These Are Just Two Of My Scariest Things

scared2There are certain things that scare the hell out of me.  I’m not talking about spiders or demons or even fear of loose hair.  (Dig this: it’s common enough we have a name for it: trichophobia.)  Nor am I talking weird superstitions like Friday the 13th or black cats.  I’m talking about things that, if I thought about them too much, I’d actually lose sleep over.  Things that are big enough to rip our little world off its moorings and bring the civilization we all know (and prefer to ignore) crashing down around our ears.  I’m an optimist, but this stuff tests my faith like forty days in the wilderness never could.

Recently, an official North Korean news agency reported that North Korean archeologists had discovered an ancient site which confirms the existence of … wait for it … unicorns.  Apparently, some ancient emperor guy had a herd of them or some such nonsense and, now, here in the 21st century, North Korean scientists have found their lair.  To be fair, after a small but pointedly hilarious Internet storm, the North Koreans have recanted saying it was all a big mistaken translation.  Yeah, right!  I believe that.  I don’t know many words in Korean, but I imagine the word “unicorn” is just as unique in that language as it is in mine.  That’s not my point, however, I don’t care if the North Koreans think they’ve found unicorns, a flock of migrating Phoenixes or the Fountain of Youth; my scaredproblem is these guys have nuclear weapons!  Not only that, but they’re busy working on a system that would deliver them — in a big hurry — to my little corner of the world.  Somehow, people who find unicorns under the bed don’t fill me with maximum confidence on the judgement front.  My four-year-old nephew believes in unicorns, and we don’t even let him play with the television remote.  The closest he gets to pushing buttons is some Spell and Speak electronic game that went nuts one night and kept shouting “fart” – to his obvious delight.

However, as much as Kim Jong whatever-his-name-is-this-week in North Korea scares me skinny, the folks who really keep me awake at night are Madmoud Ahmadinejad and his band of mad scientists over in Iran.  These people gave up on the 20th century back in 1979 and haven’t looked forward since.  They routinely accuse each other of consorting with jinns (“genies” to you and me) and nobody thinks this is the least bit odd.  In fact, several close associates of scared1President Ahmadinejad have been arrested and jailed on charges that range from being magicians, to practicing witchcraft.  Like 15th century Salem, Mass., dabbling in the dark arts is a biggie in Tehran.  And these people are not trailer trash from the Iranian equivalent of Rubberboot, Nebraska (No offence, Nebraska) they are highly placed members of the government.  And that’s the problem: there are people in the Iranian government, including Ahmadinejad himself, who firmly believe in the Second Coming and the destruction of the world, and Iranian scientists are only a couple of isotopes away from giving them the means to make that happen.  Remember, this is the guy who has publically stated, given half a chance, he’d turn Tel Aviv into a radioactive ashtray.

It’s pretty obvious that nuclear holocaust scares the crap out of me, and yes, I know these aren’t the only two nutbars who have their fingers on the buttons.  I realize that Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, this new guy in Beijing, could wake up tomorrow morning all pissed off and vaporize half the planet before Starbucks could brew them a Decaf.  That’s something we all just have to live with.  The thing is, though, these boys at least look as if they’re in touch with reality.  They don’t run around riding on unicorns or accusing each other of black magic.  For all the animosity in the recent US election, I can’t recall Obama ever denouncing Romney for giving him the evil eye (although the first debate might have been close.)  M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction) doesn’t work if one of the mutuals is mad as a hatter.  However, for all my fear of nuclear destruction at the hands of some space cadet who thinks he should play with the big boys, there’s something else that scares me even more.

Friday: The Scariest Thing in the West

Syria: You Can Pick Your Friends, But …

I think if I were a Syrian, I’d be looking around for some new friends.  This current crowd just isn’t measuring up in the amigo department.  After all, if your BFF is Iran, it doesn’t take a PHD in WTF to figure out you’re in trouble.  Meanwhile, when two superpowers (one past, one future) are playing nice with you and nasty with the UN, I’d be counting the silverware.  No accusations, but the last time the Russians went all warm and fuzzy in the Middle East, Gamal Nasser was building the Aswan dam.  And China’s newfound foreign muscle needs no introduction.  Something’s rotten in Damascus.  I’m not sure what it is, but I’ll bet Syrian pounds to a pile of camel poop it’s not going to go well for the average guy on that Arab street.

Despite what most second tier Western diplomats will tell you, Syria is not on the top of anybody’s talking list right now.  Even the big boys at the Tunis conference over the weekend didn’t have much to say.  Of course, they made all the right noises: condemning the killing, promising aid and other such vagueries, but I imagine the afterhours parties were long on nuclear Iran and short on dead dissidents.  It’s not that Syria isn’t sexy; what’s not to like about democracy going toe to toe with a ruthless dictator?  Besides, it might only be Homs, but even the French have heard of the Alamo.  The problem is deeper than that.

Just a little background.  Less than a year ago, Sarkozy and his buddies couldn’t gas up the F-18s fast enough to go and knock the snot out of Muammar Gaddafi.  They put on a textbook (limited) military campaign that surprised everybody, including me and Muammar.  Now, another flowering of Arab Spring is raising its lovely head north of Damascus, but the day before yesterday, those same eager beavers, forgot where they put the launch keys.  What gives?  I’ll grant you, some of the hurtin’ they put on Gaddafi was payback for being a forty-year-on pain in the ass, but, in general, Western motivations in Libya were honest.  Yeah, yeah, yeah; “Blood for Oil.”  But I’ll let you in on a little secret: that Mad Men slogan is just another clever way to sell bumper stickers.  I’m not naive enough to think Libyan oil wasn’t an issue, but for all those who still believe in Santa Claus and the Great Satan, they both get their oil from Canada and the Saudis.  The difference is Muammar didn’t have any friends left at the end, whereas Basher al-Assad still does — and they’re walking with a swagger these days.

Remember when you where in high school and there was that nasty kid most people avoided?   The one who thought it was funny to hold the washroom door closed or spray Coke™ on the back of your head?  The guy whose face still says, “Oh, yeah!  Him.” in the Yearbook.  Then there were those rowdy kids who had their lockers at the end of the hall, the ones the Glee Club and the cheerleader crowd stayed away from.  They weren’t really hardcore but nobody messed with them ‘cause they had a bad reputation, kinda like Kenickie and Rizzo from Grease.  Well, if the world were just a great big high school (and I’m not saying it isn’t) Syria is that nasty kid.   But instead of being a jerk all by himself, he decided to suck up to the rough bunch down the hall.  He doesn’t really belong to that group, but they don’t mind him hanging around.  In a nutshell, Syria thinks it can get away with all kinds of idiot antics because it has some tough friends.

Unfortunately, Bashar and his crew have forgotten the one essential element of friendship in the world of international relations: what do you bring to the table?  It’s obvious.  They don’t bring a lot.  In the great scheme of things, Syria is pretty much a backwater and has been — ever since the Mongols burned it down in the 13th century.  Its only claim to fame is the mess they’ve made of Lebanon and the always ill-tempered Hezbollah, both of whom are putting some distance between themselves and Damascus.  Right now, China and Russia don’t mind that Syria is a thorn in the foot of the Western world.  It suits them.  However, that’s going to change.  Eventually, Bashar’s going to be more trouble than he’s worth.  When that happens, Syria will have even less to offer a burgeoning Asian Superpower, and I doubt very much that Vladimir Putin ever got any awards for being a nice guy.  Bashar’s cling to power has a limited shelf life.  Regardless of who he thinks his friends are, he’s not going to last anywhere near the Presidential term yesterday’s farce referendum gave him.  When the proverbial ship hits the sand even his best buddy, Ahmadinejad, who has a few problems of his own, is going to make himself scarce.

The problem is, it isn’t Bashar who’s going to pay the price.  (Although a show trail a la Hosni Mubarak would be nice.)  It’ll be the ordinary Syrian, who doesn’t really know who his friends are anymore.

So You Say You Want a Revolution?

I realize I can bark my brains out; the caravan has probably already moved on, but could we just stop for 3 seconds and check the safety net before we go off the deep end?  No doubt there are powerful forces crawling across the Middle East and North Africa; all the conditions are right.  Every country in the region has the same set of circumstances: a young population, a growing middle class, a reasonable level of education, a contracting economy, unemployment, rising prices and an old and decrepit leadership.  This is the perfect storm.  It might even be the long-awaited Arab Revolution.  However, before we all hitch up the bandwagon let’s remember this isn’t 1989, no wall has come down, Benghazi isn’t Berlin and democracy is not on the march.  It isn’t even on the crawl.  Let’s quit with the self-congratulations for a minute (like western governments even did anything?) and put down the pom-poms.  Nothing has been accomplished but everything has been set in motion.  Get real.  This is the way it is.

Okay, Hosni Mubarak is gone.  So what?  At this point the army is still in charge.  This is the same bunch of guys who’ve been running the show since Nasser kicked King Farouk out of the country in 1952.  In essence, what happened in Egypt was a really, really weird kind of show-of-hands election and the incumbent (Mubarak) was defeated.  However, he didn’t actually have a challenger.  There is no political organization available to govern after him.  The problem the army faces now is how to hold a semi-free election without giving the country away?  They know that for every young professional in Cairo, dreaming of democracy there are seven guys upriver who think this is a golden opportunity to get the girls back in their bags where they belong.  The military needs to make it look good without letting the Moslem Brotherhood take control of the country.  Egypt depends on foreign aid and foreign tourists to survive; an Islamic revolution — freely elected or not — would ruin everything.

In Bahrain, when the people gathered in Pearl Square in Manama demanding reform, Shaikh Hamad listened for a while.  But absolute rulers don’t have to take that kind of abuse — or so he thought.  He sent in troops with tanks and automatic weapons.  Unfortunately, the western media noticed that they were all stamped “Made in America.”  Within minutes the State Department was in full damage control mode, burning up the Internet, telling the royal family to withdraw the tanks or they weren’t going to get any more.  Suddenly, the troops were gone.  Now, it’s all goodwill and dialogue, but the only tangible change (so far) is the Grand Prix was cancelled.  Personally, I think the king is just waiting ‘til CNN’s not looking.

In Iran, where nobody gives a damn what CNN thinks, anti-government demonstrations are old news.  They’ve been going on, back and forth, ever since the Ahmadinejad government fixed the national elections two years ago.  Invariably, any time people in Iran gather for anything more than a birthday party, the government response is brutal and ruthless – not necessarily in that order.  There will be no democratic reform in Iran in the near future — even though the demonstrations will continue.  The Iranian people are on their own, and they know it.

In Yemen and Algeria the battle for the streets is still going on.   Both governments are trying a combination of economic reforms and ungodly violence to keep control.  In both countries, the people are disorganized, and several factions are scrambling to put together a cohesive movement.  At this point, their only demand is the current regime step aside and hold free elections.  This isn’t going to happen unless – as in Egypt — the military takes control and rewrites the constitution.

Which brings us to Libya and the impending civil war.  The problem with democratic reform in Libya is Muammar Gaddafi himself.  He has been in power since 1969 (longer than anybody except Castro and the Queen.)  The only Libyans who remember a time without Gaddafi are retired now.   For 40 years, there has been no political dialogue in Libya, so it’s doubtful that the people currently shooting at each other are willing to give a try.  They want Gaddafi out;  that’s it.  They may be calling for democracy, but unless they’ve been taking secret courses from The Learning Annex, how do they even know what it looks like?  Besides, Muammar is not one to go quietly.  Nor does he have a room full of generals advising him to leave for the good of the country.  This fight is not over, and believe me, even when it is, it won’t be.

And finally, Tunisia, where the whirlwind all started.  Actually Tunisia has the best chance of surviving the turmoil and bringing true democratic reform to their nation.  Their size, history and population give them some big advantages in the search for reform.  Maybe, if they can solve their problems, the long, hard, old-fashioned way, then other nations in the region can follow their example.

If this is the Arab Revolution, it’s about to hit a snag.  It’s called history.  It teaches us that most revolutions don’t end the way things did in 1989.  Daisies don’t normally grow where the tanks were, and any eventual democratic reform is going to be long and hard — and maybe even bloody.  No amount of wishful thinking is going to change that.  It would be far better if we stopped cheerleading for a while and started dealing with the facts — before the caravan actually does go by and we’re left behind, wondering what happened — again.