the power broker in the region.  True, a lot would have to fall into place for this scenario to come to pass.  The Kurds and Iranians would have to get past years of distrust to work that closely together.  And the Sunni community in central Iraq would be the most difficult audience of all.  But when I examine the current situation, I can see no one as well-placed as the Iranians.  The Turks had an opportunity to become that same power broker, but Erdogan can't keep his personal prejudices from impacting his decisions.  The Turks should have co-opted the Kurds, gained access to the Kurdish oil fields, and ended centuries of conflict.  Turkey should have done the United States one better and rolled its tanks and F-16s into Syria, blasting both ISIL and Syrian regular forces into smithereens.  Erdogan could have appealed to the sense of destiny that sits in the heart of every Turk.  At the beginning of this conflict was the time for Turkey to reclaim its natural position as savior and leader of the region, and the first step would have been to crush the band of butchers who call themselves ISIL, and then remove the band of butchers that call themselves the Ba'ath Party in Damascus.  And what would have been the worst-case reaction from the United States and Europe?  That they might have gotten so angry that they enacted a sanctions regime to prohibit Turkish leaders from traveling to Miami Beach in the winter?  At the same time, the Iranians would have been too focused on their all-consuming obsession to build nuclear weapons, and Putin was otherwise too engaged in Ukraine to have made a big stink.  Ok, that last point is probably not true: Putin will not let Assad go without a serious fight, because of Putin's desire for a Mediterranean Port for his navy.

So today's post began as an examination of Iran's options in Syria and Iraq, and ended with a review of what Turkey had to gain by being more aggressive and less-impulsive.  But Turkey's opportunity has now passed, especially in light of recent anti-American, anti-European, events in Turkey.  Erdogan is probably happy right now just to sit back and regroup.  This is of course after he has the pleasure of visiting for a few days with Egg-Head of the millennium, Joe Biden.  But Iran is still in the moment, and if the leaders in Teheran showed a bit of innovation and strategic urgency, they could turn this conflict into an Iranian diplomatic coming-out party.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Turkey, Where Do You Stand?

Links: A. U.S. Sailors Attacked In Turkey
           B. Erdogan Cleans Out The Turkish General Staff

The diplomatic mess that has been created by our semi-military entry into the Syrian conflict is something to behold.  The main reason we are mired in this mess is because we do not have a clear policy in the region.  Turkey is a beast to try and understand politically.
Tayyip Erdogan,
President of Turkey
Internally, President Tayyip Erdogan has won the battle with the military and no longer has to sweat under the constant fear of a coup.  There can be no doubt that Erdogan is the driving force behind the slow, methodical creep of Turkey towards Islamization.  Erdogan gained the respect of European liberals when he apologized for the Armenian massacres of the past, and in 2009, it appeared that Turkey might actually be prepared to co-exist with a Kurdish nation.  But understanding the reality of Turko-politics requires an almost day-to-day study of the subject matter.  Simply put, Turkey is interested in developing a relationship with a Kurdish group that has access to Iraqi/Kurdish oil.  Turkey will pretend to support the idea of Kurdish statehood as long as it has access to Kurdish oil.  Once things start to get serious, Turkey switches allegiances to another Kurdish political group and the process starts all over.  If allowed, the Turks will play this game all day.  The reality is, Ankara will never agree to the creation of a legitimate Kurdish state that shares a border with Turkey.  The Turks have absolutely no good will towards the Kurdish people and they never will.  Additionally, Erdogan is determined to see Syria's Bashir al-Assad removed from power.  The whispers that Turkey secretly supports the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL) probably has more to do with Erdogan's hatred of Assad than anything else.  I have no clue what Erdogan's long-term strategy is towards the Kurds, although he has made his economic interest quite clear.  And something I do know: Erdogan wants out from under Gazprom (Russian natural gas exporter) and Vladimir Putin's finger.

In 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, Turkey made its position clear by limiting the use of our own Air Force Bases (albeit in Turkey).  At the time, President George W. Bush, who could be supremely naïve at times, assumed that Erdogan wanted to support the U.S. efforts, but couldn't because of internal issues.  Bullshit.  Erdogan was sending the message that "business as usual" was no longer the acceptable.  Erdogan does not want Turkey to be allied to the United States.  In fact, I don't think Erdogan wants EU membership.   Has anyone noticed that Erdogan played the same, "well, I can't be Prime Minister anymore, so I might as well be President" game that Putin invented?  Erdogan sees himself as a latter-day Sultan, who will usher in a new age of international Turkish power and influence.  He sees Turkey as being ideally situated to lead a group of moderate
Islamic states into the next century.  What makes Erdogan so dangerous is the size and strength of the Turkish military (built by the U.S.).  For many years, the Turks were solely interested in keeping abreast militarily of their historic enemy, Greece.  Turkey always needed one more Frigate, one more F-16 squadron,  or one more tank batallion, than Greece.  The times have changed.  Turkey became a huge customer of U.S. military equipment (some of which arrived as part of aid packages); and the U.S. military always obliges when a friend requests training.  The United States has equipped and trained the Turkish military, which is now one of the world's elite.  Behind the scenes, the U.S. was always happy to provide whatever the Turks wanted, because we thought we were feeding the "safety valve": the Turkish General Staff.  When Erdogan and his AKP party took power, the Pentagon whispered, "as soon as he starts preaching Islamic mumbo-jumbo, the Army will have him under arrest".  However, Tayyip was smarter than the crusty old birds at the Pentagon.  He played the role of moderate reformer, until he was in a position to stage a reverse-coup (see the second link).  The four top Generals who bit the dust, I mean "resigned", were examples of Turkey's move away from the threat of military intervention in civilian politics.  But it left the Pentagon asking, "who is driving that expensive Turkish Lamborghini that we've spent decades paying for?"

I have always loved Turkey and the Turks.  Istanbul is an amazing place full of mystery, intrigue and danger.  And once you get out of the city and into the countryside, you will never find a friendlier, more generous people than the Turks.  If you don't believe me, then take a trip to Turkey yourself . . . but hurry.  I remember as a young boy going to the Judson 4 Drive-In Theater with my family, and watching the movie "Midnight Express" (not a kids movie for sure, but my parents had to get some culture sometime).  After seeing this movie, I remember that being frightened out of my wits by all things "Turkish".  The film did a tremendous disservice to the Turkish nation and to this day still causes bad feelings.  The truth is, the young American Billy Hayes got caught trying to board a Pan Am flight to New York with a load of Hashish taped to his stomach.  Turkey felt the need to make an example out of Hayes, and the rest is history.  For the record, Hayes has since apologized to the Turkish people for the negative image of Turkey that his book encouraged.  The new Turkey, though, has negative emotions about the United States that have nothing to do with a 1970's movie.  Turkey has taken a decided step towards Islamization.  Although Erdogan has driven the chariot, the entire blame for this movement can't be laid on him.  For some reason, the Turkish people, who for so many years proudly embraced the secular legacy of Kemal Ataturk, started looking towards their Islamic heritage for direction.  At the same time, a smaller, less influential movement is encouraging young Turks to embrace the image of Turkey as a political leader of nations, not tied to any religious ideology or diplomatic obligations.  It was supporters of this perspective who, this week, attacked the three U.S. sailors dressed in their civilian clothes and who were hoping to do a bit of sightseeing on their day of leave.  This attack, which was videotaped, is very disturbing if only for the fear you can imagine these young men must have been feeling.  As I have pointed out ad nauseam: we currently have no influence diplomatically anywhere in the world.  So it came as no surprise that the Turkish authorities simply released the persons responsible for this assault.  Oh, I yearn for the days of Ronald Reagan, when these punks would have been hung out to dry.

So this is the Turkey of 2014.  Lumbering towards Islamization, no longer an ally of the United States, hostile to the Kurds, the Israelis, Assad, and the Iraqi government (is the Iraqi government still there?  I haven't checked yet today), and brandishing a military that
Mehmet II, Ottoman Sultan
1441-1446, 1451-1481
would make Mehmet II proud.  Recently, I had a Turkish friend of mine ask me to explain the United States policy regarding Syria, Iraq and the ISIL.  All I could say is that we have collected a few Qatari and Emirati friends, and alongside our Air Force, we are in the process of bombing the shit out of the ISIL.  Oh, and we are also training the Free Syrian Army to be defensive when the time comes.  In other words, I had no answer.  True that I'm no fan of the current administration, but as an American I wish I could have given a better response.  What really frightens me is that Joe Biden is heading to Ankara for talks with Erdogan, after recently insulting Erdogan and having to issue an apology.  Erdogan must be salivating, waiting for this opportunity to embarrass this ASS of a Vice President.  How did we end up with such amateurs in the White House?  Eventually, something is going to give.  Either the ISIL is going to sack Baghdad, or Assad is going to retake the initiative militarily and piss off the Turks to no end (then it will be our fault for degrading ISIL).  Hey, at least it won't be boring.     

Monday, November 17, 2014

What is wrong with our President?

Link: A. Obama Refers To Peter Kassig as "Abdul Rahman"

Today the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL) released information and evidence that confirmed the murder of American hostage and former soldier Peter Kassig.  After serving his time in the military, Kassig dedicated his life to helping victims of war.  He was a wonderful man who was only happy when he was helping other people.
It's true that Kassig showed an interest in Islam, and one year he even observed Ramadan in an effort to better understand the religion.  I have also observed Ramadan a few times, and read the Quran enough times to have a very basic understanding of its contents.  Believe me, I am NOT a Muslim, but if my life were at risk I would do whatever I could to survive.  Life is God's greatest gift, and He expects me to use all of my skills (manipulation and deception included) to STAY ALIVE.  Like Peter Kassig, I have a healthy interest in religion in general.  And if I were taken hostage, I would have no problem becoming Oumar all-American in order to survive.  Then, if the bad guys killed me anyway, I can only pray that the administration would have the common sense to recognize my desperation and not reward the enemy with one last insult to my memory by addressing me by a name taken under duress.

President Obama issued a statement today in response to the murder by ISIL of Peter Kassig.  During the statement, Obama referred to Kassig as "Abdul Rahman".  I don't need to express much indignation: if you are reading this and you find nothing wrong with this detail, then respectfully I have no interest in you ever reading my blog again.  Abdul Rahman is a name which is overly used in the extremist and radical community.  The idea that the President of the United States would use the name "Abdul Rahman" to identify Peter Kassig is an outrage.  We have no idea if Kassig voluntarily took this name, and until we get such validation, then the President should have referred to Kassig by his birth name.

I have to shut this post down early because my level of anger is likely to result in a commentary that I will regret.  I don't want to insult anyone, but what President Obama did was insult an American hero even in the moment of his greatest sacrifice.
Note to the President:

Your name may be Barrack Hussein Obama, but that does not give you the insight nor the authority to assume that Peter Kassig voluntarily chose the name Abdul Rahman after his alleged conversion.  It is common for rescued hostages to later admit to Islamic conversion and the adoption of Islamic names only as a means of survival.  As President of the United States, you should have given the benefit of the doubt to his personal history and heritage and referred to him as Peter Kassig and only as Peter Kassig.  By referring to Kassig as "Abdul Rahman", you are engaging in the murder of his American heritage and identification, alongside the crime committed by ISIL.  Why do you have so much contempt for my country and my heritage?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The United States and its Third World State Department

Links: A. Oregon Woman Trapped In Timorese Jail
           B. Contractor Held In Cuban Jail Because he Is American
           C. Marine Locked Up In Mexico
           D. Two Americans Freed In North Korea

If you happen to be anywhere near Foggy Bottom in the District Of Columbia, you might notice the distinct smell of rot.  Granted, the Potomac is just around the corner, and who knows how far Barney Frank's old male whorehouse is, but today the smell of rot comes from the U.S. Department of State.  As usual, the decay is not in any way connected to the performance of the State Department's ground troops: the heroes and heroines who sit behind a desk all day processing visa applications and  conducting interviews.  The rot comes from the top, and the infection began before Hillary Clinton resigned.  The United States Department of State has a myriad of responsibilities.  In addition to processing the foreign nationals trying to get Tourist and Immigrant Visas, The State Department is responsible for helping Americans in foreign countries every single day.  Well-traveled Americans expect the Department to be on hand in case they have trouble with local authorities, and Americans abroad have a tendency to lose things like passports and return tickets.  It's rarely a glamorous job.  From the links I have provided, it should be obvious that I will be addressing the number of Americans who have ended up in foreign prisons and have not received assistance from the State Department.  Of course, when I refer to assistance, I'm not talking about letters from home, a list of local attorneys, or a package of food and dry socks.  Unless the U.S. State Department has advertised against U.S. persons visiting a particular country, then any American citizen unlawfully detained in a foreign country should be assisted by the U.S. Department of State.

For many years, if a U.S. citizen was unjustifiably incarcerated overseas, and the U.S. government was unable to secure their release, it made the news on all three networks and CNN.  The instances of this occurring were so few and far between, it was naturally a big story.  If an American ended up in a foreign jail, the State Department was usually able to obtain their release, even when the person had committed a minor local offense (driving drunk, bar fighting, etc.).  Our government, and by projection the United States Department of State, carried such gravitas that foreign governments welcomed the opportunity to resolve an issue of this type, as part of efforts to build a strong diplomatic relationship with the United States.  If an American committed a serious offense, such as murder or narcotics possession/smuggling, The United States Department of State would assure that the U.S. citizen had adequate counsel and a fair trail (to some extent).  Things have changed.  The number of countries that I would visit as a tourist has diminished lately, because of the fear that I might get railroaded into something and then be left in a foreign jail to rot.  The first link details the experience of an American veterinarian who was
traveling in East Timor.  She shared a cab with a stranger who was arrested for narcotics possession.  She is currently in jail and has no clue when her case will be adjudicated.  EAST EFFING TIMOR, PEOPLE.  That's have far we've fallen.  The legal system of East Timor gives its finger to the people of the United States.  In the "good ol' days", our Ambassador would make a phone call and the issue would be resolved.  In 2009, President Obama conducted his "Apology Tour", which announced to the Third World that for four, maybe eight years, they would have the opportunity to screw with the United States with NO repercussions.  And a number of countries are taking flu advantage of that opportunity, without risking their aid from the U.S. Government.  The government of East Timor should at least be concerned about the aid they receive.  Get ready for this, folks: Between 2001 and 2008, USAID gave $2,215,997 to the East Timor International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), $3,619,134 to the East Timor International Republican Institute (IRI), and $3,728,490 to the East Timor National Democratic Institute (NDI).  Almost $10 million, and an innocent American woman rots in an East Timorese jail.    Why haven't we DEMANDED her release?

Per the second link, we also have an American sitting in jail in Cuba.  Alan Gross made the mistake of accepting a contract with USAID which required his presence in Cuba.  To the Cuban government, that means they get to accuse him of being with the CIA, which most of Latin America will accept as fact without a shred of evidence.  Lets throw them some more money as well.  Gross is not a young man, and he has health issues.  And he sits in a Cuban jail solely because he is an American.  I won't spend too much time revisiting the case of U.S. Marine Sgt. Andrew Tamooressi.  He was finally released from a Mexican jail after nine months of confinement and episodes of torture.  Some questions remain about the exact circumstances of Tamooressi's attempted entry into Mexico and lies he initially told to the Mexican court.  But Tamooressi is a decorated veteran, and he earned my benefit of the doubt.  How about you, President Obama?  Why didn't the Administration instruct Secretary of State John "Frankenstein" Kerry to travel to Mexico City and ORDER the Mexicans to release our Marine?  Any response besides "yes, sir" should have been met with a disruption of relations and an end to all aid for Mexico.  Also, all Mexican nationals in U.S. prisons should have been treated exactly as Tamooressi until his release.  Instead, we did nothing but wait until the broken Mexican penal system decided that Tamooressi had served enough time for his crime.  The last link details the release of two American citizens from North Korean jails.  I was not the only person surprised at this decision on behalf of North Korea, and out of instinct I wondered which U.S. diplomat had negotiated their release.  I was wrong.  It was not a U.S. diplomat, but Chief of U.S. Intelligence James Clapper who secured their release;  No U.S. Department of State involvement whatsoever.

So the message is clear.  If you are planning an overseas vacation, be very careful of your
Stacey Addison
intended destination.  Do not visit a country where someone may plant something in your luggage.  Do not get touristy in a location with an anti-American segment to the populace.  If you end up in jail, you're on your own, although the State Department will undoubtedly send someone around with a two year old list of phone numbers for local attorneys.  This puzzling, disturbing and infuriating development started in 2009, when Hillary Clinton was doing such a grand job as Secretary of State, giving $5 billion to the Palestinian Authority and signing away our last nuclear deterrent to Vladimir Putin.  I'm glad that Tamooressi and the two Americans stuck in North Korea are back home, but I worry about Stacy Addison in East Timor and Alan Gross in Cuba.  Yes, folks, we live in a world where being an American can be crime enough to get you incarcerated with no due process.  How far we have fallen.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Forget Crimea And The Black Sea...What About Russian Naval Bases In The Mediterranean?

Link: A. Russian Naval Plans In The Mediterranean
          B. Yes Virginia, There Is A Syrian Navy

I spend so much time reading and thinking about the conflict in Syria, I have allowed myself to fall into a two-dimensional trap.  The United States and allies are conducting an air campaign in Syria in an attempt to diminish the fighting capacity of certain Islamic terrorist groups.  Concurrently, efforts are underway to train and equip the "Free Syrian Army", which will serve as the closest thing to a ground element that the United States and her allies have.  I have heard rumors that we've already trained non-U.S. ground units who are now already in combat.  This would make sense, given that the Free Syrian Army has orders to only engage the enemy from a defensive posture.  Another rumor is making the rounds of various U.S. military bases and facilities around the world, and this one dwarfs anything we have heard to date (no, they are not bringing back Little House On the Prairie).  Allegedly, the Administration has accepted the need for U.S. ground forces in Iraq in order to prevent the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL or IS) from eventually occupying
both Baghdad and the vital oil refinery at Baiji.  I have been hearing this rumor for some time, and it is evolving into a whispered roar.  As far as I am concerned, there is not a shred of truth to the rumor.  However, the small person I had hired to hide up Biden's ass and take discreet notes during Cabinet meetings, was discovered and promoted to the new Ebola Czar.  So your guess is as good as mine.  To be honest, I can't imagine the Administration engaging in such an obvious about-face.  But hey, politics is bizarre.  President Obama may get kudos for allowing his policy to evolve.  With regard to the Syrian campaign, I believed that the conflict was permanently limited to a ground and air conflict.  I realize Syria has a small coast (193 kilometers) which includes two decent sized cities, Tartus and Latakia.  It's my
understanding that the area around Tartus and Latakia is littered with ruins from the days of ancient Sparta, Athens and Troy.  Soon the tourists may hear a new language be spoken among the sightseers: Russian.

Let me clarify an important point: I do not expect the Syrian conflict to become a three-dimensional with an attack on Tartus by the three pedalos that make up the IS Navy.
But I needed a smooth avenue on which to introduce the subject of Russian interest in Mediterranean ports.  We have spent some time commenting on the Russian desire to turn the Black Sea into Lake Putin, but the specter of Russian warships with a home on the Mediterranean is much closer to reality.    In fact, the Russians have already started to use the reasonably modern facilities at Tartus.  I have opined that one of the handful of reasons why Putin will not allow Bashir al-Assad to fall from power is the Russian's need for an ally with a port large enough for expansion.  Tartus certainly fits the bill, although other locations have been mentioned as well.  Occasionally someone will mention the possibility of a Russian naval facility in Libya, but who knows when the camel traders, with AK-47s under one arm and Qurans under the other, will grow tired of creating martyrs.  Alexandria, in Egypt, was looking like a promising destination before Mohamed Morsi was whisked away to jail.  For many years I waited, expecting the Algerian military (Algeria's true boss) to fall totally into the lap of Russia (the Algerians have traditionally purchased Russian-made military equipment).  I was being very naïve.  The Algerian government has contracts with half the oil companies in Europe and the United States, and lately has actually started purchasing more U.S. military equipment.  Malta might as well be a Channel Island, alongside Jersey and the Isle of Man, and the rest are non-starters: Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, France, Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Hercegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel.  Most of the countries on the preceding
list have very little love for Russia, and the others do not have the right harbor for what the Russian Navy requires.  Cyprus though, is a bit of a mystery.  Until recently Cypriot banks were awash with laundered Russian cash, and the Russians really seem to enjoy the little island full of Greeks and Turks who really, REALLY hate each other.  Cyprus has a number of locations that would suit the Russian navy to a tee, but it is unlikely that the UK, who for some reason continues to act as stepfather to the Cypriots, would allow Russian submarines in Larnaka.

I never second-guess Putin's ingenuity (or his ability to blackmail and bribe), and he very well might negotiate himself into a naval port facility in one of the above-named locations.  But for the moment, it isn't necessary.  Assad has given the Russians the keys to the port of Tartus.  The modest, but well-maintained, Syrian Navy keeps its few Russian-made frigates, missile craft and patrol boats at Tartus, which provide an invaluable opportunity for the Syrian naval personnel to work together with the Russians (watch out, Syrian naval commanders: the last time the Russians showed up wearing smiles, the entire Ukrainian navy was swallowed up overnight).  If Assad manages to keep his job (or another Ba'athist butthole takes it), the Russian Navy should have a free hand to construct a modern naval port facility at Tartus, complete with both Marines and a land-based naval air detachment.  Although the Russians have had friends all over the middle east for more than the past half-century, this is the first time that I can recall the Russians openly stating their intention to make full naval use of Tartus.  The presence of all those Russian nuclear submarines does not sit well with me, and you can only imagine the hissy fit being thrown by the Green Party political representatives throughout EU countries.  However, a full-blown Russian fleet in the Levant will accomplish something positive for us over here in the West:  Whoever takes the White House in 2016 won't be able to ignore the reconstituting of the Russian war machine.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Austria, The Islamic Extremist Hotspot Of Europe?

Links: A. Radical Islam in Austria is Growing
           B. Austria's Radical Islam Problem
           C. Austria Threatened by Islamic Aggression

(If you haven't taken the time to read the links, please stop now and do so.  I have a terrible habit of writing on and on, and I probably lose a good number of readers who have other things to do.  I am focusing on providing links to relevant bits of information so I don't feel the need to add another paragraph.)

Austria is one of the most beautiful countries in the world.  The Austrian people are tremendously industrious; Austria is one of those places where manual labor (artisans) is considered admirable employment.  In fact, Austrians have much more admiration for the glass worker, or carpenter, or skilled brick worker, than they do for a stock broker.  For centuries the Austrians ruled a large percentage of the known world.  In fact, the Austrian Empire (actually, the Austro-Hungarian Empire) was still with us as late as 1918.  I realize for many young people, Austria is just a tiny, mountainous place populated with a handful of Germans (ouch!), but the history of Austria truly is magnificent.  My close Austrian friend, Marco Scherer informs me that grade schools in Austria no longer teach Austrian history with a sense of pride.  As it probably is in most European countries, young people in Austria are taught to be proud of their inclusion in a greater European community, the EU.  Not counting Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Andorra and San Marino, Austria has Europe's smallest military.  Austria, with a long tradition of prolific naval victories (Lepanto, Lissa, etc.), no longer has a navy (we have President Woodrow Wilson to thank for that alteration of geography).  Well, at least in Europe, people don't have the inconvenience of border crossing checkpoints anymore.  But is that a positive or negative development?

In 1938, Nazi Germany invaded Austria.  The invasion was timed perfectly, to interfere with a planned referendum on Austrian autonomy.  Obviously Hitler was concerned about the outcome of the referendum, otherwise why not let the vote take place and be welcomed as liberators?  Well, the Nazi propaganda machine went into overdrive, producing reams of film showing the Viennese waving little Nazi flags and saluting hysterically as Hitler's motorcade sped by.  Then the Nazis produced their own "plebiscite": those in favor of reunification with Germany accounted for over ninety percent of the votes cast.  The truth is, the majority of Austrians did not support Hitler.  But World War One had left Austrians believing that it was best to keep a low profile, and just "go with the flow".  Millions of Austrian young men were drafted into the German Army, and died fighting for Hitler's psychotic vision.  The Austrian Empire was dismembered following the First World War, and Austria was treated as a belligerent following the Second.  The Austrian people have become as anti-war as you can imagine, and with good cause.  Since the end of World War Two, Austria has strived to be a diplomatic leader in the cause of peace around the globe.  Austria has also welcomed refugees from all over, and Austrian politicians have strongly supported the idea of a European government.  The heir to the Austrian throne, Otto Von Habsburg, even served a term as a member of the European Parliament.  The bottom line is: Austrians didn't want to piss anybody off.  Peace was better for everyone, as Austria demonstrated by quickly recovering from the ravages of war to become one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  Austria's immigration policy mirrored the generous and accepting nature of the Austrian people.  Before long, Vienna was home to not one, but three large mosques.

The rest of the story requires no intimate detail.  When a handful of mosques locate themselves in a European City, eventually one of them will start to spew hate (actually, Vienna is home to upwards of sixty mosques . . . how did that happen?).  Most of the mosques in Vienna exist for the sole purpose of giving the Viennese Muslims a place to worship (132,000 Muslims live in Vienna; that means 2,200 worshippers per mosque).  But some of the mosques in Vienna have spread the call of Islamic Fundamentalism.  A number of the Imams at these mosques recruit young people to travel, train and kill on behalf of radicalism.  A Salafi mosque exists in Vienna, and I'm sure more than just prayer and fellowship is going on inside.  The mosque network in Vienna was allowed to develop roots to reach out and connect mosques from various other European communities.  This facilitated fundraising, smuggling, weapons purchasing, and all kinds of nasty business.  Then the Iranians and Hamas showed up, and gave everyone a lesson in Money Laundering 101.  All sorts of money passed through Viennese Banks and on to other European cities.  And we all know what the Iranians want: anything that has to do with nuclear reactor construction that can't be purchased on the open market.  By the way, where is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)?  In Vienna, of course.

For the longest time, the Austrian government mirrored the attitude of the Austrian people and was very non-confrontational.  I'm pleased to say that change is in the air.  The Austrian people were not happy to learn that the jihadi message was becoming accessible to high school-age Austrians, and we all remember what great decisions we make at that age.  Also, social media is making it easy for the extremist message to reach outside of the Muslim community.  Within the last decade or so, Austria has elected either a right or a center-right government.  Austrian law enforcement has started working very closely with both Interpol and the United States to monitor the activities of certain questionable groups.  A recent round of jihadi apprehensions in rural areas is an example of current aggressive action taken by Austrian authorities.  The Muslim extremists have long taken advantage of the good nature of the Austrian people, and Austria has developed the unfortunate reputation of being a safe haven for radicals.  The Austrian government and Austrian law enforcement have taken direct and aggressive steps to end the recruitment of young Austrians and to disrupt the purchase and transport of illegal weapons.  Money laundering has become a thing of the past, and the Iranians have gotten the message that they need to head back to the Trash-i-stans (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan) to find nuclear reactor parts on the cheap.  I'm glad the air is getting clearer again in Austria.  I was getting a little worried there for our friend, Heidi.    

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

So Tell Me, Which James Bond Film Is Your Favorite?

Link: A. On Her Majesty's Secret Service...Wikipedia
          B. Live And Let Die...Wikipedia
          C. Diana Rigg Voted Sexiest Bond Girl

Who doesn't love to talk about James Bond films?  I've loved them for as long as I can remember.  I didn't discover 007 until Roger Moore was riding high in the saddle, but later in life I went back and enjoyed both Sean Connery and George Lazenby as Bond.  My favorite of all the Bond films, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, is Lazenby's only entry into the series.  I think George made a wonderful Bond, especially given his ability to mature from lothario to faithful husband, all in one film.  Sadly, George was dropped when the owners of the franchise decided they needed a more conservative look (in keeping with the times, Lazenby had let his hair grow wild and was sporting a leather fringe jacket and probably smoking lots of weed).  Sean Connery was brought out of retirement for a few installments, and then the eternal Roger Moore took over.  Let me begin this commentary by opining that
Roger Moore's Bond
in my mind Roger Moore is James Bond.  Daniel Craig will probably eclipse Moore one day, but I still see Moore as the super cool, always prepared spy with a never-ending supply of awesome British sarcasm.  As for looks, I never thought Sean Connery was particularly handsome.  He never seemed to be in shape, and had no problem showing off the ample forest of hair on his back.  Its true that Connery was super smooth, and the accent was second-to-none, but he came from a time when men only had to sound good to look good.  To continue with the brutal honesty, Roger Moore wasn't particularly outstanding in the looks department either. But Moore seemed to be aware of this fact (to this day, Connery at 84 yrs. still thinks he's the sexiest stud in the stable, which is something to be admired).  Roger Moore's greatest skill was in allowing "the Bond girl" to take everyone's attention.  Why look at Roger's comb-over when you have Maud Adams, Jane Seymour and Grace Jones (!) on stage?  Also, Roger followed the age-old entertainment industry rule to "never let 'em see you sweat".  Even when Jaws was eating the door off of the van in The Spy Who Loved Me, Roger managed to look cool and...undisturbed.  I think that's the key to being a successful 007: to master the art of looking "undisturbed".  I don't have much to say about Timothy Dalton, who should have been perfect, and Pierce Brosnan, who just wasn't butch enough, but Daniel Craig is perfect as Bond in 2014.

My favorite installment in the series is On Her Majesty's Secret Service.  I can't find anything wrong with this film, except the unfortunate inclusion of a bullfighting match.  This film is quirky, funny, sexy and unpredictable; check out Bond enjoying a Playboy magazine
George Lazenby's Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service
when Playboy was still shocking. Two or three of the best chase scenes in the entire series can be found in this one film.  The car chase in the snow which culminates in the most romantic Bond scene of all, really makes the film for me.  For those of you who are fond of BBC comedy, Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous makes an appearance as one of many gorgeous Bond girls in the movie.  Another reason to worship this film?  On Her Majesty's Secret Service introduces us to Telly Savalas as Blofeld, the bald, Nehru-suit wearing bad guy who gets a reboot from the Austin Powers series.  And who can forget the evil Frau Bunt, who fires the shot which changes everything forever?  The movie begins with Bond rescuing a beautiful young woman who appears to be in distress.  It never slows down.  The distant runner-up in my list of favorite Bond films is The Spy Who Loved Me.  The story line is fantastic: Curd Jurgens (no, its not "Curt") is Stromberg, a megalomaniac who keeps feeding people to his pet sharks, and wants to steal nuclear submarines to start World War III.  The gadgets, including Stromberg's Spider-like ocean lair and Bond's Lotus Esprit S1, which seconds as a submarine, are the best we will see in the series.  The secondary plot is a bit much for me: it has Bond romancing Barbara Bach (Ringo Starr's wife), despite the film beginning with Bond killing her lover.  But Bach is sure nice to look at, even if she does compete with Lynn-Holly Johnson from For Your Eyes Only as the worst actor in the series. 

I won't waste too much time commenting on the "sexiest" or "best" Bond girl.  The truth is, there will never be another Tracy.  Diana Rigg, fresh from her success as the leather-clad British Agent Emma Peel in The Avengers (a great show itself), is perfectly cast as Bond's love interest.  As James falls in love with Tracy, so do we.  She is clever, beautiful, mysterious, and always sexy.  Her role in the film is quite a bit different than what we are
Bond & Tracy
On Her Majesty's Service
used to from Bond girls.  Instead of the character Tracy supporting the storyline, the storyline supports the character.  Rigg is a classically-trained actor, who chose to eschew Hollywood after only a few more films.  A Bond girl with acting chops is not something we've seen often, at least not until the more recent installments (Eva Green as Vesper Lynd comes to mind).  Tracy starts the film as Teresa di Vicenzo, the daughter of a good-guy mobster who makes a deal with Bond for information on the location of the dastardly Blofeld.  Rigg is still acting, and if you are a fan of Game of Thrones, then you have undoubtedly seen her as Olenna Tyrell.  I appreciate Dame Diana Rigg for her many accomplishments in the arts (who am I kidding?), but for me, she will always be Mrs. James Bond.

I don't want to sign off without mentioning Live and Let Die, the installment which introduced the world to Jane Seymour's character, "Solitaire".  I love the Caribbean and Louisiana settings for this voodoo-laced entry, and the demise of the bad guy in the end is, well, explosive (sometimes I put on the DVD just to watch the last scene).  My favorite Bond song will probably always be Carly Simon's  The Spy Who Loved Me (Nobody Does It Better).  My last comment: Javier Bardem's Raul Silva in Skyfall is a great villain because he seems so real.  I love Savalas, as Blofeld, and Jurgens, as Stromberg, but Javier Bardem brought so much dimension to Silva.  We have been lucky to watch Dame Judi Dench as "M" and Daniel Craig as 007.  I'm sorry to see Dench go, and I hope Craig stays around for a few more films.  But back to Javier Bardem's Raul Silva: there is no question that Bardem should have received an Oscar nomination for his performance.  I read as much online from people who know more about this stuff than I do.  But some movies, especially an entry in a group of films, will never get consideration from the Academy Awards (at least not in the acting category).  Remember Ricardo Montalban as Khan from "Star Trek II; The Wrath of Khan"?  Again, lots of buzz about his performance, but no one would ever consider giving an Academy Award nomination to a film starring William Shatner!  So there you have it.  My inner most feelings about the James Bond series of films, and a William Shatner mention to boot.  It's your lucky day!

P.S. I want to know if you agree with me, and if not, then what are your favorites?  We can agree to disagree, because at the end of the day, we like them all...its just a question of degrees.