Thursday, April 03, 2014

New Thoughts About Photography

I figured out today why all my pictures are so lousy.  I have been going on the theory that the object of photography is to get everything in focus.  It isn't. The object of photography is to get everything out of focus except the subject.

I have read about depth-of-field and assumed it was a study in getting as much as possible into the field. For single subjects one wants shallow depth of field not deep, so that everything behind the subject, and even things in front of it, are blurry.

Which explains why there is such a fetish about fast lenses with wide apertures. For otherwise identical lenses, the faster one might sell for four, eight, or ten times as much as the slower one. A Nikon 70-300mm f/2.8 VR (vibration reduction) lens sells for $2160. A Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens sells for $465, both from B&H of New York.

I had been told, and believed, that the purpose of fast lenses was to enable one to shoot in dimmer light. It isn't.  At least not primarily. The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field.  With a wide aperture lens, one opens to full aperture, focuses on the conductor, and voila!  Michael Tilson Thomas with his hair flying and each hair in focus and a bunch of soft focus or blurry musicians barely noticed behind him. With a slower lens one does the same thing and gets a whole bunch of people on a stage, one of whom might be Thomas.

Notice that the picture above is of Michael Tilson Thomas. Had it been taken with a slower, smaller aperture lense, the depth of field would have been greater and the guy behind Thomas would have been in focus too. Which would have made it a picture of both of them which was not what one wanted.

The problem here is that I am not about to spend two grand for a lens. Indeed, I am not crazy about spending four hundred odd dollars for one either.

Fortunately, depth of field shrinks with lens length. Wide angle lenses have deep fields. A longer, i.e. narrower field of view lens, also has a shallower depth of field at the same aperture. A 500mm lens has a much shallower depth of field at f/8 than a 35mm lens has at f/8. 

The problem is that telephoto lenses are prohibitively expensive. A Nikon 500mm f/4 lens costs a quick $8000.  It is 16 inches long and weighs over 8 pounds, not fun to hang from a strap around one's neck. The solution is thorough shopping. One can occasionally find an old Nikon 500mm f/8 reflex lens, which is not a lens at all but a parabolic mirror disguised as one. It is 7 inches long, fairly light, and can be had for about $200 if one can find one.

One should note that f/4 is not twice as fast as f/8 but four time as fast.  And by 'fast' we mean amount of exposure time to get the same exposure.  With a long lens this is a big deal because the longer a lens is and the narrower of an angle it sees, the more the jiggle of one's hands blurs the image.  Which is crucial if one is shooting hand-held.  But shooting handheld with that long a lens is folly.  One mounts the camera and lens on a tripod which holds it perfectly steady absent high winds or earthquakes.  So the four-fold difference in speed matters far less.

The great increase in "film" speed from ISO 400 in the old days to fancy modern cameras that shoot at ISO 25,600, or 640 times as fast, is more than 18 stops.  That diminishes the need for the lens to be so fast as to dim light.  There are still cavils about electronic "noise" at such high ISO's.  Since noise can now be fixed in software, the objections are now themselves just noise.

Which means that the remaining advantage of a fast lens is that it has a shallower depth of field.  Which as I realized today is all about picking out one's subject, not about shooting a black cat in a coal chute at midnight, as the saying is.

The best-known reviewer of lenses is a guy named Ken Rockwell and he dumped on the Nikon 500mm f/8 Reflex lens - because a) it is too light which makes the camera back-heavy, and b) because if there are bright things in the background blur, they will appear as blurry circles which is distracting.  Poor baby!  How could such terrible things happen to him?

Rockwell, being a well-known reviewer, gets his lenses free from the distributors. So the $7800 difference in price matters not at all to him. He does note in passing the same thing I found, that the mirror lens, because the light does not pass through any glass, is sharp and free of distortion.

Why I Love and Respect the New Yorker



[I do not know how to get these two pretentious meatballs on the same 
line because I know bubkes about editing HTML.  Any help?]

I have just now read Hendrik Hertzberg's Comment in the November 29 "New Yorker", titled "Puppetry".

Hertzberg's screed is an attack on Glenn Beck for trashing liberal billionaire and full-time enemy of Israel,  George Soros.  That Beck is a buffoon does not make Soros not a villain.  Nor does it make Hertzberg not Beck's mirror image.

I found it interesting that Hertzberg suggests that George Soros is NOT an enemy of Israel.  And calls Glenn Beck's implication that he is, "lies told by innuendo".  Which curiously is precisely what Hertzberg himself did in implying the reverse.

For this we have not Hertzberg's or Beck's groundless assertions, but Soros's own admission in action.  Soros was recently revealed to be the main funder of J Street, an organization which claims to be friendly to Israel but opposes it in everything and sides with the Arabs in every case.

Soros and J Street's founder both concealed and both explicitly lied in public about J Street being primarily funded by Soros.  The reason for the lying was that both recognized that if Soros were seen as behind J Street, that J Street's pretense of friendliness toward Israel would be seen as laughable by anyone familiar with Soros.

The depth of Soros's animosity can be seen in how easily his reputation could be diffused by a gift of a few million dollars, a pittance to a billionaire, to an Israeli university or hospital or orphanage.  But he can't do it for the same reasons the King of Saudi Arabia can't -- because he really and truly hates Israel including its universities, hospitals, and orphanages.

Which Hertzberg knows full well.  Which makes him, like Beck, a liar by innuendo.

It is a curious feature of mirrors that they reverse left and right. Which is why, when Henrik Hertzberg looks in the mirror, he sees Glenn Beck.

The Wild Swan Chase

Summer 2009

My friend Larry called me from Butte. Time to get to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge by the end of September, early October for the migration of the trumpeter swans. Thousands of them, the largest and heaviest of flying birds, would pour into the NWR and out, on their way to southern feeding grounds.

He was having new windows installed and would meet me there in a few days. Since I was already in eastern Oregon loosely on my way to Butte to see him anyway, I went there. The first town in Montana is MonIda, a semi-ghost town. I was going to make mock of its name but upon recalling our Mexicali and Calexico, thought better of it.

The trip from MonIda and the interstate to the wildlife refuge was 31 miles up a bad dirt road. The suspension on the bus is unaccountably rigid so I drove between 12 and 18 miles an hour the whole way to avoid shaking it and myself apart.

Along the way I was several times favored with sights of small herds of pronghorns, formerly known as pronghorn antelopes. Some astute morphologist determined that they are not taxonomically antelopes. So calling them pronghorn rather than pronghorn antelope has become a point of pride among the sort of people who insist on 'bison' rather than 'buffalo' (me) and 'city' rather than 'Frisco' (you). They are lovely animals with high contrast brown and white patterns on their bodies.

Upon arrival there of what was left of me in what was left of the bus, the NWR headquarters were closed because it was Sunday. I repaired to an otherwise empty campground among groves of stunningly golden aspen by the shore of Upper Red Rock Lake.

The next morning I set out on a constitutional to walk the four miles back to the ranger station.  I saw the swans, only two.  They were clearly guarding something on the far side of their pond, surely their nest.

The American West is still the place to be.

Gunfire in the Kingdom

It occurred to me recently how convoluted our relationship with Saudi Arabia is.

The fighting in Libya has stopped the flow of Libyan sweet light crude to European refineries. Which could have caused shortages and a price spike (Which implies a certainty of brevity. If the fighting continues it might become a price hike.) This is even though Libya produces only 2% of the world's oil.

The Saudi government announced that it would increase production to compensate for the loss of Libyan production. Which made the world's stock markets calm and ended the several days of market sell-off caused by the fighting in Libya.

Given that Saudi Arabia is thus in effect the guarantor of the stability of the world's oil supply, it is a friend and supporter of by far the world's biggest oil importer, the United States. Our economy depends on them. Those old enough to remember the oil embargo of 1974 (Brought on by Arab fury with Israel for having treacherously survived their surprise attack in the Yom Kippur War by fighting back and winning.) understand the potential disruption of our economy of an embargo that could not be called off if their regime were overthrown or crippled by prolonged civil war.

"Disruption" in this context means losing our jobs, our businesses going under, and the price of gasoline tripling.

In this context it is well worth noting that today police fired over the heads of demonstrators in the city of Khatif in the oil-producing Shi'ite majority east of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the staunchest of Sunni regimes yet the eastern provinces, those on the Persian Gulf, the ones with the oil, are Shi'ite. The relationship between Sunni and Shi'ite in Saudi Arabia is no worse than that between whites and blacks in Mississippi in 1951. Everybody is polite but...

And now Saudi Shi'ites have heard of freedom riders in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya. The Soviet Union was rumored to have instructed the American Communist Party to put its few pitiful resources toward helping the Civil Rights movement embarrass the United States in the 1950's and 1960's. So too, it is rumored that Iran, a major Shi'ite power directly across the Gulf from the Saudi oil lands, and a perennial rival and enemy of Saudi Arabia, may have a hand in agitating protests against the Saudi regime.

In both cases there is no proof. But in both cases, one would be astonished if it hadn't happened.

In return for protecting our economy, and with it our hegemony, the United States protects Saudi Arabia from its neighbors. The first Gulf War was at least as much about protecting Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein's Iraq as it was to recover Kuwait from them. Our navy patrols the Persian Gulf, our carrier groups control the Indian Ocean beyond the Gulf. Which is to say our helicopters and troops stand ready to destroy any Iranian attempt to invade Saudi Arabia.

If you think that is a fantasy scenario, imagine if the American protectorate did not exist. Saddam Hussein would not have stopped with Kuwait. His armies would have marched all-but-unopposed to the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf. Now that Saddam has died cursing, "spies, traitors, and the Persians", those very Persians would be only too glad to do exactly the same thing today.

Were they able to do that, Mahmud Ahmadinejad would control just over half of the world's oil supply.

That is why we maintain such a large navy when no other country has a comparable one. It isn't there to fight other navies as in World War 2 and the Cold War. It is there to control coastlines.

So the United States and Saudi Arabia are cooperative allies. They are guarantors of our economy. We are guarantors of their security.


There are Muslims throughout the world, most of them poor and living in poor countries. And in every country poor people are hard-pressed to educate their children. Everyone wants their children to be able to read, do arithmetic, post on Facebook. Much of the Muslims in the world cannot afford to provide even that much schooling to their children.

But the Saudi kingdom can. And does. All over the world are Muslim sectarian schools called 'madrassas'.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Why Exactly Should We Worry About the Russians Taking Crimea Back?

Ukraine is not all Ukraininans.  More than a a quarter of the population speaks Russia and identify themselves as Russians.  Much of the east of Ukraine has Russian speaking majorities ranging from 55% to the high 90's% in places like the Crimea.  The west and center of the country is all Ukrainian-speakers, the majority of the population.  Until a 1954 decision by Nikita Kruschev, the Crimea was part of Russia, not of the Ukraine.  The reasons if any for this decision are lost in the maze of byzantine post-Stalin succession politics.

Election maps follow the language and ethnic identity maps closely.  In the recent election Russians voted for Yanukovich and most Ukrainians voted for Yulia Tymoshenko.   The election of Yanukovich was marked by Russian financial support, by Putin campaigning in person in Ukraine, and by widespread vote fraud.  When Tymoshenko cried foul and denounced the election as fraudulent, Yanukovich put her in jail on trumped-up charges.

Ukraine had been well on its way to being delivered economically in a package with a bow on it to the European Union and politically and militarily to early recruitment into NATO.

Yanukovich promptly voided the agreements that were to begin the long period of integration of Ukraine into the EU and instead signed agreements binding Ukraine economically to Russia, particularly of import of Russian oil and gas at below-market prices.  This was very much the opposite of what the Ukrainian majority, longing to escape the centuries-long domination by Russia, wanted.

Protests among the Ukrainians grew and grew, inspired perhaps by Tahrir Square in Cairo.  After a massacre of more than a hundred people, they overthrew Yanukovich and established a Ukrainian government.

Within days Russian troops entered Ukraine and occupied its southern peninsula, the Crimea.  Crimea is almost all Russian-speaking.  The minority there are not Ukrainians but Tatars, descendants of the Mongol invaders of the 13th Century.

On the face of it the Russian invasion and occupation of the Crimea is an outrage.  It is an aggression against an unaggressive neighbor.  And most important in Washington it is a breach of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum under which Ukraine gave up its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal in return for its borders being guaranteed by the US, Britain, and Russia.

With Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus all governed from Moscow, the Soviet Union was a world-spanning colossus.  Russia alone without the Ukraine and Belarus is still a major power but not a rival of the US.   Most of its economic clout comes not from the productivity of its economy but from its ability to export oil and gas.  This makes it powerful but only in the way that OPEC countries are powerful - with only a single lever to push.

Belarus today is much smaller than Ukraine in both area and population and under its retrograde Lukashenko dictatorship is an economic basket case that is a major liability to any country seeking influence there.

Ukraine however is five times as populous as Belarus and about a third as populous as Russia itself.   It has enormous resources of coal, iron, agricultural lands, and Black Sea ports.  Much of Soviet heavy industry was concentrated in Ukraine's Donets Basin - the Ruhr of the Soviet Union.  It is still there though increasingly obsolete.

Russia and Ukraine together can be a major world power that could rival even the US.  Russia alone cannot.  So the stakes are very high.  One might even say that as Ukraine goes, so goes the future of the world.  Europe, the US, and the world generally all have reason to care deeply what happens in Ukraine.  Our interest is not just the sympathy we would have for any people trying to overthrow an oppressor.

But what is our interest in the Crimea?  As the current train of events shows the presence of a large Russian minority which in many places constitutes a territorial majority, destabilizes the Ukraine.  A Ukraine in which a large majority are Ukrainians and those owing loyalty primarily to Russia are a small majority, is more likely to be stable and unified than a Ukraine riven by ethnic and political divisions.  The more Russians Ukraine can unload, the more likely it is to succeed as a a stable nation-state.

While territorial dismemberment is not what any country wants, it is likely in Ukraine's long term interest for the Crimea to return to Russian control.  Without a large disaffected minority within its borders it can join the European Union and NATO.  Without a large Russian minority it will be less subject to interference in its internal affairs by Russia.  Ukraine needs more Russians the way Israel needs more Arabs.

Russia already has a large military presence at the port of Sebastopol in southern Crimea, both troops and a navy base ceded by treaty.  One way to get the Russian military off Ukrainian soil is to cede them the territory they are on and be done with it.

Ukraine does not need the Crimean port because it has a much bigger Black Sea port at Odessa, itself a half-Russian city

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Henry Ford was Right

History was my undergraduate major.  I have been fascinated by history all my life, since I first realized as a boy that what is is only a moment appended to what has been.  

But I am belatedly coming to the conclusion that that notion is wrong.  What the world has now become so dwarfs and outstrips everything that has gone before as to make history essentially trivial and irrelevant.  

Modern Rome is twice the size and population of Imperial Rome and modern Italy has almost as many people as the whole Roman empire at its height.  Yet no one speaks of the "Grandeur" of today's Italy.

Modern Athens is tens of times more populous than ancient Athens, has abolished slavery, enfranchised women, is also a democracy, has near-universal literacy, has far higher living standards, longer life expectancy and so on.  Almost all Greek-speaking people live in a united polity instead of in perennially warring city-states.

Modern China is a colossus both in area and population compared to even the greatest of its earlier dynastic incarnations.  The same is true of other great empires of the past - Mexico, Egypt, Peru, Turkey, Spain, Iran, even Britain.  

I have come to the conclusion that the past was small and primitive in every way compared to modern times and, if we are frank about it, has little to teach us.

Our study should be not the past but imagining and planning the future of this brave new world.  Ford was right.  History is bunk.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Jack's 2014 Dead Pool

Jack's 2014 Dead Pool

1.  Mohammed Morsi

2.  Ayman al-Zawahiri

3.  Jay Leno

4.  OJ Simpson

5.  Mickey Rooney

6.  Morley Safer

7.  Chris Christie

8.  Pervez Musharraf

9.  Queen Elizabeth II

10.  Prince William

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Dead Pool 2014

Harvey's list 

Mulala Yousafai 16
Lindsey Lohan 27
Lea Michelle 27
JustinBieber  19
Barbara Bush 88
Pope Francis 77
Pope Benedict 86
Muhammad Ali 71
Michael Douglas 69
Valery Harper 74

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Why National Health Insurance Matters So Much To The Right

Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL-CIO

There was a time, not so long ago to those of us who are old, when health insurance was generally provided by employers as a fringe benefit as part of a negotiated contract between the employer and the employees' union.  Over the years employers' interest and lobbying groups, collectively known as the Republican Party, used their control of state legislatures and the US Congress to undermine and eventually destroy the American labor movement primarily by passing so-called 'Right to Work' laws, state by state. 

Union membership among American workers fell from over 70 percent in the 1950's to less than 8% today.  Ironically most of those few remaining union members are public employees, notably teachers and the federal civil service.  Union membership and activity in the great mass of those workers working for corporate employers has all but vanished.

[I must note here the admirable and even heroic exceptions of the nurses and the hotel workers.]

The undermining and destruction of the unions was greatly facilitated by the transfer of manufacturing to non-union Southern states and, when even those states started to see unionization, the transfer of manufacturing overseas.  Workers in industries like steel, glass, autos, mining, and manufacturing generally, had been the bulwark of the American unions.

Their jobs are now done in China and other low-wage countries like Vietnam.  China has so far been immune to unionization because its Communist Party claims to already represent the workers.  In practice the Chinese Communist Party represents and protects Chinese workers about as much as the Republican Party represents and protect American workers - which is to say not at all.  Presumably the same is true of "Communist" Vietnam as well.

A second development by which the Republicans, with the connivance of the Democrats, undermined American workers' ability to organize into unions, has been keeping the immigrant population of tens of millions of Mexican workers illegal.   

Kicking them out would mean the end of the supply of cheap labor so that isn't going to happen.  Legalizing them would mean that they would no longer be quite so cheap so that isn't going to happen either.  So the fiction has been invented and perpetrated that there is something wrong with the border and that there just seems to be no way to keep them out.  Never mind that Canada effortlessly keeps them out by fining employers who knowingly employ illegal immigrants.  Never mind too that the US had such a law too but the Republicans gutted it by reducing the fine from a thousand dollars a day per illegal worker knowingly employed to ten dollars a day, an amount too small for the government to bother to enforce.

One does not have to be any kind of Marxist to regard these as huge victories for the corporations and their owners and managers and correspondingly huge defeats for the workers and their unions.  With the decline in union membership has come a corresponding decline in employer-provided health insurance.

During this same period and before, Presidents since Teddy Roosevelt just over a hundred years ago have attempted some sort of national medical insurance plan but it has always been stymied and defeated in Congress.  Now, a century of striving for Americans to have national health insurance has finally found fruition in the Affordable Care Act, quite justly called Obamacare because it is the signal and historic landmark for which his presidency will be remembered.   Even though it is carefully crafted to involve corporate insurance companies and free markets as much as possible, it is nevertheless a government program.

Which is a reversal in part of the historic victory of the corporations and their owners and managers in transferring the costs of health care from the corporations onto the workers or, failing that, to deprive them of health insurance entirely.  It is those who see their mission in Congress as to defend the class interests of the wealthy who are intent on fighting this to the end, even when the corporate interests themselves have agreed to the bill, and now law.

Dates of Adoption of Universal Health Care

1878  Germany
1939  New Zealand
1948  Britain
1955  Sweden
1956  Iceland
1956  Norway
1961  Japan
1961  Denmark
1964  Finland
1968  Canada
1974  Australia
1970's - 90's gradual implementation in Austria, Belgium, France and Luxembourg
1978  Italy
1979  Portugal
1983  Greece
1986  Netherlands
1988  Spain
1989  South Korea
1995  Israel
1995  Taiwan
1996  Switzerland
2013  United States of America

Many other countries have some form of universal health care as well.  (I remember being unable to become a citizen of Chile about 15 years ago because of their fear that immigrants would go there in part to take advantage of their health care system.  Which was exactly my intention.)

The list above can be read two ways.  One, the more obvious to most, is that all the developed countries of the world have adopted some form of universal health care twenty to sixty years ago.  But another is that the foreign countries of the world have one by one fallen into the sink of social decay and loss of self-reliance and fallen prey one by one to the siren song of socialism.  Only America has stood steadfast against the tide of moral rot.

The fact that the United States has lagged decades behind even countries like Portugal, South Korea, and Taiwan can be seen as a national disgrace that we are so far behind all modern and developed countries.

But it can also be seen as a shining example of American Exceptionalism.  When we say, "Everyone in Europe has it", they say, "Exactly!  The decadent corrupt Europeans have it.  And we as Americans must not, if only so as not to become the feckless, state-coddled, irresponsible, ingrate weaklings that the Europeans have become."  People of this mind see Obamacare as the strong entering wedge of European socialism, weakness, hedonism, and decay, the end of American Individualism.

To those who see the United States as its Puritan founders did, as a City on a Hill, a shining beacon and example to all the world, Obamacare means becoming like all the others, the worldling Europeans.

I think it worth noting that Obamacare is crafted to minimize the citizen's contact with the government.  It merely provides efficient markets in which the citizen can buy health insurance from private insurance companies.  It is also very much worth noting that the only reason the Affordable Care Act passed at all is that the insurance companies bought in on it.  Had the insurance companies strongly resisted, it could not have been enacted.

But the fight, which could conceivably have been a debate about principles, about how to deliver public services without compromising American Individualism has become mere nasty obstructionism.

The President is not wrong in calling the Tea Party opposition ideological.  It is ideological for the reasons I have given.

To the Tea Party radicals I would rejoin, had the Congress to which Teddy Roosevelt appealed adopted universal health care in 1908 when he asked them, American Exceptionalism would have appeared as American leadership in social progress and humanitarianism and social efficiency.  Instead it appears as laggard rationalizations and selfish excuses.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Why Syria is More Serious Than We Are Being Told

F-117 Nighthawk


The press coverage of the civil war in Syria started by telling us that the opposition were activists seeking freedom, presumably things like our First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion, and even to vote, from an oppressive dictatorial regime.  It was, they told us, all of a piece with the Arab Spring. Only slowly did it start to leak out that the conflict was actually about a Sunni majority seeking to overthrow a minority Alawite-Shi'ite regime, not to establish freedom but to establish a Sunni regime.

Still, the story went, the rule of a majority is more like democracy than the rule of a minority and some of the Sunni rebels as they started to be called  were fighting for a secular democratic Syria.  Calling them "activists", people who go to meetings and demonstrations and organize committees and hand out leaflets, was getting pretty thin even for our press when there were pictures of them shooting Kalashnikovs and anti-tank weapons.  There has yet to be an any public admission that they never were activists.

These activists, these concerned citizens, somehow had large amounts of firearms and stockpiles of ammunition.  My sister is a long-time activist in Marin County politics but, unless she is keeping something from me, she has no anti-tank weapons in her garage nor rocket-propelled grenades, nor Kalashnikov rifles.  Which is nothing for her to be ashamed of - lots of people don't have them.  Only dribs and drabs of where the money for the weapons and the weapons themselves came from.  That has turned out to be Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the international arms black market.

This made a joke of the prior press reports, presumably by people who, like all reporters, claimed they were telling the truth, that the rebels were secular Arab Spring activists like the hundreds of thousands of unarmed Egyptians who filled Tahrhir Square night after night.   When it became clear that many of the heavily-armed rebels were actually affiliated with al-Qaeda and similar Salafist groups, the press narrative changed to how they were an unspecified sub-group, presumably a minority, within the rebel camp and that we as Americans should help the non-al-Qaeda rebels to keep the al-Qaeda groups from taking over the rebel movement.  The press continued to maintain that the people fighting the regime, even if not exactly activists, nor exactly secular rebels, were at least an uprising against an unpopular and oppressive regime.  And how could we oppose that?

But even though the money and arms were coming from foreign sources, the press led us to believe that it was only fair because the regime had the weapons, money, and organization of the national army.  Outside money and arms no more than leveled the playing field (an impossibly stupid and vicious sports metaphor - people are generally not killed with machine guns and explosives during soccer matches - except in England.)   This story also began to fray as interview after interview showed that some significant fraction of the "activists" were foreign Sunni jihadis, many of them veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.  What we were told was an uprising against an oppressive military regime began to look more like an armed invasion by outsiders.

Syria, as I have noted here before, is only an instance of a larger zone of conflict between Sunnis and Shi'ites.  This zone stretches in a vast arc from Lebanon on the Mediterranean through Syria, Iraq, Iran, to Kuwait, eastern Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) on the Persian Gulf..  The big dog among the Shi'ites is Iran.  The leading powers among the Sunnis are Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.  This arc happens to match roughly what used to be called the Fertile Crescent.  It is conceivable that the place where civilization began could be the place where it ends. The Fertile Crescent may become the Fatal Crescent.

A public demonstration of the Sunni vs. Shi'ite character of the Syrian civil war has been the role of Hezbollah.  Hezbollah is a nominally Lebanese, specifically Shi'ite, terrorist militia.  It has fought two wars with Israel and lost them both,  Our press claimed that Hezbollah somehow "won" the last one because Israel did not kill every last one of them.  The Gentlemen of the Press blithely ignored that Israel's war aim was not to conquer Lebanon but to make Hezbollah stop shooting rockets at civilians in their northern cities, specifically Haifa.  The IAF (Israel Air Force) and IDF artillery put such a beating on Hezbollah that the "victors" have fired no rockets since, and Haifa lives in peace.

Hezbollah is not Syrian except to the extent that Syria has been a conduit for Iranian arms and money.  Yet Hezbollah has now marched into Syria and entered the war on the side of the Alawite/Shi'ite regime.  Hezbollah, officially designated a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union, is now one of the main pillars of the Syrian regime.  It is an irony of the Middle East that Syria, which conquered and then occupied much of Lebanon for many years, is now in a fair way of being occupied from  Lebanon.

Still, so what?  It was and is hard to gin up much sympathy for a minoritarian military dictatorship, especially one as reputedly nasty and brutal as the al-Assad regime.  Why should we care which collection of brutal thugs runs Syria?  People of good will came to see the question not as which thugs should rule, but how most quickly to end the war and its disastrous effects on the great mass of the civilian population.

Here the press came up with a new story - that the conflict could be settled and peace restored if only al-Assad were to go.  This seemed eminently sensible.  The worst that was likely to happen to al-Assad and his family if he left power was that they would spend the rest of their lives in the comfort of the Old Dictators Retirement Community (which used to be the fancy resort town of Estoril in Portugal.  Decades ago Patty and I saw their beachfront villas with their bodyguards and their Rolls-Royces.).

 As with so many other press explanations, the flaw in the argument was that it wasn't true.  Bashar al-Assad is not just a military dictator, he is also a dynast.  He rules Syria because his father, Hafez al-Assad, ruled Syria.  He is the one person on whom all the factions in the regime can agree.  Without the political focus of loyalty to the al-Assad family to unite it, the regime, which is under enormous pressure because of the war, would likely collapse.  Which is precisely why the opposition demands his ouster.  Why else would they care whether the dictator were al-Assad rather than someone else just like him?  So that is a scam.  One eagerly pushed on their media audience by the press, but a scam.

Affairs had gotten that far when the Obama administration proposed at the UN that a peace conference be convened with the understanding that the prearranged outcome would be that al-Assad would go and that Iran would not be invited.  The Putin administration vetoed it in the Security Council.


But why?  The press hinted broadly that it was on account of Putin being an authoritarian and a bad guy and besides he was mean to Pussy Riot.  (As an aside, how much jail time would Pussy Riot have gotten had they done the same thing in the Washington National Cathedral?  Probably about the same.  The guy who hit Willie Brown in the face with a pie when he was mayor of San Francisco got six months for it.)
It is beginning to leak out through dribs and drabs of information in the better newspapers (e.g. the Wall Street Journal) that there are two big reasons why the Putin administration cares desperately about what happens in Syria.  One is that they have a naval base there, at Tartus on the Mediterranean coast of Syria.  Getting run out of Syria by the Sunni rebels would be a huge defeat and loss of face for Russia.

Second there are, according to one report "tens of thousands of Russians" in Syria.  They aren't expatriates living there because Syria is such a pleasant country.  They are there to support the al-Assad regime as technical experts, medical personnel, teachers, and such.  If the war goes badly for the regime they would have to be evacuated to avoid becoming hostages.  If the Russian government were to withdraw those advisers it would likely lead to the quick collapse of the al-Assad regime, followed by a massacre of those Russians who could not get out in time and of course every Alawite (Shi'ite) in the country, by the victorious Sunnis.

That is the short term consequence that Moscow fears.  The longer term consequence is that another Russian defeat by Sunni Muslims (after Afghanistan) would embolden and legitimize Muslim separatists in Russia itself.  Muslims make up 14% of the Russian population, about 20 million people, almost all Sunnis.  Unlike in Europe or America, they are not primarily urban nor are they immigrants.  They are territorial majorities in many areas in the south and east of Russia, such as Chechnya and Daghestan where they have lived for centuries. They typically have their own cultures and languages and regard Russia as an imperial overlord.  The brothers Tsarnaev were Chechens.

The Russians fought not one but two long and bloody wars to suppress the attempted secession of Chechnya.  The Chechen separatist movement was and is explicitly Islamist.  In 2002 during the Second Chechen War, 40 Chechens seized the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow during a performance and took 850 Russians hostage.  In the retaking of the theater by security forces 130 Russians and all 40 Chechens were killed.  Mother Russia does not take kindly to mass killings of Russians in Moscow.

The parallel with 9-11 the previous year was obvious.   While 9-11 was traumatic for us, in Russia the attack came from within Russia's own borders.  Imagine if 9-11 had come, not from remote and foreign Afghanistan, but from the Texas or Alaska independence movements. How would we look on anybody who encouraged those movements afterwards?   In Russia, suppressing Sunni rebellions abroad which could embolden and legitimize Sunni separatists at home is what we would call 'Homeland Security'.

In the near term Russia faces the loss of its Syrian protectorate and the possible massacre of thousands of Russians living in Syria.  In the longer term Russia faces the prospect of moral, political, and even material support from a victorious Sunni rebellion in Syria to potential Sunni rebellions in Russia.  The Putin administration are not just being troublemakers.   They are protecting vital Russian national interests.


None of the combatants in Syria is any friend of Israel and on the face of it, it shouldn't matter much which tyrannical regime is in power in Damascus so long as they leave Israel alone.  But the connection with Hezbollah changes everything.  The safety of Haifa and indeed all of Galilee, depends on the IAF having command of the skies over Israel, Lebanon, and Syria,

Israel made it clear by direct action what their interests are.  Israeli fighter jets destroyed at least two major arms shipments being sent from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

For reasons that are not clear, Russia has transferred A-300 ground-to-air anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.  The Sunni rebels have no airplanes so the regime has no need for ground-to-air missiles against them.  Indeed the missiles are a threat to the government forces because if they were captured they could be turned against the regime's own aircraft.  The missiles make no sense as aid to the Syrian regime but they make a lot of sense if they are intended not for Syria but for Hezbollah.  Clearly they are intended to shoot down Israeli aircraft not Syrian ones.  My speculation is that they were Hezbollah's price for sending their army to fight in Syria.

One can imagine a debate within Putin's cabinet on whether to send armed Russian "advisers" to support the al-Assad regime.  Arming Hezbollah with anti-aircraft missiles is likely almost as distasteful in Moscow as it is in Washington (missiles that can shoot down Israeli planes over Galilee can also shoot down Russian planes over Chechnya) but it would be seen in the Kremlin as a lesser evil than sending Russian troops.  In this regard the American experience in Iraq and both the US and Soviet experiences in Afghanistan would be instructive.

Prime Minister Netanyahu made a special trip to Moscow to talk to President Putin about it.  While he reported that Putin had refused his request to not send the missiles, it is not the way of heads of state talking about sensitive negotiations with other heads of state to be completely open and candid with the public.  So there is no knowing what actually transpired in the Putin-Netanyahu talks nor what, if anything, was agreed.


The United States is the ally of Israel and cannot stand idly by while missiles, especially Russian missiles, rain down on its cities.  The defense against the A-300 is probably American stealth technology, on the theory that one can't hit what one can't see.  Stealth fighter planes, being invisible to radar, could destroy the A-300 batteries before their operators knew the fighters were coming.

Stealth is enormously expensive and only the US has  it.  It works.   Stealth is the reason US forces were able to defeat Saddam Hussein's army in only 100 hours.   The Stealth fighters destroyed the radars around Baghdad because the Iraqis never saw them coming until it was too late.  Once the radars were gone the rest of the destruction was inflicted by conventional attack bombers.

It is hard to imagine that the US would let Israel have its way-ahead-of-what-everyone-else-has technology.  The temptation to reverse-engineer American stealth aircraft and manufacture their own would be overwhelming.  The US has complained before of Israel selling American military technology to unfriendly countries like China.

Alternately the US could bomb Hezbollah's A-300 batteries ourselves.  But that would be direct involvement in yet another Middle Eastern war.  Plus there would be the enormous risk that the missile batteries would be manned by Russians.  Americans killing Russians would be a disaster and in the worst case could lead to a renewed Cold War.

The only simple solution I can see is the destruction of the missile batteries with swarms of unmanned Israeli drones if that is militarily possible.  While the Russians would be outraged if their people were hurt or killed in the process, the Israelis would be defending their territory and their citizens and would do so no matter what the diplomatic consequences.  Presumably the Russians would foresee that and not put their people in harm's way.  Again, assuming that it is militarily possible to destroy anti-aircraft missile batteries with swarms of drones.


Every major Sunni country - mainly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and the various Gulf states - is vitally involved in supporting the insurgency.  There are Shi'ite majorities ruled by Sunni minorities along the whole southern coast of the Persian Gulf including eastern Saudi Arabia.  The south coast of the Persian Gulf is also where most of the Middle East oil is.  A Shi'ite victory in Syria could destabilize every government in the main oil producing areas.

Iran, the main Shi'ite power, is co-sponsor of the Alawite-Shi'ite regime in Syria and owns the northern coast of the Gulf.  Iran would face isolation and Sunni encirclement if al-Assad were to fall.

Even Turkey has cause for concern.  If the Syrian regime falls, it is possible that Syria's Kurdish northeast would seek and possibly get autonomy in the chaotic aftermath of the war.  An autonomous Syrian Kurdistan next to an already autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan would raise the specter of Kurdish unification.  Since the whole southeast of Turkey is ethnically Kurdish, this could cause Turkey big trouble internally.

Which means that this long brutal war figures to become even longer and more brutal.  Because so many parties are so vitally interested in the outcome, it is hard to imagine that it can be settled by anything but outright victory for one side and massacre for the other.  The stakes are far higher than just who runs Syria.