Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Twitter Thread Vol VIII - Chasing Shiny Objects

Did you hear how the President is going to let Paul Ryan hang out on a limb with the rob-from-the-poor-give-to-the-rich Affordable Care Act repeal? The DC media has become as conspiratorial as a JFK Assassination convention, but instead of looking at Occam's Razors, they look for Area 51. 


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Book Review - The Road To Little Dribbling

I really like Bill Bryson’s writing. I own both books he wrote on English usage and have read several other of his works, including A Walk in the Woods, At Home (my book of the year in 2011), and One Summer.  The Bill Bryson I know is avuncular if bit irascible, the paradigm of a public radio host with a bit of a salty tongue about him. So, when Bryson puts out a new book, even on a topic that might not interest me, say, traveling in Great Britain, I am definitely going to read it. Which is why writing this review of The Road to Little Dribbling is so difficult. I really did not like this book. It was by turns churlish and meandering, with a sense of “mailing it in” that surprised and disappointed me. It was as if Bryson’s editor told him it was time to crank out another book and the best they could come up with was revisiting a topic (and place) already explored. 

But Bryson is no stranger in a strange land. He has lived in England off-and-on for decades and wrote a similar book (Notes From A Small Island) that The Road is a sort-of sequel to. Indeed, one of the first chapters documents his taking the British citizenship test (he passes). Oddly, for someone so versed in English culture, Bryson all too often comes off as the quintessential ugly American (which is ironic, considering he was born in Iowa). He reserves his sharpest barbs and insults for people who work in the service industry - waiters, shopkeepers and the like - who Bryson dismisses and demeans while fantasizing about inflicting bodily injury to them for the temerity of not giving him what he wants. It is not a good look and Bryson falls on the wrong side of the line between curmudgeon and straight up asshole more often than not. 

The Road has the feel of a musical album of outtakes and lost tracks, something that record companies put out long after the Tupacs or Elvises of the world have left us. I hate to call this book a cash grab because it does have salutary aspects, but it lacks originality and was not thought through. For instance, Bryson visits many places that do not appear on the lone map provided at the beginning of the book, including Wales, and no line of demarcation is provided for the border between England and another part of Great Britain that he also visits - Scotland, so through much of the book you have no idea where he is unless you also have Google maps open on whatever device is handy. 

Further, the so-called “Bryson Line” - a sort of Broadway separating the eastern and western halves of Great Britain is not followed with any particular fidelity. For more than the first half of the book Bryson rattles around the southern coast and then knocks off the upper two-thirds in a scant 100 pages or so. It is odd for a book to feel both padded and too short, but The Road achieves this rare daily double. There is a lather, rinse, repeat quality to the reporting - Bryson enters <fill in blank town> finds nearest pub, has a drink with either a charmingly British bartender or a dismissive one, eats an Indian meal next door, and goes to bed. There are many greens and glens, craggy cliffs, and quirky one-offs, but the whole is far less than the some of the parts. The book suffers from far too little editing to whittle down the essentials while failing to give the type of visual or spatial guidance that would have been helpful. 

Bryson would have been better served traveling to a country he was unfamiliar with or perhaps it is just that he is a poor ambassador for the country he is familiar with - much of The Road includes discursive references to traffic, the poor design of the highway (sorry, motorway) system, the disagreeability of the native people, and so forth. When he is not being an obnoxious jerk or fantasizing about beating some poor soul over the head with his cane, Bryson can be an enjoyable tour guide. The best parts of The Road are those where Bryson acts as historian and storyteller at the sites he visits. A page summary on Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile and Stonehenge’s less famous sister site Avebury are Bryson at his best. 

In the final chapter, Bryson discusses what he likes about England, noting that “living in a British climate teaches patience and stoicism.” The same could be said for slogging through The Road To Little Dribbling.


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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Book Review - A Path To Peace

Buried near the end of George Mitchell and Alon Sachar’s book A Path To Peace, the authors say:

U.S. administrations come and go, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes on.

In addition to winning the “Captain Obvious” award, this observation neatly captures why, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War that led to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a peace treaty between the two people remains elusive. In part, this is because of the inherent challenge in negotiating a settlement where one party is being asked to give up something tangible (land/strategic military depth) for something intangible (peace) and as the authors explore, how entrenched positions built up over decades of mistrust, death, and destruction have made a peace treaty seem like a pipe dream. 

A Path is two small books in one. The first, a 101-level seminar on the modern history of the Middle East given by a man steeped in the fine points of diplomacy is executed flawlessly, while the second, a tick tock of recent attempts to bring the parties back to the negotiating table, is less successful. 

The tutorial that fills the book’s first half would be of use to the current occupant of the White House. It does not get too deep in the weeds while giving the reader a good sense of the historical grievances each people have. But when Mitchell and Sachar move toward the more recent past, the book’s pace slows. This is not their fault. President Clinton’s efforts during the tail end of his Presidency were the closest the parties ever came to an agreement, but since that high water mark, efforts to finalize a deal have proven elusive. The authors do a bit of rehabilitation of President Bush’s time in office by giving him (deserved) credit for trying to push the parties toward an agreement in the latter part of 2007 and 2008. But when that effort also fell short, war broke out in the Gaza Strip not long after and whatever hope of resolving this decades-long dispute went out the window. 

Mitchell enters the picture as the rubble is being cleared in Gaza but after putting forth two peace proposals (not to mention unilaterally withdrawing from the Gaza Strip) it is clear the Israelis determined that a hoped for agreement was a mirage. Mitchell chronicles his time as Special Envoy but he is not helping the parties get an agreement over the goal line, he is working with people who are in many ways back at square one. 

The problem with this part of the story is that it is simply not very compelling. And this is no fault of Mitchell or his co-author. They revel in the intricacies and nuance of negotiation, it is just that the time period of Mitchell’s involvement in the process was neither fruitful nor newsworthy. Mitchell ended up spinning his wheels trying to bargain for a settlement freeze in the West Bank while the Palestinians dithered over whether they would negotiate directly or indirectly with the Israelis. Small victories, like public meetings between the leaders, failed to bear more meaningful fruit and Mitchell quit the assignment within two years. 

The “path” Mitchell and Sachar outline in the book’s final 20 pages is more like a sketch, suggesting a few things the international community can do (setting up a refugee fund for Palestinians that could be tapped once an agreement was signed, extending NATO membership to Israel) along with a painstaking set of “trust building” measures. But these ideas are unrealistic so long as the parties continue on their present course. Having made serious offers in 2000-1 and 2007-8, it seems clear the Israelis have made a decision that a peace agreement is simply not in the cards and have moved on. The Palestinians are fractured between the Hamas-led Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority running parts of the West Bank while holding out for an even better deal than the ones they turned down. 

But the parties’ posture only makes any final agreement that much harder to reach. The deal the Palestinians rejected in 2001 got worse in many ways by 2008 because more settlers had made their way to the West Bank. Similarly, any deal that is negotiated now will displace even more people even as Israel slowly, inexorably expands its footprint into what is supposed to be territory that makes up a future Palestinian state. 

Israelis are coming around to various ideas that would have seemed insane when the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 - some want the government to annex the West Bank and grant Palestinians some form of second-class citizenship, others suggest unilateral withdrawal behind the “security barrier,” thereby creating a de facto Palestinian state but without any of the safety guarantees the Israelis desire. On the Palestinian side, advocates now dream of a “one-state” solution where Israel absorbs the Gaza Strip and West Bank and everyone living in it with equal rights and citizenship that would give Palestinians access to a dynamic economy and political representation. 

Of course, none of these is any more realistic than the totemic two-state solution that has animated negotiations for the past 25 years. The Israelis will no sooner forfeit political hegemony (not to mention the hard-fought economic stability they have worked for since 1948) in a one-state solution than the Palestinians would accept an apartheid-like second class citizenship for those living in the West Bank and Gaza. In the Middle East, it is rarely the carrot that works and until someone is wielding a stick that either (or both sides) fear, there is no end in sight to the conflict. 

For my own part, I have always thought the framework of the two-state solution everyone seems wedded to makes little sense. The idea of having a Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on one side and a PLO-controlled West Bank on the other would make Israel the only country I can think of with a hostile neighbor bordering it on BOTH sides. As I wrote about at further length, better to have all the Jews (and Israeli Arabs) on one side and all the Palestinians on the other. To achieve this, I propose moving all the Gazans to the West Bank and the Jewish settlers to the Gaza Strip (or back into Israel proper). This solution would give the Israelis greater strategic depth while requiring all Palestinians to live under one roof. It would also provide both countries with a single,  contiguous border. 


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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Widow's Grief


Carryn Owens was in the House chamber last night when President Trump spoke to a joint session of Congress. Her husband, Chief Petty Officer William (Ryan) Owens, was killed during a military raid in Yemen just a few weeks ago. It was reported in the press (I did not watch the speech) that the applause CPO Owens and his widow received was the loudest of the evening. The President himself noted that Owens must hear the cheering in heaven.

 

While it is pedestrian gross to use the death of a member of our military for political gain, it is a special kind of gross to trot out a widow for such a public spectacle when you (the President) cared so little about the details surrounding the raid, you reportedly approved it between courses of dinner with your political advisors in tow and did not even bother to stop by the Situation Room at the White House during the operation to check on its status. It is also a special kind of gross for members of the Republican party who made the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi a cause célèbre for years to ignore the sketchy circumstances surrounding Owens’s death and the apparent lack of rigor that went into signing off on the mission.

 

It might be too much to ask for that the sacrifices of our military be apolitical, but for the man who approved a mission under questionable circumstances to use a dead man’s widow as a prop to make himself look good is a level of cynicism rarely reached in politics. That the media pointed to it as a high point for Trump and not another sub-basement of his venality, is another story altogether.

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