Monthly Archives: June 2014

Mustang: 50 Years of the Original Pony

bluestang

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published June 15, 2014) The match-up between the Ford Mustang and the Chevy Camaro is a classic rivalry. It’s like Coke versus Pepsi. PC versus Mac. Borg versus McEnroe. Bushes versus Clintons. Well, sort of. The automotive press recently reported that sales of the Camaro are slightly ahead of sales of the Mustang, but that margin is so narrow as to be pointless when it comes to bragging rights. Combined sales of the two cars totaled more than 20,000 in May of 2014, but Camaro beat Mustang by only 579 cars. That’s as close as a car rivalry can get.

But for Ford, bragging rights still come easily thanks to the Mustang. After all, it was the car that changed the landscape (at least the part with pavement) 50 years ago. And despite a nip-and-tuck battle with arch-rival Camaro, fans of the Ford Mustang are celebrating the anniversary of their favorite American car.

Though the article in the interior of the magazine My Ford describes its front end as “shark-like,” the visage shown on the cover is more canine—wolf-like, or perhaps predatory in the style of the panther. Maybe it is the intense yellow set against the black studio background. Whatever the effect, or the first impression, the photo of that 2015 Mustang evokes little to do with horses—save for that iconic logo on the grill and the rumbling sense of horsepower found in those muscular lines. No matter your interpretation of that bright yellow incarnation, there is animal power in the image.

Though the cover text does not mention the commemoration, the glossy spring edition of My Ford magazine clearly celebrates the 50th anniversary of what became arguably the most famous car of the second half of the 20th century, and the most durable American car ever created (sorry Corvette and Camaro fans).

Inside the quarterly My Ford magazine, readers will find six pages of description of the newest Mustang to hit the streets, along with comments from some of the designers and engineers responsible for the latest incarnation of the always-evolving horse, including the childhood recollections of Scot-born Moray Callum, now vice-president of design at Ford. As a wee tike in Scotland, Callum saw Mustangs race alongside European sports cars near Edinburgh, and already obsessed with automobiles, it was a game-changer for the budding young engineer.

The Mustang had a similar effect on thousands, even millions of other people worldwide, but most especially in the United States, where the car was introduced as an affordable alternative to what were—in those days—generally more expensive sports cars. Back in 1964, “sports” in automotive vernacular meant “pricey.” Muscle was part of the mix, but power was secondary to the panache and élan associated with the likes of Jaguar, Ferrari or the famous Astin-Martin driven by Roger Moore or Sean Connery in early James Bond movies.

For its first major appearance, Ford chose the 1964 World’s Fair in New York to unveil the little Mustang, and within weeks she became the most famous debutante in automotive history. The Mustang’s unveiling at the ‘64 World’s Fair is, in retrospect, a remarkable circumstance.

Built on 650 acres in Flushing Meadows, and constructed only after a complicated and sometimes contentious political fight (chief organizer was Robert Moses), the World’s Fair would eventually draw more than 51 million visitors during its two long seasons in 1964 and 1965. With the motto “peace through understanding” as its theme, the Fair that year was also an opportunity to showcase that great confluence of technologies and scientific development—the space age and the newly heightened space race between the Soviets and the U.S., and remarkable new achievements in computers, telephony, television and science. This was also the golden age of some of the most durable mid-20th century corporations—Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, IBM, RCA, Westinghouse, GE, all of whom became major sponsors with dazzling exhibits housed in futuristic buildings. Some of the things that visitors got to see for the first time, up close and personal, were computers (large and small), data punch card machines, analog tape storage, teletype and facsimile machines, the earliest phone and computer modems, and amazing new forms of TV and phone technologies.

Among the most popular exhibits that year were Walt Disney’s various pavilions and kiosks, which—in the vernacular of hindsight—were precursors to Walt’s vision of a much larger, east coast theme park campus, including an Epcot-like exhibit, people-mover and monorail demonstrations, and a “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show which employed the same early animatronics used to great success a few years later in Orlando.

According to attendance records, Ford Motor Company had the second most popular attraction at the World’s Fair. The Ford exhibit included “Ford’s Magic Skyway,” which deployed 50 Ford convertible vehicles—all electric, no motors, no gas power—moving smoothly around a controlled ride through the Ford demonstration, a ride which offered an elaborate effort at time-travel (dinosaurs, wooly mammoths, volcanos, pre-historic cavemen and proto-humans) followed by a futuristic look at highway travel in the United States. The exhibit was designed by a combination of Ford engineers and Walt Disney designers.

Many of those “people-mover” type vehicles in the Magic Skyway attraction were open-topped Mustangs. Although it was unclear at the time, many automotive historians now say that the Mustang’s famous debut at the ’64 World’s Fair was a success in large part because of the confluence of technologies, iconic images and space age developments so closely linked to our memories of that era. In fact, the timing and venue of the Mustang’s debut could not have been more appropriate.

The Mustang had a long incubation period at Ford. As early as 1959, the top brass at Ford knew they wanted to develop something that would embody both sportiness and spunk. Seeking to compete head-on with companies like Jaguar, Astin-Martin and Ferrari, the first images of a prototype called “Mustang I” bear little resemblance to the car that would be introduced in 1964. Indeed, photos from Ford’s archives show designers Gene Bordinat and Herb Misch standing (and seated, respectively) with a 1961 Mustang I mock-up, a rocket-shaped coupe which looks more like a streamlined European racecar; no double-brow grill, no triple vertical taillight, none of the lines associated with the pony look. The quasi-Formula 1 mock-up is also a snug two-seater, and employs a spoiler-roll-bar hybrid wing only inches behind the head of the passenger and driver. Artist renderings created by John Najjar further translate the little roadster into a space-age racer, and the original proposals included a 90-horsepower V-4 engine. More working mock-ups were built, complete with working drive-train and engine.

The space-age roadster would also be expensive, and that was the deal-breaker for one top Ford executive. Lee Iacocca, then chief of the Ford division (of all Ford families of cars and trucks), vetoed the plans for the racy, rocket-like Mustang I. Iacocca had an intuition that Ford could compete with the sports car ideal—while also fusing a mix of economy (low cost to build, and a reasonable sticker price for the consumer) with a broadly defined American look. Iacocca wanted to create something affordable that would appeal to the American sense of identity, self-reliance and independence. Iacocca also wanted a car that would appeal to the young driver.

So the designers went back to work with Iacocca looking over their shoulders. And to fuel the need to get something new and dramatic developed quickly, he created internal competition—forming three teams all working in secrecy to come up with the best design. To save on cost, and to speed up the process, designers were encouraged to use the existing Falcon frame, building the Mustang atop what could be easily retooled along the assembly line. Iacocca appointed chief engineer Donald Frey as project manager, and insisted that Ford come up with something solid as quickly as possible. Eventually over a hundred designs were submitted, but the mock-up built by the team headed by Joe Oros was the winner, by far, and the clean-lined little car became the apple of Iacocca’s eye. “It was the only one that seemed to be moving,” Iacocca famously remarked. Iacocca was also fond of Oros’ design for its stand-apart quality—the Mustang seemed imbued with sportiness without looking like a cheap knockoff of the chic roadsters of Italy, Britain or Germany.

Black and white photos taken outside on a Ford parking lot in September 1962 reveal for the first time the breathtakingly familiar face and body of the infant Mustang. A full two years before its debut, there it was—that magical mix of attributes: the brow of the simple grill set forward between the now unmistakable, deep-set eyes; the triple vertical taillights on the sexy, taut behind; the lean styling and trim work which fused weekend sportiness with an American love of the road; and that iconic logo of the wild horse in full stride.

Oros’ 1962 version had beat out its closest rival, the “Allegro” design, which featured a double brow—just as shark-like as the Mustang featured on the cover of the spring 2014 My Ford magazine. But for Iacocca, the Allegro was a distant second. Still, there was internal debate at Ford, and another season of tinkering with designs—some more muscular, some more sporty, some heavier and pricier. But test marketing, early publicity in the automotive press, and pre-debut materials provided to dealerships convinced the Ford brass that their original design was on track, and the alternate mock-ups eventually all lost out to the basic Mustang as seen by the public in 1964.

Iacocca insisted that the Mustang remain affordable, especially for first-time car buyers. Engineers fitted it with a V-8 engine, but constructed the whole thing around a variation of the big-selling semi-compact Falcon, thereby combining power with a low sticker price. By October of 1963 the design had been narrowed even more, and after a few weeks of fiddling with the trim and other cosmetic elements, the pony car was ready for its unveiling in both a hardtop and convertible version.

Iacocca and his team had good instincts about what the public wanted in this new car. The Mustang was a major hit at the World’s Fair. Press reaction was not merely favorable (it doesn’t take much to get the automotive press to swoon upon seeing a new car design), but downright ecstatic. Ford had expected automotive writers and newspaper reporters to generate a few hundred articles based on Ford press releases and publicity material, but within only two weeks, more than 2500 articles had been written about the Mustang.

Linked with Ford’s powerhouse publicity campaign, lots of excitement on the part of dealerships nationwide, and all that good press, the Mustang sold over 100,000 units in four months, setting an all-time sales record for a newly minted model. Talk on Main Street and among car aficionados amplified Ford’s marketing efforts, and higher-than-expected attendance at the Fair did not hurt publicity. Dealers were reporting unusually large numbers of visitors to showrooms by people who just wanted an up-close and personal look at the car. With a list price of about $2350 for the hardtop and only $250 more for the convertible version, its affordability made it a smash success—so much so that many dealerships found it difficult to keep Mustangs on their lot.

Part of Ford’s strategy was to find the sweet spot in marketing: a “youth” car that might also trigger desires and yearnings of agelessness on the part of potential car buyers even into their 30s and 40s—all of this mixed with something within reach of Middle America and its increasing rates of expendable income. Where the Falcon had been Ford’s classic economy car—small even by U.S. standards—the high-altitude bird had quickly become a symbol of miserly thrift. As one writer put it, the Falcon became “your grandmother’s or grandfather’s car.”

The newly-minted Mustang was having none of that. Its very design was meant to evoke something fresh and energetic. Mid-1960s advertising—especially in magazines—reveals Ford’s overt outreach to people no longer defined as “young,” at least by the standards of that decade. Ford wanted to appeal to men and women in their 30s and 40s, who—approaching midlife—yearned for the material and symbolic trappings of youth. Whimsical advertisements touted the transformational power of the hot new car—geeks morphing into go-getters, nerds into dapper players, wallflowers into seductresses. An ad featuring the San Francisco skyline in the background touts the game-changing effects of a Mustang: Bernard was a born loser. He couldn’t win at Solitaire, even when he cheated. Enter Mustang—the car that’s practical, sporty, luxurious—your choice! Did Bernie’s luck change! Yesterday he won San Francisco in a faro game. Now he’s got his eye on New York. Mustangers always win. Another ad, politically-incorrect by today’s lights, featured a wonky, near-sighted librarian transformed into the center of attention for three dashing men in tuxedos.

Sales of the Mustang were so potent that it also transformed Ford as a business, thrusting it back on a level playing field with industry giant GM and catapulting it past the struggling American Motors and Chrysler. In April 1964 Iacocca appeared on the cover of Time magazine alongside a stylized painting of a fire engine red Mustang. The next week the Mustang appeared on the cover of Newsweek. Between the economical Falcon and the sporty Mustang, Ford had staked its dominance over two of the most important segments of the auto public.

Affordability was linked closely to versatility. The car could be easily ordered with a long list of options (even engine size), many more options than most vehicles offered by the big three. This meant that the sporty car could be marketed across a wide range of demographic groups and potential buyers: young families, single people in their late teens and middle 20s, early middle-agers, graduating students, workaholics, leisure-lovers and pleasure-seekers, those in search of luxury and those in search of economy. It could be marketed as economical and practical, and it could be sold as a car with muscle and flair. The Mustang was meant to look as much at home at the beach or the mountain cabin as it was at home in the circular drive of a posh mansion or in the carport of a middle class home. And it was meant to cut across the generational divide.

One ad which ran in magazines in late 1965 and early 1966 asked the rhetorical question: should a man in his 50s be allowed out in a Mustang? Let’s consider what might happen. To begin with, he’ll go around with a mysterious little smile on his face, and new spring in his walk. Mustang acts that way on a man…

By the end of 1965, the Mustang had sold more than a half million units in the United States and Canada, and by late 1966, it sold another 600,000. By early 1967 sales of the Mustang had topped all auto sales records for a new model. Ford designers and execs saw little reason to tamper with success, and other than a few small changes to the interior—including a new “padded” dashboard—and some tweaking of the exterior trim, Ford left the Mustang alone, and nudged the sticker price upwards by only a tiny percentage.

The Mustang was so successful that it spawned an immediate rival in the Chevrolet Camaro. GM wasted little time deciding that it would compete with the Mustang on muscle, and the Camaro was quickly marketed as a more powerful mid-priced sports car—a sort of Mustang on steroids. Ford’s reaction was to quickly offer the Mustang in big-block V-8s, with 1967 models pushing 390 cubic inches of engine. But GM’s introduction of the Camaro cut into sales numbers that would have almost certainly flowed toward the Mustang. Still other competitors followed, flowing into what would be dubbed the Pony Car category, with Mustang as the first. Besides the Camaro, there soon appeared the Pontiac Firebird, the Plymouth Barracuda and the Dodge Challenger. All would eventually stake out their claim among sports cars, but the Mustang lineage would remain unbroken.

Ford sold 356,271 ponies in 1967—still, a remarkably high number—but not anything like the huge sales during its first two years. In 1968 sales dropped again slightly to 310,000. Nevertheless, by early 1968, Ford could take bragging rights. The Mustang had shattered two records: most units sold for a debut car, and the most introductory sales of any Ford car since the debut of its own Model A. And by that point, the Mustang had become the biggest seller in car history.

Two people have been credited with coming up with the name Mustang. By some accounts at Ford, it was John Najjar, the designer of that first rocket-shaper roadster—and a huge fan of the World War II era airplane by the same name—who dubbed the prototype sports car Mustang. But the other version of the backstory is that the name was first suggested by Robert Eggert, a marketing executive with Ford. Eggert, who was familiar with horses and briefly bred them, latched onto the name Mustang after receiving a coffee table book on horses from his wife at Christmas. The historical debate was never settled within Ford, and the argument continues to this day among Mustang enthusiasts.

The Mustang became popular in motion pictures. Perhaps its most famous role was in the 1968 action/cop thriller Bullitt. In that film, Steve McQueen (playing alongside Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bissett and Robert Duvall) plays Lt. Frank Bullitt, a hard-hitting, gritty San Francisco detective. In real life, the character of Bullitt was based loosely on real life S.F. detective Dave Toschi. The movie features several famous chase scenes, and plenty of tire-screeching as Steve McQueen leaves rubber behind on San Francisco pavement. One long chase scene in Bullitt Bullitt movie still is generally considered by film historians to be one of the greatest high-speed sequences ever filmed—second only (and this is argued frequently in bars and at parties) to the famous chase in The French Connection. Ford loaned Warner Brothers several identical V8 Mustang GT fastbacks for use in the movie, with the expectation that the scenes would generate lots of excitement, and the loaners were further modified by race car driver/mechanic Max Balchowsky. Balchowsky added heavy duty suspension, beefed up the engines to produce both horsepower and extra roar, and supplemented the brakes to ensure that McQueen and the stunt drivers had the ability to stop the speeding Mustang in the sometimes tight quarters of San Francisco streets and alleys.

Mustangs feature prominently in other movies as well, including Back to the Future Pt. 2, American Gangster, and Diamonds Are Forever (a rare case of a Bond movie featuring an American sports car). And of course Ford’s earliest desire to compete with the British and Italian roadsters met with ironic success in one of the Mustang’s earliest cinema appearances, when a gleaming white 1964½ Mustang convertible appears in Goldfinger, in this case driven by woman intent on murdering James Bond.

The long life of the Mustang has been a complicated process of success and failure, upsizing and downsizing. After several years of continuously making the car bigger, a direct result of Ford’s desire to stay ahead of its most fierce competitors—the Camaro, the Firebird, the Challenger—Ford decided to tip the scales back in the other direction. By the mid-1970s the Mustang began to get smaller. The new compact version became, in essence, a second incarnation. By the end of the 70s it’s compact size and lean, sometimes austere styling created a divide between the acolytes of the early Mustang—with its classic lines and iconic profile—and those who preferred the so-called “new breed.” The 1979 model year dispensed with much of the DNA of the original 60s styling. Round headlights with replaced with four double rectangular eyes, and the front and back ends were reshaped to reflect the horizontal lines and single-level bumpers popular at the decade’s rollover. Mustang enthusiasts called this front end design “Four Eyes.” Gas mileage was an issue for the driving public, and the Mustang became lighter, and shorn itself of muscle. By the beginning of the 1980s the Mustang had been through three major phases, all based largely on size and power. The third generation was built on what was called the “Fox Platform,” and had in common its cousins in the Ford family—the Mercury Zephyr and the Ford Fairmont.

And though this Third incarnation of the Mustang had its fans and advocates—including those who even today regard this period as producing a classic—sales began to slump, in part because of fierce competition from Japanese automakers. Toyota, Honda and Datsun were finding huge success in the North American markets. But Ford wasted little time grousing about the influx of fuel-efficient cars from overseas, and instead tightened the efficiency of the Mustang (along with several other Ford products). By 1986 Mustang sales had climbed back up to 224,500, indicating to the top brass at Ford that the car was back on track. (Iacocca had famously moved to Chrysler, and was CEO of the Chrysler family of products).

The more muscular version of the Mustang, with its “5.0” V-8 and 200 horsepower, even became popular with police and law enforcement. Highway patrols in several states purchased fleets of modified pony’s to have on hand as pursuit vehicles. By the end of 1988 sales of the Mustang remained strong.

As Mustang enthusiasts know, there followed a fourth generation and a fifth generation of Mustangs, which bridged the decades from the early 1990s through the end of the zero years. The car would begin, in the early to mid-aughts, a slow reinvention of its earlier form. Fifth generation Mustangs were especially notable for their striking homage to the ancestral visage. Rectangular headlights were phase out and replaced with the round ones so familiar on those earliest Mustangs, and the triple vertical taillights, the deep set eyes inside the double-brow, and other styling elements—all part of the Mustang DNA—worked their way back to prominence. Ford even began adding tre cool retro elements to the dashboard. Sales continued to rise, then, occasionally fall. But Mustang enthusiasts liked what they saw, despite intense new pressure from arch-rival Chevy Camaro toward the end of the aught years.

Economic pressures sent all cars sales down in the Great Recession, and sales of the Mustang—like almost all models—sagged considerably. Along with other automakers, Ford suffered mightily between the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2011. Unlike General Motors and Chrysler, Ford opted out of taking money from the Federal government when the recession sent Chrysler to the very edge of the abyss and pushed GM into bankruptcy.

Now, the durable Mustang begins its Sixth incarnation, in part to celebrate the car’s anniversary, in part to kick sales numbers upward. The price of the Mustang is now ten times that of the original standard edition, but adjusting for inflation and rapid changes in auto design and engineering, that price rise is not only reasonable but modest.

Blue MustangImage courtesy of Ford Motor Company

The newest Mustang, the 2015 model now promoted in Ford marketing material but not yet available at dealerships until fall, has already drawn equal parts accolades and complaints. The added interior space (at 84.5 cubic feet the 2015 model adds more legroom, front and back), a slightly wider body, options for three engine types, and independent rear suspension all add to the car’s value and look. But a few Mustang enthusiasts complain that the new trapezoidal grill, restyled front and rear ends, and other design changes all add up to some loss of the trademark Mustang visage, and that new newest version breaks the genetic code.

Time will tell if Generation Six carries the Mustang legacy forward, and Ford will get to see if this dramatic gamble pays dividends when the car hits showrooms in early November.

Editor’s Note: Were you ever a Mustang owner? If so, send us your stories about your pony car and we will print it here at Thursday Review. Just email it to us at editor@thursdayreview.com, or at thursdayreview@aol.com.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/MustangFifty.html#sthash.5yH4743d.dpuf

Iraq’s Collapse & The Consequences for Saudi Arabia

saudiarabia

By R. Alan Clanton | published June 16, 2014 |
Thursday Review editor

The ongoing rivalries between radical Islamists groups have sometimes worked to the advantage of the United States and its allies, sometimes not. Those grudges and rivalries have insulated the kings and princes of the oil-rich nations from internal disruption, just as they have prevented any one Middle Eastern strongman from exerting disproportional influence over the region, or any one part of the region. Plus, those rivalries have often kept any one terrorist or militant group from gaining the upper hand militarily.

But that was then, and this is now. The Arab Spring set in motion a sequence of events which is altering the landscape and the political boundaries, literally. Borders drawn by the British and the French a century ago may soon become meaningless. And terrorist groups, once regarded as ragtag for their poor equipment, internal rivalries and fragile funding, are systematically re-energizing an al Qaeda network once thought by American presidents to be on the ropes.

Syria’s long and bloody civil war, followed by lawlessness, created an opportunity in its northern and northeastern territories for al Qaeda breakaway groups to exert control. This group, now calling itself ISIS or ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), has become a functioning army, complete with centralized command-and-control, impressive ground speed and strength, and the discipline of a functioning army.

In a period of only one week, ISIS moved quickly across northern Iraq, capturing several large cities, declaring the imposition of strict Islamic law, and vowing to press on toward Baghdad. Iraqi soldiers and security forces—trained and supplied by the United States—turned and ran. Many of the soldiers dropped their weapons, abandoned their heavy equipment and their vehicles, and even stripped away their army uniforms. In the brief battle for Mosul, roughly 850 ISIS fighters were able to cause the retreat of more than 32,000 Iraqi soldiers, police and security forces. ISIS militants met so little resistance that they not only collected millions of dollars worth of modern weaponry, they were also able to clean out local and regional banks. By some estimates, ISIS now has $500 million in its coffers.

The militants now control a vast swath of territory stretching from the Syrian border with Turkey in the northwest, to the threshold of Kurdish lands in northeastern Iraq, to within 80 miles of Baghdad in central Iraq. Despite a surge by Iraqi forces days ago, ISIS says it still controls all areas it took in its lightning sweep across northern Iraq, and it says it still intends to capture Baghdad soon. Just within the last few days, militants have seized control of Mosul, Tikrit, Kirkuk and Tal Afar. Today, reports from the battle lines say that militants shot down at least one Iraqi helicopter gunship. ISIS has made available dozens of videos showing grisly, gruesome images of Iraqi soldiers being executed, and analysts say the videos are designed with one purpose in mind—the spread of fear among anyone who intends to fight ISIS forces.

Flush with cash, ISIS has moved into social media and the internet in its recruitment drives worldwide. Unlike al Qaeda, which posted a new video every few months or used the internet only sparingly, ISIS has established a broad retail presence on the web, using Twitter, You Tube, and a variety of other social media applications to spread its message to young men in other countries. ISIS seeks territorial control in its goal of the creation of a caliphate, just as it seeks to spread terror and fear.

Intelligence experts and military analysts say that this combination of factors makes ISIS, an offshoot of al Qaeda, one of the most dangerous moving armies on earth.

But ISIS poses unforeseen threats in other parts of the region as well. The militant group has been unabashed in its desire to recruit soldiers from other Arab countries, and according to a variety of recent reports, ISIS is targeting disaffected men in Saudi Arabia. If these intelligence reports and news reports prove to be accurate, ISIS may be on the verge of beginning an attempt to topple the Al Saud royal family in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi’s are the world’s largest oil producer, and the world’s largest oil exporter. Ninety-five percent of the Saudi economy is driven by oil production, and its government rakes in almost three-quarters of its wealth from oil. The number of countries dependent on this oil is too long to list here, but suffice it to say that any disruption in the oil output of Saudi Arabia would have ripple effects worldwide. Saudi Arabia produces between five million and nine million barrels of oil per day, depending on data found on various energy websites. A sudden shutdown of oil production could have catastrophic repercussions for the world’s economy.

This is why some analysts say that ISIS’s recent overt interest in recruitment on the Arabian Peninsula—the first major move by jihadist groups since the Saudi’s beat back an earlier attempt by al Qaeda in the previous decade—should sound alarm bells among the world leaders.  Iraq shares a long, largely unprotected border with Saudi Arabia, and ISIS forces have shown their ability to move quickly and effectively across the landscape.

Although ISIS came to the attention of most people in the world in June, the militant organization has been openly recruiting in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States for more than a month. The news that ISIS has been aggressively seeking to form a movement in the largest of the oil states has many economists worried. Iraq is a major oil producer as well, and an Iraq in the hands of a jihadist entity could spell higher oil prices worldwide. Even if the worst case scenario is a segmented Iraq, with the ISIS forces controlling the north, and those loyal to Nouri al Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government controlling the south, Iraqi oil production will be surely be disrupted in areas where oil wells and pipelines fall under the control of militants. Likewise, a disruption to the political stability in Saudi Arabia could have massive consequences for oil-consuming nations worldwide.

For many in the jihadist world, Saudi Arabia is the antithesis of true Islam, despite the vast country being host to two of the most sacred sites in all of the Islamic world: Al-Masjid al-Haram (Grand Mosque, Mecca) and the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (Medina). For many terrorist groups, the Saudi royal family—and its moderate stance of generally friendly relationships with western powers—has been an unacceptable arrangement, and jihadists have long called for the overthrow of the Saudi family. In 1979, terrorists briefly seized control of the holy site in Mecca, and called for a general uprising. After about a week, the militants were dislodged from the mosque and the Saudi government added additional security, then, cracked down on religious opposition. Those involved in the seizure were executed.

Shortly afterwards, the Saud family extended some gestures toward traditional Islamic law by insisting on the closure of some businesses (movie theaters, for example), and by strengthening certain codes of appearance. But on the whole the jihadists were still dissatisfied with the Saudi government. Militants have threatened to disrupt and overthrow the Saudi government for decades, and Osama bin Laden, himself Saudi by birth, called for a general uprising and the application of terror. Later, in 2008 and 2009, the Saudi army fought a campaign against Shiite insurgents in several areas.

The Saudis may fear the religious extremism of ISIS, but the ruling family in Saudi Arabia is sometimes authoritarian to a fault. Women are not allowed to drive cars, nor have women been allowed to vote, though King Abdullah decreed recently that beginning next year women can vote and participate as full members in political advisory councils. And though women will get to vote soon, there are no elections in the traditional sense in Saudi Arabia. Most political issues are debated and resolved within the royal family, and many Middle East analysts liken the process to a large family-owned corporation, complete with factions and rivalries, backroom intrigue, and shifting alliances. Those who do “vote” are those few allowed to participate in tribal councils, advisory panels, and the Ulema, a mostly religious body which includes clerics, teachers and scholars.

The majority of Saudis are Sunni Muslims, which worries some Middle East analysts who say that Saudi Arabia may be ripe for political turmoil despite its vast wealth. But there is also a significant minority of Shiites in Saudi Arabia. The ruling family members are Wahhabis, and there has been tension, in some cases promoted by outside forces (as in Iran’s attempts to influence the Shiite population of Saudi Arabia toward uprising) applied on both sides of the Sunni-Shiite divide on the Arabian Peninsula.

The old borders drawn by the European powers continue to complicate things. Saudi Arabia was generally supportive of Saddam Hussein when he consolidated power in neighboring Iraq in the 1970s and early 1980s. Like the United States, Saudi Arabia backed Iraq in its long war with Iran. But later, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, the Saudis were so fearful of Saddam that they asked the United States to intervene militarily, even allowing the U.S., the U.K. and other allied troops access to construct bases on the Saudi Peninsula. This decision further infuriated militant groups and jihadists.

Disruption to oil production is seen by some terrorists as the shortest possible path to dislodge and overthrow the Saud family, whose rule dates back to the early part of the 20th century.

Many jihadists see the Saud family and its governing classes in Riyadh as phony Muslims, cloaked only in the trappings of Islam but obsessed with their wealth and their business relationships with those scores of trading partners who purchase Saudi oil.

But the Middle East can produce strange bedfellows. Saudi Arabia has long been rumored to have been supporting—through backchannels—the mostly Sunni fighters at war in Syria’s northern regions. Saudi Arabia must now contend with the possibility of that same radical movement seeking to spark jihad in its own backyard. Further complicating the messy dynamic: Iran is on the verge of openly supporting the government in Baghdad where it shares a kinship with Maliki and the Shiite’s in the Iraqi capital. Iran and Iraq have been bitter enemies for decades, and in the 1980s fought a long, brutal war in which hundreds of thousands may have died.  Today, Secretary of State John Kerry said he would be open to working with Iran if it helps to bring stability to Iraq.

The majority of those living in southern Iraq are Shiites, as is Prime Miniter Maliki, and the majority of those in the north are Sunni. The ISIS militants, now a formally organized army, are Sunni, and have in part tapped into the deep resentment that Iraq Sunnis feel toward the government in Baghdad.

This sectarian split was never fully resolved during the long U.S. military occupation which followed the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

After a week of silence, the Saudi government has responded to the crisis in Iraq through a cabinet-level press release. In that statement, it says the escalating crisis in Iraq is the direct result of “sectarian” policies in Baghdad, and the Saudis urge the people of Iraq to settle their differences peacefully and without foreign intervention—which presumably means Iran.

Meanwhile, the White House struggles daily to digest reports on the rapidly-evolving situation. Though President Barack Obama has said that he does not intend to put U.S. troops back on the ground in Iraq, he has said that he will consider other uses of force. Among those things being considered by the White House: air strikes, drone strikes, air support and air cover for Iraqi troops, intelligence support from drones and satellite imagery, and offshore U.S. Navy support. The President has sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf in anticipation of possible air cover or air strikes, and just today said he was strongly considering inserting a contingent of U.S. Special Forces into Iraq to help train and coordinate the Iraqi army’s response to the threat of ISIS.

But back in Riyadh, the Saudi powers-that-be are worried. If ISIS forces are able, by whatever means, to eventually take Baghdad, there would be little stopping those militants—now heavily armed, well-organized and well-funded—from storming south across the desert, and across the frontier that separates Iraq from Saudi Arabia.

And in that scenario, the jihadists could threaten much of the world’s economic and market stability simply by driving en masse toward those oil-rich sands.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Back to the Future: Iraq’s Descent Into Chaos; Thursday Review commentary; June 15, 2014.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/IraqSaudiArabia.html#sthash.qP1MOZI6.dpuf

Truth & Lies at the Veterans Administration

VA Hospital Montgomery

By Earl Perkins, Thursday Review associate editor

(Originally published June 14, 2014)  When you mislead or lie to a congresswoman and fire whistleblowers, there’s a fair chance the government will take a keen interest in your actions.

Republican Rep. Martha Roby of Montgomery is incensed that workers who falsified records at Veterans Administration health centers in central Alabama were not fired, but merely re-assigned. Central Alabama VA Director James Talton apologized for a ‘misunderstanding’ concerning what “relieved of their duties” meant.

“Last week,” Representative Roby said, “in a meeting he requested, Director Talton made it clear to me and my district director that those responsible for falsifying wait list records in central Alabama were no longer working at the VA, due in part to action he took to remove them. I have now learned that wasn’t true. No one has been fired. That means the employees responsible for falsifying wait list records are still working at the VA in Alabama.”

Roby had announced over the weekend that three VA employees associated with falsifying records concerning wait times at VA facilities had been terminated.

“…The unmistakable tenor of (last) Friday’s conversation and his failure to correct the record after three days of saturating news coverage tell me this wasn’t a misunderstanding at all. I believe I was misled,” Roby said in a statement to the press and the public, “if a member of Congress can’t get a straight answer from the VA, just think what our veterans go through on a daily basis.”

More than 57,000 veterans have been waiting 90 days or more for their first VA medical appointments, according to a federal report released last week. At least 13 percent of schedulers at VA hospitals and outpatient clinics were evidently told by supervisors to log patient wait times shorter than they actually were. Whistleblowers have come forward at numerous VA medical center locations to tell of managers or supervisors mentoring rank-and-file employees on how to manipulate the scheduling process. Some whistleblowers have used the term “gaming the system” to describe how they were instructed to create the illusion of shorter wait times.

“The current wait time for new patients is unacceptable and we are taking several actions to improve access,” Central Alabama VA spokeswoman Dorothea McBride said in an email.

The VA is supposedly making numerous changes, including expanding clinic hours and allowing 500 Columbus, Georgia, area veterans to visit non-VA health care providers.

Roby is seeking more changes, including using the VA’s Patient-Centered Community Care program in central Alabama, which allows veterans to use non-VA health care providers for services not offered by their local VA or when there are long waits. Roby has made it clear she no longer trusts the agency.

“We just don’t know what’s true,” Roby said. “This kind of cover-your-own-back mentality is precisely the problem at the VA. Remember that the issue at hand is the falsification of records to hide poor performance. For Director Talton to give the false impression that appropriate action had been taken when it actually had not is emblematic of the backward priorities within the VA bureaucracy.”

“This breach of trust has caused my office to dig even deeper into what is really going on in Montgomery,” she added. “I believe there is more to this story.”

Roby was technically incorrect when she said nobody was fired. John Morykwas, a former employee of the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System (CAVHCS), was evidently fired, along with several others. Morykwas said Tuesday night that Talton was incorrect about firing those who falsified records, according to website Yellowhammer News.

“It was wishful thinking that VA Employees were fired, but that is a lie,” he said. Morykwas, a Board certified medical laboratory professional, said several employees involved were merely demoted, while he and others were fired for attempting to do the right thing. “The only individuals who were fired were the whistleblowers, and I was one,” Morykwas said. “I was fired for ‘Disrespectful conduct, and Violating the Chain of Command’ for refusing to falsify medical records, and sending an email as to why I refused.”

Related Thursday Review articles:

The VA’s Long Road Ahead; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; June 13, 2014.

VA Hospitals: It’s Worse Than We Thought; Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 10, 2014.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/VAmontgomeryRoby.html#sthash.tTNwh36K.dpuf

Wrigley Field at the Century Mark

wrigleyfield1928

By Kevin Robbie, Thursday Review contributor

(Originally published June 7, 2014)  2014 marks the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, also known as “The Friendly Confines.” Only Fenway Park in Boston is older than Wrigley Field. Of course, the team ownership has been marketing the stadium’s anniversary and Cubs fans have been turning out in impressive numbers as they typically do in any given season.

And, as in a typical season, the Cubs are struggling to field a competitive team. As of the middle of May, they are in last place and show little indication of significant improvement this season. However, the season is still young and hope springs eternal in baseball. The Cubs don’t have a very good team but they have a jewel of a stadium.

Wrigley Field, located at 1060 West Addison Street, opened on April 23, 1914. The stadium was constructed at a cost of $250,000. To put that cost in perspective, there is a current plan to renovate Wrigley at a cost of $500 million dollars. Team ownership would foot most of the bill.

Wrigley Field is a unique and iconic structure. It is known for the ivy growing on the walls of its outfield. The ivy factors into the ground rules for the field. If a batted ball is hit into the ivy and the outfielder signals with his hands that he cannot find the ball, the umpire can rule the play a ground-rule double. However, if the outfielder tries to find the ball or pull it out of the growth, the ball remains in play and the batter can advance along the bases. Other features are a red marquee over the stadium’s front entrance and unpredictable winds blowing in from Lake Michigan.

Wrigley Field has the distinction of being the last of the major league baseball parks to add additional, modern lighting. At a cost of $5 million, and after a protracted political fracas over the question of whether the new lights would ruin the iconic stadium, high-intensity lighting was installed in the spring of 1988. On August 8, Chicago Cubs fans packed the stadium to watch their beloved Cubs play the Phillies in improved lighting, but ironically the game was rained out after only a few innings. The first complete game under the new lighting was played the next night.

The stadium also is known for its quirky outfield dimensions, which are essentially unchanged from 1937 when the outfield bleachers were renovated. These dimensions give Wrigley the deepest foul lines in the major leagues but a relatively small ground foul area. These characteristics, along with the winds from Lake Michigan, have given Wrigley the distinction of being a hitters’ park, meaning it tends to be easier on hitters and harder on pitchers.

One extreme example of this tendency was a game between the Cubs and Phillies on May 17, 1979. Considered to be the wildest game in modern baseball history and the holy grail of high-scoring games, the Phillies defeated the Cubs by the football score of 23-22. The combined forty-five runs are a modern record and haven’t been approached since.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Crash Landing: The 1969 Seattle Pilots; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; March 5, 2014.

Remembering Tony C and the Impossible Dream; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; October 26, 2013.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/WrigleyField100.html#sthash.4NXagRey.dpuf