Friday, January 31, 2014

Stench

For many looking at their government, it’s the vile odor of corruption wafting from the halls of the presidential palace or various parliamentary orifices. For others, it’s really the sickening smell of uncollected garbage, decaying infrastructure, and abandoned buildings damaged beyond repair. Detroit is our poster child for the latter, but what happens when it’s not just a city that stops working, but an entire country?
Lebanon, a country where I spent over four years as a teenaged-son of a U.S. diplomat, falls directly into this category. Yes, there are strongholds and factions, each with their local leaders, armed enforcers and some form of bully-driven administrative capacity. Sunnis have their enclaves as do Shiites and Christians (mostly Maronites) plus a few with other minorities. There’re lots of sub-factions, and often battles for power erupt within these enclaves as well.
“Crowded into a strip of land smaller than Connecticut, Lebanon’s 4.2 million people are divided into 18 recognized religious sects and represented by an array of political parties, most of which have strong sectarian affiliations. Party leaders act as political bosses for their communities, dispensing jobs and patronage while striking deals with other leaders to serve their common interests. New York Times, January 28th. Sometimes these factions go it alone, and sometimes alliances (most shaky and temporary) form and fall apart. The very system of Lebanese government, “confessionalism,” was designed in an era when Christians held the majority (long gone), Sunnis held second place, and Shiites, Druze and the like trailed behind. The President must be a Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni, etc.
Today, it is the Shiites, and their Iran-backed Hezbollah (terrorist and pro-Assad) party, that represent the largest single faction, but not enough to generate a simple majority. Ten months ago, the Hezbollah led-coalition that controlled the parliament fell apart. The incumbents, left without a power base, simply vacated their senior positions in anticipation of another general election. But wait, there’s a catch. There have been no general elections, and no one seems to believe that given the regional instability – neighboring Syria’s insurrection (Assad and his Shiite-affiliates vs the large majority of Sunnis with their rebellion in full and violent swing) – that an election is even possible.
The Syrian conflict has sent crushing numbers of refugees into Lebanon (they might even constitute a number that is equal to 20%+ of the entire population these days), and local Lebanese sensibilities have lined up supporting the various Syrian factions, with occasional outbursts of violent confrontation increasingly common. Bombs. Guns. Murder. Clearly, the Hezbollah support Assad, and the Sunnis the rebels. It’s gotten just plain nasty, but the net result is an entire nation without an effective government to provide even the most basic services on a predictable and consistent basis.
“Standing near his home in this hilltop village [in Baaouarta, Lebanon], a local real estate agent angrily listed the drawbacks of living uphill — and downwind — from Lebanon’s largest landfill… The stench keeps residents off their balconies and depresses property values, said the agent, Fayyad Ayyash. Coughs and infections are common, and there are concerns about cancer. Some residents worry that methane gas collecting underground could ignite, threatening nearby communities with what he called a ‘trash volcano.’… ‘We live in fear,’ Mr. Ayyash said. ‘And the state is doing nothing about it.’
“This month, Mr. Ayyash and other residents, many of them members of the same Ayyash clan, took their worries down the hill and blocked the road to the Naimeh landfill south of Beirut, shutting down garbage collection in much of Lebanon and causing mountains of trash to pile up in the fanciest neighborhoods in the capital… The sudden breakdown of one of the Lebanese government’s most reliable services accented the growing feeling here that no one is in charge.” New York Times. The blockage of the access road started off as a protest that had no government authority in charge with the ability to solve the issue. So the garbage piled up and flowed out… without end.
Unlike our gridlocked do-nothing Congress, which at least goes to their offices and the respective floors of the Senate and House, the Lebanese Parliament is mostly an empty chamber. “Since the government resigned 10 months ago, Parliament has scarcely convened, no major laws have been passed and the caretaker cabinet has lacked the political clout to set any important policies.” NY Times. With an estimated million Syrian refugees added to the mix, let’s say the volatility index has flown off the charts. So if you want a vision of an extreme gridlock do nothing legislature, go to Beirut. Think we could ever get this bad? You tell me.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I wonder if this extreme example of gridlock will have even the slightest lesson for our own Congress?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

We’ed Rather Not



Enough of this puffery, but even in the most conservative states, there are liberals, and likewise in the most liberal states, there are strong pockets of conservatives. In Texas, red is morphing into a Latino-driven purple in certain urban centers and even in that bastion of legislative right-wingism, Austin, there are an lot folks in that city that are at or left of center. Some states have clearly defined pockets of blue – like Santa Fe and Albuquerque in New Mexico – or the coastal regions in tech-driven Washington State vs. the farm country, appropriately to the right (on the map as well). And oddly enough, even liberal areas have boundaries they are loath to cross, particularly in smaller, more traditional regions.
So introduce powerful statewide legislation reversing decades of contrary legal structures, shaking and vibrating in the sweep of new personal social freedoms that have crossed into acceptable, and you are going to find pockets of resistance whose cry of NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) will immediately swing into action to reverse the impact of the new laws. It’s not a whole lot different from communities defying court decisions by indirect actions… like implementing new medical licensing rules that effectively give abortion clinics nowhere to locate.
California has that lovely green cross market, denoting medical marijuana within, and states from Florida to New York are considering parallel initiatives. Meanwhile, Colorado and Washington have gone one giant step beyond, legalizing an entirely new recreational industry for demon weed. States are licking their chops – kind of like governmental munchies – at the prospect of all that new tax revenue, mixed in the savings of law enforcement costs – that creates more than a boon to week-lovers and their local “entrepreneurial” dealers. Gangs hate it too, because their precious industry has just been encroached by government-sanctioned competition.
But the above-noted pockets of conservatism and traditionalism just plain don’t like the whole notion of legalized weed, no matter what the sweeping social acceptability might be elsewhere. There are local governments hell-bent on banning week trafficking, no matter how legal it may be. Zoning restrictions, making using weed illegal just about anywhere it is likely to be consumed to out-and-out ordinance defying the state legislation. In some communities, primarily rural, Democrats and Republicans often see eye-to-eye on this issue, noting that the big weed community is almost always urban… unless you are a weed farmer, of course!
“[T]he fight also signals a larger battle over the future of legal marijuana: whether it will be a national industry providing near-universal access, or a patchwork system with isolated islands of mainly urban sales. To some partisans, the debate has echoes to the post-Prohibition era, when ‘dry towns’ emerged in some states in response to legalized alcohol. ‘At some point we have to put some boundaries,’ said Rosetta Horne, a nondenominational Christian church minister here in Yakima [Washington], at a public hearing … where she urged the City Council to enact a permanent ban on marijuana businesses.
“Though it seems strongest in more rural and conservative communities, the resistance has been surprisingly bipartisan. In states from Louisiana to Indiana that are discussing decriminalizing marijuana, Republican opponents of relaxing the drug laws are finding themselves loosely allied with Democratic skeptics. Voices in the Obama administration concerned about growing access have joined antidrug crusaders like Patrick J. Kennedy, a Democratic former United States representative from Rhode Island, who contends that the potential health risks of marijuana have not been adequately explored, especially for juveniles — and who has written and spoken widely about his own struggles with alcohol and prescription drugs.
“’In some ways I think the best thing that could have happened to the anti-legalization movement was legalization, because I think it shows people the ugly side,’ said Kevin A. Sabet, a former drug policy adviser to President Obama and the executive director and co-founder, with Mr. Kennedy, of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. The group, founded last year, supports removing criminal penalties for using marijuana, but opposes full legalization, and is working with local organizations around the nation to challenge legalization.” New York Times, January 27th.

Transitions take time, and sometimes they fizzle out. But the feelings about marijuana usage are often strongly felt, on either side of the issue. Legalizing something that many already-convicted are spending years and years in prison over is a tough call, with lots of legal, moral and ethical issues. How do you feel about the ability of a local community to opt out of legalized marijuana? How about their right to opt out of other legislation that they oppose?
I’m Peter Dekom, and change often carries long-standing resistance that can take a long time to reverse… if ever.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

When the Sun Loses Its Flare

We’ve seen how some recent temperatures in Greenland and Alaska are warmer than the freezing temperatures in our Midwest and Eastern Seaboard. Hot air pushing cold air south. The polar vortex, if you will. We know what is causing earth-directed temperature change – fossil fuels creating a greenhouse effect, trapping and heating the atmosphere beneath where the sun’s rays cook those gasses. There’s virtually no dissent on this phenomenon from any serious scientist, and the climate change results are evidenced in everything from regional realities ranging from unending drought, more wildfires, melting glaciers and ice packs, rising oceans and storm surges, to migrating insects carrying new forms of disease, more intense mega-storms, etc.  What’s worse, these events seem to be moving upon us even more rapidly than even some of the most pessimistic climatologists had predicted.
That’s what we are doing to our own planet, but way out there… at the source of our life’s heat – the Sun – are there additional phenomena that might be creating a different scenario that might create parallel and perhaps slightly countervailing cooling trends? Perhaps, but if this is indeed what may be happening, be advised that this is not a permanent temperature shift but a temporary effect.
This all has to do with the relative activity on the Sun’s surface, solar storms, which can disrupt electronic communications when they reach a high level of intensity… but which can have even greater impact when they diminish: “The sun goes through cycles that last roughly 11 years, marked by the ebb and flow of sunspots on its surface. At peak sunspot activity, the so-called solar maximum, the sun sports lots of sunspots and is steadily unleashing solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Since our current solar cycle, Number 24, kicked off in 2008, the number of sunspots observed has been half of what heliophysicists expected.

“‘I’ve never seen anything quite like this,’ Dr. Richard Harrison, head of space physics at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in England, told the BBC. ‘If you want to go back to see when the sun was this inactive in terms of the minimum we’ve just had and the peak that we have now, you’ve got to go back about 100 years.’…

“‘The sun is most definitely not 'asleep,'’ [according to] Dr. C. Alex Young, solar astrophysicist and associate science director in the Heliophysics Science Division of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center… In fact, on January 7th, 2014, NASA observed a massive solar flare burst from a sunspot group measured to be ‘some seven Earth's across.’

“But a relatively quiet sun could cause problems. Some scientists say that this period of weak solar activity may mirror what happened before the so-called Maunder Minimum of 1645 to 1715 -- a period named after solar astronomers Annie and E. Walter Maunder, who studied sunspots and helped identify the sun's strange activity in the latter part of the 17th Century. That time period saw only 30 sunspots (one one-thousandth of what would be expected) and coincided with a ‘Little Ice Age in Europe, during which the Thames River and the Baltic Sea froze over.” Huffington Post, January 24th. But the 17th century also got a little cooling help from some pretty big volcanic eruptions that cast some pretty large cooling ash-shadows over parts of the earth.

So could this potential mini-Ice Age be enough, at least while the reduced solar activity continues, to counter our growing greenhouse effect? “Maybe, but it wouldn't do much, and not for very long. Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research used a computer model to predict the effect of a future ‘grand solar minimum’ on Earth's climate from 2020 to 2070. The model suggested the minimum might temporarily slow down the warming process by 20-30 percent. But within a few decades afterward, the temperatures would go right back to where they would have been anyway.” Huffington Post.

Beggars can’t be choosers, and I guess we would take what we can get, but no one really knows for sure how long the reduction in solar surface activity would endure or even if this activity has really begun. It would be profoundly stupid to assume we are off the hook on the damage we have done and continue to do to our own planet.

I’m Peter Dekom, and the one true thing is that rarely does nature produce a simple, linear change to our environment… complexity and unpredictable variables will always challenge the accuracy of our best assumptions and calculations.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Almost the Worst



The population of Afghanistan has a life expectancy well under 50 years, an infant mortality rate in 103 per 1000 live births, and literacy hovers at 18.2%. Women’s rights are near the bottom of all countries on the planet, and the government, the very form of government that our military victory imposed on this rugged and isolated land, is now ranked by Transparency.org as the third most corrupt nation on earth. Official lying, bribery, cronyism, ownership and control of prize assets and right to natural resources are allocated to high level government officials, their families and friends.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai – the global poster boy for government corruption – is termed out. He’s negotiating with the United States over any continuing American role in this terrorist training ground. U.S. President Barack Obama and Karzai truly despise each other. Although logically, we should have withdrawn from supporting this corrupt government a long time ago, we are still trying to establish a continuing presence after out long-term military invasion is being phased out. We lost whatever strategic advantage we might have had after throwing out the Taliban “way back when” we diverted our occupying forces to the bogus war in Iraq.

U.S. concerns today are more about managing the Taliban and their expansionist policies into neighboring Pakistan, a nation with a history of spreading nuclear weapons knowledge to regional terrorist states (Iran and North Korea) and more nuclear warheads than it could possibly need under any circumstances. When we leave Afghanistan, it becomes a safe haven for the Taliban who are also attacking in Pakistan, and there is the core of our desire to maintain that continuing presence.

There will be another election in Afghanistan in a few months, but the system of corruption and cronyism is so embedded in the government we imposed on this country that it is merely a change to another leader who will likely systematically continue the corruption that defines this government. But the negotiations with Karzai are nasty, filled with his accusations against and outrageous demands of the United States. Why has the man who owes his very power to the United States, who lived for many years in the U.S., become so vituperatively anti-American?

This “democratically” elected government – interesting concept in a country with an extremely isolated and illiterate constituency – controls little more than the capital city of Kabul and its environs, with occasional military forays into the countryside where they achieve temporary control, until the troops have to move on to cover another chaotic hotspot. Warlords are solidifying control over their regional turf, and Taliban operatives – al Qaeda’s brothers in terrorism – are reasserting their power wherever they can.

With NATO forces removing any significant military power, with defense currently relegated to Afghan troops operating on their own, Karzai and the crony-heirs-apparent have realized that to have any ability to remain in any position of power anywhere, they are going to have to work a modus vivendi with their traditional enemies, particularly the Taliban with forces all across the country. And you don’t win any favors from the Taliban by agreeing with American policies to limit and eradicate them. On the other hand, does the incumbent Kabul government even have enough power to sustain their control of even this region without NATO support? Karzai does appear to believe NATO is no longer relevant to his ambitions.

The Taliban have been spreading half-truths mixed with lies and mythology to turn as many Afghans against any government that has a strong link with the United States. They don’t want American forces to have launching platforms for drone strikes, the ability to observe and infiltrate Taliban regional strongholds or any other mechanism to contain and control the Taliban’s regional ambitions. But now the Karzai government has joined this policy of creating anti-American lies.

It was the kind of dossier that the Taliban often publish, purporting to show the carnage inflicted during a raid by American forces: photographs of shattered houses and bloodied, broken bodies, and video images of anguish at a village funeral, all with gut-churning impact and no proof of authenticity.
“But this time, it was the government of President Hamid Karzai that was handing out the inflammatory dossier, the product of a commission’s investigation into airstrikes on Jan. 15 on a remote village and the supposed American cover-up that followed.
“In an apparent effort to demonize their American backers, a coterie of Afghan officials appears to have crossed a line that deeply troubles Western officials here: They falsely represented at least some of the evidence in the dossier, and distributed other material whose provenance, at best, could not be determined.” New York Times, January 25th. Currying favor with the Taliban? It tells you everything you need to know about the government we literally put into office.

Fearing for a transfer of nuclear weapons in a Taliban-controlled or influenced Pakistan is a legitimate concern. Do we stop negotiating with a completely antagonistic Karzai or wait a few months for the next president who might just have a little less hatred for us? Can we undermine the Taliban efforts in Pakistan in any other way or have we boxed ourselves into an unsolvable if critical corner that requires groveling before a government that is everything American democracy is supposed to be against? What are your thoughts?

I’m Peter Dekom, and the United States’ deep lack of understanding of the profound differences of other cultures often results in decades of horrific unintended consequences.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Hardliner Blues


There are an awful lot of people who are beyond skeptical as to any hope that Iran will truly de-escalate, disarm and de-nuclearize its growing military capacity. The skeptics point simply to Iran’s massive sophisticated centrifuge capacity, born of the technology sharing from Pakistan’s Dr. A.Q. Kahn who also gave North Korea a solid taste of that Islamic bomb, which has churned out high quality, weapons-grade-enriched fissionable material, a quality level well-above what a “peaceful” nuclear power plant requires.
These skeptics remind the world that “we’ve seen these promises before” with clearly failed results. Like the United States and Israel, Iran has its share of hardliners who cannot fathom why Western powers, Israel, Russia, China and a few in Asia can have nuclear weapons and they cannot. Who gives the incumbents, these ultra-nationalists demand, the right to be the only holders of nuclear weapons? Who has the right to admit or deny membership in that nuclear club? Particularly when too many of those who have nuclear weapons today defied world opinion to get there? Still, Iran’s official line has always been that there is nothing “military” in its nuclear program, a position recently repeated in Davos, Switzerland by Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani (right above).
The annual January gathering of the uber-powerful (the World Economic Forum) in Davos has been a presentation venue for Iran’s statements of “peaceful intentions” before. “In 2004, [then-President Mohammad] Khatami said [at Davos], ‘Anywhere that we sense and feel that the other side respects us and does not force anything upon us, we are prepared to talk.’ He, too, ruled out a bomb…  Then, as now, Iran agreed to halt some enrichment of uranium and submit to United Nations inspections, as part of an effort to negotiate a nuclear deal. Then, as now, the Iranian leaders used Davos, the annual gathering of world leaders and captains of industry, as an opportunity to lure foreign investors back to their country.
“But less than a month after Mr. Khatami’s star turn in the Swiss Alps, Iran held parliamentary elections marred by the government’s disqualification of thousands of reformist candidates. For Mr. Khatami, whose landslide election in 1997 had stirred hopes for change, it was the final blow to his own reformist credentials. By the following summer, the nuclear diplomacy had collapsed and Iran switched its centrifuges back on.” New York Times, January 24th. Iran is not a democracy, and candidates are allowed to run and their platforms are thoroughly controlled by the reigning Ayatollahs, who can turn policy decisions on and off like a wall-switch.
But in those intervening years between Khatami and Rouhani, Iran’s economy has imploded. From not being able to insure its oil tankers as they delivered their cargo to the few remaining buyers, to denial of access to the global financial institutions, to currency collapse and deep shortfalls in medical and foodstuff basics, general daily misery has been the lot of the vast majority of Iranians. Many Iranians have thus sometimes openly but usually clandestinely questioned their willingness to live under this repressive theocracy that doesn’t seem to care that the sanctions imposed by most of the rest of the world were crushing the hopes and lifestyles of the Iranian people.
The big question is whether this fear of a potential popular uprising – a possible Persian copy of the Arab Spring – was sufficient for Iran’s leadership to do what it could to alleviate the power of those sanctions, even if it meant reducing or eliminating the hallmarks of military capacity from its nuclear program. Hardline Revolutionary Guards and senior clergy strongly oppose any attempt from the outside world to regulate, contract or eliminate that nuclear weapons potential. But if the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (pictured left above, who has built his reputation as a hardliner), feels a threat to his system of government, will the latest moves by reformist President Rouhani be allowed to be implemented and sustained?
There are other differences between Khatami’s failed efforts a decade ago and Rouhani’s approach: “Mr. Rouhani, unlike Mr. Khatami, has shown little appetite for opening up Iranian society or challenging the authority of its clerical institutions. If he runs afoul of Ayatollah Khamenei, some experts say, it will be less because of what he said at Davos than because of his enthusiastic embrace of other first-world pursuits, like Twitter and Facebook, though he said in Davos that his frequent posts are ghostwritten.
“‘Davos is fully approved by the theocracy,’ said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow and an Iran expert at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. ‘It’s the other elements of the strategy, like social media, that are problematic at home.’” NY Times.
Under a recent first stage, six month, compromise with six concerned nuclear powers (specifically: France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom, United States, known as the P5+1 – the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), Iran has frozen its current enrichment efforts and allowed U.N. inspectors into its nuclear facilities. A few sanctions have been eased with a promise of increasing latitude if Iran continues to play ball with those negotiators. But how far can Rouhani, who told the Davos body of his continued pledge of “constructive engagement” in these nuclear talks, actually go to achieve the elimination of all of these impairing sanctions?
“Mr. Rouhani faces a … treacherous path. To close a nuclear deal, he will have to make concessions that would engender fierce resistance from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and other conservative factions. His growing international celebrity — and that of his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was also at Davos — could bring him into conflict with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei… ‘Rouhani knows Khatami’s history,’ said Abbas Milani, an Iranian scholar at Stanford University. ‘He knows Khamenei’s delicate position. He reads the attacks on him and Zarif in Iran. So he is trying to walk this rather sensitive line to see if he can open doors.’” NY Times.
While I believe that the efforts from both Zarif and Rouhani are sincere, one would have to be incredibly na├»ve to believe that they can deliver results that the rest of the world can depend on if they do not get that elusive and continued blessing from Khamenei. Still, the alternative path of sanctions that seem to be heading towards some form of military confrontation absent total dismantling of Tehran’s nuclear enrichment program – a policy embraced by Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and a strong contingent in our own Congress – is an extreme choice that, regardless of the odds that current talks can generate an acceptable result, should not at least be preceded by appropriate diplomatic efforts.
Attacks on Iran to take out that nuclear capacity would result in retaliation that could result in mining of the Strait of Hormuz (effectively cutting off Europe’s major supply of oil sending the price at the pump through the roof, even in the United States) and the awakening of Iran’s sleeper cells (perhaps with its terrorist lackey, Hezbollah) to wreak havoc at Western targets of opportunity wherever they may be. There are no easy or clear paths to the general goal of finding that balance point. Instability results if the talks fail and particularly if a military confrontation occurs with potentially disastrous effects on the global economy, which is already showing signs of slowing down.

I'm Peter Dekom and I think we are bound to try and negotiate this solution before we takes steps that could bring back that great big recession that we are very slowly putting behind us.