The Syria Dilemma

There’s news this morning that the United States, Great Britain, and France have launched air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria.  The strikes are in response to what the three Western allies call a chemical weapons atrocity committed by the Assad regime on its own people, and are targeting laboratories, production facilities, storage facilities, and other elements of the regime’s chemical weapons capabilities.

5ad199560f2544131873fb90Nobody wants to see civilians assaulted by chemical weapons, of course, and I agree with President Trump that anyone who uses chemical weapons is a “monster.”  The problem is that the Assad regime denies any use of chemical weapons, and its allies — namely, Russia and Iran — are backing the regime.  Indeed, at one point Russia claimed that Great Britain had, for some elusive reason, staged the chemical attack.  The outlandishness of that claim gives us a pretty good idea of how to assess the relative credibility of the charges and countercharges concerning who did what.

But in the curious arena of international affairs, questions of credibility and truth, and right and wrong, often don’t mean much.  Attacking Syria will have consequences for our relations with Russia and Iran, such as they are, and might put other American allies, like Israel, at increased risk.  Of course, it could also risk drawing the United States deeper into the quagmire of internal disputes in a foreign nation, a la Afghanistan and Iraq.  On the other hand, do countries like the United States, France, and Great Britain, which have the ability to take concrete steps to try to stop the use of chemical weapons, have a moral obligation to do something like launching these attacks when international organizations like the United Nations prove to be incapable of protecting innocents from monstrous and barbaric attacks?

It’s a dilemma that is above my pay grade, and one which I hope our leaders have thought through thoroughly and carefully.  I’m all for stopping the use of chemical weapons, but it is the unpredictable long-term consequences that give me concern.

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In Support Of Boaty McBoatface

If you’ve ever walked through a marina, you’ve quickly come to understand that there must be few, if any, limits on what you can name your boat.

Short of outright obscenity, just about anything apparently goes, and you see boats with boring, unimaginative names like Jennifer’s Dream, boats that shamelessly boast of their owners’ financial success, boats that suggestively tell the world that they’re ready to party, and boats that bear really bad puns like Seas The Day.  (My favorite boat name ever, which I saw on a derelict, beached craft on the rocky shores of the harbor in Stonington, Maine several years ago, was Shit Happens.)

uk-npv-aerial-view-smallSo when the British Natural Environment Research Council invited the public to name its new polar research vessel through a voting competition, what were they expecting, really?  Of course they got whimsical and silly and punny names — like Usain Boat and It’s Bloody Cold Here — because that what boat namers naturally come up with.  And the runaway winner in the competition is along the same lines:  Boaty McBoatface.

I happen to like the name Boaty McBoatface — in fact, I like it a lot — but I can see why the NERC might conclude that it really doesn’t convey the seriousness of the vessel’s mission. Imagine a bundled up BBC correspondent, reporting from the rolling, windswept deck as the craft plunges through an iceberg-dotted seascape, beginning the report by saying in a high-brow British accent:  “This is Jeremy Middleditch reporting from the deck of the Arctic exploration vessel Boaty McBoatface . . . .”

It’s probably not the message the NERC was hoping to convey, and the NERC gets the final say on naming the boat.  So even though Boaty McBoatface got nine times as many votes as the second place name, serious types are urging the NERC to overrule the public and give the boat a more inspirational name, like the name of a long-dead polar explorer or adventurer — which is how the two current polar exploration vessels are named.

I hope the NERC avoids the temptation.  Sure, the winning name sounds like a cartoon character, but we need more whimsy in our lives.  I’m all in for Boaty McBoatface!

24 And Obamacare

You never know how a TV show might affect American politics.  The West Wing and House of Cards often have given people a different perspective on pending national issues, and 24 has helped to keep terrorism front and center in the national zeitgeist.

But now 24 may have a new impact . . . on Obamacare.  Everyone knows that Great Britain has the National Health Service, and Republican critics say that’s where Obamacare will lead us — to a single-payer system where the government employs the doctors, pays for all care, and decides how long you have to wait to get that knee replacement.  According to the Republicans, it’s just unacceptable.

But last night, the British National Health System was shown off to good effect on 24.  A terrorist is hit by a bus.  She’s quickly treated by an EMS crew and efficiently taken to the nearest hospital.  When she arrives she’s whisked into the ER room and treated by a team of doctors and nurses in crisp uniforms.  The hospital is spotless.  Not only are there no crowds, the place seems almost deserted, and the warm and caring health care providers have plenty of time to devote to each patient.

Socialized medicine was looking pretty good there for a while – at least until an obviously threatening guy was able to steal a uniform from a room full of them and wander through the hallways with a loaded gun, until the head doctor of the trauma team was willing to give up his patient because some unknown whispering American got in his face about it, and until the threatening guy was gunned down in a hospital hallway.  Thank goodness the desperate crowds waiting for care that the Republicans have talked about weren’t there, or some innocent waiting for their procedure could have been hurt!

Next week, I’m expecting 24 to show a Desert Storm veteran getting immediate and excellent care at a VA hospital.

Cabinet War Rooms

036In the late 1930s, when war with Nazi Germany became increasingly certain, an employee of the British government was tasked with developing a safe underground complex from which the British government could conduct the impending conflict. The result of his work was the Cabinet War Rooms — or, because they became known by the name of the man who led Great Britain during the conflict, the Churchill War Rooms.

The rooms were locked after victory was achieved in 1945 and left undisturbed for years. Knowledge of the rooms was still restricted, but tours of the rooms were given to some VIPs, who were fascinated and urged that the rooms be made available to the public. As a result, the Cabinet War Rooms were opened to the public. Yesterday Richard and I paid a visit to the rooms, and it was like walking back in time.

031The War Rooms are located in the basement of a government building a block or so away from 10 Downing Street. The museum itself allows you to walk through the complex, looking at the tiny bedrooms and dining rooms and offices of the people who worked there, the map rooms with different colored yarn to denote Allied and Axis positions, and the offices where different colored phones linked the Prime Minister and head of British armed forces to the various branches of the British military. The entire facility very much has the feel (and faint smell) of a place that was locked when it was no longer needed and left undisturbed for years. It’s wonderful stuff for a history buff.

025One of the nicer aspects of the Cabinet War Rooms was a display at the beginning that showed pictures, correspondence, and in some instances video interview footage of the average British people who worked at this top-secret facility as secretaries, messengers, or code readers. These people kept the precise location and nature of their work a secret for years, risked injury and death by being at the center of London during the Blitz, and then went back to their regular lives after the war ended. It’s heartening to see that their important contributions to the Allied cause were recognized.

The Cabinet War Rooms also include a Winston Churchill museum that provides information about the brilliant and inspirational speaker who led Great Britain for most of the war, before being voted out of office shortly before Japan surrendered. Churchill’s speeches, uniforms, odd work habits, and relations with other world leaders are all addressed in the museum, which would be worth visiting on its own merits.

When Churchill And Stalin Hit The Bottle

The BBC has an interesting story about a World War II summit meeting that tells us a bit about how the world has changed, and also, perhaps, about how it hasn’t.

The story took place in 1942, when Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, traveled to Moscow for a summit meeting with Joseph Stalin, the dictator who led the Soviet Union.  The two countries were new allies, brought together by their common foe, Nazi Germany.

The initial meetings between the leaders didn’t exactly go smoothly.  Churchill requested another meeting, which began at 7 p.m.  At 1 a.m. an under-secretary of the British Foreign Office was invited to join the proceedings and found Stalin, Churchill, and Russian Foreign Secretary Molotov sitting around the shredded remains of a suckling pig on a table covered with countless bottles of liquor.  By that time Churchill was just drinking wine and complaining of a headache, and Stalin made the bureaucrat drink a concoction that was “pretty savage.”  The meeting continued until 3 a.m., when the Brits stumbled back to their rooms, packed, and headed to the airport.

The drinking party was unconventional — although not unusual for the Soviets, whose reputation for long, vodka-saturated banquets continued for decades — but it did the trick.  Churchill and Stalin established a personal connection that helped the allies steer their way to victory over the Axis powers.

It’s hard to imagine our modern political leaders having drinking bouts and making bleary-eyed policy decisions at 2 a.m. after guzzling countless shots of booze.  We obviously wouldn’t want them to do so.  But the importance of making a personal connection remains as true today as it was 70 years ago during the dark days of a global war.  Summit meetings still make sense because we want our leaders to be able to take the measure of each other and establish relationships that can stand the stress when times get tough.

Iron And Sand

Margaret Thatcher and Annette Funicello both died today.

During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Margaret Thatcher — the Iron Lady — was a titanic figure in Great Britain and the modern world.  She put backbone into the British Conservative Party, rolled back some of the socialist initiatives of the ’50s and ’60s, and was an outspoken advocate of capitalism and individual liberties.  She refused to give up the Falkland Islands to Argentina and fought a war instead, was a staunch ally to the United States under Ronald Reagan, and was a strong anti-Communist voice in the world.  Thatcher was the first woman to serve as Great Britain’s Prime Minister, and she led the Conservative Party for 15 years, from 1975 to 1990.  Years from now, Thatcher is likely to be recognized as one of the most significant historical figures of the 20th century.

Annette Funicello, on the other hand, was not a significant historical figure.  Instead, her impact was largely cultural.  She was one of the original Mouseketeers and, for those of us not quite old enough to remember The Mickey Mouse Club, she was the star, with Frankie Avalon, of a series of ridiculous “beach movies” that always seemed to be on TV when I was a kid.  Funicello was the voice of calm common sense and reason in a make-believe world where teenaged girls worried endlessly about whether to give their boyfriends a chaste kiss, motorcycle gangs were comedic relief, and a guy named Moondoggie and a cast of swimsuit-wearing teens might break into wild beachfront dancing at any moment.

Margaret Thatcher and Annette Funicello probably didn’t have a lot in common — yet each had her own, special impact on the world.  Each sported a hairdo that looked like hardened cotton candy and probably could break your nose.  Each left this mortal coil on April 8, 2013, and each will be missed.

That Classic Dry British Wit

A competition in Great Britain picked the ten best one-liners of the year, as determined by public vote.

The winner?  Canadian comedian Stewart Francis’ jibe:  “You know who really gives kids a bad name? Posh and Becks.”

If, like me, you don’t know who the heck “Posh” and “Becks” are, you just don’t get this quip.  With a little digging, however, you learn that “Becks” is British soccer star David Beckham and “Posh” is his wife, former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham, and that they have named their unfortunate children Brooklyn, Romeo, Cruz and Harper Seven — and suddenly you think that the one-liner is pretty funny.

Two other personal favorites from the top 10:  Will Marsh’s comment that “I was raised as an only child, which really annoyed my sister” (number 3) and Chris Turner’s jest, “I’m good friends with 25 letters of the alphabet… I don’t know Y” (number 5).