Monday, June 30, 2014

June 2014: The Mess in Iraq

After 9-11 when the US was on the brink of attacking Iraq, part of the so called Axis of Evil that included Iran and North Korea (and I am still not sure how North Korea got into this mix), I was worried.  What was I worried about?  I was not worried about toppling Saddam Hussein.  The Iraqi armed forces were no match for the US.  We were simply better trained and certainly much better equipped.  They could not match us on land, sea, or air.  Given our resolve, it was a fait accompli.  
My worry was what would happen after we toppled Saddam and this worry was two fold.  First, I guess that the Iraqi army would never engage the US army in the open battlefield.  I thought they would melt into the background and after our forces “took over” the country, the real war, a guerilla war would start.  I was, sadly, spot on.  The Iraqi forces did not engage the US.  The takeover was easy.  I, like many others, felt ominous when President Bush gave his famous “Mission Accomplished” speech.  In reality, the harder part of the mission was just beginning.  Shortly after, the insurgent or guerrilla war began.  
Secondly, I wondered what kind of government we would install.  The plan was to create the kind of democracy in Iraq that would be the envy and model for the rest of Arab world.  Yeah… that didn’t quite happen either.  We grossly underestimated the divisions between Shiites and Sunnis as well as the between Arabs and Kurds.  We grossly underestimated the wishes and influence of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran in Iraq.  We grossly overestimated the presence of Al Qaeda in Iraq but went about create a fertile ground for their entry and growth in the country.  Lastly, we grossly overestimated our ability to manage the country after the regime change.  I will not even address the gross lack of intelligence regarding the Weapons of Mass Destruction.  
This is not hindsight on my part.  I was concerned about these very issues and expressed them to family and friends when we were rattling our sabers and preparing to go in.  It was not something I wanted to be right about.  I would much rather be writing a piece on how wrong I was in these regards.
As a result, around 4,500 US soldiers were killed and a greater number injured.  We were good at counting our numbers.  I was a bit amazed and a tad upset that we did not give the Iraqi deaths and casualties the same air time.  We kept claiming that our mission there was to help the Iraqi people.  Given that we barely talked about the 100,000 to 200,000 that were killed (the number is not clear).  This just gave me the impression that we did not really care about the Iraqi people as much as we were claiming to care.  
After 9-11, when it was certain that we would be invading Afghanistan and then Iraq, there was a brilliant article in either the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.  It was long and it talked about the experiences and history of other Western Countries, namely England and perhaps France, in Iraq.  While they were able to achieve initial military victories and advances, they were equally ineffective in bringing any significant change to the region in their attempts to either westernize or civilize them.  As I recall, there was a great quote from, I believe, T. E. Lawrence that said something along the lines of over time the sands of Arabia will swallow you.  The article confirmed my feelings that we would win the war and lose the peace.
The article was very good.  I am almost certain it was in the WSJ because it I recall thinking this was not the conservative hawkish viewpoint I would have expected from the WSJ.  I did not save the article.  I remember sharing it with my cousin David who also found it quite interesting.  Of course, I have tried to find this article numerous times in the past few days.  I searched in Google as well as on the NYT and WSJ websites.  I searched all variants and combinations of Iraq, Afghanistan, War, Preparing for War, Lessons from History, T. E. Lawrence, sands of Arabia or Araby, and the years 2001 and 2002.  There was nothing to be found.  I would have like to have re-read this article as I collect my thoughts for this June letter.  
After we ousted Saddam, we set to create a new government.  This was to be the government that would lead Iraq from dictatorship to the model democracy that has so eluded the Arab Islam World.  We organized elections in which Nouri Al-Maliki was elected as Prime Minister.  Did he have any chance of creating a stable inclusive government?  Could any leader have led Iraq to the model democracy we were looking to create?  Is it that the various factions of Shia, Sunni, Kurds, and more will never get along?  Saddam Hussein held it together but as tough and often vicious dictator.  Was the US doomed to fail?  Was al Maliki doomed to be ineffective?  I believe the answer to all of these questions was and is a resounding… yes.
Now a new leader and new movement has emerged.  The leader is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the organization/ movement/army is called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  ISIS is fundamentalist and brutal.  They have suddenly and quickly taken a large swath of Iraq beginning in the oil rich regions and are headed toward Baghdad.  Abu Bakr was originally part of the insurgency after the US toppled Saddam.  He was captured and spent several years in custody where, apparently, his radicalism and resolve was hardened by association with seasoned Al Qaeda prisoners.  Upon his release from prison he honed his skills and rose in the ranks of ISIS.  He became the leader of ISIS in 2010 when his predecessor was killed by US and Iraqi troops.  The withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and the war in Syria provided an opportunity for Abu Bakr and ISIS to grow in numbers and become a deadly revolutionary force killing everyone who not only stands in their way but also those who might be a bystander.  ISIS has been called too extreme by Al Qaeda and ISIS claims Al Qaeda is ineffective.  ISIS claims that they are the true successors of Bin Laden.  In their current march across Iraq, they are emphasizing this with extreme brutality.  
The closest thing to a profile on Abu Bakr is a June 15, 2014 Aljazeera artice:  The fierce ambition of ISIL's Baghdadi.  Note that ISIL stands for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  Here is an excerpt:

Not since Osama bin Laden has a leader been held in such reverence among Sunni fighters, scored such stunning and shocking victories, and threatened so much of the established order.

But unlike Bin Laden, whose vast wealth aided his elevation to the "sheikh", Baghdadi has literally fought his way from ordinary beginnings in northern Iraq to lead what is perhaps the Middle East’s most feared irregular armed force.

So emboldened by his success on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, Baghdadi has challenged the very leadership of al-Qaeda, denouncing them publicly as deviating from the cause and stating he is the true heir to Bin Laden's legacy.

But his methods are extreme and his actions repugnant to many - captured enemy fighters are shot or decapitated and their deaths recorded for the internet.

Other armed groups in Syria are attacked as ISIL expands territory and influence, and a strict interpretation of Islam is implemented in the regions under its control - internet videos abound of thieves having their hands severed and adulterers, smokers and those who fail to attend prayer being publicly whipped.

There is a school of thought that we precipitated the current mess in the region.  If we had not invaded Iraq neither Iraq nor Syria would be in the dire straits they are now experiencing.  This may be true.  In our attempt to bring regime change, democracy, and stability to the Iraq, we may have fueled Al Qaeda which spawned ISIS which is now a juggernaut to create a Caliphate.  It is also possible it may have happened anyway maybe not as soon. Nothing galvinizes jihadi radicalism like an invasion from a “Christian” or non-Islamic army.  In one of his first speeches after 9-11, George W. even called the coming military invasion a Crusade.  There was a pretty passionate response in the Muslim world to the use of that term.  
I am oversimplifying things.  I have no choice.  I am not a scholar or state department employee whose job it is to study every nuance of what has gotten us to this point in Iraq.  My view is rather, what we call a 30,000 foot flyby.  It seemed fairly obvious before we invaded Iraq and more obvious in hindsight, that creating the post-Saddam Iraq was the real challenge.  The consensus now is that we failed at this part.  Those that are not big fans of Bush and Cheney blame Bush and Cheney for all this.  Others that are not particularly fans of Obama blame Obama.  There is plenty of blame to go around.  I believe Bush and Cheney got us into a war that had very little probability of succeeding.  I believe that Obama withdrew our troops prematurely (if there was never going to be a right time, then he probably did the right thing). The blame game is definitely partisan.  Tom Toles, the cartoonist for The Washington Post, captured this perfectly in his June 24, 2014 cartoon.  Both parties have united by saying, almost in unison:  “I told you so.”
What is bothersome on one level is that we have very smart people in the State Department and the Military.  How could they not know the risks?  The only logical thing I can think of is that there was a lot of money to be made in if there were a war.  What are the numbers?

·         The U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will cost taxpayers $4 trillion to $6 trillion, taking into account the medical care of wounded veterans and expensive repairs to a force depleted by more than a decade of fighting, according to a new study by a Harvard researcher.

the United States has spent almost $2 trillion already for the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those costs, she said, are only a fraction of the ultimate price tag. The biggest ongoing expense will be providing medical care and disability benefits to veterans of the two conflicts. ~ 3/28/13.  

·         Ten contractors received 52 percent of the funds, according to an analysis by the Financial Times that was published Tuesday.

The No. 1 recipient?

Houston-based energy-focused engineering and construction firm KBR, Inc. (NYSE:KBR), which was spun off from its parent, oilfield services provider Halliburton Co. (NYSE:HAL), in 2007.

The company was given $39.5 billion in Iraq-related contracts over the past decade, with many of the deals given without any bidding from competing firms, such as a $568-million contract renewal in 2010 to provide housing, meals, water and bathroom services to soldiers, a deal that led to a Justice Department lawsuit over alleged kickbacks, as reported by Bloomberg. ~ rsn 3;20/13

ISIS has made gains in Iraq and in Syria.  At first, it looked like they were going to roll across Iraq and then perhaps Syria.  Since their initial gains their progression has been slowed.  Their opposition in country was caught flatfooted at first but have since organized aided by US Military advisors, Russian jets, and the Shiites in Iraq literally fighting for their lives.

ISIS believes that the Shiites are apostates and must die in order to forge a pure form of Islam. ~ NYT 6-25-14

This is extreme hatred within the same faith.  It exists in the same country and leaves no wonder why our mission to create that model democracy was doomed to fail.  It seems unlikely there is strong public support for another large military invasion of Iraq. Those that profited from our most recent invasion are probably in favor. 
Perhaps the Russians will step in and try to take control and bring some stability to the region.  They are already committing aircraft.  Perhaps they have forgotten the lesson they learned thirty years ago in Afghanistan
On June 29, ISIS took a bold step and made the following declaration:

BEIRUT, June 29 (Reuters) - An offshoot of al Qaeda which has captured territory in Iraq and Syria has declared itself an Islamic "caliphate" and called on factions worldwide to pledge their allegiance, a statement posted on Islamist websites and Twitter said on Sunday.

The move poses a direct challenge to the central leadership of al Qaeda, which has already disowned it, and to conservative Gulf Arab rulers.

The group, previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and also known as ISIS, has renamed itself "Islamic State" and proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as "Caliph" - the head of the state, the statement said.

"He is the imam and khalifah (Caliph) for the Muslims everywhere," the group's spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said in the statement, which was translated into several languages and read out in an Arabic audio speech.

"Accordingly, the "Iraq and Sham" (Levant) in the name of the Islamic State is henceforth removed from all official deliberations and communications, and the official name is the Islamic State from the date of this declaration," he said.

I will close with the following.  My friend and Middle East scholar Professor Elyse Semerdjian posted the following on Facebook.  It was a tweet posted by Khaled Diab, a Belgian-Egyptian journalist and writer.  "ISIS have no idea what restoring the Caliphate actually means. In Baghdad, it'd involve booze, odes to wine, science... and a gay court poet."  The Caliphate referred to is the Abbasid Caliphate which ruled a the majority of the Moslem world from 750 - 1258.  Baghdad was the capital city of the Abbasid Caliphate.  The gay court poet was “Al-Hasan ibn Hani’ al-Hakami ad-Dimashqi (757-815), known under the name of Abu Nuwas was a contemporary of Caliph Harun ar-Rashid, the renound Caliph of the Arabian Nights tales.” ~ Gay Poet at the Court of Harun Al Rashid.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Old Town School of Music

The Old Town School of Music is a treasure in Chicago.  This school was founded in 1957 and quickly grew to teaching 150 guitar and banjo students a week.  At the onset, the school was attracting artists such as Pete Seegar and Mahalia Jackson to both give concerts and workshops.  After an enrollment stump in the 1970s which almost led to bankruptcy, the Board of Directors placed an emphasis on fundraising and restructured management to improve operations saving the school and providing a basis for sustained growth.  Around the same time, the School bought the old vacant Hild Library, 43,000 square feet, in Lincolnwood as the third and current home while keeping the old Armitage location as a satellite location. Since locating in Lincolnwood, the School grew and expanded both in terms of size and offerings.  The School grew and acquired even more space across the street  from the old library.  Thus, the Old Town School of Music has three locations.
The Old Town School of Music is an exemplary school of its type in the US.  6,600 students are enrolled and pay for classes and lessons per week, 48 weeks per year, 7 days a week.  2,700 of the students are young people.  The classes have expanded from just American folk to a wide variety of music, art, and dance classes that include American, Latin American, Native American, and an impressive offering of what is called World Music.  One can take lessons on Accordian to Voice, including Harmonica and dulcimer.  The genres and style range from Blue Grass to Folk and from Middle Eastern to Latin.  Any day of the week, the rooms are all in use.  There are lessons and jam sessions of a variety of folk styles, rhythm and blues, Latin and Middle Eastern.  There are lessons and jam sessions for beginners and for intermediate students.  Especially in the evening, people are walking the streets with gig bags and instrument cases.  There are restaurants and bars with both neighborhood and Old Town School patrons making Lincolnwood a pretty lively and a most cool place to hang out.  
Besides lessons. renown artists are brought in for concerts and workshops attract over 85,000 people per year for these events.  Here is a sample of upcoming concerts:  A honky tonk group - The Hoyle Brothers, an Indian centered fusion ensemble - The Sufi Gospel Project, an Afro- Colombian band - Las Alegres Ambulancias, and pop folk singer Melissa Ferrick to name a few.  The run a weekly concert series called World
A Strum-a-Long Class
Music Wednesdays.  
The Old Town School of Music has a music store.  It is full of all kinds of instruments including guitars, banjos, mandolins, violins, ukuleles, violins, percussion of all types, and ouds.  It has strings for all these instruments.  The even sell oud picks or mzrabs.  The have a selection of different brands of oud strings for both Arabic and Turkish tunings.  The have Turkish ouds made by Sandi that set a very high standard for entry level instruments at $400.  They even have a Godin Multioud wjth a cedar top for an outrageously low price of $675. If I didn’t place the oud, I would definitely buy a good mandolin, take lessons, and get into either bluegrass or old time music.
Clearly, the middle Eastern programs attract me.  Ronnie Maly and Wanees Zanour teach oud, percussion, and ensemble playing.  They even teach a course on maqam theory.  I know both fellows but have not had the occasion to take lessons from either.  John Berberian has performed at the Old School to rave reviews. Earlier this year, Simon Shaheen, another oud virtuoso, performed.  Recently, the Old Town School has announced a new three year program: Ojala!: Presenting Muslim Voices and Connecting Diverse Communities.  This program that includes artists in shortly residencies presenting workshops, leading jam sessions, and giving concerts is “presented in partnership with Chicago's Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) and funded by a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.”  These programs are all gratis to the public and a wonderful offering to the world music community in Chicago.  I plan on taking advantage to as many of these as I can.  Here are four that have already attended.
May 22:  Zafer Tawil presented a Oud Workshop. He gave tips and techniques on picking as well as improving everyone’s tonality in two different maqams.  
May 23:  Fathy Salama and Amir El Saffer.  Arab music jam session.  Fathy, a composer who expertly melds maqam and jazz, taught the whole class a melody line in rast and then how to modulate to other maqams adding more melody lines.  This was the groove we played and improvised off of.  Amir El Saffer is a gifted trumpet
Arap Saz Semai with Cafer Nazlıbaş
player who plays the intricate tonalities of maqams on the trumpet.  He was the musical lead of the jam session.  It was amazing how good the end product sounded.
June 19:  Two conservatory trained musicians Ismail Lumanovski (clarinet - Julliard) and Cafer Nazlıbaş (kemane - spike fiddle Devlet Turkish Music Conservatory) gave a workshop on the Turkish Roman music styles. People brought ouds, clarinets, violins, dumbeks, and a mandolin.  We learned a Roma a 9/8 melody in hicaz and how to modulate to other modes while improvising.  It was a lot of fun.
June 20:  “Resident artists Mercan Dede (Electronics, Frame Drum), Mert Elmas (Percussion), and again Cafer Nazlıbaş (Kemane - Spike Fiddle) for an ensemble workshop combining mystical Islamic Sufi music with electronica and traditional Turkish instruments.”  The predominant maqam and rhythm was again 9/8 and hicaz
In September, Erkan Ogur the famed turkish folk and pop musician will in residence September.  The invention of the fretless guitar is attributed to him.  He plays a variety
of guitars, sazes, kopuz, and sings.  He has written a variety of songs, the one I know best is rewriting of the words to Achilles Poulos’s ballad Nedem Geldim Amerikaya (Why Did I Come to America) as Neden geldim İstanbul'a (Why Did I Come to Istanbul).  In 2001, he collaborated on an album, Fuad, with Djivan Gasparyan.  
Looking forward what else the Old Town School has planned for the next three years.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Moxie Magic

      In my May letter, Loogid! Lt. Moxie had a Conniption Fit, I resurrected a word, moxie, based on the soft drink of the same name.  Moxie the drink is about as obscure as moxie the word but, as many scure and obscure things in today's online world, there is a website for it:  I had gotten the history of the soft drink from their website and also noted that they had a Moxie store page where they offered t-shirts, hats, and twelve packs of Moxie in cans.
       Well, I had to buy something.  Oddly, I didn't care about trying the drink.  I neither needed another hat or another t-shirt so I flipped a bitcoin and ordered a hat.  I got it after I posted my e-letter or I surely would have posted a selfie donning the orange ball cap.  Today, June 7th, was the first day I actually wore it.  I woke up, threw on some jeans and an old polo shirt and took my wife's car to get it washed at the dealership that offers such a service.  On the way, I did what my demographic requires I do on a quite lovely spring morning on a Saturday running errands:  I stopped by the local Starbucks for an Americano.

       At both locations, someone thought they knew me.  At the Starbucks, I was walking to my car.  A fellow about my age was getting out of his car which was parked next mine.  The sidewalk was narrow, being a beautiful morning and being in a great mood, I stood aside and let him pass.  He looked at me as he walked by in a way that made me turn in his direction as he passed.  He stopped and asked "do I know you?"  I said "No, I don't think so."  He responded, "It was that you stopped, were wearing sunglasses, and had a big smile, I thought I might know you."  I relied, "No, I was just letting you pass and am in a great mood this lovely morning.  That is why I am smiling."

      At the car dealership, a nice lady probably half my age plus seven, if you know what I mean, came up to me and said, "How are you doing Ed?"  Ed?  "I am doing great, but I am not Ed.  My name is Mark."  "Your not Ed Howe?"  "Nope."  We exchanged a few more pleasantries about what a handsome fellow this Ed must be.  Then I went into the showroom to look at and sit in cars I cannot afford.

       I have certainly had my share of being mistaken for someone else.  It happens at about the same rate that I mistake others for someone I think I know.  It happens but it is a rare occurrence.  What has me writing about it, is that it happened twice today within half an hour.  That has never happened to me before nor do I expect it again any time soon.  

      This certainly got me thinking.  What was it about today?  Jeans, polo shirt, Starbucks in hand, sunglasses and a ball cap?  Nothing unique or really different here.  Because of the beautiful weather and my biorhythms, I was in a great mood and couldn't help but have a big goofy smile on my face.  Maybe that was it.
      Then it struck me.  It was the Moxie hat.  I was wearing the Moxie hat and was no doubt channeling their slogan:  Either you've got it or you don't.  Today, apparently, I had it or had something.  Maybe there is something to this moxie thing.  Maybe being aware of it allows ones inner moxie, which may well be unique to each of us, shine.  Something was certainly going on today.  Maybe my old friend and colleague, Jack, was right about moxie.

      I wonder... do they have mojo hats?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Inane Facebook Polls

There is a trend in emails and on Facebook.  People are sending and posting a variety of polls.  They are not just polls, they are kind of fun polls that are offer insights into our personalities.  Here are some of these polls or surveys that many have no doubt seen many of these

  • Find your spirit animal?
  • What famous movie star are you?
  • Which Looney Tunes character are you?
  • What country should you be living in?
  • And many more...

I have taken many of these quizzes, polls, surveys, or whatever you call them.  Websites that seem to feature most of them seem to have the word 'buzz' in them.  There is BuzzFeed and PlayBuzz.  There probably is or should be others BuzzHead, BrainBuzz,  BuzzAzz, BizBuzz, Bluzzter…

I understand that they are designed to be fun and entertaining.  I really understand that.  But... I find them horribly irritated and ridiculously lame.

  • Which Disney royalty are you most like?  Aladdin.
  • Aladdin?  This did not resonate with me but a few friend thought it apropos.

I find the questions too restrictive.  This probably comes from years of designing questionnaires for serious business surveys.  Often, none of the alternatives appeal or apply to me.  I get it, they are trying to steer you to classify everyone into one of a small number of pigeonholes.  If there are 8 questions with 5 choices for each question, then there are 40 unique answers.    Several answers probably map to an answer.  For example, if the survey is to answer "Which of the Seven Dwarfs are you?", there are only seven possible outcomes.  I had forgotten that 'Lumpy' was one of the dwarfs.

  • Which PlayBuzz quiz should you play?
  • The answer was "Which Shakespeare character am I?"

I know it these are diversions that are supposed to be fun and cute.  There is no reason I should be so aggravated by them.  As I am apparently aggravated by them, I should probably just avoid.  For some equally aggravating reason, I do the opposite… I click on the link and answer the questions, muttering to myself the entire time.

  • Which Shakespeare character am I?  Othello.
  • Othello?  Really?  It did not strike a chord with me.

Hopefully, by writing this bit of a rant, I will simply stop being suckered into these inane polls whenever I see them on Facebook.  Maybe, I should just curtail my time on Facebook too.  Better yet, I might even reassess all my frivolities!  That may just be more change than I could possibly manage.

I’ve got it.  I will make up my own polls and surveys.  I will provide enough questions and options in each question to make the results really meaningful. 

  • Which USSR Premier are you?
  • Which rodent defines you?
  • Which logical positivist are your channelling?
  • Which infectious disease most resembles your personality?
  • What flavor Hostess Fruit Pie are you?
  • Which maqam speaks to your soul?
  • Which Andrews sister are you?
  • Which county in Iowa should you live in?
  • Which character in the sitcom What’s Happening!! are you
  • Which US Vice-President defines your work ethic?
This going to be fun!