Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Fight Against ISIS: Who Will Provide the Boots?

Photo: Murad Sezer/Reuters

Photo: Murad Sezer/Reuters

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Despite an intensive campaign of air strikes—including U.S. warplanes, Arab nation fighters, armed drones, and Tomahawk cruise missiles—the full scope of the rapid advance of ISIS has now become abundantly clear to the surrounding nations of the Middle East. By some American and British intelligence and military estimates, ISIS forces now number nearly 30,000.

Throughout Friday afternoon and evening, ISIS fighters in northern Syria—battling with Kurdish fighters—advanced to within a few hundred yards of the Turkish border. The intense fighting was so close that Kurds, Armenians, Yazidi, and Christian Syrians seeking refuge inside Turkey could watch the firefight from knolls and hilltops only a hundred yards inside the razor wire and chain link fence separating the two countries.

Television camera crews from news organizations captured the dramatic images of ISIS militants, clad in black, moving in small groups across the rolling landscape, while Kurds exchanged fire using small arms, mortars and a few vehicle-mounted guns. A CNN camera operator was so close to the firefight that crowds of Kurdish refugees nearby could be heard cheering and clapping when the Kurds would open up with heavier rounds of fire. Walking between the refugees and the razor wire were Turkish soldiers, heavily armed, watching nervously as the battle drew ever closer. Phil Black, CNN’s correspondent at that location, estimated the militants to be within a mile of the border (though my experience with the lens capacity and optical range of professional TV cameras suggests that the distance between CNN’s tripod and the closest ISIS fighters was less than 400 yards).

The war between ISIS and the rest of the world has now reached the doorstep of Turkey, a major European power and a NATO member state. The question becomes: how and when does Turkey respond, and under what circumstances?

Fareed Zakaria, speaking later in the day on CNN, suggested that the breathtaking proximity of Turkish soldiers and ISIS militants means that Turkey—up until now an ambivalent witness to the meltdown within Syria and Iraq—may have the security catalyst and political motivation it needs to provide the much-discussed injection of “boots on the ground,” so categorically dismissed as an option by U.S. President Barack Obama, and so scrupulously avoided by representatives of scores of other countries—even those supportive of air strikes.

The air campaign, in part, has shifted toward cutting off a measurable share of ISIS funding. U.S. warplanes have again struck oil facilities and oil distribution sites within Iraq and Syria. The goal: starve ISIS of the quick cash it receives from the sale of oil from facilities under its control. By some estimates, ISIS collects nearly $2 million per day through the sale of oil on the black market. Many of the same middlemen who bought oil from Syrian or Iraqi companies only months ago now buy it directly from ISIS, often paying cash, and frequently at a deep discount; ISIS is not concerned with profits by the traditional definition, but instead seeks to insure a steady supply of operating cash to fund its rapidly-moving army.

But all the air assets of the United States and its five partner Arab nations—Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—were unable to assist the Kurds in their fierce battles which now rage so close to the Turkish border. ISIS has been engaged in a systematic campaign to consolidate its territorial gains throughout Iraq and Syria, but it has exerted particular effort within the last week to push Kurdish fighters back along a long line of towns and villages across the northern rim of Syria. The Kurds have fought valiantly, but the ISIS advance has continued, often only by a few miles each day. The Kurdish stronghold of Kobani (in Arabic, Ayn al-Arab), which sits on the border checkpoint just south of Suruc, in Turkey, has been under siege all week as ISIS militants slowly encircle the town.

Kobani has previously served as a safe-haven for civilian refugees fleeing ISIS, and its own population has swollen as the Syrian Civil war had raged. But the steady advance of ISIS has caused panic in Kobani and in a dozen smaller towns across the northern rim of Syria, and hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have fled into Turkey to escape the wrath of the radicals. Many have arrived with stories of atrocities they have witnessed before their escape. Humanitarian groups and U.N. observers say that roughly 200,000 refugees have entered Turkey just within the last seven days. Thousands more enter the country each day, and the total number of Syrians who have fled their own country by crossing into Turkey now numbers nearly 1.5 million.

The Syrian civil war, now well into its third year, has rapidly morphed into something much more dangerous and complex than anything White House policy-makers could have envisioned six months ago. ISIS, also sometimes called ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), formed out of the chaos and lawlessness in northern Syria as anti-Assad rebels fought with troops loyal to Damascus. ISIS co-opted other radical groups, including some al Qaeda units in Syria and northern Iraq. Coalescing around those units most heavily-armed, the newer, larger ISIS army sprang into action this spring, sweeping across Syria, crossing the border into Iraq, and moving with astonishing speed across wide swaths of Iraq. Ahead of its advance, the Iraqi army and Iraqi security forces collapsed, abandoning weapons, tanks, small vehicles and ammunition. The collapse of the Iraqi army, and ISIS’s rapid advance to within 40 miles of Baghdad, threatened to unravel Iraq as a nation, and created stresses along the borders with Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Later, after U.S. air power began to intervene on behalf of thousands of besieged Yazidis trapped on and around Mount Sinjar, ISIS militants raised the stakes and escalated the brutality and violence. ISIS radicals beheaded journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and a week later killed a British aid worker. The United States began a full-scale air campaign against ISIS inside Iraq, but not Syria. Later, after a week of discussion and debate over whether ISIS could be degraded using only airstrikes in Iraq, the United States—along with five Arab partner countries, and some French air assets—began a campaign of attacking ISIS positions deep inside Syria.

Air power, though largely welcomed by the government of Iraq, and now receiving tacit approval from Assad’s government in Syria, has arrived late to the landscape of fractious, war-torn Syria, where tens of thousands have died in a brutal, bloody civil war. Not all of the anti-Assad rebel factions are in favor of intervention by the U.S. or other western powers. Some rebel groups, in fact, fear the worst: U.S. air strikes will have only a modest effect on ISIS while shoring up the Assad regime in Damascus. Other rebels groups support U.S. air intervention, but only if such strikes can be surgically targeted to strike ISIS positions without collateral damage. Indeed, some observers on the ground in Syria have reported that U.S. strikes have caused extensive damage in civilian areas.

Still, in predominantly Kurdish areas of both Iraq and Syria, the air strikes are welcome. Kurdish fighters have been engaged along a variety of fronts with ISIS, in some cases battling for survival. Reports of ISIS atrocities—beheadings, mass shootings, crucifixions, amputations, kidnapping, and rape—have spurred panic among the general population, and entire villages and towns have emptied out ahead of the arrival of ISIS forces. The struggle has been particularly intense across parts of northern Syria, where ethnic and religious minorities proliferate (Kurds, Yazidis, Syrian Christians, Armenians, even Turks).

ISIS seeks to establish a caliphate—a broadly-defined sovereign land, in defiance of existing borders, ruled by a radical Sunni interpretation of some parts of Islamic law (most Muslims eschew ISIS’s extremist calibration of the religion), and this has led to horrifying results in many towns and cities now under ISIS control. Vendors and markets must pay tribute to ISIS collectors, schools are banned, women and children are to stay indoors, Shiite mosques are destroyed, and ethnic or religious minorities (Yazidis, Christians, Shiites, Kurds) must disavow their beliefs and express absolute loyalty to the ISIS definition of religious law. Those who do not comply are summarily killed.

The beheadings of Foley, Sotloff, and British aid worker David Haines, have become part of a gruesome pattern of publicity meant to instill fear outside of the immediate reach of ISIS, and discourage foreign intervention on behalf those whom ISIS is terrorizing. But the beheadings may have been the catalyst which brought about the start of the U.S. air campaign. After weeks of debate, Britain’s Parliament voted to authorize U.K. air power in Iraq (but presumably not in other areas of the Middle East) in the fight against ISIS. The same day as the British decision, both Denmark and Belgium also passed resolutions offering military help.

The matter of boots-on-the-ground remains tenaciously unresolved. There is still no consensus in Washington over how to approach the next phase of what will surely be a long struggle. Almost everyone—military experts and military analysts, foreign policy wonks, the Pentagon brass—agrees that the air campaign can only go so far. Without trained, disciplined eyes on the ground, air strikes remain vaguely focused, and can often lead to unreliable levels of success. (Some recent U.S. strikes may have produced much material damage, but few actual ISIS casualties). The more narrowly-defined mission to defang the Khorasan Group, a terror-within-the-terror cell enclave of bomb-makers and hardened fighters, may also yield spotty results if left exclusively to air power.

So the question becomes: whose troops can be effectively deployed to provide an on-the-ground army to confront ISIS? For many weeks, some have suggested Saudi Arabia, a country with vast wealth, and a nation which also receives hundreds of millions of dollars in military and technological assistance from the United States. But the Saudis are unlikely to want to engage on the ground, and will likely demure if pressed to participate beyond the air campaign now under way.

Today’s fighting along the northern rim of Syria, within view of Turkey’s army, may offer a clue as to the best possible direction. So reluctant is Turkey to provoke ISIS, that is has used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to quell mass disturbances near the border checkpoints and the point-of-entry stations. Kurdish men on the Turkish side of the border want to heed the call of their besieged brethren inside Syria. So even as thousands flee Syria, thousands more seek to enter the country to fight ISIS. (Today, there were reports from some Turkish towns that hundreds of Kurds, able to witness some of the fighting taking place less than a mile away, have begun to overwhelm the Turkish soldiers; Kurds have, in several places, reportedly broken down the border fence or used cutting tools to break through the razor wire, and in one area Turkish military officers reportedly did not intervene in the incident).

After changing its mind about allowing U.S. and French airplanes access to Turkish bases, while still agreeing to more to seal off its porous border with Syria—a loosely-patrolled line which many would-be militants from Europe apparently cross in search of jihadist violence—Turkey may soon have reason to rethink, again. Days ago, it completed a hostage trade with ISIS, a straight-up prisoner-for-prisoner exchange which included no quid pro quo on invasion or military action. In other words, Turkey may no commitment to its ISIS contacts regarding hostilities.

Turkey is a NATO member state, well-funded, and its army is professional, well-trained, disciplined, and relatively free of corruption. And with ISIS fighters only a few hundred yards from the border, and with Turkey now bearing a heavy share of the humanitarian load wrought by ISIS’s atrocities, the time may be ideal for Turkey to choose sides in a deadly fight it was trying to avoid only weeks ago.

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U.S. Military Strikes Inside Syria

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

The United States and its closest Arab allies began attacking ISIS targets inside war-torn Syria on Monday. Using a mixed campaign of fighter jets, stealth bombers, and cruise missiles launched from battleships, the coalition pounded specific ISIS positions in northern Syria—a country torn by civil war for more than three years.

U.S. and French fighters had already been bombing ISIS positions in Iraq for weeks, but the dilemma faced by the United States had always been whether or not to extend that air campaign into neighboring Syria, a country which serves as the home for the militant army which sprang into action earlier this year. Critics of President Barack Obama have said for weeks that the air strikes in Iraq would be insufficient to degrade or defang ISIS since so much of the terrorist group’s activities are based in northern Syria.

All told, the U.S. had completed about 190 air strikes inside Iraq when the Syrian air campaign began late Monday night. Other air missions had been carried out by French fighters over the weekend.

U.S. military officials stressed that the air campaign in Syria and northern Iraq would be the work of a coalition of forces, and the new U.S. attacks in Syria have been joined by air power from at least five other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Internationally, there has been a slow but generally positive consensus that direct action would need to be taken against ISIS, even inside Syria. Russia has complained, however, that airstrikes inside Syria would be a violation of international law.

U.S. officials also said that about eight of the air attacks were targeted at the so-called “Khorasan Group,” a militant faction with closer ties to al Qaeda, and made up of al Qaeda operatives not specifically aligned with ISIS. Intelligence experts believe that these militant groups were in the advanced stages of developing terror attack plans against the United States and its allies. The Pentagon described the threat of a terror attack by Khorasan as “imminent,” though the U.S. military’s top press liaison, Rear Admiral John Kirby, declined to give specifics on the nature or the location of the terror attacks.

Members of the Khorasan Group, numbering between 50 and 60, have been thought by intelligence experts to have been based in Aleppo. The Pentagon says it can confirm only that key targets were hit, but it cannot confirm the total number of militants killed in those heavy attacks. Intelligence experts think that the Khorasan Group may be one of several terror groups developing and experimenting with new bomb-making techniques—explosives which may require no metal or other easily-detectable components. This type of non-metal bomb was first developed by al Qaeda groups in Yemen, and the design for such devices may have been exported to Syria.

The Khorasan Group was obscure until last week when its existence was confirmed by intelligence and military spokesmen in the U.S. and the U.K. The group consists of seasoned remnants of al Qaeda fighters and operatives from places as far away as Paksitan, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Other air strikes were carried out to destroy munitions depots and weapons caches near Aleppo under ISIS control, stockpiles being currently used with great effect by ISIS fighters engaging Kurdish troops along the fringes of northern Syria near the Turkish border. There, in and around the city of Kobani, ISIS militants and Kurdish fighters are engaged in a desperate battle for control of one the last safe havens for Kurds, Armenians, Christians, and other ethnic and religious minorities. ISIS units are attempting to consolidate control over their territorial gains.

Over the last five days at least 135,000 civilians have crossed the border into Turkey. Hundreds more, mostly Kurdish men—answering the call by their fellow Kurds fighting along the front—are attempting to cross the border from Turkey into Syria to join the fight against ISIS. Turkish police used water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas in a massive, coordinated attempt to push the Kurdish volunteers away from the border fences and border checkpoints. The vast majority of those fleeing from northern Syria are women, children and elderly, and U.N. workers and aid groups report that thousands are arriving each day.

Meanwhile, ISIS spokesmen have made a worldwide call for Islamic men to take up arms against the U.S.-led coalition in the Middle East. Abu Mohammed al-Adnani broadcast an audio-video statement via social media and several networks in which he also called for Muslims to kill non-Muslim civilians anywhere in the world. “If you can kill a disbelieving American,” the message said, “or European—especially the spiteful and filthy French—or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever, then rely upon Allah and kill him in any manner or way however it may be.”

This past weekend, Algerian radicals kidnapped a French civilian and threatened to behead him if the French government did not withdraw its military support for the coalition. The French man’s name is Herve Gourdel, aged 55 and a native of Nice. French authorities were aware of Gourdel’s disappearance last week, but have not been able to confirm that he was abducted by individuals claiming an allegiance to ISIS.

But many Islamic spokespersons, and many scholars even in Arab countries, say that ISIS’s worldwide call is not likely to have a great effect except on those already radicalized—as was the case in last week’s plot by a group of Australians who had planned to capture and behead one civilian each week. U.S. law enforcement experts say that they intend to crack down on the information and travel pipelines which may lead more Americans to attempt to link-up with ISIS in the Middle East. The FBI is looking specifically at three U.S. cities which have already produced radicalized fighters now working alongside ISIS: Minneapolis, Boston, and Los Angeles.

The enlarged campaign of air strikes began around 8:30 p.m. (EDT) on Monday, which would have been before sunrise in the Middle East. Most of the airstrikes took place in and around the city of Raqqa, on the Euphrates River, and near the towns of Al Tabqah and Deir ez-Zur. Some of the airstrikes employed the use of American F-22 “Raptors,” high-tech stealth fighters capable of speeds of more than 1000 miles per hour and mostly undetectable to radar. This was the first battlefield deployment of the Raptor, which has met with controversy for its high price tag. But some military analysts say that the plane nevertheless proved its mettle during its debut combat operation.

U.S. and allied Arab fighter attacks were supplemented by at least 45 cruise missile launches from the USS Arleigh Burke and the USS Philippine Sea, positioned in the Red Sea and in the North Arbian Gulf, respectively. The Pentagon said that a variety of drones—armed and unarmed—were also involved in the operations.

Monday’s round of firepower was the most intensive operations since the aerial campaign began in early August after the death of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Although the government of Syria has not officially endorsed or approved the airstrikes within its borders, most analysts agree that neither Bashir al Assad nor anyone in Damascus will openly confront the allied air attacks which are taking place since Assad has as much to gain from the destruction of ISIS as the other participants. Still, U.S. military planners are taking great care to use only that airpower which has the best chance of avoiding or evading Syrian air defense systems in those areas under the command of the Syrian army, and those areas within the reach of Syrian radar. The U.S. government spokespersons say that there is no official line of communication open between Washington and Damascus on the current military campaign.

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There Can Only Be One Bond

martinitux

By Thursday Review staff

Though the ruling was sealed and there has been little conversation—before, during, or after—a copyright and trademark case is making its way through the courts in California, a case with big implications for anyone thinking of imitating the famous fictional agent James Bond.

MGM and Danjaq LLC have sued NBC Universal (owned by Comcast) to force Universal to cease its development and production of a motion picture which will feature a high-ranking spy working for British intelligence. The fictional spy being developed by NBC Universal wears tuxedos, drinks dry martinis, drives snazzy sports cars, receives a “license to kill” from his handlers in London, and—in general—has all the other habits and attributes of the famous spy developed decades ago by novelist Ian Fleming, and parlayed over the years into perhaps the most famous film franchise in movie history.

The case now being heard in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles is called Danjaq LLC vs. Universal City Studios. MGM and Danjaq, it seems, do not want to see other film and TV studios cash in on a very profitable, but closely held, creation.

The Bond series—which numbers either 24 or 25, depending on how one counts them—has grossed close to $2 billion just in American theaters over the years. Coupled with other rights—foreign distribution, television replays, likenesses, gadgets, toys, you name it—the overall impact runs closer to $3 billion.

NBC Universal argued in court that the case was a waste of time and money: not one frame of the proposed film has even been shot, the script is still under development and therefore subject to extensive changes, and NBC Universal would likely rewrite/revise the draft screenplay (written originally by Aaron Berg) to insure that neither MGM nor Danjaq LLC would be infringed upon by the movie. Further, Universal says it has not even concluded whether the film should be produced. NBC had made a motion recently for the case to be dismissed, but U.S. District Judge James Otero denied that motion.

Nevertheless, talk is fast and loose in Hollywood. Rumors of the Bond-like motion picture have been circulating for many months, and it has been readily apparent that MGM and Danjaq plan to protect the reputation of their favorite secret agent.

The bond franchise has not only been highly profitable, but it has also made stars of its dapper leading men. Among those who have portrayed the handsome, well-tailored agent: Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig. There have been other James Bonds in films, but it get complicated (for example, most people do not know that Bond was first portrayed as an American, by actor Barry Nelson; and many more would be surprised to learn that David Niven also played Bond).

Comic knockoffs of Bond have proliferated over the years as well. Mike Myers’ classic send-up of British spies—Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery—spawned an entire subculture of London-based agent laughs and gags. Johnny English, portrayed with the sort of deadpan aplomb only possible by the British comedian Rowan Atkinson, wears nifty black tuxedos, drives expensive sports cars, and seems to know which end of the gun is which. But English also causes almost as much mayhem and disruption as one would think possible in the intelligence services. Atkinson’s role also spawned numerous sequels.

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Syria: A Complex, Dangerous Puzzle

syrianmap

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

For U.S. policy-makers and a variety of U.S. allies, the introduction of airstrikes inside war-torn Syria is a tricky balancing act. Only months ago, Syrian President Bashar al Assad was the enemy of the civilized world—a once quasi-reformer who had regrettably morphed overnight into a tyrant during the Arab Spring. Rather than work with the opposition within his fractious country, he cracked down, triggering a violent civil war which has now lasted for more than three years. Tens of thousands died, millions of civilians were displaced, and lawlessness and chaos eventually prevailed across half of the country.

Assad, by then a pariah responsible for a collateral genocide, was the enemy. But that was then, and this is now.

On Wednesday, the United States and five participating Arab nations continued intensive bombing of targets inside Syria, targets believed to be crucial to ISIS operations. Among the targets in ISIS-controlled areas: oil facilities and oil distribution assets. ISIS generates, by some estimates, millions of dollars each day from its control of the flow of oil.

ISIS burst onto the scene, wreaking havoc across the wider Middle East with its scorched-earth warfare and its inflexible radicalism. The terror group—full name the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—emerged from the very lawlessness which Assad had wrought in two thirds of his war-torn country, and within the span of only a few short weeks its fast-moving army swept across Iraq, sending the Iraqi army into a mass retreat, sparking sectarian violence, and terrorizing the population of every town and village along the way with barbaric acts of vengeance and retribution.

ISIS’s swift advance was so breathtaking that it looked as if Iraq—a nation in which thousands of Americans died—would slip away from the tenuous democracy it had become and fragment completely. Worse, ISIS threatened the very stability of the entire Middle East and sent shudders through Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and now Turkey.

Suddenly, there was something far worse than Assad. And against the background of other flashpoints—the Ukraine, a Cold War style Russia, Israel versus Hamas in Gaza, unresolved tensions between China and Japan, provocative moves by China in the South China Sea—the threat from ISIS quickly trumped all other fires.

International politics is sometimes triangular, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend, or so the old expression goes. Today, Assad’s government says it welcomes international military efforts to eradicate ISIS from within his country’s deeply-scarred, fractious borders. ISIS calls Syria its home, and ISIS considers Raqqa—in northern Syria along the Euphrates River—the capital of its expanding caliphate. Assad even included in his statement of support a welcome of U.S. intervention through air strikes, targeted missiles and drones. Anything, in other words, that might rid him of the most violent of the rebels operating inside Syria.

Under practically any other foreign policy circumstance, the endorsement—tacit or otherwise—of the presumptive leader of the country being bombed by U.S. warplanes would be a welcome turn of events. But in the deadly, chaotic barroom brawl that is Syria, to be on the same side as Assad is to invite a multitude of problems.

On Monday, the United States and five Arab countries initiated a massive air campaign directed against ISIS. At 8:30 p.m. EDT, a swarm of U.S. Navy and Air Force fighters, dozens of stealth bombers, destroyer-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, and armed drone unleashed more than fifty direct attacks against ISIS positions on the ground in a dozen locations across Syria. The Arab countries participating included Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. military also sent the F-22 into its first combat operations, using the high-tech stealth fighters—capable of speeds of more than 1000 miles per hour and invisible to radar—to attack targets deep inside ISIS-controlled areas.

The U.S. also launched withering air assaults on specific buildings and structures believed to be the headquarters of a previously-obscure al Qaeda spin-off called the Khorasan Group, a terrorist enclave made up of hardened fighters from a dozen countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Iran, and Lybia. Intelligence officials believe that embedded among the Khorasan Group’s 50-plus members are highly-skilled bomb-makers, trained by notorious explosives experts in Yemen. American officials, while being non-specific, have said that this independent faction was in the advanced stages of a terror attack against the United States. Security and intelligence experts believe that Yemen-based bomb-makers may have developed a way to build bombs entirely out of non-metal components, and there is evidence to show that those bomb schematics have found their way to members of Khorasan (a group some fear may be more deadly than ISIS).

Monday’s air attacks inside Syria came after many weeks of complex debate and evolving policy regarding whether the United States, the United Kingdom, and other European or Middle Eastern nations should intervene directly in Syria. Intervention against ISIS in Syria, some foreign policy experts warned, would be a slippery slope—and a de facto violation of international law if Assad did not openly authorize such incursions. On the other hand, as many military analysts have pointed out, any long range plan to defang and degrade ISIS would require some form of direct interdiction inside Syria—the country of the terrorist army’s birth, and the area it calls home.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that there would be no easy resolution to the battle against ISIS, and warned that trying to quantify the number of air missions, the kinds of ground forces required, or the time frame of the battle, was unproductive. Kerry stressed that the fight against ISIS would not be easily measured in weeks or months. Only a day earlier, Jordan’s King Abdullah also said that the fight could last for many months, even years.

Damascus issued a statement saying that it “stands with any international effort to fight terrorism, no matter what a group is called—whether Daesh, or Nusra Front (ISIS), or Khorasan, or something else.” Syria also vowed to help with the fight against ISIS, saying that the militants represent an existential threat to both Syria and Iraq.

Many of the rebel factions inside Syria have expressed cautious support for the air attacks. Some have not. The rebel group called Harakat Hazm—a relatively moderate group in the fractious landscape of northern Syria—said that the air attacks by the United States and the other Arab nations were clear violations of Syrian sovereignty, and disruptive to the overall campaign of ousting Assad from power.

“The only party benefitting from the foreign intervention in Syria,” Harakat Hazm said in a statement released on Facebook and Twitter, “is the Assad regime, especially in the absence of a real strategy to bring it down.” Other rebel factions said that despite the amount of firepower being unleashed on ISIS and other groups, no attempt has been made by the U.S. or its partner nations to force Assad from power. Both Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group based in Lebanon, and Hamas, the anti-Israel group in Gaza, have issued condemnations of the airstrikes. Hezbollah said that military participation by the other Arab countries in the attacks was a mere ruse to mask an attempt by the U.S. “to dominate the region again.”

Assad has met recently with King Abdullah of Jordan, as well as with envoys from Iraq, in an effort to coordinate efforts against ISIS and in a show of consensus among Muslim nations.

But some of Assad’s closest supporters and allies have expressed unvarnished disapproval of the air strikes, and have scolded Assad for offering an endorsement of U.S. intervention. Iran, long a key Syrian ally, condemned the attacks. This is the same Iran which openly supports the U.S. and French air attacks in Iraq, where such intervention has helped to slow the advance of ISIS militants, who are predominantly Sunni, and in many cases violently anti Shiite. Iran supported the rise of Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Speaking to reporters in New York, outside the United Nations, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the U.S. and Arab air attacks illegal.

Russia, another longtime ally of Syria and a frequent source of weapons and airplanes, has also loudly condemned the U.S. airstrikes as “unilateralist” and “dangerously arbitrary.” Over the years, Russia—dating back to the days of the Soviet Union—has provided hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of military hardware to Syria. And Assad, it is widely assumed, must keep that generosity in mind.

Thus, many military analysts say that the current air campaign—though certainly necessary to defang and destroy ISIS—may in fact carry a high risk of further destabilizing an already fractious and lawless region of the world. The air attacks may also have the inadvertent effect of shoring up the Assad regime.

The humanitarian dimension to the war continues to grow each day. Over the past weekend more than 135,000 civilians fled to the northernmost border of Syria and entered neighboring Turkey. All told, some 1.3 million refugees have made their way to the frontier, and roughly half may already be inside Turkey—seeking refuge from the fighting and fearful of the violence inflicted by ISIS. Kurdish fighters are caught in a desperate battle to retain control of the remaining cities and towns along the northern rim of Syria, and they have called for Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities to join them in their fight against ISIS. ISIS units are using tanks, artillery and heavy firepower in its assaults in places like Kobani, near the border with Turkey.

In addition to the humanitarian crisis now unfolding as thousands crowd into refugee camps in Turkey, there is the problem of people trying to get into the war zone. Heeding the call of the brethren, thousands of Kurdish men are now attempting to enter Syria from the north. Their intention is to join forces with the Kurds already fighting ISIS along several fronts in Syria and Iraq. Turkish police and military, fearing a rapidly expanding war within miles of the border, are using tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to dissuade the influx of would-be fighters.

Last week Turkey changed its mind about allowing the use of its airfields by U.S., French or British fighters in the air campaign against ISIS, but Turkey has steadfastly promised to regain control of its largely porous border with Syria and Iraq. Law enforcement officials in the U.K. and the U.S. believe that many hundreds of Europeans have travelled across the continent, then, slipped across the border into Syria or Iraq along Turkey’s poorly managed border. British intelligence experts believe that as many as 500 European citizens may now be fighting alongside ISIS units in Syria and Iraq.

On Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to the United Nations general assembly, asking for the world’s help in a campaign to eradicate terrorism worldwide, but stressing the specific threat from ISIS. Obama also scored something of an international victory during a meeting of the Security Council when he was able to wrest unanimous approval for a resolution calling for nations to crack down on citizens who travel abroad for the purposes of engaging in terror.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/SyrianPolicy9-24-14.html#sthash.dTwD1yB3.dpuf

Apple: Bent, But Not Broken

Image courtesy of Apple

Image courtesy of Apple

By Thursday Review staff

When something goes wrong at Apple, it can be a big deal. The company has long been associated with cutting edge technology and the coolest of the cool apps and gadgets, and its empire is built largely upon the reliability and cache of its sleek, dazzling products.

Back years ago, when some Apple phones had a problem with reception and clarity because of a glitch antenna, Steve Jobs famously (and clumsily) suggested that people simply try holding the phone in a different way. That official reaction to a product problem caused a minor marketplace and industry fracas, and internally Apple resolved never to go down that path again.

So when the release of its new iPhone 6 was accompanied—24 hours later—by a high-impact problem, the blowback was immediate. Apple apologized to its customers, acknowledged that it had an issue, and set to work immediately to resolve the glitch as quickly as possible.

The new phone, which went on sale days ago amid lots of publicity and long lines of Apple aficionados (many of whom camped out for days to buy the new devices), contained many tre’ cool features, including a thumbprint tool and a payment platform. But one small thing the device was also supposed to do was make phone calls, and a glitch (in its iOS 8 mobile software) prevented some iPhone users from doing exactly that.

In addition, the newest phone, which is slightly larger than previous versions, has faced a withering storm of concern over its inability to sustain more than a scant few degrees of bending. As of early this week, Apple had already received an undisclosed number of complaints and returns by customers whose new phones broke or were damaged by bending, in most cases as a result of customers placing phones—as is common practice—in hip-pockets or back pockets.

On Facebook, Twitter and other social media, the brouhaha has been termed “Bendgate,” and the controversy has led to a lot of back and forth over the issue of low-rider jeans, tight jeans, and the kind of jeans that would otherwise appear to painted on save for the outline of the phone. In addition, the lightweight aluminum and composite shell—which is obviously unable to sustain the routine pressure placed on it if its user sits on it while it is stored in a pocket—may be a case of less is less, rather than less is more. Some newer phones have also been shown to bend very easily when stored in a front pocket, and in cases where the user leaves it in the front pocket when climbing into an automobile or sitting at a desk.

Apple went to work immediately on the problem of the software, and provided users with ways to resolve the glitch. One easy solution was to reverse the software update, and Apple quickly provided guidance on how to do that. Many other customers simply carried their iPhone 6 back to the nearest Apple store to get a quick fix implemented on site.

The issue of the bending and breaking, however, may be more problematic for both Apple and its millions of loyal customers. At issue, at least in part, is the age old struggle between form and function. Customers often express an interest in smaller, lighter phones and handheld devices. But smaller can sometimes be too small, especially depending on the type of applications being used. So, some phones are larger—offering decidedly more surface area and screen space.

This tug of war often pushed phone design toward the very edge of what one might call a tablet (larger phones), while other phones meet the demand of those users who simply want a small enough device to be placed in a purse, pocket, or backpack. Optics also plays a part, as some applications on a phone require more surface area than others. Apple and Samsung have been engaged in a small rear-guard battle over optimal surface area for several years, but neither side has prevailed in a market where new applications are introduced almost on a weekly basis. The iPhone 6 is slightly larger in surface area than its Apple predecessors; the iPhone 5s, for example, is about 4.1 inches long, whereas the new iPhone 6 is nearly 5.5 inches long. More surface area means more chances for bending when stored in tight spaces, like front pockets.

Most manufacturers of phones—Samsung, Nokia, LG, Apple, Sony—officially discourage users from placing phone in pants pockets (especially back pockets!), since the resulting damage can sometimes be fast, and extreme. Designers with several of the major device makers have been experimenting off and on for several years with materials which will allow for maximum flexibility in pockets and other tight spaces, though no phone—as yet—offers more than a tiny degree of flex before damage can occur.

Apple says that only a handful of customers have complained directly about the bending problem (on Thursday the company said it had received only nine genuine complaints), but only time will tell if Bendgate will go away.

Still, despite a few glitches and a lot on chatter on social media (a You Tube video on the bendgate problem has been viewed more than six million times this week), Apple’s rollout of the iPhone 6 has been a sale success. As of Monday it had shipped out approximately ten million units to retailers and buyers.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/AppleiPhone9-25-14.html#sthash.PBdFARRy.dpuf

Hong Kong’s Economy May Suffer From Political Chaos

Photo courtesy of Hong Kong.gov

Photo courtesy of Hong Kong.gov

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

They call themselves Occupy Central, and their goal is to establish an “era of civil disobedience” in Hong Kong, the once British colonial outpost which reconnected with the People’s Republic of China in 1997.

Occupy Central intends to raise the stakes in a variety of non-violent ways—blocking busy intersections and thoroughfares, camping out in large numbers in financial districts, and protesting in ever-more-dramatic ways what the group sees as China’s ongoing and heavy-handed attempts to control Hong Kong’s politics and minimize the organic processes of democracy. Occupy Central’s ranks have grown larger in the past months, even as officials in Beijing warn that Hong Kong cannot be governed by what it views as “the chaos” of civil disobedience or the “lawlessness” of democracy.

At the heart of the issue has been Beijing’s steadfast insistence on controlling and managing nominations for key political posts, including that of the city’s next top leader. Despite what the protesters say was the long-held template for democracy, China has said it must screen and vet all candidates; no candidate’s name can be placed on the ballot without Beijing’s approval.

Many in Hong Kong are disappointed and frustrated by China’s decision to micromanage nominations, and pro-democracy advocates worry that by establishing a pro-Beijing committee to screen candidates, China is seeking to establish a precedent by which it can control the future of Hong Kong and eventually snuff out opposition and dissent.

This has led the Occupy Central movement—which includes various smaller groups aligned with its cause—into larger forms of protest and disruption. It plans to expand its efforts to include mass sit-ins and sit-downs in public spaces, marches, and blockades of roads and intersections.

Financial watchdogs and ratings organizations suggest that as the protests grow larger and more potent, the disruptions to Hong Kong’s otherwise robust economy could become substantial. Moody’s, a major ratings agency, said in September that continued political turmoil—especially over the electoral process—would discourage investment, undermine business confidence, and eventually lead to major problems for the semi-autonomous state. Moody’s said that “diminished confidence” would be Hong Kong’s worst economic enemy.

Though Occupy Central and its allies share a genetic lineage with the Occupy movements which sprang into existence in New York (Wall Street), London, Madrid, Seattle, and Oakland, it bears little resemblance in its stated end game: the creation of the sort of unimpeded, quasi-laissez faire economic and political democracy of precisely the brand and tone despised by its American and British counterparts. The common link is that Occupy Central and its brethren in other countries fear oligarchs and the politically powerful, and seek to empower street-level voices.

Hong Kong and China reunited in 1997, and the agreed-upon formula for coexistence was called “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong would be allowed to maintain itself as a semi-autonomous zone of market independence and economic power. In fact, the top brass in Beijing were seemingly happy to see Hong Kong remain the engine of capitalism that it was before reunification.

There have been struggles, including contentious fights over the establishment of a minimum wage, a shrinking job market, and an island-wide problem with the extreme costs of rents, leases and mortgages. In fact, Hong Kong has the second most expensive real-estate in the world. Many Hong Kong workers—white-collar financial, technology sector, or blue-collar—pay dearly for even the smallest flats and apartment-style homes. At $22,500 per year, the median income in Hong Kong makes home ownership very difficult, and renting becomes a heavy burden for many middle class citizens.

Some in the larger protest movement consider these issues critically important, but perhaps secondary to issues of democracy.

Occupy Central is at the forefront of several pro-democracy groups seeking to put pressure on Beijing. Most protesters regard China’s insistence on screening candidates as tantamount to reneging on Beijing’s past promises to allow Hong Kong to maintain its political self-guidance and autonomy.

Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, with more than seven million people packed into an area roughly 425 square miles. That’s 17,000 people per square mile. The former British protectorate and trading post manages this population density with a dazzling array of high rise buildings for business and residential purposes.

But because construction costs are high, and because rental rates and mortgage costs are among the highest in the world as compared to incomes, Hong Kong beats out its closest runners-up in “least affordability,” San Francisco and Vancouver. Home prices in Hong Kong climbed to nearly 15 times gross annual revenue during 2013, and prices may climb more this year. Analysts worry that much of the demand is artificial, driven in part by speculators in mainland China who are engaged in a spending spree—buying up condos, houses and apartments.

The Occupy Central movement is paralleled by mass student movements, most of which have insisted that the Occupy forces may be moving too slowly. The students plan to raise the stakes of the tenor of the protests by staging sit-ins, classroom boycotts, mass marches, and other public demonstrations. Later this month student leaders plan to encourage tens of thousands of students to basically shut down schools as a way of triggering a cascade of political protest.

Sober political analysts and economic experts suggest that Beijing is unlikely to be moved by these demonstrations and mass actions. And though there is little chance China would risk the spectacle of another Tiananmen Square—Beijing may soon institute tougher measures to quell the disturbances, especially if it appears that the protest movements and acts of civil disobedience have the power to disrupt Hong Kong’s powerful economic engine.

Still, there is the more tempered view which says that despite the growth of the protests—and for better or for worse—Hong Kong’s healthy budget surplus may be substantial enough to offset any blowback from potential market disruptions. Economists estimate that Hong Kong’s massive surplus is equal to about 35% of its gross domestic product, which means the government can use at least part of that cash reserve to mitigate the damage from economic downturns.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/HongKongProtests9-18-14.html#sthash.cFiA4vkx.dpuf

Turkey’s Growing Humanitarian Crisis

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Image courtesy of Reuters/ABC News

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Aside from the obvious and high-profile actions of the terrorist army known as ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, sometimes referred to as ISIL), such as its horrific acts of violence against civilians, its proclamations of a radical interpretation of Islamic Law, and its widely-publicized beheadings of journalists and aid workers from the United States and Britain, the militant group has now triggered what may be the largest humanitarian crisis in decades.

Millions of people in Syria and Iraq and on the move in a desperate attempt to flee both the fighting—ISIS militants at war with Kurds or other moderate groups—and the terror wrought by ISIS itself. The number of refugees moving en masse from villages, towns and cities now under ISIS control now exceeds 1.5 million, according to several international aid organizations and United Nations’ estimates. Some towns along the extensive border between Turkey and Syria have seen such an influx over the last ten days that the migration has spurred logistical problems on a vast scale.

Just within the past four days more than 130,000 Syrian Kurds, along with civilians of other ethnic and religious identities, have crossed the border from northern Syria into southeastern Turkey. Even some towns inside Syria have come under intense siege as the ISIS militants—using artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, and heavy weapons—seek to overrun areas previously regarded as safe havens for Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, Armenians, and other minorities. In the Syrian city of Kobani (in Arabic, Ayn al-Arab), a city in the Aleppo province previously spared from the worst of the war, tens of thousands have fled the shelling and the intense fighting. Kurdish fighters have called upon the world to come to its defense as it faces one of the heaviest counterattacks by ISIS forces in the region.

The heavy attacks on these towns in northern Syria are forcing many men to take sides, and driving almost all others to flee north with what few items they can carry. Many arrive to the Turkish border on foot, without food or even water. Thousands more are crossing from northern Iraq, fleeing skirmishes and fighting taking place north of Lake Mosul, across the small Syrian panhandle, and into Turkey near Al Qamishli.

All told, the refugee population may now exceed 1.5 million, and the Turkish government, numerous aid organizations, and a variety of non-profit humanitarian groups are straining to keep up with the thousands arriving each day.

Complicating matters has been the recent onslaught of Kurds (and other minorities), mostly men, attempting to cross from Turkey into Syria. Answering the call for help now internationally spread through social media, they have been arriving by the hundreds, hoping to come to the aid of the moderate forces fighting ISIS along all fronts. Many of the Kurds seeking to join the fight against ISIS are coming from Kurdish villages and communities inside Turkey, or from neighboring enclaves in Armenia or Turkey has been discouraging the migration of more people into the war zone, the lines of which may in fact, ironically, moving rapidly closer to Turkey.

Then, there is the troubling reality of small groups of radicalized Europeans, many of them from the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Netherlands—now moving on foot or by small vehicle in an attempt to link up with ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey, which just last week changed its mind on its previous agreement to allow to the United States and other countries to establish forward air bases inside Turkish territory, has pledged nevertheless to establish some form of control over its long, often porous border with Syria. Law enforcement and intelligence experts in several countries are concerned that radicalized individuals may join with ISIS, fight alongside it in the Middle East, then return to the home country with plans to bring deadly militant activity with them.

But it is the vast humanitarian problem now facing Turkey which is causing the most urgent crisis in the area north of the fighting. The number of people fleeing the violence of ISIS has reached a critical mass similar to what the world saw last month as tens of thousands of Yazidis fled violent attacks and retribution by ISIS fighters. United Nations personnel say that the influx is worse than anything they have seen in recent years.

“I don’t think in the last three and a half years [of the Syrian civil war] we have seen one hundred thousand cross in two days,” said Carol Batchelor, a UN representative working near the border inside Turkey. “This is a measure of how this situation is unfolding, and the very deep fear people have about the circumstances inside Syria, and, for that matter, Iraq.”

Turkish officials say that many of the refugees report seeing ISIS militants beheading villagers, shooting entire groups of people, and stealing stockpiles of food and water from markets, shops and houses. Other refugees say that ISIS radicals would put the severed heads on display for villagers and passersby to see, and to use as a warning to those unwilling to submit to their imposition of radical interpretations of Islam—including crucifixions and beheadings of civilians. Aid workers say that hundreds of refugees have reported seeing people stoned to death in public spaces, and hundreds of homes and businesses have been burned by ISIS fighters.

ISIS has been fighting with increased intensity, abetted in some cases by recently-arrived recruits from other areas, and boosted by their acquisition of additional heavy weaponry—much of it confiscated or captured in the wake of retreating Iraqi or Syrian army units. In many cases, the use of the new heavier firepower has tilted the battlefield balance in favor of ISIS in its nine-month-old struggle with Kurdish fighters. ISIS has apparently battled to within about eight miles of Kobani, a town once considered a safe-haven for refugees and protected by Kurd fighters.

Kobani is very near the border with Turkey, and just east of the Euphrates River, along a long stretch of border protected by a tall fence, coils of barbed wire, and a gravel and sand clearing roughly 200 feet wide, flanked by service roads. But other parts of the vast frontier are more lightly protected—marked only by cattle wire and wooden posts—and many intelligence experts fear that individuals and small groups may be crossing that border each day into Syria to join forces with ISIS.

By some estimates, the more-than-three-year-old Syrian civil war—triggered during the Arab Spring—has displaced many millions within their own country. At least 2.8 million have fled Syria entirely—some into Lebanon, some into Jordan, and some into northern Iraq (before Iraq began its more recent meltdown). But in northern Syria, where the fighting has been the worst since fighting broke out between the forces loyal to Bashir al Assad and a variety of opposition groups, most civilians have had little choice but to find refuge by moving north toward Turkey. Kobani’s population grew by an additional 200,000 during the last two years of the war. But now, with ISIS only a few miles away and advancing each day, many of those are fleeing the wrath of ISIS by crossing into Turkey.

Seeking to control the border areas and hoping to stave off chaos, Turkish authorities are using tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons in an attempt to discourage more Kurds from crossing into the war zone, even if their intentions are to rush to the assistance of fellow Kurds fighting ISIS units. There is panic and chaos on both sides of the border checkpoints and thousands of desperate civilians—among them many women and children—seek to enter Turkey as quickly as possible to stay ahead of the violence.

Some European observers and U.S. officials worry that if Kobani falls into the hands of ISIS, militants will then gain control of another key border checkpoint, and Turkish soldiers will be eye-to-eye with heavily armed ISIS units. Turkey does not wish for the war to spill into its territory, and some within the Turkish government fear that if too many Kurds are massed along the physical border, it could spur violence which could easily spiral out of control.

The United Nations has said that the majority of those crossing the border from Syria into Turkey have been women, children, and elderly men unable to fight. A British non-profit agency called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said that it estimates that ISIS has taken control of at least 60 towns and villages in northern Syria just within the last four days. Many of these towns are within a one to three day walk from the border with Turkey.

ISIS units have launched major offensives within the last week in an attempt to consolidate territorial gains made during their campaign which started last spring. ISIS formed out of remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq, and after melding with some Syrian rebels fighting against the government of Assad, sprang across the Middle East, taking wide swaths of territory and spurring a general retreat by Iraqi military and security forces. After ISIS murdered several American journalists and a British aid worker, U.S. forces and other forces have begun targeted airstrikes on ISIS positions in Iraq. French airpower was used last week, and the British have also pledged support.

At least 1.4 million refugees have found their way into neighboring Jordan. King Abdullah of Jordan told CBS News that the region’s leaders should welcome the participation of western powers in the fight against ISIS. King Abdullah told Scott Pelley that ISIS does not represent true Islam.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/ISISturkeyBorder9-22-14.html#sthash.8ZIqmwud.dpuf

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

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By Thursday Review staff writers

After an intensive and hard-fought political campaign fraught with emotional ups and downs, voters in Scotland decided that divorce from the United Kingdom was not in their best interest. The marriage which has lasted for more than 300 years will remain intact, though observers insist that in the end it will still come with costs for both sides.

Voter turnout was high—one of the biggest turnouts in Scottish history—and included the participation of citizens as young as 16. The final tally showed that 55.3 percent of Scots supported remaining a part of the Kingdom, while 44.7 percent wanted independence.

Supporters of independence, led by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, had gained considerable momentum over the past months, and the total “yes” votes cast show the deep reach of the independence movement: 1.6 million voters sided with Salmond. But a late surge of opposition to independence, fueled in part by Gordon Brown, brought the two sides to within a hair’s breadth in most polls. In the final days and hours leading up to the vote (Thursday), the outcome was too close to call.

But on the day voting began, it was clear that the undecided voters were breaking decidedly toward a “no” vote, and in the end the vote was not nearly as close as many had predicted.

The “yes” wins were most decisive in four Scottish councils: Dundee City, West Dunbartonshire, Glasgow (City), and North Lanarkshire. A look at the overall council area map of Scotland shows that the “no” vote clearly gained unexpected momentum in the final days, as several councils tilted toward a “no” vote by close to 55%. The most decisive pro-unity votes came in Dumfries & Galloway, Scottish Borders, and the Orkney Islands.

Economics and market power became the central source of argument in the long debate over Scottish independence. Questions of over economic stability and viability were raised, triggering fears that an independent Scotland could face rough times if uncoupled from the British economy. The issue of what currency would be used became an emotional flashpoint as well. And concerns about the healthcare system, banking, and the disposition of billions of pounds’ worth of North Sea oil drilling and refinery equipment—not to mention the steady source of income—became troubling in the extreme for some voters.

The heightened force of the independence movement, despite its loss on Election Day, nevertheless spurred British Prime Minister David Cameron into a number of public concessions, including the shifting of more autonomy to Scottish policy-makers and greater input into the Union’s political and economic affairs. Also forged from the campaign were promises by Cameron and other opponents of independence that more powers would be ceded to the Scottish Parliament in specific areas: welfare spending, public works, and taxation.

Younger voters were generally believed ahead of time to have the potential to tilt the momentum toward pro-independence, and the fact that 16-year-olds would qualify to participate seemed to be a harbinger of the success of the “yes” movement. But toward the last days of the campaign, and as the narrative became more heated and emotional, opinion polls showed that even younger voters were split almost evenly on whether to leave the U.K. or to remain a partner with the Kingdom.

Opinion polls showed that the race was getting very close after Salmond gave a better-than-expected performance in a widely-watched television debate on the issue of Scottish independence. His opponent in the debate was a former Labour Party chancellor of the exchequer, Alistair Darling. But a last-minute surge of campaigning by politicians opposed to independence may have driven the momentum back toward the “no” position.

Financial markets were jittery in the days leading up the referendum, but seemed to rally and stabilize after the “no” vote win. Economic concerns seemed to take center stage on many of the arguments, pro and con. When the polling places opened on Thursday, few were willing to predict the outcome. The “no” victory was larger than expected on both sides.

Nevertheless, even downhearted supporters of independence acknowledge that London’s acceptance of many of the concessions toward greater autonomy constitutes a moral victory, and Cameron has stated he intends to make good on those promises to shift more financial and economic power toward Edinburgh.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/ScotlandVoteUK.html#sthash.UDSJBRJm.dpuf

Will Oil & Gas Trigger Flare-Ups in South China Sea?

rubberassaultcraft

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

In this U.S. Navy photograph, members of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Force launch from the water-lever deck of the amphibious docking ship USS Germantown in the Philippine Sea. The boats being used are combat rubber raiding crafts designed for amphibious assault operations—the sort of island, shoal or beach-type assault which may be required in some area of the South China Sea, Japan, the Philippine Sea, or in the wider Pacific Rim. These drills from the Germantown are part of joint force exercises in the U.S. 7th Fleet are of responsibility.

Tensions have been running high in some areas near China, most especially in the South China Sea, where in recent months there have been four officially-reported occasions of dangerous intercepts or close flybys by Chinese fighter pilots upon U.S. aircraft. In the most recent incident, the Chinese pilot brought his aircraft to within 40 feet of an American surveillance plane, then—upon eye contact—banked his plane so that the American crew could see that the Chinese fighter was armed with a full complement of weaponry.

But of deeper concern to some military analysts and foreign policy watchers is the contentious issue of the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands. Located in the South China Sea, and generally regarded by international authorities as belonging to the Philippines and Vietnam, respectively, these island clusters are being claimed by China under edicts and arrangements forged at the end of World War II. Based on the doctrine called the Nine Dashed Lines, drawn by Zhou Enlai in 1947, China maintains a claim of sovereignty over these shoals, reefs, islands and sandbars.

Despite vigorous objections by The Philippines in several international venues, China has continued its recent exertions of unilateral control over the Spratlys—constructing radar stations, surveillance and tracking towers, airstrips, military outposts, helicopter landing facilities, and a variety of high tech listening posts. The Philippine military has responded by posting special detachments of marines and other combat personnel on deliberately-grounded vessels. Heavily-armed, the Filipino Marines basic job is to keep a continuous watch on the activities of Chinese naval assets and other Chinese activities in the disputed waters. In return, the Chinese naval personnel watch the Filipinos.

In Vietnam, however, protests have turned to rioting as anti-Chinese sentiment has been inflamed by China’s insistence on constructing military facilities on the Paracel Islands—long claimed by Vietnam.

Adding fuel to the fire is the recent revelation that the Chinese energy firm China National Offshore Oil has discovered a gas field in waters about 90 miles south of the island of Hainan. After a blizzard of complaints from Vietnam and other Asian countries, China moved its massive, high-tech billion dollar floating deep sea rig from an area within Vietnamese waters to the area slightly north. The gas field—which sits about 1500 meters below the water’s surface—is estimated to be substantial, and if the area proves accessible, the field could eventually generate hundreds of billions in revenue for the Chinese company. Geologists involved with the project say that initial estimates are that the field could produce up to 56.5 million cubic feet of gas per day.

The discovery of such an economically-attractive oil or gas field in the contested waters will no doubt inflame the countries involved in the dispute. Vietnam is not the only country with claims of sovereignty to islands being exploited by the Chinese; Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia also make claims to some of the islands under dispute. The Spratlys have long been considered Philippine territory by most international authorities, but this has not dissuaded China from its recent aggressive attempts to exploit the area for commercial or military purposes.

Although most U.S. military analysts see little chance that the United States would engage in any form of proactive military action on the side of the Philippines, even if China continues to throw its weight around regarding the Spratlys, the U.S. may feel bound to back-up or protect Filipino combat units if a shooting war erupts and Filipino forces and assets are in peril.

China has ignored repeated requests at recent ASEAN meetings to bring the issue of the disputed islands up for discussion among Asian nations. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry—as well as several intermediaries from the United Nations—has requested that the several countries involved in the dispute find a way to negotiate a resolution to the crisis before tensions escalate further.

China has expressed anger that some western news organizations and some western governments have changed protocols—now calling the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea. China has said that this unilateral name-change is a deliberate attempt to minimize China rightful claim of economic and military influence in its own front yard.

Last fall the Philippines withdrew its ambassador in Beijing after China began a construction project on a small chain of shoals and rocks called Scarborough Shoal, which is about 100 miles west of Manila Bay. Officials in the Philippines said that the islands are well within its territory based on international guidelines and economic agreements. China asserted that the Scarborough Shoal and its related rocks are within “China’s intrinsic territory.”

China has so far refused to engage in any international discussions regarding either the Paracels or the Spratlys, but it publicly maintains that it has territorial authority over both sets of islands.

The Spratly Island group consists of scores of small islands—some large enough to allow for the construction of military outposts, docks and piers, and even airstrips. The Chinese have already built a variety of military and high-tech tracking posts in the Paracels, despite vigorous complaints by Vietnam in several international venues.

Most of the islands at the heart of the territorial dispute were largely forgotten after the end of World War II, when even the tiniest island was of strategic importance—either the Japanese, or to the allies. But many military analysts and foreign policy experts express concern that the value of all that potential oil and gas below the ocean may create economic pressures which are bringing the revenue value of those shoals, rocks, reefs and islands back to the forefront.

The photograph for this article was taken by U.S. Navy mass communication specialist 2nd Class Amanda R. Gray.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/SouthChinaSeaOilGas.html#sthash.L0NdfVB5.dpuf

The Hunt for ISIS, The Hunt for Jihadi John

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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

With the death of British aid worker David Haines, ISIS has made it clear that it regards citizens of countries allied with the United States as sharing the same responsibility and suffering the same potential fate as the thousands of others the group has murdered during its five-months-long reign of terror in the Middle East. Early on Sunday, Islamic State militants released a video showing what appeared to be David Cawthorne Haines, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, kneeling beside a hooded extremist holding a knife.

In the video, a black-clad man with a British accent warns England that its alliance with the U.S. will “accelerate your destruction.” After a short speech in which the extremist rails against both Britain and the U.S., Haines is apparently beheaded.

The 44-year-old Haines, who was educated in Scotland and the U.K., was kidnapped in 2013 in Syria while working with the non-profit group Nonviolent Peaceforce, a Brussels, Belgium-based charitable and humanitarian organization, and for the Paris-based Agency for Technical Cooperation & Development. Haines role with those groups was as a peace facilitator—which the organization describes as an unarmed civilian who is sent in to facilitate cease-fires and humanitarian truces in combat zones and in regions of conflict. Haines had been working in northern Syria when he was kidnapped last year. His death was intended as retribution against the U.K. for its alignment with the U.S. in what has now become something of an international war, though it remains unclear which country’s combatants will engage ISIS on the ground.

In the video, the black-clad man stresses that his message is a direct one, aimed at British Prime Minister David Cameron. “If you, Mr. Cameron, persist in fighting the Islamic State then you, like your master Obama, will have the blood of your people on your hands.” Later in the video the man threatens to kill yet another hostage.

The Haines video is the latest horrific salvo in a grim war of images. It has also set in motion a manhunt the likes of which the world has not seen since the death of Osama bin Laden.

In the hours and days after the first such video was released in August, a video which showed the beheading of American photojournalist James Foley, much of the world expressed shock and horror. That video and its gruesome content—not to mention the direct threat which its masked spokesman made to the United States—may have been the catalysts which drove the Pentagon, the White House, and President Barack Obama into cohesive action against the radical Islamic terror organization.

Indeed, events moved swiftly within the following weeks—the President morphing reluctantly from a troubling position of “we have no strategy,” which inspired the ire even of many liberals, to a new mindset, expressed on the eve of the anniversary of September 11, that the U.S. is in fact at war with ISIS. Over the last 72 hours or so, the language of the U.S. role has been the subject of intense debate and metamorphosis, with Secretary of State John Kerry declaring broadly that “we are not engaged in war,” but with the Pentagon and the White House clearly defining the current U.S. policy toward ISIS as “war.” No matter—it sometimes takes the complex machinery of government some time to get its talking points in order.

Military and foreign policy analysts are in agreement that the President’s now-publicly stated-policy of taking on ISIS head-on makes sense, except that there is no clarity of exactly what role the United States will play beyond what it is doing now—bombing specific targets inside Iraq, using unarmed and armed drones over ISIS-controlled areas, and sharing critical intelligence with anti-ISIS forces on the ground, like the Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. The question of how and where the U.S. will strike inside Syria remains unanswered (though last week Syrian President Bashir al-Assad indicated through his diplomatic channels that he welcomes U.S. air intervention). There is also the possibility that the U.S. will give direct support to opposition groups in Syria, and to the so-called “Free Syrian Army,” those small units which had previously disavowed their support of Assad.

It’s a treacherous, complicated environment, fraught with the unavoidable morality-check that in some way, shape, or form, the U.S. will be now aiding the regime of the much-loathed Assad—a conundrum for an American president who had promised to extract the United States from two costly wars, and keep the country out of any new conflicts.

Still, on the 13th Anniversary of 9/11, the United States was again on a war footing, of sorts. Indeed, all the previous months and weeks of ambiguity and caution seemed to be at an end. Foley’s beheading set this slow machinery into motion.

But one thing that did evolve quickly after Foley’s murder was the belief by U.S. and British intelligence and law enforcement that the masked, hooded man with the London accent could be identified, and brought to justice. Almost immediately, British intelligence operatives went to work to try to crack the code in what little visual and audio information they had: the eyes which shown from inside that dark hood, the left-handed use of the knife, the positioning of the gun in that holster at his side, the posture and stance, that featureless, bleak landscape, and the voice—an accent revealing that the killer very likely came from an area of London known for its complex patchwork of ethnicities and cultures. The accent, we were told from the start, is something called Multicultural London.

In the United States and in Britain, entire teams went to work attempting to identify that killer, and now—authorities in both countries say that the identity of that knife-wielding militant may be within their grasp.

The narrative of that killer has morphed only slightly over the last two weeks. There were a few erroneous theories that the man’s accent may have indicated a brief residence in Liverpool, but this notion was quickly dropped as experts narrowed the accent to London, then, possibly to specific neighborhoods within London. There was also a flurry of activity when some analysts considered the possibility that the man who did the talking and the acting—right up to the moment in which he moved the knife to Foley’s throat—may not have been the man who did the actual cutting. Some thought the posture and build of the man in those last frames of video was measurably different. If true, it would indicate that the English-speaker was used only for the first part of the video, and was replaced by a somewhat more muscular, stronger man who beheaded Foley as the journalist knelt in the sand. After all, why else would there be that abrupt hard cut in the video?

But little more has merged from this separate theory, and the notion of two cloaked killers has now taken the back seat again to the belief that the English-speaking man did in fact commit the atrocity with that knife in his left hand. There were also rumors that British intelligence experts thought that the knife-wielding man may be a British musician and rapper known to have cultivated a strong interest in extremist views and anti-western militancy. But like the theory of the second killer, little more has been said about this possibility.

The man in that black covering and wearing that black mask is apparently known as “Jihadi John” to his fellow militants within ISIS. Intelligence experts have harvested data indicating the Jihadi John works alongside several other British citizens now fighting among a specific ISIS unit in Syria. In fact, British law enforcement suggests that there may be as many as 500 Brits now fighting with ISIS across the vast stretch of territory now controlled by the extremist army, and many of those travelled by conventional means into Turkey, then walked into Syria by crossing a porous border identified in some cases only by a low chain-link fence. Jihadi John may be embedded in a small claque of other militant, radical Brits—including, some analysts believe, the videographer—unfortunately known among ISIS units as “the Beatles” (about as awful an insult to the Fab Four as one could imagine).

But that masked man’s criminal participation in the gruesome video has been no source of amusement to law enforcement officials in the U.S. or the U.K.

Foley’s death was followed about a week later by the beheading of a second American journalist, Stephen Sotloff, a reporter who worked at various times for the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Affairs, and Time magazine. Most experts immediately said that the hooded man in the video of Sotloff’s murder was very likely the same man seen in the earlier video, though law enforcement officials in the U.S. and government intelligence experts in Britain have been cautious about confirming that both masked men are in fact the same person. And among reporters and analysts who have examined the video which shows the death of David Haines, there is initial but informal agreement that the voice is, again, likely the same man.

In the meantime, CNN has reported that it spoke to sources in U.S. law enforcement and U.S. intelligence about the identity of James Foley’s killer, and those sources indicated that law enforcement was closing-in on the identity of the masked man—a now infamous killer believed to be working among top ISIS units inside northern Syria.

The stakes are high for both the U.K. and the United States. Foley and Sotloff were American citizens, and civilians—not soldiers. For that reason U.S. law enforcement must follow through on its own investigative priorities. Since the masked man in both videos has an accent almost certainly unique to certain areas of London, and since numerous British citizens have been known to have travelled out of the U.K. and into Turkey, Syria or Iraq to join radical groups, the U.K. is under pressure to identify the killer, or killers, in both videos.  Haines’ death now heightens this pressure.

As it turns out, the world would learn later, the United States military executed a rescue mission to free Foley, Sotloff, Haines, and others from ISIS hands this past spring. The secret mission, which may have involved more forces than those used to kill Bin Laden in Pakistan, failed only because of faulty intelligence: ISIS apparently moved the kidnap victims from the location where U.S. analysts believed they were being held. The Pentagon reported that one U.S. soldier was badly injured, and that at least two ISIS fighters were killed in the brief firefight which took place in the wee hours of the morning.

Though the kidnapped Americans were in fact at the targeted location in the weeks and days prior to the assault, up-to-the-minute drone and satellite data was not ordered or available in the hours leading up to the start of the raid. U.S. Special Forces and Navy Seals, transported in stealth helicopters at low altitudes, were in and out of Syria without detection by Syrian air defense systems (or, as some military analysts have theorized, because Syrian air defense officers, in conference with Damascus, chose to look the other way during the assault).

Now, with the deaths of Sotloff and Foley, the United States finds itself back in a state-of-war, at least in the sense that there is a battle to be waged against a specific army. Though the President has made it clear on numerous occasions that he does not intend to place U.S. personnel on the ground in forward positions against ISIS, the stakes continue to rise in Iraq. This past week, the Pentagon sent an additional 250 military personnel into Iraq—bringing the total number of Americans in country to roughly 1500.

ISIS, which is also sometimes referred to as ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), formed out of the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq and from elements of radical militant groups in northern Syria—some of whom were fighting against the regime of Assad. Syria’s long and bloody civil war spawned a lawless, chaotic region in Syria which stretched all the way to the border with Turkey, and southeastward toward the intersection of the borders of Iraq and Jordan. Earlier in 2014, ISIS sprang into action blitzkrieg-style, sweeping into northern Iraq, capturing cities and towns along the way and quickly imposing an extremist form of Islamic law on all citizens. In the face of ISIS’s rapid advance, the Iraqi army collapsed almost completely—in many cases abandoning hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military hardware. Heavily-armed, ISIS pushed to within about 40 miles of Baghdad before it advance was halted.

Its reign of terror in those areas under its control has been extreme. Thousands have been summarily shot and thousands more beheaded by ISIS militants. Iraqi soldiers, local police, and security force personnel with links to Baghdad have been killed in mass executions. ISIS militants have raped women and forced them into captivity, extorted merchants and shopkeepers, closed schools, issued bans on women being outside of homes, burned and bombed Shiite mosques, looted banks, and even imposed laws against reading and literacy. Violators of these edicts face amputation, torture, or death by crucifixion. ISIS has sought to exterminate religious minorities, killing thousands of Yezidis and thousands of Kurdish citizens in northern Iraq, including children. The campaign of terror against Yezidis forced tens of thousands to flee from scores of towns and villages, and those thousands sought refuge on Mount Sinjar, in northwestern Iraq near the border with Syria.

The race to identify the hooded man in the ISIS video has now taken on a resonance and a singularity similar to the hunt for bin Laden in the aught years, and in the United Kingdom that masked man’s participation in the murders has stirred anger and outrage. Now, with the death of Haines under circumstances almost identical to the first two videos, military and intelligence experts in Britain are combing through every digital detail of all three videos in the hope of perhaps isolating the exact location where Haines’ murder took place.

David Cameron called an emergency meeting of his top military, law enforcement and intelligence people early on Sunday to commence an immediate program of action against ISIS. Though there had been a few hours of caution after the initial release of the video, British officials now conclude that the images do show the murder of David Haines—a video apparently shot in the same dry, arid landscape of northern Syria against pastel blue skies and on top of chalky beige and yellow sands. And though most intelligence analysts—working feverishly on the tiniest details of all three videos—won’t say much, some officials have allowed that they are very close to identifying the location where the murders took place.

Haines was among the other western hostages held when U.S. Special Forces attempted their rescue mission in the spring. Some informant assets on the ground in Syria have said that the U.S. raid may have missed the hostages by only a day or so, and a minor, back corridor blame-game later erupted in Washington over why last-minute drone surveillance missions had not been ordered before the U.S. raid. (A few additional details about the raid emerged last week; some military historians have noted the similarity between this most recent rescue mission and a Vietnam-era mission conducted in 1970 to rescue American POWs from a prison compound in North Vietnam. In both operations last-minute intelligence would have indicated that the prisoners had been moved to other locations).

Some conservative lawmakers in London have called upon the British government to authorize immediate airstrikes on ISIS positions as retaliation for Haines’ killing. Cameron’s emergency meeting with his security and military chiefs will likely produce some form of action, though few are predicting what that action will be.

Officials in Germany, France, Belgium and Canada all condemned the murder of Haines.

Haines had worked in hotspots before—in Libya and in southern Sudan. He had also done work in war zones for other charitable and non-violent organizations. His family said Haines had an unstoppable enthusiasm for humanitarian work, especially in dangerous conflict zones where he felt his work could produce the most rewarding outcome.

“You’re Gonna’ Need a Bigger Foreign Policy”; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 27, 2014;  http://www.thursdayreview.com/BiggerForeignPolicy.html

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Taxpayer Money Wasted on the Border

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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Americans wasted millions of dollars on luxurious, overbuilt homes along the U.S.-Mexico border, and millions more were spent on vastly overpriced manufactured homes in some of those same areas, according to a report by the Office of Inspector General for Homeland Security.

As part of a long-term strategy to facilitate keeping border patrol agents and other law enforcement personnel close to remote stretches of border in Texas and Arizona—in some cases in areas which may be a three-hour drive from the nearest major city or town—the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agreed to build living facilities for agents in clustered areas near open stretches of border, or in small towns where adequate housing was unavailable.

The construction program, begun in 2008 and completed—for the most part—in late 2012, enabled additional field agents and law enforcement personnel to live much closer to the areas they would patrol, and placed them into rural and remote towns where they would become a part of the community.

But some of the construction projects, the Inspector General’s report would conclude, cost taxpayers millions more than had been originally intended. One employee housing project in Ajo, Arizona included these problems: vast, premium markups for the land needed, well above the market price at the time of purchase; construction of 21 two- and three-bedroom family-style homes where a more modest apartment complex of one-bedroom units was intended; and a laundry list of high-end amenities and nonessential add-ons which were grafted onto the project with justification or approval.

As a result, the Ajo housing project ran millions past the recommended spending.

But for the construction in and around Ajo, it gets worse. CBP also funded an additional mobile home project, meant as a stop-gap measure to facilitate adequate housing for agents until the homes were complete. Like the housing project, the mobile home park involved gross overpayment for land, as well as the purchase of unnecessary acreage for the 20 manufactured homes. The land was purchased at costs roughly 300% above the fair market value in the Ajo area.

Then there’s the kicker: those 20 mobile homes cost the agency more than $2.4 million—or, roughly $118,000 per mobile home. And those family-style houses cost approximately $680,000 apiece. Pricey, high-end stuff when you consider that, according to the audit, the price of an average family home in Ajo is $86,500.

Which makes those 20 manufactured homes among the most expensive in Arizona, and those 21 houses downright luxurious by the standards of little Ajo—a postcard town only a short drive from the Mexican border, and only a few miles north of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

The audit estimated that at least $4.6 million was spent unnecessarily on the housing projects.

The CBP housing program began in earnest back in 2008 when the U.S. was facing maximum pressure from illegal border crossings. The long-term plan included similar housing projects all along thousands of miles of border, including in places like Van Horn, Texas; Sanderson, Texas; Presido, Texas; even in Montana on the Canadian border).

Ajo, Arizona was chosen as one of those sites for its proximity to the point-of-entry station at Lukeville, Texas. Lukeville, just across the border crossing from Hombres Blancos and Sonoyta, Mexico, had never been a good option for housing since Lukeville is so small—only a few square blocks, no public facilities (beyond the border station), no schools or churches, and almost no infrastructure beyond what is necessary to operate the point-of-entry facility and a few adjoining paved roads. There are about a dozen homes and other structures—gas stations, convenience stores, state and Federal offices. So Ajo was the next best logical spot, being only a short drive north along Texas 85 (N. Ajo-Sonoita Highway).

But there were problems from the very start, not the least of which were the reports which indicated clearly that Ajo had plenty of vacant housing and numerous empty mobile homes already in place. In fact, some real estate agents in the area complained that the construction of yet more housing made no sense in a city with a 30% vacancy rate. Then, when construction began, neighbors in Ajo were immediately struck by the apparent high-end nature of the homes.

The unusual cost of the project was first reported last year after The Arizona Republic received tips from locals in Ajo and Lukeville.

Photos appeared, showing what were clearly quasi-luxurious family-style homes, complete with condo-type three-car garages, premium stainless-steel appliances, quartz and granite kitchen counters, top-of-the-line plantation shutters, and remote controlled ceiling fans and thermostats. Some of the units have high-end hardwood floors, and others have premium tile floors. The two-and-three-car garages have elaborate loft storage areas. Furthermore, the units include square footage of either 1276, for the two-bedroom homes, or 1570 for the larger homes. The neighborhood was built with covered picnic table sites, permanent-structure concrete and steel picnic pavilions, and built-in bar-b-cue devices, as well as gravel walkways, paved sidewalks, and bike trails. Some of the three-bedroom homes were equipped with separate, upright stainless steel freezers, either in the kitchens or in the garages.

Meanwhile, the mobile home park was ready for occupancy—complete with high-end brand name appliances in brushed stainless steel and glass-top ranges, but as it turned out only two or three of the manufactured homes were ever occupied. The audit now shows that 18 of those 20 mobile homes have been empty for the last one year, which has raised red flags among politicians who want to know why the project was authorized in the first place, and who is responsible for projecting the need for all those homes for border security employees who, as it turns out, would never move there. The multi-bedroom homes, the audit revealed, were probably entirely unnecessary since many of the field agents in the area are single, and the small percentage who are married already own homes elsewhere in Arizona.

The Inspector General also concluded that the vast over-purchase of land for both the permanent homes and the mobile home facility was in direct violation of Federal law. Such large purchases require multiple authorizations, and also require that economic and environmental impact studies be conducted.

Though there is still no evidence that payoffs, bribes or some other forms of corruption was at the root of the misappropriation of so much taxpayer money, some public interest groups (and some real estate representatives in the area) want a deeper investigation into the matter.

The clincher: not only is the majority of those expensive mobile homes still empty, but only a few of the $600,000 homes have ever been occupied—by border patrol officers, their families, or anyone else for that matter.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/BorderHousingWaste.html#sthash.x8ZkNDzr.dpuf

Tarnish on the Golden Arches

McDonalds

By Thursday Review staff

Hamburgers have been back in the news lately, and the news has not been entirely good.

Burger King announced a proposed deal wherein it would purchase the Canadian restaurant giant Tim Hortons Inc, and–so the narrative goes–likely move its corporate headquarters and operations staff to Canada, where the newly-merged mega-restaurant could avoid U.S. taxes. Burger King hit back hard today, saying its headquarters would remain in Miami, Florida, but most Wall Street analysts point out that Burger King will surely move its tax domicile to Canada anyway, thus avoiding U.S. corporate taxes. Though the merger was popular with investors (both companies saw their stock value rise immediately), the deal is already facing withering criticism from consumer groups, regulators and politicians. Several members of Congress have already called for nationwide boycotts of Burger King.

Meanwhile, longtime industry leader McDonalds may be facing tougher pressures.

McDonald’s, the largest restaurant chain in the world, has lost so much ground in the last two years that this year it fell behind others in terms of overall sales and sales per location—a pretty shocking setback for a company with generations of institutional culture and connection with a fast-food loving U.S. public. This year Chick-fil-A surpassed both KFC and McDonalds to best the iconic firms in several categories, and sending McD’s into a worrisome period of self-analysis over a reputation for poor customer service and unhealthy food.

Making things tougher for McDonald’s has been the quick rise of many more middle-tier competitors, especially among the so-called fast-casuals. Chains like Chipotle Mexican Grill, Five Guys, Moe’s and Panera Bread have challenged the long-standing dominance of McDonald’s, largely by taking away younger customers.

The irony for McDonald’s is that many of those same younger generation customers—those born after 1990—grew up eating fast food. Now, thanks to more options and decidedly healthier choices, those once-loyal kids have grown into young adults who have turned their back on the house of Ronald McDonald and the great empire built by Ray Kroc.

It’s a tough convergence of circumstances for the Golden Arches. Decades of news about healthy versus unhealthy eating has, finally, taken hold in the minds of many younger consumers. Millennials have been especially prone toward healthier eating habits, and McDonald’s menu—which has never been a model for sensible eating or healthy diet—has been slow to adapt to this change of heart. Many fast-casual restaurants offer decidedly better menus, and often at prices highly competitive with McDonald’s. Even those restaurants without the healthier choices, such as Five Guys (which serves primarily traditional burgers and fries), offer pricing and service which undercuts McDonald’s business model.

Younger diners also like the new options out there. According to surveys conducted by the consumer research group Technomic, even though the total number of non-traditional restaurants has more than doubled in the last 10 years, McDonald’s growth has been slow—rooted as it is in an older model of location and revenue, and especially linked to traditional family driving habits. These factors have changed, but McDonald’s has not kept up.

McDonald’s also suffers from its longstanding reputation for fair-to-middling or poor service. Its empire, once built on speedy service and exceptionally polite customer relations, has watched as its reputation has become deeply tarnished in the last two decades. Many of the middle-tier and fast-casual restaurants make their priority friendly customer service and point-of-sale professionalism. McDonald’s menu, many restaurant analysts have argued, has become too complex and lengthy— crucial problems which can slow service and create long lines. Confusion over items and pricing can delay fulfillment of orders, and can create point-of-sale tensions.

But health factors have taken such a measurable toll on McDonald’s sales that the company recently implemented several new menu items (chicken and veggie McWraps, for example), and it plans to begin to experiment with other healthy food items in the near future. Some business analysts point out that McDonald’s has taken its share of beatings in the past and has generally bounced back. McDonald’s has also proven to be flexible with its menu items—ditching those items which do not sell and willing to experiment with new items.

McDonald’s has recently endured its worst sales decline since the early aught years. Last week it replaced its chief of its U.S. division, appointing Mike Andres as the new boss. Andres will be the third in that post in as many years—a sign, some say, that McDonald’s is getting impatient for the turnaround to begin.

McDonald’s operates more than 35,000 restaurants worldwide, with just under half that number in the United States.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/McDonaldsSalesDown.html#sthash.g1vwkA6t.dpuf

 

Trump Entertainment Bankrupt

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By Thursday Review staff

Atlantic City’s economic meltdown may be accelerating this week with the announcement that Trump Entertainment Resorts, Inc.—owner of several major hotel and casino properties in a town built on gaming and entertainment—is filing for bankruptcy protection. The owners of the Trump Entertainment properties say that they plan to close not only the Trump Plaza next week, as previously scheduled, but also the nearby Taj Mahal within months.

The closure of the Taj Mahal would bring the total number of hotel/casino shutdowns in Atlantic City to five since the beginning of 2014—six total since this time last year. Trump Entertainment says it has been unable to negotiate salary and benefits concessions from employees and the union which represents casino workers. The union has said it was not willing to concede any further ground on health insurance and pension compensation, and has said it cannot go any lower on wage offers.

Trump’s cash flow problems have been serious for over a year, and alongside the recent slump in hotel, casino and restaurant business, which has deeply inhibited Trump’s cash flow, it can no longer make payments on its taxes—already overdue—nor its interest payments to lenders and creditors. The company is also behind on payments to a variety of vendors and suppliers, and some business partners have already cancelled their arrangements with Trump Entertainment—including several online gaming services which pay for the use of the Trump name.

Trump Entertainment reported in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware that it has liquid assets of less than $50,000.

Though the Taj Mahal may continue to operate for a matter of weeks, perhaps months, Trump explained in its filings and in media statements that it will close all facilities no later than mid-November. If its Atlantic City properties close completely, it would place an additional 2800 people in unemployment—adding to the thousands who lost jobs last week and in the weeks prior to Labor Day.

Financier Donald Trump, who owns a small stake in the company (but not enough to intervene in its current set of problems) is suing Trump Entertainment Resorts, Inc. to immediately remove the name “Trump” from all properties, correspondence and logos. Donald Trump says that the company is not living-up to agreed-upon, contractual standards of maintenance and decorum. Excruciating examples of the deterioration of both the Trump Plaza and the Taj Mahal can be found in photos posted online by visitors to the area; these include photos of the Trump signage with only some of the illuminated letters working, damaged carpets, non-functioning bathrooms, and rooms and casinos in disrepair.

Trump Entertainment has been selling off pieces of its Atlantic City properties for several years in an effort to stave off further cash flow problems. Last year, in what was described by some as a fire sale, Trump sold the Trump Marina casino/restaurant facility to Landry’s for $38 million. Landry’s rebranded it to the Golden Nugget. Trump Entertainment has also sold off nearly all of its related properties, including corporate and administrative offices, storage facilities, and a warehouse. When the Taj Majal closes, Trump Entertainment Resorts will have no remaining properties in Atlantic City.

Mass layoffs have affected the city adversely over the last weeks as two other major hotels have shuttered their doors, sending thousands into unemployment. Some business analysts have suggested that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that Atlantic City—perhaps overbuilt at a time of economic pressure—may rebound with fewer hotels and casinos. Atlantic City has also faced extreme competition from dozens of other states, including neighboring Pennsylvania and New York, where casino gambling has been legalized and expanded.
– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/TrumpCasinoBankrupt.html#sthash.B0KuBoVd.dpuf

The Hague: MH-17 Was Shot Down

Image courtesy of CBS News

Image courtesy of CBS News

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Though it was never really in question, and though much of the world was skeptical of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s explanations and equivocations, at least one major international authority has ruled the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 as a deliberate act—and one not related to the function or safety of the airplane.

The Hague has ruled that its initial investigation into the July 17 crash indicates that MH17 was struck by “high-energy objects from outside the aircraft.” Though this ruling comes in a little short of calling the crash the result of rockets or missiles, it closes the possibility of an aviation malfunction, pilot error or a bomb already on board the plane.

Malaysian Airlines MH17 exploded in the skies over war-torn Eastern Ukraine in July, killing all 298 passengers and crew on board. It was on a routine flight from the Netherlands to Malaysia, and on board were civilians from dozens of countries in Europe and Asia. At the time of its downing, the plane was over a rural area of the Ukraine, roughly 19 miles from the border with Russia. Debris came down across a five mile stretch of farmland and sunflower fields between Rozsypne and Grabavo, near Donetsk.

Earlier the day of the downing, civilians, reporters and photographers witnessed the arrival into the area of a Russian-made BuK-M1 surface-to-air missile system—a powerful rocket-launching platform designed to shoot down high-altitude aircraft. The BuK-M1 system was then in the hands of pro-Russian militants who were fighting the Ukrainian army. In the seconds before the jetliner disappeared from radar contact, U.S. and British satellites captured a heat signature on the ground which matched that of the firing of a Gadfly rocket—a type of high-speed missile used on a BuK launching platform.

Moments later, Malaysian Airlines flight 17 vanished from radar and all voice and electronic contact was lost to air traffic controllers in Europe. Ukrainian authorities, who were routinely monitoring radio communication between the rebels and their Russian handlers across the border, intercepted messages indicating that the pro-Russian militants has shot down a plane.

Later that day the militants and some Russian handlers began to deny that a plane had been shot down. (The Ukrainians have recordings of radio chatter which purports to indicate shock and surprise when the first militant teams reach the crash site; the recordings include cursing and heated acknowledgments that someone had mistaken the civilian plane for a military transport or fighter).

Despite the initial evidence that the plane was shot down—as a deliberate act, or perhaps as an accident, the result of an inexperienced crew on the ground mistaking the plane for a Ukrainian military flight—the militants denied that any rockets had been fired that day in Eastern Ukraine. Moscow later claimed that it was the Russian contention that the plane had been shot down by Ukrainian fighter jets.

The report stating that the plane was shot down was issued by the Dutch Safety Board, which is the first of several investigations into the incident. The Dutch Safety Board did not offer an explanation of who might have fired the missile, or missiles, which downed the Boeing 777 airplane. But the report was clear on the cause of the crash.

“The damage observed in the forward section of the aircraft,” the report says, “appears to indicate that the aircraft was penetrated by a large number of high-energy objects from outside the aircraft. It is [therefore] likely that this damage resulted in a loss of structural integrity of the aircraft, leading to an in-flight break-up.”

Other high-velocity missiles have been considered, but most weapons experts and aviation analysts agree that shoulder-fired rockets do not have the ability to reach high altitudes, and rockets fired from another aircraft are unlikely since radar and air traffic control data for that day show no other airplanes—of any kind or size—in the vicinity when MH-17 was shot down. Furthermore, some aviation investigators who have seen the remains of the plane or have studied photos of the parts say that the exterior damage is consistent with the theory that the plane was hit by high-speed, high-energy projectiles.

The plane’s black box recorder and other electronic devices indicate that the airplane was functioning normally in the hours and minutes before the crash.

Investigators have much more work to do before a more comprehensive conclusion can be reached, but a violent on-the-ground war in Eastern Ukraine is hampering a full study of the crash site and its extensive debris field.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/HagueRulingMH17.html#sthash.0zjedcdW.dpuf

Ebola May Place Entire Nation in Quarantine

Photo courtesy of CDC

Photo courtesy of CDC

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published September 7, 2014) The recent outbreak of Ebola virus has been the worst since the hemorrhagic fever first appeared in 1976. More than 3500 people have been affected, and as many as 1552 deaths have been attributed to this year’s outbreak (the World Health Organization puts the death toll at just under 2000; but other health organizations place the figure at 1552).

Most of those infected by the 2014 epidemic are in the African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, and Nigeria.

In tiny Sierra Leone, tucked along the Atlantic coast between Guinea and Liberia, the situation has become so dire that government authorities there plan to enforce a mandatory 72-hour shut-down of the whole country. Residents will be required to stay in their villages and towns, and remain in their homes. Most work will come to a stop, except for the necessary public services. Shops and markets will be closed, and the lockdown will be enforced by the military and local police. Medical teams and researchers—dressed in hazardous materials suits and airtight hoods—will comb through streets, alleys and neighborhoods, going door-to-door to administer tests and locate those who may be avoiding treatment, or those who may be hiding from authorities out of mistrust.

Sierra Leone’s planned lockdown mirrors one enforced by Liberia last month—a mandatory, at-gunpoint quarantine of several neighborhoods so that soldiers and medical teams could enter the area in search of people spreading the disease.

The goal in Sierra Leone, where the disease may be spreading the fastest, is to quickly identify those who may already have the virus in their system but do not yet have any of the symptoms. The lockdown will also give medical teams the necessary time to go door-to-door to provide treatment to those already sick—some of whom may be too ill to travel out of their homes, and others who are just afraid of the police or the medical workers.

But the lockdown in August stirred protests and even violence in Liberia, where police and military clashed with civilians. Some observers say that Sierra Leone’s proposed shutdown may trigger similar unrest.

Sierra Leone has scheduled its nationwide lockdown to begin on September 19. The lockdown will last for three days, but possibly longer if medical teams are unable to reach all towns and neighborhoods. Authorities want citizens to stay put in one place, since travel—even on foot—would cause confusion among the medical teams, and could easily spread the disease to other areas.

Some international and non-profit aid groups are concerned about the impact of a mandatory shutdown. Doctors Without Borders, and international medical organization, has stated publicly that it fears a gunpoint-style quarantine will make the situation worse, causing many in an already fearful and distrustful population to hide or evade contact with doctors. Such measures, the group said in a statement, result in “driving people underground and jeopardizing the trust between people and health providers.”

But Unicef, an organization funded by the United Nations, has endorsed the lockdown as the only reliable way to full vet the population and treat the sick.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has endorsed the use of blood transfusions as a means of combatting the spread of Ebola. But transfusions are expensive and require large amounts of blood, and as a result other medical research teams are hoping to identify a more reliable form of treatment. The symptoms of Ebola virus come on very quickly and drastically, and can include extremely high fever coupled with diarrhea and vomiting. The 2014 outbreak has led to a roughly 50% mortality rate, making it one of the deadliest epidemics in decades.

The Ebola virus is named for the Ebola River, which flows through parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then called Zaire), where several small villages contained the first victims of the newly-discovered virus in 1976.

Related Thursday Review articles: Ebola, Magnified X25K; By Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; September 5, 2014.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/SierraLeoneEbola.html#sthash.A2qRPMwP.dpuf

Reader Reaction: “You’re Gonna’ Need a Bigger Foreign Policy”

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Compiled by Thursday Review editors

Not since Earl Perkins’ long form retrospective look at Lynyrd Skynyrd has an article or review generated as much comment, reaction and backlash as Alan Clanton’s recent You’re Gonna’ Need a Bigger Foreign Policy. Scores of readers forwarded the article to friends and associates, and we registered a much higher-than-average rate of clicks as a result. We also received lots of comments via email, Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In.

Among those who wrote us were liberals, conservatives, neocons, peace activists, defenders and detractors of President Barack Obama, and even a few who complained about the contraction gonna’ which we used in the headline (an indication, perhaps, that they didn’t bother to read even the first paragraph of the article).

Some of the comments were pro-Obama. The core of those complaints were that we failed to fully attribute blame to the long-term Middle Eastern environment to Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, who—along with the neocons of his administration (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, et al)—took the United State inadvisably into two simultaneous wars for which there was no clear or coherent exit strategy, and one of which may have been based on faulty information or manufactured evidence (Iraq). Fair criticisms. And fairer still is the evidence that in the haste to purge Baghdad of all Baathist after the fall of Saddam Hussein, American policy-makers in-country set in motion the Sunni versus Shia sectarian divide once predicted by Colin Powell, a dissenter among Bush’s inner circle.

Other Thursday Review readers suggested that we went too easy on Obama—in essence giving him a pass on his failure to act more proactively during the early days of the Arab Spring, absolving him of responsibility for the chaos and disorder which inevitably followed in Libya, Egypt and Syria, and mollycoddling the President on his profound reluctance to enforce his “red line” in Syria and his reticence to take decisive action on Iraq’s Nouri al Maliki. Others pointed to the President’s unwillingness to quickly address the problem of refugee children entering the U.S. by the thousands during the spring.

In the meantime, President Obama and a score of other NATO leaders met in Wales this week to discuss the rapidly-evolving events in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Ukraine, Somalia, and other world hotspots. Though no specifics have yet to emerge from the NATO summit, there was, at least, agreement on the talking points, especially sanctions against Russia and a long-term commitment to confront and destroy ISIS.

Either way, our article sparked discussion and debate. Here is a sample of some of those comments, sent to us via Facebook, Google +, Linked-In, Twitter, or in dozens of emails:

John Herndon, Fort Collins, CO: Any objective assessment of the foreign policy of the years 2009-2017 will review how progressive weakness, driven by ideological presumptions and an unwillingness to learn from reality, brought the United States to a position of really unparalleled ineptitude and invited chaos to reign, emboldening the forces that have nothing less than the destruction of Western culture as their goal. When reviewing the foreign policy disasters of Britain and her allies in the middle-late 1930s which came to the disaster of 1939, Churchill wrote that “no war was more preventable” than the one which raged for six years, bringing civilization to the brink by 1945. We can only hope that a serious change in our course occurs soon, lest some contemporary of ours say much the same thing of the current age. [Mr. Herndon wrote a longer piece on this subject, an article which we plan to publish this week].

Mike Lanning, Minneapolis, MN: My father, a Korean War veteran and a liberal, blames this [the current spate of crises] on George W. Bush. But arguments which rehash the same old “it’s the last guy’s fault” line miss the point: the United States should have acted with precision and care at the outset of the Arab Spring. Instead, the White House under Obama’s watch chose to adopt a wavering “wait-and-see” approach, so fearful of war that it could not fathom any direct action other than harsh words, fake outrage and imaginary red lines.

Deborah with Gmail: Putin and ISIS are clearly part of the same larger template. They do not fear us [the U.S.], and they don’t respect our allies, for that matter. And [they] have less regard for human life. After Benghazi Hillary [Secretary of State Clinton] got mad, spewing out “what difference does it make?” Now we see the answer to her question.

Roger with Gmail, Melbourne, Australia: As long as the developed nations of the world (and those countries in various stages of economic expansion) depend on oil, these struggles will remain with us, violently. Russia wants to bargain with oil and gas, using it as leverage to make the EU compliant. ISIS, aside from its apparent goal of murdering anyone it encounters, actually seeks control of oil wells and refineries so it can generate its own economy and currency. The U.S. and the U.K. suddenly realize ISIS is within striking distance of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—another potential disruptor of oil. Iran decides to become well-behaved…why?…they don’t want ISIS commanding their oil fields. Flare-ups in the South China Sea [could be said to] be about oil and energy. Spend a fraction of the money used to make war and use it instead to develop other energy sources. Then, watch this stuff fade away.

Cynthia, Phoenix, Arizona: It’s easy to blame President Obama for all of this, but that blame game fails to address the short-sighted policies of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Don’t blame the clean-up crew for the condition of the house the morning after the big party. Iraq was a time bomb set to explode a decade earlier.

Mel Garrett, Atlanta, GA: Well-written and thoughtful piece, and helps to explain some of the more confusing aspects of what I see in the news each day. These things seem so far away, but clearly this stuff could very easily appear on our doorstep very soon.

Elias V., Port Charlotte, FL: The neo-cons have been somewhat vindicated by the events of the last three years, and this was all a predictable outcome in Libya, Syria and Iraq. Obama’s conciliatory approach works nicely when it involves photo ops with the leaders of trading partners and economic allies, but it’s “a day late and a dollar short” when it comes to facing threats. The pendulum swung too far, from too much war to too little backbone.

Mauricio (with Yahoo), San Antonio, TX: I didn’t support going into Iraq in the first place, but once we were in, we should have understood the consequences for the whole region. We broke this, now we own it. Some of those ISIS maniacs are just part of Saddam’s old guard, party members we banished to the hinterlands. In 2004 they were just secular political hacks, now they got religion (or so they claim) and half of the weapons we left behind.

Angela (with AOL), Auburn, AL: Benghazi was a warning of things to come. What happened to having a proactive strategy in place, and why is that no one is accountable in the White House? Candid or not, the correct response of a U.S. President should never be “we just don’t have a strategy in place.”

Rick with Yahoo: ISIS murdered thousands in their race across Syria and Iraq, but it took the killing of an American journalist (at the hands of a British terrorist) to spur Washington into some kind of action. And when did Joe Biden become the White House hawk?

Ann in Richmond, VA: I’m old enough to remember when Presidents like Johnson, Nixon and Ford wanted to take decisive action, but then ran afoul of lazy bureaucrats and government lard. Now it’s the other way around—inaction and hesitation inside a White House that never meets a problem head-on, unless it is bypassing Congress.

Cory (with Gmail) in Boulder, CO: Never considered all of these troubles being connected somehow, but your story makes it clear [world events] are a part of a pattern, one conflict feeding off the other. The Butterfly Effect. Not sure I agree Obama is at fault for all of it, but clearly the rest of the world is looking for a leader.

David (with WOW!) in Naperville, IL: Found this article on Facebook. Two points. Unfair to blame Obama for the actions of bullies in other places, for there will always be bullies and aggressors. But I agree that this is the moment for the President to roll up sleeves and get tough, as long as we [the United States] have some partners on this. Putin, ISIS, Israel versus Hamas, Somalia…can’t go alone on these things, and we can’t afford all-out war.

Brett (with Hotmail): Dead dinosaurs. Why do we keep fighting over dead dinosaurs? Think it’s coincidental that ISIS went straight for the oil wells and refineries, even a hydro-electric dam? Think it is coincidence that Russia’s first move was not tanks but the threat of cutting off oil to Europe? Think the Saudi kings and princes want ISIS in their backyard?

Joan in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL: ISIS is exactly the sort of butcher army the world should expect when U.S. non-policy leads to chaos and mayhem in some parts of the world, and when the President’s weak responses in Europe and Asia invite a return to the Cold War. Vladimir Putin got what he wanted in the Ukraine, and his next moves will be calculated with Obama’s weakness in mind. As for Syria and Iraq, the White House has waited for three years and tens of thousands of dead to finally act.
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Chuck Todd Replaces David Gregory at “Meet the Press”

Chuck Todd and Tom Brokaw_crop

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

The new moderator of Meet the Press, Chuck Todd, introduced his stewardship of the show last weekend with two key things: an exclusive one-on-one with the President of the United States (thumbs-up), and a debut show complete with a few rough edges and a few glitches (also, thumbs-up). Yes, thumbs-up.

It’s an age-old tension in electronic media: looks, charisma and starpower versus gumshoe journalism and fearless questioning of authority.

Meet the Press, a show so old that it is the longest running television show in the history—on any network, in any country where there are TVs—has itself ebbed and flowed under the tidal weight of this dynamic. The show was invented for radio in 1945, and its co-creator, Martha Rountree, ushered it effectively into TV only two years later. Rountree was a reporter, producer, and writer, and—by most accounts—an innovator in television in a day when it was not clear that TV would have much of a future. Even in the late 1940s she recognized the tension between the reporting process familiar in print, and the new template developing around a technology which could easily punish or reward looks and delivery.

Even in the earliest days of radio, old school print reporters groused bitterly that their rivals with the microphones were little more than actors with scripts and cue cards. Television changed the dynamic more, but reached a kind of stasis by the middle 1960s. By then, TV viewers in the U.S. liked the comforting visages of Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, Frank Reynolds, Harry Reasoner, and others. But looks would prevail, and the rise of the slick, handsome anchor (Peter Jennings, Brian Williams, Katie Couric, David Muir) would become common to our understanding of networks and their fierce battles over ratings (and revenue).

But Meet the Press was never about all of that—or at least it wasn’t supposed to be. Meet the Press was never designed to be “news” in the traditional sense. It’s goal—and that of its competitor’s similar programs—was to break free of the newsbite-soundbite formula prevalent in the typical evening newscast (include something about dogs or cats or kids, talk about the “wild weather,” and always end on something upbeat). Meet the Press was meant to be the show that required a cup of coffee by the participants, and it was also crafted to break free of either template.

If viewers really wanted Brian Williams to host Meet the Press, NBC would have moved him to that position years ago.

But when the beloved Tim Russert died of a heart attack suddenly in 2008, NBC needed to make a quick decision. After a few months of letting Tom Brokaw fill in as temporary host, the network settled on David Gregory—a capable reporter and gifted TV journalist. Gregory has everything that the suits at NBC figured would be ideal: urbane looks, a natty sense of grooming and dress, a slick delivery, and what amounted to an anchor-desk-style approach to the show. He was seen as the logical, upward arc of a show which had been the home to the likes of Bill Monroe, Roger Mudd, Marvin Kalb, Garrick Utley, and of course Brokaw and Russert.

Arguments remain heated to this day about what role the host (in Meet the Press parlance, “moderator”) should play, and how important looks, delivery and slickness should be to the overall format of the program, which had more of a kinship with newspaper reporting. Rountree was herself a creature of print. Born in Gainesville, Florida in 1911 and raised in Columbia, South Carolina, she would work first as a reporter for The Columbia Record, and later, The Tampa Tribune. She never completed college, and the newspaper jobs were meant to keep her finances afloat until she could one day return to school. But her love of journalism and her mostly self-taught, hard-fought skills became her life’s work. About as old school as it gets. But then, in 1938, she moved to New York City, where—improbably, perhaps, inevitably—she went to work writing advertising copy for magazines and radio, and where she would later develop and write “singing commercials” for radio broadcasts, an advertising specialty she excelled at. In that sense, she was perfectly prepared for the strange mix of style and substance required in those earliest days of television news.

But Meet the Press always pushed back from the desk of style and slickness. And that tendency to repudiate canned, pre-prepared, scripted news is what gave the show its voice. Meet the Press was not even a press conference, per se, but rather an opportunity for one or two or perhaps four reporters to dig in on an issue—or a set of issues—with their guest. And this meant not letting the guest off-the-hook, as it were.

This is why Tim Russert fit the show so well for so many years (Russert held the post of moderator longer than any other host, from 1991 until his death in 2008; Ned Brooks held the job the second-longest, from 1953 to 1965).

Russert didn’t look or act or feel like a television reporter. He was often rumpled and on the verge of being disheveled, hunkered down in a stance that leaned in toward his guests. His delivery was neither smooth, nor polished, nor alliteratively glossy (“a lot of light alliteration from anxious anchormen placed in powerful posts…”), nor did he ever seem overly impressed with his guests. He hovered at the very edge of irreverence, all the while being cordial, polite, and smiling. Some said he reminded them of an impish, irreverent college professor—the kind you might have a beer with after class. He was also unsparing and blunt, but never sarcastic, something his Irish Catholic upbringing (perhaps) had taught him was possible while still being impeccably well-mannered and jovial. Because he exuded a kind of comfortable everyman charm and a bit of street savvy, Russert’s guests understood ahead of time they were required to answer candidly, or face a second hit—this time harder.

Gregory, for all his likeability and skills, did not fit that particular suit. Where Russert was direct but engaging, at times even blunt, the strategically adept Gregory was perhaps, at times, conciliatory to the point of deference. But at other times, Gregory was caught-up in showmanship (as in the occasion he brought a gun magazine for an assault rifle onto the set with him as a show-and-tell piece for an interview with an NRA spokesman). And Gregory’s impeccable delivery and pacing and diction mean that he bore a closer resemblance to Brian Williams, or to David Muir—who was recently promoted to the job of anchor at ABC World News after the departure of the Dianne Sawyer.

Is this where Chuck Todd makes an ideal compromise? Todd, like Russert, disdains the showmanship aspect of the process (though he does make a halfhearted attempt to conceal an obviously receding hairline by combing his thin dark hair forward). But Todd, like Russert, is otherwise suspicious of the kind of slickness personified by Gregory. Todd is also a bit of an everyman—from that now ubiquitous goatee, which means he could easily be mistaken for your air conditioning repairman or the guy who drives the boat on your next fishing trip—to the language of a questioner devoid of sugar-coating and equivocation. When President Obama seemed to hint that the U.S. would have to forge some kind of partnership with Syrian ground forces in order to fight ISIS, Todd winced and interjected an incredulous “who?” Todd (like Russert) is not afraid of contesting the remarks of powerful people. And Todd (like Russert) is not concerned, at least at the moment, with pleasing powerful people, and this point is perhaps the most important; Gregory, for all his numerous skills and talents, often seemed to be trying to win approval of his guests.

Though it is not clear what will happen to that glossy, colorful set—which is a far cry from the primitive-looking stage sets of the Meet the Press of past decades—Todd may also be in favor of downsizing the aught years set and its grand collection of books. (Disclosure: I happen to love that part of the current set, and some Sundays I expend measurable energy trying to read those numerous titles). Some parts of the set were apparently already in a state of transition this past Sunday, and Todd likened it to living in a house while it is being remodeled. The panel of journalists and commentators helps to return the show top its roots as a group process, and in that sense the glittering set and the impeccable lighting should be secondary anyway.

When the iconic show began to look like a long-form version of short form news, it began a slow process of decline. Meet the Press must again prove its relevance (and not just in the ratings battles) by inching away from the network news model.

Related Thursday Review articles: Debating America Each Week; book review, Eclipse of Equality: Arguing America on Meet the Press, Solon Simmons; review by R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review.  http://www.thursdayreview.com/MeetThePress.html

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Can Sea World Stay Afloat?

Photo courtesy of Sea World

Photo courtesy of Sea World

By Thursday Review staff

Sea World is facing a tsunami of problems. Not only has the company endured nearly 12 months of bad press and searing negative publicity regarding its treatment of animals, but the company’s financial losses have been so severe as to drive Wall Street to dump Sea World stock overboard. Its once proud brand name and its once potent profit value have been sinking to the bottom of the sea.

Sea World owns water and ocean-themed parks in San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio, along with other entertainment and theme park venues around the country. But social media and two documentaries produced by independent filmmakers, coupled with several lawsuits which sprang out of accidents and fatalities, have damaged Sea World’s reputation.

The documentaries did a lot of damage to a theme park which was already beginning to face the specter of protests outside its gates. The more prominent of the two films, “Blackfish,” has as its central story the problem of keeping killer whales in captivity. Release in 2013, the film met with moderate success at the box office—not uncommon for documentaries—but has done astoundingly well through Netflix and a variety of online streaming content services (opening weekend in July 0f 2013 brought in about $76,000 in revenue; but it has earned millions since leaving the theaters).

Writer and director Gabriela Cowperthwaite combines a script prepared in part by anonymous sources (presumed to be former Sea World employees) to tell the sordid and often unpleasant story of Sea World’s animal population, in particular Tilikum—a killer whale responsible for three deaths and a multitude of injuries. Killer whales, who—despite their fearsome name—are not known for injuring humans in the wild, nevertheless develop aggressive, even lethal, pathologies when held in small tanks in captive environments. The film also shows disturbing footage of Tilikum’s handling when not in the presence of the public, and provides compelling evidence that Sea World managers and executives have gone to unusually complex and dark lengths to cover up the problems and the hazards.

Using dramatic and striking footage, the film packs an emotional wallop for audiences—though one can make the entirely fair complaint is that the film is notably one-sided. Sea World declined to cooperate with the making of the documentary.

Already battered by animal rights groups, the effect of the film on Sea World attendance has been extreme, to say the least. Sea World lost not only major sponsors and corporate sponsors, who fled the toxic conversation surrounding the treatment of Sea World’s animals, but the theme parks have lost scores of major appearances by rock, jazz, country and R&B musicians—most of whom publicly explained their reasons for cancelling performances.

As a result of the fracas, in December 2013 Sea World prepared a length statement defending itself and offering an explanation of its practices when it comes to handling sea animals. Though its statement, which is available on the Sea World website, does not mention the name of the documentary, it does attempt to address what Sea World sees as the worst misinformation, and among its assertions Sea World says that its research with orcas in captivity benefit whales in the wild. Sea World also says that its killer whales live just as long as those in the wild. For Sea World’s part, it says it has not collected a killer whale from the wild in 35 years.

But in the meantime, Sea World must contend with the damage—much of it the result of unanswered negative press in the months after the film’s initial release.

Attendance, which has been steadily dropping, has actually made a tiny rebound this spring, but business analysts point to Sea World’s recent heavy promotions—discounts, coupons, pricing specials, special rates for Floridians, and annual passes—as being the only reason gate numbers have not fallen more. On the whole, Sea World’s pattern of poor attendance remains unchecked—a slide which, if unchecked, will continue to damage profits.

Another ray of sunlight for Sea World came after its long, complex litigation with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration finally came to an end in late April. Sea World and OHSA had been tied up in an expensive court battle over charges that Sea World employees were being placed in harm’s way when they climbed into tanks with orcas. Though Sea World ultimately lost its case, it decided to drop the notion of an appeal, and said it would not likely engage in more court action—moves designed to make the legal publicity go away and, hopefully, regain control of its narrative.

Corporate profits, however, are still way down. And investors are worried that the damage may be fatal.

So a few weeks ago, Sea World also struck back with a dazzling public relations counter-offensive. Among other major changes: an expensive redesign of all orca tanks at all Sea World parks. Killer whales and some other large fish will have new, high tech tanks with roughly twice the capacity and twice the space—a major move which Sea World hopes will blunt criticism that its orcas suffer from dangerous psychoses related to sensory deprivation and claustrophobia. Sea World’s San Diego facility will get the first make-over, followed by Orlando and San Antonio. If all goes well, the San Diego reconfiguration will be completed in late 2018.

But will the reconstruction of the whale tanks be enough to quell not just the protests but also the larger, viral theme of a corporation engaged in cruelty to huge sea animals? Many animal rights groups suggest that larger pools are not enough. Killer whales and other large sea animals should be released into the open waters where they can engage in natural forms of hunting, socializing and long-distance migration.

In its statement on its website, Sea World defends its long tradition of animal rescue and animal research—education and research, it says, which would otherwise not be possible in the wild.

“More than 400 million guests have visited Sea World,” the statement says. “We are proud that their experiences here have a lasting and positive impact on them, and on the world in which we live.”

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Writing on the Wall: Social Media the First 2000 Years (book review)

Writing on Wall

Book review by R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Facebook recently celebrated its tenth birthday. The multibillion dollar company, founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, has grown to be one of the most valuable corporations in the world, and its sole product is information and data.

There is no drilling for oil, no laying of pipelines, no ships upon the sea, and no mining of precious metals. There are no bottled or canned drinks, no assembly lines making cars and trucks, no factory churning out toaster ovens, shower curtains or computer components. Just data—your data, the data your several hundred closest “friends,” along with the data of roughly 1.3 billion other people around the globe who use Facebook. And unlike other multi-billion dollar industries, from Coca-Cola to Microsoft, from Taco Bell to Koch Industries, Facebook spends almost no money advertising its service.

Further, Facebook has no rivals, at least not in the traditional sense. Coca-Cola competes with PepsiCo, Wal-Mart competes with Target, NBC News competes with ABC News. Facebook’s last real competitor, My Space, faded into relative obscurity more than five years ago. There are others out there, like Tumblr, Google + and Linked-In, but Facebook’s predominance over its quasi-competitors makes any comparison lopsided in the extreme. For the vast majority of computer users and smart phone users, the ubiquitous Facebook is a tool as important as one’s wristwatch or ones credit card. For some, it may be more important.

But is Facebook a game-changer in the long history of human interaction and communication?

A new book by Tom Standage, Writing on the Wall: Social Media, the First 2000 Years, argues that Facebook is merely one in a long series of human inventions designed to make the spread of news and the dissemination of information easier and more reliable. Facebook may be more user-friendly and more democratic in its power to engage, but it is a logical—indeed inevitable—merger of technology with the human need to inform and be informed.

Highly readable and instantly engaging, Standage’s book starts with an explanation of the ancient and entirely human belief in sharing news and information and telling stories about the human condition. At the core of social media is the more primitive concept of the social pack or societal unit, which served a useful and, as it turns out, essential service for its members: food, shelter, protection, family equilibrium, grooming. Facebook, in which the average user has roughly 130 friends, replicates with eerie precision the social networks of humans even thousands of years ago, when the average hunter-gather clan would top off at about 145 to 150 people. This is known as the Dunbar number, and it indicates the largest size of any community in which everyone could know with some intimacy everyone else in the clan, for above this number some people would be strangers to one another. Further, physical grooming was replaced with social grooming, in the form of news, gossip, storytelling, and social interactions designed to vet and filter information.

For this reason, Standage argues that the human brain is hardwired for social networking, with tens of thousands of years of fine-tuning all forms of direct and indirect communication. From cave drawings to stone tablets, from early hieroglyphics and the first systematic written languages, humans have sought to find the most useful ways to pass along critical information, as well as develop tools to develop ways to filter information for reliability.

Filtering and vetting information becomes of great importance as human history progresses and languages become more complex. And reliability of news and data also becomes critically important along the way as well, as humans must learn to sort out disinformation from truth, officialdom’s propaganda from balanced reporting and objective evidence. Think of Russia’s seemingly absurd campaigns of disinformation regarding the crash of Malaysian Airlines MH-17 over eastern Ukraine; or, likewise, its recent incursions into the Ukraine despite months of telling the world that vast military movements near the border were simply Army exercises.

Standage traces the lineage of mass communication and interpersonal dispatches from the time of the Greeks and the Romans through the invention of the printing press. The ancient Greeks invented and perfected outdoor graffiti as a form of interpersonal communication—writing on walls and creating newsfeeds—two and a half millennia before Facebook. Cicero used papyrus documents to present news and reviews, then, asked those who came in contact with the information to add their own commentaries and interpretations. Among Julius Caesar’s various contributions to social media: the development and founding of a prototype newspaper—hand-written, but copied by involved citizens and urged upon those traveling within the Roman lands. Today’s iPads, Kindle readers, Nooks and other devices—dazzling though their abilities are—nevertheless bear a striking resemblance to early clay and wax tablets, which were carried by hand or in bags.

Social media—as we understand it—is not new. It represents merely a thread of human interaction embedded deeply in our desire to understand our world, our community, and to connect to those closest to us. What has so radically altered the template has been technology, a tool which has allowed billions of people worldwide to connect using universal tools on computers and smartphones. What was once information spread and disseminated by hand, face-to-face, or in small groups—much the way the word of early Christianity was spread to hundreds, then thousands, then millions, starting with only a few dozen people—can now be sent to thousands within seconds. When Martin Luther sought to repudiate what he saw as a sclerotic, even corrupt officialdom in the church, he used nothing more elaborate than a list posted on a door—which in turn was copied, then copied again, by hand, in what amounted to a declaration gone viral.

Politics has often played a part in social media. The pamphlet and the handbill were early forms of proselytizing political views and societal struggles. Printed handouts were sometimes decisive in the cultural and political changes which swept France, Russia, Great Britain and the United States—thus literacy moves hand-in-hand, with political awareness and social advancement. Centuries before Dakota or Starbucks—with the Wi-Fi and the smartphone charging stations—coffee houses were used as a place to hold forth, compare ideas and ideologies, challenge conventions, and foment revolutionary ideas. Like the internet, Facebook, and Twitter, coffee houses were accused of breaking down social skills and encouraging an institutionalized form of wasted time.

In short, are our social media platforms—Facebook, Google Plus, Linked-In, Twitter, Pinterest—so radically different from the way humans have engaged for thousands of years? Or are they simply the logical merger of digital technology with the human need to connect and share.

Taken as a whole, Standage’s book is highly readable and moves very smoothly. Its only fault—minor, to be sure—is that some chapters seem to belabor his point well after he has made the point quite effectively. Still, it’s easy to overlook this indulgence since he tells the story of social media so well and with such striking comparisons. A fast, fluid, addictive read; and more relevant than a dozen other books on the great technological and business disruptors of our day.

Related Thursday Review articles: Beware the Siren Servers; book review of Who Owns the Future, Jaron Lanier; review by Alan Clanton; Thursday Review. http://www.thursdayreview.com/WhoOwnsFuture.html

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Will Slower Mean Faster for Net Neutrality?

netneutral

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

This week—beginning on the morning of September 10—dozens of major internet and technology companies will protest a potentially slower internet by…well…slowing the internet down.

Spoiler alert: it’s a symbolic act meant to demonstrate, through carefully crafted but annoying animations, what the internet of the future will look and feel like thanks to a recent FCC ruling allowing some major internet providers to control the upload and download speeds of some services—that is to say those services which do not agree to pay premium fees or enter into partnerships with the big ISPs.

Companies participating in the protest will include Kickstarter, WordPress, Foursquare, Mozilla, Reddit, Vimeo and a dozen others. Starting Wednesday, users of these services will encounter animations which will seek to replicate the slow speeds web users can expect in an age in which a few internet companies have traffic control over the hundreds of other smaller companies.

At issue is a recent ruling by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which reinterpreted its 2010 rules, which back then required that internet providers insure free, unfettered lanes for all broadband internet traffic—regardless of content or context. After a series of court challenges, an appeals court later decided that unlike utility companies and telephone companies—for whom services are considered a public trust and an essential economic tool—cable TV and wireless phone companies do not fall into this same narrow category, but are instead a consumer-based, supply-and-demand driven business model. According to the appeals court, cable companies like Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, Sprint and Charter can charge whatever rates these companies see as appropriate based on traditional market factors.

Shortly afterwards, the FCC agreed and essentially endorsed the view of the appeals court, triggering a wave of deals where companies dependent on bandwidth and high internet speeds negotiated agreements with the big cable providers and cellular companies. The most prominent of these quick arrangements was the deal between Netflix and Comcast, wherein Netflix would pay an undisclosed tariff for access to bandwidth.

Smaller web-based and tech companies say that the internet should be an open, unfettered superhighway—and access to its traffic flow should not be contingent upon a few large companies paying more for the fast lane while everyone else is stuck in traffic. But Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, AT&T and others say that if they are paying to construct and maintain the highway, then they ought to be able to regulate not only the flow of that traffic, but also how much premium and non-premium users will pay. Think of those “fast-lanes” for visitors to Universal Studios in Orlando: some people pay more for the right to not stand in a one-hour line.

Proponents of web neutrality insist that a tiered structure for internet access will inhibit the growth and success of start-up companies, quash many forms of competition, and discourage technological development. It will also strangle innovation, since many forms of web innovation have emerged via experimentation and trial-and-error on the part of start-ups with little, if any, access to capital investment. In the future, a company’s success might be entirely dependent on how much it is willing to spend to insure unfettered web access. In this view, the quality of a developer’s product or the strength of its innovation would become secondary to the inventor’s ability to strike a deal with big ISPs.

Further, some fear that a non-neutral web would result in similar price-tiering for web users and most Main Street customers, not to mention small businesses. Some cable companies already charge a two or three-tried rate structure for internet access.

Freedom of the press advocates also express a separate concern that a non-neutral web could—and likely would—be used to limit access to information, to censor news, or simply to constrain or inhibit unpopular content or alternative points of view. Some fear even outright blockage of some websites.

The non-profit organization Fight for the Future has an online petition—already signed by hundreds of thousands of people. Other organizations have already gathered as many as one million signatures.

The general concept of net neutrality has its roots in technologies from previous centuries, most notably the telegraph lines constructed in the 1800s—lines which allowed for quick communication over hundreds of miles of wire. Telegraph lines were initially built by different companies in a variety of regions, but ultimately—though mergers and acquisitions—two mega-companies emerged: American Telegraph Company, and Western Union. Western Union won a government subsidy in 1860 to construct the first coast-to-coast lines, and upon the completion of those transcontinental wires in 1865, Western Union had considerable sway. By the end of the next year, Western Union had bought most of its rivals and had become a de facto monopoly. Its business model improved as it took great care and effort to insure that all wire communications were transmitted equally. However, Orton also revamped Western Union’s technologies to accommodate inventions by quasi-competitors (like Thomas Edison), and by improving service to his three key customer markets: businessmen and large businesses, which transmitted reports and data by wire; newspapers and magazines, which relied heavily on dispatches sent via wire service; and government officials and government field offices, which reported to regional offices or to Washington. In that sense, Orton’s incarnation of the telegraph service offered a tiered product line, as well as open and unfettered access to individuals.

Nevertheless, Congress sought to create a framework of neutrality for the telegraph though the Electric Telegraph Act of 1860, in which it wrote that “messages…from any individual, company, or corporation, or from any telegraph lines connecting with this line at either end of its terminus, shall be impartially transmitted in the order of their reception, excepting that the dispatches of government shall have priority.”

There are those who argue that net neutrality is a red herring and a distraction from the realities of the marketplace. Robert Pepper of Cisco Systems says that “supporters of net neutrality regulation believe that more rules are necessary.”

“In their view,” says Pepper, “without greater regulation, service providers might parcel out bandwidth or services, creating a bifurcated world in which the wealthy enjoy first-class internet access, while everyone else is left with slow connections and degraded content. That scenario, however, is a false paradigm. Such an all-or-nothing world does not exist today, nor will it exist in the future.”

Further, some large internet service providers have made the point that by creating a flat, featureless internet—without tired pricing and without specially arranged packages with companies in need of wide swaths of bandwidth—big ISPs will have neither the incentive, nor the capital, to upgrade services or invest in improvements. The big players argue that many companies—especially other large web-based services like Google, Skype and Facebook—freeload by using vast tracts of spectrum and creating massive online demand—without actually having to install even a mile of broadband cable, Ethernet, fiber-optic or coaxial wire.

In the meantime, the voices are raised largely in favor of a more pure definition of net neutrality. The question remains: will this week’s protest—deliberately slowing down the web—actually make things move faster?

Related Thursday Review article: http://www.thursdayreview.com/NetNeutral.html  Net Neutrality: Is Some Web Access More Neutral Than Others?; Thursday Review.

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