Saturday, November 14, 2015


The world is no stranger to depravity. Nazism has only been dead for 70 years and it was a mere 35 years ago that the Khmer Rouge murdered about 25 percent of Cambodia’s people. Now the leaders of Daesh (aka Islamic State, IS, ISIS, and ISIL) are guaranteeing that they will be remembered, long after their extinction, as members of the World’s Gallery of Scoundrels.

I’m settling on the name Daesh here partly to honor our friends in France who suffered so grievously in yesterday’s massacre. About a year ago Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister, said that we would do well not to use the term “Islamic State” since “it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists.” The “Daesh cutthroats,” Mr. Fabius argued, are, in any case, a terrorist group rather than a state.

I don’t intend to quibble over such niceties as what constitutes a state, but I believe knowing something about how Daesh operates is worthwhile. An insightful analysis about its inner workings can be found in a recent article in Der Spiegel that my friend Rachel shared with me. I think that the most important points that this article reveals are (1) that Daesh was established not by religious fanatics, but by an angry Iraqi who had worked, until 2003, as an intelligence officer for Saddam Hussein, and (2) that Daesh has conquered extensive territories by first infiltrating them and then using Gestapo-like techniques to subordinate their populations.

The man behind these very carefully designed techniques was killed in January 2014, but not before he set the apparatus in motion that has led to Daesh’s successes in Syria and Iraq. He went by numerous aliases, including Haji Bakr, and he had been, before the US invasion, a high-ranking intelligence officer in Saddam Hussein’s air defense force. Der Spiegel was able to describe the inner workings of Daesh because the death of Haji Bakr resulted in his detailed plans for conquest and control falling into his enemies’ (and Der Spiegel’s) hands.

These plans revealed that many of the most fanatic fighters in Daesh are foreigners. Of course it’s common knowledge that thousands of young men from around the world have traveled to the Middle East to join Daesh, but Der Spiegel notes that the fanaticism of these foreigners often surpasses that of the Syrian and Iraqi fighters because the foreigners have no emotional investment in any local populations and little contact with the people of Syria and Iraq except through their acts of violence.

Those who have paid attention to Daesh’s expansion are familiar with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi who, like Haji Bakr was radicalized by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Al-Baghdadi was held at Camp Bucca, a U.S. facility, for four years because of his ties to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). When he was released, he became a leader in AQI, but later joined Daesh and eventually assumed the position of Daesh's Caliph, or supreme leader. Der Spiegel leads me to believe that al-Baghdadi is useful to Daesh mainly because his genuine religious fanaticism gives the organization a public image that helps obscure its secular ruthlessness. This ruthlessness owes more to the Saddam Hussein School of Terrorism and Thought Control than it does to anything in Islam.

In fact, the non-Islamic features of Daesh help explain its conflict with al Qaeda. The latter organization is clearly motivated by a fanatic version of Islam, and a number of its leaders have pointed accusing fingers at Daesh, not for its brutality (which al Qaeda can match), but for its lack of authentic religiosity.

Almost everyone in the world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, agrees that Daesh must be destroyed. Not only France, but Turkey and Lebanon have suffered horribly at its hands. And so, apparently, have the people of Russia who lost 224 compatriots to what appears to be a Daesh-inspired bomb on board an Airbus over the Sinai.

The only question is, how should we go about killing this foul beast? Cooperation between NATO, Russia, Iran and Middle Eastern Arabs (including those Syrians whose behavior has not made it impossible for us to work with them) is essential. A full scale invasion by foreign armies strikes me as a very bad idea for a number of reasons. For one thing, let’s not forget that the leaders of Daesh, both al-Baghdadi and the late Haji Bakr, emerged in response to just such an invasion.  President Obama’s argument that Daesh can first be systematically degraded and then destroyed makes sense. And this process cannot be a strictly American or foreign-driven one, but must involve local people as its most prominent participants in order for it to be successful.

Showing great promise and impressive courage in this regard are the Kurds who both saved Kobani from a Daesh attack, and who now are in the process of retaking the city of Sinjar. Reports from Sinjar indicate that a number of Daesh fighters fled in the face of the attacking Kurds and their Yazidi allies. This is good news in that it means, first, that these fleeing fighters are not inspired by a fanatic sense that martyrdom is a reward to be enthusiastically sought, and, second, it aligns with current reports that Daesh is running short of voluntary manpower and is having to draft locals to fill its ranks.

I believe we are seeing the beginning of the end of Daesh, but the elimination of this blot on humanity is bound to be a bloody affair. In the meantime, how sad it is that good and blameless people, like those who died in Paris yesterday, have to suffer so tragically while this monster still manages to hold on to its loathsome life. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Zombie Candidates: they lurch clumsily forward with ever-staring eyes – not realizing that they’re dead!

What would you do if this man were to approach you on the street and announce, “I’m Jim Gilmore and I am going to be the next President of the United States”?

You might well think you were being confronted with some poor chap who had taken leave of his senses. But in fact this man, Jim Gilmore is indeed running for president. The fact that you did not recognize his face, nor, probably, his name, is a good indication that this former governor is a zombie candidate. He keeps on going as though his campaign actually had life in it. But it does not.

Lincoln Chafee is another zombie candidate.


Granted it is interesting to have a Democratic Presidential Candidate who was once a Republican Senator, and then an Independent Governor. That, however, is the most interesting thing about Mr. Chafee’s candidacy.

At the recent Democratic debate he described himself as “a block of granite,” and what a block of granite would do were you to plunk it into the deep blue sea is exactly what Mr. Chafee’s candidacy has been doing lately. Given that he seems to be a very decent and sincere man, I take no pleasure in noting this, but it is time for him to let go of his walking corpse of a campaign.

Then there is Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana. His poll numbers started out last spring in the single digit range, but at least that single digit was to the left of the decimal point. Lately he’s been polling at around .8% among Republicans.

One of his most memorable quotes came during a Fox News interview when he said “the Confederate flag is a symbol of my heritage, and that heritage has nothing to do with racism or hate.” But even this little outburst of bigotry failed to help his numbers. 

And let's not forget the T-shirt that his campaign distributed which was emblazoned with the words “Tanned Rested Ready.”

                        Jindal Campaign T-shirt

Still no traction, though it did set some people speculating as to whether Governor Jindal had a much stronger sense of irony than we realized. Apparently not. He is just weird. 

Bobby, we hardly knew ye, but the better we got to know ye, the less presidential ye seemed.

                          Governor Bobby Jindal

Polling at half of Bobby Jindal’s rate is former Governor George Pataki of New York at .4%.

Not sure what he’s thinking. Maybe he’s hoping that if the GOP picks a right-wing fanatic like Ted Cruz, he can offer himself as the perfect running mate – a blue state Republican who seems fairly normal compared to Cruz.

Also polling at about .4% is Lindsay Graham.

Senator Graham is distinguished by his strong message which is clear, decisive and utterly insane. Senator Graham’s main complaint with Obama is that the president has failed to exploit America’s war-waging potential.

“We have the capacity to crank up the combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus start a new war in Syria, but what is President Obama doing about this? Nothing!”

Admittedly these are not Senator Grahams’ exact words, but they capture, I think, his message.

“All I'm asking for is just one little teeny weeny boots-on-the-ground war in Syria, no bigger than this, I promise.”

Finally, there’s Rick Santorum. I don’t know what his campaign slogan is, but it should be something like, “Yes, it’s me again.”

                                   Rick Santorum

The response from the Republican electorate seems to be the equivalent of a collective eye roll.

The point is that all of these people, Democrat and Republican alike, should not be cluttering up the landscape with their hopeless dreams. Isn’t it enough that the electoral landscape is already cluttered with the likes of Donald Trump and Ben Carson? Isn’t that in itself sufficiently depressing? For everyone’s sake, would you gentlemen please escort your candidacies to the nearest mausoleum, see them inside, and lock the door. Thank you.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Thirteen More Months

So House Speaker John Boehner is retiring. Mr. Boehner made this surprise announcement in what the New York Times described as “an emotional meeting.” Actually, emotional meetings are the only kind the famously tearful Boehner has been having lately. Lucky for him he has a penis, because a female Speaker who cried that much would have been ousted years ago for being too soft.

The other news of last week was that Scott Walker suspended his presidential campaign. “Suspended” is politician bullshit for quit. I’m not sure why candidates nowadays say suspended instead of quit, but it has become the standard verbiage.

Walker, one of the least likable of the GOP candidates, had the support of less than one half of one percent of Republican voters. As Stephen Colbert pointed out, the other 15 GOP presidential contenders will now have to fight over his former supporters. All two of them. Anyway, with Walker out, somebody else is apparently going to have to carry on the struggle to build a wall against Canadian immigrants.

Walker’s biggest claim to fame was not his ferocious anti-Canadianness, but his relentless battle against unions, a battle that made him a hero of right-wing Republicans. And why shouldn’t he go after the unions? What have the unions ever done for us?

(Well, they fought tirelessly to bring about the 40-hour work week, with weekends off and obligatory overtime pay – all things that the conservatives of the day were against.)

Okay, but besides that, what have they ever done for us?

(Come to think of it, they fought for the 8-hour work day, unemployment insurance, paid vacations. Also, retirement benefits.)

Yeah, but besides those things what have they ever done for us???

(Occupational safety standards, paid time off for illness, an end to child labor.)

But besides giving us the weekend, the 8-hour day, the 40-hour week, overtime pay, health benefits, paid vacations, unemployment compensation, safety standards, retirement benefits, and laws against child labor, what else have the unions done for us? NOTHING!*

It’s no wonder Scott Walker is so well loved by people like the Koch brothers.

Here’s a thought provoker: What if the final election were between Scott Walker and Donald Trump? Who would you vote for – the dishonest, mean spirited political operator or the flamboyant, shallow-minded egomaniac? I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but I’d have to go with Trump. A Trump presidency would immediately face us with the insanely impossible and unethical task of trying to “repatriate” 11 million undocumented immigrants, so that’s a negative. Also, Trump seems to want to rewrite the Fourteenth Amendment to keep people from being born into U.S. citizenship.

Admittedly these are downsides, but compared to the horror of a Scott Walker presidency, I would take them. And besides, it would almost be worth it to have a Trump presidency**, just for the fun of seeing him try to “deal” with Congress.

Then there are the others: Ben Carson, for example - the religious fundamentalist who apparently thinks Christianity is the only religion a president should have. A Carson presidency would make it easier for ISIS to convince the Muslim world that America is anti-Islam. We aren’t, of course, but there are plenty of American conservatives who beg to differ – like that strange audience member who addressed Donald Trump on this issue earlier this month.

I am still inclined to think Jeb is going to wind up with the nomination. His strongest challenger is, I believe, Marco Rubio. I first saw Rubio campaign some years ago here in Florida, and I was impressed. Not for his policy positions which ranged from the dishonest to the absurdly pro-corporate, but for his public speaking skills. Unlike Jeb, or Hillary, for that matter, Rubio is good on the stump. He is the kind of smooth operator who can get people to believe things that are clearly untrue, and make them like him at the same time.

But I believe Jeb will probably get the GOP nod (though I am less completely sold on this prospect than I once was). If Jeb is the candidate, that would rule out fellow Floridian Rubio as a running mate, unless Jeb were to do what Cheney did in 2000 and pretend he was actually from another state.

One aspect of Jeb’s lame campaigning style is his weakness in public speaking generally. I attended a speech he gave back in 2007 when he was nearing the end of his governorship here. At Q and A time, I asked him if he didn’t owe an apology to those Floridians whose right to vote he had stripped away during the 2000 election. He responded first with a joke, and then with a regurgitation of insultingly obfuscating double-talk that led me to walk out on him as he spoke – the kind of rude gesture from which I ordinarily refrain. He did not, by the way, apologize to those his administration had wronged.

And then there is this: Jeb recently said with reference to African-Americans that, “Our message is one of hope and aspiration. It isn’t one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff. Our message is one that is uplifting – that says you can achieve earned success.”

“And so,” he might have added, “I hope African-Americans everywhere will feel uplifted by my labeling them a bunch of lazy goof-offs who vote Democratic because they like standing around waiting for free stuff.”

The presidential race has been heating up lately, but it will be over in just about 13 months. Thirteen more months. That’s so depressing. What will I do to amuse myself when it’s over?

(Thanks to the Roper Center of the University of Connecticut for this image.)


*Humble apologies to Monty Python for this theft.

**Not really.