Syrian Chaos

Meanwhile, on NPR yesterday, they were breathlessly implying that Israeli intelligence officials were claiming the government had linked up with al Qaeda, just before an al Qaeda-style bombing that may have killed two of the government’s top defense officials. Meanwhile, back in the spring, SoS Clinton was warning that arming the rebels could aid al Qaeda. The written report on NPR’s web site said Israeli intelligence was concerned terrorists might use the Syrian state’s lack of control to stage attacks on the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

Then, of course, there are still something like a million Iraqi refugees in the country who fled our last goodwill mission in the region.

Don’t Cross the Beams!

Mostly, the streams of my news feeds don’t intersect much: multimedia programming, politics, poker. Not to much crossover between them. But this morning, two news stories were right next to each other. The first was about how gambling revenues have slowed in the Chinese city of Macau, which has been given a certain amount of creative license by the normally conservative Chinese government because it’s been a money-maker.

When the junket business gets ugly in Macau, it can get gang war ugly. Last month, junket and casino operator Ng Man-sun was beaten by six men with sticks and hammers — at his own casino. Authorities are hoping it was an isolated incident and not the start of a gang war like those that plagued Macau in the 1990s.

The very next story in my news feed was about Newt Gingrich backer Sheldon Adelson (who’s since moved on to Mitt Romney). Adelson’s a major foreign investor in—among other places—Macau:

Where competitors saw obstacles, including Macau’s hostility to outsiders and historic links to Chinese organized crime, Adelson envisaged a chance to make billions.

Adelson pushed his chips to the center of the table, keeping his nerve even as his company teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in late 2008.

The Macau bet paid off, propelling Adelson into the ranks of the mega-rich and underwriting his role as the largest Republican donor in the 2012 campaign, providing tens of millions of dollars to Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and other GOP causes.

Now, some of the methods Adelson used in Macau to save his company and help build a personal fortune estimated at $25 billion have come under expanding scrutiny by federal and Nevada investigators, according to people familiar with both inquiries.

Now, if only the next story is about some new touchscreen technology in Macau casinos, I’ll have hit the trifecta.


Something that’s barely mentioned (and usually not at all) in all the talk in recent months about how the Israelis ought to whack the Iranian nuclear facilities, just in case they’ve got a nuclear weapons program cooking, ought to be obvious in the map (via Wikipedia) above.

The Atlantic ran a number of maps showing target areas, on the heels of a New York Times article about possible strike scenarios. The Atlantic only reprints a quote that any Israeli aircraft would need to cross “more than 1,000 miles across unfriendly airspace.”

The Times article mentions that the “most direct” route would need to overfly both Jordan and Iraq, stating that after the December withdrawal, the US “no longer has the obligation to defend Iraqi skies.” Of course, the US has effectively controlled most of Iraqi airspace since the Gulf War more than twenty years ago and it’s had total control for nearly a decade. The US would need to turn a blind eye to any Israeli overflight in a way they surely would not if, say Syrian or Iranian jets flew into Iraqi airspace. Particularly if the operations would require “at least 100 planes” for bombing and refuel tanker protection. US air defenses in Iraq would look pretty incompetent if they claimed they didn’t notice something like that going on overhead.

Thirty years ago, the Israelis were able to pull off a strike on a nuclear reactor near Baghdad, overflying Saudi Arabia just south of the Jordanian border. As the map shows, though, even if they were able to get away with the same type of southern route, they’d still need to cross part of Iraq or the Persian Gulf, again fairly well-surveilled by US air patrols and radar.

To the north, of course, there’s Syria and (again) Iraq or Turkey.

The real question would be, I think, would anyone try to take on Israeli planes crossing their territory? At the very least, in addition to the US ignoring their attack, Israel would need to be sure that Jordan and/or Saudi Arabia had no plans to hinder operations. Saudi Arabia doesn’t exactly have any love for the Iranians but o massive overflight of Israeli planes might not be a particularly popular political move. People might start to wonder what all the jets and other military hardware the Saudis keep buying are for if not to enforce the soverignty of their soil. It seems unlikely that Syria would let Israeli planes fly unharassed, even if it was unable to completely prevent them from doing so.

Which puts things back in the US camp. All of the foaming at the mouth about how Israel is champing at the bit to launch an attack on Iranian sites comes down to whether the US is going to go along with it. There’s no way the US armed services can maintain credibility that they would have no knowledge of a sizable strike through most of the possible attack corridor. Everything south of the Turkish border to the Straits of Hormuz has been watched over by US land-, air-, or sea-based radar systems for two decades. The US isn’t likely to attack Israeli jets flying over Baghdad on their way to strike zones in Iran, but not telling them to back off in the same manner they would another country’s planes. Failure to do so will undoubtedly lead to charges of co-ordination between the US and Israel in any attack and extend any retribution to American-related targets.

Iranians are likely to remember that the USS Vincennes managed to shoot down an Iranian airliner—thinking it was an Iranian F-14—even though it was in Iranian airspace when it was supposedly acting aggressively.

Getting the Story Straight

From the moment The New York Times first published a story on 21 February that Korans had been burned in a garbage pit at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, there’s been a dichotomy in the narrative:

The holy books and texts came from the library in the detention center in Parwan, where Americans house suspected insurgents, including many of those captured during night raids. A military official said detainees had been using the books to communicate with each other and potentially incite extremist activity.

In his apology, General [John R.] Allen confirmed the burnings, but portrayed them as absolutely unintentional.

So the Korans were taken from detainees because they were suspected as being used for passing messages between prisoners, but they didn’t mean to burn them? Does this even make sense? I mean, if I thought there were messages being passed between prisoners via books in the detention center library, I might keep the books to see if someone could figure out what the messages were, rather than just lighting them on fire. But that’s just me.

A number of the stories on this topic mention that the story of a Koran being thrown in a toilet at Guantanamo Bay was determined to be unfounded, but nobody else seems to remember the “inadvertant” splashing of urine on a Koran by a guard there, as verified by a military inquiry in 2005. Here’s how I imagined that might have gone down at the time (click on the image to open a large version of the graphic):

Koran Abuse at Guantanamo Bay

Year of the Wild Hog

A story appeared the other day in the Washington Post about a perennial problem in Islamabad where wild boars foray into the city looking for food among the trash during the winter.

Something about the tone of the piece struck me as a little off. I mean, sure, Muslims don’t eat pork, but are wild pigs really “many Muslims’ worst nightmare” as author Nicholas Brulliard writes in the first sentence? Would it be the “worst nightmare” of Jews? Their religious views and dietary restrictions ragarding pigs are essentially the same, but I have to wonder if an infestation of pigs in Tel Aviv would be portrayed as “many Jews’ worst nightmare” or if the opinion of a brickmaker who lived near one of the ravines the pigs came from would be said to avoid “even making eye contact with one” despite his claim of not being afraid of them. Who gets into a staredown with a wild boar, in the first place?

On the other hand, there’s this video of a bunch of guys at IQRA University watching some rather fast boars looking for a way out of a parking lot. They’ve got sticks—presumably in case the hogs come their way—but they don’t seem any more afraid than you might be when several hundred-pound-plus pigs are racing around at twenty miles an hour.

It almost seems like the story’s a set-up for some sort of bright boy in the Pentagon to come up with a sort of reverse-“Operation Dumbo Drop”, where pregnant pigs are parachuted from planes into Pakistani ravines in some sort of destabilization effort. Predictably, the anti-Islamic racist web sites are all over the story with jokes about how it’s too bad for the pigs that they have to live near Muslims, that Muslims are jealous because they can’t have as many “piglets” each year, etc.

Of course, if they (or the folks at the Washington Post) bothered to read, they’d know that The New Yorker sent Ian Frazier to cover stories of wild boar infestations in the US some six years ago.

As I leaned over the map and studied it with Joe Corn, suddenly my attention swerved. This map, with its intricate little counties and occasional whole states shaded green to highlight the potential disease-vector threat of wild hogs, reminded me of the red state — blue state map of America. At first glance, the states that voted for George Bush in 2004 and the states marked on this map as having feral hogs seemed to be one and the same. I mentioned this oddity to Joe Corn, who, scientist-like, declined to comment beyond the area of his expertise.

Afterward, I could not get this strange correspondence out of my mind. I compiled ’04 red state — blue state data and matched it with SCWDS hog-population information on the map of that year. I found my first impression to be essentially correct. The presence of feral hogs in a state is a strong indicator of its support for Bush in ’04. Twenty-three of the twenty-eight states with feral hogs voted for Bush. That’s more than four-fifths; states that went for Kerry, by contrast, were feral-hog states less than a fifth of the time.

The solidly feral-hog South was, of course, solidly for Bush. The small islands there without wild hogs — Little Rock, Raleigh-Durham — voted for Kerry. Democrats who predicted a Kerry win in Florida in ’04 might have been less confident had they known that all of Florida’s sixty-seven counties, even its urban ones, have feral hogs. Texas, a gimme for Bush, is the state in the Union with the most feral hogs. Estimates of the feral-hog population in Texas are more than a million and a half, though nobody knows for sure. To go along with its high feral-hog numbers, Texas produced more than four and a half million votes for Bush in ’04, the second-largest total of any state.

A prominent feature of the red state-blue state map is the sweep of red coming up from Texas and the South through the center of the country. Experts say that feral hogs are starting to do the same. They have increased their numbers in Oklahoma and appeared in counties in Kansas and Nebraska, where they weren’t previously. An A.P. news story from last year described packs of wild pigs tearing up yards and destroying crops in Sumner County, in south-central Kansas. People there speculated that the pigs were formerly domestic animals that had been turned loose when hog prices crashed some years before. Sumner County preferred Bush to Kerry in ’04 by a margin of sixty-eight per cent to thirty-one per cent.

Bongo Fury

Frank Zappa and Vaclav Havel, 1990

Could there have been a more stunning contrast in newly-minted national leaders than we were presented with by George H. W. Bush in the US and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia?

Bush, despite his short stint as Director of Central Intelligence, wasn’t considered to be much of a brain trust. Sure, compared to his son, George W.; his choice for vice president, Dan “potatoe” Quayle; and the addled old man he’d served under for the previous eight years, Ronald Reagan, Bush didn’t seem like a complete idiot. Havel, on the other hand, was an actual thinker and writer, who’d been agitating against Communist rule of his country for a quarter of a century.

I’d been hoping to make a Christmastime trip to Prague with Barbara for my 50th birthday earlier this month but didn’t manage to put it together. It would have been an even greater honor to have been there as the Czech Republic notes the passing of Havel this week, just before the end of Zappadan.

The Spirit of 76 (With a Side Order of ’72)

Happy Birthday to Calvin Trillin, who has another birthday today. I have to wonder if he’s spending it somewhere in the area, since he’s speaking in Boise on Thursday.

On an unrelated note, best wishes to the man who lost in a landslide: George McGovern, who fell outside the library bearing his name in South Dakota last week. The thing that always goes unsaid in news reports is that the guy he lost to was so corrupt that he had to leave the White House before he was removed from office and that even his attorney general went to jail.

No Bonus for Lister

Libertarian nutjob Dave Lister writes another long opinion piece for The Oregonian, this time on the Occupy movement compared to the 1932 Bonus Expeditionary Force. As usual, it’s riddled with errors, lies, and wacky conclusions, but it’s also just historically inaccurate. Not that I expect anything else from someone like Lister. The paper’s already run a couple of letters in response, so I guess they’re probably not going to run mine:

Dave Lister’s comparison of 1932’s Bonus Army to the Occupy movement is colored by the rosy lens of time and shows a stunning lack of knowledge of actual history.

Contemporary news accounts of the Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF) occupation of Washington DC show that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and others claimed the protestors ranks were full of criminals and subversives, and that crime in the District of Columbia spiked during the occupation (DC Police Superintendent General Pelham Glassford refuted those charges). Army Chief of Staff Douglas Macarthur was convinced—despite the reports of his own intelligence unit—that the marchers were part of a Communist conspiracy to undermine the United States. Even before the marchers reached Washington, the federal government asked states to help stop their advance because the existing camp “constituted the gravest health menace in the history of the city” (New York Times, June 10, 1932, page 1).

The truth is that BEF was made up of men without much money (which is why they wanted their bonuses), without jobs, in the first years of what became known as the Great Depression. Their camp wasn’t some fantasy vision of a Boy Scout Jamboree with veterans; it was cobbled together out of whatever materials and scraps they could gather. The country was full of other ramshackle encampments (Hoovervilles), with the primary difference being that the members of the BEF were owed money by the US government and they massed together in larger numbers to try to make their point.

Shell Game

An article in The New York Times discusses how—in the face of reports that poverty in the US has exploded—the Census Bureau is planning to release “a long-promised alternate measure meant to do a better job of counting the resources the needy have and the bills they have to pay.” The new method of counting the poor will reportedly eliminate half the rise in poverty since 2006 by counting safety-net programs that “have played a large and mostly overlooked role in restraining hardship.”

This is nothing more than a shell game: changing the metric by which poverty is measured in order to say that there aren’t as many poor people. Whenever you reset any previously arbitrary measure to a new arbitrary measure, it becomes difficult if not impossible to judge progress over a long time.

More importantly, counting money and other aid given to the poor as a part of the measure of whether or not they are poor sort of misses the point that if they didn’t have those programs, they would, indeed be poor. It’s like claiming that people living in a famine zone aren’t in danger of starvation because they’re getting food aid. Sure, but what if the food stops?

This change is nothing more than an outgrowth of the Republican mantra that if the “poor” have refrigerators and cell phones then they can’t really be poor.