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Belmont Club

The Reciprocal

September 5th, 2014 - 5:30 pm

Nick Miroff of the Washington Post revisited a Venezuelan dream: the Ciudad Guyana.  It was a modernist planned city in the wilderness. “President Rómulo Betancourt, a key partner in John F. Kennedy’s “Alliance for Progress,” founded the city in 1961, inviting his countrymen to turn Ciudad Guayana into a tropical Pittsburgh.” It was a monument to the kind of progress that was in vogue in the 1960s. Instead it became a kind of tropical Detroit.  The Washington Post writes:

When it was founded, Ciudad Guayana and its state-run heavy industries were Venezuela’s best hope for breaking the country’s overwhelming dependence on crude oil exports. It had all the right ingredients: iron ore, bauxite and gold; timber and farmland; and huge rivers to supply cheap hydropower for smelters and factories.

Planners from MIT and Harvard came to lay out the streets. Loans from the World Bank helped finance the dams. The city grew to more than a million residents.

The steelmaking company at the core of the Ciudad Guayana project, Sidor, produced a record 4.3 million tons before it was nationalized by Chávez in 2008.

Today, most of its furnaces sit cold, deprived of raw materials, new technology and reliable labor. The last contract for its 14,000 steelworkers expired four years ago.

Today steelworkers who once earned enough to buy a new car on 3 month’s wages can hardly feed themselves.  They have a guaranteed income, though. “Despite repeated strikes and work stoppages, the government has continued to pay salaries at the aging plant, including for more than 2,000 union officials who draw wages but don’t produce an ounce of steel.”  But there’s nothing you can buy with it and nowhere to go.

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Writing on the Wall

September 3rd, 2014 - 3:24 pm

Much of today’s commentary revolves around the president’s inability to articulate a policy towards ISIS. The president was pressed in Estonia to outline his plans amid multiple crises,  especially in the aftermath of Steven Sotloff’s decapitation.  In an article headlined “Commitments on 3 Fronts Test Obama’s Foreign Policy,” the New York Times captures the dilemmas the president is facing.

WASHINGTON — In vowing in Estonia on Wednesday to defend vulnerable NATO nations from Russia, President Obama has now committed the United States to three major projections of its power: a “pivot” to Asia, a muscular presence in Europe and a new battle against Islamic extremists that seems likely to accelerate.

American officials acknowledge that these commitments are bound to upend Mr. Obama’s plans for shrinking the Pentagon’s budget before he leaves office in 2017. They also challenge a crucial doctrine of his first term: that the use of high technology and only a “light footprint” of military forces can deter ambitious powers and counter terrorists.

How, the article implicitly asks, is Obama going to take on three fronts and shrink the armed forces at the same time?  No one has the answer to that head scratcher, but the president’s supporters are trying to interpolate one.

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones argues that Obama’s statements have been so incomprehensible of late because the world is a complicated place:

I should add that nobody on the planet — not even John McCain! — knows how to destroy ISIS. Everybody wants some kind of magic bullet that will put them out of business without committing any ground troops, but nobody knows what that is. So until one of the blowhard hawks comes up with an actual plan that might actually work, I’ll stick with Obama’s more cautious approach. I figure he’ll do something, but only when politics and military strategy align to provide a plausible chance of success.

As for Russia, Drum asks: what is all this talk about gray areas? The president has been clear-cut and decisive. “In fact Obama’s statement was unusually straightforward. He said the same thing he’s been saying for months about Ukraine, and it’s really pretty clear.”

  • We are committed to the defense of NATO signatories.
  • Ukraine is not part of NATO, which means we will not defend them militarily.
  • However, we will continue to seek a peaceful settlement; we will continue to provide military aid to Ukraine; and we will continue to ratchet up sanctions on Russia if they continue their aggression in eastern Ukraine.

It’s clear in the way an eviction notice is clear; so clear it apparently means: Kiev is on its own.

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Ring of Fire

September 2nd, 2014 - 3:40 pm

Peter Beinart’s widely quoted article in the Atlantic, “Actually, Obama Does Have a Strategy in the Middle East,” has the tagline “the president is neither a dove nor a hawk. He’s a fierce minimalist.” Nowhere in the article does Beinart explain the meaning of this cryptic catchphrase, except as an allusion to the president’s exquisite judgment. It seems an article of faith that Obama will neither bathe the world in blood like his predecessor nor remain passive, as conservative critics accuse him of doing. He will avoid excess and get it just right, like the Three Bears; neither too hot nor too cold. A fierce minimalist.

Unfortunately Beinart avoids defining what is just enough. Where is the Pole Star in this murk? No answer is attempted except that Obama will point it out and not because Beinart can explain where it is. He ends on a note of touching faith: “Barack Obama didn’t become president by tilting at windmills.”

No, Obama became president because people like Beinart believed he would take them to a different place than where they now stand, with each hour bringing a new humiliation and crisis. Roger Simon wrote on Twitter: “Not a single #liberal friend of mine wants to discuss politics now. They’re humiliated by Obama.”  But they still trust him. When the president declared al-Qaeda decimated, the War on Terror over and said ISIS was nothing but a jayvee team, Obama was telling the base what they wanted to hear. What they thought Obama had achieved. People like Beinart believed it.  Too bad it wasn’t true.

But they still trust him.

One of the implicit assumptions of “fierce minimalism” is that action fuels the flames. Obama argued as much at an American Legion speech. He said, ”the answer is not to send in large scale military deployments that over stretch our military, and lead for us occupying countries for a long period of time and end up feeding extremism.”  An alternative point of view using almost an identical metaphor was articulated by Franklin Roosevelt. “Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire.”

The difference in the two presidential fire examples is the element of urgency. Roosevelt was aware that the fireman’s enemy is time and one of the points of the hose story, which everyone in that era understood, was the importance of dousing the fire while it was still small. Obama, by contrast, lacks the dimension of time. His approach implicitly assumes he has the leisure to add an ounce here and an ounce there to achieve a nuanced outcome.  Roosevelt understood that a crisis was urgent. In the current case, Obama is busy calibrating, thinking and golfing like he had all the time in the world.

What happens when a fierce minimalist meets a fierce fire?

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“Theirs not to reason why …”

September 1st, 2014 - 1:58 pm

The escape of the Filipino UN contingent from the clutches of the al-Nusra has a tragic-comic postscript. The Associated Press reports:  ”The Philippine military said Monday that a UN peacekeeping commander in the Golan Heights should be investigated for allegedly asking Filipino troops to surrender to Syrian rebels who had attacked and surrounded their camp.”

Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang said he advised the 40 Filipino peacekeepers not to lay down their arms, and they defied the UN peacekeeping commander’s order. Instead, they staged a daring escape from the Golan camp over the weekend, ending a tense, days long standoff. …

The commander of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, or UNDOF, which supervises the peacekeeping mission in Golan, was overseeing talks with the Syrian rebels to secure the freedom of the Fijians. However, Catapang said he would not agree to any resolution of the hostage crisis that would put Filipino troops in grave danger.

When the besieged Filipino troops sought his advice after they were ordered to lay down their arms as part of an arrangement with the rebels to secure the Fijians’ release, Catapang said he asked them to defy the order.

“I told them not to follow the order because that is a violation of our regulation, that we do not surrender our firearms, and, at the same time, there is no assurance that you will be safe after you give your firearms,” Catapang said.

“Our stand is, we will not allow our soldiers to become sacrificial pawns in order to save the Fijians,” Catapang told The Associated Press. “They should look for other ways and means to save the Fijians.”

This explains the Fijian surrender. A friend of mine who served with the Australian forces in Afghanistan wrote to say he could not understand why the Fijians, who had a reputation for bravery, should lay down their arms. But if they were ordered to lay down their arms then all is clear. The Fijians may have been utterly loyal to their salt.

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All in the Name

August 31st, 2014 - 3:43 pm

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked.  Everything, it may turn out.

The Washington Post describes the efforts of Samaritan Ministries to offer an alternative to Obamacare.  Samaritan is a leading health-care sharing ministry where a group of individuals undertakes to share health costs according to a certain procedure.   The payouts are less defined than insurance, but the bills are typically smaller as well.  But a year ago Reason Magazine warned that such plans could be killed off by Obamacare:

Samaritan may soon become a casualty of new incentives created by Obamacare, which does virtually nothing to reduce third-party payments in delivering health care. When their bills are mostly covered by insurance companies or the government—which may also be heavily subsidizing their premiums as well—patients aren’t discerning shoppers.

Under Obamacare, most Samaritan members will be able to purchase health insurance policies that offer richer benefits for lower prices, thanks to significant taxpayer subsidies. Take, for example, the median Samaritan household, which has three members and an annual income of about $40,000. Under Obamacare, that family will pay around $2,500 dollars a year to buy a middle-of-the-road “silver” plan on the new health care exchanges. Why so cheap? Because taxpayers will pick up two-thirds of the total cost of the insurance premium.

In fact the opposite has happened.

Month-over-month enrollments doubled and tripled throughout the year at Samaritan Ministries—one of the country’s biggest health care sharing ministries, which now has about 113,000 members, 43 percent more than it did a year ago.

Another major program, Medi-Share, reported an average of 500 inquiries a day over the open enrollment period starting in October. Medi-Share saw membership jump to more than 82,000 members nationwide, with a 7 percent increase in March alone.

One reason for their continued growth is Obamacare didn’t turn out to be the steal it was cracked up to be. Networks were narrow. Coverage was refused. Deductibles were high. Premiums started to rise alarmingly.  For minor aches and pains many people opted to go to a walk-in Walmart $40 clinic than see their ‘primary health care physician’ under Obamacare.

So was the “Holy Spirit” coming to the rescue of Samaritan? Or did the “Holy Spirit” come in the guise of the God of Mathematics?  The key lies in a clause everyone who joins Samaritan must sign.  They must forswear ‘debauchery’.

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The Battle of the “Gulang” Heights

August 31st, 2014 - 2:42 am

A minor drama just concluded in the Middle East.  A couple of days ago, Syrian rebels identified with the Nusra front, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, went up to a Fijian United Nations peacekeeping outpost on the Golan Heights and demanded their surrender.

The events began Thursday morning on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, an area divided between Israel and Syria.

Tikoitoga said three vehicles filled with about 150 armed rebels converged on the Fijian camp at about 7:30 a.m.

He said the rebels demanded the Fijian soldiers leave within 10 minutes and insisted they board the rebel vehicles. The Fijians were then taken by the rebels to an unknown location.

The Fijians were taken into Nusra’s custody and the action moved to positions 68 and 69 on the Golan heights ceasefire line, which was manned by a Philippine battalion.  The Nusra people made the same demand.  ’Give us your weapons and come with us.’  It was here that the Philippine commander made a crucial decision.

He refused.

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Legends of the Fall

August 30th, 2014 - 4:33 pm

Eden’s greatest attraction is that it was a time before guilt; before hatred, greed and lust took over the world.  But as Philip Ross’s article in the International Business Times suggests, Eden must have been a long time ago. The University of Copenhagen, using DNA technology identified a group called the “Paleo-Eskimos, the ancestors of modern-day Inuit and Native Americans and the earliest people to settle the North American Arctic”. They were the last remnant of the Dorset people who disappeared without a trace. The curious thing about these recently extinguished “ancestors” of Native Americans is they shared no genetic similarities to their descendants.

Exactly who first populated the Arctic has long been debated. Scientists know three broadly grouped cultures all occupied the northernmost parts of North America in the past few thousand years. They were the Saqqaq, who occupied the region until about 2,500 years ago, followed by several Dorset culture and then the Thule, the ancestors of modern-day Inuit, from about 1,000 years ago, the BBC said.

Because the Dorsets do not share any genetic similarities with people in the Arctic today, researchers concluded the population disappeared rather suddenly. Climate change could have something to do with it, scientists say. Regional temperature shifts could have strained the Dorsets food sources — ox, seal and reindeer.

These last holdouts appeared to be hiding. They were a remnant, small in numbers and inbred.  And although we are assured they died of climate change, another, more disturbing possibility exists.

“The Dorsets were the Hobbits of the eastern Arctic — a very strange and very conservative people who we’re only just getting to know a little bit,” anthropologist William Fitzhugh, director of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and a co-author of the study, told the Washington Post. Because the Dorset people lacked sophisticated weaponry like bows and arrows, “they were, in a sense, sitting ducks,” he said.

Maybe the First Peoples killed them. But who knows. After all Eden was a long time ago.
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The Night Before

August 29th, 2014 - 3:00 pm

2014 will be a year when the populations of the world began to wake up and smell the smoke. “Began” because sleep has habits all its own. It would be unnatural if Mr and Mrs Joe Average didn’t hit the alarm snooze button because the ringing they hear doesn’t correspond with the familiar. It isn’t time for office yet; the Home Depot’s still closed and Jimmy’s soccer practice is still at 10 am.  ”Honey will you get up and answer the door. There are some bearded men outside the window and I think they want something.”

But it may be no dream. David Cameron just warned Britain to brace for a possible ISIS attack on its shores. The jayvee ISIS team Obama scoffed at sure gets around. Cameron says ISIS ‘is more dangerous than al-Qaeda’. The doorman the president contemptuously glowered over at the summits is acting uppity too. That doorman, Vladimir Putin, has just used the “N” word in Ukraine. The “N” word being “Nuclear”.

Russia’s president, speaking at a pro-Kremlin youth camp at a lake near Moscow, said “it’s best not to mess with us,” adding “I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers”

And maybe nuclear ain’t enough neither. Foreign Policy writes that “buried in a Dell computer captured in Syria are lessons for making bubonic plague bombs and missives on using weapons of mass destruction.”  If they can get it, they’ll use it. So far the enemy’s — can we use that word yet? — wrath has been limited only by capability and not by intent. That capability has just increased exponentially. The Long War Journal says radical Islam is seizing territory. Territory gives them a secure base, legitimacy and the resources of a country.

ISIS has just handed Assad one of his biggest defeats ever achieving the equivalent of seizing Hawaii and capturing Pearl Harbor. The Business Insider reports:

Over the past two months, jihadist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have waged an increasingly successful campaign against Assad regime forces in Syria’s northern Raqqa province, culminating in the capture of al-Tabqa Airfield earlier this week.

The defeat in Raqqa has major military implications — it represents a loss at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war, raising questions about whether the regime or Syrian rebels can defend other, more important areas of the country against further ISIS offensives.

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Don’t Worry, Be Happy

August 28th, 2014 - 7:25 pm

The president has just held a press conference announcing he will do nothing much to counter the crises unfolding in the Ukraine and Syria. The New York Times reports:  ’Obama Urges Calm in Face of Two Crises’.

WASHINGTON — President Obama confronted a pair of volatile international crises with restraint on Thursday as he said he was not close to authorizing airstrikes against Islamic extremists in Syria and played down the latest escalation of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.

With tensions rising in Europe and the Middle East, Mr. Obama emphasized that a military response would not resolve either situation and pledged to build international coalitions to grapple with them. Despite pressure from within his own government for more assertive action, he tried to avoid inflaming passions as he sought new approaches.

The president’s right: it’s not time to panic. The time to panic was about six months ago. It’s essentially too late to halt the dynamic of events now. Timing matters. Once the batter misses the ball it doesn’t matter how hard he subsequently swings. Someone should tell the president the time to bat is over and the janitor can’t keep the stadium lights on much longer. Shakespeare once wrote:

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted…

No, no, no. Shakespeare’s too fancy for this. How about: maybe you’ve had the experience of some tough guy coming up and asking for something just to see if he can get away with it. You know if you give the thug what he wants, he’ll be back in about an hour for more. So you politely but firmly refuse because a little grief in the beginning is better than a lot of grief at the end. Because human predators like their animal counterparts never take on something that might injure them, because any ding, matter how small, reduces their ability to hunt.  Predators have always gone for the weak and defenseless prey from the beginning of time.

Perhaps president Obama didn’t know that. But he’ll find out all about it now.

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Rotherham, England

August 27th, 2014 - 4:42 pm

My mother remembers how in late 1944 grandpa heard a knock on the door in their apartment in Japanese occupied Manila.  Since he was active in the underground, gramps cautiously peered out and was relieved to see that it was only his compadre.  He hastened to open the door only to see in the shadows beyond his gibbering compadre the dread figures of the Japanese kempeitai. By then it was too late to run and for the next three days, mom and the rest of the family waited at home in despair, knowing he almost certainly never return. But on the fourth day, to their surprise and delight, gramps (then aged 52) staggered back home battered but whole with an extraordinary story.

He had been brought to Fort Santiago and once the preliminaries were over, taken to a chamber where he was hung upside down and beaten with oar handles and burned with cigarette butts.  There is a Japanese phrase for “we have ways of making you talk”.  From that upside down view of the world he glimpsed other prisoners like Hans Menzi, later to be owner of the Manila Bulletin, scuttling past the corridor outside carrying buckets of ordure under the direction of the Japanese jailers.

Then an unexpected figure looked through the gap.  It was his pre-war Japanese mining engineer friend wearing the uniform of a full colonel in Japanese intelligence.  ”Ramon, the colonel said, ‘what are you doing here?’”  Since the Kempeitai had nothing definite yet, the colonel could pull strings and sprang him from the darkest dungeon in wartime Manila. Gramps went on to fight Japanese stragglers in the battle of Manila. The compadre survived, though gramps never spoke to him again. That unnamed Japanese colonel almost certainly died in the inferno which engulfed Luzon. Grandpa died many years later, one day short of 99, with my mother and I at his side.

The old family story came to mind reading the New York Times account of a modern betrayal: ‘Betrayal of Yazidis Stokes Iraqi Fears of Return to 2006 Sectarian Horrors’. The core of the article is a story of how one Yazidi family was betrayed by their closest family friend, an Arab, Mr. Mare.

The men had helped one another over the years: Mr. Mare brought supplies to Mr. Habash’s community in the years after the American invasion, when travel outside their northern enclave was too dangerous for Yazidis. Mr. Mare bought tomatoes and watermelon from Mr. Habash’s farm and sometimes borrowed money.

But his friend’s assurances did not sit right with Mr. Habash. That night, he gathered his family and fled. Soon afterward, he said, he found out that Mr. Mare had joined the militants and was helping them hunt down Yazidi families.

There’s a moral here, but the most appropriate is probably that the more things change, they more they remain the same, allowing for differences in costume between the Kempeitai and ISIS. It has ever been thus. It’s the guys you trust who can betray you. The enemy will fight you, but you know that already.

Betrayal was in the news again today, when Britain was rocked by allegations that the entire English town of Rotherham had for years been in the grip of an “Asian” gang which raped or kidnapped or abused some 1,400 mostly white underaged girls. The town authorities apparently knew as did the police, but they suppressed the facts out of the fear of being called ‘racist’ and more probably, the physical menaces of these ‘Asians’.

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