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Richard Fernandez

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The Return of the Face

A few days ago Peggy Noonan demanded of the political class in the Wall Street Journal to answer the question “who do they think we are?”   Our leaders she said, were treating the public like moronic children on the subject of Ebola.

It is my impression that everyone who speaks for the government on this issue has been instructed to imagine his audience as anxious children. It feels like how the pediatrician talks to the child, not the parents. It’s as if they’ve been told: “Talk, talk, talk, but don’t say anything. Clarity is the enemy.”

And why not? For altogether too long the political elites have thrived on the strategy of treating the public like “low information voters” and being rewarded for it. But that act is seemingly losing its appeal. Sheryl Stolberg of the New York Times writes that the “Black Vote Seen as Last Hope for Democrats to Hold Senate.”

WASHINGTON — The confidential memo from a former pollster for President Obama contained a blunt warning for Democrats. Written this month with an eye toward Election Day, it predicted “crushing Democratic losses across the country” if the party did not do more to get black voters to the polls….

Yet the one politician guaranteed to generate enthusiasm among African Americans is the same man many Democratic candidates want to avoid: Mr. Obama.

Not even the Clinton show can put gas in the old tank any more. Peter Sullivan and Bernie Becker of the Hill write “self-proclaimed Clinton Democrats are struggling this election cycle, and not even their powerful namesakes may be enough to save them.”

Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have tried to turn on their charms to help centrist Democrats in Kentucky and Arkansas. But as candidates in both states are slipping, help from the party’s preeminent power couple is falling short. … In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes has clung tightly to both Bill and Hillary Clinton as she tries to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell(R).

The former president has already campaigned with the Democratic hopeful twice and will head to the Bluegrass State again next week. The former secretary of state held a rally with Grimes on Wednesday, coming as Grimes kept emphasizing she was a “Clinton Democrat through and through” after flatly refusing to say whether she voted for President Obama.

The former president — a master of the retail politics central to places like Arkansas — is the featured guest in his native state this weekend. There, Democrats are trying to save vulnerable Sen. Mark Pryor (D) and push former Rep. Mike Ross (D) into the governor’s mansion. Pryor even took a selfie on stage with Clinton this month, in an attempt to illustrate how close he is to his state’s favorite son.

Hillary stumps. Bill blusters. But it’s not working so far. Senator Elizabeth Warren is reported in the Washington Post as preparing the Base for hard and heavy tidings. “The game is rigged, and the Republicans rigged it,” Warren said to loud cheers.

At least there were cheers for Warren. The president would have welcomed some in Maryland, where he was stumping for Anthony Brown. Reuters said the crowd walked out on Obama. “A steady stream of people walked out of the auditorium while he spoke, however, and a heckler interrupted his remarks.” And this was friendly territory.


Posted at 9:05 pm on October 19th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

Hollywood And Tanks

The promotional material for the Brad Pitt movie Fury dramatizes an encounter between a platoon of Shermans and a Tiger 1 in where the Shermans get the worst of it.  It exemplifies the by now well known line that it took five or six Shermans to take out a single Tiger.

I was somewhat surprised in later life to learn that this might not be true, which was shocking.  While there is no doubt that a Tiger or a Panther was much better armored and gunned vehicle than the average Sherman, some scholars have argued that as a weapons system the Sherman was the superior of either armored fighting vehicle.  Steven Zaloga is probably the most well known advocate of this point of view.

In his book Panther vs Sherman Zaloga looked at the record and found that on average  the Shermans killed more than their number of Panthers or Tigers.  Now how could that be?  Given the Sherman’s automotive inferiority the question was why this should even be possible. Examining 98 engagements in the Ardennes, Army researchers discovered something rather interesting.

The study concluded that the single most important factor in tank-versus-tank fighting was which side spotted the enemy first, engaged first and hit first. This gave the defender a distinct advantage, since the defending tanks were typically stationary in a well-chosen ambush position. …

The side that saw first and hit first usually had the advantage in the first critical minute … the overall record suggests that the Sherman was 3.6 times more effective than the Panther … popular myths that that Panthers enjoyed a 5-to-1 kill ratio against Shermans or that it took five Shermans to knock out a Panther have no basis in historical records. The outcome of tank-versus-tank fighting was more often determined by the tactical situation than the technical situation.

Since the Shermans were more numerous and mechanically reliable, they typically got to the key terrain first. They kept going whereas the Panthers and Tigers could only road march short distances from their transporters and railheads. Thus, in most engagements the Shermans could get set up because there were so many of them and they tended to run reliably.

If there was a hill to be grabbed, a road to be blocked, the Shermans would get there first. By contrast, the German tanks were mechanically fragile.  For all their power they were on average, late to the party. Therefore, on a fluid battlefield the Shermans would almost always arrive first on the key terrain and bushwhack the panzers.  Zaloga’s conclusion was astounding. And yet it may be true.


Posted at 3:02 am on October 19th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

Dual Control

The selection of political Ron Klain as ‘Ebola czar’ has been criticized on the grounds that he has no medical or public health qualification.  But relatively little attention has been focused on the word ‘czar’ itself.  The term ‘czar’ in the American sense, begins with FDR. It loosely described a type of inter-agency coordinator with the authority “to go outside of formal channels and find creative solutions for ad hoc problems, the ability to involve a lot of government players in big issue decision-making, and the ability to get a huge bureaucracy moving in the right direction … managing competing power centers.”

The term also meant something else: an official operating outside the regular offices of government who hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate.  The Liberty Law site describes their history in the following way, even before they were called by the name: “czars began as emergency responses to the extraordinary demands of World Wars I and II, and then took hold during normal times.”

But even these emergency measures were legally suspect. Woodrow Wilson used the Overman Act of 1918 to create new position for Bernard Baruch over a new agency over increasing the production of raw materials, even though “nowhere in the law did Congress provide Wilson with the power to create a government structure, excepting an agency to manage the production of aircraft”. Similarly, FDR used the First War Powers Act of 1941 to create multiple czars, even though “nothing” in that act “authorized the president to create new agencies or offices”. These emergency measures were “consolidated” into routine governance under Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson: “By the 1960’s, presidents had become accustomed to the idea and practice of centralizing power and moving away from a reliance on department heads and the traditional cabinet governing system”.


President’s name Party In office Number of
czar titles
Number of
Appointees not
confirmed by Senate
Franklin Roosevelt D 1933–1945 11 19 17
Harry Truman D 1945–1953 6 6 5
Dwight Eisenhower R 1953–1961 1 1 0
Lyndon Johnson D 1963–1969 3 3 1
Richard Nixon R 1969–1974 3 5 5
Gerald Ford R 1974–1977 2 2 2
Jimmy Carter D 1977–1981 2 3 2
Ronald Reagan R 1981–1989 1 1 1
George H. W. Bush R 1989–1993 2 3 0
Bill Clinton D 1993–2001 8 11 7
George W. Bush R 2001–2009 33 49 28
Barack Obama D 2009– 38 44 35

Katheryn Schultz argues that ‘czar’ is just a catchy name. “It is the press, not the executive office, that insists on calling them czars. That is largely about expedience: “WMD Czar” is a lot more manageable in a headline than ‘Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism.’ Executives, in fact, generally dislike, discourage, and avoid the use of czar … we just love the way that it sounds.”

But there is in fact, a substantive difference. They are a parallel system of command. As suggested by this article in Western Journalism, their chief qualification is political adherence to the president’s ideology and personal loyalty to him.  In fact it may be argued that they are not ‘czars’ in the  sense of inter-agency enablers.  It will probably be the role of Klain — like  Cass Sunstein, Todd Stern, John Holdren, Mark Lloyd, Eric Holder, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, etc — to make sure the bureaucracy knows who they are working for and for what ends.  They’re not just ‘coordinators’ any more. They are a kind of enforcer. They work is better described by another Russian word: zampolit or political officer.


Posted at 12:40 am on October 18th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

The Flying Dutchman

Which of us in childhood was not captivated by a print, or perhaps a portrait of the Flying Dutchman, ”a legendary ghost ship that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever. … If hailed by another ship, the crew of the Flying Dutchman will try to send messages to land, or to people long dead. In ocean lore, the sight of this phantom ship is a portent of doom.”  Which of us thought such a thing could actually happen … in the Caribbean?

If the public thought that allowing a nurse with Ebola symptoms to fly commercial air was the worst possible blunder the administration could make, think again. ABC News reports that “a Dallas health care worker who handled clinical specimens from an Ebola-infected man from Liberia who later died is on a Caribbean cruise ship – where the worker has self-quarantined and is being monitored for any signs of infection, the State Department said in a statement.”

“The worker has voluntarily remained in the cabin and the State Department and Cruise line are working to bring the worker back to the U.S. out of an abundance of caution,” the Department of State said in the release.

An Ebola suspect on a cruise ship, that’s worse than letting the nurse fly by air.  At least the government is trying to get him back.

But wait. There’s more. According to the Washington Post, the cruise ship has been denied entry into Belize. “News reports out of Belize said the Carnival Cruise ship “Magic” was being kept offshore because of a health worker who had contact with an Ebola patient and that passengers were not being permitted into the country.” They won’t even let the Dallas health care worker transfer to shore so he can be flown back to the U.S.

The reports quoted a statement from the government of Belize: The Government of Belize was contacted today by officers of the U.S. Government and made aware of a cruise ship passenger considered of very low risk for Ebola. The passenger had voluntarily entered quarantine on board the ship and remains free of any fever or other symptoms of illness. The Ebola virus may only be spread by patients who are experiencing fever and symptoms of illness and so the US Government had emphasized the very low risk category in this case. Nonetheless, out of an abundance of caution, the Government of Belize decided not to facilitate a U.S. request for assistance in evacuating the passenger through the Phillip Goldson International Airport.

The party ship is now unwelcome. In a manner of speaking the Flying Dutchman sails the seas again. It won’t be long before pundits ask: ‘hey, if Belize can close  its borders to a whole cruise ship, then why could not president Obama close the US borders to West Africa?’


Posted at 2:15 am on October 17th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

Game Over

Roger Simon asks “Could It Possibly Get Any Worse?” for president Obama and then proceeds to enumerate a long list of the catastrophes besetting the administration.  They’re of such severity and the list is of such length that one may be forgiven for thinking, ‘no it cannot possibly get worse’.  Yet not only can it get it worse, but it probably will.  In order to clearly understand why you have to go back to a video game developed in Japan called Space Invaders. In this old video game a row of apparently slow moving and vulnerable alien critters advance upon a player equipped with a blaster and able to shelter behind concrete fortifications.  It looks easy to pick off the Space Invaders but that is illusory.

As the Space Invaders get closer the defender must deal with more of them per unit time.  Each one you miss in time (t) becomes one more Invader who you must hit in time (t+1).  As you run out of time there are eventually more critters than you could possibly hit.  The defender is overrun and it is Game Over.

The Obama administration’s fundamental mistake was believing that “kicking the can down the road” was an intelligent strategy.  It sure looked like it, given  the vast design margin that America appeared to provide.  Yet in so doing they made the error,  common among innumerates, of mistaking the large for the infinite.  They thought they would never run out of room to “kick the can down the road”, little realizing that every unengaged Space Invaders in time (t+1)  got carried over to time (t+2) etc.

But the clock runs out for everyone and now there’s a whole avalanche of problems coming at the Obama administration.  They are saturated.  By kicking the can down the road, Obama committed the single most fatal mistake in the Space Invaders Game.  He let the critters get a jump on him. Now they’re ahead of his shot cycle and threaten to overrun his position.

Readers will recall my prediction that fake strategies like those used by the administration go through 3 phases: 1) the denial of the problem; 2) over-confident half measures; 3) blind panic. President Obama is officially at number 3 and has canceled fundraisers in New Jersey and Connecticut “to convene his Cabinet at the White House instead, as U.S. officials grappled with the widening Ebola crisis.”

The panic phase comes very fast because it is actually the moment when a leader realizes he’s running out of the most precious resource a manager can have, which is time.  And the administration, for the past six years, has been all about wasting time; about kicking the can down the road.  They thought it was clever, a big joke they could play on their Republican successor. But most of the president’s opponents on the world stage, familiar with the idea that strategy is largely the story of time, saw it for the amateur mistake that it was.  They saw the president for what he was and took him to the cleaners.


Posted at 3:41 am on October 16th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez


Lockheed Martin announced that the Skunk Works has produced viable fusion technology and is looking for partners. “McGuire said the company had several patents pending for the work and was looking for partners in academia, industry and among government laboratories to advance the work.”

Tom McGuire, who heads the project, said he and a small team had been working on fusion energy at Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works for about four years, but were now going public to find potential partners in industry and government for their work.

Initial work demonstrated the feasibility of building a 100-megawatt reactor measuring seven feet by 10 feet, which could fit on the back of a large truck, and is about 10 times smaller than current reactors, McGuire told reporters.

In a statement, the company, the Pentagon’s largest supplier, said it would build and test a compact fusion reactor in less than a year, and build a prototype in five years.

If the company’s predictions are accurate the development will transform almost every aspect of civilization. Back in 2013 Kelsey Atherton at Popular Science described the project in its earlier stages. “Much smaller than traditional fusion attempts, the compact fusion reactor uses a cylinder, not a ring, which makes for a stronger magnetic containment field and leaves fewer points where the energy could escape. This could make for a reactor that’s small enough for a truck to transport and still robust enough to generate power for 100,000 homes. Lockheed hopes to have a test model available by 2017, and scale up to regular production by 2022.”

The article also hints at the power density of the Lockheed fusion design. Gizmodo has more details and a diagram comparing the giant Tokamak type with its the Lockheed design. Unlike older designs, the proposed new model is scalable. Dr. Thomas McGuire said, “[The traditional tokamak designes] can only hold so much plasma, and we call that the beta limit. [Their plasma ratio is] 5% or so of the confining pressure. [...] We should be able to go to 100% or beyond.”


Posted at 11:20 am on October 15th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

The Angel of Death

One of the most interesting things about the West African Ebola outbreak is that stopping the disease has very little to do with hospital treatment. In fact, according to the WHO, it makes almost no difference to survival whether a West African is taken to a hospital or not. Mortality rates outside a hospital are 70%. “For patients who had been treated in hospital, the mortality rates were a little lower, ranging from 67 percent in Liberia down to just over 61 percent in Sierra Leone, so hospital treatment made some difference, but perhaps not as much as might have been hoped.”

What makes a difference is the culture of the people around you. A patient is better off in a village than in more “modern”, more cosmopolitan West Africa. In a village the intact culture drastically facilitates health education, contact tracing and the enforcement of quarantine.

“There’s a better organization in communities, there’s a common language, there are village elders, village chiefs who help keep things in order, and it’s much easier and more effective to stop an outbreak in rural areas. Kikwit, the major outbreak in DRC in 1995, was only five hours journey by road from the capital, yet by stopping the outbreak in a rural area it doesn’t spread into the complex issues involved in the city, where there’s a breakdown in traditional governance and where there are all kinds of challenges due to different languages and different cultures.”

The Liberian Firestone Rubber plantation is a well documented example of the proposition that a functional community is a safer community. Ebola has been unable to significantly penetrate into the 80,000 person plantation despite its location smack dab in the middle of the Hot Zone. The Firestone people didn’t have fancy equipment. Much of their safety gear was improvised from existing materials. But what they had was an adequacy of common sense and a sufficiency of competence.

“In addition to creating a makeshift Ebola Treatment Unit, Firestone Liberia’s emergency response has included active investigations, contact tracing, and intervention measures. The company has conducted a mass education program, which involved teachers from the company’s schools going door-to-door to explain the disease not only to its employees but also to at least 72,000 additional people residing within the general community and surrounding areas.”

A Liberian woman named Fatu Kekula reportedly nursed 3 out of 4 of her stricken relatives back to health using only plastic trashbags to make up her protective equipment and a cell phone to consult her family doctor on treatment instructions.  She made the best use of what she had.

By contrast “government” response has been a shambles.  They have made the worst use of what they had. According to the Nation, so cynical has the population of Liberia become about its own government that it many people at first believed that Ebola was a “scam to attract Western aid”. One can see why. Medical supplies have been sitting on the docks of epidemic-stricken Sierra Leone for months, according to the New York Times, pending the signature of the country’s “emergency operations center”, which is doubtless awaiting the intervention of Grover Cleveland or Salmon P. Chase.


Posted at 3:17 pm on October 14th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

Battle In The Clouds

Jackson Diehl, the deputy editorial page editor of the Washington Post, says that Putin has been quietly winning in Eastern Europe.  ”To grasp how Vladi­mir Putin is progressing in his campaign to overturn the post-Cold War order in Europe, it’s worth looking beyond eastern Ukraine, where the Kremlin is busy consolidating a breakaway puppet state.”

Obama has been congratulating himself on leading a “unified response” by the West that, he claims, has isolated Putin. In reality, a big chunk of the NATO alliance has quietly begun to lean toward Moscow. These governments do so in part for economic reasons: Dependent on Russia for energy as well as export markets, they fear the consequences of escalating sanctions.

That probably won’t bother Spencer Critchley, who writes in the Huffington Post. He believes Obama has transcended the traditional categories of winning and losing.  He observes that “President Obama has faced a lot of criticism lately for not being ‘tough enough’ on ISIS. Most of it seems to boil down to this: Why won’t he do what we always do?”  What America used to do was ‘win’.

But what if military victory — at least as traditionally defined — is not the primary objective? What if, instead, the goal is to escape the seemingly endless need for military victories — each one ending up so transient and inconclusive?

After all, we’ve been stuck in an entropic cycle of such “victories” (and some defeats) for decades, each one leading to the need for more. To a large extent, it’s been a cycle of support, accommodation and intervention on behalf of governments that can’t, or won’t, take care of their own people. We beat back a threat, and sow the seeds of three new ones. …

People who complain that Obama’s foreign policy has no theme might look no further than this: just like he’s always said, it’s time for a change.

Now there’s a thought. Why not try losing for a change? After all, as Critchley points out: “What Obama’s War Critics Don’t Get: Change Means Change”. Critchley says:


Posted at 1:40 pm on October 13th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

Time Waits For No One

One commenter on a Huffington Post story about the second case of Ebola in the US argued that the president should begin the air travel ban with a quarantine of Texas.  The suggestion is not as crazy as you think. The Business Insider cites Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as saying “August was Ebola. It was ISIS. It was Ukraine, Global issues dominated. And in September, those issues continued to dominate. And so, part of the headwind was it did make it a little more difficult for us to break through on those middle-class economic contrasts when people were so focused on global issues.”

If there were only some way of quarantining memes it would be very much appreciated right now. Carrie Dann of NBC News laments “If you’re even a casual news consumer, you know that the spread of Ebola, the U.S. airstrikes against ISIS and major security breaches within the Secret Service have dominated media coverage over the last week as Americans mull the safety of their families, U.S. soldiers, and the president himself.”

One thing that Americans are collectively rolling their eyes at, though: the upcoming midterm elections, now just 27 days away.

A new survey from the Pew Research Center shows that Americans just aren’t particularly interested in the midterms, with only 15 percent saying they’re following election news “very closely,” and nearly one-in-four saying they’re not paying attention at all. Compare that to 36 percent who are paying close attention to the Ebola story, 31 percent concerned about the ISIS strikes, and 21 percent closely following the mistakes of the Secret Service.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way: the news has hijacked the news cycle.

To appreciate how much this hurts it’s important to remember that the media’s greatest power is its ability to set the public agenda. Ever since 1968 it has jealously guarded the power to both determine what the public talks about (the agenda) and how it is discussed (framing). Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) is complaining that they can’t do that in these elections because ISIS, Ebola, Ukraine, etc. are taking over the headlines in the way that disease is overrunning West Africa.


Posted at 2:40 pm on October 12th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez

The Ordinary World

A Jewish friend of mine said that the Holocaust created a crisis of faith for his people because as he put it, “if a merciful God existed, then how could could Hitler come to be?” Bad times have a way of raising such questions. Wikipedia cites at least 3 occasions  when humanity suffered so badly it believed that God himself was chastising them: the Black Death, the invasions of Attila the Hun and the depredations of Genghis Khan.

Poll after poll shows that America is in a pessimistic mood.  Time quotes Southern Command’s General John Kelly as gloomily concluding that “if it [Ebola] breaks out [in Central America], it’s literally, ‘Katie bar the door,’ and there will be mass migration into the United States. They will run away from Ebola, or if they suspect they are infected, they will try to get to the United States for treatment.”

Yet it could be worse, as no less than the president told an audience in Rhode Island, “the truth of the matter is that the world has always been messy. In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.” But in reality “this is not something that is comparable to the challenges we faced during the Cold War.”  The New York Times said of the presidents perspective:

Governing at a time of war, terrorism and disease, and frustrated on multiple fronts at once, Mr. Obama finds himself trying to buck up supporters heading into a crucial midterm election season. The succession of international crises has taken a toll on the public mood, not to mention his own poll ratings, and he seems intent on reassuring Americans that the challenges are manageable.”

It is hard to argue with the proposition that “if you survived the Atomic Age, you can survive me”. These may not be the best of times, but as the president said, neither are they the worst of them.


Posted at 4:23 pm on October 11th, 2014 by Richard Fernandez