Sunday, August 30, 2015

Thoughts on Battles for Hearts and Minds

A prominent expert is critical of the president because "the Obama administration is driving Syrians right into the arms of the Islamic State." He points to Iran as a big part of the challenge. "Iranian policies in Syria and Iraq have made vast swaths of both countries safe for jihadis," says he. And "Obama might improve his odds in Congress if he can demonstrate that he really gets it when it comes to the Iranian regime."

Yeah. Right. Barack Obama's odds in Congress sank from low to zero when the sun set on the mid-term elections. Not since Richard Nixon resigned to avert impeachment has a Congress been more opposed to an elected administration.

Syrians are being "driven" somewhere for sure. It's not into the arms of ISIS but to the nearest escape from the place once called home, a country run by a second-generation tyrant whose willingness to torture or exterminate whole communities to maintain control was and continues to be unimaginably savage. He was there before ISIS and will be there when and if ISIS is gone.

ISIS is a military threat for sure. And it's possible that "the Pentagon knows how to throw sand into the gears of Assad’s mass homicide machine without dropping the 82nd Airborne Division into Damascus. The Defense Department’s own wariness about lifting a finger against Assad ought to be overcome, or at least mitigated, by its obligation to defeat the Islamic State."  But to repeat a tired phrase, this really is a fight for hearts and minds. And in those two vital fields of battle the Islamic State is making the kind of progress that military actions only make worse.  Hearts and minds are strategic targets for sure, but they are not "won" by force. The core question is not whether someone is willing to kill for his beliefs but whether he (or she) is willing to die for those beliefs. 

This morning I came across an old joke with this punch line:
'Honey, my father died in France during World War II, I lost my husband in Korea , and a son in Vietnam . All three died so you could have the right to stand here and bad mouth our country. If you touch me again, I'll stick this umbrella up your butt and open it.'
It's been around at least since 2008 and is still sailing along the social media interwebs -- Facebook, viral emails -- as fresh as a stand-up comedian. Fans of this kind of humor outnumber those of us who don't see the humor by a wide margin. Why? Because most people believe that questioning authority is worse than disagreeable. It's downright treasonous.

The hearts and minds of super patriots are made up, not to be confused by new ideas.  Meantime, the battle for more open hearts and minds is being quietly and persuasively waged by those we call extremists. Wikipedia is but one of many places to learn how those battles are being fought -- one person at a time.
Homegrown or imported terrorism is not new to the United States or Europe. The United States has uncovered a number of alleged terrorist plots that have been successfully suppressed through domestic intelligence and law enforcement. The United States has begun to account for the threat of homegrown terrorism, as shown by increased volume of literature on the subject in recent years and increased number of terrorist websites since Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, began posting beheading videos in 2003. A July 2009 document by the FBI estimated that there were roughly 15,000 websites and web forums that support terrorist activities, with around 10,000 of them actively maintained. 80% of these sites are on U.S.-based servers.
Getting back to Syria, here is a video toward the end of the Arab Spring showing how Syrians feel about Bashar Assad.


I'm just a layman, an old man blogging in retirement, so the reader is invited to study a couple of links closely and come to whatever conclusions they suggest.  Should anyone imagine that throwing sand into the gears of the Syrian military is a viable option, these links suggest to me the challenge is somewhat more complicated.

These two writers, Peter Harling and Greg Djerejian, are card-carrying experts on diplomacy in general and MENA in particular.  These two links are from 2012, the year which was to see the twilight of the Arab Spring.  In both cases the Syrian situation is too complex to be distilled into a phrase or two.  Bear in mind that when these two analyses were being written, ISIS was still in the incubator stage.

Beyond the Fall of the Syrian Regime
by Peter Harling , Sarah Birke

February 24, 2012
The struggle over Syria pits two symmetrical narratives against each other. For the regime, its supporters and its allies, Syria’s is an immature, if not disease-ridden society. They posit -- with evidence both real and invented, and generally blown out of proportion -- that Syrian society shows sectarian, fundamentalist, violent and seditious proclivities that can be contained only by a ruthless power structure. Remove Bashar al-Asad, and the alternative is either civil war or the hegemony of Islamists beholden to Turkey and the Gulf and sold out to the West. Regime loyalists argue that society is not ready for change and, in fact, deserves no better than its present shackling. Hizballah and Iran, rather than cultivate popular support to ensure enduring influence, have placed all their chips on the regime’s ability to crush what, early on, they chose to see overwhelmingly through the lens of foreign conspiracy. 
The regime’s opponents, by contrast, posit that any and all change is desirable, given the regime’s own nature. Over its four decades in power, the Asad dynasty has increasingly treated the country as family property, plundering its wealth for redistribution to narrowing circles of cronies. In line with divide-and-rule traditions inherited from colonialism, the regime has cynically strengthened its grip by nurturing fractures within society, keeping state institutions weak for fear they might underpin genuine national sentiment, and setting up a security apparatus heavily staffed with members of one minority, the ‘Alawi community. It has suppressed dissent with at times extreme brutality, as typified by the 1982 shelling of Hama, which left many thousands dead. Regime opponents argue that, without Bashar al-Asad, Syria will finally be free to express its stifled economic potential, its natural communal harmony and its aspiration to an open, democratic political system. For their part, Gulf states and the West see in regime change a solution to all problems, not necessarily within Syria itself, but throughout the region: At last, Hizballah, the Lebanese resistance movement that relies on Syria as a transit route for weapons, would be neutralized, Iran badly weakened and the so-called moderate Arab states empowered.

By Greg Djerejian
February 26, 2012
...the apple does not fall far from the tree, when it comes to the Assad family. While subduing the insurrection to date has not been conducted with quite the same singular, brutish decisiveness his father (or, more particularly, his uncle Rifaat al-Assad) had manifested in the full-bore, scorched earth campaign that was 1982 Hama, the incremental escalation and toll is ratcheting up mercilessly to equal these historical horrors on an aggregated basis. In particular, the increasingly incessant shelling of districts like Babr Amr in Homs (not to mention the deprivations visited on forlorn towns like Idlib and Dara’a)—with zero regard for the many scores of civilians felled weekly—showcases tactics in equal measure cowardly and repulsive in the extreme.
The stench of death rising daily from Homs is an indelible black mark on Bashar, and were there even a smidgen of legitimacy left the regime could pretend to enjoy, this increasingly crude campaign has extinguished any semblance of same. One must add to this gory list documented use of torture (including against children), use of fragmentation mortar devices without warning, mass executions, among other horrific fare documented in a recent U.N. report. Indeed, it is manifestly clear that despite rosy optics around his ophthalmologist background, his attractive British-born JP Morgan alumnus wife, and such Knightsbridge style trappings—the man has now been nakedly revealed to be nothing more than a mass-murdering thug--happy to visit such horrors on his own people, no less--in a manner which already warrants war crime charges. Given these grim realities, we are facing an onslaught of elite opinion that ‘something must be done’ to remedy the increasingly intolerable situation....

Then there's this... 

NOLA Epistle -- Katrina Ten Years Later

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina assault on New Orleans and subsequent levee failure that nearly destroyed the place.  I no longer have access to my old blog, but it survives, crippled though it may be. Here is my blog post from that time, with a few links still active.


Epistle from New Orleans

My blog is becoming a hodge-podge of unrelated entries. I feel more like someone keeping a scrapbook than a writer-commentator. But I don't want to lose track of stuff like this. If someone can read this account and not be moved, he is a tougher person to reach than I. (And make no mistake about it, if you have been as liberal as I, for as long as I have been, you have personally faced situations that would make most so-called "conservatives" fold up like a cheap ironing board.)

I was about to delete the Inderdictor Blog because the blogmaster indicates he is about to get on with his life, move to Florida, and pass the baton to someone else. This is the blog that persevered through the hurricane and was one of the few sources of news and information from the front lines as it came available. I have been checking it daily, often several times.

From Sunday's post...
We were so busy today that I didn't notice the date.

I like to think of Todd Beamer and company every 9/11. And that reminds me that I should mention my friend Robert (ro bear) Leblanc. You know, he's a shy guy and will be very embarrassed that I mentioned him, but I was told by my brother about what he's been doing. He didn't run from the hurricane, but instead stayed behind and began plucking people out of the water with his boat for like a week or 10 days now. What a stud. I'm proud to be his friend.
From yesterday's entry (September 12, 5:05 pm. No hyperlinks to this journal)...
Information and stories from Robert LeBlanc as passed on to me by a friend. 
Jeff Rau, a family and now personal friend to whom I will forever be linked, and I were volunteering with a boat and pulling people out of the water on Wednesday.

I have a first-hand experience of what we encountered. In my opinion, everything that is going on in the media is a complete bastardization of what is really happening. The result is that good people are dying and losing family members. I have my own set of opinions about welfare and people working to improve thier own lot instead of looking for handouts, but what is occurring now is well beyond those borders. These people need help and need to get out.We can sort out all of the social and political issues later, but human beings with any sense of compassion would agree that the travesty that is going on here in New Orleans needs to end and people's lives need to be saved and families need to be put back together. Now. 
I will tell you that I would probably disagree with most of the people that still need to be saved on political, social, and cultural values. However, it must be noted that these people love thier friends and families like I do, desire to live like I do, and care for their respective communities (I was even amazed at the site of seemingly young and poor black people caring for sickly and seemingly well-to-do white people and tourists still needing evacuation from New Orleans' downtown area) the same way I care for mine. 
Eight people in particular who stood out during our rescue and whose stories deserve to be told: 
1.) We were in motor boats all day ferrying people back and forth approximately a mile and a half each way (from Carrolton down Airline Hwy to the Causeway overpass). Early in the day, we witnessed a black man in a boat with no motor paddling with a piece of lumber. He rescued people in the boat and paddled them to safety (a mile and a half). He then, amidst all of the boats with motors, turned around and paddled back out across the mile and a half stretch to do his part in getting more people out. He refused to give up or occupy any of the motored boat resources because he did not want to slow us down in our efforts. I saw him at about 5:00 p.m., paddling away from the rescue point back out into the neighborhoods with about a half mile until he got to the neighborhood, just two hours before nightfall. I am sure that his trip took at least an hour and a half each trip, and he was going back to get more people knowing that he'd run out of daylight. He did all of this with a two-by-four. 
2.) One of the groups that we rescued were 50 people standing on the bridge that crosses over Airline Hwy just before getting to Carrolton Ave going toward downtown. Most of these people had been there, with no food, water, or anyplace to go since Monday morning (we got to them Wed afternoon) and surrounded by 10 feet of water all around them. There wasone guy who had been there since the beginning, organizing people and helping more people to get to the bridge safely as more water rose on Wednesday morning. He did not leave the bridge until everyone got off safely, even deferring to people who had gotten to the bridge Wed a.m. and, although inconvenienced by loss of power and weather damage, did have the luxury of some food and some water as late as Tuesday evening. This guy waited on the bridge until dusk, and was one of the last boats out that night. He could have easily not made it out that night and been stranded on the bridge alone. 
3.) The third story may be the most compelling. I will not mince words. This was in a really rough neighborhood and we came across five seemingly unsavory characters. One had scars from what seemed to be gunshot wounds. We found these guys at a two-story recreational complex, one of the only two-story buildings in the neighborhood. They broke into the center and tried to rustle as many people as possible from the neighborhood into the center. These guys stayed outside in the center all day, getting everyone out of the rec center onto boats. We approached them at approximately 6:30 p.m., obviously one of the last trips of the day, and they sent us further into the neighborhood to get more people out of homes and off rooftops instead of getting on themselves. This at the risk of their not getting out and having to stay in the water for an undetermined (you have to understand the uncertainly that all of the people in these accounts faced without having any info on the rescue efforts, how far or deep the flooding was, or where to go if they want to swim or walk out) amount of time. These five guys were on the last boat out of the neighborhood at sundown. They were incredibly grateful, mentioned numerous times 'God is going to bless y'all for this'. When we got them to the dock, they offered us an Allen Iverson jersey off of one of their backs as a gesture of gratitude, which was literally probably the most valuable possession among them all. Obviously, we declined, but I remain tremendously impacted by this gesture.
I don't know what to do with all of this, but I think we need to get this story out. Some of what is being portrayed among the media is happening and is terrible, but it is among a very small group of people, not the majority. They make it seem like New Orleans has somehow taken the atmosphere of the mobs in Mogadishu portrayed in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down," which is making volunteers (including us) more hesitant and rescue attempts more difficult. As a result, people are dying. My family has been volunteering at the shelters here in Houma and can count on one hand the number of people among thousands who have not said "Thank You." or "God Bless You." Their lives shattered and families torn apart, gracious just to have us serve them beans and rice.

If anything, these eight people's stories deserve to be told, so that people across the world will know what they really did in the midst of this devastation. So that it will not be assumed that they were looting hospitals, they were shooting at helicopters. It must be known that they, like many other people that we encountered, sacrificed themselves during all of this to help other people in more dire straits than their own.
It is also important to know that this account is coming from someone who is politically conservative, believes in capitalism and free enterprise, and is traditionally against many of the opinions and stances of activists like Michael Moore and other liberals on most of the hot-topic political issues of the day. Believe me, I am not the political activist. This transcends politics. This is about humanity and helping mankind. We need to get these people out. Save their lives. We can sort out all of the political and social issues later. People need to know the truth of what is going on at the ground level so that they know that New Orleans and the people stranded there are, despite being panicked and desperate, gracious people and they deserve the chance to live. They need all of our help, as well. 
This is an accurate account of things. Jeffery Rau would probably tell the same exact stories. 
Robert LeBlanc
Again, this is what history students regard as "primary source material."

For Christians among you, this is a contemporary Epistle.When I read that last line "This is an accurate account of things" I instantly had a mental flash that connected with Paul's letters. Romans 16:22 , 1 Corinthians 16:21, 2 Corinthians 13:10, Galatians 6:11, Ephesians 6:21-22 ,Colossians 4:18, 2 Thessalonians 3:17 and finally - perhaps most compellingly - 2 Timothy 4:16-17.

I have no reason to doubt its authenticity or veracity. It is, however, the kind of thing that can quickly turn into an urban legend. And I know from my academic background that legends, myths and stories are nothing to be ignored. They have a powerful impact on public opinion and the political will. Ask any politician if you don't think so.

Trying to find out something about this "Robert LeBlanc" person, I did a Google search and tripped across soem interesting materials that illustrate how people with a political agenda are quick to capitalize (no pun intended) on situations like this. The Militant is an old organ of the Socialist Workers Party, but that group is alive and well. You might want to take a look at this story. I have an idea that the Robert Leblanc , cinema manager, mentioned here, may be the same guy.

A quicker response onthe part of all elected officials, all the way up to Washington if that is what was needed (and it clearly was) would blunt the impact of stories such as these. Is there anyone still reading who can't connect the dots?

Update, Tuesday evening...

What struck me as the NOLA Epistle is at least a week old. I am embarrassed that it grabbed me so quickly, that I published it without first checking the origins more closely.

If after a week it has not traveled better as an urban legend I have to conclude that it does not strike the right note to have broad appeal. It fails to take sides other than compassion, coupled with a call to constructive action in the form of spreading the word. Since it goes out of the way to specifically undermine embedded stereotypes rather than exploiting them, very few readers are moved to pass it along. Hard-core warriors from both left and right can't really come to grips with the notion of a "compassionate conservative." It's too bad that catchy couplet never seemed to catch on.

I found a copy via Free Republic at dated September 5, tagged "A good friend just forwarded this first-hand account from his fraternity brother at Loyola."

It was also on a message board dated September 3.

The Positive Stories Must Get Out (same letter) appears in the archives of, the Times-Picayune on-line site. It is linked from another site dated September 2, Friday, which puts it at the start of the mess. There is a phone number and email listed, but I am letting the matter drop at this point.

My first instincts may have been correct about urban legends. If this story morphs into legend status I will see it as a hopeful indicator for public sentiment, but this item is not yet on Snopes, TruthMiners or Truth or Fiction.

Despite a questionable provenance I still believe the message itself has merit. It may be that the source is never found.

I am left wondering who Robert LeBlanc and Jeffrey Rau might be and how they are doing now.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Changing Times

Today I used the Facebook feature to hide yet another source from my news feed because it is simply too offensive and irredeemably ignorant to ever change. It's against my nature to shut out anyone, but sometimes I just don't have what it takes to put up with stuff. This is what my Facebook status is today.

I just hate when I use the Facebook "Hide all from [source]" tool. It grates against my need to be flexible and open-minded about all kinds of thinking. Many of my friends are sincere, good people, but hold what I find to be unthinkably narrow opinions. I retain contact in the hope that sooner or later I might find the right words or cite some illustration that will cause them to do a better job of self-examination. Not often but occasionally it seems to work.

It works in reverse as well. By keeping in touch with the undercurrents of many issues I sometimes sense trends and movements that become influential, sometimes way in advance of when they become "prime time." I remember paying attention to the tea party phenomenon years ago when the local radio talk show host was making disparaging remarks about it, blissfully unaware that they were advancing many of the same extreme, ultra-conservative ideas that he was doling out all along. I'm sure he figured it out later and changed his tune, but by paying attention I was able to see what was happening in his world even before he did.

But the trend that now bothers me most is that respectable, polite, thoughtful conservatism is disappearing in a slimy quagmire of sarcasm and hate. The inflammatory rhetoric triggered by the Trump/ Megyn Kelly exchange pushed the threshold of civility to a new level. The wing of American politics that prides itself on decency and morality appears to be marching willfully in the opposite direction.

It's a sad day when messages of the pope himself are greeted with a level of disrespect normally reserved for political enemies. The old saying is that the mission of a preacher is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable -- which is precisely what Pope Francis is doing -- but reactions of many so-called conservatives to the pope are the harshest we have heard since Godless Communism was the enemy du jour.

Those of us on the Left have always had a rag-tag army of down and dirty dregs of society. Ours is the domain of marginalized outcasts -- the ones called lazy moochers, welfare queens, aliens paying no taxes while enjoying the benefits of freedom and prosperity. Just as missionaries to pagan tribes had to teach them to wear clothes and pull up their socks, we still have a sub-class that won't pull up their pants -- and this angers and offends righteous conservatives so bad they can't talk about it without snarling.

I hate to say it, but I'm starting to feel better about being called Liberal. I think it's somehow connected to the presidency of Barack Obama. I read somewhere that when he finishes his second term the family will continue to live in Washington so the girls can finish high school without having to change schools. Now that's family values. And the thousands of people showing up to hear Bernie Sanders is a bellwether indicator for me that the wind is starting to blow in a different direction. As a line from the Sixties said, you don't need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing. Dylan was right, you know. The answer really is blowing in the wind.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

"ALL Lives Matter" is the New "Go Slow"

Black Lives Matter is today's version of the same damn civil rights message some of us have been working to advance for the last fifty years. And those who respond by saying ALL lives matter are today's version of the same old Go slow response we got fifty years ago.
Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" is just as true and powerful today as it was when she sang it years ago.  Here it is again for those who might not know what I'm talking about. Listen for the following lyrics as she says them...
Don't tell me, I'll tell you
Me and my people just about due
I've been there so I know
They keep on saying, "Go slow!" 
But that's just the trouble, go slow
Washing the windows, go slow
Picking the cotton, go slow
You're just plain rotten, go slow 
You're too damn lazy, go slow
The thinking's crazy, go slow
Where am I going? What am I doing?
I don't know, I don't know
Oh, but this whole country is full of lies
You're all gonna die and die like flies
I don't trust you any more
You keep on saying, "Go slow! Go slow!" 
Reunification, go slow
Do things gradually, go slow
But bring more tragedy, go slow
Why don't you see it? 
Why don't you feel it?
I don't know, I don't know
But that's just the trouble, go slow
Desegregation, do it slow Mass participation, go slow