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The Days Grow Short When You Reach September

Labor Day went well around here, with the Wichita Wingnuts heading into the double-A American Association playoffs with a 4-1 regular season finale win over the Salina Stockade that featured several defensive gems, a hospitable old hippie friend of ours charbroiling copious amounts of bratwurst and burgers and other red Kansas meat while handing out Pabsts and blaring old Doors records on the sound system, and the weather was nice and hot. Still, there was no shaking that melancholy feeling the holiday always brings.
Although the autumnal equinox is still a couple of weeks away and the warm weather is likely to linger past that, today nonetheless marks the end of the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. School is back in session, Congress is ending its recess, and by longstanding social agreement everybody else also gets down to serious business. The rigorously timed violence of football has already started to supplant the more leisurely paced and gentlemanly sport of baseball, the white shoes and straw hats are replaced by more somber apparel, school buses are once again slowing traffic, and conferences are being convened all over to assess the various messes the summer has left us in, and what might become of it in the fall.
The reconvened Congress finds itself with plenty of work to do. Summer’s end brought a thousand-year-flood that left America’s fourth-most-populous city under several feet of water, so they’ll have to find some way to pitch in on the calamitous cost of that, which wouldn’t be easy in the best of circumstances. In these circumstances they also face hard and fast end-of-the-month deadlines to pass a continuing spending resolution to keep the government fully open and a debt-ceiling increase to pay for it, which is always hard enough even without a thousand-year natural disaster to help pay for, and that’s not to mention the nutcase North Korean dictatorship that’s been making increasingly plausible threats to start a nuclear war that would make that thousand-year-flood look like a minor inconvenience.
There’s also the complicating factor of Trump, and everything he’s been up to over the summer. The Republican-controlled Congress was never technically in recess, for fear that Trump would make some crazy recess appointment to inoculate himself from the ongoing congressional probes into “Russia,” and nothing that has transpired during their unofficial vacation has likely been reassuring to them. Trump threatened to force a government shutdown unless all the spending resolutions and debt ceiling increases and whatnot included funding for his campaign promise of a border wall, which is a cause few other Republicans and absolutely no Democrats are willing to fight for, but that was before the thousand-year flood happened so there’s some hope Trump once again won’t make good on his threats. He’s also ramping up the anti-immigration rhetoric on other fronts, and although there are plausible arguments for some of them this probably isn’t the best month to be making them.
Throw in the nutcase North Korean dictatorship threatening a nuclear war and Trump’s intemperate responses, the leaks about “Russia” that are reaching thousand-year-flood levels, and the more open animosity between the Republicans in Congress and the relatively newly-fledged Republican in the White House, along with the ongoing fact that the Democrats are as always a complete disaster, and it looks to be an anxious September. The political consequences of not offering needed help to the flooded fourth-most populous city of the country or allowing the government to shut down its assistance would be dire, though, and the federal default that would shortly follow a failure to pass another damned debt-ceiling increase would be comparable to a nuclear war, so we’ll hold out hope that all the self-interested parties involved will reach some mutually beneficial agreement just ahead of the hard-and-fast deadlines.
In the meantime we have own bills our to pay, as we’re sure you do, and we’ll trust that most of the rest of us will somehow get down to such necessary business. There’s still some baseball left to provide solace, and not long after that ends basketball season starts up, with the Wichita State University Wheatshockers looking like a championship contender, and there will always be another summer, perhaps one more lazy yet not quite so hazy or crazy as the past one, and hope springs eternal.

— Bud Norman

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The Worst Spy Movie Ever

The espionage genre isn’t what it used to be back in the good old Cold War days. Back then there was a clear-cut good guy versus bad guy backdrop to a spy versus spy tale, no matter how morally ambiguous an Ian Fleming or John le Carre might render their cloak-and-dagger heroes, but these days it’s hard to tell who to root for. This story about Israel’s alleged spying on the negotiations between the United States and its European partners with the Iranian government, for instance, will never make the movies.
There’s no doubt that the Israelis did somehow discover information about the negotiations that President Barack Obama would have preferred they did not know, but it’s hardly the sort of thing that would get an American audience’s blood rushing. It’s all just a sub-plot of a bigger story that the Hollywood moguls won’t want to touch, as well, At this point we have no reason to believe there was even any spying at all, at least not of the sort of that involves the planting of electronic surveillance devices or the taking of pictures with tiny cameras slipped into the heel of a shoe or a comely seductress luring a diplomat to his doom or any of that cinematic sort of spy craft. The Israelis freely admit to having obtained all the information they could gather about America’s negotiations with a country that has vowed to drop nuclear bombs and them and annihilate their entire population, which seems a reasonable thing to do, but insists it was all a dreary matter of diplomatic contacts and calling in favors from well-placed sources and reading the same papers where Obama seems to get all his news, and this seems plausible enough. We’d like to think the diplomatic channels would put Israel in touch with some highly-placed American and European sources who would still prefer that Iran not annihilate the Jewish state and are willing to share information about any developments that might make that unhappy event more likely, and given the taut security of the Obama administration the eaves-dropping microphones and shoe cameras and comely seductresses hardly seems necessary.
To further muddle the plot, the Israelis didn’t pass the information along to some cat-stroking arch-villain in a South Pacific volcano island fortress but rather to the United States Congress and the American people. Even the Wall Street Journal article that broke this story, and with all the breathless fervor of a screenplay treatment being pitched to a Hollywood producer, admits that “The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support from a high-stakes deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program, current and former officials said.” It’s not clear from the story how The Wall Street Journal defines “espionage,” and whether its quoting of “current and former officials” would also meet that definition, but in any case the officials’ admission would introduce another plot-twist that would make that Hollywood producer wince. The good guy is supposed to be Obama, at least if you want to sell this script to Hollywood, and it’s likely to be a little confusing when he’s the one who’s withholding information not only from Congress, a stock villain, but also the American people. Even the foreign audiences, a vital market, might find that baffling.
Perhaps the plot can proceed that our heroic president is shrewdly negotiating a brilliant deal despite the efforts of hard-liners in both Iran and among those villainous Republicans and Israelis who so ardently desire an Iranian bomb, but if it will take some expensive computer-generated images to explain why the Republicans or Israelis would want that and some rather fanciful screenwriters to bring it to a happy ending. The big hole in the plot is why the heroic president with the masterful plan won’t reveal it to the American public until it has been signed, sealed, and delivered without the approval of the people and their elected congressional representatives. Those press reports that the deal will allow Iran to continue its nuclear-enriching centrifuges and join the nuclear club in ten years seem all the more convincing, the Iranian’s long history of duplicity in international affairs makes it hard to believe that even such generosity won’t be abused, and the most likely ending would be derivative of “Dr. Strangelove.”
There was never a sequel to “Dr. Strangelove,” as you’ll recall, and this plot is an even bigger downer.

— Bud Norman

A Not-So-Crazy Middle East Conspiracy Theory

Being unfamiliar with the Kuwaiti press, we have no idea how much credence to give Al-Jarida‘s report that in 2014 the Obama administration thwarted an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities by threatening to shoot down the Israeli jets. Being all too familiar with the Obama administration and its dealing with both Israel and Iran, however, we can’t dismiss the story as entirely implausible.
The usually reliable Times of Israel quotes a former Israeli Defense Forces chief as saying that a strike against Iran was seriously considered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but ultimately rejected on the advice of himself and other top military officers, which also seems within the realm of possibility, and we will await with open mind whatever confirmations or denials the administration’s various spokesmen might provide. Still, there’s no shaking a unsettling suspicion that President Barack Obama might actually have threatened to wage war against Israel in defense of Iran.
Obama’s antipathy for Israel and ardent desire for rapprochement with Iran have long been apparent, but have been especially conspicuous in the lead-up to Netanyahu’s address to Congress on Tuesday. The speech is at the invitation of the Republican leadership, and the president is claiming it is a breach of diplomatic protocol for Netanyahu to have accepted without the president’s approval, that it constitutes unethical meddling in a foreign nation’s politics to schedule the speech within weeks of Israeli elections, and that it could endanger America’s on negotiations with the Iran government over its nuclear weapons program. None of which is at all convincing, unless you’re one of the obedient Democrats who are huffily boycotting the speech. Obama’s own frequent breaches of protocol toward Israel include having its head of state cool his heels in a White House office for hours and allowing high administration officials to impugn Netanyahu’s courage with barnyard epithets, groups loyal to Obama have been openly campaigning in Israel and his own preferences regarding the election have been well-known to the Israeli public, and Netanyahu can only endanger America’s deal with Iran by making a persuasive case to Congress and the American people that it is dangerous the security of Israel and America and the rest of the world. The president’s annoyance with Netanyahu and Israel at large preceded the invitation to make the speech by at least seven years, and his peculiar affinity for Iran’s America-hating theocracy goes back as far.
Obama’s apparent desire is to allow Iranian regional hegemony and nuclear weapons and international respectability in exchange for, well, we’re not sure exactly, but assume it will include some assurance that they’ll help deal with the Islamic State al-Qaeda and other regional pests and abandon their frequently stated goal of the death of America. He probably also expects a grand photo opportunity as he delivers peace in our time, and a good write-up in the history books as the man who finally brought lasting amity to the Middle East, but he seems awfully worried that Netanyahu will make a persuasive case that it’s all a dangerous pipe dream. Iran’s state-run news agency is peddling the typically crazy Middle East conspiracy theory that America is secretly behind the Islamic State, the government is offering safe haven to al-Qaeda terrorists despite their Sunnism, Iranian street demonstrations still feature the ritual chant of death to America, and the country’s influence is reading into Iraq and Lebanon and Jordan and elsewhere in the region without ceding anything to the Great Satan. With Obama protecting Iran from the sanctions that had recently brought its economy to a near halt, and with no immediate disavowals that he’s also been protecting it from Israeli jets, the country has no reason to agree to any deal that threatens their dream of nuclear weapons and whatever apocalyptic plans they might have for them. That would set off a nuclear arms race in a region characterized by religious manias and ancient hatreds, with Saudi Arabia having already made arrangements with nuclear-armed Pakistan in the event of an Iranian bomb being developed, and Netanyahu can hardly be blamed for any discomfort he might have about that scenario.
The Secretary of State has declined to state “what is or isn’t the situation” regarding his negotiations with Iran, and Obama’s only argument for his policies seems to be that we should trust him, but alas, we don’t. At this point, we’re not even sure that he hasn’t threatened to shoot down Israeli planes to defend an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

— Bud Norman

The New Congress and Its Fitful Start

Conservatives have hoped that the newly installed Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress will be like the cavalry coming to the rescue in one of those old John Ford westerns, but the session is off to a start more reminiscent of the old “F Troop” series.
The first official act of the new congress was to elect the same old Republican leadership, which conservatives had long found too timid in their confrontations with the president even before they ended the last session with a whimpering acquiescence to a “Cromnibus” budget deal that did little to limit the president’s hated executive order granting amnesty to millions of illegal aliens and was otherwise so pleasing to the president that he actually phoned some of his party’s legislators to lobby on its behalf. Kentucky’s Sen. Mitch McConnell was elevated from minority leader to majority leader in routine fashion, but Ohio’s Speaker of the House John Boehner had to endure a bit of drama in order to retain his post. He only lost 25 Republicans votes to a variety of candidates that were never serious contenders, but that was enough for The Washington Post to describe it as “the biggest revolt against a House speaker in more than 150 years” and feed a popular press narrative about those crazy conservatives and their wacky war within the Republican party. The party leadership enjoys the good guy role in this tale, with The New York Times touting Boehner’s pledge to “restore function and civility to a body that has become a symbol of disorder for most Americans.”
Within hours such narrative-spinners as Politico were gleefully reporting that Boehner’s desire for “function and civility” had compelled him to punish a few of the dissenting voters by stripping them of desirable committee assignments. This is a common and longstanding practice by the leaders of both parties in order maintain a necessary unity, but in this case it is more likely to exacerbate the party’s divisions. The conservative activists who are largely responsible for the Republicans holding a majority in the House of Representatives will understandably be less enthusiastic about toeing the party line, and no more intimated by the results. Among those voting against Boehner was Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas’s First District, who had already been stripped of a coveted seat on the Agriculture Committee for his past confrontations with Boehner but survived a primary challenge and a general election by candidates who tried to make an issue of it and survived to cast another vote against Boehner, and we don’t expect that he or any of the other rebels will be more compliant in the future.
Nor does it help for the party leadership to corroborate the media depiction of the conservative faction as a bunch of crazies. If the Republicans don’t confront the president on illegal immigration and become even more aggressively tight-fisted on budget they will eventually face a full revolt from the party’s most important voters, and when tit comes down to the inevitable confrontation with the the president the media won’t be giving them any more good guy roles. Plans to get a veto-proof vote on the XL Keystone Pipeline as the start of a busy schedule of other poll-tested bills that president will hate are a good strategy, and a reminder that McConnell and Boehner and the rest of the leadership didn’t get their establishment credentials without some of the political strategy that their more ideological and less pragmatic challengers too often lack, but the bigger battles won’t be won without the conservative’s support and sound ideas.

— Bud Norman

Budgetary Blues

Being civic-minded sorts, we do our best to keep up on the latest events of public importance. Having a peculiar interest in such dreary matters, we’re probably more diligent about it than the average American. Even such obsessed sorts as ourselves, however, sometimes find it a dreary slog through the news.
Wednesday’s headlines were largely devoted to the $1.1 trillion spending bill that seems set for passage today, for instance, and it’s more than the most patriotic policy wonk should be expected to digest. Not only is that astronomical figure beyond our powers of mathematical conception, it takes 1,600 pages to spend that exorbitant amount, which is more than even a Congresswoman Evelyn Woods would be able to read before the vote. The Washington Post boasts that it “skimmed” the bill “so you don’t have to,” and provides a somewhat useful summary compressed into a relatively few column inches, but we’d rather read 1,600 pages of bureaucratese than take their word for it.
Usually one can infer what’s in 1,600 pages of budgetary jargon by who is screaming the loudest, but in this case the shrieks of pain are coming from every direction. The Conservative Review gives several convincing reasons that the right-wing bastards such as ourselves should hate it. The folks at Politico are always attuned to liberal sentiment, however, and they report that the left hates it was well. We note that Massachusetts’ Sen. Elizabeth is among the most outraged, and take some solace in this. The bill will avert a government shutdown, which will presumably please that uniformed majority of folks in the middle of spectrum, but it doesn’t seem likely to improve anybody’s poll numbers. Elsewhere in the news find that the bill does not provide funding for a ridiculous that outlaws our beloved incandescent light bulbs, but judging by the shelves of our local grocery store the manufacturers will probably continue obeying the law just in case there’s a federal budget surplus that needs spending.
The political ramifications, which are what mostly concern the politicians who will be voting today, are every bit as convoluted. Our familiarity with the Republican base leads us to expect it will once again be livid, with more denunciations of their party’s congressional leadership emanating from talk radio and Tea Party meetings and barroom conversations, and the inevitable lamentations of the liberals will provide little compensation. That vast uninformed middle of the spectrum will take little note, that astronomical figure being far beyond their powers of mathematical conception and the latest of passing totals of the National Football League’s quarterbacks being of greater interest, so despite our preference for de-funding the federal government in almost its entirety we can’t discount the possibility that the Republican congressional leadership didn’t attain its power without some political savvy.
President Barack Obama is still wielding veto power and the Democrats still have control of the Senate, after all, so there might be a plausible argument that this lousy deal was the best that could hoped for. In a month or so the Republicans will control both chambers, with an opportunity to drive Obama’s unpopularity to a point that they’ll be able to peel off a veto-proof number of nervous Red State Democrats, and at that point the Republicans will face a disastrous rebellion within the ranks if they don’t do better. We dare not hope for a federal government on a scale that its more diligent citizens can keep track of, but something better. Even a skimming of the skimmings of the budget deal will show that.

— Bud Norman

That Was Then, This Is Now

There’s no telling how the imminent American military action against Syria might affect the future, but even before the first cruise missile has been launched it has already altered the past.
Students of recent history will recall how the bloodthirsty cowboy crusader George W. Bush blundered into a catastrophe in Iraq by touting dubious intelligence reports about weapons of mass destruction in defiance of the sage skepticism of United Nations inspectors and all of the deep thinkers on the left, then waging high-tech war against a dictatorship that posed no immediate threat to America’s national security without the approval of Congress or the UN’s Security Council or any countries of the Islamic world. Anyone familiar with conventional wisdom is also aware that the peace-loving and culturally-sensitive community organizer Barack Obama then won the presidency on promises to pursue a more placid foreign policy, won a Nobel Peace Prize for the accomplishment, and that all has been well in the world ever since.
This inspiring and seductively simple narrative now requires some revision.
Some of it was ahistorical all along, with one example being that Bush did win congressional approval for the war, and with a broad bi-partisan majority that included both of the people Obama would choose as his Secretaries of State at that, and a number of Arab countries were openly pleased to be rid of a troublesome neighbor and some even provided help, but pretty much all of the cherished history is called into question by the lead-up to the Syrian war.
There is compelling evidence of Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its citizens, which is the stated reason for America’s intervention and arguably a worthy justification, but Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had also used them and there was also compelling reason to believe he had more, possibly even very the same ones that his Syrian Baathist allies are now using, but now we are told that UN weapons inspectors and other skeptics are not the all-knowing experts they once were. Approval from Congress and the UN and the Arab League and the likes of such liberals as Dennis Kucinich are apparently no longer needed to justify a war, as the Obama administration has not made so much as a token effort to acquire any of them as it prepares for war, and it turns out that sometimes even the most placid foreign policies apparently require military action.
Those with a stubborn fondness for the old history will insist that things are different this time around, and of course they have a point. They will correctly note that Obama will likely limit this action to a few a perfunctory missile-lobs and certainly will never commit ground troops vulnerable to the inevitable casualties, but that means he won’t be able to affect the aftermath and prevent the likely ascendancy of an terror-loving Islamist regime taking over, so the outcome probably won’t be noticeably better. This time the goal is to merely prevent further chemical attacks and not the messy business of regime change and installing a democratic and pro-western government, the administration’s spokesman assures us, but if the current Syrian regime is left in place it will be both strengthened and emboldened by surviving an assault by the American military. This time is for purely humanitarian reasons, and nothing so gauche as national interests, but such higher-minded reasons don’t necessarily ensure more favorable results.
The complexity of the problem and the reasonableness of the various points of views are well worth noting, which is change from the recent history. Back in the days of Bush it was so much simpler, as Obama and other liberals could easily assume that anything the president was wrong, but now we are expected to believe that anything the president does is right. Some people will go along it with, if recent history is a reliable guide, but the latest polling suggests there is already much skepticism about the wisdom of getting involved in Syria’s civil war. The public can also be wrong, and often is, but it usually waits until a few casualties make the headlines before turning against a war, so its early opposition to this effort bodes ill for the future. It might also suggest a change in the view of the past, but that remains to be seen.

— Bud Norman

In God We Trust, In Congress Not So Much

Every civic-minded American should be closely following the congressional debate over immigration reform, an issue that will significantly affect the nation’s future, but we spent most of Monday evening watching the Wichita Wingnuts play a minor league baseball contest against the Laredo Lemurs.
At the risk of sounding unambitious as well as unpatriotric, we just can’t muster the willpower to plow through the 1,200 or so pages of the bill currently being considered. In our own defense it should be noted that none of the Senators or Representatives championing the bill have bothered to read it, either, and we suspect that they don’t take what’s in it any more seriously than we do. There will be a lot of new immigrants in it, and that part can be counted on, but all the parts about border security that have been included to make it more palatable to the supposedly Meskin’-hatin’ redneck majority of Americans are unlikely to ever be enforced. Illegal immigration is already illegal, after all, and any law promising to at long last enforce our currently ignored laws will be just as easily ignored.
Law professor William A. Jacobson, a more energetic observer of current events than ourselves, has read enough of the bill to notice that it makes itself easily ignored. He found a provision that grants the Secretary of Homeland Security the power to waive all other provisions at her discretion. Given that the Secretary of Homeland Security is Janet Napolitano, an open borders advocate who has publicly stated her belief that the border is sufficiently secure already, and given that the next person to hold the job might not be any better, these few lines of the bill effectively negate the rest.
Such cynicism about the legislative process is not healthy for the country, of course, but neither is naïve faith in legislators who have repeatedly proved themselves untrustworthy. When Congress proposes a bill that the public can actually read, and is given time to read, and it can be easily understood but circumvented only with great difficulty, we might consider offering our support. Until then we urge resistance, and will spend our time at the old ballpark next to downtown. Sometimes the good guys prevail there, as they did in a lopsided win on Monday, and that’s more than can be said for the country’s politics in recent years.

— Bud Norman