Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Review: 'Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost At Sea'

SECOND OFFICER: Hast seen the White Whale?
DONOVAN HAHN: Hast seen the Yellow Duck?
When a load of 28,800 rubber bath toys plummeted into the northern Pacific Ocean from a storm-tossed container ship in 1992, beachcombers and oceanographers were in rapture. The toys washed up on coastlines from Alaska to California to Massachusetts for years, some traveling west to east via the Arctic Ocean, a treasure trove for collectors and a terrific opportunity to study ocean currents for scientists.

For Donovan Hahn, a prize-winning editor and poet, it was an opportunity to set out on a series of seagoing adventures long on introspection, as well as laughs, that would culminate in one of the quirkiest but most informative books that I've ever read.

In fact, despite its run-on title, the recently published Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went on Search of Them, is an unalloyed joy.

The spill from the Seattle-bound Evergreen Ever Laurel container ship occurred on or about January 10, 1992 at 44.7 degrees N, 178.1 degrees E, south of the Aleutian Island in what oceanographers formally call the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. It is informally known as the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch because in reality it is a vast floating landfill full of debris, much of it degraded plastic.

Hurricane force winds and waves 36 feet high pitched the Ever Laurel from side to side. During one especially steep roll, two columns of containers stacked six high snapped loose from their lashings and tumbled overboard. One container included boxes of 28,000 plastic animals called Floatees produced in Chinese factories for the bathtubs of America -- 7,200 red beavers, 7,200 green frogs, 7,200 blue turtles and (drum roll, please) 7,200 yellow ducks.

Hahn's quest was initially philosophical ("I wanted to refresh my capacity for awe") as well as quixotic (“What misanthrope, what damp, drizzly November of a sourpuss, upon beholding a rubber duck afloat, does not feel a Crayola ray of sunshine brightening his gloomy heart?").

His travels took him to Alaska. Massachusetts, Hawaii, the Arctic, a Hong Kong toy fair and eventually to the mainland Chinese factory where the toys were manufactured, and he never strays far from the themes that Herman Melville riffs on in Moby-Dick, including memory, loss, childhood and fatherhood.

En route, we learn, among many other things, that the 50-mile long drift nets outlawed by international treaty and discarded at sea eventually agglomerate into huge balls, barnacles are especially fond of television screens and computer monitors, and an Alaska governor by the name of Palin vetoed a bill allocating state matching funds to remove debris from an otherwise lovely state park because the debris had washed in from Hawaii and Asia and had not been left there by her constituents.

Not surprisingly, the moral of Moby-Duck is that the lure of cheap plastic in a consumer culture run amok has caused extraordinary harm to our oceans and the creatures that inhabit them. Those cute rubber ducks are arch villains. Toxic at birth and in their afterlife, they become coated with organic pollutants like polyvinyl chloride that photodegrade into smaller pieces that can be fatally ingested by sea creatures.

Cartoon du Jour

Michael Ramirez/Investors Business Daily

Gil Scott Heron (1949-2011)


'Lord Knows It's Winter In America'

By Gil Scott Heron
Uh from the Indians who welcomed the pilgrims
And to the buffaloes who once ruled the plains
Like the vultures circling beneath the dark clouds looking for the rain
Looking for the rain
Just like the cities stagger on the coastline
In a nation that just can’t stand much more
Like the forest buried beneath the highway, never had a chance to grow
Never had a chance to grow
And now it’s winter, winter in America
Yes now that all of the killers have been killed, sent away, Yeah
But the people know, the people know, it’s winter
Winter in America
And ain’t nobody fighting cause
Nobody knows what to say
Save your soul, lord knows from
Winter in America
The constitution, a noble piece of paper
With free society, a struggle but they died in vain
And now democracy is a ragtime on the corner
Hoping for some rain
It looks like he’s hoping, hoping for some rain
And I see the robins perched in baron treetops
Watching lasting racists marching across the floor
Just like the peace sign that vanished in our dreams
Never had a chance to grow
Never had a chance to grow
And now it’s winter
Winter in America
Yes now that all of the killers have been killed, or betrayed, Yeah
But the people know, the people know, it’s winter
Lord knows it’s winter in America
And ain’t nobody fighting cause nobody knows what to say
Save your soul
From a winter in America
And now it’s winter
Winter in America
And now that all of the killers done been killed, sent away
The people know, the people know, it’s winter
Winter in America
And ain’t nobody fighting cause nobody knows what to say
And ain’t nobody fighting cause nobody knows nobody knows
And ain’t nobody fighting cause nobody knows what to say

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Juan Rulfo

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Photoshopping: They've Only Just Begun

This photo of President Obama and his national security staff hunkered down in the White House Situation Room as the Navy SEAL team raid on Osama bin Laden's compound unfolded has a lock on 2011 Picture of the Year. At least for non-meteorological events.

That in turn has triggered an orgy of Photoshopped versions. Kill a few brain cells feasting on the details in the version below. Yes, that's an ice cream cone in Hillary's hand.

Even had the technology been available, it's difficult to image Photoshopping, say, the famous photo of Marines raises the American flag atop Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi in one of the concluding battles of World War II. Then again, how about raising a McDonald's Golden Arches instead of the flag?

Cartoon du Jour

Glenn McCoy/Universal Press Syndicate

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Republicans' Cry Of Desperation

To say that the Republican Party has made a hash of things since it's mid-term election victories six months ago is an understatement, and it's clear that the series of self-inflicted disasters it has suffered since then stem from the mistaken notion that the victories were a mandate. They were no such thing.

What the victories were was a stew of anger, resentment and uncertainty amidst a recession that wouldn't quit. While that was to an extend a repudiation of the Democratic Party, it was not an endorsement of the GOP.

Many voters understood perfectly well that President Obama had inherited a huge mess -- economic and otherwise -- from his Republican predecessor. Obama's approval ratings remained relatively robust and were no worse than Ronald Reagan's at the same point in his first term; today they are sky high considering the low esteem with which politicians in general are held.

To say that the Republicans are desperate for a candidate who has a chance to beat Obama in 2012 also is an understatement, which has brought it to a bizarre crossroads: GOP bigs now acknowledge that they need an Obama-like nominee to beat Obama. Yes, the man that they have vilified non-stop for everything that he is and has said and done has become the party's presidential role model.

Wait, it becomes even more bizarre. This is because the person being bandied about as the most Obama-like prospective nominee is the party's one-man wrecking crew, Representative Paul Ryan.

Don't get me wrong. Ryan seems like a decent enough guy in the abstract, although I would never confuse him with Obama. And dealing with Medicare and other social programs that have become a drag on the federal budget is necessary.

But Ryan's prescription -- which already has lost the GOP one once "safe" House seat, puts a host of freshman congressfolk at risk in 2012 and virtually guarantees Obama's re-election -- has proved to be so widely unpopular that it has become the political equivalent of hemlock tea.

What in dog's name were the Republicans thinking when they approved and continue to approve of a plan that gives bread and water to the middle class, tax cuts to the rich and eliminates the Democratic-backed Wall Street oversight regulations that might have prevented or at least mitigated the recession?

And what are they thinking -- or smoking -- that would provoke them to push a Ryan candidacy?

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/Universal Press Syndicate

More Sarah Palin Birth Hoax Evidence?

Take a look at this photograph. A close look. As a layperson, does this look like a one-month premature baby less than 24 hours after its birth? Of course it doesn't, which is the view of a neonatologist.

The baby is Trig Palin, who was being held in the arms of Sarah Palin's mother.

If you're sick of the whole business of why Palin continues to be evasive about her alleged pregnancy and Trig's birth, you have plenty of company and certainly don't want to click on the links in this post.

But if you believe, as I do, this story deserves to have legs, then click away. This is because the former half-term governor turned author and reality show princess not only has not gone away, but seems poised to launch a bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, and the fitness of a person for higher office, let alone any office, who has lied about a pregnancy is highly suspect.

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

(New York City -- 2008)
By James and Karla Murray

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Political Lolapalooza: Newt's Diamond Studded Hypocrisy & Other Scary Tales

Five hundred thousand at Tiffany’s? There’s a simple explanation. The guy clearly buys his engagement rings in bulk.
There is little pleasant going on in national politics these days, but the slow but steady self-destruction of Newt Gingrich is a joy to behold. As well as inevitable.

It was inevitable that his run for the presidential roses would be derailed not over policy issues but because he is so palpably phony and deceitful. The only question would be his choice of weapons.

Well, it turns out they they aren't dueling pistols and even a sword, but rather the incredible number of super-expensive baubles that he has bought third wife Callista on
a revolving charge account at Tiffany & Com. said to range from $250,001 to $500,000.

Among the goodies that Callista has been seen wearing is a strand of diamonds that adorned her ibis-like neck last month at Washington debut of the couple's latest documentary movie. Tiffany lists them at $45,000. Then are are a $22,000 pair of diamond and gold starburst earrings, among other baubles.

Hey, you say, every spouse is entitled to a little bling. But Gingrich has preached the virtues of fiscal conservatism ad nauseam and has continued to do so at a time when many Americans are out of work and one and nine are on food stamps, a program that he and most Republicans want to cut back on.

Gingrich has worked hard to present himself as a family man after a six-year secret affair with Callista and two marriages that ended under . . . uh, difficult circumstances for the spouses, but again finds himself the butt of late-night comedians.

Incidentally, Tiffany's says that Gingrich has paid his debt in full. But not to society.


As a prominent politician, you have to be really bad or really stupid or a combination of both to have the ethics police come down hard on your sorry ass. I'll leave it to you to decide whether John Ensign and John Edwards are one or both.

Ensign thought that his resignation from the Senate earlier this month would put an end to all the negative press about one of the more complicated scandals in recent Washington history:

This Family Values cum Promise Keeper born-again Something Or Other carried on an affair with a campaign aide whose husband was his chief of staff and best friend. When the cuckolded hubbo threatened to blow the whistle, Ensign went public while privately paying the family $96,000 in hush money provided by his gadzillionaire parents.

The Senate Ethics Committee usually roles over in instances as blatant as this, but has now issued a scathing report that concludes there is "substantial and credible evidence" that the Nevada Republic broke federal laws.

Edwards is arguably in even more trouble.

The former Democratic golden boy has been green-lighted for prosecution by the Justice Department for violating campaign laws while trying to cover up his affair with Rielle Hunter, his long-time mistress and mother of his love child, Frances Quinn Hunter.

Edwards is in trouble for failing to report "gifts" of over $1 million to Hunter by two deep-pocketed campaign donors in an effort to hush up the affair.

We'll chalk up to hyperbole Eric Cantor's widely reported remarks this week prior to the lashing that Paul Ryan's bread-and-water for the middle class plan took in that special election in upstate New York. Kind of like standing at the bedside of a terminally ill friend with tubes up his nose and only days to live and telling him that he looks marvelous.

Alas for Ryan, there was a second (symbolic) referendum on his plan in the Senate last night and another marvelous opportunity for Democrats to hang Republicans out to dry for their ideological humbuggery.

As expected, four Republicans and a Republican turned Independent voted against the plan, two of whom are up for re-election in 2012 in swing states. Six other Republicans also face re-election in non-swing states who voted for the plan.

Like I said, the vote (57-40) was symbolic, but it's a safe bet that these Republicans and Republicans in general will be reminded over and over next year that their biggest criticism of the ObamaCare plan was that it cut Medicare. While that was inaccurate, it was an effective message at the time but one that has now boomeranged on them with a vengeance.

Why would Republicans continue to support gutting Medicare -- and other social services, as well -- in the face of deep public opposition? Well, we know it's not principle. Perhaps it's stupidity. Or more likely still, cowardice -- fear to stand up to one's own party even when you know its wrong.

Speaking of Cantor, the House majority leader has announced that while Republicans would like to help victims of the tornado disaster in Joplin, Missouri, no disaster relief would be forthcoming until a ransom is paid in the form of off-setting spending cuts.

Need further evidence that the GOP have become the Kings of Mean? When Tom Del=Lay held Cantor's job there never was any question that disaster relief would be immediate and without strings attached.

That by today's standard makes DeLay a moderate.

Photograph by Getty Images

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

It Was One Crazy, Crazy Base Ball Game

When it's the 19th inning of a ballgame approaching six hours and 600 hitters and you've used your last pitcher, what you gonna do?

Philadelphia Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel scratched his head extra hard and finally turned to infield position player Wilson Valdez, who later said he hadn't pitched since a backyard game in his native Dominican Republic in 2002.

You'd never have know it as Valdez, whose fastball approached a more than respectable 90 miles an hour, mowed down three straight Cincinnati Reds to retire the side as the Phillies went on to win in the bottom of the 19th in the wee hours of this morning with a walk-off double by Raul Ibanez.

Valdez became the first position player to earn a win in a game since Brent Mayne in 2000, but Mayne hadn’t been in the starting lineup. The last player who began a game in the field, then ended it with a win on the pitching mound was none other than Babe Ruth in 1921.

Photograph by Matt Slocum/The Associated Press

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Medicare Death Panel Claims Its First Victim. Could GOP House Bigs Be Next?

While Paul Ryan's radical deficit-reduction plan has predictably died in its crib, the Republican Party's mission to destroy Medicare has not been forgotten by voters, who claimed their first but not last electoral victim of the year: State Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, who was expected to cakewalk to victory in a special election in New York state's 26th District, a Buffalo area seat that the GOP has owned since we were kicking Richard Nixon around.

The special election was called after Republican Congressman Christopher Lee, a family values scold, was outted when a website published a beefcake photo of him topless that he had sent to a prospective chippie on CraigsList. He lied about his marital status and his job, and soon had joined the ranks of America's unemployed.

Corwin was the beneficiary of millions of dollars from Republican groups, as well as a visit from no less an eminence than House Speaker John Boehner. But between her insistence in clinging to the Kill Medicare line until it was too late, her ridiculous attempts to position herself to the left of Democrat Kathy Hochul, and the entry of Democrat-turned-Tea Partier Jack Davis into the race, it became Hochul's to lose.

Not even resorting to that old Republican reliable -- mudslinging -- worked for Corwin.

She endorsed a series of attack ads, including several against Davis. One included a much-publicized video that Corwin operatives said showed Davis assaulting a young Republican volunteer who was tracking him with a camera, but the attack backfired when it was disclosed that the volunteer was Corwin's chief of staff.

And so when the sun came up this morning in NY-26, it was Hochul and not Corwin who had gotten her ticket punched for Congress, winning a seat by six points that, according to pollmeister Nate Silver, would ordinarily be won by Republicans by about 12 points.

Huge, and hugely embarrassing for a party that six months ago seemed ascendant.

* * * * *
Lock-step House Republican support for utter foolishness is a known commodity, with electoral suicide coming in a close second. But with the hindsight of a mere six weeks, how to explain why 235 of the party's 239 member caucus believed that tax cuts for the rich and bread and water for the middle class was a smart political move?

The over weaning hubris of Ryan, Boehner and Eric Cantor, as well as an unwitting assist from a mainstream media and punditocracy that in a spectacularly superficial way anointed the plan as "serious" without bothering to understand its underlying ideological evil. That's why.

Jack Kemp, Bob Dole's vice presidential running mate in 1996, represented NY-26 in the 1970s and 80s, and even then he was a moderate among conservatives. Today 66 percent of district voters identify themselves as moderate to very conservative, yet President Obama is more popular than Boehner, according to two polls, and voters by a substantial margin say Republicans are doing a worse job in the House than Democrats.


Conventional political wisdom has it that there is a danger in reading too much into special elections, in this case an election that was 18 months before the next national election.

Excuse me, but pundits said the same thing about the November 2009 special election to the north of NY-26 in Republican-heavy and even more conservative NY-23, which was widely viewed as a referendum on President Obama's popularity one year on.

The outcome was the same, although with an election eve twist: Democrat Bill Owens came out of nowhere to defeat favored Conservative Party candidate and attack dog Doug Hoffman after Republican Dede Scozzafava dropped out and threw her support to Owens.

And so based on NY-26 and NY-23, let's stick a big asterisk on the conventional wisdom about special elections. Yes, they usually are outliers, but when they are held during times of dramatic political and social upheaval -- the election of Barack Obama and then the emergence two years later of the ultra-conservative Tea Party -- then special elections can mean a lot.

NY-26, like NY-23, is being called a national bellwether, and the ringing in the ears of vulnerable Republicans will only grow louder. As will calls for the ouster of a House leadership that spent too much time preening and too little time on Main Street

Also on tap: A symbolic vote on the Ryan plan in the Senate that is sure to be defeated, but will be a test of Republican will in the wake of an upstate New York wake-up call.

Photograph by Brendan Babbos for The New York Times

Cartoon du Jour

Mike Luckovich/Atlanta Journal Constitution

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By the Dear Friend & Conscience

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

For The GOP, It's Time To Start Counting The Weeks, Months & Years Until 2016

Like the White Queen in her youth, the contemporary Republican
politician must be capable of believing as many as six impossible
things before breakfast.
Props to Mitch Daniels for listening to his family and deciding they were more important than his party and that the prospect of non-stop proctology examinations by the news media and his opponents outweighed the glory of a presidential run.

But funny thing, when I took a quick spin around the political blogosphere, I was struck by the almost total absence of Sarah Palin's name as a take-seriously contender for the Republican nomination.

Palin's stock, of course, has fallen as precipitously as Daniels' had risen. Her approval ratings are in the toilet, no one takes her seriously except for the hardest of the hard-core Republican base, and news that she may have bought a house in North Scottsdale, Arizona, a more suitable home base than Wasilla for a presidential run, has gotten less attention than her daughter's recent plastic surgery and new reality TV show.

Because almost no one takes seriously wannabes Michele Bachmann and Herb Cain, as well, this leaves the rather unappetizing choice of Mitt Romney, who is raising buckets of campaign cash but is detested by that hard-core base, and Tim Pawlenty, a lightweight who will have to cheat on his purity test to have a chance at the nomination.

Beyond the flame-outs, notably Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump, the paucity of take-seriously Republican candidates at this stage of the game is not surprising despite all the harrumphing among the punditocracy.

The biggest problems for Republicans are hiding in plain view:

* The need for wannabes to get their tickets punched by that hard-core base. This group is electoral disaster writ large -- determinedly out of touch with Main Street, in deep denial about global warming, and unwilling to stop fighting culture wars over issues like abortion and gay marriage that stopped tripping most voters' triggers years ago.

* Barack Obama, who is well on his way to earning a second term. Despite some missteps, the young president has delivered on much of his agenda, pulled the nation back from the economic brink, has been an able commander in chief, and has exhibited a kind of leadership and gravitas sorely lacking during the first eight years of the decade.

So what's a Republican to do? Start counting the weeks, months and years until 2016.

Image by John Lund/Getty

Cartoon du Jour

Jim Morin/Miami Herald

Bill Hunter (1940-2011)


Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Roman Loranc

Monday, May 23, 2011

Israel's Future: Obama Is On The Right Side Of History While Netanyahu Is Not

Benjamin Netanyahu may eventually figure out that Barack Obama is not George Bush, who never seemed to grasp that Israel's survival depended on the U.S. and not the other way around.

Nor did Bush have Netanyahu's measure. Obama does, understanding that he is a coward masquerading as a bully who is caught between Israeli factions even more bellicose than himself (think far-right Republicans) and a president with whom he will have to deal, in all likelihood, for the rest of his tenure as prime minister.

This is the dynamic playing out behind Netanyahu's visit to Washington. The visit includes a face-to-face meeting with Obama at the White House, a Netanyahu address to Congress that Republicans had unsuccessfully tried to arrange prior to Obama's speech so that he could pre-empt him, and separate appearances before the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the Chicken Little of lobbying groups and one so powerful that it has been able to make U.S. politicians, from president on down, quake on command. Until now.

Netanyahu's White House visit in March 2010 was punctuated by a not-so-subtle snub by Obama, who walked out in the middle of tense talks to have supper with his family, leaving the prime minister to cool his heels. The reason was Netanyahu's refusal to back down over Israel's latest poke in the Palestinian eye: New Jewish construction in East Jerusalem.

It was not a coincidence that an
Israeli government committee approved more new construction in East Jerusalem as Netanyahu's Washington-bound jet was in the air and just hours before an address on the Middle East in which Obama again stated that Israel's pre-1967 borders should be the starting point for negotiations over a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu's view is that the 1967 borders are indefensible, which is a curious assertion because Israel had no problem defending those borders in . . . uh, 1967.

The U.S.'s position, one that Obama has delineated before, is shared by the international community. No matter. It was, of course, greeted with feigned horror by the Likudniks at Fox News and prompted the requisite harrumphing from Netanyahu, who make sure the world knew that he had called Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and chewed her out. Right on cue, AIPAC demanded that the U.S. reaffirm its commitment to the Jewish state.

No reaffirmation is necessary. Obama was unequivocal in his speech that the U.S. will continue to stand by Israel and that the Palestinians must make their own concessions, but it is 2012 and not 2004 and the Middle East, where change has always been glacial, is moving forward at dizzying speed while Israel digs itself an ever deeper hole.

The upshot of the White House meeting was no surprise. Netanyahu, who is transparently contemptuous of Obama, said he shared his vision for peace between Israelis and Palestinians but then rattled off the nonnegotiable conditions that have kept the two sides at an impasse for years, in effect rejecting all of the compromises that the president has offered.

In fairness to Netanyahu, even if he wanted help speed Palestinian statehood as a sop to the U.S. and Israel's neighbors, which he does not, it would bring down his government. So he will not do what is in Israel's bests interests because they are not in his.

But the Netanyahu may be a little too shrewd for his own good. Obama will not back down, as did Bush when faced with Israeli wrath, and I expect that the president will end up playing the prime minister as he has played other foes.

In this case, the denouement could come in September when the Palestinians are expected to launch a unilateral push for statehood in the U.N. General Assembly. That will be a symbolic gesture, but Netanyahu nevertheless will insist on a U.S. veto in the Security Council. He would be foolish to assume that Obama will accede to being his straw man by being the obstacle to statehood.

Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally in 1995 in Tel Aviv's Kings Square for being on the right side of history, while 16 years later Netanyahu is so completely on the wrong side that it boils my Jewish blood. But I can and do take comfort that there is an American president who will not be Israel's stooge.

Photograph by The Associated Press

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/Universal Press Syndicate

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Gordon H. Coster
Hat tip to Woods' Lot

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Vietnam & Iraq: Bitter Lessons of Backing The Right Horse In the Wrong War

(Portions originally published in November 2007)
The death last month of Madame Nhu aka the Dragon Lady, who was a lightning rod for all that was wrong with the U.S.-supported South Vietnamese regime, hree weeks before the death of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, another assassination of a president occurred halfway around the world -- the CIA-backed murder of Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam.

That assassination is a mere historic footnote, but it helped propel the U.S. into a decade-long quagmire that took 58,000 American lives and in some respects was a template for another failed war in Iraq. The similarities include an attempt to impose democracy on a society that is unprepared for it and divided along sectarian lines, as well as propping up a corrupt regime more focused on power mongering than national reconciliation.Kennedy was very much a free-thinking liberal, but he always put America's interests first.

As a young congressman, Kennedy had been a lonely voice in condemning U.S. military aid to colonialist France in its fight against the Communist Viet Minh Army in what was then called Indochina.

In April 1954, a few weeks before the French were expelled from Dien Bien Phu by the Viet Minh, Kennedy declared on the floor of the House:

"To pour men, material and money into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory would be dangerously futile . . . no amount of American military assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy which is everywhere, an enemy of the people, which had the sympathy and the covert support of the people."

Nevertheless, Kennedy rejected the
1954 Geneva Accords, which called for reuniting the Communist North with the U.S.-backed South, and believed that South Vietnam could not only survive but prosper as a democracy, and most importantly as a bulwark against the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia, with American moral and financial support.

Only a few weeks into his administration, Kennedy learned the hard way that meddling in another country's affairs could backfire after approving the disastrous CIA-backed Bay of Pigs Invasion against Fidel Castro. He vowed that the U.S. would not face similar humiliation in Vietnam.

Like Kennedy, Ngo Dinh Diem was a Roman Catholic, but South Vietnam’s first president was not exactly a poster boy for democracy.

As the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret report on U.S. involvement in Vietnam revealed, intelligence reports showed that Diem was an autocrat whose policies were alienating the Buddhist majority and helping the Communists, and that his hold on power was shaky.

Within weeks after the Cuba disaster, Kennedy acknowledged that pats on the back and America greenbacks weren't enough when he ordered 400 Special Forces troops to Vietnam and another 100 advisers to help train up the South Vietnamese military, as well as instituting a clandestine war against the Viet Minh and Viet Cong guerrillas in both the South and North and neighboring Laos.

Vice President Lyndon Johnson visited Vietnam shortly thereafter and met with Diem, calling him the "Churchill of Southeast Asia" in public but confiding to Kennedy in private that the U.S. would have to commit to further military action or get rid of Diem.

Kennedy rejected Diem's calls for a major infusion of American troops and air support, but the number of Special Forces and advisers grew steadily, as did the clandestine campaign, and by 1963 there were 16,000 Americans in-country and U.S. deaths were climbing into the hundreds.By the summer of 1963, something had to give.

Led by the president's corrupt brother Nhu and sister-in-law, the flamboyant Madame Nhu, the Diem regime was waging open warfare against South Vietnam's Buddhist majority. They made mass arrests and closed schools, prompting demonstrations, including one during which a monk set himself on fire on a crowded Saigon street, a public relations disaster in the States and abroad not unlike the backlash provoked by images from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq four decades later.

Sympathetic Kennedy biographers were to write that Diem's subsequent assassination was not in the script, but that appears to not have been the case because the president was not only privy to intimations that Diem was to be disposed of with U.S. help, but gave it his tacit approval.

Diem was advised by the U.S. to remove the Nhus from power but resisted. Then in August 1963, word reached Washington that a coup attempt was being planned against Diem and Nhu with the help of a CIA officer. Kennedy is said to have responded by declaring that there was "no turning back."

The first attempt was stillborn, but on November 1, Vietnamese Army soldiers loyal to a group of anti-Diem generals moved on the presidential palace, confronted Diem, demanded that he and the Nhus resign and offered them safe exit from the country. Diem called U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. for help, but Lodge replied that the U.S. could take no action.

Diem and Nhu escaped through a secret tunnel under the palace and made their way to the Chinese district of Saigon where they were captured and killed under still murky circumstances.No federal law then or now criminalizes U.S. involvement in the assassination of a foreign official. While the involvement of the CIA in and White House approval of the plot against Diem may have been questionable, it was not illegal. Nor was his death the end of the U.S.'s problems.

Upon learning of the assassination, Ho Chi Minh is reported to have said, "I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid." The North Vietnamese Politburo was more explicit, predicting:

Ho and his advisors understood what Kennedy and his advisors did not: Diem had been a powerful if unpleasant bulwark against Communism.

South Vietnam would never have another leader as strong nor a government as stable, and a succession of coups took place during the years after his death as the U.S. was inextricably drawn deeper and deeper into the fight against the Communists.

The U.S. had, in a sense, backed the right horse in the wrong war, and blind to the quagmire that awaited it, then helped kill the horse. The consequences, which may well have been the same had Diem continued to rule, included an end to the Democratic hegemony in Washington, over 58,000 American deaths and years of recriminations over a "lost" war.
Based in part on an article by Peter Kross
in the October 2004 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

Science Sunday Is On Vacation . . .

. . . and will return on June 5.

Friday, May 20, 2011

President's Middle East Speech Gives Arabs & Israelis Little To Chew On

No matter what President Obama would say yesterday in a widely anticipated speech on the Middle East had to be tempered with certain expectation-lowering realities. Chief among them is that the pro-democracy fever sweeping the Arab world has much to do with Al-Jazeera and social media and little to do with Obama or Bush foreign policies, and that Israel, determined to be on the wrong side of history, will continue to be an obstacle to regional stability.

The speech came in the wake of a flurry of diplomatic activity, including largely symbolic sanctions against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which has brutally cracked down on protesters, and
a $2 billion economic aid package for Egypt, which is feeling its way toward a more democratic society in the wake of President Hosni Mubarak's ouster in February.

If that were not enough, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Washington tomorrow with a plan to restart the peace process that offers a single possible concession -- a willingness to negotiate away some of the West Bank territory it illegally occupies. Meanwhile, an Israeli government committee approved the construction of more than 1,500 new settler homes in East Jerusalem just hours before Obama's address.

That address was ostensibly to Americans as he greases the foreign policy skids for his re-election campaign, it was Muslims around the world who were the most important audience, and he gave them little to chew on beyond debt forgiveness and expanded trade, notably with Egypt and Tunisia, which he cited as models for peaceful change.

Those initiatives are praiseworthy, but t
he sense of stalemate is palpable in much of the Middle East, which made it even more important that the president delineate a clear overall U.S. policy for the region in the post-Osama bin Laden world -- most importantly what he expects Israel and the Palestinians to do to jump start peace talks beyond stating the obvious -- that the status quo is not sustainable.

He did not.

He did state, as I had hoped, that Israel's pre-1967 borders should be the starting point for negotiations over a Palestinian state, something that the Netanyahu government has fiercely opposed. He did not rap the knuckles of the recalcitrant Palestinian leadership for climbing back into bed with Hamas, which he probably could not do because he knows that unholy alliance is a prerequisite for many Palestinians for statehood. Nor did he call for the ouster of Assad, while making only passing reference to the deepening quagmire in Libya.

There is nothing to show for the administration's intense early efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, while George Mitchell, the president's peace envoy, announced his resignation last week, his legendary patience having run out.

I continue to believe that a key to the long-term success of the Arab Spring rests with the only non-Arab country in the region.

This does not absolve the Palestinians of making nice, but Israel's reaction of shock and alarm over Mubarak's ouster was deeply disheartening, although not surprising. After all, no other nation in the region has a peace treaty with Egypt and the Egyptian president had supported Israel's inhumane Gaza policy.

In fairness to Netanyahu, even if he wanted help speed Palestine statehood as a sop to the U.S. and Israel's neighbors, which he does not, elements of Israeli society even more hawkish than he is would bring down his government.

I would never equate Netanyahu with Assad. I would defend Israel's right to exist with my own blood. But it is long past time for the U.S. give Israel a dose of strong medicine. That would have spoken louder regarding the U.S.'s long-term intentions -- and that it is foursquare behind the Arab Spring no matter where it may try to blossom -- than any speechifying about the joys of democracy.

Click here for the text of the speech.
Photograph by Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/Universal Press Syndicate

On Taking Unserious Politicians Seriously

So much of what Big Sarah Palin and Little Ricky Santorum say is so nutty that there is a temptation to ignore then. After all, both are attention freaks and one would hope that if they were starved of that commodity they would go away.

Alas, it is not that simple for the simple reason that both continue to make noises about running for president, and so long as that is a possibility, they have to be taken . . . well, if not exactly seriously, then something or other.

Santorum, who is riding the Torture Got Osama bandwagon, is very much in the news for his latest fusillade -- his astonishing assertion that John McCain, who had to endure six years of the kind of torture in a North Vietnamese POW camp that was de rigueur during George Bush's first term, "doesn’t understand how enhanced interrogation works" in pushing back against torture apologists.

Then there is Palin, who while yet to make a fool of herself this week, has been quietly greasing the skids for a presidential run by soliciting donations to SarahPAC and now is running head-and-head with Mitt Romney in at least one poll of GOP presidential wannabes after Mike Huckabee bowed out and Donald Trump flamed out.

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

(Paris -- 1972)
By Martine Franck/Magnum Photos

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The One Thing That Boomers Got Right

Objectively speaking, baby boomers have screwed up virtually everything they have touched as government leaders and politicians. Or continued to perpetrate existing screw-ups. But down at the state level they have gotten something right in a growing number of states: Authorizing medical marijuana use and decriminalizing personal marijuana use.

The reason for this is obvious: Many boomers grew up smoking marijuana or at least were exposed to it, and fairly large numbers continue to smoke it. Consequently, they never bought the big lie -- still being foisted on us by the Drug Enforcement Administration and shamefully agreed to in the breech by the Obama administration -- that marijuana is a gateway drug that also has serious medical and psychological consequences.

In fact, Obama has broken a campaign promise to keep the feds' mitts off of doctors who prescribe marijuana to help treat nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy, for AIDS victims, and sufferers of glaucoma and gastrointestinal illnesses.

So it has been left to state legislatures to undercut the big lie, and Delaware last month became the 15th state to authorize the use of medical marijuana. (It also is legal in the District of Columbia.) Only a small handful of states have decriminalized non-medical personal use, but that number also continues to grow.

* * * * *
My father, addicted to nicotine for his entire adult life and a Delaware resident, was wracked by lung cancer in the months before he died in 1981, but the chemo-induced nausea was even worse. I made arrangements to have a little package of marijuana cigarettes sent to my mother. She stored them in the Frigidaire and doled them out to my father when his nausea was especially awful.

Joe Mullen died before he had hardly made a dent in the package, but the cigarettes were a great source of relief for this gentle man who wouldn't hurt a soul but was then -- and still would be considered now -- a criminal by the government of his beloved country.

My friend, a Delaware resident, has suffered from a variety of ailments over the years and has smoked marijuana or eaten marijuana brownies baked by his wife to mitigate his discomfort. So imagine his pleasant surprise when his old doctor retired and he was referred to a sixtysomething general practitioner late last year.

"What do you do to relieve your discomfort," the doctor asked.

After hesitating, my friend replied, "Marijuana."

To which the doctor responded, "Well, good for you. I don't know how my wife and I would make it without the stuff."

And so my friend will soon be able to smoke marijuana legally.

* * * * *
Data compiled by groups such as the Pew Research Center show a consistent upward trend towards supporting legalization of marijuana for recreational use, although no poll so far has shown a majority in favor. Interestingly, support for legalizing marijuana breaks down along racial lines. According to a new CNN poll, non-whites are less likely to support legalizing marijuana than whites, even though blacks are more likely be arrested for drug possession than whites.

While the pollsters do not explain why this may be so, my supposition is that people in poor minority neighborhoods wracked by drugs don't see legalization as necessarily a positive move.

* * * * *
While the slow drift toward decriminalizing personal marijuana has accelerated and that is gratifying, it has less to do with the reality that marijuana is not the boogie man its opponents have long portrayed it as being than economic and social realities. Developments in California and Philadelphia prove the point.

In nearly-bankrupt California, a referendum question on whether to legalize personal marijuana use was shot down in the November election, but seems likely to eventually pass.

Although numbers are being thrown around with abandon by the "Tax Cannabis" pro-legalization forces, it is estimated that sales of marijuana total $14 billion a year in the Golden State, which could result in a $1.4 billion windfall from a tax on sales. (If pot is taxed the same as cigarettes or liquor the state's toke . . . er, take could be up to $14 billion.)

Meanwhile, with Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams taking the lead, there is a movement to all but decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Again, not because it's the right thing to do but because Philadelphia's court dockets are crowded with people whose only crime is getting caught with a small amount of pot, even a single joint.

Prosecutors now charge such cases as summary offenses rather than as misdemeanors. People arrested with up to 30 grams of the drug -- slightly more than an ounce -- may have to pay a fine but face no risk of a criminal record.

Small steps toward sanity, and progress indeed.

Cartoon du Jour

Mike Keefe/The Denver Post

Cornel West's Cheap Shot At Obama

Never let it be said that people who have grievances against Barack Obama because he won't talk their talk and walk their walk are white progressives.

There's eminent black scholar Cornel West, who calls the president a "a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it."

Strong stuff, and off target.

But if you read between the lines, as Ta-Nehisi Coates did, you come away with the impression that West is less exercised over Obama's relationship with oligarchs and plutocrats than not getting his ring kissed with returned phone calls and inauguration tickets.

And "the head of the American killing machine" is beyond strange. After all, the guy is commander and chief.

Priest Scandal: Hippies Made Them Do It

The blame-shifting excuses that the American Roman Catholic Church keeps coming up with in its decade-long effort to explain away the pedophile priest scandal have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. My favorite is that this was not an epidemic of pedophilia but homosexuality. On the part of the victims, of course.

But now a new excuse is being offered and it's a whopper:
A five-year study commissioned by the church's bishops concludes that homosexuality actually is not to blame. It is because priests were poorly prepared for the social and sexual turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s.

In other words, hippies made them do it.

* * * * *

It is obvious that the Roman Catholic Church is unwilling to deal once and for all with the epidemic of pedophile priests, left alone reform itself. Two recent developments, one of them sadly close to home, confirm this sordid reality.

First, the bankrupting of St. Elizabeth's Parish in Wilmington, Delaware, which has a fine high school and is the home church of the Roman Catholics in my late father's family and the scene of too many happy weddings and too many sad funerals for me to count.

St. Elizabeth's is on its knees for the simple reason that it not only did not take seriously allegations regarding the sexual misconduct of one of its priests, it did not even bother to rein him in. As a result, a court has awarded $77 million to more than 140 abuse victims.

Second, the belated suspension of 21 priests at Philadelphia Archdiocese churches who had long been accused of misconduct and finally were identified by name in a February grand jury report.

The report struck a by-now familiar note -- the 1.5 million member archdiocese engaged in a widespread cover-up of predatory priests, most of whom remained active despite the allegations against them.

As the seemingly bottomless pit of scandals keeps coughing up new revelations, it is obvious that apologies aside, Pope Benedict XVI and the church's hierarchy are incapable of punishing their own, and to date only two cardinals -- one in Boston and the other in Ireland -- have been forced out, although two or three others have resigned.

My father was raised a Catholic, was an altar boy and attended 12 years of parochial school with the mandatory assaults on his knuckles by nuns with rulers. His big takeaway was that the church thrived on and controlled its congregants through the very guilt that the church has used as a cudgel to shame some abuse victims.

Back in the day, it also was openly anti-Semitic.
Don't get me wrong. Benedict is a vast improvement over John Paul II, whose orthodoxy did not allow him to appreciate the vileness of the pedophilia epidemic, let alone act on it.

If progress is measured in terms of the number and sincerity of apologies, then Benedict would get a pass. If reform is measured in terms of developing stringent after-the-fact policies, then he also would get a pass.

But I -- and apparently a lot of Catholics, as well -- believe that not just abuser priests but enabling bishops must also be punished, and Benedict has been unwilling or unable to say that what they did was not merely sinful but criminal, while he has refused to accept the resignations of some offending bishops.