Global Thoughts — 3 March 2015

Family at Homestead Resort in Virginia
Family at Homestead Resort in Virginia

Can you believe that in the US if you want to telephone the Internal Revenue Service to ask a question about how to file your taxes they no longer have people who will talk to you?

My son Jeremy did a school project called “What I would do if I were President.” Besides decreeing that kids would have no homework, he declared of all things foreign and domestic that he would go and visit Puerto Rico. Probably because he really liked the water slides and zip lines there. (So now he’s wrapped up the kiddie and Puerto Rican votes, except that neither vote in presidential elections.)

My wife’s birthday is coming up and what she really wants is a remote control unit that simply turns the TV on and off. Not one that requires pushing so many buttons that she just loses patience and keeps calling me into the living room to turn on the TV.

There are so many networks on TV and even in the elevators of office buildings there is a TV network. How about the Toilet Paper network inside bathroom stalls in office buildings? I’ll betcha it will happen.

In the Israel election, about 90% of all the money flowing into the political parties and candidates is coming from America. Makes you wonder why all these people don’t just move there and run for office themselves. One reason Bibi and Obama are angry at each other is that one of Obama’s former campaign staffers is consulting for a group that is anti-Bibi.

IMG_2263Here is a prediction: Bibi Netanyahu is going to win the upcoming election in Israel and it’s not even going to be close. The country’s Labor Party isn’t even mounting a credible campaign and the party head is not a popular guy. Even if his Likud party doesn’t get a lot of votes, it will simply lose them to parties further to the Right which will wind up in coalition with him. Bibi and his Republican-tutored advisor/ambassador Ron Dermer are playing the Obama administration like a violin with this speech in Congress and the fuss they are making only helps him in his domestic campaign. The fuss also turned the speech into Washington’s “hottest ticket” according to the NY Times, which made reference today to a meeting of several dozen members of Congress about boycotting the speech with “every single one” asking each other if they had any extra guest tickets. Israelis have a F-U mentality and are not going to penalize him one bit for going behind Obama’s back and accepting the Republican speaker of the House’s invitation to address Congress 2 weeks before an election. Let’s face it – if Bibi were speaking to Congress in support of Obama’s deal with Iran, Obama would be welcoming him with open arms. I’ll venture another prediction – Arab leaders are long-term players and they rather like Bibi because he doesn’t favor change or like to take risks. They know that Obama will be gone in 2 years and that Bibi is now one of the longest-serving prime ministers in Israel’s history. They respect him and this whole episode of him standing up to the US president raises his stock in the region as a man to be reckoned with, probably even more so than Obama especially if they think he will use his military against Iran.

Bibi made his rather persuasive speech the day before the fast of Esther which is on the day preceding the Jewish holiday of Purim, recounted in the Book of Esther, which is part of the Old Testament. He made reference to this in his speech. It is the story of the ancient Persians wanting to destroy the Jews. Esther pleads for her people against the sense that it would be better to stay quiet. You can’t help feel that it is the same historical picture several thousand years later, with the Persian rulers declaring openly that they want to destroy the Jews and Bibi playing the role of Queen Esther standing up to the shouts of “Silence!” to warn of the impending plot. In that day, the Jews rose up to destroy those who would destroy them and the numbers defied common sense. And today Israel will ultimately be the only party to take the lead to act against Iran if the rest of the world won’t. And Saudi Arabia will probably provide the air cover to do it while doing its best to deny it.

I thought Bibi’s speech did a good job of focusing the argument clearly in a way I did not get it before — he made it clear that no deal was better than a bad deal, that taking sides between Iran and ISIS is not like siding with the enemy of your enemy when both of them are truly your enemies, and he crystalized the fact that the deal would inevitably lead to war and a much more dangerous region, and that the most dangerous issue facing the world today is the prospect of militant islam coupled with the bomb. At the same time, I think he did a good job of showing the strength of the alliance between the US and Israel and of depersonalizing and depoliticizing the conflict between himself and Obama. Has anyone noticed lately that the Iranians virtually control Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen? Why talk about having them join the community of nations when they are furiously at work gobbling up the community of nations? It’s a real question. Considering the western world spent over half a century battling over Communism as Public Enemy #1, you’d think they’d have their eyes open to the threat of militant Islam coupled with atomic weapons. The communists were nothing like these fundamentalists — it would make the cold war look like a garden party.

I have a problem taking Europe very seriously. This latest corruption scandal in England involving 2 high level governmental officials selling access to ambassadors to a fake Chinese firm just puts out in the open what we all know – that foreign policy in Europe is almost entirely mercenary and that policy has nothing to do with what’s right. You just don’t want to be trying to fight the bad guys with these people as your allies and you wonder what it must be like being an American president having to be allied with leaders who can be bought off.

Angela Merkel might not wind up being as popular in the historical record as she is now. Several forecasts are showing that Germany will suffer severe economic reversals over the next decade. She has been slow to change course even though people have been recommending changes. Poland gets high marks now and in the future. Russia looks increasingly wobbly into the future.

Our Little Egyptian
Our Little Egyptian

Let’s talk about Vladimir Putin, leader of Russia. At one point I was somewhat in awe of him and saw him as a really good asshole getting the best for Russia in the world. I said that Russia was more of a mafia state than a country but at least it was punching above its weight in the world, considering its economy was the size of Denmark’s. Nowadays Russia teeters on the brink of bankruptcy and it is only a matter of time before it either bends or breaks. Putin won’t bend so he will break when the pressure gets to his insider supporters and they dump him. Where did Putin go wrong? First: He never had a backup plan should oil prices drop. He borrowed when oil prices were high and his pals took all the income out of the country. They never diversified the Russian economy from anything beyond extracting and selling commodities and he never made the country safe for investment. Anyone who had anything or knew anything made sure to get the hell outta there. Putin was more concerned about kicking out opponents and monopolizing the economy that nothing ever developed organically. Second: He assumed that making trouble for the US all over the world would be OK because nobody else would care. This turned out to be wrong; the Saudis wanted Assad out of Syria even more than the US cared and hated Iran enough that they were willing to drive down the price of oil to pressure Russia and Iran to consider their interests. Russia thought it could use China as a wedge against the West but then China went into recession and couldn’t buy all the commodities it used to be buying. And anyway, China has never sidled up to Russia against the US, even when both countries were communist. China doesn’t trust Russia, and even if China or Russia wanted to sell every last dollar it had and turn to the Euro, they couldn’t. There are just not all that many Euros in the world to buy and why would you want to buy a failing currency that has lost over 20% of its value during the past year? And selling all those dollars would just bankrupt you because you’d be driving down the price of your main foreign currency holdings if you just dumped them on the market. Third: Russia thought it could blackmail Europe over its control of gas pipelines, but Europe has found other sources of gas and the price of gas has gone way down. Russia can’t count on Europe to support it out of fear and of course they were never friends. Moral of the story is that you can take on the world for some time and drain your country to fund luxury apartments in various world capitals and a few huge tasteless castles at home, but eventually your luck runs out. And some governments might ultimately seize those apartments and those castles at home become a target for revolutionaries. Better to do things right and use your fortunes to build a prosperous country. Had Putin done that, he would have gone down as one of the great leaders of this generation.

IMG_2255Here is a crazy story of our 28 hour journey back home from a weekend vacation in Virginia. We left at 10am driving toward Roanoke airport for our 1:30 nonstop flight to New York City amid snowy and icy conditions. We know that the flight from Roanoke originates in Pittsburgh and goes to NY, then flies from NY to Roanoke and then returns from Roanoke to NY. In the morning, it said that the flight from Pittsburgh was cancelled but the other two flights were On Time, so we figured they were going to substitute an airplane in NY to make the round trip. Half an hour after the time the flight from NY was supposed to depart, they cancelled the flight from NY due to nonarrival of aircraft, and then also cancelled the flight from Roanoke. But by that time it was 11:45 and we were well on our way to the airport, a 2 1/2 hour drive in the bad weather. Scratching our heads at how mean the airline was to do this, we started driving toward Washington because it appeared that all the flights in and out of Roanoke were not operating. This was because of a freak snowstorm occurring in the Southeast US that day. It took us another 6 hours to make what is usually a 4 hour drive to Washington, and we had started by going 2 hours out of our way. The drive was very scary down interstate highways where I could not see a thing through the windshield at times. We tried to reach Amtrak to get a train but couldn’t get through to anyone and couldn’t buy any tickets over the internet because something wasn’t working. We got to Washington National Airport and returned our rental car, but because we returned it to Washington instead of Roanoke the agent’s computer decided that our $100 car rental became $735 and we weren’t in a position to argue at that moment. We wanted to run to the terminal and try to get on an airplane. We found a 7pm shuttle to NY and jumped on it; at the gate my daughter noticed that she left her iPad in the back seat of the car inside a seat pocket that we couldn’t notice when we cleaned out the car in the dark. Nobody at Hertz was answering the phone. We got on the plane and then sat for 3 hours while they de-iced a bunch of planes; when they got to our plane, they ran out of de-icing fluid and we went to the gate because 3 hours had passed since we left the gate and there is a federal law that requires airplanes with passengers not to sit on the taxiway for more than 3 hours. It was also 11 at night and Laguardia airport in NY has a midnight curfew. The pilot called and they refused to lift the curfew so they then cancelled the flight. The airline gave out hotel vouchers which give you reduced rates but every hotel in the city that was part of their program was sold out. I called a bunch of hotels and finally found one (the Marriott Marquis in Washington is a huge convention center hotel and it was actually quite good and reasonable. Had one of the best hotel gyms I’ve ever seen, by the way.) But then we needed our checked luggage back and the airline told us we’d have to wait close to 2 hours if we insisted on getting our bags back. We screamed bloody murder and got them back about half an hour later. They had sent all their ramp workers home and it was left to the managers to go looking for our bags. Then we got in the tax line; hundreds of people at the airport after midnight were looking for taxis and hardly any of them were around because it was a blizzard outside and nobody wanted to be out on the roads. My kids ran out of the airport and went in the street and hailed a cab and we got out of there. In the morning, we tried calling Hertz again for the lost iPad. The people picking up the phone refused to even take down our information because they didn’t want to be bothered with it. When we got to the airport, we went straight to the rental car garage, found our car which was luckily unlocked, went inside and got the iPad out. Then we ran to the terminal and got on a flight which was sold out but actually 80% empty, and flew right out of there the half hour flight to NY and got home 28 hours after we started. By the way, it turned out that Amtrak wound up cancelling most of its trains the previous evening and the next morning. The Acela speed train did go out in the evening on its 8pm run (which was what we were going to try and take if there was no 7pm shuttle to get onto) but took 5 hours to make the 3 hour trip to NY. So all in all we wound up getting back our iPad which cost more than the hotel room and the morning flight beat Amtrak which wasn’t operating in the morning. And we found out that the Marriott Marquis was a good place to stay in Washington, a few blocks from Union Station and near at least 2 Metro lines.

Alan Dershowitz is a well known defense attorney who used to teach law at Harvard, who has retired but speaks out often on Israel issues. I heard him speak recently and he said two interesting things that stood out as effective arguments that are particularly interesting today when the word “Holocaust” keeps getting thrown around. Two reasons why the Holocaust is unlike any other genocide in history: (1) The Nazis imported Jews from far-flung places such as Salonika, Greece and in order to ship them to death camps – this goes beyond killing people who simply were in the way or caught in the middle of hostilities. (2) The Nazis put a priority on killing children even before anyone else. If the worst that Israel had ever done to the Palestinians was what the Nazis did to the Jews, nobody would have ever claimed there had been a Holocaust, he said.

Another point he made was that terrorism works. He feels that the Kurds deserve statehood but don’t have it because they haven’t made their mark on the world with terrorism. He figures the Palestinians wouldn’t be in the running for statehood but for the fact that they scared Europe with terrorism and it probably helped that their occupiers were Jews, which makes for a great story. Let’s face it – Europe didn’t care when a bunch of Jewish kids were murdered at school in Toulouse a few years ago but you get a terrorist murdering a cartoonist who makes fun of Mohammed and boom, you get hundreds of thousands into the streets.

Another point that bears consideration is that had Churchill and Roosevelt acted in Europe in the 1930’s there would have been no World War II but imagine them going to Congress and saying “Hitler is going to be a big problem and we need to go to war now. And 10,000 people will die. “Everyone would have laughed at them and history would have recorded the leaders as foolhardy right-wingers who sent 10,000 soldiers off to die to get rid of a tin-pot dictator whom everyone at the time was making fun of in cartoons. But had they acted and risked their political futures, think of how many millions of people would not have died in that world war (about 60 million in all) and how different the world would be today. There is no reward for having the foresight to take military action against a threat that is not immediately apparent. Bush keeps getting ridiculed for going to war against Iraq. Begin is criticized for bombing Iraq in 1981. But who knows what would have happened if these people had not acted. It’s a little unfair to try and judge people by what might have been or by criticizing those who would act in advance when history doesn’t know what would have been or what will otherwise happen. To expect perfection from the future is to paralyze preventative action.

IMG_2203Another point he made is that it is simply a joke to apologize terrorism away from Islam and to say that Islam is not at all to blame. He says it is political correctness that is not honest with the reality and that people need to face the reality in order to fix the problem. Almost all of the terrorism in the world today is emanating from people claiming to be Muslims in Muslim countries. It may be that Islam is not a fanatical and terrorist-espousing religion but it is a fact that the majority of anti-semitism in the world today is coming from the press and religionists in the Muslim world, even in secularly Muslim countries. If you make it OK to hate people and dehumanize them, it will come to pass that you will breed extremists in your midst who go on to do crazy things, even whilst other Muslims wind up being the primary victims. This has been true throughout history; it starts out against the Jews and ends up consuming their own. Process that point: Would ISIS or Al-Qaida be popular if they said “Let’s go out and kill all the Muslims.” No, they say “Let’s go out and kill all the Jews.” This gets them traction in Muslim countries and then they go out and start killing tons of Muslims. The key to stopping this is not to let them get traction to begin with and the mistake is to think that letting them mouth off against Jews in Muslim lands is containment. The message from him is that from Egypt to Indonesia, countries have to reign in the negative images that are present in their mainstream press, and coming from religious and governmental leaders who think that casting aspersions on people from far away is a great escape from their own failures. It’s just not going to help to stir the pot and have 95% of people in a country hate Jews especially when they’re not even there nor has anyone there ever met one. The fact is that polls consistently show these kinds of figures in Moslem-dominated countries and the negativity was present even during the Oslo years when peace seemed imminent; even in Europe the numbers do not spike during Israeli wars. It is a fiction to claim that anti-semitism is linked to the actions of the Israeli army. Even if Israel didn’t exist, it would make no difference – ISIS, Al Qaida and Hizbullah are not linked to anything involving Israel but yet they exist. Basically, anti-semitism is not really about Jews or Israel; it’s an excuse to try and blame bad behavior on an unpopular external bogeyman. It is an internal disease by people looking for a scapegoat for failure and the cure for the failure is to look inward and fix what’s wrong. It seems like every week I read about something on Egyptian state television that contains a TV celebrity stating something disgusting about Jews in the world, quite apart from Israel. There are websites that monitor this kind of thing and translate it from Arabic to other languages and then people write about it for anyone to see who cares. What else would you expect people to think after being exposed to a daily diet of hate and bogeymen while living a miserable life to boot?

This has been true for a very long time and what seems a shame and what is causing me to discuss this right now is the sense that across the Middle East things are going backward into a more primitive mode even as we see young people using more technology and seemingly getting more aware of the world around them. They have internet and satellite TV but they are watching people in turbins trying to convince them that the world is flat, that the man on the moon is a fiction made in Hollywood and that ISIS is utilizing the coolest methods to bring sadistic killings to cinema. Even if you don’t like Dershowitz as a messenger, you can’t help but see that he makes sense. I am less hopeful than I have ever been that the next generation in most of the Middle East has anything good to look forward to. Basically, if you live in Tunisia, Israel or the United Arab Emirates, you have a better than 50% chance at a better life over the next 10-20 years but I can’t think of much more than that between Morocco and Afghanistan except maybe for Qatar and Oman, and perhaps Jordan.

On a happier note, I will refer you to my brother’s website where you can enjoy his music videos; he is a living testament to the enduring power of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. If all this month’s GlobalThoughts has you down, he is sure to bring a smile to your face!


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