Friday, August 1, 2014

Are Hamas Attacks a Catalyst For Acceptance of Israel?

For the first time in almost 70 years, Israel has the active backing of nearly all Arab states in its battle against Palestinian extremists.  One long time CNN reporter called the support "unprecedented" and speculated that it could represent a new era in Middle Eastern relations.  Moderate governments fear extremism more than they wish to nurture historical hatreds.

The process of breaking down the walls of anti-Semitic diplomacy is nothing new, however.

In the beginning, Israel faced enemies on every side.  The British evacuated the old Roman named territory of Palestine in 1948.  The United States, followed quickly by the Soviet Union, recognized the new state almost immediately.  President Harry Truman later recalled that he had resolved that "the United States would do all that it could to help the Jews set up a homeland."  In this, he went against the "striped pants boys" advice at the State Department.  Truman believed that Israel had very strong potential for development.

All bordering states, however, pledged themselves to Israel's destruction.  Since then, both time and the ago old maxim of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" have started to soften the old hate filled viewpoints.

Despite repeated wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors in the 1960s and 70s, Israel had one friend in the Middle East.  Iran under the Shah.

Iran's monarch served as a pole of power within the Middle East, navigating between the Arab states, the United States, and Iran's neighbor the Soviet Union.  Repeated Soviet and Czarist Russian attempts to absorb some or all Iranian territory meant Iran would support US interests through much of the Cold War.

Many Americans mistrusted professions of friendship. Shah adviser Asadollah Alam remembered columnist Joseph Kraft coming to Iran in 1976 at the request of several senators.  "Apparently the senators who were here recently disbelieved the US ambassador's stories about close relations between Iran and Israel," Alam noted.  Under the Shah, Iran pursued its self-interests of building national strength and wealth alongside American priorities.  Productive relations with Israel enhanced those bonds and gave Iran some leverage when it did disagree with the US over issues such as oil production.

In the 1970s, nationalist authoritarians and monarchs led most Arab states.  At the time, the nationalists seemed radical.  They linked American influence to the real and imagined sins of the old British Empire. Israel, an oil free haven of liberty and prosperity, had to remain a whipping boy to corrupt regimes with little freedom and much economic misery.

But that decade also brought revolutionary violence.  The formerly nationalist radicals now saw Islamic revolutionaries and Palestinian terrorists disrupting order in the region.  Another pillar of the anti-Israel gang fell away.  President Jimmy Carter brought Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachim Begin to the United States to hammer out normal relations.

Sadat helped to open the conference by saying "I hope the spirit of King David will prevail at Camp David."  In a sense it did.  David's reign over Israel was often contentious and occasionally messy, but overall succeeded tremendously.  Similarly, Begin and Sadat bickered for 13 days, but found common ground in the end.

For the next 40 years, however, the anti-Israel front remained almost in stasis.  It neither overtly threatened nor worked to reconcile with Israel, regardless of whether or not negotiations with Palestinian groups went well or poorly.  Anti-Semitism remained unofficially and sometimes officially endorsed. The Anti Defamation League notes that "Anti-Semitism often serves as a political device intended to undermine normalization with Israel."  Even Egyptian media joins other Middle Eastern states in promoting points from the Russian secret police forgery Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion

 The Hamas attacks on Israel this summer come in a different context.  With ISIS/ISIL expanding its murderous control over parts of Iraq and Syria, with Turkey moving in a direction closer to its medieval Ottoman past rather than secular democracy, with Muslim Brotherhood and associated terrorist groups threatening moderate national governments, many governments now shy away from indiscriminate support of Palestinians against Israel.  Eric Trager of the Washington Institute For Near East Policy told CNN "The Arab Spring showed the region that uprisings can lead to the Brotherhood gaining power.  So it's a threat to the governments it opposes"

Also, no one expects Hamas to stay quietly within the boundaries agreed to.  The Washington Free Beacon's Adam Kredo reported on the contents of a Hamas terror handbook that included television shrapnel bombs and how to use donkeys as mobile device carriers.

Kredo also notes the war for public opinion, which dupes outlets such as BBC and others into sympathetic coverage. "Anyone killed is to be called a civilian of Gaza or Palestine" regardless of their military rank or "role in the jihad."  It also encourages the tactic of talking about martyrs in the Middle East, about wounded or dead to Westerners.

Although the public relations strategy has swayed some in the Western media, it has not blinded many in the Middle East to the fact that the new Islamic radicalism has the potential to overrun many countries and impose its terrifying brand of totalitarianism.

And also that Israel is a capable ally, or at least the enemy of their enemy, against that fate.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Last Ship: Strangely Reminiscent of Shatner, etc's Star Trek

TNT's opening season of The Last Ship does not try to be more than it is, an entertaining look at how the American military deals with a germopacalypse. Basically, they deal by being virtuous badasses. 

The premise comes from the William Brinkley book of the same name.  While on a secret mission for four months in the Arctic, the entire world has disintegrated while they were on radio silence.  Now the officers, crew, and a medical researcher must speed across the oceans to discover answers, find what they need for a cure, and maintain their food, water, and fuel levels.  Meanwhile, survivors have taken refuge or exploited the virus induced state of nature as much as possible. Familiar places like Costa Rica and Guantanamo Bay are now mysterious havens of danger.

A highly disciplined warship on an idealistic mission conducted in almost total isolation from authorities, where crew runs across bizarre societies, fascinating villains, and danger in every episode.  In many ways, The Last Ship is very much like the original Star Trek series.

Commander Tom Chandler, played by Eric Dane of ( Gray's Anatomy, Marley and Me) is the morally upright, square jawed all American hero.  Even though the gangster/village dictator El Toro tauntingly asks Chandler if he is John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, the commander clearly favors the first.  Like William Shatner's interpretation of Captain James T. Kirk, Chandler fearlessly tells his antagonists exactly what is on his mind.  Few characters in television history would dare dictate terms to an evil tyrant with automatic weapons aimed at their head.  Kirk and Chandler certainly bring bravado to that level.

First Officer Mike Slatterly (Adam Baldwin) so far has served as both a pragmatist and a moral center, one of the more complicated characters on the show.  He can be counted on to give rational advice (dare we say logical?) based on the situation as he sees it.  But Slatterly will also rise to the occasion when moral justice demands it.  The occasional tensions between Slatterly and Chandler have so far been underappreciated in reviews complaining of a lack of depth in the characters.

The Last Ship even has a wise Southerner, a Blackwater style contractor known as "Tex."  The show starts off making Tex a typical wild eyed Southern boy, but increasingly allows him to demonstrate a depth of intelligence and feeling.  Tex increasingly looks less and less like a stock Southern hillbilly, more like a Dr. McCoy who has mastered hand to hand combat training.

Rhona Mitra succeeds in portraying Dr. Rachel Scott as the outsider.  The crew doesn't trust her because she hid the epidemic from them while in the Arctic.  She has an arrogant stubbornness that sometimes undermines her powerful sense of mission. This actually makes her an endearing character as she deals with failure and frustration.

One major difference (okay, there are many) between the two shows is that The Last Ship has not yet made the ship itself a character.  The Enterprise functions as a character in Star Trek almost as effectively as the human characters, although that aspect eventually gets way overblown. Enterprise also comes from a long United States naval tradition.  There has never been a ship, or even a famous figure, named Nathan James.  There was, however, the destroyer Reuben James named for a hero who died in the Barbary Pirate wars.  It was sunk by the Germans just before World War II.

The Navy and its traditions themselves have emerged as a character of sorts.  Discipline, honor, and leadership pervade every episode.  Mistakes get made and rectified.  Chandler (much like Kirk) embodies the "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" attitude of the US Navy, at one point risking running his ship aground on canal choking coral based on his own intuition.  And Chandler goes ashore at every opportunity, even as others ask what might happen if he didn't come back.

The Last Ship even offers a promising recurring villain in Admiral Ruskov, formerly one of the finest in the Russian Navy, now clearly out to rule the ruins of the world.  He is no Khan, not yet anyway, but he does have a more powerful ship, more experience (an author on naval strategy), and more ruthlessness.  Viewers know that at some point, they will get more Ruskov. Yet Chandler outwitted Ruskov's bid to steal Dr. Scott and the developing cure.  I almost wanted to see Chandler yell defiantly, George C. Scott in Patton style, "I read your book!!!"  Of course, that's not part of the character's nature.

Both shows have similar qualities.  They unashamedly portray heroism, military virtue, and American style leadership to audiences during times when the culture has turned against such values.  Michael Bay's productions work hard to roll back attitudes of irony, skepticism, and sometimes even contempt expressed by cultural elites towards the military.  And this, in addition to their entertainment value, makes The Last Ship very enjoyable to watch..

It also makes this show and Star Trek before it culturally significant.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Growing Crisis In Liberia

World attention last week focused on the escalating war between Israel and Hamas, then the shot down passenger plane in Ukraine.  A humanitarian disaster, however, has hit West Africa hard.  Over 700 have died in possibly the worst Ebola virus outbreak ever.  And the usual measures have not contained its spread. The coastal nation of Liberia has taken the most severe hits while adopting the most radical containment measures.

Ebola virus is one of the deadliest on earth.  It affects humans and other primates, such as gorillas and chimpanzees.  Four of the five strains can infect human beings. According to the Center For Disease Control, the virus first appeared in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976.  It appears, spreads rampantly for a time, then dies away only to return sporadically.  Ebola causes hemorrhagic fever, symptoms of which can appear anywhere from two to 21 days of infection. The disease has a very high rate of transmission and can spread by contact with bodily fluids.

Liberia, led by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has taken strong steps to stop the spread of the virus in her country. The descendant of American born slaves, who is also the first female to win a head of state or government election in Africa, closed almost all border checkpoints.  International flights to and from Liberia have mostly ceased.  The country also suspended soccer matches and even imposed regulations on how many people may ride in an elevator.  Liberia's government embarked on a campaign to increase awareness and encourage better hygiene.

Outbreaks have also occurred in neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone.

One troubling aspect of the outbreak has been the infection of doctors treating the patients.  Liberia's most prominent expert in the virus, Dr. Samuel Brisbane, became infected at later died at Monrovia's John F. Kennedy Medical Center.  An American doctor and a North Carolina based missionary have also suffered infection.  A Ugandan doctor also died of the disease.

Liberia has a special relationship with the United States that few know about.  After the War of 1812, many Americans became troubled about continued use of slaves in the southern states.  The American Colonization Society, led in part by James Monroe and Chief Justice John Marshall, encouraged the emancipation of slaves and their return to Africa. They carved out a plot on the western coast, settled, organized an agriculture and trade based economy, and formed a government.  Liberia's capital, Monrovia, honors President James Monroe.  Another city is named after President James Buchanan.

As Europeans later in the century divided up Africa, US influence ensured that British, French, and German colonists stayed away from Liberia.  Occasionally, the US Navy would help its government put down revolts of the native African peoples.  A social divide between the natives and the Americo-Liberians remains to this day.

The country remains one of the poorest in the world. Today the Tennessee sized nation has about 4 million people. Its mining of ore and diamonds, plus natural rubber production and small scale agriculture, do not offset an unemployment rate of over 85 percent.  Decades of civil war and dictatorships ruined a once capable economy.  Democracy returned to Liberia after an Marine expedition sent in President George W. Bush's first term.  Johnson won election in 2005 and has remained in office ever since.  Her government's efforts to rebuild the shattered nation are seriously threatened by the disruptions caused by the Ebola outbreak.

Despite Liberia's efforts, the disease continues to defy attempts at control.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Our Dangerous World . . .

Just a few stories this week from a world grown increasingly terrifying . . .

Liberia has closed its border, quarantined many communities, and has seen even top experts stricken with the dreaded Ebola virus.  Sick officials made it onto international flights despite stringent precautions by the Liberian government.  West Africa has seen the most serious outbreak of the extremely contagious disease yet.  No end in sight.

Libya faces its worst violence since 2011, causing several nations to shut down their embassies there. The country's "fragile government and fledgling army" currently struggle to keep control of the capital's international airport.

War continues in Gaza.  Secretary of State John Kerry continues to undermine the cease fire agreement supported by Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority in an effort to kowtow to Hamas extremists.

Boko Haram crossed the Nigerian border, raiding Cameroon.  The terror group best known for kidnapping hundreds of young girls seized the wife of Cameroon's vice prime minister.  Cameroon has suffered three attacks from the terrorist group.

European Jews, particularly in France, are fearful of a continent wide spike in active anti-Semitism.  Could this produce an exodus from Europe to Israel and the United States?  An ambassador appointed by Hungary to represent that nation in Italy resigned after criticism of his "raging" anti-Semitism.

US intelligence officials released images that seem to show Russian artillery firing into Ukraine in support of separatists there.  This threatens to escalate the conflict into a full scale war between two of the European continent's largest nations. With Ukraine the home of some of Europe's most productive farmland, a full scale war could disrupt food supplies for millions.

While the female mutilation edict attributed to ISIS may be fake, Christians have fled areas under its control by the thousands. Islamicist officials have imposed prejudicial sanctions on Christians which have not existed in Iraq in generations.  Islamic State officials also ordered the destruction of the tombs of Jonah and Daniel, figures holy to the Jewish, Christian, and other faiths.

Meanwhile China, which has threatened the neighboring countries of Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines in recent years, has accelerated its naval program. Iran also continues its quest for more effective weapons capable of hitting Europe and North America.