Friday, October 31, 2008


Spectators at the year's remaining airshows featuring the Blue Angels will notice something very different about the Navy's aerial demonstration team.

There will be one less F/A-18 in the formation.

Navy Times reports that two members have been dismissed from the team, due to an alleged "inappropriate relationship." The names of the individuals were not released, but one of them is an aviator.

[A Navy] official said the two have been removed from duties “pending further review” of the matter by Rear Adm. Mark Guadagnini, chief of naval air training. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity, since he was discussing a personnel matter.

Marine Capt. Tyson Dunkelberger, Blue Angels spokesman, said the two are “still administratively attached to the squadron but currently not traveling with the team.”

Dunkelberger said, “It was a male and female. Keep in mind there are 133 members on the team.”
For the remainder of the season, the team will be flying five jets during its shows rather than the standard six, the official added.

According to the Blue Angels’ Web site, the team does not maintain a “spare” pilot who could fill in when another member can’t fly.

Navy spokesmen observe that Blue Angels pilots must complete at least 120 training flights before being allowed to fly a public demonstration. With only a month left in the current season, there wouldn't be enough time to train a replacement pilot for the three remaining air shows.

While the demonstration team will have to make do with one less jet--and pilot--the Navy deserves credit for dealing with a serious issue in one of its highest-profile units. The action by the team leader may strike some as a bit harsh, but he realizes that the service can ill-afford a "sex scandal" involving the Blue Angels.

The USN's prompt action stands in stark contrast to that of the Air Force, which continues to "whistle past the graveyard" in the Jill Metzger scandal. Readers will recall that Major Metzger was temporarily retired from active duty last year, only 10 months after he alleged kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan.

Two years later, there isn't a shred of evidence that Metzger was abducted (as she claimed) from a mall in Bishkek, near her temporary duty assignment at Manas Airbase. On the other hand, there is compelling evidence that Major Metzger lied about the kidnapping, claiming that she overpowered her abductors, then ran 30 miles to freedom.

Thanks largely to the doggedness of
, we know that Metzger lied to investigators, flunked a polygraph and then refused to cooperate with the inquiry. The Air Force flew her out of the country shortly after her return, preventing Kyrgyz authorities from completing their investigation.

Despite obvious contradictions between Metzger's version of events--and evidence accumulated by investigators--the Air Force took no action against her. In July 2007, she was placed on the temporary retired list because of post-traumatic stress disorder--a supposed by-product of her "ordeal" in Kyrgyzstan. Did we mention that Major Metzger has alleged connections to senior officers and her husband is a member of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, the organization that probed her alleged kidnapping?

Whatever her condition at retirement, Metzger seems to have made a remarkable recovery over the past year. In recent months, she's completed both the Air Force and Marine Corps marathons (she's a past winner of the female division of the USAF event), and won a shorter race in her hometown in North Carolina.

"She's above the law," said another female runner in the Marine Corps marathon. speculates that Metzger was probably the only participant rated as 100% disabled. The website is urging the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, to order a new investigation into the Metzger case.

We agree. There are plenty of wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan who are still waiting for their disability determination, and few will receive the 100% rating given to Metzger. Her treatment--and conduct in retirement--is a slap at the men and women who are genuinely disabled, but lacked Metzger's connections to move to the front of the line.

Your Tax Dollars at Work (Katrina Recovery Edition)

This one will make your blood boil.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the government providing temporary housing for thousands of storm victims. Some wound up in those infamous FEMA trailers; others found loding in hotels and motels along the coast.

More than three years later, some of those left homeless by the disaster are still living in hotels--on the taxpayer's dime--and show little interest in leaving their comfortable accommodations.

Andrea Ramey, a reporter for WPMI-TV, the NBC affiliate in Mobile, Alabama, has been investigating these "extended stays"-- which also come with free meals. Here's a portion of what she discovered:

It's been three years since Katrina and the relief is still flowing, with hundreds of families in Mississippi receiving all the necessities of life, all on your dime. We wanted to know how long the government intended to pay for this public assistance. So five months ago, we began to investigate at the Quality Inn in Biloxi. It's at that hotel where three years later, victims of Hurricane Katrina still receive free housing and three meals a day, giving some little motivation to get back on their feet.

And it's where we first met Gwenester Malone. Left homeless by the storm, she was living rent free. Courtesy: the American taxpayer.

"Do you work?" asked Ramey.

"No. I'm not working right now," said Gwenester Malone.

Back in June, Gwenester told us she didn't have a car, and it was too hot outside to find work within walking distance.

"Since the storm I haven't had any energy or pep to go get a job, but when push comes to shove, I will," said Malone.

Apparently, push finally did come to shove for Malone. Five months later we discovered Gwenester had finally left the Quality Inn, this after two 30-day extensions of her initial FEMA benefits.

The cost for her 150 night stay: $11,250 charged to the American taxpayer, but for hundreds of families, push has still not come to shove. Lilly White and her friend Joe Daniels are still receiving FEMA aid.

"It's been wonderful. You know, nice service and all. It's been wonderful," White said. Storm surge washed away Lilly's apartment three years ago. At first, the government provided a trailer for her to live in. Now, it's providing a hotel room."Hopefully, another month, I'll be out of here, hopefully," White said.

That may be hard for them to accomplish. White and Daniels appear to spend more time enjoying the nice breeze and washing down a cold one than looking for an apartment."I haven't really went to put in any applications," White said.

Ms. Ramey also reports that some of the victims have complained about their complimentary meals, comparing them to "dog food." That must be some pricey Alpo. WMPI discovered that the food bill for storm victims has totaled at least $3 million so far.

FEMA Administrator David Paulison says his agency will terminate the hotel housing program next March. So far, the effort has cost taxpayers at least $10 million. Paulison told WPMI that ending the program is a "tough call" because FEMA doesn't want "to kick people out on the street." He refuted the station's suggestion that FEMA has become a "welfare agency."

We find it rather ironic (but hardly surprising) that this issue has been almost totally ignored by the national media--the same folks who assailed government inaction in the months after the storm. Three years later, with some "victims" clearly taking of advantage of the system, the national press corps has no interest in how our assistance dollars are being wasted.

Congratulations to WPMI (and Ms. Ramey) for tackling this story.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Iran's Nuclear Test?

An Israeli website is reporting that Tehran may have tested a nuclear device over the weekend. Israel Insider is basing its claim on the comments of an Iranian nuclear scientist, who said that a seismic event in the southern part of his country, reported on Saturday night, was associated with a nuclear test.

According to the U.S. Geological Service (USGS), a magnitude 5.0 earthquake was reported near the Persian Gulf coast around midnight (Iranian time) on 25 October. The tremor was centered near the town of Korig, north of the Strait of Hormuz. An earthquake measuring 4.8 on the Richter Scale was reported in the same area on 21 October; the Iranian source claims that earlier tremor was associated with another nuclear test.

At this point, there is little evidence to corroborate the report. The coastal region where the quakes occurred is hundreds of miles from Iranian range complexes where a nuclear weapon might eventually be tested. Additionally, the referenced site is easily monitored by U.S. intelligence assets, including WC-135 CONSTANT PHOENIX aircraft. So far, there's been no report of a recent WC-135 deployment to the Persian Gulf region.

Additionally, if Iran had successfully conducted a nuclear test, there would have been an announcement from Tehran. Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons is a "game changer" in the Middle East, and Tehran would have little reason to conceal the news. Indeed, the announcement might actually lessen the chances of an Israeli attack, since a test would indicate that Iran had mastered all stages of nuclear development. It would also mean that prospects for successfully derailing the program had all but vanished.

There is also reason to believe that Iranian preparations for a test would be detected by western intelligence agencies. An underground nuclear blast is (typically) preceded by extensive tunneling work; the deployment of test vans and other monitoring equipment; the installation of required cabling, and heightened security at the site--measures that are often detected by satellites and SIGINT assets, among other sources.

And, quite often, the U.S. leaks these discoveries to the press, to let our adversaries know that we're aware of their activities. To date, there have been no western press reports about Iran conducting a test--let alone, preparing for one.

While the odds are admittedly slim, the possibility of an Iranian nuclear test cannot be totally ruled out. In recent years, there has been extensive tunneling along the Persian Gulf coast. While much of the work has been associated with upgrades in Tehran's coastal defenses, it would be relatively easy to bore an extra shaft or two, with an eye towards future nuclear testing. Iran could also (potentially) conceal other preparations for the test, drawing upon its expertise in denial and deception techniques.

It's also worth noting that North Korea is playing a key role in supporting Tehran's nuclear ambitions. The North Koreans are even more adept at deception than their Iranian counterparts, and they learned valuable lessons during their own nuclear test in 2006. With assistance from Pyongyang, Iran would have a better chance at hiding an underground nuclear blast.

But not all traces of a nuclear test can be successfully concealed. Particulate and gaseous debris from a subterranean blast make their way into the atmosphere, and are readily detected by the WC-135 and other sensors. The absence of such discoveries (so far) suggests that claims of an Iranian "test" are nothing more than fiction--at least, for now.

Obama's Ploy

Barack Obama wants every military vote to count.

According to Air Force Times, the general counsel of the Obama for America organization, Robert Brunner, sent a letter earlier this week to the top election officials in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. In his letter, Mr. Brunner asks the states (and the federal district) to make an extra effort to count absentee ballots by military voters.

We're now waiting for Chris Matthews, Keith Olberman, the Politico editorial team (and the rest of the Obama-crazed media) to hail the Democratic nominee's "bi-partisan gesture." After all, most of those military absentee ballots will go to John McCain, perhaps by a 3-1 margin. With his letter, Mr. Obama seems to break with his own party, which has tried to suppress military votes in the past.

Readers will recall that during the infamous Florida recount of 2000, Democratic lawyers deliberately targeted absentee ballots from armed forces personnel serving outside the state, realizing they would add to George W. Bush's narrow margin. Eventually, many of the military votes were counted, but only after a judge ruled against the Democrats.

Eight years later, the Obama letter is little more than a carefully-crafted political ploy. The Democratic candidate understands that absentee voting is governed by the states, and the laws vary greatly across the country. Without a court ruling (or a interpretation by state attorney generals), local officials are still required to enforce election laws, and in many jurisdictions, military absentee ballots can--and will--be discarded, for a variety of reasons.

In Virginia, for example, a Democratic registrar in Fairfax County was prepared to reject a number of absentee votes from military personnel because they lacked an address for the witnessing official. The address is required under Virginia law, but unfortunately, the DoD-produced form lacks a space for that information. Only the intervention of the state Attorney General kept those ballots from being tossed out.

Mr. Obama and his campaign are also aware that many military votes are discarded for a simple reason--they arrive after the deadline for submitting absentee ballots. The reasons for that are two-fold: local officials often mail the ballots just days before the election and by the time military members and their families return them, the submission date has already passed.

Obviously, the Obama letter has no legal authority, so it can't extend absentee voting deadlines, or generate faster mail service for military personnel serving overseas. But it will add handsomely to his "post-partisan" pedigree, with a little assistance from a compliant press.

What we really need is a military version of Joe the Plumber, who can cut the chase on this issue. He should ask Mr. Obama: "If you're in favor of making military votes count, why haven't you supported the McCarthy bill, which remains stalled in the House?

That measure, introduced earlier this year by Califormia Congressman Kevin McCarthy, would require the Pentagon to return absentee ballots by the fastest form of conveyance, ensuring that many more are returned before the submission deadline. To date, not a single Democrat has offered to co-sponsor the McCarthy plan; without bi-partisan support, it stands no chance of passage.

Then, Joe the Soldier should pose this question: "Why did your majority leader in the House, Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer, back out of an agreement with Republican Roy Blunt to improve military voting?" A few months ago, Mr. Hoyer reneged on a promise to back Mr. Blunt's bill, which called on DoD to make it easier for for military personnel overseas to cast their vote--and make it count. Does Senator Obama support Hoyer's position?

Finally, Joe might ask what Mr. Obama has done to guarantee the franchise for military personnel and their families during his time in the Senate. A quick review of the record reveals that Mr. Obama has expressed little interest--let alone leadership--on this issue.

To be fair, Republicans are equally guilty in ignoring the plight of military voters. While George W. Bush received over 60% of the armed services' vote in two presidential campaigns, his own administration has done little to address the matter. When the Pentagon proposed--then scrapped--a proposed on-line voting system, there was nary a peep from the White House, or Congressional Republicans. Mr. McCarthy, Mr. Blunt and a handful of their GOP colleagues are exceptions to the collective indifference.

Interestingly enough, there is a solution to this problem. Last month, Arizona Secretary of State Jan Brewer, a Republican, implemented a secure, on-line voting system for military personnel and other Arizonans living outside the state. Utilizing the same encryption technology used to process on-line credit card purchases, the Arizona system allows members of the armed forces to vote from anywhere in the world. The system is safe, secure, and verifiable. Would Mr. Obama favor a similar system for all members of the armed forces?

That's another good question that Joe the Soldier should ask. And here's one more: with more than two-thirds of military ballots going uncounted in presidential elections, don't our military personnel deserve real action, and not just meaningless letters? We're waiting for your answers, Mr. Obama.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

UAVs From Under the Sea

It came from below. A Raytheon artist's concept of how a small UAV will be launched from an attack sub, extending the range of its sensors (Raytheon illustration via Aviation Week).

These days, it seems like everyone wants to get in on the UAV boom--including the "Silent Service," the U.S. Navy submarine corps.

Graham Warwick of Aviation Week reports that Raytheon will conduct a test of a sub-launched UAV off Hawaii in early 2009. It's part of the Submarine Over-the-Horizon Organic Capabilities (SOTHOC) program, funded by the the Office of Naval Research and the Navy's sub force.

Here's how you launch a UAV from a submerged sub:

The concept uses a submarine launch vehicle (SLV) containing the electrically powered UAV and stored on board as an all-up round. Ejected from the submerged submarine's trash disposal unit, the SLV is weighted to descend to a safe distance from the boat, then shed the weight and inflate a float collar.

The collar is pulsed to control the rate of ascent. As it approaches the surface, the SLV deploys a water drogue to provide stabilization and a vane to align it into the wind. The tube then pivots to a 35-degree angle and ejects the UAV.

"The SLV is a method of getting a UAS to the surface dry, then transitioning it to the air," says Jeffrey Zerbe, Raytheon's Sothoc program director.

Raytheon successfully tested the system from a surface ship in September. Two SLVs were deployed over the side in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay. After sinking to a depth of 80 feet, the SLVs reverted to positive buoyancy, floated to the surface, aligned into the wind, and launched an inert, unmanned aerial system, according to the company.

There will be another "over-the-side" test next month, off the California coast. If that goes as planned, there could be a launch from a Los Angeles-class attack boat, near Hawaii, in early 2009.

The program is aimed at extending the reach of sub-based sensors, and the Navy believes it holds great promise in littoral warfare. Besides, the notion of launching a UAV from a submerged sub is pretty cool.

Still, you've got to wonder about the trade-off between what the UAV can collect, and potential detection of its launch platform. While the drone could be useful in identifying targets for the sub's torpedoes and Harpoon missiles, the sudden appearance of a small UAV--miles from the nearest surface group or shore facility--might alert the enemy that an American sub is present.

There's also the matter of how the information is transmitted from the drone. Even if it's invisible on radar, the UAV's uplink/downlink will have a distinctive electronic signature, providing another possible tipoff of sub-based drone operations.

But, members of the Dolphin community shouldn't despair. We're sure that Raytheon can minimize those problems, with more time and defense dollars.

The Nuclear Outlook

Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered a pragmatic-- some would say bleak--assessment of the nation's nuclear arsenal during a recent address in Washington.

Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Tuesday, Dr. Gates said America's existing nuclear stockpile is "safe, secure and reliable." He also indicated that the nation's nuclear deterrent will remain necessary for "years to come," noting the threat posed by Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, among others.

In his remarks, Gates also embraced the "lead and hedge" nuclear strategy of the Clinton Administration. Under that approach, the United States plays a leading role in the elimination of nuclear weapons, while (simultaneously) hedging its bets, by maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent.

But Secretary Gates cautioned that sustaining that arsenal will become increasingly difficult in the years to come. America's nuclear weapons stockpile is aging rapidly; we haven't designed a new weapon since the 1980s; built one in almost 20 years, and our last nuclear test occurred in 1993.

Left unsaid by Mr. Gates is another reality of the Clinton era; his decision to postpone (or forgo) key defense projects extended to our nuclear arsenal as well. While the Bush Administration has tried to reverse that trend, Congressional Democrats have consistently denied funds for the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), a program aimed at producing more reliable--and secure--nuclear warheads.

As Air Force Times reports, the defense secretary is actually concerned about our ability to build the next generation of nuclear weapons, given two decades of deterioration and neglect in America's industrial and scientific base.

With many scientists that worked on that last generation of U.S. nuclear arms past, at or nearing retirement age, Gates said the nation is suffering from “a brain drain” in this realm. He raised doubts about whether the U.S. industrial base in coming years will even be able to take on the task of designing and building a new nuclear force.

He urged Congress to alter its recent practice of stripping money in annual Pentagon budget requests for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, which he said would “reinvigorate and rebuild our infrastructure and expertise.”

Under the RRW initiative, the military would attempt to build a warhead Pentagon and administration officials say would be more secure than the ones that make up Washington’s current force.

Unfortunately, Dr. Gates's plea is falling on deaf ears. Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama has called for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons; having staked out that position, it's difficult to imagine his administration pushing for a modernization of our arsenal. And, to be fair, Republican candidate John McCain has discussed similar ideas. We can't say how the RRW program would fare under his administration, either.

In an effort to build support for RRW, Gates has plans to lobby key members of Congress. It's an admirable goal, but a little late in the game for that sort of arm-twisting. Besides, some Democrats are now talking about major cuts in defense; Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank recently suggested a 25% reduction in military spending.

Of course, that sort of decrease will never happen, but Mr. Frank has plenty of allies on his side of the aisle. With the Democrats expected to pad their majorities in next week's elections, many defense programs will become an even tougher sell, and you can put RRW at the top of that list.
On a related note, the Air Force's senior space officer says the creation of the new "Global Strike Command," combining elements of Air Combat Command (ACC) and Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) will take several years. General Bob Kehler, the AFSPC commander, predicted that a "phased transition" will be required, as missile and nuclear-capable bomber units move into the new command.

He also said the reorganization will not result in a "clean break" between Strike Command, AFSPC and ACC. He noted that there will be "crossover" among officers serving in the organizations, with strike command drawing upon missileers that are now a part of AFSPC.

While planning for the new organization has been underway for several months, Strike Command will not actually "stand up" until September 2009.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Disenfranchising Those Who Serve

We were encouraged by this headline on the CNN website:

"Ballots from U.S. troops risk being discarded."

At last, we thought, a MSM organization was paying attention to one of the most under-reported stories of this--or any other--political year. While many reporters are focusing on the usual voter registration shenanigans (just today, an Ohio judge ruled that the homeless can list park benches as their home address), one segment of the electorate remains largely disenfranchised.

We refer to members of the military (and their families) who vote by absentee ballot. As we've noted in previous posts, many of those service members and their dependents will cast their votes this year, yet two-thirds will go uncounted--an estimate highlighted in the CNN story.

Unfortunately, CNN gets the story half-right. Reporter Carol Costello appears to blame much of the problem on varying state regulations that govern absentee voting. In Virginia, for example, a Democratic registrar in Fairfax County, initially discarded 63 ballots because they did not contain an address for the witness, required under state law.

Never mind that the form, provided by the federal government, did not contain a block for that information. Going by the letter of the law, Democratic officials were apparently prepared to toss out scores of military absentee ballots until Virginia's Republican Attorney General, Bob McDonnell, intervened. He subsequently ruled that county registrars could ignore the witness address requirement, raising hopes that more military votes will be counted.

However, the CNN account largely ignores the larger, political aspect of this problem. At the federal level, Democrats have consistently refused to support legislation that would make it easier for armed forces personnel to cast absentee ballots. Ms. Costello interviewed California Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy, who is pushing a bill that provide faster return service for overseas ballots.

Under his plan, the Defense Department would guarantee that all absentee ballots be returned by the fastest possible conveyance. That would reduce return times from 3-4 weeks, to as little as four days, ensuring that more military votes are received in time to be counted.

We've discussed the McCarthy bill (at length) in previous posts. CNN reports that his measure won't be passed in time for this election. A more accurate story would read something like this: Congressman McCarthy's bill has languished in committee for months, with virtual no chance of passage.

Ms. Costello also ignored a broken promise by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who pledged to support a resolution by Minority Whip Roy Blunt. The Missouri Congressman has offered a resolution calling on the Pentagon to make it easier for military personnel to cast absentee ballots. Without Democratic support, the Blunt measure, like Congressman McCarthy's bill, has no chance of passage.

Why would Democrats oppose efforts to improve military voting programs? CNN does address that issue, but in a roundabout manner, noting the party's efforts to block absentee ballots by members of the armed forces during the 2000 recount in Florida. Many of those votes were from military personnel, who supported George Bush by a wide margin.

Eight years later, in another tight election, the Democrats don't want thousands of Republican absentee ballots to influence the outcome of the presidential race. Consider the impact of another 500,000 votes--more than 65% Republican--and their impact in places like Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The military vote could, quite literally, swing the election.

Give credit to CNN for addressing the gross disenfranchisement of our military personnel. Sadly, their coverage doesn't go nearly far enough.

Monday, October 27, 2008

McCain Solidifies His Military Lead

The Military Times papers have released their second presidential poll of 2008, and it contains more good news for John McCain.

Results of the second survey, conducted between 16-20 October, shows that career military members remain solidly behind the GOP nominee. Seventy-one percent of those polled for the latest survey are supporting Mr. McCain, compared to only 25% for his Democratic opponent, Senator Barack Obama.

In the Times' previous poll, published in late September, McCain held a 68-23% lead.

The new survey also affirms other trends from the earlier survey. Last month, 42% of military respondents said that the candidate's character was the most important factor in deciding who to vote for. In the latest poll, almost half (49%) listed character as the deciding factor. Twenty-five percent listed the economy as the most important factor, while only 16% said the War in Iraq was the most critical issue.

Participants also suggested that not enough attention is being paid to military concerns. By an overwhelming margin (70-12%), respondents said the presidential candidates are not devoting sufficient attention to issues affecting the armed forces, and those who serve.

Military support for John McCain also extended to his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Forty-five percent of those surveyed said Palin was better prepared to lead the country, if necessary. Forty-two percent believe that Obama's running mate, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, is better qualified to step in as commander-in-chief.

While the Military Times poll is considered a reliable gauge of career armed services personnel, it is a voluntary survey, based on participation by subscribers. Consequently, it is impossible to determine the margins of error normally associated with opinion polls. Times' editors also note that their subscribers tend to be older--and more conservative--than the military as a whole.

However, the publication's previous presidential survey indicated broad support for the GOP ticket. In that poll, Obama had a majority in only one military demographic--black members of the armed forces.

Health Watch

There are new concerns about the health of Kim Jong-il, and a potential succession struggle in North Korea. Speculation about the North Korean dictator's condition was recently re-ignited when a Japanese TV crew filed one of Kim's sons entering the clinic of a well-known French brain surgeon.

According to the U.K. Times, Kim Jong-Nam, the eldest son of Kim Jong-il, spent several hours in consultations with the doctor. Two days later, the same physician was spotted arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport, in a car owned by the North Korean government. When questioned by reporters, the doctor did not deny that Pyongyang was his final destination.

Such reports suggest that Kim Jong-il remains gravely ill, after reportedly suffering a stroke in August. While state-run media in Pyongyang has dismissed such claims as a "whopping lie," the North Korean dictator has been absent from public view since that time. Earlier this month, North Korea released images of Kim reportedly inspecting a female army unit, but some experts believe they are file photographs, taken months ago.

Both U.S. and South Korean intelligence officials believe that Kim suffered a stroke, but they suggest his condition is improving--and that he remains firmly in charge of the DPRK. So far, analysts in Washington and Seoul have refused comment on the Japanese report, and what it might mean for the future of North Korea.

As we've noted in previous posts, Kim Jong-il has never clarified the succession issue, and it's unclear who might assume power upon his death. Kim Jong-Nam was once considered a prime candidate, but he reportedly fell out of favor after a series of diplomatic blunders, including his 2001 expulsion from Japan. The younger Kim got the boot after he tried to enter the country with a phony Dominican Republic passport, claiming that he wanted to visit Tokyo's Disneyland.

Since then, Kim Jong-Nam has spent much of his time in Europe and Asia, tending to his "business interests," code words for management of the family fortune, estimated at more than $1 billion. American intelligence analysts indicate that North Korea has a team of financial managers in Switzerland, handling investments for the "Dear Leader" and his closest relatives.

By working abroad, Kim Jong-Nam has never accumulated the prestige or administrative portfolio required to replace his father. As the Times observes, the young Kim apparently has no interest in navigating his way to the top of the DPRK power structure.

That's why many Korea watchers believe that the Kim dynasty will end with Kim Jong-il. His replacement will likely come from the ranks of senior generals, but there's no indication as to how long the Hermit Kingdom will survive without the Kim personality cult. As for Kim Jong-Nam, he is apparently planning to be "somewhere else" when that day of reckoning occurs. And it may happen sooner, rather than later, if the current round of medical speculation has any credibility.
And, if that's not enough, the AP reports that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has fallen ill, due to "exhaustion brought on by his heavy workload." Ahmadeinjad reportedly cancelled a pair of events last Wednesday. He was seen at a religious ceremony in Tehran on Saturday, though he appeared tired.

At age 53, Ahmadinejad is more than a decade younger than Kim Jong-il, and without the habits that have affected the North Korean dictator's health. Still, Ahmadinejad's sudden illness will cause intelligence agencies to take another look at his health, although accurately assessing the condition of foreign leaders is an inexact science, at best.

A Sop for Raul?

Russia will offer to share its air defense expertise with Cuba, when a military delegation from Moscow visits the island this week. As Reuters reports (from Russian press accounts):

"The Russian and Cuban military will exchange experience in organising tactical air defence and in training officers," Interfax quoted Russian Land Forces spokesman Igor Konashenkov as saying.

The two sides will "discuss the prospect of training Cuban servicemen at the tactical air defence academies and training centres in Russia, using upgraded Russian-made military hardware," Interfax quoted him as saying.

According to Konashenkov, the Russian delegation will also "look at ways to strengthen ties" between Russia's armed forces, and those of Cuba.

What remains unexplained his how Moscow will expand those contacts. While Russia has long been the primary source for Cuba's military hardware and training, the level of support declined dramatically with the end of the Cold War--and a halt in Moscow's sugar subsidies.

That was a double blow for Havana's military forces. Without Russian economic aid, Cuba could no longer buy advanced military hardware, even at "friendship" prices. And, with Moscow's economic collapse of the early 1990s, the Kremlin could no longer afford to prop up former client states. As a result, Havana's foreign adventures came to an end, and the Cuban military became a shadow of its former self.

Fifteen years later, Russia's economic condition has improved, but Cuba remains a basket case. That's why the line about "training Cuban personnel in Russia...using upgraded military hardware" is so interesting. Giving the Cubans access to state-of-the-art systems in Russia does little to improve the island's air defenses, assuming that there are no plans for a follow-on sale of advanced fighters, radars, or surface-to-air missile systems.

Fact is, Cuba can't afford advanced arms. A single SU-30 Flanker costs at least $30 million (and even more if you want maintenance and training support as part of the package); a single S-300 SAM battalion will set you back at least $300 million, and the Russians prefer cash. In advance.

On the other hand, there is the chance that a third party, say Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, might finance the purchase for Cuba. But, with oil prices now dipping below $60 a barrel, buying new equipment for the Cubans is becoming a luxury that Chavez can't afford.

Indeed, as long as crude prices remain low, Mr. Chavez will have difficulty financing his own military purchases. Providing financial aid for socialist allies will fall much lower on his priority list. If Cuba's Raul Castro was hoping to rebuild his military with Chavez's money, he may need to rethink those plans.

Reading between the lines of the Russian announcement, this week's visit looks more like a sop for Havana, and not a sign of upgrades to come. The officer leading Moscow's delegation has an impressive title (Chief of the Tactical Air Defense Headquarters), but he's only a three-star.

Compare that to the parade of Russian VIPs who've visited Caracas in recent months, and you'll see that the air defense visit to Havana is more of a face-saving trip, both for Russians and their Cuban hosts. After a recent visit by TU-160 bombers (and pending exercises between the Russian and Venezuelan navies), Cuba is feeling a bit left out. Sending the air defense team is a low-cost effort to mend fences, without making promises that Havana (or Moscow) can live up to.

Today's Reading Assignment

Technology writer Michael Malone, on the reasons behind the slanted election coverage, in a column at A fourth-generation journalist, Mr. Malone says fawning press for Barack Obama is about self-preservation, at least until this generation of MSM executives and editors can "cross the finish line" and collect what's left of their pensions.

A few particularly insightful--and instructive--paragraphs:

Picture yourself in your 50s in a job where you've spent 30 years working your way to the top, to the cockpit of power … only to discover that you're presiding over a dying industry. The Internet and alternative media are stealing your readers, your advertisers and your top young talent. Many of your peers shrewdly took golden parachutes and disappeared. Your job doesn't have anywhere near the power and influence it did when your started your climb. The Newspaper Guild is too weak to protect you any more, and there is a very good chance you'll lose your job before you cross that finish line, 10 years hence, of retirement and a pension.

In other words, you are facing career catastrophe -- and desperate times call for desperate measures. Even if you have to risk everything on a single Hail Mary play. Even if you have to compromise the principles that got you here. After all, newspapers and network news are doomed anyway -- all that counts is keeping them on life support until you can retire.

And then the opportunity presents itself -- an attractive young candidate whose politics likely matches yours, but more important, he offers the prospect of a transformed Washington with the power to fix everything that has gone wrong in your career.

With luck, this monolithic, single-party government will crush the alternative media via a revived fairness doctrine, re-invigorate unions by getting rid of secret votes, and just maybe be beholden to people like you in the traditional media for getting it there.

And besides, you tell yourself, it's all for the good of the country..

Read the whole thing--it's brilliant. We applaud Mr. Malone's honesty and courage, but also wonder if his contract with ABC is up. The last time a member of the MSM did something like this was back in 1996, when Bernard Goldberg faxed his famous op-ed on media bias to The Wall Street Journal. You know what happened; Mr. Goldberg became persona non grata at the Tiffany Network, and was, banished from the airwaves. By some sort of minor miracle, he was allowed to remain on the payroll until his pension kicked in two years later.

Obviously, Mr. Malone had the smarts to broaden his career years ago--the ABC News column is just one of several ventures he's involved with. He'll probably have more time for those projects in the future; if we had to guess, we'd say this is his last column for ABC. If there's one thing that MSM executives share (other than their love for Obama), it's their notoriously thin skin, and a hatred for anyone who raises the bias issue.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Raid in Syria

There were a number of factors behind that U.S. special forces raid into Syrian territory. First, as the U.K. Times observes, the mission was designed to send a clear message to Damascus. After years of waiting for Syria to police its eastern border--and stop the flow of jihadists into Iraq--American commanders, with the approval of Washington, took matters into their own hands.

The mission they conducted was more than a simple missile attack, aimed at key Al Qaida figures and safe houses in the al-Sukkari Farm area. According to local residents and military sources, U.S. transport helicopters landed near the village, and special forces teams disembarked. With lightning precision they hit their targets, killing at least nine suspected terrorists, while Apache gunships provided air support. The raid lasted only a few minutes.

Those details affirm that this was no ordinary mission. Not only did it represent our first strike on Syrian territory since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the ground component suggests that SOF personnel had specific targets, perhaps the leader of Al Qaida in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al Masri. As Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal reminds us, al Masri reportedly left Iraq earlier this year, after his faction lost key sanctuaries in Diyala Provinence.

If that assessment is accurate--and it is shared by U.S. intelligence--then al-Sukkari Farm would represent an ideal location for al Masri to manage his dwindling forces, beyond the reach of American forces, at least until now. So far, it's unclear if al Masri was in the village, but our SOF teams were clearly looking for individual terrorists. Otherwise, the Apaches (or Predator drones) would have leveled suspected safe houses with Predator missiles.

The raid on al-Sukkari came after a recent, successful campaign against other Al Qaida leaders in the Mosul area, which became their temporary safe haven following the Diyala offensive. On 15 October, the terrorist group's #2 leader in Iraq, Abu Qaswarah, was killed in a raid in Mosul. Lower-ranking figures and couriers were eradicated during subsequent missions; information gleaned from those operations apparently led to the cross-border strike into Syria.

While a chance to get al-Masri (or similar targets) was the over-arching motive for the raid, there were other reasons as well. While Iraqi forces are officially in charge of security in Al Anbar province, the mission offered a little reminder that U.S. forces are still around, and quite willing to take the fight to the enemy--even if it means going into Syria. With the raid on al-Sukkari, Washington has (seemingly) put Damascus on notice, letting the Assad government know that it can no longer harbor Al Qaida with impunity.

However, there may be another, political component that influenced the attack. Despite his campaign pledge to "get" senior terrorist leaders--at least those in Afghanistan--Barack Obama's willingness to pursue the bad guys in other locations is an unknown commodity. If commanders are concerned about getting the okay from an Obama administration for high-risk missions, then that may explain (in part) the sudden surge in SOF and UAV strike missions, first in Pakistan, and now in Syria.

ADDENDUM: Residents in the area now report that U.S. SOF teams took two men with them when they departed. That bold ground operation in Syria indicates that we were on the trail of Al Qaida kingpins, rather than merely disrupting the flow of terrorists into Iraq. The apprehension of those two suspects suggests that we found what we were looking for.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Rebuilding Air Force Retention

With the presidential campaign in the home stretch, there have been the usual articles about what Barack Obama or John McCain might do after inauguration day.

Yesterday, the McClatchy papers published a story about how the candidates would rebuild the U.S. military. According to reporter Nancy Youssef, both the GOP and Democratic nominees have pledged the development of larger, more agile military forces, with emphasis on the Army and Marine Corps.

Sounds reasonable enough. After years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, both services are in need of more money for equipment, training and additional troops. Senator McCain would like to expand the size of our ground forces by adding 150,000 new personnel. Mr. Obama supports a Pentagon plan that would increase the Army by 65,000 and the Marine Corps by 27,000 in the next decade.

But the prospective Commanders-in-Chief might want to add another item on their "to do" list for military personnel. Recently-released figures show that Air Force enlisted retention rates have plummeted over the past year. As Air Force Times reports:

The Air Force’s enlisted retention rates for fiscal 2008 fell to their lowest levels — by far — since before the war on terror began in 2001, according to statistics released by the Defense Department.

The Air Force also had by far the worst enlisted retention rates in the DoD, according to the statistics.

Overall, the Air Force achieved only 72 percent of its target number of re-enlistments for fiscal 2008. That is a precipitous drop compared to the 97 percent the service achieved in 2007 and 113 percent in 2006.

Retention among enlisted airmen in zone A, with less than six years in, was 64 percent of the goal in 2008, compared to 99 percent of the re-enlistment goal in 2007 and 113 percent in 2006.
In zone B — airmen with between six and 10 years service — re-enlistment in 2008 was 84 percent of the service’s goal, compared to 94 percent in 2007 and 114 percent in 2006.

And in zone C, those with more than 10 years service, the Air Force met 79 percent of its goal, compared to 99 percent in 2007 and 109 percent in 2006.

At first blush, the USAF numbers seem stunning. Retention rates for the Air Force have traditionally been the highest of the armed services. With its emphasis on quality-of-life programs, the service has long been able to "pick-and-choose" in recruiting new airmen, and deciding which ones will be allowed to stay in the military.

What happened? The suddenly "soft" retention rates for the Air Force underscore a fundamental rule of military and corporate retention: keep showing folks the door, and eventually, they'll take the hint.

According to Dr. David Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, the decline in USAF retention rates reflects the service's recent draw down, and a corresponding decrease in re-enlistment bonuses. Since the mid-1990s, Air Force manning totals have been steadily cut, with the service (in some cases) sacrificing personnel to pay for weapons programs.

Predictably, the service (and DoD) went too far. As the economy boomed through 2007, airmen with marketable skills decided to take their talents elsewhere. Why stay in uniform when you can make twice as much--or more--working for a defense contractor.

Incidentally, Dr. Chu didn't mention increased deployments as a reason for the Air Force exodus. And for good reason. According to the service's own statistics, more than half of all airmen have never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. While members of some career fields (combat controller, pararescueman, EOD) have faced multiple tours in combat zones, thousands of officers and enlisted members have remained stateside.

To improve retention, the USAF recently unveiled an expanded re-enlistment bonus program. Under that scheme, more than 17,000 airmen, in 88 career fields, will qualify for a retention bonus next year. It represents the biggest expansion of the program in more than a decade, and millions of dollars in additional payouts.

But money won't keep everyone in service. Air Force Times also discovered that retention rates among fighter pilots have dropped. Last year, only 57% of fighter jocks took the pilot re-enlistment bonus ($125,000 over five years), and acceptance rates were even lower among A-10 drivers (49%) and F-22 pilots (33%).

Unlike enlisted retention rates, there appears to be a correlation between deployments and the number of fighter pilots taking the continuation bonus. Since 2001, some fighter units--particularly A-10 squadrons--have been constantly deployed. In fact, many of the pilots who became eligible for the bonus this year began their operational careers seven years ago--a time that correlates with the onset of the War on Terror.

But some of the re-up rates remain puzzling. Flying an F-22 is considered a plum assignment, but only one-third of the eligible Raptor pilots took the bonus. One Air Force official speculates that the numbers are skewed, since only a handful of F-22 pilots became eligible for the bonus in 2008.

Of course, the underlying issue is what the Air Force could have done to stem the sudden drop in retention. In terms of ops-tempo, there isn't much the service can do. And, a fair number of pilots will still take their chances on getting an airline job, even in a slow economy.

But, in the area of enlisted retention, the USAF is reaping a harvest that was planted long ago. In the mid-1990s, when the service began cutting personnel (mostly junior airmen and NCOs) to fund the F-22 program, it sent the signal that hardware was sometimes more important than personnel. That trend continued during the DoD-mandated draw down, setting the stage for last year's exodus.

Retention rates will almost certainly improve in 2009, with economic uncertainty in the civilian job market and the USAF draw down now at an end. But keeping more experienced airmen and NCOs in uniform won't be cheap. So, as the next president "rebuilds" the military, his Pentagon team ought to ask a question. How much of the retention drop was self-inflicted, and what can be done to prevent it from happening again?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Ol' Double Standard least when it comes to family members of the Vice-Presidential candidates, and their driving records.

From Greg Pallowitz at National Review online (H/T: Glenn Reynolds)

Iran's Preemptive Option?

Senior Iranian officials are reportedly pressing for a preemptive strike against Israel, to prevent an Israeli attack against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Haaretz reports that the "preemptive option" was mentioned two weeks ago by Dr. Seyed G. Safavi, the Director of Iran's Research Institute of Strategic Studies. Safavi made the remarks during a meeting with foreign diplomats in London. He said that recent threats by Israeli officials had "strengthened" the position, but a preemptive attack had not been integrated into Iranian policy.

As Haaretz writer Barak Ravid observes, Dr. Safavi is no interloper when it comes to Iranian security affairs:

Safavi is head of the Research Institute of Strategic Studies in Tehran, and an adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The institute is directly affiliated with Khamenei's office and with the Revolutionary Guards, and advises both on foreign policy issues. Safavi is also the brother of Yahya Rahim Safavi, who was the head of the Revolutionary Guards until a year ago and now is an adviser to Khamenei, and holds significant influence on security matters in the Iranian government.

An Israeli political official said senior Jerusalem officials were shown Safavi's remarks, which are considered highly sensitive. The source said the briefing in London dealt with a number of issues, primarily a potential Israeli attack on an Iranian reactor.

Safavi said a small, experienced group of officials is lobbying for a preemptive strike against Israel. "The recent Israeli declarations and harsh rhetoric on a strike against Iran put ammunition in these individuals' hands," he said.

Despite his credentials, Safavi's comments are little more than bluster at this point. As we've observed in previous posts, threatening and conducting preemptive strikes are totally different matters. At this juncture, Iran's options for such an attack are severely limited. Without nuclear weapons, Tehran could must limited missile strikes against Israel, using conventional, chemical and biological weapons.

In response, Iran could expect an overwhelming nuclear attack, delivered by Israeli Air Force fighters and ballistic missiles. Iranian leaders are anything but rational, but that sort of one-sided exchange would (presumably) give them pause.

As for a possible Iranian air strike, don't hold your breath. As we detailed last week, Tehran's claims about training for a long-range air attack on Israel are laughable, at best. By most estimates, the Iranian Air Force has just one air tanker to support such a mission, and only a handful of F-4 crews have been trained for long-distance strikes.

With nuclear weapons, the equation changes slightly, but Israel still has a vast advantage. And that's a big reason that Safavi's favored, "preemptive strike" has not been "integrated" into Iranian planning. Still, it's scary enough to think that Tehran would contemplate such a move--and that the idea is gaining support in ruling circles.

The Nowak Case Churns Along

It's been a while since we checked in on Navy Captain Lisa Nowak, the disgraced former astronaut accused of attacking a romantic rival at the Orlando airport in March, 2007. While the court case against Nowak is still moving forward (albeit slowly), it's still unclear when she'll go to trial on kidnapping, assault and other charges.

When we last reported on Nowak, she had hired a high-priced legal "spin doctor" to handle the media aspects of her trial. However, the public relations expert has apparently counseled Nowak to maintain a low public profile, while defense attorneys and prosecutors battle over evidence that could be used against her.

So far, it appears to be an effective strategy. Tuesday, three judges from Florida's 5th District Court of Appeals heard arguments that will determine if prosecutors can use statements Nowak made on the day of her arrest, and items seized from her BMW.

The appellate hearing was prompted a 2007 decision from Orange County Circuit Court Judge Marc Lubet, who ruled that Nowak's statements and items from her car could not be used as evidence in her trial. Without her comments--and physical evidence from the car--prosecutors will have a more difficult time in making their case against Nowak.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, the appellate judges focused most of their questions on whether detectives had the right to search Nowak's vehicle, which was parked at a motel near the airport.

The judges wanted to know whether the car would have been found without Nowak's statements.

[Prosecutor Kellie] Nielan said police had other evidence ---- including a printout from La Quinta and a hotel-shuttle schedule -- that would have led them to the vehicle even without Nowak's help. And, she added, they would have had enough probable cause to search it based on the earlier attack.

Police had already taken a knife, a mallet and a BB gun out of a duffel bag Nowak had with her. Shipman also had identified Nowak as her attacker, Nielan said.

She pointed out that Becton testified a year ago that he initially thought Nowak might have intended to kill Shipman and that he would find evidence of a crime in the car.

"If he applied for a [search] warrant, he would have gotten one," Nielan said.

Nowak's attorney, Donald Lykkebak, disagreed."It would have been sheer speculation that there was anything in the car connected to the crime," he said.

After the hearing, Mr. Lykkebak said he was pleased with the judges' questions, saying they focused on key issues in the case. He also expressed hope that the case will return to circuit court in the near future, saying that his client is anxious to get through the trial and "get on with her life."

But there's some question as to whether Nowak will ever face a jury. No one knows when the appeals court will make a ruling. If they side with the circuit court judge, then prosecutors will have less evidence to use against the former astronaut in court.

If they decide to press ahead with the case, Nowak won't go to trial until sometime in 2009, two years after her attack on Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, the girlfriend of her former lover, ex-astronaut Bill Oefelein.

Nowak confronted Shipman at the Orlando airport after she returned from visiting Oefelein in Houston. Police say that Captain Nowak developed a detailed plan for abducting (and possibly, murdering) Shipman. Nowak and Oefelein, both members of NASA's astronaut corps, had a two-year affair before he began dating Shipman.

Fired by the space agency shortly after the scandal broke, Captain Nowak was reassigned as a staff officer at Naval Air Training Command Headquarters in Corpus Christi, Texas. As we noted last year, the new job provided a convenient, out-of-the way spot for the Navy to "park" Nowak while the civilian justice system ran its course. Any military action against Nowak would, presumably, come after her trial in Florida.

Truth be told, the Navy would prefer for the whole matter to just go away. So far, the service hasn't followed the shameful example of the U.S. Army, which allowed Colonel Scott Carlson to retire before his Pennsylvania trial, on fraud charges relating to a faked paternity test. Carlson was finally convicted last month, but as a civilian, not an active duty military officer. He's facing prison time, but so far, his pension and other retiree benefits remain intact.

If the case against Nowak continues to unravel, don't be surprised if she is also allowed to retire. Memories of the "astronaut scandal" have already begun to fade, making it easier for the Navy to let Nowak slip out the door, before (or shortly after) her day in court.


ADDENDUM: Despite the shame she brought to NASA, Captain Nowak still received her Space Flight Medal from the agency in June 2007, less than three months after she was fired. (N/T: NASA Watch). We wonder if the Navy will add a Meritorious Service Medal or Legion of Merit to her decorations, as Nowak exits from active duty.

More Reasons that Some People Shouldn't Vote

We're hoping that Neal Boortz puts up a link to an audio clip he played this morning, during the 10:00 o'clock (EDT) hour of his show. It was a man-on-street interview, first conducted for Don Imus's syndicated radio and TV program. The segment (again) illustrates why some Americans have not business in the voting booth.

Here's the set-up. Imus sent a reporter into Harlem, to talk with three likely voters. He began by asking them who they planned to vote for. Not surprisingly, all three said Barack Obama. When asked why they couldn't support John McCain, they cited opposition to the GOP candidate's "policies."

Then, the interviewer turned the tables on his subjects, assigning McCain's positions to Senator Obama.

Q: "Do you support Obama because he's pro-life or because he wants to keep our troops in Iraq to finish the job?"

Each of the interview subjects expressed support for one of the McCain positions--as long as it was ascribed to Mr. Obama.

And, during the same segment, none of the respondents voiced any reservations about Senator Obama's running mate, Governor Sarah Palin (emphasis ours).

For years, Mr. Boortz has suggested a method for keeping idiots out of the voting booth--restrict the franchise to those individuals who are net payers of income tax. He believes (as do we) that Americans who are "paying the bills" are better informed and more likely to make a reasoned decision in selecting our leaders.

Unfortunately, that theory only goes so far. There are plenty of rich liberals anxious to pull the lever for Obama, despite his vow to raise their taxes. Still, we find merit in the idea of limiting the number of morons who can cast a vote.

Think of it as chlorinating the electoral gene pool.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dealing With the Day of Reckoning

On the heels of Joe Biden's prediction that Barack Obama would be tested early in his presidency, The New York Times offers a list of three potential challengers. Venezuela, Russia and Iran, awash in petrodollars just a few months ago, are now facing a severe budget squeeze, thanks to the recent, dramatic drop in oil prices.

Of course, the Times doesn't actually predict a confrontation with these countries. Taking a more diplomatic approach, reporters Simon Romero, Michael Slackman and Clifford Levy wonder if "the countries can sustain their spending--and their bids to challenge U.S. hegemony.

But it doesn't take a foreign policy expert to understand the flip side of that argument. Facing an American president with little experience in international affairs, one (or more) of the rogue states might provoke a regional crisis, believing that an Obama Administration would respond less forcefully.

Not only would the crisis trigger another run-up in oil prices, it would also position Moscow, Tehran and Caracas for further adventurism--with less to fear from the new president. That, in turn, would lead to crude trading at sustained, high levels, providing more for their domestic and foreign policy agendas.

A number of observers (including Ralph Peters and this blog) have suggested a possible Iranian scenario in the early days of an Obama presidency. Tehran's economic motives are clear enough; as the Times reports, Iran was already facing an economic crisis before the plunge in oil prices. Inflation is running at 30%; unemployment is high, and the country will face unsustainable deficits, experts say, with a barrel of crude in the $75 range (it closed today at $72).

Against that backdrop, it's quite possible that Iran would ratchet up tensions in the Persian Gulf, producing a corresponding hike in oil prices. Earlier this year, a single missile test by Tehran caused a $5 spike in crude oil--at a time when it was already trading at record levels. Experts predicted that a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities could send prices above $200 a barrel. Expected counter-strikes by Iran on export facilities in Saudi Arabia would result in further price hikes, resulting in oil at $250 a barrel--or higher.

Obviously, a lot has happened since crude peaked in July. In response to the global economic crisis, the oil market has cratered over the last two months, with barrel price dropping by more than 50%. But there is little doubt that a crisis in the Gulf would send them spiraling again, despite the economic downturn. With its ability to threaten the Strait of Hormuz, Tehran could send another panic through the oil market, generating higher prices and more money for its coffers.

Executing that strategy requires Iran to walk a geopolitical tightrope--something President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad isn't particularly good at. Theoretically, he doesn't want a U.S. or Israli military strike that would destroy Iranian oil facilities and (quite possibly) his regime. But there's also a danger in assigning rationality to a leader who expresses a desire to "wipe Israel off the map," and is building roadways for the arrival of the 12th Imam. Combine those factors with Iran's own, looming economic meltdown, and you've got the most likely candidate for a confrontation with the United States.

Ahmadeinjad's good friend in Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has his own reasons for testing a President Obama. Manufacturing another energy show-down with Ukraine and the nations of Western Europe would serve to further divide NATO, lessen U.S. influence, and increase Moscow's regional clout. True, Mr. Putin isn't a nut, but he is a clever, calculating actor. If he senses an opening from an Obama administration, he will certainly make the most of it.

In terms of geography, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez seems least likely to pick a fight with the United States. Even with his new Russian-made military hardware, Chavez's military is no match for American forces and if he expects Putin's navy or air force to ride to the rescue, well, he's sadly mistaken.

Still, a potential crisis with Venezuela can't be totally dismissed. Chavez has his own domestic economic problems that demand a boost in oil prices, and (like Ahmadeinjad), the Venezuelan leader has a bizarre, unshakable faith in his own invulnerable. If the U.S. is preoccupied in the Gulf (or elsewhere), Chavez might take his own poke at the Yanquis, believing that an Obama White House would rather talk than fight.

In his Seattle speech, Biden tried to assure Democrats that Barack Obama has a "spine of steel." Unfortunately, the rest of the world remains unconvinced, and that's why the day of reckoning for Iran, Russia and Venezuela will have serious implications for the United States--and the next occupant of the White House.


ADDENDUM: Similar thoughts from Justice Little of CommodityOnline. He identifies Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez as the dictators most likely to stir up trouble, but we still put Ahmadeinjad at the top of that list.

The Other Hit Piece, Redux

A couple of days ago, we dissected the "other," recent hit piece on the McCain family. "Make Believe Maverick," published in the 16 October edition of Rolling Stone, is nothing more than an effort to demolish Senator McCain's military career--and reputation.

Writer Tim Dickinson, who assembled the smear job, is an alumnus of Mother Jones, so it's no surprise that the article is long on imputation and short on fact. In fact, Stuart Koehl of The Weekly Standard aptly describes it as "insinuendo," borrowing a phrase developed by one of his friends.

Put another way, Dickinson's piece is "a mix of half-truths, misdirections, hearsay, gossip and outright lies written by somebody who either has no ability to evaluate the information he was given, or more likely) just doesn't give a damn."

Well said. In fact, we recommend Mr. Koehl's thorough deconstruction of the Rolling Stone article, since he raises points that weren't covered in our review. Of particular interest is his take on Colonel John Dramesi, another former POW who emerges as a critic of McCain's conduct in North Vietnam. While no one doubts Dramesi's valor--witness his two escape attempts from an enemy prison--he remains a controversial figure within the POW community. As Koehl writes:

Dickinson does not mention, in his breathless recounting of Dramesi's two escape attempts that, as a result of his actions, all the POWs in Dramesi's camp were subjected to harsh punishments, causing the senior POWs there to place strict conditions (including the possibility of outside assistance) on all future escape attempts. Dramesi apparently opposed this ruling, because it was a technical violation of the Code of Conduct (a prisoner shall always endeavor to escape and return to duty), but the camp leadership made a pragmatic decision based upon the probability of success and the costs of failure.

Mr. Koehl also unearthed a review of Dramesi's prison memoir (Code of Honor) which raises questions about his recollections of the POW experience. The review appeared in an Air Force professional journal in 1977; it was written by another survivor of the Hanoi Hilton, Lieutenant Colonel Jon Reynolds. A couple of paragraphs aptly summarize Dramesi's mixed legacy:

COLONEL DRAMESI remains a controversial figure. Most former POWs who know him, or who have read Code of Honor, give him either their wholehearted endorsement or condemnation. Very few take their stance in-between. To be sure, he deserves a measure of criticism. That which he leaves unsaid destroys, in part, his credibility. For example, he might have mentioned the barbaric reprisals by the Vietnamese on all members of the Zoo compound for his attempted escape--reprisals of such intensity and duration that many were reluctant ever again to endorse or authorize an escape that lacked any reasonable chance of success.

One also grows weary of reading in the first person singular. John Dramesi wrote the book. That he is its hero is admissible. But there were more tough men in Hanoi than he would lead you to believe. And there were men equally committed to that ultimate form of resistance--escape. The well planned escape of McKnight and Coker, for example, was far more successful than Dramesi's. And it was not a spontaneous operation, as the uninitiated reader is lead to believe. Dramesi's greatest Haw, however, was in his own physical and mental strength, so singular and of such forcefulness that he apparently could not comprehend or tolerate the performance of those who could not match it. One wonders how he interpreted Admiral Stockdale's prison mandate: "unity over self."

We agree with Reynolds' observation that there were many tough men in Hanoi--and one of them was named John McCain.

But then again, that doesn't exactly fit the Rolling Stone narrative.

ADDENDUM: We're still waiting for the "expose" on Mr. McCain's admitted infidelity during the years after his return from Vietnam. Many of us have long believed that an article on his indiscretions is in the works, or simply awaiting publication. With two weeks until election day, that "other shoe" may be about to drop.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Powell Endorsement,the Military Vote and the Candidate's Wife

Barack Obama is going to make inroads with military voters--if you believe the pundit class.

Just moments after Colin Powell announced his support for the Democratic presidential nominee, NBC talking heads Joe Scarborough and Andrea Mitchell suggested that the endorsement of the retired general (and former Secretary of State) would translate into more military votes.

From the transcript of their appearance on "Meet the Press," the same program where General Powell revealed his support for Senator Obama:

MR. BROKAW: [Joe] You're very familiar with Florida. Will Colin Powell have much of an impact on that state, which is much more in play now?

MR. SCARBOROUGH: Well, sure, sure it will. I mean, one of the reasons why John McCain shocked Mitt Romney--remember the last two or three days most people thought Mitt Romney was going to win Florida. There is a huge military population in Florida and a very large retired military population in Florida. Colin Powell's endorsement helps him probably more in Florida than any other state.


MR. BROKAW: Andrea Mitchell, is it enough for the Obama campaign just to get this endorsement this morning, or will they try to use him in ads and try to pull him out on the trail as well?

MS. ANDREA MITCHELL: Well, they're not going to be able to pull him out on the trail. He made that very clear to you, Tom. But it makes a difference--to expand on what Joe said--it makes a difference with the military in North Carolina and Virginia, two other states that have really big military populations; conceivably, also, in South Carolina as well.

Unfortunately, that theory has more holes than a target on a Marine rifle range. This blog has analyzed the military vote at length, and quite frankly, we don't see the troops breaking for Obama.

Consider the results of a recent survey conducted for the Military Times newspapers. According to that poll, career military officers and NCOs back John McCain by a 68-23% margin. A breakout of the data indicates that the only armed forces demographic where Obama has a majority is among African-Americans, who indicated that race was a key factor in their support.

Not surprisingly, the Times poll never came up during the NBC round table. That's hardly a surprise; as far as we can tell, neither Scarborough nor Ms. Mitchell served in the military, and it's doubtful they peruse military publications on a regular basis.

If they spent a little more time with members of the armed forces, the pundits would discover that the endorsements of retired flag officers have little sway over the military vote. While there is wide respect for Colin Powell in the armed services, it's difficult to imagine any officer, NCO, or junior enlisted member switching their vote on the basis of his endorsement.

It's no accident that John McCain enjoys wide support among military voters. They respect his decades of service to the nation and his own sacrifice as a POW in North Vietnam. They also understand that Senator McCain has a long record of supporting military personnel and their families. More importantly, members of the armed forces realize that Mr. McCain is ready to be Commander-in-Chief, and won't require "on the job training," borrowing Joe Biden's famous line on Barack Obama.

We also suspect that General Powell's stated reasons for backing the Democratic nominee-- including his concern about the "tone" of the GOP campaign--have little resonance among members of the armed forces and their families. If you've served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, you probably have other electoral priorities--say, ensuring that your hard-won victories on the ground aren't squandered by the next administration.

In our experience, military voters are exceptionally perceptive--far better informed than the public as a whole. Their political allegiances are largely based on the party (and candidates) that have traditionally supported them. That's why the vast majority of the armed forces will pull the lever for John McCain on election day.

Still, the Obama campaign keeps trying. The Politico's Mike Allen is touting Michelle Obama's outreach to military families, suggesting that it might become her "signature" cause as First Lady.

“Michelle Obama's focus on military families puts her at the leading edge of the Democratic nominee's campaign to reclaim some of the military vote from Republicans – an effort that brought Barack Obama here Sunday for a rally near Fort Bragg, where a military wife introduced him … Since the start of the campaign, Michelle Obama says she has focused on three things: keeping life normal for her young daughters, electing her husband, and discussing the work-life balance with women around the country. The spouses of service members captured her attention during a roundtable with working mothers, and she later hosted her first military-focused event in Fayetteville in May, a day before the North Carolina primary. She will hold her seventh military spouses meeting Tuesday in Pensacola, Fla., following similar events in recent months in states heavily impacted by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, including Virginia, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.”

Mr. Allen is a fine political reporter, who's generally fair in his coverage. Still, we'd offer him the same advice as the pundits at NBC. Take a closer look at these events--and their reception--before predicting that Obama will reclaim even a small portion of the military vote.

As we reported two months ago, Ms. Obama's "military forums" are nothing more than cleverly-contrived campaign events, similar to the rallies staged by her husband and John McCain. When Michelle Obama came to Norfolk in August, reporter Karen Jowers of Military Times discovered that forum participants were Obama campaign workers or supporters.

Again, there's nothing wrong with that. Packing your event with friendly crowds is the essence of smart politics.

But a little truth in advertising is also required. Media outlets have been incredibly disingenuous in depicting these "forums" as some sort of free-flowing exchange with military families. In reality, Ms. Obama is simply answering soft-ball questions from supporters.

If the prospective first lady is genuinely interested in a dialogue with members of the armed forces, she might have asked for a private meeting with the Officer's or NCO's Wives Club at any military installation. And hold the event without cameras or the media--just as George Bush has done in countless sessions with the families of troops killed or wounded on active duty.

But that's not the type of event that the Obama campaign is looking for. The military forums are also aimed at "softening" the image of Michelle Obama, who was widely criticized for saying that America is a "mean" place, and that she was "never proud of her country" until her husband sought the presidency. Giving Mrs. Obama the "military family portfolio" is one way to depict her as less strident and more compassionate.

We have no interest in sitting through carefully-scripted campaign events, but we'd pay major bucks for a front row seat at a real military forum with Michelle Obama. We wonder how she'd react when a member of the armed services (or a spouse) asked the candidate's wife if her husband is advocating surrender in Iraq, or why the nominee didn't mention the military as an acceptable form of public service in the early months of his campaign.

Now that would be an event worth attending.

Today's Reading Assignment

"America the Weak" is the title of Ralph Peters' latest column in the New York Post. It's a scary and prescient look at the national security challenges we could face under an Obama administration. As he writes:

If Sen. Barack Obama is elected president, our re public will survive, but our international strategy and some of our allies may not. His first year in office would conjure globe-spanning challenges as our enemies piled on to exploit his weakness.

Add in Sen. Joe Biden - with his track record of calling every major foreign-policy crisis wrong for 35 years - as vice president and de facto secretary of State, and we'd face a formula for strategic disaster.

Peters goes on to list a dozen potential confrontations, from North Korea to the Middle East. And, if that's not enough, take a look at members of Obama's prospective cabinet; it's long on Democratic party hacks (John Kerry); Republican malcontents (hellooo, Chuck Hagel) and foreign policy holdovers from the Carter and Clinton years.

We'll take Peters' theory a step further and predict that Obama's first national security tests will occur early in his administration--within 90 days of inauguration--and come from North Korea and Iran. Look for Pyongyang to suspend the current nuclear deal in early 2009, about the time Tehran stages a new showdown in the Persian Gulf.


If you have any doubts about Obama being tested, just ask his running mate. Speaking at two Seattle-area fundraisers on Sunday, Senator Joe Biden "guaranteed" that Obama will be tested by an international crisis during his first six months in office. As ABC News reports:

"Mark my words," the Democratic vice presidential nominee warned at the second of his two Seattle fundraisers Sunday. "It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We're about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator president of the United States of America. Remember I said it standing here if you don't remember anything else I said. Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."

"I can give you at least four or five scenarios from where it might originate," Biden said to Emerald City supporters, mentioning the Middle East and Russia as possibilities. "And he's gonna need help. And the kind of help he's gonna need is, he's gonna need you - not financially to help him - we're gonna need you to use your influence, your influence within the community, to stand with him. Because it's not gonna be apparent initially, it's not gonna be apparent that we're right."

Thanks for the campaign ad, Joe. For once, he's right.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The "Other" Hit Piece

Cindy McCain isn't the only member of her family subjected to a journalistic "hit" in the final weeks of the presidential campaign. Three days before The New York Times dragged Mrs. McCain into the gutter, Rolling Stone weighed in with its take on Senator McCain's military career.

Entitled "Make-Believe Maverick," it's about what you'd expect from the magazine, which abandoned at pretense of fairness and objectivity long ago. And, like the Times' piece on Cindy McCain, it's a rehash of familiar stories and anecdotes, retold with the right spin to put the GOP candidate in the worst possible light.

Writer Tim Dickinson begins his article with a "chance" reunion between then Lieutenant Commander John McCain and a fellow Vietnam prisoner-of-war, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel John Dramesi. Barely a year after their release from the Hanoi Hilton, McCain and Dramesi met on the grounds of Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.

As the article relates, the two men talked briefly about about their "school" assignments; McCain was attending the National War College, while Dramesi was enrolled at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. When the subject of their "class trips" arose, Dramesi said he was heading for the Middle East, since he believed the region would cause future problems for the United states. In response, Dickinson writes, McCain said he was going to Rio, because he "had a better chance of getting laid."

According to Colonel Dramesi, the incident confirmed his view of McCain as a "spoiled, undisciplined brat" who never grew up, despite his years in captivity. It's a refrain that forms the central thesis of Dickinson's article, in his effort to rebuke McCain's "Maverick" image.

But there's are a couple of problems with the Fort Meyer episode--and other episodes from the Rolling Stone article. First, while we have no reason to question Dramesi's integrity, McCain's comments during the encounter have never been independently corroborated. In fact, the telling "incident" is noticeably absent from other books about John McCain, including The Nightingale's Song, authored by fellow Annapolis grad (and former Baltimore Sun reporter) Robert Timberg.

Additionally, Dickinson portrays McCain's class trip as a government-funded private vacation. But that's a gross distortion; in reality, war college students travel in groups, and their itinerary is selected by the school, not the participating officer. McCain's trip agenda in 1974 was determined in advance, and he had little say about the areas he would visit. As for his planned extracurricular activities, McCain has long admitted to his infidelity after returning from North Vietnam, indiscretions that (ultimately) destroyed his first marriage.

By the the low standards of Rolling Stone, that's sufficient proof of a "honor gap" in McCain's military career, and evidence of an officer who moved along on family connections, rather than ability.

But, that narrative has a few holes as well. The final, formative assignments of McCain's naval career came after his father (a four-star admiral) retired from active duty. Obviously, former flag officers still have some pull in navy circles, but its ludicrous to think that retired Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., was still arranging his son's career in the late 1970s, less than five years before his death.

Indeed, wags would suggest that the Admiral did a lousy job of managing his son's career, at least in its early stages. After graduating from Annapolis (near the bottom of his class) and completion of pilot training, McCain served tours in a pair of A-1 Skyraider squadrons, assigned to the carriers Intrepid and Enterprise. By any standard, they were routine assignments; apparently, no one in the clan tried to maneuver the younger McCain into a job that would put him on the fast track, say flag lieutenant to an admiral.

John McCain's third assignment was equally pedestrian. He was assigned as a flight instructor at McCain Field in Meridian, Mississippi (an installation named for his grandfather). In that capacity, McCain trained--and evaluated--future naval aviators. By all accounts, McCain was good at his job, although Dickinson (again) concentrates on his off-duty pursuits, as one of the founding members of the hard-partying "Key Fess Yacht Club," a group of Navy and Marine Corps officers assigned to the base.

The rest of the article provides a similar slant on McCain's military days. Dickinson cites the Senator's claim that he was "unqualified" for a later assignment, as commander of a pilot training group in Jacksonville. McCain was referring to the fact that he didn't have a previous tour as executive officer of a similar organization--the usual stepping-stone to a commander's slot.

Instead, Mr. Dickinson carefully structures the paragraph, portraying McCain as an incompetent officer who on the assignment on family connections. He never mentions that, under the leadership of McCain, the group won its first naval unit commendation for excellence--or that McCain's performance in Jacksonville was the major factor in his subsequent selection as the Navy's chief liaison to the U.S. Senate.

Readers will also note that Dickinson studiously avoids interviews with military personnel who might provide a more balanced portrait of McCain as a naval officer, or his conduct as a POW. Air Force Colonel Bud Day, who won the Medal of Honor for his heroism and leadership in the Hanoi Hilton, paints a much different picture of John McCain as a prisoner of war. But, because Day is a Republican--and supporter of McCain--he's not worthy of an interview. Ditto for other survivors of the POW camps, men like Orson Swindle

Obviously, Rolling Stone's depiction of McCain's military days should come as no surprise. After all, it comes in the same issue that has a smiling Barack Obama on the cover. Perhaps someday the magazine will get around to talking with people with less-than-flattering views of Barack Obama.

Don't hold your breath.

A Dark Day for Talk Radio?

There was an incident in Pittsburgh last week that was either a clever ratings stunt, or (alternately) a serious blow against talk radio--and a sign of things to come under an Obama-controlled FCC.

During Wednesday's edition of the "Kevin Miller Show" on KDKA-AM, the program's executive producer, P.J. Kumanchik, read a statement from CBS management, addressing accusations that the host is biased against Barack Obama. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described the episode:

Citing a number of e-mails and phone calls from listeners criticizing Miller, Kumanchik offered Democratic presidential candidate Obama a three-hour air shift, usurping Miller's air time.

"We want to apologize to listeners who have found your show offensive," Kumanchik told Miller on the air. Kumanchik also said the complaints included the use of unapproved audio clips, including the theme from the TV series "The Jeffersons," and unobjective guests.

So far, there's no indication the Obama campaign plans to accept KDKA's "offer." But Miller is among the hosts who've interviewed writer Jerome Corsi on their programs. Mr. Corsi, author of "The Obama Nation," is hardly a favorite of the Democratic presidential nominee.

Obama's campaign (and his supporters) have already tried to bully stations who interview journalists who are less-than-friendly to their candidate. When Stanley Kurtz appeared on WGN-AM in Chicago, the station and its evening host, Milt Rosenberg, were subjected to scores of intimidating phone calls and e-mails, with the support of the campaign. To its credit, WGN did not cave.

KDKA may be another story. We say "may" because the event has all the makings of a ratings ploy. The first commercial radio station in America, KDKA has long dominated the Pittsburgh market. But in recent years, KDKA has been locked in a bruising ratings battle with WPGB, the Clear Channel-owned outlet that is home to the popular "Quinn and Rose" morning show, and serves as the local affiliate for Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

Mr. Miller, the KDKA host who has supposedly incurred the wrath of CBS, has the unenviable task of competing against Rush in the noon-3 p.m. time slot. What better way to attract attention for your show--in the middle of a presidential campaign--than to be accused of "bias" and let a candidate host the program.

Besides, the "executive producer" of a local radio isn't exactly a broadcast executive. At most stations, they're a combination of broadcast engineer and call screener. If KDKA was truly concerned about Miller and his views, the statement would have been read by someone higher up the chain, say the program director, station manager, or an executive from CBS corporate headquarters in New York.

Still, we can't discount the possibility that CBS is attempting to muzzle one of its local hosts. Broadcasting companies are facing tough economic times--and the prospect of expanded Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress. That makes a revived Fairness Doctrine a real possibility; by offering airtime to Obama before election day, CBS may be trying to head off "problems" that could complicate license renewal for the 140 stations in its portfolio.

Funny, but we think there should be more pressing concerns, including the First Amendment. But in Pittsburgh, free speech may be taking a back seat to the bottom line. If that "statement" was a legitimate depiction of CBS's corporate views, then last Wednesday marked a sad chapter in the history of talk radio.

What does it mean for the future of the medium? At this point, we can't say. Stay tuned.