Monday, January 30, 2012

Alma al-Assad, Vogue's Favorite Dictator's Wife [Update: Original Article Discovered]

This morning I ran across this item from the Jerusalem Post that reports that the family of Bashar al-Assad, including his fashionable wife Alma, tried to escape from Damascus in a dash to the airport, but the entourage was turned back when fired upon by rebel soldiers of the Free Syrian Army.  The several cars were able to return to the presidential palace, with no reports of casualties.

This comes on the heels of a variety of reports of escalating fighting in the year-long Syrian civil war and a further deterioration of al-Assad’s position.  Accurate reporting, at least as accurate as can be expected with a ban on reporters (whose reports can be suspect even then), is even further constrained by the withdrawal of the monitors of the Arab League last Saturday.  At last count, before the UN announced that it had given up on trying to accurately assess the carnage, the number of mortal casualties in the fighting is more than 5400 killed.  [Update: now at the end of March conservatively estimated to be in excess of 8000]

The Syrian situation, you may recall, was starting to boil over last year at about the time that NATO was stumbling into some sort of support for Libyan fighters in their revolt against Qaddafi, citing the potential for as many as a thousand casualties if Bizerte was attacked.  Despite the obvious similarities between the two in what has been called the ‘Arab Spring’, the Obama administration seriously downplayed Syria as having a reason for our concern.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assured us that al-Assad was a “reformer”, and was barely able to stifle a guffaw when a reporter sought to draw a comparison between Syria and Libya.

But what caught my attention was that Bashar’s glamorous wife Alma seemed to be caught in the cross-fire today.  Even back as far as February, it was keenly apparent to anyone who really cared that al-Assad’s Syria is a murderous regime of pro-Iranian thugs.  This put into clear perspective the ridiculous puff-piece in Vogue about how Alma is the “rose in the desert”, and how she is so “glamorous, young, and very chic – the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies”.  Someone eventually tipped off Vogue about how incredibly tasteless (to use a term they would understand) it was to gush about the wife of a bloody dictator (no matter how attuned to Chanel), evidenced by the fact that the article has been replaced by an elegant 404 message, but not before references to the article had been preserved elsewhere.  A couple of the comments amuse me no end:

I’ll say that having met a few fashion magazine editors, I find it entirely plausible that a roomful of them might have entirely missed the news out of Egypt and Tunisia or else failed completely to connect those events to the optics around puff-piecing the First Lady of Syria, unless some extraordinarily assertive (i.e. former) intern mentioned it explicitly.
Having worked for Cosmo once . . . color me unsurprised.  These women could walk into a room with the blood of opposition parties literally caked to the soles of their D&G pumps, and the only question from this lot would be ‘is that the new collection?’
The gentleman in me (call me old-fashioned) wishes that Alma makes it out alive, as I am unsure to what degree she has blood on her hands, though I am not so particular when it comes to fate of her husband.  But the unfolding of this story helps to point out the incandescent and morally corrupt stupidity of the Sophisticati, the fools whose opinions are expected to be taken seriously.  This helps to confirm A J Liebling's quip: "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."

Perhaps Vogue could do a spread on the wives of Robert Mugabe or Hugo Chavez.

Update: The Atlantic has done yeoman's work tracking down the original Vogue article, preserved on the web site of a Syrian government publicist of all people.  The Atlantic also graciously attaches an exposé spelling out how Vogue at first tried to defend the puff piece.

Update on How the National Debt Affects You: Obama is “Irresponsible, Unpatriotic”

Candidate Barack Obama declared on 3 July 2008 during a campaign stop in Fargo, North Dakota that President Bush had run up the national debt by some $4 trillion, and he was pretty angry about it.  Let him explain it:
The problem is, is that the way Bush has done it over the last eight years is to take out a credit card from the Bank of China in the name of our children, driving up our national debt from $5 trillion dollars for the first 42 presidents – number 43 added $4 trillion dollars by his lonesome, so that we now have over $9 trillion dollars of debt that we are going to have to pay back – $30,000 for every man, woman and child.  That's irresponsible.  It's unpatriotic.
If increased spending of that magnitude is unpatriotic, what then does one call attempts to restrain that spending from going higher at an accelerated pace?  (After all, Bush increased the debt by some $4 trillion over eight years; Obama is pushing for over $5 trillion in only three years.)  Why, that would be unpatriotic too.

Let us examine some figures that Stuart Varney reviewed this morning on Fox News:

·         On election day of 4 November 2008, the average debt owed by every American was over $30K; by the inauguration on the following 20 January 2009, it stood at $34K.  It now stands at over $48K.

·         The national debt has increased 43% over the last three years.

·         In FY 2011, we were paying $1.2 billion a day in interest payments.

·         In the last twenty years, we have paid $7 trillion in interest on the debt.

·         The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the national debt, now at over $15.2 trillion, will be over $21.3 trillion by the end of FY 2021.
Three years ago, Obama and the Democrats were full of sturm und drang about the increasing debt.  So how much of Obama’s State of the Union speech was dedicated to this unprecedented crisis in the financial stability of the Republic?  Nothing.  He calls for more sacrifice, that we should all emulate the military and march together to his common goal, while reminding us again that bin Laden was slain while he was the President.
The only time he mentioned the debt was to complain about the debt left him from the Bush administration – nothing about his own – or to call for increased taxes on the wealthy.  If the government were to confiscate the total wealth of the Forbes 400, it would amount to only $1.5 trillion, which would pay down less than 10% of the still-increasing national debt.  Compare that to the budget shortfall of just 2011 alone of $1.56 trillion.

His use of Warren Buffet’s secretary as a silent shill would have been embarrassingly transparent if it wasn’t spoken by Obama, or defended by the relentlessly partisan Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.  Obama first mentions that Buffet pays a lower tax rate than his secretary, then in the very next sentence calls for a “billionaire to pay as much as his secretary in taxes”.  Leaving aside the fact that Buffet’s tax on dividends is lower on income he receives that has already been taxed before at the corporate tax rate, this clumsy attempt at social sleight of hand foreshadows coming class war ramping up still further.

Buffett, as I have already reported, is already in arrears to the US Treasury for taxes going back to 2002, amounting to about $1 billion.  This is the paragon of tax virtue that Obama wants to extoll?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

More Guns, Less Crime? Homicide No Longer a Leading Cause of Death

The Center for Disease Control’s latest list of the 15 leading causes of death shows that homicide has dropped off the list entirely, for the first time in over 50 years.  This is coincident with the decrease in the crime rate in general, which has been dropping since the early 1990s.

The accompanying report explains how some causes have shifted on the list, with some decreasing and others increasing.  This has always contributed to many stories about public concern about mortal threats, such as “heart disease is an increasing risk of death”, with accompanying appeals for further funding, in keeping with today’s penchant to push any cause as a ‘crisis’.  I am all in favor of progress in the areas of prevention of heart disease or cancer or the like, but typically these stories – and those reading them – fail to take into account the simple fact that the death rate for all people is 100%.  If we show marked improvement in handling cancer, then naturally more people will begin to die of heart disease or some other malady.

The cause for the general decrease in the crime rate, including the drop in homicides, has been a contentious issue since it was first detected in the mid-1990s.  At first, the Left was glad to point out that this must confirm one of their favourite claims – that crime is caused by poverty – since the decrease in crime was matched by an increase in prosperity in the general economy.  Yet the crime rate continued to drop after the ‘dot-com’ bubble burst, the recession began to set in toward the end of the Clinton administration, the attacks of 11 September 2001, and the housing bubble collapse in 2008, which still continues.  For that matter, the poverty-crime link is further disparaged by looking at what is likely a relatively low crime rate during the Great Depression.

Allow me to risk pushing what some could consider another logical fallacy of the same sort – post hoc ergo propter hoc, the supposition that one coincident event causes another (‘The cock crowed, which caused the sun to rise.’)  While there are undoubtedly a number of factors that contribute to the decline in crime, I would like to toss out one that should be particularly germane: gun sales and gun ownership have increased over that same time, with a strong upsurge beginning in 2009.  (I highly recommend John R Lott’s classic More Guns, Less Crime on this topic, now in its third edition of 2010.)

There are a number of advocates both for and against this proposition, and most studies try to dissect the question along statistical lines involving gun sales.  Since there is no federal requirement for a firearms registry in the US thanks to the Second Amendment to the Constitution, it is practically the only method for tracking trends in firearms acquisition, but it cannot really account for firearms ownership.  Attempts by the Left to curtail the Second Amendment (usually the same people who call for completely unfettered freedom of speech, for example) have enjoyed some limited success up until District of Columbia vs Heller (2008) and the resultant McDonald vs Chicago (2010).

For example, I was raised in South Texas, son of a veteran of World War II.  My father had a number of firearms as he was an avid hunter (my brothers and I were practically raised on venison and wild turkey) and he maintained a collection that included a number of military firearms from World War I and II.  When he traveled throughout South Texas (an area larger than the state of Maine or South Carolina), he always carried – legally – his service M-1911 .45 handgun.  (Practically every pickup truck that I could recollect from my youth had a gun rack with at least one rifle or shotgun, for the primary – but not exclusive – purpose of varmint targets of opportunity.)  My father passed away many years ago, but all those weapons still exist in safe places I know of around the country, and are unregistered since they have never been sold.  How many untold thousands of unregistered firearms such as these are in the possession of private citizens?

Yet there are those who are still perplexed about this inverse correlation between increasing gun sales and decreasing crime rates, summed up by the classic perplexed headline in the New York Times in 1997: “Crime Rates are Falling, but Prisons Keep on Filling”.  This blithering conundrum among the Left has been dubbed the ‘Fox Butterfield Fallacy’ by James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal, to describe those (journalists in particular) who cling to liberal notions against all contrary evidence.

Again, the post hoc argument can be made, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.  As Robert Heinlein said, “An armed society is a polite society.”

Another View of the Gingrich vs Reagan Argument

Steven Hayward of Powerline web log posts a well-written and resourceful attempt to put into better perspective the recent dispute about the level of support that Newt Gingrich gave to Ronald Reagan.  I commend it to you as a valuable and objective addition to the argument.  Better, I expect, than the disappointing release by Sarah Palin (who endorsed Gingrich but only specifically in the South Carolina primary).  She makes an able case that there is a large bone of contention now within the Republican Party between the Establishment and its more right-wing Tea Party adherents, but her argument is distilled down to something like “Can’t we all just get along?  And, by ‘get along’, I mean support Newt Gingrich.”

Steven makes the case that Gingrich was a more staunch ally of Reagan than some of these criticisms would appear, and then paradoxically that he was not alone in his disparaging comments.  He also includes a brief remembrance of Gingrich’s well-played move in 1984 with the ‘Dear Comandante’ letter of the Democrat pro-Sandanista caucus in the House, which ultimately allowed an embarrassing and public set-back (as seen on C-SPAN) for Speaker Tip O’Neill, but also exposed the Republican Minority Leader Bob Michel as a ‘go along/get along’ Establishment mollifier, rather than someone who would take the battle to the Democrats on behalf of Reagan and those actually making a stand against the Soviet empire and its proxies.

Steven concludes the article with a good summation of the point:

The real question concerning Newt is not whether he has changed his mind or conveniently forgotten about his occasional distemper with Reagan, but whether he perceives or has acquired the same kind of prudence we now recognize Reagan to have had much more clearly than many of us did at the time.  Elliott [Abrams], Pete [Wehner], John [Hinderaker], and everyone else are right to raise the question of whether Newt’s peripatetic speculations and outbursts give us ample cause to doubt an affirmative answer; certainly his opportunistic attack on Bain Capital a couple weeks back was deeply imprudent.  But let us also have the whole picture and complete context in mind, and give the man his due.
Give the man his due, certainly, but I stand by my earlier post that Gingrich is imprudent to continually proclaim that he was always lock-step with Reagan.  There is plenty of evidence to show that this was not the case, and while it can be said that Gingrich was attacking Reagan from the right (and unjustly as it turned out, once all the then-hidden information came to light), and that there were others attacking him as well (but they are not running for President), it is a true indicator of Gingrich’s liberal use of hyperbole.  If he doesn’t become more disciplined in these grandiose pronouncements, he will continually stumble into trouble.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Washington Post Unclear About "Allahu Akbar"

This story in the Washington Post (‘Motive of shooter who targeted military sites is unclear’) gives me pause – again – to wonder about how far the press will go to bury a lead.
Yonathan Melaku was sneaking through Fort Myer and Arlington National Cemetery, his backpack filled with plastic bags of ammonium nitrate, a notebook containing jihadist messages, and a can of black spray paint.  The 23-year-old former Marine was heading to the graves of the nation’s most recent heroes, aiming to desecrate the stones with Arabic statements and leave handfuls of explosive material nearby as a message. 
Before police foiled the attack in June, the vandalism was to be Melaku’s sixth attack, months after he went on a mysterious shooting spree that targeted the Pentagon, the National Museum of the Marine Corps and two other military buildings in Northern Virginia.  A video found after Melaku’s arrest showed him wearing a black mask and shooting a 9mm handgun out of his Acura’s passenger window as he drove along Interstate 95, shouting “Allahu Akbar!” 
It was all part of a solitary campaign of “fear and terror,” federal prosecutors said.  But authorities and Melaku’s defense attorney said no one knows for sure what led Melaku – a naturalized U.S. citizen from Ethi­o­pia, local high school graduate and former Marine Corps Reservist – down that path. . . . 
Gregory English, Melaku’s defense lawyer, said after the hearing that Melaku’s family is of the Coptic Christian faith and that they were stunned to learn of his involvement in the crimes and the references to Islamic jihad.  English said the shootings were out of character for Melaku, and he wonders whether his client suffers from a psychological problem, which he has asked the court to evaluate.
Let us set some things straight, shall we?  The “psychological problem” to which English was referring was post-traumatic stress disorder, popularly called PTSD.  (The term ‘popularly’ has a deliberate double-entendre – claims of PTSD are practically epidemic as means to explain a host of excuses).  In conjunction with the report in the first and third paragraph about Melaku being a former Marine, the forced supposition would be that the two pieces are conflated, but the fact of the matter is that Melaku was never deployed.  (The press loves the Marines.  Reports of acts of murderous intent rarely if ever say that they involve former sailors or airmen.  Reports of soldiers have re-surfaced after Iraq, even including soldiers not assigned to the combat arms.)

The reason that Melaku was a 'former' Marine is that he was administratively discharged from the Marines at about the time of his arrest, for the unrelated charge of grand larceny, and I have to believe that his discharge was 'under other than honorable conditions'.  He later attempted an escape from jail.

English and the article stipulates that Melaku’s family are Coptic Christians, but what is unreported is that he is a convert to Islam and attended the All Dulles Area Muslim Society.

Then, of course, there is that allahu akbar thing again.

Yet the Washington Post remains unclear about his motive.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Gingrich Can Handle the Press, But He Is No Reagan

At the moment, I have no real dog in the fight for the Republican nomination, other than a realpolitik conclusion that Romney has the nomination sewn up (unless the oft-quoted mutatis mutandis of Bill Buckley comes to bear).  I watch the debates to see the sometimes staggering progress that is made to that end, and I continue to see Romney’s confidence (though sometimes shaken a bit, such as his inexplicable bewilderment in his response to Rick Perry’s inquiry into his taxes), Santorum’s sincerity, and Ron Paul’s blathering.  Then there is Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich almost consistently gives an entertaining performance and shows a deft understanding of political stagecraft.  He is sure to deliver a broadside to the press, much to the glee of the Republican audience, and he was a sure bet early on to remind the crowd that the main purpose of the campaign was to unseat Obama, rather than pander to the MSM’s very real attempts to skip the issues in favor of encouraging the candidates to attack each other, or try to ‘expose’ the candidates’ quaint outside-the-beltway views.  In this respect, he has been a real crowd pleaser when he took on Politico’s John Harris (who was leaning forward, eyes wide, finger jabbing, practically salivating in his disappointment that they weren’t arguing more), ABC’s Diane Sawyer (whose “loving, committed, long-term relationships” for gays question was turned into an exposition by Gingrich on examples of “anti-Christian bigotry” left unexplored in the press), CBS’ Scott Pelley (with his insufferable arrogance as he tried to frame a scornful rebuke about the “rule of lawww” in the form of a question about attacking terrorists), or Fox News’ Juan Williams (with the race card inserted into questions about food stamps and school work programmes).  But despite the timing and manner of how ABC put together the interview with Gingrich's ex-wife Marianne, I believe that John King was correct in asking Newt about the interview, though not perhaps as the lead question.  It was news, no matter how it came to the screen, and Gingrich was going to have to address it.

(George Stephanopolous sparred with Romney instead of Gingrich about the ridiculously drawn-out hypothetical of the states’ capability of banning contraceptives, but it was an example that proved the point.)

But just as I have condemned this attempt by the media to turn the Republican campaign into a political version of ‘American Idol’, that same criticism applies to the Gingrich role in the process.  Once we get past all the debates, we have to have a leader who can forge a working relationship with Congress, and inspire Americans to the hard work and sacrifice of returning the country to its rightful place as that ‘city on a hill’.

Throughout the process, another Gingrich standard is to cite how both he and Ronald Reagan were practically joined at the hip in taking down the Soviet Empire.  This has never quite set well with me, as I can remember times when Gingrich was at his disparaging best about Reagan holding firm to his tactics in confronting the Soviets.  I could not remember exact instances of that though, and I hardly knew where to start in trying to track down some examples.

I was relieved, then, with the contribution of Elliot Abrams in National Review Online with an article that takes on the question, and not in favour of Gingrich.

The claims are misleading at best.  As a new member of Congress in the Reagan years – and I was an assistant secretary of state – Mr. Gingrich voted with the president regularly, but equally often spewed insulting rhetoric at Reagan, his top aides, and his policies to defeat Communism.  Gingrich was voluble and certain in predicting that Reagan’s policies would fail, and in all of this he was dead wrong. . . .
The best examples come from a famous floor statement Gingrich made on March 21, 1986. . . .  Here is Gingrich: “Measured against the scale and momentum of the Soviet empire’s challenge, the Reagan administration has failed, is failing, and without a dramatic change in strategy will continue to fail. . . . President Reagan is clearly failing.”  Why?  This was due partly to “his administration’s weak policies, which are inadequate and will ultimately fail”; partly to CIA, State, and Defense, which “have no strategies to defeat the empire.”  But of course “the burden of this failure frankly must be placed first on President Reagan.”  Our efforts against the Communists in the Third World were “pathetically incompetent,” so those anti-Communist members of Congress who questioned the $100 million Reagan sought for the Nicaraguan “contra” rebels “are fundamentally right.”  Such was Gingrich’s faith in President Reagan that in 1985, he called Reagan’s meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.”
Gingrich scorned Reagan’s speeches, which moved a party and then a nation, because “the president of the United States cannot discipline himself to use the correct language.”  In Afghanistan, Reagan’s policy was marked by “impotence [and] incompetence.”  Thus Gingrich concluded as he surveyed five years of Reagan in power that “we have been losing the struggle with the Soviet empire.”  Reagan did not know what he was doing, and “it is precisely at the vision and strategy levels that the Soviet empire today is superior to the free world.”
There are two things to be said about these remarks.  The first is that as a visionary, Gingrich does not have a very impressive record.  The Soviet Union was beginning to collapse, just as Reagan had believed it must.  The expansion of its empire had been thwarted.  The policies Gingrich thought so weak and indeed “pathetic” worked, and Ronald Reagan turned out to be a far better student of history and politics than Gingrich.
The second point to make is that Gingrich made these assaults on the Reagan administration just as Democratic attacks were heating up unmercifully. . . . It appears to be a habit: He did the same to George W. Bush when Bush was making the toughest and most controversial decision of his presidency – the surge in Iraq. . . . Here again Gingrich provided no support for his party’s embattled president, testifying as a private citizen in 2007 that the strategy was “inadequate,” contained “breathtaking” gaps, lacked “synergism” (whatever that means), and was “very disappointing.”

 This frequent connection of Gingrich to the great Ronald Reagan has rankled me, in much the same way as I react to Michael Reagan: a nice enough guy, I suppose, but someone whose career owes a great deal to his inability to string more than two sentences together without somehow making reference to the fact that Ronald Reagan was his father.

At the risk of paraphrasing Lloyd Bentsen (Lyndon-esque in his approach to back room politics, and no, he wasn’t a friend of John F Kennedy), Gingrich is no Reagan.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Former CIA Officer Charged Under the Espionage Act

John Hinderaker of Powerline covers the story of another of the Left’s attempts to attack and discredit the Bush administration and the foreign policy of the United States through leaks from the CIA, without regard to the damage imposed on national security or the danger it caused to American personnel.

The Justice Department has charged former CIA officer John Kiriakou, later a Democratic staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with violations of the Espionage Act.  Kiriakou is charged with supplying the name, address, phone number, and e-mail address of a CIA interrogator to Scott Shane of the New York Times, who published the information along with the ‘exposé’ about water-boarding in a 22 June 2008 article, despite the requests of then-CIA director General Michael Hayden and the lawyer of the CIA agent that the agent’s name not be disclosed.  Hinderaker then lists the various ways that Shane harassed the agent and his family, including parking in front of his home for hours, and calling his wife, mother, sister and high school friend.

During the run-up to the publication of the article, Kiriakou lied to the agent:

I told the ombudsman [of the New York Times] that I thought the use of your name in the article was despicable and unnecessary, and that I thought it could put you in personal danger. . . .  [The author] then asked if I thought he should mention you by name.  I said absolutely not.
He then later lied to the FBI agents who were investigating the source of the information.

The information supplied by Kiriakou was later given to an investigator working on behalf of the terrorists at Guantánamo and their lawyers.  The investigator surreptitiously photographed the agent, and several of the photos were later discovered in the cells of the terrorists.

Information involving the interrogation programme, along with other sensitive information, was later published by Kiriakou in a book.  He was also the subject of a 2007 televised interview by ABC News about the interrogations, but he later had to admit that the information he provided was hearsay, in that he was not present for the interrogations.

A Washington Post article discusses the case, lamenting that “Critics warn that the crackdown will erode the ability of news organizations to expose government abuses”.  Ironically, the article mentions nothing about abuse of classified information that endangers national security and the lives of Americans working in its defense.  The article also neglects to mention that Kiriakou was a Democratic staffer; refuses to speculate on his motives; nor does it question why Shane, his editor, or publisher Pinch Sulzberger are not also under indictment for violation of the Espionage Act.

The New York Times, you may remember, is the same paper which decried the ‘disclosure’ of the name of Valerie Plame (a CIA analyst, not a covert agent) in the ludicrous story pumped up by her husband Joe Wilson and bandied about to further discredit the Bush administration, though all its allegations later proved to be (quietly) false.  The MSM knew for practically the entire time of the story and the subsequent investigation that it was actually Richard Armitage who leaked her name and position (to the extent that it was not already known among the social set in DC). 

The MSM has a remarkable ability to dial up or down its sense of high moral dudgeon.