Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Iran, Space Monkeys and The Pixies

I wanted to try something a little different with this post.  Perhaps it is the result of a few years spent as a DJ, but a lot of times when I see a story in the news, a song will pop into my head, a song that is usually related to the story in some odd way.  That was the case when I read this report about Iran's nascent space program and their successful attempt to launch a monkey into space. The song this conjured up was, of course, The Pixies “Monkey Gone To Heaven”.  So the idea of this post is to talk a little about the story and then a little about the song.

Space, The Final Frontier

With news from and about Iran dominated by that country's nuclear research program, the story of their space launch came as a bit of a surprise.  But Iran has ambitions to become a space-faring nation in their own right.  In 2009, Iran launched their first home-built satellite into orbit.  The Iranian government has stated that their goal is to launch a man into space by 2019, using domestically designed and produced equipment.

By comparison, the mission announced this past Sunday was quite modest – a capsule carrying a single monkey as a passenger was carried aloft by a Pishgam (or “Pilgrim”) missile to an altitude of 75 miles before returning to Earth.  In a good sign for Iran's future astronauts, their monkey passenger apparently survived the flight unharmed.

Though modest in scope – both the US and Soviet Union were doing this sort of thing more than 50 years ago - this mission passed a couple of important milestones for Iran: they crossed the threshold of space (typically defined as any altitude above 62 miles) and managed the G-forces encountered in descent well enough for their primate passenger to survive.  Since man too is a primate, the monkey's survival is indication that Iran has solved some of the basic technological problems associated with returning a manned-capsule safely to Earth.

But there was likely a subtext for Iran's monkey mission.  A rocket that can carry a capsule into space is also capable of carrying a warhead thousands of miles to an enemy's territory.  The United States slipped into a full-blown panic in 1957 after the Soviet Union successfully orbited the Sputnik satellite – not only had US pride been hurt by being beaten into space by the “Reds”, but it was also a clear indication that the Soviet Union now possessed ICBMs capable of reaching the United States.  In this time of high tensions with the US and Israel, a similar message could be drawn from this weekend's Iranian journey into space.

Monkey Gone To Heaven


From the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, The Pixies would become one of the bands that defined the college radio/alternative sound, at least before the genre was largely consumed by the Grunge scene out of Seattle, though The Pixies would influence that genre as well. They were a band that specialized in the sound that Nirvana's Kurt Cobain would describe as “quiet, then loud”.  The Pixies were aided in this expression by the smooth lead vocals of singer Black Francis (later Frank Black), with backing vocals by guitarist Kim Deal. They layered lyrics that often trended towards the bizarre over music that could range from light and melodic to crashing walls of sound – sometimes within the same song.

“Monkey Gone To Heaven” is an apt expression of this songwriting formula.  From the album Doolittle, the track is an example of The Pixies at their highest point as a band.  The lyrics of “Monkey Gone To Heaven” go off on explorations of environmentalism, religion and man's relationship with the divine - a relationship that Francis seems to believe the divine will get the worst of.  Early on, the song talks about Neptune, Roman god of the seas, being “killed by 10 million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey” (and as someone who grew up in NJ, I can totally see that happening).  In this respect, the conceit of the “monkey gone to heaven” is an indication of man's diminishment of the divine through the elevation of a primate - and keep in mind that man too is a primate – to the realm of the gods.

You have to wonder what Iran's ayatollahs would make of that?
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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

US Sources Question French Intervention Strategy In Mali

Sometimes the most interesting nugget in a story comes buried all the way at the end; that is the case here with this story on Reuters about France's sudden involvement in the slow-burning civil war in Mali. Near the end of the Reuters piece is this comment from the infamous “anonymous source”, identified by Reuters as a US military official, who asks: “I don't know what the French endgame is for this. What is their goal? It reminds me of our initial move into Afghanistan.”

Before we unpack that statement, a little background on the current situation in Mali. Until last year, Mali had been considered one of the more successful states in West Africa, though a state that still dealt with a long-simmering issue of civil unrest in the northern part of the country where separatists hoped to carve out their own homeland. In one of the great examples of the law of unintended consequences, this bid received a massive shot in the arm from the US/French/British-led campaign to support the rebels in Libya in their bid to oust Moammar Gadhafi. His overthrow meant the return of thousands of Tuareg mercenaries, formerly employed by Gadhafi, to their homelands in northern Mali, where they teamed up with al-Qadea-leaning militias and turned a minor bit of civil unrest into a full-blown civil war.

The Malian army, not happy with the way the war was being run, staged a coup, overthrowing Mali's president (The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald notes this is a double-irony for the West since the coup was led by a US-trained army captain). With no functioning military, the Tuareg/al-Qaeda alliance took control over half of the country before having their own setback when the Islamist militias turned on their Tuareg allies. 2012 ended with the situation in Mali an utter mess and Mali's neighbors pleading for assistance to prevent Mali from turning into a failed state haven for al-Qaeda-linked groups.

The US has been promoting a strategy built on the “Somali model”, at least the most recent version of foreign intervention in Somalia, which has been the most successful in the past 20 years. In practice, this means providing funding and logistical support to troops from neighboring African nations who will do the actual fighting. In Somalia this, has been a mix of primarily Ugandan, Kenyan, Ethiopian troops who have managed to largely defeat Somalia's homegrown Islamist militia, al-Shabaab, and restore some semblance of a functioning government to Somalia.

That was the plan, at least for Mali as well, until last week when the French began spearheading their own much more direct intervention, which started with airstrikes against Islamist positions, most notably surrounding the city of Gao. There are now also reports of French special forces troops on the ground in Mali. Why France decided to launch their Mali mission is a topic that is actively being discussed, though it could likely be because the force of 2,000-3,000 peacekeepers from a collection of West African nations would not have been ready to deploy for several months, perhaps not until September, and perhaps not even then.

And that brings us back to our unnamed US military source.  He/she goes on to add: “Air strikes are fine. But pretty soon you run out of easy targets. Then what do you do? What do you do when they [the  militias] head up into the mountains?”  Sadly, since he/she is anonymous, it is impossible to know if they asked these same important questions when the US went stumbling into Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps they are offering up these comments as a sort of advice, hard-won knowledge from the foibles of those two US interventions. But it is hard not to read these comments as being both hypocritical and condescending given the past decade of US foreign involvement, our continued questionable presence in Afghanistan and the calls by the DC warhawks, particularly those of the neoconservative stripe, for a US campaign against Iran, yet another military mission that is unlikely to achieve its tactical goal – elimination of Iran's nuclear program – while possessing a high likelihood of spurring a whole chain of unexpected and unintended consequences.

The “Somali model” idea pushed by the United States sounds good on paper, the problem is that while Somalia had several neighbors with large populations – Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia – to supply troops, the would-be ECOWAS force for Mali is being drawn from a collection of fairly small states like Ghana and Sierra Leone, not countries known for having large and robust armies. Nigeria is the one large neighbor that is pledging troops, but Nigeria is also dealing with their own separatist movement (MEND – the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) and their own Islamist uprising (Boko Harum), so it is hard to understand why the Nigerians would then suddenly have such better luck when operating in Mali when they have struggled so much against these two groups at home. The proposed Malian peacekeeping force is also made up of only 2,000-3,000 soldiers; by contrast, the Ugandans alone contributed up to 16,000 troops to the ANISOM mission in Somalia. 

Our unnamed source is asking some good and important questions, but they are questions that highlight the problem with the international community since 9/11: there is now a far greater motivation to intervene in troubled nations (especially when supposed “al-Qaeda” forces are involved) and to intervene right away!  But these proposed interventions are launched without clear military objectives in mind, and more importantly, without a plan for the “day after” the initial military campaign is launched, or in other words, without an exit strategy.  The United States has spent 12 years trying to find a way out of Afghanistan, you have to wonder if France will now find that it was very easy to get into Mali, but that it will be very hard to get out.
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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Closing Time For The Somali Pirates

It has been awhile since we checked in with our old friends the Somali pirates. A big part of the reason was simply that 2012 was not a good year for piracy, with successful pirate raids dropping off sharply.  This turn in fortune seems to be the motivation for one of Somalia's most infamous pirates to call it quits.  The New York Times is reporting that Mohamed Abdi Hassan, better known by his nom de guerre “Big Mouth”, announced his retirement last week in a press conference broadcast on YouTube.
Big Mouth's retirement is a big deal in that he was thought to be the head of a notorious pirate network and was identified in a United Nations report last year as one of Somalia's most influential and most dangerous pirates.  But a host of factors are now working against the Somali pirates, including more effective naval patrols in the Indian Ocean, on-shore raids aimed at disrupting pirating operations ashore and the emergence of effective governments in the capital, Mogadishu, and in the semi-autonomous northern region of Puntland.  These factors have combined to reduce the pirate's haul down to a mere 13 captured vessels in 2012, making pirating a far more dangerous and far less lucrative business today than it was a couple of years ago.

Big Mouth seems to have been further enticed by the issuance of a passport by the new Somali government that allowed him to travel abroad to visit his family, according to the Times.  In his farewell press conference, Big Mouth claimed to have also influenced a number of his pirate brethren to give up their pirating ways as well.  But while piracy seems to be on the decline off the coast of Somalia, there is concern that the pirates could come back if international navies scale back their patrols, thinking that the pirate problem has passed; at the same time, the pirate problem may be shifting to the coast of West Africa, where pirate attacks are on the rise.
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Thursday, January 10, 2013

My Bad Relationship With The NHL

I feel like I'm writing a letter to Dear Abby... See, I'm stuck in a bad relationship, I love her, but she takes off months, even a year, for no good reason, then comes back and expects that we'll pick up like nothing ever happened...

Her name is the NHL.

Let me say that I am a big hockey fan, I have been since I was about 10 years old. Growing up, my family had season tickets to the New Jersey Devils; I've ridden buses to Montreal to see a game; when I became the Sports Editor of my college newspaper, I quickly claimed the hockey beat for myself, even though my school had only a club-level team and they were, honestly, fairly bad; in short, I love the game. So you would think that I'd be overjoyed by the news that the NHL's latest labor stoppage came to an end late last week, just in time to salvage part of the 2012-2013 season.

But I'm not. Some of it is anger and frustration with the league over its third labor stoppage in 18 years, a largely pointless fight between millionaires and billionaires over how to carve up league revenues that last season topped $3 billion. But in a bigger sense, my lack of enthusiasm comes from the realization that getting back together after a breakout often seems great as an idea, though the reality is usually disappointing.

People are joyful over the idea that the last-minute labor agreement saved the 2012-2013 season. But let's not kid ourselves, the season is already lost.  Sure, the teams will take to the ice in an ersatz 48-game schedule, as they did in 1995, but this season will be looked at as far from legitimate. The New Jersey Devils won their first Stanley Cup following the shortened 1995 season, but the only reason that championship has any validity today is because the Devils went on to make the playoffs every year for the next decade and win two more championships in 2000 and 2003; without them, the Devils 1995 Cup win would be in the record books with a very big asterisk.

Nor am I looking forward to seeing the quality of the product on the ice this year. Getting ready for a full NHL season is usually a month-long affair of training camps and exhibition games; this year that process is being compressed down to a week – players will report to their teams this weekend and begin play on Jan. 19th, not in exhibition games, but to launch the 48 game season.  Some players will be coming to these mini-camps from professional leagues in Europe, others from stints in the minors, others still with no playing time since their seasons ended last April or May. The teams won't gel as cohesive units, injuries are far more likely because of poor physical conditioning; in short, the 2013 season promises to be a sloppy one.

And even more disturbing are some of the moves the league is discussing for the future. Lost in the hubbub of the labor crisis were two proposals floated by the NHL: expanding the playoffs to 20 teams and expanding the league itself to 32; both are awful ideas. A 20-team playoff format will likely add another round to the playoff structure and will stretch the season deeper into June, considering that the 2011-2012 playoffs didn't end until June 11th, another round could push the end of the Stanley Cup finals almost to the official start of summer – kind of silly for a “winter” sport. It also makes the regular season more irrelevant since 20 out of 30 teams, or 2/3 of the league would be guaranteed a spot in the post-season. Expansion is also a terrible idea, especially since part of the reason for this year's labor lockout was the league's contention that roughly 2/3 of the teams were losing money. Seattle and Quebec City have emerged as the frontrunners in the expansion talks, and while both would be fine additions to the NHL, it would make more sense for them to host teams relocated from some of the NHL's weaker cities like Phoenix or Columbus, OH than to add more teams to what many fans consider to be an already bloated league.

The rationale for these moves is money – expansion franchises must pay a fee to the league, which results in a few million dollars being funneled into the coffers of every NHL team, a hallmark of the Gary Bettman era; while more teams in the playoffs will give four more owners a chance to earn a little more revenue by hosting additional home games for their teams. Whether these moves are good for the quality of the league or the sport is irrelevant if there's a quick buck to be made. And that brings me back to my point about being stuck in a bad relationship. The NHL is never going to change, but in terms of hockey, they are the only game in town, and, unfortunately, the NHL knows that too.  
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