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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Creepy Playgrounds

The London Daily Mail has an interesting article about creepy sculptures that appear to haunt some of the playgrounds built during the Soviet era in Russia.  There’s no doubt that there is a profoundly disturbing, nightmarish quality about some of the figures that could haunt little kids and cause them to avoid the playgrounds altogether.

7055939An evil, grinning chimp with fangs?  A crying woman in a blue dress?  A goateed, wide-eyed doctor in a lab coat ready to plunge some unknown instrument into your skull?  A hollow-eyed, distraught boy kneeling on the ground?  A bizarre fight between an emaciated bull and a reptilian creature?  Who came with this stuff, the psychological warfare section of the KGB?

But maybe we’re being too hard on the Soviets.  Let’s face it, American playgrounds aren’t exactly free from disturbing stuff, either.  Any playground that has a jungle gym, an old-fashioned merry-go-ground, and “monkey bars” is bound to present its share of childhood horror.  And the decorations at some playgrounds are unsettling, too.  We used to live a block away from a park we called “Yogi Bear Park” because it had a teeter-totter where the fulcrum was a covered by a cheap plastic depiction of the head of Yogi Bear.  The adults recognized the figure as Smarter than the Average Bear, but to little kids it was an unknown, apparently grimacing figure wearing a bad hat and a tie.  What the parents saw as Yogi, the kids perceived as a weird, lurking presence.  Not surprisingly, the tykes tended to steer clear of old Yogi.

For that matter, childhood is filled with intentionally scary stuff that suggests that adults get a kick out of frightening youngsters.  “Fairy tales” aren’t happy stories about fairies, but horror shows of child-eating witches, child-eating wolves, and other evil creatures ready to devour any wayward kid.  Hey, kids!  How about a bedtime story?

We apparently delight in terrifying children.  The Russian playgrounds just bring it out into the open.

Red River

Recently I ran across this article about a spill from a nickel mining facility in Russia that turned the Daldykan River an ugly, blood red color.  The spill was admitted by Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest producer of nickel and other industrial metals, although the company said that, despite the discoloration in the water, the incident posed no risk to people or fauna in the river.  The article reports that the region where the spill occurred is one of the most polluted areas in the world.

160907215643-russia-river-red-exlarge-169The story got me to thinking about an incident that occurred when I was a kid.  One time UJ and I were exploring around a nearby stream on a warm summer’s day in the suburban Akron area near our house.  We noticed that the water had a weird smell to it, and that there were clumps of dirty brown foam drifting by on the top of the water.  It’s the first time I can remember encountering pollution, and thereafter I really paid attention to it.  I noticed the litter on highways, and the news stories about air pollution, but the pollution problem always seemed to be most obvious with rivers, streams, and lakes — like the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie.

Shortly after UJ and I saw the dirty, foaming river, the United States started to pass major environmental regulations, and states did, too.  And while there is no doubt that the federal and state environmental regulators have had their moments of overreaching and bureaucratic inertia, there is equally no doubt that the environmental protection laws, and clean-up requirements, have had a tremendous, positive impact on air and water quality.  Anyone who compares the Lake Erie of 1970 to the Lake Erie of today will acknowledge that fact.

I’d like to think that an incident like the red river of Russia couldn’t happen in the United States — but if it did, I also have confidence that we would get it cleaned up.  I tend to be suspicious of government promises to fix problems, because they often turn out to be empty words, but environmental regulation is one area where the government has had a major impact.  The red river is a good reminder of that.

The Oil Story

Recently I ran across an interesting article on developments in the oil-producing world.  Provocatively headlined “The Collapse of the Old Oil Order,” it addresses the dissension within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the economic forces that are affecting the price of oil and keeping it below $50 a barrel.

Much of the article addresses geopolitical forces — like Saudi Arabia’s very rocky relations with Iran and Russia, two other big petroleum producers, and changes within the Saudi regime itself to move the Kingdom’s economy away from near-total reliance on oil prices and its seemingly endless supply of crude — but the piece also gets into the basics of global supply and demand.  And those familiar elements from Economics 101 have changed in ways that the experts didn’t really predict, especially on the supply side.

With the discovery of massive supplies of shale oil and gas in the United States and the development of technology to extract it, for example, there’s lots of new supply in the marketplace, and no one is making the predictions that we’re going to run out of oil in the foreseeable future that we used to hear.  In addition, green initiatives and other forces have affected the demand for oil in developed countries, and the consumption of oil in developing countries hasn’t bridged the gap.  The result is an oversupply, with countries whose oil production costs are highest struggling to deal with the current economic reality.

Gas prices aren’t exactly cheap — in Columbus and nationally, they’ve actually increased recently — but they are far from their peak prices of $4.00 a gallon or more years ago.  And the days when mighty OPEC was unified and could singlehandedly send shock waves through the global economy seem to be behind us.  It’s a good example of how predicting the future based on the uninterrupted continuation of current trends can often be wrong.

Puppies Of The Permafrost

In the far northeast region of Russia, in an area called Yakutia, portions of the permafrost are melting.  From time to time, the melt exposes the tusks of long-dead wooly mammoths, which are prized by collectors, so local hunters regularly prowl the melt zone, looking for trophies they can sell.

information_items_3462Instead, five years ago the hunters found . . . a puppy, still locked in the ice but apparently perfectly preserved.

When the hunters made the find they alerted scientists who flew to the area and found another frozen puppy from the same litter nearby.  The puppies date back 12,460 years, to the last Ice Age.  The remains of the two puppies have now been extracted from the permafrost and are being studied by excited researchers.  Because the puppies apparently were killed by a mudslide and then immediately encapsulated in the oncoming ice, all of their soft tissue — brains, internal organs, fur, and skin — has been preserved, which is exceptionally rare.  Even parasites on the puppies’ bodies were frozen in place and are being studied.  (It makes you wonder how quickly the ice was advancing, doesn’t it?)

Because the puppies were found close to some butchered and burned mammoth bones, suggestive of the presence of early humans, scientists are very curious as to whether the pups were simply part of a wolfpack in the area, or were part of a wolf-like but separate species that already was allied with early humans and later developed into fully domesticated dogs.  The research on the remains of the two puppies will undoubtedly help in the broad ongoing effort to unravel where the modern dog came from.

It’s pretty amazing to see the body of a mammal so perfectly preserved from a time long before the pharoahs and the building of the Sphinx, when mammoths and saber-toothed tigers still roamed the planet.  It makes you wonder what other remains might be locked in the permafrost, waiting to be exposed in the gradual melt.  Could there be a perfectly preserved Neanderthal or one of those mysterious Denisovans who could teach us a lot about the dawn of humans?

Redefining “Success”

John Kirby, a spokesman for the United States Department of State, has published a “year in review” piece on the Department’s official blog.  He notes that while “the year was not without challenges,” the “United States has helped to change the world for the better” and adds:  “Our diplomats have been busy, and they have met with significant success across a range of issues.”  He then gives his “take” on them using “a great hashtag — #2015in5Words — which was recently trending on Twitter.”

One of the #2015in5Words items Kirby lists is “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria.”

syrian-refugees-opener-6151Huh?  Syria?  The Syria where a bloody civil war between the terrorist forces of ISIS and the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad has provoked a huge refugee crisis?  The Syria where significant parts of the control are under the control of a deadly terrorist group and where fighting is going on, even now?  The Syria where every big power is flexing its muscle and where, thanks to the support of Russia and Iran, it looks like the murderous Assad might conceivably stay in power?

How does Kirby explain that the U.S. was involved in “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria”?  He doesn’t, really.  He says only that the U.S. has “stepped up to aid the Syrian people during their time of need” and that “the UN Security Council passed a U.S.-sponsored resolution that puts forward a roadmap that will facilitate a transition within Syria to a credible, inclusive, nonsectarian government that is responsive to the needs of the Syrian people.”  Americans should be proud of their traditional generosity to others, of course, but neither increased aid or the passage of a preliminary United Nations Security Council resolution can reasonably be characterized as “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria” in the face of intense ongoing fighting.

Oh, and another “success” included by Kirby is “Winning Fight Against Violent Extremists.”  It touts the “Summit on Countering Violent Terrorism” hosted by the White House in February 2015 and says “this monumental summit launched an ongoing global CVE effort now underway that reaches throughout the world and across countless nations” that ultimately will lead to the defeat of ISIS.  Seriously?  We’re supposed to count a summit meeting that barely hit the news as a success?  Only a flack could say, in the wake of the events in Paris, San Bernardino, and other locations of horrific terrorist actions in 2015, that we are “winning fight against violent extremists.”

Diplomats are supposed to have credibility, but when you’re searching for “success” and trying to present your case in 5-word hashtags that were recently trending on social media, this is what you get.  Maybe there’s a reason the Department of State’s official blog is called “Dipnote.”

The Coveted Putin Endorsement

Aww, isn’t that sweet?  Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump like each other.  No, really — they really like each other.

The Donald started the courtship first, by extending an olive branch and saying that he would “work with” Putin and “get along” with him.  Then Vlad the Invader upped the ante, stating that Trump was “a bright and talented person without any doubt” and is “an outstanding and talented personality.”  Those Putin plaudits almost made Trumpelstiltskin go squeeee!  He responded by saying:  “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”  You almost expected Trump’s reaction to be followed by a little hand-drawn heart and a smiley face emoticon.

jbrsspbvThe Trump balloon and the leaden Clinton and Bush retread campaigns have made this a weird political year, but Vladimir Putin injecting himself into U.S. presidential politics, and a candidate responding positively to it, just makes the year even weirder.  I’m not sure who “highly respects” Putin — other than Trump, apparently — but it is surely not anyone who knows much about Putin’s record of duplicitousness, invasion, power plays, and support of murderous dictators like Assad on the international front, and his vile and appalling treatment of opponents, journalists, and gays in mother Russia.

I’ve got nothing against trying to “get along” with the leaders of other countries, or at least finding common ground on issues where our interests are aligned.  But Trump’s blushing reaction to Putin’s throwaway compliments is as naive as the Obama Administration’s embarrassing notion that relations with Russia could be changed simply by pushing a “reset” button.  Anyone who actually thought that, as President, Trump would be a tough guy should be under no illusions after the Putin-Trump lovefest.  Trump, like any narcissist, is a pretty easy target — shower him with praise, and he’ll follow you anywhere.  Does anyone really think that the Trumpster would stand up to Putin’s adventurism any more than the Obama Administration has after Putin threw a few more kudos his way?

Somewhere, Vlad the Invader is having a pretty good chuckle right about now.