Friday, October 31, 2014

Be One with Your Inner Beaver

During the Opium Wars, in the middle of the nineteenth century, Chinese found little in the way of goods they desired from the West. Addicted to tea and facing a massive balance of payments deficit, the British screamed to find something that China found valuable other than gold and silver. But the only thing dem Chinese wuz wantin’ wuz beaver pelts – for coats and hats – imported from the United States. The British went to war – hollerin’ “free trade” – to foist a huge stash of surplus opium stored in India on the hapless Chinese, hopelessly out-gunned by England and her allies (which included us, until our forces withdrew to deal with our own Civil War). The Chinese lost, giving up territorial concessions in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Macau. I guess we took our beaver exports back with us as well.
Beavers have been hunted and trapped over the centuries in North America, until their numbers have crashed and burned. “Varmints,” we called them. Big rodents with a proclivity to dam waterways, promote flooding, a part of the ecosystem that often clashed with the best laid plans of mice (ooops) and men. We blasted and bulldozed those beaver-life-affirming dams, and hunted the architects as if they had wronged the universe. But to nature, those dams were an essential part of the hydrological ecosystem. They stored water, holding it for other wildlife to drink or live in.
Tens of millions of beavers and hundreds (millions?) of thousands of dams. To man, they just got in the way of irrigation systems, farming and controlling water flow. By 1930, there were fewer than an estimated 100,000 beavers in North America, mostly in the vast tracts of land in Canada.

 Enter global climate change – dry, drier and driest. New Priority: The need to retain and store water on a massive scale, to curtail runoff and conserve what has become our most precious nature resource, our dwindling water supply, particularly in the West and the Southwest. “Beaver dams, it turns out, have beneficial effects that can’t easily be replicated in other ways. They raise the water table alongside a stream, aiding the growth of trees and plants that stabilize the banks and prevent erosion. They improve fish and wildlife habitat and promote new, rich soil.
“And perhaps most important in the West, beaver dams do what all dams do: hold back water that would otherwise drain away… ‘People realize that if we don’t have a way to store water that’s not so expensive, we’re going to be up a creek, a dry creek,’ said Jeff Burrell, a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bozeman, Mont. ‘We’ve lost a lot with beavers not on the landscape.’” New York Times, October 27th. Indeed these rather cute if somewhat toothy critters have become the new aqua-heroes. Government-sponsored programs are slowly reintroducing such furry construction workers back into the environment.

 “‘We can spend a lot of money doing this work, or we can use beavers for almost nothing,’ Mr. Burrell said…Beavers are ecosystem engineers. As a family moves into new territory, the rodents drop a large tree across a stream to begin a new dam, which also serves as their lodge. They cover it with sticks, mud and stones, usually working at night. As the water level rises behind the dam, it submerges the entrance and protects the beavers from predators.

 “This pooling of water leads to a cascade of ecological changes. The pond nourishes young willows, aspens and other trees — prime beaver food — and provides a haven for fish that like slow-flowing water. The growth of grass and shrubs alongside the pond improves habitat for songbirds, deer and elk… Moreover, because dams raise underground water levels, they increase water supplies and substantially lower the cost of pumping groundwater for farming.

 “And they help protect fish imperiled by rising water temperatures in rivers. The deep pools formed by beaver dams, with cooler water at the bottom, are ‘outstanding rearing habitat for juvenile coho salmon,’ said Michael M. Pollock, a fish biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, who has studied the ecological effects of beaver dams for 20 years.” NY Times.
Attracting beavers to work the land has become a new arena of expertise for government naturalists. Let ‘em make the cover of Rodent Track Magazine? We seem to be learning all the time how it’s really not nice or prudent to mess with Mother Nature. Try and stop or kill these critters? Gnaw! I mean naw! We need them!
I’m Peter Dekom, and dam, I like dem’ beavers even more!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Water Wars

As ISIL, Ebola, the mid-term elections, Ukraine, economic instability, surveillance over countries and citizens and political corruption dominate the headlines, perhaps the biggest story over the coming years is going to be access to water. Water to drink. Water to clean. Water to grow crops. The combination of shifting weather patterns due to global climate change with wasteful past and present water usage practices have taken once fertile land and plunged these fields into useless dust.
I’ve already covered the deep political ramifications of desertification of farms in Syria and Iraq creating cadres of angry, displaced and desperate Sunni farmers that have provided backbone and support to both ISIL and the Syrian rebellion. I’ve tracked specific water pollution issues, rendering vast water resources useless. I’ve complained of inefficient irrigation practices, like using grading to carry water introduced at one side to carry water across a crop field, not only consuming much more water than needed but pretty much guaranteeing toxic fertilizer and pesticide runoff.
The United States is hardly immune to these changes. We’ve watched as large sections of the massive Ogallala Aquifer (once the size of Lake Huron, an underground treasure-trove of water stretching from the Dakotas, through some of our most productive grain-producing regions, and down into northern Texas) have succumbed to decades of diesel-powered pumping. Parts of the aquifer in Kansas and Texas are now bone dry, and the land above is parched and fallow. The Colorado River is virtually a trickle by the time it meets the Mexican border. Lakes and reservoirs all over the Western and Southwestern states are precipitously low. Fires rage every year in the arid land.
California is so slammed with drought (pictured above), the worst in living memory, that the Governor has declared a state of emergency. Access to local water has ripped into some of the richest communities in the state. Montecito, home to some of America’s wealthiest citizens, has seen a contraction in water availability by as much as 90%. Polo fields are brown, and the lush and expensive lawn and landscaping surrounding mega-mansions is now dead and dying. The real harm: Farms up and down the state have simply gone brown and fallow.
California is facing the beginning of a global process that could lead to wars and misery based on the movement and disappearance of vital water resources. And California is learning that private property and its legal system’s allowing people who own land to have open access to any water that lies beneath their property is no longer tenable.
While other states have regulated these resources, primarily because well water and aquifers are seldom simply locked to the land above them, California is now grappling with this once-sacred right to ground water without government interference. Fractured by too many “water districts” across the state, and traditional water resource rivalries between north and south, California is now facing the harsh reality of past mismanagement.
Writing for the October 24th Los Angeles Journal, lawyers Kathryn L. Oehlschlager and Estie M. Kus, tell us of the imminent changes proposed for the Golden State, which threatens to become the Golden Brown State, imperiling its position as the fruit and vegetable larder for America.
“On Sept. 16, the state Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown responded to that call with the passage of a package of bills known as Assembly Bill 1739, Senate Bill 1168 and Senate Bill 1319 that collectively constitute the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, designed to provide a long-term solution to a long-standing problem. But with the bulk of regulatory authority delegated to local water agencies and counties, many water users fear it opens the door to haphazard, inconsistent management and inequity among various parts of the state.
“California often finds itself on the forefront of environmental legal and regulatory issues; not so when it comes to groundwater management. Unlike other Western states, in its 164-year history, California has never adopted a comprehensive groundwater management program. Until now, California placed no real limitations on how many wells a user could drill, how deep those wells could be, or how much water could be pumped by any given user. Use generally was permitted as long as it was ‘reasonable and beneficial,’ and there were no usage reporting requirements; the primary limitation for most users was the cost of drilling the wells themselves.” California doesn’t even know how much of this “private” groundwater is being extracted!
But think about the court battles, the jurisdictional disputes, and the massive task of just gathering information. These are legal structures and regulations, but they represent the tip of the iceberg (forgive the pun) of what we are really going to have to do to manage water shortfalls and crop devastation that can result. Hard to understand all this if you live in an area of the United States that has experienced new levels of flooding, but the issues are very real. Kus and Oehlschlager fill in the details of this legislation:
“The new law creates a framework for sustainable groundwater management that will be implemented at the local or regional level, but provides the state authority to act as a backstop. Specifically, the provisions of the act will be implemented through a local public agency that has water supply, water management, or land use responsibilities within its respective groundwater basins and that elects to become a groundwater sustainability agency (GSA) for the area. Areas not within the jurisdiction of a designated GSA will be managed by their respective counties. If a GSA fails to adequately manage a specified basin, or if the Department of Water Resources makes a determination that the basin is in a condition of long-term overdraft, the basin will be declared a probationary basin and the State Water Resources Control Board will have the authority to develop and implement an interim plan until the GSA is prepared to resume management.
“GSAs are granted broad powers and authority to achieve the sustainability goals of the act. GSAs may require groundwater well registration, measurement of groundwater extraction, and filing of annual extraction reports. GSAs may control groundwater extractions by regulating the construction of new groundwater wells, limiting the enlargement of existing wells, or establishing groundwater allocations. GSAs may also impose and collect regulatory fees to fund the costs of groundwater management programs.”
Just one program in just one state, and it’s clear, it’s going to get ugly – uglier – fast. But for each and every one of us, the future of water usage and access is literally going to define the future of the United States itself… and lots of other nations around the world. Political battles can easily escalate into armed conflict over this precious resource… as we have already seen all over the world.
I’m Peter Dekom, and as much as oil may have defined the 20th century, expect water to be the story of the 21st century.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Biotech Valley of Death

“According to [an American Association for Cancer Research] report, the amount of annual funding for [the National Institutes of Health] has been less than what is needed to keep pace with biomedical inflation. In the late 1990s, following a period of stagnant budgets, Congress ramped up medical research funding for 5 years. But in the 10 years since the doubling ended in 2003, the NIH budget has been steadily shrinking… On top of that, the sequester cuts rolled out in March 2013 slashed the NIH budget by $1.6 billion, just over 5%. The impact to the National Cancer Institute was a cutback of $239 million, according to the AACR report, which was presented to Congress March 13.”, March 15th.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, since federal budget cuts, accelerated by the Sequester (even with some cuts restored), have sliced and diced university and foundation research grants and even reduced direct government work as well. The result has been a shift to the private sector for that research money, but the notion of pure research or niched research (that often produces serendipitous benefits well beyond the initial focus) has vaporized in an increasingly-private sector mandate: direct and clear linkage between research and significant profitability. Woe to those with rare diseases or global regions with problems but no real masses of solvent buyers.
Ebola is just one of those diseases, mostly impacting poor regions, with no money to pay for the profitable business of massive inoculations, that just slipped between the cracks in a world of research funding cutbacks. With NIH research priorities now limited by reason of an impaired budget and no real private sector upside in catering to poor people, promising research to contain this deadly virus – now infecting people on our own shores – just didn’t pass the profitability test for further work.
Indeed, it seems that there was a promising vaccine to prevent Ebola developed in the U.S. and, more recently, Canada to a preliminary stage almost a decade ago… but that research was shelved. “‘There’s never been a big market for Ebola vaccines,’ said Thomas W. Geisbert, an Ebola expert here at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, and one of the developers of the vaccine that worked so well in monkeys. ‘So big pharma, who are they going to sell it to?’ Dr. Geisbert added: ‘It takes a crisis sometimes to get people talking. ‘O.K. We’ve got to do something here.’ ‘
 “Dr. James E. Crowe Jr., the director of a vaccine research center at Vanderbilt University, said that academic researchers who developed a prototype drug or vaccine that worked in animals often encountered a ‘biotech valley of death’ in which no drug company would help them cross the finish line… To that point, the research may have cost a few million dollars, but tests in humans and scaling up production can cost hundreds of millions, and bringing a new vaccine all the way to market typically costs $1 billion to $1.5 billion, Dr. Crowe said. ‘Who’s going to pay for that?’ he asked. ‘People invest in order to get money back.’” New York Times, October 23rd.
 With Ebola raising its threat level, experts are scrambling for both an effective treatment and a functional preventative inoculation. “Now, as the growing epidemic devastates West Africa and is seen as a potential threat to other regions as well, governments and aid groups have begun to open their wallets. A flurry of research to test drugs and vaccines is underway, with studies starting for several candidates, including the vaccine produced nearly a decade ago.
“A federal official said in an interview on [October 23rd] that two large studies involving thousands of patients were planned to begin soon in West Africa… With no vaccines or proven drugs available, the stepped-up efforts are a desperate measure to stop a disease that has defied traditional means of containing it.” NY Times.

The panic has resulted in a stepped-up response by the World Health Organization (with U.S. support), but is this effort too little, too late? “Millions of doses of experimental Ebola vaccines will be produced by the end of 2015, the World Health Organization has announced… It said ‘several hundred thousand’ would be produced in the first half of the year.

“And vaccines could be offered to health workers on the frontline in West Africa as soon as December 2014… However, the WHO cautioned that vaccines would not be a ‘magic bullet’ for ending the outbreak… There is no proven cure or vaccine for Ebola.”, October 24th. How many will perish in the meantime? And it is WHO that is leading the charge… not the United States anymore.

There is a more basic question here. If the United States has the slightest hope of maintaining its economic position in a globally-competitive universe, side-stepping what appears to be a precipitous slide into a “formerly great and powerful international force,” does it have the remotest chance of sustaining that desire if cutbacks to education, infrastructure and research remain the primary philosophy of American leadership on both sides of the aisle?

Why are we restructuring our spending priorities and tax codes for short term “bandages” and “catering to disproven sloganeering” (like “tax cuts for the ‘job creators’”) at what appears a complete lack of concern for our future? And exactly how weak does that made us appear to the rest of the world? How may will die or face truly hard downward adjustments in their quality of life based on these short term missteps? Time for a ground-up reprioritization of our spending and taxing habits.

I’m Peter Dekom, and being on top requires continuing effort… not relying on fading memories of past glory and accomplishment.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Perpetual Adolescence

The side show to under-employment and unemployment is not so “side-ish.” It’s the percentage of adults who either never left home, returned after college or even returned after later-in-life setbacks ranging from divorce to frustration in the job market. They’ve been called the “boomerang” generation or the new victims of a callous job market, where most of the new “opportunities” for entry level positons – regardless of education – hover around minimum wage employment. Add to this almost 1.2 trillion dollars of student loan debt, pressure to pay (with almost no recourse to bankruptcy) without the means to repay, and the situation gets downright ornery.
Back in 1980, kids couldn’t wait to get out of the nest. Those aged 24 to 34 living with parents or grandparents numbered only 11% of that cohort., October 22nd. But the numbers today are staggering by comparison. “According to a stunning Gallup survey… nearly three out of every ten adults in the United States under the age of 35 are still living at home with Mom and Dad. 
“This closely lines up with a Pew Research Center analysis of Census data that looked at a younger sample of Americans which found that 36 percent of Americans 18 to 31 years old were still living with their parents.  That was the highest level that had ever been recorded.  Overall, approximately 25 million U.S. adults are currently living at home with their parents according to Time Magazine.  So what is causing all of this?  Well, there are certainly a lot of factors.  Overwhelming student loan debt, a depressing lack of jobs and the high cost of living are all definitely playing a role.  But many would argue that what we are witnessing goes far beyond temporary economic conditions.  There are many that believe that we have fundamentally failed our young people and have neglected to equip them with the skills and values that they need to be successful in the real world.
“More Americans than ever before seem to be living in a state of ‘perpetual adolescence.’  As Gallup noted, one of the keys to adulthood is to be able to establish independence from your parents…”, February 20th. The burden of older children without resources to care for themselves often straps their parents’ retirement funding, consumption patterns and even their work habits.
Financial planners are now having to advise those who have to take care of their adult working-capable children into consideration in advising average Americans with limited capacities to address this unplanned burden. Stress levels rise, and following the advice from “tough love” financial advisors has to generate more than a few difficult moments and deep strains on familial relationships: “The overarching rule parents should follow for college kids returning home is that they are not running a retirement home for people in their 20s, says Ric Runestad, owner of Runestad Financial in Fort Wayne, Indiana. If the kids graduated from college, they should be either working full time or looking for full-time work, he says…
“How should parents handle the financial expectations for the living arrangement? Bill Demaree, owner of Demaree Retirement Services in Indianapolis, says parents need to establish an agreement with their kids that leaves nothing to interpretation. ‘You need to specify a lease with an amount for rent, a percentage of the utilities and how long the child can stay in the house,’ says Demaree.
“In addition, Runestad says he believes it's fine for parents to allow their kids to stay at home for a period even after the kids are employed to allow them time to build their savings. However, it's important for parents to collect rent. ‘This focuses your child's attention on the constant need to make their rent payments. A landlord doesn't care,’ says Runestad, about any extenuating circumstances that might arise. ‘They just want their rent money.’” Hard and fast rules? Really?
Some have gentler advice: “Dan White, a certified financial planner with Dan White and Associates in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, says kids should at least cover their own expenses, such as their car, auto insurance, and cell phone… [Joe Dadich, owner of Dadich & Associates in Troy, Michigan] tells parents to make a two-year plan that includes financial responsibilities and a chore list. He recommends a payment plan based on a percentage of their income that they can contribute for rent, their cell phone bill, student loans, and other personal expenses.”
Grassroots advice is interesting, but what this phenomenon says about America and Americans is shocking. We have escalated the cost of college by a multiple of the cost of living while we have simultaneously reduced the opportunities for financial aid. Our 2005 revisions to our bankruptcy laws targeted students and student loans, cutting off that escape valve for most. We have saddled our kids with massive debt while cutting the once standard job-incentives of government investments in infrastructure repair and expansion, medical and scientific research andaccessible quality education.
We have lied to our children by telling them that if they study hard and achieve, success will be theirs. We have lied to ourselves – by relabeling clearly disproven “supply side” or “trickle down” economics as “incenting the job creators” – and fought to keep taxes low and reward those engaged in outsourcing of work to other countries (what “job creators” really do) or into a roboticized  and automated workplace. We have reprioritized our nation’s goals resulting in a severely contracting middle class, a staggering concentration of wealth at the top (based on a different set of regulatory enforcement and tax provisions heavily tilted towards incumbent wealth), a steady decline in average discretionary income and a skewing of economic wealth that makes us look like a banana republic.
Even our economic growth metrics – stock market and real estate prices and how we actually measure under- and unemployment – mask the underlying problems that cannot explain this little phenomenon of adult children living with their folks in record numbers. If we really were experiencing all that the-recession-is-over-recovery, then please tell me how those boomerang numbers got so bad?! America the brave has become America the short-sighted and heartless.
I’m Peter Dekom, and we have gotten so much better at lying to ourselves and trying to “slogan” our way out of this malaise than in actually dealing with the harsh reality that surrounds us.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Job Creation: Screw the Environment

There is a groundswell of social conservative support for a serious relaxation of environmental rules that “hamper business,” or “add costly surcharges to our manufacturing and resource extraction businesses.” It has become one of the biggest issues in the up-coming mid-terms, despite a litany of disturbing consequences being experienced all over the world by those who indeed have such lax environmental controls. The pro-business movement believes environmental regulations are job-killers, never stopping to think how many jobs could be created in inventing and creating alternative energy sources, more efficient manufacturing and resource-extraction and how many jobs will be lost from ignoring the environment, which feeds us, powers us and sustains our quality of life.
Start with the poster-nation for pollution, a country whose leaders have finally come to realize that their lax environmental policies are unsustainable, deeply negatively impacting the health, life expectancy and quality of life of so many of their citizens. China. Polluted water from unchecked industrial effluents has decimated the availability of drinking and irrigation water; millions of acres of land are so toxic that the food grown on this land is downright risky. Carcasses of livestock wash routinely down rivers and clog lakes, and there are now countries (e.g., Australia) that have severely curtailed imports of foodstuffs made in China. As for air pollution, cities like Beijing have those who can afford it with massive filters in their homes, cars and offices. The Beijing skyline is seldom seen anymore with horribly thick stinging air that measures “beyond” current metering capacity. They know they have to fix the problems.
In the Middle East, the global-warming-induced-and-sustained drought in both Iraq and Syria – a burden disproportionately borne in Sunni regions governed by uncaring Shiite-controlled governments – turned farms into dust and loosed millions of now-impoverished farmers and their families as angry refugees without hope or help from anyone… except Muslim extremists with killing on their minds. How many lives will be lost and how many billions (trillions?) of dollars will it cost to counter that plague? Folks making a comfortable living don’t go to war and blow up the world.
That same killer heat has desiccated mid-western aquifers, parching the earth above, generated fires that have consumed massive forests in Colorado, New Mexico and California and sucked the water out of millions of Southwestern acres of once-productive farmland right here in the good ole USA. How many jobs will that cost, and how much will we have to spend import the stuff we used to grow?
Don’t look for that situation to get better anytime soon. “Some people, mostly non-scientists, have been claiming that the world has not warmed in 18 years, but ‘no one's told the globe that,’ [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate scientist Jessica] Blunden said. She said NOAA records show no pause in warming.
“The record-breaking heat goes back to the end of last year - November 2013 broke a record. So the 12 months from October 2013 to September 2014 are the hottest 12-month period on record, Blunden said. Earth hasn't set a monthly record for cold since December 1916, but all monthly heat record have been set after 1997… September also marks the fifth month in a row that Earth's oceans broke monthly heat records, Blunden said.”, October 20th.
Former Duke Energy executive, Pat McCory, couldn’t wait to disempower North Carolina’s environmental agency when he became governor. It didn’t take long for his constituency to suffer: “In 2014, tens of thousands of tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons (100,000 cubic meters) of contaminated water spilled into the Dan River near Eden, NC from a closed North Carolina coal-fired power plant that is owned by Duke Energy. It is currently the third worst coal ash spill ever to happen in the United States.” Wikipedia. Dirty, toxic, coal ash and lots of it.

The use of pressurized, chemically-treated water and the resulting wastewater wells created under the fracking oil extraction business seems to have caused earthquakes where it is practiced widely. An October 14th report by the Seismological Research Letter links 400 micro-earthquakes in and around Canton, Ohio to fracking. And then there’s oil central, Oklahoma. “Katie Keranen… a research seismologist at Cornell University…looked at an area experiencing a lot of quakes very near … the town of Jones, a small town just northeast of Oklahoma City…
“[M]ore than 2,500 earthquakes have shaken this area since 2008, which accounts for about 20 percent of the quakes in the middle of the United States. Most of these disposal wells don't cause quakes, but the earthquakes near Jones could have been caused by a handful of high-volume wells, where millions of barrels of water are pumped every month. What Keranen found is twofold. First, she found that wastewater pumped into the ground can travel a lot farther than initially thought and that it builds up pressure all along the way on its path. And this pressure can cause fault lines to slip and trigger an earthquake.”, July 31st.
“A big chemical spill that contaminated the water supply of some 300,000 West Virginia residents [in January] has raised plenty of questions about the way the United States regulates industrial compounds… Some background: There are more than 84,000 chemicals in the United States — and we don't know all that much about many of them. The current U.S. law on chemical safety is 37 years old, riddled with exceptions, and widely seen as ineffective. The federal government has required testing for only 200 chemicals in the past 37 years — and banned just five substances deemed dangerous (the last was asbestos in 1991).” Washington Post, January 21st. The CDC – yeah that CDC warned pregnant women not to drink that water, and soon the entire community was drinking bottled water. The links to the coal mining industry and water pollution have consumed millions of pages of criticism, documentaries and volumes upon volumes of corporate denial despite solid inconvenient proof to the contrary.

Oh I could go on for pages and pages, but you get my point. Dead and deeply unhealthy people don’t need jobs. People choking on air and gagging at produce and tap water might want jobs, but perhaps we might find new work for them in fixing the problems. All those threats of massive layoffs if this or that law or regulation were not terminated or if a Democrat got elected never came to pass. And it is strange that the very Republican party that approved so many national parks and built its legacy on the protection of natural resources – they are conservatives, after all – has turned its back on that same environment. When will it be American and Republican again to care about our natural environment, our quality of life and to rid ourselves of toxic environmental practices that will eventually kill more jobs and more people than in trying to find the right answers?
I’m Peter Dekom, and there are certain issues that shouldn’t find a partisan cast but should instead unite us in a common cause.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Stupid Pet Tricks, Part Deux

As ISIL continues to roil, as the Iraqi Army continues to fall short, as NATO-player Turkey hovers in the background (even attacking PKK-affiliated Kurds, some of whom are fighting ISIL in Kobani) and as the boots on the ground seem to be almost all ISIL’s with only a sprinkling of fierce Kurdish Peshmerga counter-combatants, it seems pretty clear that ISIL is not exactly facing meaningful containment by anything the allied forces have deployed to date. As much as Turkey wants us to help take down the al-Assad regime in Syria with a direct assault, unleashing the resultant “new nation” on ISIL, our fears are, simply, “blowback” combined with incompetence.
We no more know the allegiance of local Syrian rebels that we can stop Americans from slipping away and joining ISIL. Even gentle Canada got a shock to the system as a recent-radicalized Muslim citizen stepped into Parliament and began shooting. Still, we are beginning a plan to train 5,000 or more Syrian rebels to join the fight against ISIL.
But we haven’t a clue if these rebels are dedicated simply to the fall of Assad or, for example, they are a part of the ultra-extreme new al Qaeda faction, al-Nusra, pledged to fight the West with devastation as their clear goal. We crave boots on the ground, the only way to contain the ISIL threat in the end. Despite regional help from local Muslim powers, finding and deploying of those friendly boots are the most complex problem that appear to lead to the inevitable deployment of U.S. ground troops right there. What is it going to take? More atrocities? Scattered attacks on American targets around the world? One or more attacks within the United States itself?
So we fear arming Syrian rebels, thinking that they could use those weapons against us or our allies someday, but we need to generate some real ground forces or ISIL will look at our attacks from above, and like the Vietnamese decades before, they are learning how to hide their facilities, hiding from even smart bombs/missiles, then deploying their soldiers in close to their opponents, surrounded with innocent civilians (read: human shields), to advance… rarely being turned back.
One more factor: we’ve watched Iraqi forces – troops we trained – disintegrate in battle. Is that what we can expect if we are and train our “screened” (read: damn, we hope they’re really moderates) Syrian rebels? There just has to be a way to minimize blowback and turn-and-run soldiers.
So some bright group within our intelligence and military communities has come up with a foolproof plan for us to have our cake and eat it too. We’ll only train those rebels to defend their territory, not to attack and expand their holdings. Maybe we can give them smart weapons that can only be used when you are pulling the trigger to defend but not if you are going to attack?! Genius bullets!!!
“The Syrian opposition force to be recruited by the U.S. military and its coalition partners will be trained to defend territory, rather than to seize it back from the Islamic State, according to senior U.S. and allied officials, some of whom are concerned that the approach is flawed.
“Although moderate Syrian fighters are deemed essential to defeating the Islamic State under the Obama administration’s strategy, officials do not believe the newly assembled units will be capable of capturing key towns from militants without the help of forward-deployed U.S. combat teams, which President Obama has so far ruled out. The Syrian rebel force will be tasked instead with trying to prevent the Islamic State from extending its reach beyond the large stretches of territory it already controls.
“‘We have a big disconnect within our strategy. We need a credible, moderate Syrian force, but we have not been willing to commit what it takes to build that force,’ said a senior U.S. official involved in Syria and Iraq operations who, like others cited in this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the training program.
“Military commanders are reluctant to push Syrian fighters into full-scale battles with well-armed militants if they cannot summon close air support and medical evacuations, mindful of how fledgling forces in Iraq and Afghanistan crumbled without that assistance during the early years of the wars in those nations. But U.S. military aircraft cannot provide that aid without American or allied troops in close proximity to provide accurate targeting information on secure radio channels.” Washington Post, October 22nd.
“Big disconnect”?! I’m looking at all this, and I really can’t believe what I am reading! Is this really a plan of action that, despite the affront to our common sense, our government leaders think can work?! Really?! And does fumbling with such stupid pet tricks only allow ISIL to get stronger, take more land and commit more atrocities while Rome burns?
I’m Peter Dekom, and if we need an excuse to retire some senior military strategists with amazingly unworkable plans, we seem to have it!

Scattered WMDs Iraq Really Had

Lest we forget, the fear of massive biological, chemical or biological weapons that deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein could use in attacking the United States seem to have been a fabrication by a government looking for an excuse to start a war. There were mini-hints that stores of old chemical weapons could be found, but the threats were minor, and even those caches were only discovered in dribs and drabs over the years. But those dribs and drabs were very unpleasant surprises for those who found them, and clearly, Saddam Hussein had no problem using them on his own people. But that use was hardly a new threat, such toxins having been used almost a decade and a half before the new WMDs were declared to exist in 2003.
“Beginning in the morning on March 16, 1988 and continuing all night, the Iraqis rained down volley after volley of bombs filled with a deadly mixture of mustard gas and nerve agents on [the Kurdish town of] Halabja. Immediate effects of the chemicals included blindness, vomiting, blisters, convulsions, and asphyxiation. Approximately 5,000 women, men, and children died within days of the attacks. Long-term effects included permanent blindness, cancer, and birth defects. An estimated 10,000 lived, but live daily with the disfigurement and sicknesses from the chemical weapons… Saddam Hussein's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid was directly in charge of the chemical attacks against the Kurds, earning him the epithet, ‘Chemical Ali.’” So those “secret weapons” were well-known to the world in 1988!
Make no mistake, these older chemical agents are still deadly. One of the most common, most-easily fabricated battlefield toxins is mustard gas. Also known as “sulfur mustards,” these weapons were common in the trench warfare of World War I (see picture above). “[T]hey are usually yellow-brown in color and have an odor resembling mustard plants, garlic, or horseradish, hence the name…
“Because people exposed to mustard gas rarely suffer immediate symptoms, and mustard-contaminated areas may appear completely normal, victims can unknowingly receive high dosages. Within 24 hours of exposure to mustard agent, victims experience intense itching and skin irritation, which gradually turns into large blisters filled with yellow fluid wherever the mustard agent contacted the skin. These are chemical burns and are very debilitating. Mustard gas vapour easily penetrates clothing fabrics such as wool or cotton, so it is not only the exposed skin of victims that gets burned. If the victim's eyes were exposed then they become sore, starting with conjunctivitis, after which the eyelids swell, resulting in temporary blindness. Miosis may also occur, which is probably the result from the cholinomimetic activity of mustard. At very high concentrations, if inhaled, mustard agent causes bleeding and blistering within the respiratory system, damaging mucous membranes and causing pulmonary edema.” Wikipedia.
If the gas doesn’t kill the victims immediately, there are longer-term impacts like an increased likelihood of developing virulent strains of cancer. But years after the President declared “mission accomplished,” as American soldiers were destroying Iraqi weapon stores, they have stumbled on the few pockets of these weapons still remaining.  “It was August 2008 near Taji, Iraq. They had just exploded a stack of old Iraqi artillery shells buried beside a murky lake. The blast, part of an effort to destroy munitions that could be used in makeshift bombs, uncovered more shells.
Two technicians assigned to dispose of munitions stepped into the hole. Lake water seeped in. One of them, Specialist Andrew T. Goldman, noticed a pungent odor, something, he said, he had never smelled before… He lifted a shell. Oily paste oozed from a crack. ‘That doesn’t look like pond water,’ said his team leader, Staff Sgt. Eric J. Duling.
“The specialist swabbed the shell with chemical detection paper. It turned red — indicating sulfur mustard, the chemical warfare agent designed to burn a victim’s airway, skin and eyes… All three men recall an awkward pause. Then Sergeant Duling gave an order: ‘Get the hell out.’” New York Times, October 14th. Mustard gas. But even the Iraqi army had no idea where these all of these stores of nerve and mustard gas were. There were no massive stashes of newly-developed WMDs, just remnants of the gasses that were such a horrific part of Iraq’s brutal history.
“From 2004 to 2011, American and American-trained Iraqi troops repeatedly encountered, and on at least six occasions were wounded by, chemical weapons remaining from years earlier in Saddam Hussein’s rule… In all, American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs, according to interviews with dozens of participants, Iraqi and American officials, and heavily redacted intelligence documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.” NY Times.
All these weapons seem to have been manufactured before 1991, according to the Times; nothing in the way of newly-developed WMDs was found. Also according to the Times, one of the most embarrassing aspects of these weapons was that such weapons were “remnants of long-abandoned programs, built in close collaboration with the West… the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.” Emphasis added.
Uh oh, we helped develop and make these toxins? And so we kept these little revelations top secret. “The American government withheld word about its discoveries even from troops it sent into harm’s way and from military doctors [even to Congress!]. The government’s secrecy, victims and participants said, prevented troops in some of the war’s most dangerous jobs from receiving proper medical care and official recognition of their wounds.” NY Times. It gets uglier.
“The United States government says the abandoned weapons no longer pose a threat. But nearly a decade of wartime experience showed that old Iraqi chemical munitions often remained dangerous when repurposed for local attacks in makeshift bombs, as insurgents did starting by 2004.” NY Times.
There is increasing evidence that these older weapons do in fact retain significant toxicity, and one particular site – a major former chemical weapons site in Iraq at Al Muthanna where mustard shells and sarin [deadly nerve gas] was stored – is now in ISIL’s hands. “The highly dangerous site had been controlled by the U.S. and then turned over to the Iraqis after our departure with firm instructions to destroy or dismantle the deadly contents and ‘entomb’ it in cement.” Huffington Post, October 15th.
Were these toxic agents destroyed or contained as directed? Has ISIL secured some of these deadly toxins and actually used them on village it has attacked? There are reports that ISIL at least used chlorine gas (a lung-burning “choking agent” that less powerful than Sarin or mustard gas) on an attack against an Iraqi police installation in September, which Western powers are currently investigating. Real? Are there bigger threats? Stay tuned! But as for the chemical agents left in Iraq, they must be pretty effective weapons if we helped to design and build them.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the extent of our folly in this toxic land seems to have exceeded even our most negative critics’ worst accusations.

Friday, October 24, 2014


For Israel, the world’s Middle Eastern focus has rapidly shifted away from that beleaguered state to the ISIL onslaught and everything related to that powerful demonic military surge. With most of Gaza in shambles, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rather abysmal recent failure to convince the world that nuclear-prone Iran is a far greater threat that the ISIL and its “pick-up trucks with machine guns,” Israel once again confronts the fact that it is surrounded with malevolence. Even its staunch ally, the United States is distracted. Distrust and negativity have marked Netanyahu’s relationship with the Obama administration. Partly over the U.S. d├ętente with Iran and partly over Israel’s continue efforts to build more Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
Even with its treaty-neighbor in Egypt, the threats from instability in the Sinai (Egyptian) send shivers down military planners. “Security forces face an Islamist insurgency that has killed hundreds of soldiers and policemen since the army toppled [Egypt’s] President Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood last year after mass protests against his rule. Most attacks have been in Sinai.”  Reuters, October 24th.  That the violent Sunni al-Nusra faction (another extreme al Qaeda affiliate) is gaining traction among Syrian rebels, that Hezbollah continues to press for control of Lebanon (politically and militarily) – a nation hopelessly fractured and spinning out of control even as ISIL casts its eye towards this small country as well – creates the kind of instability that threatens Israel’s very existence.

Egypt, Syria, Lebanon – border countries – are severe issues for Israel. Gaza is temporarily side-tracked with destruction, and the West Bank Palestinians are courting the earth finding diplomatic recognition a seemingly winnable near-term goal. Bleak from an Israeli perspective. But there is one country I have not discussed. Jordan.
Meanwhile, a progressive and Western-educated regional leader, Jordanian King Abdullah II ibn al-Hussein, faces a nation lacking the oil-resources of its neighbors with drought-levels rising to serious and notions of unrest from extremists within his own borders.  But most Jordanians join their King in hoping to avoid military confrontation with just about anyone, including their neighbor Israel. It is, however, a delicate balance, and King Abdullah’s “western ways” have alienated him from some of the most traditional segments of his society.

“Around 2,000 Jordanians have gone to join militant groups in Syria, one of the largest contingents of foreign fighters, with concerns that at least some will return home radicalized. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who sowed chaos in Iraq and inspired the emergence of Islamic State, came from Zarqa in northern Jordan.
“As well as poor tribal communities, the kingdom is home to an estimated 3-4 million Palestinians, more than half its total population. Most have been registered as refugees for 65 years, share family ties with the 2.6 million Palestinians in the West Bank and yearn for a return to what was Palestine… [Jordan] has also taken in more than one million people displaced by the wars in Iraq and Syria, putting huge strain on resources and government finances, to the frustration of many Jordanians.” Reuters, October 22nd.

Indeed, Jordan (also a staunch U.S. ally – Obama and Abdullah are pictured above) is equally in fear of some of the same regional forces that likewise threaten Israel. And as those threats rise from both inside and outside Jordan, the desire to confront Israel as well is almost non-existent. For both Jordan and Israel, peaceful co-existence – perhaps more – is in the best interests of both nations. The 1979-implemented peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, not a perfect relationship by any means, has still gone a long way to neutralize a very large potential regional tinderbox. A 1994 Israeli accord with Jordan has helped as well.
Economic and political ties seem to be strengthening as Jordan and Israel each see a commonality of interests between those nations, particularly given the common destabilizing enemies they both face. But sometimes, given its rather large Palestinian population, Jordan has to take tough public positions against Israel that might suggest otherwise. It becomes necessary to look at the actions and not the words, although obvious tensions will continue to plague this relationship.

“On the economic front, trade has picked up and Israel recently agreed to supply Jordan with natural gas in a deal estimated at $15 billion, although Jordanian businessmen say a lack of progress on peace between Israel and the Palestinians has held back commercial ties… ‘Jordan wants its relationship with Israel, it just doesn't want to talk about its relationship with Israel,’ is how one Israeli diplomat put it.
“Jordanian officials were not immediately available for comment. They often express strident criticism of Israel, citing the high civilian death toll during the war against Hamas in Gaza as an example of action they say fuels the very extremism the Israeli government fears… ‘If we as a Jordanian state in cooperation with an Arab and Islamic coalition are fighting extremism within Islam, and the Israelis are killing our people in Gaza and Jerusalem every five minutes, then this is a problem,’ King Abdullah said on [October 20th].” Reuters. Whatever the tensions, the path to peace and stability between these nations, perhaps born out of necessity, is are increasing clear and in everyone’s best interest.

I’m Peter Dekom, and even in the Middle East there are shades of good news if you just take the time to look.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tortured Logic

As we become embroiled once again in Middle Eastern warfare, facing monsters prone to torturing, slow, excruciating and painful beheading and out-and-out genocide, the proclivity of American officials to apply “enhanced interrogation” techniques – torture under almost any internationally-sanctioned treat in the world – has to be powerful. We don’t pay ransom to fund these bastards, but innocents are suffering nonetheless.
Retaliation and extracting needed information blend to justify the action, but as you watch operatives of the Islamic State don prisoners in Gitmo orange and routinely replicate the same CIA-secret-prison-waterboarding-and-other-nasty-techniques on their captives, particularly those from the West, it is a harsh reminder that our past admitted actions have created moral justification to others to apply those techniques to innocent civilians who have fallen into their hand and most certainly to American soldiers they may someday capture.
But doesn’t the United States now clearly come down against applying these obvious torture techniques against our captives? Not exactly. Didn’t the President not only admit that these techniques are in fact “torture” but added, by a 2009 executive order, that the American government would not apply these techniques anywhere? Yes, but… It’s an executive order, a document that can be rescinded by any sitting president, even Obama himself.
There is no statute or treaty that imposes a clear ban on an American government official’s or soldier’s applying torture, as long as that action occurs outside of the United States itself. “When the Bush administration revealed in 2005 that it was secretly interpreting a treaty ban on ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’ as not applying to C.I.A. and military prisons overseas, Barack Obama, then a newly elected Democratic senator from Illinois, joined in a bipartisan protest.” New York Times, October 18th. But as President, Mr. Obama has stopped short of extending his executive order into an official acceptance of a treaty that would impose international legal sanctions on us for such activities.
In fact, the Obama Administration, facing an up-coming November meeting of the U.N. Committee on Torture charged with implementing the Convention Against Torture in November, is contemplating quite an unexpected official response to the question of whether this Bush-era interpretation (not applying the ban outside the United States) remains America’s official stance. “President Obama’s legal team is debating whether to back away from his earlier view [opposition to the Bush-interpretation]. It is considering reaffirming the Bush administration’s position that the treaty imposes no legal obligation on the United States to bar cruelty outside its borders, according to officials who discussed the deliberations on the condition of anonymity…
State Department lawyers are said to be pushing to officially abandon the Bush-era interpretation. Doing so would require no policy changes, since Mr. Obama issued an executive order in 2009 that forbade cruel interrogations anywhere and made it harder for a future administration to return to torture.
“But military and intelligence lawyers are said to oppose accepting that the treaty imposes legal obligations on the United States’ actions abroad. They say they need more time to study whether it would have operational impacts. They have also raised concerns that current or future wartime detainees abroad might invoke the treaty to sue American officials with claims of torture, although courts have repeatedly thrown out lawsuits brought by detainees held as terrorism suspects…
“Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman, said Mr. Obama’s opposition to torture and cruel interrogations anywhere in the world was clear, separate from the legal question of whether the United Nations treaty applies to American behavior overseas.
“‘We are considering that question, and other questions posed by the committee, carefully as we prepare for the presentation in November,’ Ms. Meehan said. ‘But there is no question that torture and cruel treatment in armed conflict are clearly and categorically prohibited in all places.’” NY Times. No question? Then why not affirm our position under the treaty? There must, therefore, be a question. But there are efforts afoot to hold back needed information for the relevant deciders who need to know, including the voting public.
Did I mention that there are efforts afoot to “sanitize” an upcoming “public” report to the U.S. Senate? “‘The intelligence leadership doing everything they can to bury the facts,’ said [Ron] Wyden, D-Ore., a Senate Intelligence Committee member who has been a frequent critic of the spy agency… The Senate, the CIA and the White House are negotiating over what should be blacked out for national security reasons in the 600-page summary of the report that is set for public release sometime after the November elections.” Huffington Post, October 22nd. The ruse: to protect the identities of the field officers involved. Too much in the way of specifics, they argue, and their cover is blown. But by editing out the horrific specifics, how valid would that report really be? And it does seem unchallenging to hide identities if that were the real goal.
As much as the case for torture under extreme and dire circumstances can be made, one must always remember that if we are not equivocally opposed to torture at any level, there will always be a legal and moral justification for other nations to apply torture to American captives, military and otherwise. It’s either wrong or it isn’t, and you know where I stand!
I’m Peter Dekom, and in international dealings and persuasion, the United States has lost both power and credibility by itself engaging in morally unacceptable actions.