Friday, August 31, 2012


The two greatest obstacles to democracy in the United States are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy, and second, the chronic terror among the rich, lest we get it. 
Edward Dowling

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”

Bob Dylan

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Syrian Powder Keg

     Aleppo is starting to look like someone's Stalingrad.  Photo by: Niklas Meltio

Things are not going well for Bashar Assad.  His army had pushed the rebels out of Damascus and seemed to be forcing a decisive battle in Aleppo on their terms.  Given the Army's heavy weapons and air assets, it should have been a walkover. But more than a month later, the battle for Aleppo continues.  In addition, after having been driven out of Damascus last month, the rebels are not only back, but seem to have shot down a helicopter.  The Syrian Armed Forces are clearly unable to win this war.  The rebels, on the other hand, have taken everything the government has thrown at them and keep advancing.

The usual scenario in these circumstances is a grinding war until the rebels get the upper hand and the government disintegrates as the players rush for the exits.  Without foreign intervention, that's what will happen here.  Unfortunately, the regional players have upped the stakes in this conflict. And the chemical weapons are a wild card inviting intervention from the US, France, Britain and possibly Russia. 

While we have all been paying attention to Israeli threats against Iran and the Egyptian revolution, a regional war has been brewing to the East.  The US invasion of Iraq upset the regional status quo by shoving Iraq (majority Shia) into Iran's outstretched arms.  Iran gained a straight line of allies all the way to the Mediterranean (Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah).

The Saudis thus feel out-flanked by Iran and threatened by Iranian nukes.  They also felt threatened by Shia demonstrations in the North of the Kingdom, the oil part, and were forced (by their reckoning) to stifle a Shia revolution in Bahrain.  So the emerging power blocks are sectarian; Sunni vs. Shia.  Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Iran's clients on one side, the USA, Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf Arabs on the other. Egypt is a wild card and Israel irrelevant.

The war in Syria is acting like a magnifying glass to focus all these issues in one place.  Iran and the Saudis both lack the military for a direct conflict. One invading and/or conquering the other is not possible.  So the temptation to fight by proxy in Syria is attractive.  But very, very dangerous.  Expect an international crisis at some point this fall.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mitt's Problems

     Photo: Little Face Mitt

Mitt has problems too.  Problems that require finesse.  Finesse does not come easily to a man with such a small face.

An Uphill Fight
It is hard to unseat a President.  In recent history, it happened in 1932, 1976, 1980 and 1992 (and I wouldn't count 1976 because of the unusual circumstances).  Incumbents have lots of tools unavailable to challengers.   The economy may be in the shitter, but Obama has a solid approval rating and is personally popular.  He doesn't need to act Presidential.  He is Presidential.  These are inherent advantages no challenger could match. 

GOP Base
Unlike the Democrats, who are unified behind Obama, the GOP base is fractured.  It is held together by duct tape and a shared loathing of Obama.  Its more like a collection of factions than a party.  A short list of those factions:  Washington Insiders, Eastern Establishment Aristocrats, Banksters, SuperPAC Funders, Elderly Whites, Conservative Christians, Free Enterprisers, Small Business, Immigration Foes, Working Whites, Pro-Lifers, Industry Interests, Tea Partiers and the Rich.  There is obviously some overlap between factions.  While these factions agree broadly on key policies like taxes, health care and social issues, their interests diverge.  For example, the tax cuts wanted by the rich would have a negative impact on working whites who would resist cuts to programs they use. Some industries need illegal immigrants to support their business models.  Elderly whites don't want Medicare touched.

Then there are people like Todd "Legitimate Rape" Akin.  There is always a wingnut Republican who will say something outrageous.  They usually don't do as much damage as Representative Akin, but they are out there,  a sound bite away from derailing Romney's campaign for a day, or a week or a month.  Given the Republican strategy of disenfranchising minority voters, and the rabid hate for Obama among the base, we can expect a parade of race issue misstatements through the fall.

Lastly, Romney has a credibility problem with the right wing of the party.  Mitt espoused some pretty liberal views when he was Governor of Massachusetts.  He was pro-choice, supported gay rights, and introduced the first public health care in the US.  It became the model for Obamacare.  Although Mitt is pretty flexible when it comes to what he believes in, he needs to convince the base he believes what they believe. Not convincing the base will risk disillusioned Republicans staying home on election day.

The Double Pivot
One of the most difficult moves for an American Presidential candidate is the post-covention pivot.  Unless you competely control the party, you are going to have to say things in the convention that are more partisan than the campaign you want to run.  Meaning you have to move from the right or left towards the center after the convention.  The difficulty lies in not appearing two-faced to the party members or the electorate. And not saying anything to the party that will come back to haunt you in the campaign.  Above average communicators like Reagan did this really well.  Mitt is not an above average communicator.  And Obama controls his party, so he won't have to pivot at all.

In addition, Romney is going to have to pivot going into the convention.  He has to prove his conservative bona fides to the GOP base.  He has to pivot from center-right to far-right going in, and from far-right to center-right coming out.  That's one more pivot than most teams can handle.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.
Neils Bohr 

Personally, I understand quantum theory just enough to find it completely incomprehensible. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


    Ann Hathaway in Vogue, November 2010 by Mario Testino

This guy is fabulous.  Italians do things with fashion photography that nobody else can.  Worth looking at the whole series here.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Obama's Problems

     There are some things in politics money can't buy.  Obama sitting in Rosa Parks's seat. Photo: White House

Despite his many advantages in the 2012 election, Obama has two big problems to overcome: money and voter suppression.

The US Supreme Court's Citizen United ruling pretty much opens US elections to unlimited campaign spending.  Political Action Committees (PACs) can be set up by private citizens or corporations, can take donations anonymously and have no limits on their spending (a bit of an oversimplification, but only a bit).  Since rich people and corporations are usually Republican supporters, Romney will get most of this money.  Its possible the Democrats might be outspent 2:1 on all races in the November election. 

I think team Obama's unusual spending this summer is an attempt to offset the money problem.  Usually, the real money doesn't show before Labour Day.  But this summer, Obama has spent a ton ($40+ million) of money on negative ads in swing states.  Despite the poor economic news recently, the national polls show a small shift in Obama's favour.  So the attacks on Romney's character and business record are resonating with voters on some level.  I'm guessing team Obama is front-loading its spending in an attempt to define Romney before the tidal wave of Republican money in the Fall. If they succeed in creating a durable negative image of Romney, it could work. 

Money is a well-known quantity in elections.  Voter suppression less so.  The tactic is nothing new, of course.  But Jim Crow laws were used mainly to ensure white only candidates and voters for State and Congressional races.  They were never an issue in Presidential politics until the 1960s.  Since 2010, Republicans have been using their positions in state government to pass restrictive voting laws in an obvious attempt to disenfranchise Black, Hispanic and poor voters.  While States have long been able to get away with discriminatory registration practices, there has never before been a large effort to actually purge minority voters from the rolls. 

Universal suffrage in the US has only been around since the late '60s.  You'd think Americans would resist attempts to roll it back.  And you'd think the Democrats would have figured out ways to counter-attack.  Especially after the shenanigans in Ohio that cost John Kerry the Presidency in 2004.  Current and pending lawsuits in Federal Court may overturn some or all of these laws in key states.  Or not. 

Even with these issues, I think Obama will win.  But it may be very close.  If the lawsuits fly over voter suppression in the fall, the Courts may decide the election, again.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Syria Primer

Currently, Syria is run by an Alawite regime headed by Bashar al-Assad. The Alawite are a group of tribes from western Syria and make up between 10% and 20% of the population depending on who you ask. These tribes practice a form of Shia Islam, in contrast to the majority of the population who are Sunni.

The Alawite have been in control since the sixties when Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad took over in a coup. Hafez was a master politician, though a brutal and repressive dictator. Bashar is not in the same league and many feel he is first among a group that lead the regime, but not a real force on his own.

Last year, public demonstrations against the regime began, like elsewhere in the Arab world. As the government brutally and ineffectually sought to crush the demonstrations, they gradually became a rebellion.  The rebellion itself is divided and includes groups with many different agendas. The only thing they seem to agree on is that the regime has to go (and that they don't like Israel, but that's mom and apple pie in the Arab world).

This year, the rebellion became strong enough to compete with the government in rural areas, and has taken over large swaths of the country. Lately, they have been contesting urban areas, with less success.  However, they have survived a month of combat in Damascus, and three weeks of heavy combat in Aleppo.

Several factors, including the attack on Damascus, and the spectacular assasination of Bashar's top security officials have made it clear that the regime is probably doomed. When the trickle of defections becomes a flood, the end will be at hand.

But nothing is simple in the Middle East. Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq Turkey, Qatar and the United States are intervening directly or indirectly. The Russians don't want to lose their last significant Arab client state. The Iranians don't want to see a Shiite regime overthrown, plus Syria is a key strategic ally, helping them get stuff to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Saudis want very much to have a Shiite regime replaced with a Sunni, and they are funneling guns to the rebels, as is the US (presumably via Qatar). Israel is on red alert, but can't do anything to influence events. So they make concerned noises, but will do nothing unless the chemical weapons come into play. 

The chemical weapons are a new factor. The regime moved some out of rebel held areas recently. This was viewed as a good thing by both the US and the Russians. Both remain concerned (as does Israel) that the weapons could fall into the hands of "terrorists". The Russians are said to have warned Assad in very direct language that these weapons must be secured and cannot be used, period.

At the moment, with all the confusion on the ground and the mad spinning by all sides, it is impossible to tell for sure what is going on.

In any case, the most likely outcome is the fall of the regime and the death of many Alawites. Who will replace them and on what terms is unknowable at this point. Just don't believe everything you read.