Happy New Year!

2010 is starting with a new country name added to our fear lexicon: Yemen.

Since the claim of responsibility from Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) for the failed Christmas Day plot to bomb a Detroit-bound flight, various “security experts” have invaded CNN, FOX, MSNBC and other cable news outlets trying  to explain Yemen to us: Why did this bombing attempt have a Yemeni connection? What brand of Islam is practiced in Yemen? How should we deal with Yemen?

That last question was actually flashed on CNN on New Year’s Day as some of these “experts” debated the options.   I know it’s almost a cliche now, but I always find it fascinating that we in the West, only seem to become interested in some of these small countries in faraway continents as a result of a war or a security scare of some kind. And as soon as that security scare or war ends or at least victory has been declared by our generals, we retreat. Our interest drops. Our media’s too. But while we’re not looking, the power dynamics in those countries changes. New chiefs  take the reigns of power. And just when we have completely forgotten about them, some nutcase causes mayhem somewhere in one of our cities and we call in the “experts” to tell us why they did what they did and “why they hate us”.

I don’t know how “we should deal with Yemen”. However, I don’t think I need the CNN experts with their graphs and maps to know that the solution to this problem is not another invasion as some are already advocating. There are all kinds of logistical reasons why that cannot even happen. The most glaring being US troop overstretch.

But while we are attempting to find solutions, perhaps keeping our history and geography books open at all times might be a nice starting point. This woud help us all understand the world around us and better grasp why “they” do what they do and why some of “our” actions or the consequences of our actions create the problems that we later have to solve.  Afghanistan is a perfect example. The US armed the mujahedeens to help the Afghans overthow the Soviets. Then the US advisors left. So did the money. As Tom Hanks (playing Texas Congresman Charlie Wilson) in Charlie Wilson’s War said: “We leave. We always leave.”  Then those mujahedeens became allied with the Taliban and took over that country. We were too busy with the dot-com growth and later bubble to pay attention. Then 9-11 happened. We called in the experts. “Why do they hate us?” What should we do about Afghanistan?” The armies of The West have been in Afghanistan for over 8 years. Now US Senator Joe Lieberman or Joe Liberman quoting somebody else is saying: “Yemen will be tomorrow’s war.”

Please, No!


So as expected, Obama became the latest American War President this week. He was one already by virtue of being the Commander-In-Chief of an army engaged in two wars. But it was made official because of his embrace (however reluctant it appeared) of the battles he inherited.

So 30,000 more troops and 18 months to “finish the job” that 8 previous years have failed to put on dent on.

What was he thinking?

Well, politically the plan is masterful. Even brilliant. First he acquiessed to the demands of the Generals which endears him to the military brass. But it also allows him to blame them if it all goes haywire in 18 months.

Second the plan relies on a lot of moving parts Obama can only influence from far, but cannot directly control: The Afghan government, the Pakistanis, The NATO allies, the Taliban. And precisely because of that he can blame them anytime it becomes politically expedient, declare victory an leave.

Third the July 2011 timetable, almost a year and a half away from his re-election allows him to play to all political affiliations. To the Republicans he will say “I did not cut and run. I stayed the course and took the fight to the terrorists!”. Even if they complain about the very presence of an exit date (as they are currently doing), they will commend him for fighting on. To the hardcore anti-war Liberals he will say: “I have an exit date. I only decided to stay because we had to win this thing. I am ending it soon as promised and sending our boys home.” He could even order a few brigades home during the year of the election campaign as a show of sincerity.

Finally, he will remind Independents and all voters that he opposed the war in Iraq and is in the process of bringing it to a close along with the Afghan one. But he cannot run from the battle and that’s why, he will say, there are still some American troops occupying two Mid-East countries.

 After the election of course, if he is re-elected, he would then do whatever he wants written in the history books about the Obama Presidency . That’s politics. And for better but mostly for worse, Presidents are politicians first.

In the real world of war and occupation in Afghanistan, people will continue to die and the stupididty of Wednesday’s decision will ring true.

War is awful. Wars of choice are also awful but blatantly wasteful. Years from now, when the NATO armies have gone home and the Afghans are still grappling with their misery and the Al Qaeda terrorists are still terrorizing from some new cave in Namibia or Yemen or from a five-star hotel in a Western capital, we will wonder what all the dying was for. The idea of invading a single country and transforming it as a way of forever preventing a band of supposedly religious maniacs from ever commiting mischief anywhere else in the world was always silly. 30,000 more troops will not change that.

If you happen to have a few minutes, please follow the link below to watch PBS’s Bill Moyers Journal showcasing another President, Lyndon Baines Johnson grappling with the escalation of another war a few decades ago.

 The similarities are eerie.  


So there he was, concluding an almost perfect news conference where he made the case for Health Care Reform to the American people; the perfect steak was ready to be served to the media masses for public consumption. The apprentice cook, six months into his training looked to have mastered the recipe.  Then at the last minute, he decided to add a little sizzle, just to “jazz things up a bit”.

The next day the masses cried foul. The steak was too salty, too much pepper, too much coriander, not enough this, too much that. What was that sizzle? What colour was it? where did he get it from? Was the cook born in the US? Should he have held that salt-shaker like that? 

Nobody talked about the steak.

Obama, the “post-racial president”, walked right into the Henry Louis Gates minefield and subsequently killed the very headlines he was trying to create around health care reform. Irrespective of the circumstances of the Gates affair, he shouldn’t have waded into it at all. Not this time.

Race is an important subject in American politics. It has always been, since the creation of the union. But Healthcare is critical to America’s survival as an economic powerhouse. And any attempt to reform it should not be held back by the same tired arguments that have always held back important discussions in American politics. The ballooning individual and national healthcare costs, the growing number of uninsured Americans and the sheer shame for a country so rich, yet still reliant on groups like Remote Area Medical  should have prevented Obama from discussing anything but healthcare during that press conference. But he did and gave the 24-hour news channels 24 hours of nonsensical material to regurgitate back to the dumbed-down masses.

Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr would have been fine. He was fine even before the news conference started. He went on the Gayle King Show, he would have gone on other shows to discuss the matter of his arrest and any ramifications or national discussions that were meant to be had. He didn’t need Obama’s help. Racial discussions are  a tricky affair, which is precisely why Obama avoided them for most the campaign until his former Pastor forced him to confront them. Why he chose to engage this time is anybody’s guess.

But in one sense the distraction was useful. It gave some of us time to read the fine prints and peruse the back pages to realize that although Obama discussed reforming the Health Care system, what both congress and the Senate are proposing does not amount to much reform because it does not eliminate the cancer at the heart of the system: the profit motive.

Nobody should be allowed  to make a profit when the health of human beings is involved. That is precisely why all industrialized nations either have a single payer public healthcare system or a heavily regulated private one where the profit motive has been neutralized.

If the purpose of running for office is to acquire power and if the purpose of acquiring power is to do some sort of lasting public good with it, then it would be fair of the American people to expect Pres. Barack Obama’s report card to show significant accomplishments by the time the 2010 congressional elections roll in.

After today’s announcement of Al Franken  as the winner of last November’s Minnesota Senate race, the Democrats now have 60 senate seats and 257 congressional seats, more than enough to push through the Democratic President’s agenda. Any fears of a filibuster have now been eliminated. There is no longer a need to court Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins or any other so-called moderate Republican. The Democrats, if they only allow themselves to agree can now bring Americans single-payer Universal Healthcare, enact proper regulations of the financial industry, withdraw troops from Iraq, withdraw troops from a useless war in Afghanistan, confirm Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and much more…

But I suspect very few of those things will happen. Obama is a serial compromiser and Democrats and Progressives in general relish argument and debate even when it stands in the way of useful  and valuable accomplishments. And that’s probably going to be the Legacy of the 111th Congresss: immense possibilities but very few tangible results. I would love to eat my words in a few months but I don’t think I will.

I just read Paul Krugman’s blog post on Sanjay Gupta as a possible Surgeon General. It was such sweet relief to realize that I was not alone in holding the man in low esteem ever since that spat with Michael Moore over the facts in the documentary Sicko.

Don’t get me wrong. I do have my issues with Michael Moore as well as with his film. But overall, on the facts, he was right about what ails the US healthcare system. Gupta as a Medical correspondent for CNN was supposed to critique the film and as in most critiques, highlight factual errors, exaggerations, looseness with the truth and overall provide as objective an opinion as is expected of a journalist about the film. He did none of that. His review was such a hatchet job that Moore had to provide point by point rebuttals on his website and even in the “debate” between the two that took place on Larry King Live, Gupta kept on repeating his falsehoods aided by the talking corpse himself who forgot that his job was to moderate. 

After watching that, I wondered what justified Gupta’s review of the movie. Was it personal? It couldn’t be. He was (and is) a university professor, a neurosurgeon, a former special adviser to then First Lady Hillary Clinton. Why would he pick on Michael Moore? Was it ideological? Was he one of those free-market conservatives who just hate “socialized medicine”? Gupta did not seem to have an ideological bend. Then maybe it was a professional issue; Gupta as a Doctor in the US Healthcare system that was being attacked, also felt attacked and wanted to strike back.  Well, not quite either. After all, many other American doctors who work dutifully in the US system recognize its shortcomings and do not get any flack for speaking up about it.

So why was Gupta so opposed to Sicko to the point of fudging facts and journalistically botching a review? I could only draw the same conclusion Krugman has drawn. Gupta was perfectly happy with getting “things  wrong in a socially acceptable way.” In other words, he was aware of the public mood on the issue and he chose to align his critique to that socially acceptable opinion irrespective of the facts. This is the kind of behavior pathological social-ladder climbers learn to perfect early. This is typical of  what the Canadian thinker John Ralston Saul calls a “courtier” or a “Voltaire bastard”; a man who either has no opinions of his own or is perfectly happy to substitute them with anything that can advance his career, create new friends that can advance his carreer or open doors to new careers or new revenues. That is unfortunately also a character flaw in my book.

 Now, Sanjay Gupta may be very qualified to be Surgeon General. I do not know. I am not qualified to make that judgement. What are the required qualifications for that job, anyway? But one thing is certain. A Surgeon General of United States should have a closer relationship with facts than Sanjay Gupta does. He or she should certainly hold opinions backed by empirical evidence and be willing to stand by those opinions regardless of the public mood. That after all is one of the indicators of a good scientist.

Rachel Sklar called Sanjay Gupta  a dick. I will not do such a thing. But if pushed, I will happily quote Sklar.

obama inauguration pic

obama inauguration pic

Talk about presidential branding!

Boy, how  things just tend to happen when nobody is paying attention, huh!

Let’s see, since most of North America took a break to open presents, eat too much, drink too much and generally stay away from anything of importance, the following important things happened:

1- Israel & Hamas decided to start another mini-war

2-Rod Blagojevich gave the finger to the whole Democratic party by nominating Roland Burris to the US Senate

3-Bill Richardson withdrew as Obama’s Commerce Secretary because of corruption investigations

4-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid more or less reiterated his belief that George W. Bush is the worst President the United States ever had.

5-Obama proposed a ginormous stimulus package with a mix of personal and business tax cuts as well as job creating infrastructure programs.

 6-Roland Burris went to the US Senate and was refused a seat

7-Leon Panetta was mentionned as Obama’s pick for CIA chief much to the chagrin of many including Senate Inteligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein

8-Sanjay Gupta (of CNN fame) was floated as a possible Surgeon General of the United States

9-Al Franken almost won a senate seat in Minnesota

What to say about any of these? Well, maybe one word here and there would do for now. We all just got back,right?

On the Burris issue, I would say either way the Democrats play this, they’re in for a lengthy legal battle unless either Burris chooses to withdraw or is somehow “bought out”. But it seems that by all legal accounts,  as the still governor of Illinois,Rod Blagojevic was fully entitled to make the nomination. How this plays politically though,… well,…

On Richardson withdrawing, it is truly sad, because I would have liked him as Secretary of State instead of Clinton. But in politics, illusions tend to be reality more so than in other environments.  And as such, even talk of an investigation was enough to prevent Richardson from coming back to Washington. Too bad. Hopefully Obama gets a second term and he could serve then.

On Israel and Hamas, I have nothing to add other than this is just another battle in a long war that will never end unless a President of the United States is willing to stake his presidency on resolving the conflict.

Let’s hope Obama is thatPresident.