Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Syrian Minefield

The dire situation in Syria has exploded on the world stage and the global reaction to it has quickly become the geopolitical version of an M. C. Escher painting.  You know what those are - mind-bending drawings of staircases that go around and around but end up nowhere, or buildings with unending twists and turns which also lead nowhere.  Likewise, the political twists and contortions that are still going on also seem to expend a lot of time, energy and media bandwidth but fail to go nowhere.

It all started several weeks ago as the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship in Syria, feeling threatened by a rebel insurgency that wants to see it gone, turned chemical weapons on its own people.  We all cringed at the photos and videos of the dead and dying Syrian civilians suffering the ravages of what has to be some of the most horrific and awful weapons ever created, next to nuclear.  President Obama, being the highly moral person he is, was thoroughly appalled and horrified over what had happened and rightfully condemned the government in Syria for violating a U.N. proscription against the use of chemical weaponry.  Saying the Assad regime crossed a "red line," Obama left it quite clear that he felt a military response against such an atrocity should not only be appropriate, but almost mandatory.  Obama expected the American people and the rest of the world to be properly and instantly outraged, and to fall in line in support behind him in moving forward with a military strike which would cripple or eliminate Syria's capability to gas their own helpless, innocent people.

What he got instead of support was ... virtual silence.  Obama was all set to go ahead with the attack using his powers as head of the executive branch without consulting Congress.  There was a clear precedent to this when George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq about a decade ago, on a wildly dubious and ultimately untrue basis of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, which proved to be something between astonishing incompetent intelligence information or just plain old-fashioned lying through your teeth.  But conspicuous in its absence in the wake of a terrible atrocity was a groundswell of incensed clamoring for immediate military action.  Where were all our allies in the West - Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Australia, even Poland?  Surprisingly, the prickly French, who seem to delight in taking a contrary position to whatever the U.S. is taking, were the most agreeable to a forceful response to Assad.  The American people, while recoiling in disgust to the human tragedy, were also recoiling from the prospect of dipping our toes in another Middle East quagmire, with Iraq and Afghanistan being prominently featured in their reasoning.  Baffled and caught off-balance by the blatant non-response to a humanitarian catastrophe, Obama still went ahead and tasked the Pentagon with coming up with a plan of action and risk-assessment for what was being portrayed as a "surgical" strike.

This whole Syria issue has taken on a life of its own.  It has split into two different news stories: the first being the gas attack itself, and the second being the political reaction to the gas attack.  The second story has grown so rapidly that it has overtaken the original event, relegating it to the status of an afterthought or a mere detail in a bigger picture.  It has produced some very unusual and novel things, like Republicans calling for calm and restraint in the face of an opportunity to attack another country, which is like a starving dog turning down a big piece of filet mignon, or Democrats screaming to let the bombs fly sooner rather than later.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad looked like a character out of a John Waters movie on an interview today.  He denied that chemical weapons were ever used by his forces.  In fact, he made some vague, unsupported assertions that HIS military forces were the ones who got gassed.  Assad is quite a creep, and looks like he would be most comfortable in the back row of an X-rated movie theater.  When asked about the deaths of the people he is supposed to serve, he acted like he just got caught by his wife, making out with a trashy waitress he met at the downtown Damascus Hooters restaurant - deny, deny and deny some more.

The situation is very fluid and things change every day.  Now the Russians have come up with a proposal to put all of Syria's chemical weapons under international control, to be eventually destroyed.  This may be an out for all concerned that avoids a military conflict.  The American people are staunchly against any military involvement, and many make the "slippery slope" argument that a "limited surgical strike" will lead to American boots on the ground, and another Afghanistan in the making.

There are so many variables, so many possible ways this can play out.  If Congress does give the go-ahead and the U.S. goes through with the attack, how will the Assad regime react?  How will his neighbors feel about another country lobbing rockets at someone right in their back yard?  Will Syria pop a couple of missiles over the fence on Israel?  Would a surgical air strike against Assad's chemical weapons capability actually do any good?  It would be virtually impossible to cripple his entire chemical weapon stockpile, and would he then be much more willing to use whatever remains?

If Congress says no to the whole thing, would that encourage other dictators to use chemical weapons because obviously they could do that and get away with it?  What will a "no" vote do to American prestige and influence all over the world, but especially in a region where fear and intimidation are the main glues that hold together a fragile peace?  What will that do to the Obama administration as its second term plays out?  Will it cripple an already lame-duck president and compromise his ability to push through all the other things he wants to accomplish?  Will it be more difficult for him to get his way on other issues, like the upcoming debt crisis and immigration reform?  Will Obama himself be seen as weak and dithering on important issues?

Obama's move to drag Congress, kicking and screaming, into the fray may be either a good idea or the worst idea ever.  Now Congress will be on record as either opposing or approving an air strike, so they will share either the credit or the blame.  But bringing this incredibly dysfunctional body into center stage may be really dumb, since Congress seems incapable of doing anything constructive or useful.

We will probably get the first vote on the Syria matter in a couple of days, when the Senate votes to invoke closure on the topic, and deny any use of the filibuster (the Republicans' weapon of choice when they can't get their way by, you know, actually coming up with good alternative solutions to a problem) to gum up the works.  The House of Representatives looks like to won't vote for a couple of weeks on the matter, conceivably giving the Assad regime time to move its chemical stockpiles around and conceal them, or "harden" them by making it tougher to find and destroy them.  This will also involve moving them into civilian neighborhoods so if the chemical weapons do manage to get blown up, the gas will be released and cause horrific collateral damage and deaths of innocent people.

This is a quagmire of the first order, and one which definitely changes daily and often seems to evolve by the hour.  It would be completely fascinating to watch if it wasn't for the fact that so much is riding on what will happen when the U.S. and the world finally decide to take some sort of action against a heartless dictator who sees no wrong in subjecting his fellow citizens to die in a gas attack.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Running Down The Clock

Summer in the desert is starting to wind down, on this, the first week of September.  You wouldn't know it just from the temperature, because it was 110 degrees today.  It sure felt hot outside and the next couple of days are predicted to be moderately cooler, maybe all the way down to 108 degrees.  Summertime kind of quietly weasels its way into your life during the month of May, but it always needs to be dragged out - kicking, screaming and clawing the ground - all through September and half of October.

But there are subtle indications that the wheel of the seasons is beginning to turn.  It is becoming noticeably darker earlier these days.  When I left the gym yesterday at 6:55 pm the sun had already set, the first time that has happened since last April.  I read something where the sun's position in the sky doesn't change much from the summer solstice on June 21st through Midsummer Day (this year on August 6th).  After that date, the sun begins to move more swiftly in its southerly journey to the autumn equinox and then the winter solstice.

In the nighttime sky, when it's not full of monsoon clouds, the stars are starting to belie the passing months.  Scorpio the Scorpion is beginning to slink away toward the southwest horizon.  For just a couple of weeks, you can spot two beautiful crowns in the sky - Corona Australis, the Southern Crown, a little below the scorpion's glittering stinger, and Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown, low in the western sky not far from the sparkling orange Arcturus, one of the brightest stars in the sky.

The Great Square of Pegasus is starting to vault its way up the eastern sky.  A large, nearly perfect square, it's easy to spot and is a sure sign of autumn.  A little less obvious is the constellation of Andromeda, hanging on to one of the corners of the Great Square for dear life and trailing it as it rises in the sky.  With binoculars, it's not hard to spot a smudge of dim gray light in the boundaries of Andromeda, and the multi-million-year-old light which finally has made its way to your retinas after crossing a gulf of 12 quintillion empty, frigid miles.  This is the Andromeda Galaxy, an island universe of billions and billions of stars, similar in shape to our own home galaxy, the Milky Way, but even larger.

The two galaxies are part of what's known as the Local Group, a collection of dozens of galaxies bound together gravitationally in our own little neighborhood in space.  Astronomers are pretty sure Andromeda and the Milky Way are speeding toward each other, and will most likely collide in a couple of billion years.  Surprisingly, they also think the two galaxies will just pass through each other, the distance between individual stars being vast enough so that the probability of a star running into another star is extremely low.  But the collective gravitational tidal forces will be more than enough to bend and warp the two galaxies into very distorted shapes, and invariably millions of stars will be cast off into intergalactic space, to wander the deadly cold vacuum as rogue stars, in desolate solitude.  Over even more billions of years the two galaxies will dance and loop around each other, colliding over and over again.  Eventually, in the far distant future, the galaxies will merge into a super-galaxy and probably even the supermassive black holes in the two galactic centers will merge into one ultramassive black hole.

In fact, astronomers have spotted a couple of galaxies, 30 times farther away than Andromeda, which are in the process of colliding.  This ultra-slow train wreck of galactic proportions has been going on for hundreds of millions of years and will continue on for many more millions, leaving a huge mess of stars, gas, and dust strewn over an impossibly vast area of space:

So, sometimes I think about our home galaxy being on an unavoidable collision course with an even larger galaxy, and I dream about what that might look like, assuming Planet Earth is still in one piece and there will be humans living on it in a couple of billion years.  No matter who or what is around at that time, it will be the greatest show in the entire universe.  For now though, I have to be content with dreaming about the cool, crisp autumn mornings which are also slowly, inexorably inching their way to us, and the dramatic cranberry-colored sunsets which give way to dark, deep and chilly nights.  And the 110-degree summer days will be a distant memory.