Thursday, April 28, 2011

Air Force Math

It's no secret the Air Force has down-sized in recent years. Since 2004, the service has trimmed more than 40,000 airmen from its ranks, for a variety of reasons. Some positions were eliminated to save money, or free up capital for new weapons systems; in other cases, advances in technology made a few billets "redundant," as the Brits would say. The Air Force also endured personnel cuts to free up more resources for the Army and Marine Corps, which have borne the brunt of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the manpower reductions only go so far. While thousands of NCOs and lower-ranking officers left the service (and were never replaced), the Air Force was expanding its senior leadership cadre. In fact, the USAF has added 44 new general officer billets over the past seven years, as detailed by Scott Fontaine of Air Force Times.

While the Times hasn't posted Fontaine's piece on its website, the Project on Government Oversight blog has extraced some nuggets from the article; read it and your blood will boil:

  • The U.S. Air Force has more general officers per capita than any other U.S. service, and that has led Defense Secretary Robert Gates to put nearly two dozen such billets on the chopping block.”

  • “In the last seven years alone, the service has shed nearly 43,000 airmen while adding 44 generals.”

  • “At the end of fiscal 2010, the Air Force employed 315 general officers and the end strength stood at 329,323, or one general for every 1,045 airmen. For comparison, the Army had only three more generals — 318 — but had 231,000 more troops, for a ratio of 1 to 1,765.”

  • “The service had 308 general officers as of February 28, the most recent statistics the Defense Department provided. Current law allows the Air Force to have 208 general officer billets, and the defense secretary can designate another 208 general and flag officers for joint positions — and at least 76 of those must come from the Air Force. Other exemptions allow for the promotion of more general officers, such as a regulation that doesn’t count retiring officers on terminal leave against the cap.”
These totals are even more amazing when you consider that outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has railed against "brass creep"--the steady (and presumably, unnecessary) expansion of flag-rank positions while other billets are being slashed. But the Boys (and Girls) in Blue managed to pull it off. And with Mr. Gates riding into the sunset, the service may see new opportunities for more general officer billets under the new SecDef, Leon Panetta.

We haven't seen the Air Force's justification for more generals. But the service has long proved adept at preserving its "flag class." Almost 20 years ago, then-Air Force Chief of Staff General Merrill "Tony" McPeak launched a re-organization of wing-level organizations, putting a brigadier general in charge of most. McPeak said the move was justified by the "size" and "mission" of a typical flying wing. Never mind that Colonels had been leading those same units, in war and peace, for more than 30 years. Putting a one-star in charge of a wing preserved a number of brigadier general billets.

But that was just the start of the preservation game. McPeak and his minions added more groups below the wing commander, saving a lot of O-6 positions. The Air Force also added new "mission support squadrons" (MSS) in the operations group, putting such functions as intelligence and weather under the charge of a rated officer (usually a pilot).

Officially, the service claimed the new organizational scheme made support elements more responsive to the operational mission. That claim was dubious at best, but another benefit was abundantly clear. MSS leadership billets preserved slots for pilots who needed a squadron commander tour in order to advance.

For his next project, we'd like to see Mr. Fontaine tackle a companion issue. Over the past decade, there has been even greater growth in the number of senior civil servants working for the Air Force (grades GS-14, 15 and the SES ranks); in fact that number dwarfs the increase in general officer billets.

True, a brigadier general with 24 years of service earns more than $180,000 a year in pay and benefits. But a GS-14 with a little experience (and locality pay) pulls down $100,000 annually, and pay rates for SES and comparable Senior Level (SL) positions command salaries ranging from $119,000- $179,000 a year.

How fast are the civilian ranks expanding? Consider this example: Wright-Patterson AFB, the largest single employer in the state of Ohio, will add more than 900 civilians to its workforce this year. Obviously, those new employees aren't starting off at the SES level. But the service hires more than a few civilians at the GS/GG-13 and 14 levels, putting them on track to compete for SES positions in the future.

Beyond Belief

Photographer Dusty Compton of the Tuscaloosa News captured this image of the killer storm as it plowed through the city (News photo via the AP and National Geographic).

I've spent most of my life in "Dixie Alley," the southern adjunct of "Tornado Alley." Living in that area, you develop a healthy respect for the raw, destructive power that forms when atmospheric conditions are right.

It's a respect that has been reinforced by covering the aftermath of a deadly twister (during my days as a journalist), and having a close encounter of my own while living in Mississippi. But nothing in my experience could prepare me for what I've seen over the last 24 hours, during one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in U.S. history.

The numbers alone are staggering. Close to 300 fatalities across six states--despite advanced warning. Media outlets in Birmingham began covering the deadliest storm when it was still in Mississippi. Residents along its estimated, 200-mile path had an average of 20 minutes warning time and could watch the storm live on local TV.

But at least 32 people died in the city of Tuscaloosa; another 15 in the surrounding county, and 26 in metro Birmingham. Across Alabama, at least 204 people were killed, according to Governor Robert Bentley. More than 30 deaths were also recorded in Mississippi and Tennessee; there were 14 confirmed fatalities in Georgia, and other deaths were reported in Virginia and Kentucky. Experts could only speculate what the death toll might have been without advanced warning (emphasis mine).

The number of tornadoes is equally stunning. We won't have a final tally for several weeks, but some meteorologists believe yesterday's total will surpass the 1974 Super Outbreak, which generated 148 tornadoes in a 24-hour period. More than 300 people died in that catastrophic event, which stretched from Alabama to southern Canada.

Some experts believed the Super Outbreak was a one-in-a-century occurrence, but that theory was blown away (to some degree) by Wednesday's storms. The human toll from yesterday's outbreak also demolished another misconception--that advances in forecasting technology, including the widespread use of Doppler radar--would prevent deaths on the scale of 1974, or the Great Tri-State Tornado of 1925, which killed more than 600 people in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

We're waiting for some politician to demand more money for the National Weather Service, to prevent this sort of disaster in the future. While I'm squarely against the major budget cuts proposed by the NWS, investments in "new" technology should be made carefully.

The reason is simple. More advanced radars may not produce a significant reduction in tornado deaths. As Dr. Charles Doswell (one of the legends at the Storm Prediction Center) noted eight years ago, existing radar technology does a good job in detecting powerful tornadoes, like the ones that wreaked havoc yesterday.

Newer radars would be more effective at detecting weaker storms, but they cause only a fraction of the damage and deaths inflicted by major tornadoes. At the time, Dr. Doswell opined that additional funding might be devoted to other projects--such as how people use warning information. Other worthy projects include better building techniques and finding better ways to protect those living in mobile homes. During the recent outbreak in North Carolina, most of the victims lived in trailers.

But even a well-built home is no guarantee of safety--or survival. Look at aerial photos of damage from Birmingham and Tuscaloosa; hundreds of "conventional" houses were demolished by that massive tornado, along its trail of death and destruction.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Haley Bows Out

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is out of the 2012 Presidential race before it really began, announcing his afternoon that he will not make a run for the White House next year.

Mr. Barbour, a former chairman of the RNC is finishing his second term as chief executive of the Magnolia State. Tested in such crises as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and last year's tornado in his hometown of Yazoo City, Barbour is leaving the governor's mansion with high approval numbers, and (supposedly) an eye towards higher political office, i.e., the Presidency.

And before today's surprise announcement (some would say stunning), Governor Barbour had done nothing to discourage such speculation. He had formed an exploratory committee and recruited top GOP talent to run his campaign in early caucus and primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. True, Mr. Barbour was barely registering in the polls (around 1% in the latest surveys), but as National Review reminds us, he had an out-sized presence in the fledgling race, attracting A-list donors and campaign staff.

So why did he pull out? Sources in Mississippi say Barbour's wife, Marsha, was "horrified" by the prospect of a national campaign. The governor himself questioned his own commitment to an uphill campaign, and there were political issues as well. In speeches earlier this year, Barbour seemed to cast himself as anti-interventionist, a position that other Republican candidates would describe as "anti-defense." Clearly, Governor Barbour didn't want to spend valuable time (and resources) having to fend off such attacks in the primaries, particularly in states like South Carolina and Florida with huge military populations.

There is also speculation that Mr. Barbour didn't like the odds of running--as a southern governor--against the nation's first African-American president. Almost a year before the first primary, members of the MSM were already hard at work, trying to depict Barbour as someone who was tolerant of racism. Of course, there is no truth in that charge, but as the governor knows, Republicans can be tarred as racists with only rumor and innuendo. That made Barbour's road to the GOP nomination even more difficult (and in his final judgement) unattainable.

Some would also argue that Mr. Barbour shot himself in the foot with ill-advised comments on race earlier this year. Recalling his childhood in Yazoo City, Barbour credited the local Citizen's Council with helping maintain the peace and keeping the Ku Klux Klan out of the town. That struck many as a myopic assessment. While the Yazoo City council may have been anti-Klan, they were also ardent segregationists. It wasn't exactly an endorsement of Bull Connor or Ross Barnett, but Governor Barbour's remarks did nothing to help his fledgling presidential bid.

While Mr. Barbour and his supporters are undoubtedly disappointed, there may be something of a consolation prize in the very near future. Instead on focusing on a losing bid for the White House, the Mississippi Governor can concentrate on an office that can be easily won and may be open in the very near future. We refer to the Senate seat of Thad Cochran, the first Republican to represent Mississippi in that body since Reconstruction. First elected in 1978, Senator Cochran has cruised to victory in five subsequent campaigns. Still, there have been rumors that Mr. Cochran may call it a career in 2014, and not run for re-election. If that happens, Haley Barbour instantly becomes the preemptive favorite for the seat.

True, the road from the World's Greatest Deliberative Body to the White House has often been bumpy, but it can be done (consider the current occupant of the Oval Office). As a successor for Cochran, Mr. Barbour would be on the national stage, with plenty of opportunities to rebuild his support network in time for a 2016 run. After all, Mr. Barbour is anything but a novice, and hardly a political unknown. Or, he could simply finish out his political days in the Senate, as countless others have done.

Among Republicans, there are few more astute interpreters of the political tea leaves than Haley Barbour. He saw no chance of winning his party's nomination in 2012, and wisely decided against a futile run for the White House. But Mr. Barbour is not quite ready to retire from politics, either. That's why we believe today's decision was influenced (in part) by events that will unfold over the next two years. Haley Barbour won't be President in 2014, but he may be Senator-elect from Mississippi, back on the national stage and weighing his options.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Act of Desperation--or Calculation?

A Predator UAV firing a Hellfire missile during a weapons test. The U.S. has authorized the use of armed drones in Libya, providing a modest increase in support to anti-Qadhafi rebels (U.S. Air Force photo).

Earlier today, the Obama Administration unveiled its latest, incremental move in the Libya conflict. According to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the U.S. will soon begin using armed Predator drones again pro-Qadhafi forces. Until now, UAVs have been limited to a surveillance role, in support of NATO operations in Libya.

The move came as rebel forces continue to lose ground to the Libyan dictator. The insurgents have also complained that NATO isn't doing enough to protect civilians in the city of Misrata, the scene of heavy fighting in recent days. Addition of the armed Predators, carrying Hellfire missiles, will (at least in theory) allow NATO to identify government armored forces and artillery positions, and target them more quickly.

But the move left many military analysts scratching their heads. Bringing in a few missile-firing UAVs won't add much to the NATO arsenal. Hellfires are fine for taking out a terrorist hideout in Afghanistan, or vehicle carrying Al Qaida operatives in Yemen. But if you want to eliminate a tank company or a small formation of tube artillery, you'll need more Predators, or some follow-on airstrikes from fixed-wing aircraft.

And there's the rub. While there's been a lot of talk about France and Great Britain flying more attack missions over Libya, there has been no significant increase in their combat sorties. Meanwhile, the U.S. has refused to send its most capable CAS platforms (the A-10 "Warthog" and the AC-130 "Spectre" gunship) back into the fight. Qadhafi is reportedly resupplying and repositioning his forces under the cover of darkness, with relative impunity (did we mention that the U.S. has been pushing its NATO allies to improve their night-strike capabilities for more than a decade).

Some have described the armed Predator deployment as an act of desperation, but it looks more like a carefully calculated move. Originally, President Obama wanted no part of the war, but he was forced into action by advisers like Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power and Susan Rice. At that point, it looked like the rebels might actually win, so many in the administration saw an opportunity for a quick foreign policy success.

You know what happened next. Qadhafi and his military forces regrouped and the rebels folded like a cheap suit. Western military action was necessary to "prevent a massacre." We're not sure if that was a reference to Libyan civilians, or the death of NATO's remaining credibility in the matter. Since then, the fighting has continued, with Qadhafi's forces slowing gaining ground in Misrata, the rebels' last remaining stronghold in western Libya.

Without the introduction of more NATO military power--including manned, U.S. attack aircraft--Misrata will likely fall in the coming weeks. But Mr. Obama has calculated (correctly, we're afraid) that most Americans aren't paying attention and really don't care what happens in Libya. Sending in the drones is little more than a sop to the rebels and our NATO partners. When the drones prove insufficient, the Obama team will start cobbling together some sort of exit plan, fully aware that no one will hold them accountable for the upcoming debacle.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Worth Saving

Driving through Gloucester, Virginia, yesterday, I got a first-hand look at the damage from last weekend's tornado that killed three local residents. The Gloucester storm was part of a massive system that spawned 243 tornadoes in just three days, claiming 45 lives across six states. Most of the victims lived in Virginia and North Carolina. Ironically enough, I frequently travel on business through Bertie County, North Carolina, past some of the small towns where 13 people died in Saturday's deadliest storm.

Last weekend family of twisters rivals the "Super Tuesday" outbreak of 2008, a system that killed 56 people in four southern states, and 1974's legendary "Super Outbreak" which set the record for the most tornadoes in a 24-hour period. More than 300 people in the U.S. and Canada died in the 1974 outbreak, with the largest number of fatalities were recorded in Alabama (77), Kentucky (71) and Tennessee (45).

Thankfully, the number of deaths during major tornado outbreaks has declined over the past 40 years, thanks to the introduction of Doppler weather radar and the work of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. Among its various responsibilities, the SPC is charged with forecasting the risk of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, issuing convective weather outlooks, mesocale discussions and watches for areas that may be affected. The SPC is the successor to the National Severe Storms Forecast Center, which was located in Kansas City, Missouri. The forecast center became the SPC in 1995, as part of its move to Norman.

The SPC does a remarkable job with a small staff (just 43 full-time employees) and an annual budget of less than $10 million. The center's expertise was on display last weekend, when it issued a Particularly Dangerous Situation (PDS) tornado watch for portions of Virginia and North Carolina, well in advance of storms. Residents with access to a NOAA weather radio, their TV or computer knew hours ahead of time about the threat for severe storms, including long-track tornadoes.

If that was the case, cynics might say, why did so many people die? There are a variety of factors, beginning (once again) with the number of individuals killed inside mobile homes. Even a relatively weak twister can mangle that type of structure, one reason that residents are warned to vacate mobile homes when a tornado warning is issued. Unfortunately, most of the people living in mobile homes don't have a storm shelter and trying to outmaneuver the tornado in their car can be even more dangerous. So, many of those in mobile homes elected to stay put, sometimes with fatal consequences.

Additionally, there's the "tune-out" factor. Living in the south and Midwest in the springtime, weather watches and warnings are a common occurrence. Some residents tend to ignore thunderstorm or tornado watches, figuring they'll pay attention when a warning is issued for their area. Never mind that their window for preparation and action is reduced from hours to minutes by that decision.

And, in an era of hundreds of cable TV channels, automated radio stations and even more on-line entertainment options, it's possible to miss a watch or warning entirely. We may never know how many of Saturday's victims missed severe weather advisories, or simply had no access to a survivable shelter during the storm.

Put another way: without the work of the SPC (and local National Weather Service offices), the death toll last week would have been far higher. Unfortunately, both the Storm Prediction Center and the NWS are facing potential budget cuts. One proposal before Congress would trim funding for the weather service by $126 million.

That may not seem like much in a $3 trillion federal budget, but it represents a significant cut for an agency with an annual budget of $800 million a year. A portion of those reductions would occur at the SPC, the National Hurricane Center and other forecasting hubs. There is also talk of "rolling closures" at local NWS offices across the country, lasting for up to 30 days at a time. Other NWS location would handle forecasts and warnings during the closure periods.

No one disputes the need for massive federal budget cuts to prevent the nation's fiscal ruin. But major cuts at places like the SPC strike us as a bad idea, one that potentially jeoardizes public safety. Think about this: the NWS budget is less than the $1 billion allocated annually to AmeriCorps and its parent organization, the Corporation for National and Community Service. Those organizations are supposed to "encourage" volunterism in America, but (as the Washington Times noted last year), that spirit has never been lacking in this country. Making matters worse, we spend an average of $10,000 a year on each "volunteer."

Here's a better idea: shut down AmeriCorps and fully fund the NWS and the SPC.
ADDENDUM: We've been waiting for Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid et. al, to claim that "mean" Republicans want people to die in tornadoes. But it's worth noting that the NWS budget has been under pressure for decades, and the Storm Prediction Center was targeted for closure by the Clinton Administration back in the mid-1990s. The center remained open largely through the efforts of former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts, a Republican. That episode (and current efforts to cut the NWS) remind us that a few government programs are worth saving, particularly if you live in tornado country.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

With a Little Help From His Friends

While the U.S. "message" on Syrian unrest has been muddled (at best), Iran clearly understands what is happening in the streets of Damascus--and is aiding the Assad regime in putting down anti-government protests. From today's edition of The Wall Street Journal:

Iran is secretly helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad put down pro-democracy demonstrations, according to U.S. officials, who say Tehran is providing gear to suppress crowds and assistance blocking and monitoring protesters' use of the Internet, cellphones and text-messaging.

At the same time, communications intercepted by U.S. spy agencies show Tehran is actively exploring ways to aid some Shiite hardliners in Bahrain and Yemen and destabilize longstanding U.S. allies there, say U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence. Such moves could challenge interests of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and inflame sectarian tensions across the Middle East, they say.

"We believe that Iran is materially assisting the Syrian government in its efforts to suppress their own people," said an Obama administration official.

American officials also told the WSJ they don't see Iran as the "driving force" behind the widespread uprisings that have gripped the Middle East in recent months. But the unrest has provided new opportunities for Iran to project influence in the region, although an administration source says Tehran's "aspirations [in these areas] far outpace their abilities."

However, that may not be the case in Syria. Iran has extremely close ties with the Syrian military and Bashir Assad's intelligence services. Given that relationship, it is relatively easy for Damascus to coordinate the surveillance of pro-reform leaders by Iran's intelligence services.

Additionally, there are regular shipments of military cargo between the two countries, using Russian-built IL-76 Candid transports that are operated by the Syrian and Iranian Air Forces. So, the resupply of Assad's riot police (and other security elements) is a relatively simple--and quick--process.

U.S. officials tell the Journal that Iran is also providing something equally valuable: expertise developed in crushing pro-democracy demonstrations in 2009. It's a sure bet that representatives of Tehran's various intelligence agencies are on the ground in Syria, along with representatives of the secret police and the Basij militia. Many of their members are well-versed in such measures as intimidation, torture and execution--the tactics required for brutally suppressing anti-regime protests.

And their record speaks for itself. The Iranian regime survived (in large measure) because of its harsh response to the 2009 uprising, the most serious challenge to the ruling theocracy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. With thousands of Iranians in the streets, the government literally pulled out all the stops in suppressing domestic opposition. By some estimates, between 800 and 3000 protesters were killed on the streets, or while imprisoned. Thousands more were tortured in jail, and many were raped.

More recently, anti-government protests in Iran (triggered by the current wave of Middle East turmoil) have failed to gain traction. An interactive graphic accompanying the WSJ article shows that the last major Iranian demonstration occurred more than a month ago, while much of the region remains in flames. A mere coincidence? Hardly.

Indeed, the "expertise" that's kept the Iranian opposition in check is now aiding the Syrian crackdown. Not that Assad really needs in lessons in that area. After all, his late father ordered the Syrian Army to crush anti-regime activities in the city of Hama in February 1982. Military forces literally leveled the city, killing between 15-20,000 civilians. If necessary, Bashir Assad will do the same thing again--with the help of his Iranian friends.

As for the U.S., the situation in Syria begs both clarity and consistency. The Obama Administration has been muted in its support of pro-democracy elements in Damascus--a far cry from the recent upheaval in Egypt, where the President openly sided with protesters and demanded the departure of former President Hosni Mubarak. Why ignore forces trying to topple the Assad dynasty, one of the region's most repressive regimes, whose policies run counter to our interests in the region?

Similarly, why aren't we doing more to help our long-time friends in the region, like Bahrain and Yemen? Iran is clearly choosing sides and the U.S. should do the same. New governments in those countries are likely to be anti-American, creating additional security nightmares for the United States. And, you don't need to be an economist to understand what will happen if Bahrain falls and the unrest spreads to neighboring Saudi Arabia. Did someone say $8 a gallon gasoline?

As we observed in a recent post, the battle for Syria will determine the future of the Middle East. Toppling the Assad government will reduce the security threat to Israel, and largely isolate the Hizballah-dominated government of Lebanon. Iranian prestige will also suffer a serious blow, if Tehran is unable to prop up its most important ally.

That's why Iran is sparing no effort to keep Bashir Assad in power. They understand what's at stake in Syria. The U.S. does as well, but (unfortunately) our policies don't reflect that reality.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Little Self-Policing, Please

There's no doubt that the Veterans of Foreign Wars has performed great service for our nation, lobbying for veterans' benefits and performing millions of hours of local community service.

But, as with any large enterprise, the VFW has its share of lemons (pun intended) who embarass the organization and its members. Here are a couple of recent examples: In South Dakota, a local chapter promised to furnish a POW-MIA Table for a veterans salute program. The required elements are simple, but their symbology is powerful, as The Moving Wall explains:

The table is small, symbolizing the frailty of one prisoner, alone against his or her suppressers.

The tablecloth is white, symbolic of the purity of their intentions to respond to their Country's call to arms.

The single rose in the vase signifies the blood they may have shed in sacrifice to ensure the freedom of our beloved United States of America. This rose also reminds us of the family and friends of our missing comrades who keep faith while awaiting their return.

The red ribbon on the case represents the red ribbons worn on the lapels of the thousands who demand, with unyielding determination, a proper account of our comrades who are not among us.

A slice of lemon on the plate reminds us of their bitter fate. The salt sprinkled on the plate reminds us of the countless fallen tears of families as they wait.

The glass is inverted, they cannot toast with us at this time. The chair is empty. They are NOT here. The candle is reminiscent of the light of hope that lives in our hearts to illuminate their way home, away from their captors, to open arms of a grateful nation.

The American Flag reminds us that many of them may never return - and have paid the supreme sacrifice to ensure our freedom.

Let us pray to the Supreme Commander that all of our comrades will soon be back within our ranks. Let us remember - and never forget their sacrifice.

Unfortunately, that South Dakota chapter decided to cut some corners with their table. For the lemon, they used a picture of the fruit; for the salt, a couple of condiment packets from McDonald's (unopened).

An Air Force retiree in attendance was horrified. He rushed to the grocery store and bought a lemon, and tore open the fast food salt packets--despite protests from the VFW contingent.

While the POW-MIA Table was properly configured, the VFW color guard was decidedly out-of-kilter, marching into the room out of step, and posting the flags so they tilted at odd angles. Meanwhile, one of the chapter members bragged about his 14-month military career and how he "partied almost every day like it was spring break."

But those offenses are relatively minor compared to the antics of one Ronnie Robbins, former Commissioner of Revenue in Dickenson County, Virginia and (you guessed it) a one-time district adjutant for the VFW.

Mr. Robbins was in federal court last month, facing charges that he lied about his military service.

Prosecutors charged that Robbins altered his DD-214 to include an overseas duty tour that he never served, and lied to the VA to obtain $40,000 in disability benefits, based on a PTSD claim.

Among the revelations from court testimony: the VFW apparently doesn't do a very good job in screening its officers. From the AP:

Former Veterans of Foreign Wars District 12 commander Ray Wells testified that around 2005, he appointed Robbins as district adjutant, meaning he maintained the district's records.

Members are certified by providing a copy of a DD-214 showing service in an overseas conflict, or through other evidence such as photos of themselves in the combat area of operations, Wells said.

Robbins faxed a copy of his DD-214 to Wells in 2006, Wells said, adding that he thought he saw unusually dark spots indicating the record had been altered. Also, Wells noticed that while Robbins' listed medals included the Vietnam Service Medal and Vietnam Campaign Medal, the collective medals were listed in the wrong order.

Wells further said Robbins had told him where in Vietnam he served, but under cross-examination, Wells had trouble remembering the place's name.

To its credit, the VFW eventually booted Robbins from the organization, after the state quartermaster reviewed his record and said it appeared to be forged. However, it is not clear how long Robbins was a member of the organization, or if he held any posts with the local chapters. There's also the little matter of why no one at the local level spotted the obvious deceit.

Clearly, that embarrassing display in South Dakota and the alleged crimes of Ronnie Robbins are two small stains on the VFW's reputation. But they are blemishes nonetheless, and could have been easily prevented. If you can't afford a genuine lemon for a POW-MIA Table at a public event, cut back on the post's beer budget for the next month.

Likewise, there's no reason your color guard shouldn't rehearse before appearing at a public event. And, if the DD-214 of a prospective member looks altered, it probably was. Better to deny membership to that "vet" and avoid a possible public scandal down the road. BTW, Mr. Robbins was convicted after a three-day trial. His political affiliation wasn't mentioned in press accounts, but you can probably guess the party he belongs to.

The Battle for Syria

Make no mistake: the real battle for the future of the Middle East isn't being fought in Benghazi, Cairo, or even Manama, but in the streets of Damascus, Baniyas, Homs and a dozen other Syrian cities. Violent protests have continued across that country in recent days, despite a heavy crackdown by security forces. So far, at least 170 protesters have died in clashes with police and elements of the Syrian military.

The persistence of the demonstrators is rather remarkable, when you consider that modern Syria, run by the Assad family, is nothing more than a police state. When reform protests began a few weeks ago, the current Syrian dictator, Bashir Assad, wasted no time in mobilizing his security apparatus against demonstrators.

There have also been reports that fighters from Hizballah, Syria's terrorist ally in neighboring Lebanon, have been brought in to battle protesters, allowing Assad's police to maintain a slightly lower profile. It's also a sure bet that Assad's friends in Iran are also providing support, to prevent regime change in Damascus. The line has already been drawn in the Syrian sand, and the current conflict could easily end with a mass slaughter, similar to the one that occurred in the early 1980s. Western intelligence services and human rights organizations estimate that as many as 15,000 Syrians were killed by the regime after a series of anti-government protests.

Yet despite long odds--and the threat of escalating regime violence--the demonstrators are still taking to the streets. From Washington Post World:

Syria’s military moved into the Mediterranean port of Baniyas early Monday, human rights workers and activists said, a day after at least 13 people, including four demonstrators and nine members of the state’s security forces, were killed in violent clashes there.

Other activists reported that the unrest in Syria had reached Damascus University, Syria’s oldest and most prestigious institution of higher learning, in the nation’s capital.

Opponents of the Assad family’s dynasty said Monday that their numbers appear to be increasing.

“We are like a snowball that’s getting bigger every day,” said Haitham al-Maleh, a longtime opposition lawyer in Damascus who was recently released from prison.

The nearly month-long wave of protests has claimed an estimated 170 lives so far and presented the fiercest challenge to President Bashar al-Assad and his ruling Baath Party since his taking over upon the death of his father 11 years ago.

Thousands on both sides of the escalating conflict attended the funeral services on Monday for those who were killed Sunday, said Nadim Houry, senior researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. He also said his organization — and even activists in Syria — have had difficulty determining the death toll from Sunday’s violence.

Still, coverage of the Syrian uprising has been sporadic, for a variety of reasons. For starters, there are the problems with reporting on a rebellion in one of the most tightly-controlled dictatorships on earth. As you might expect, the Assad family isn't very keen on allowing foreign journalists into their country to cover the protests (you may have noticed the Cairo dateline on the WaPo dispatch). Currently, Reuters is the only major western news outlet with reporters in-country, but their staffers have been periodically detained by government security forces, while others have been expelled. So far, the Post, The New York Times and other media organizations have elected to keep their reporters in Egypt or Jordan--and out of Syrian jails.

But what about the Arab networks (notably Al-Jazerra), which bragged about its role in bringing down the regime of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. As Lee Smith notes in the Weekly Standard, the Qatar-based network has been very selective in its Syrian coverage, reflecting long-standing ties between the Doha regime and the Assads:

Arab satellite channels dedicated more air time to Syria than in the previous weekdays. The first 30-minutes of Al-Jazeera's news coverage were dedicated to clashes in Syria. However, Al-Jazeera, which has been exceptionally silent on Syria, perhaps because of the good alliance between Assad and Al-Jazeera's owner the Sheikh of Qatar Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, cherry-picked its coverage of Syrian rallies.

He also quotes Beirut Daily Star columnist Michael Young, who has noted the same trend:

Syria is part of the “resistance axis,” and the downfall of its regime would only harm Hezbollah and Hamas. The same lack of enthusiasm characterized the station’s coverage of Lebanon’s Independence Intifada against Syria in 2005. It is easy to undermine Ali Abdullah Saleh, Moammar Gadhafi, and Hosni Mubarak, each of whom in his own way is or was a renegade to the Arabs. But to go after Bashar Assad means reversing years of Al-Jazeera coverage sympathetic to the Syrian leader. Rather conveniently, refusing to do so dovetails with the consensus in the Arab political leadership.

And there's the rub: Syria, which has long sought to be a linchpin of the Arab world, has now assumed that role. The outcome of the Damascus "spring" will carry repercussions far beyond Syria's borders. If Assad falls, Iran will lose a key ally--and a key transshipment point for arms being transferred to Hamas and Hizballah. The loss of Syria would be particularly devastating for Hizballah; the terrorist organization would find it difficult to maintain its hold on Lebanon and would face Israel alone in future conflicts.

A successful rebellion in Syria would also energize regime opponents in the Gulf States and Iran, placing those regimes in greater peril. If Assad can be toppled, demonstrators in places like Riyadh and Tehran would be emboldened, resulting in massive protests and open challenges to the ruling cliques. As a result, the Syrian government will receive a lot of support in the coming weeks, as various government try to stop the string of toppling dominoes.

As for the Obama Administration, it has ramped up its rhetoric against Assad in recent days, but the language has been far less forceful than it was during the Egyptian rebellion, or the early stages of the Libya revolt. The White House is clearly afraid of getting ahead of the protests--particularly when the rebels have only a slight chance of success.

Indeed, certain elements in Washington are also pulling for Assad--as strange as that might seem. They view the Syrian government as a key partner in the Middle East peace process (never mind that it died months ago). From the diplomatic perspective, Assad is a known quantity, and if his government is weakened by the current revolt, he might be more inclined to cut a deal. It's convoluted thinking at best, but that's the way our diplomatic corps operates. Stick with the "known" devil" until a better option comes along, even if it benefits Hizballah and Hamas. .

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

When the Going Gets Tough...

...Congress goes shopping--literally. With a government shutdown looming, Florida Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown is organizing a "boutique shopping trip." Go figure. As The Hill reports:

With a government shutdown looming, Capitol Hill was a pretty serious place on Wednesday afternoon.

But for Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), what better way to ease the tension than with a congressional ladies personal shopping trip in Arlington, Va.?

According to an email from Brown’s scheduler titled, “Outing with Congresswoman Corrine Brown,” staff member Cathy Gass invited Brown’s fellow female Congressional Black Caucus members to join the lawmaker at a boutique in Crystal City, Va. on Wednesday afternoon.

According to the email, which was addressed to “CBC Schedulers,” Brown “would like to invite the woman [sic] CBC Members to go shopping with her at Daniel’s Boutique this afternoon after votes.

Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Now, with America on the brink of financial disaster, Ms. Brown thinks its a great time to whip out the plastic and hit the trendy shops in Crystal City.

Of course, given Congresswoman Brown's long history as a financial deadbeat, you've got to be wondering who is paying for her shopping spree. On the other hand, if she were actually in her office on Capitol Hill, Ms. Brown would probably be working on a bill to confiscate more of your tax dollars for her pet projects.

Maybe that shopping trip isn't such a bad idea--but then again, we'll wind up paying for it, one way or the other.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Buh-Bye Katie, Redux

The Associated Press has confirmed what was first reported last week: Katie Couric will leave the anchor chair at CBS when her contract ends in June. As we noted previously, there was no real impetus for the network--or Ms. Couric--to extend the deal. Five years into her run, CBS was stuck with a third-place evening newscast, while paying Couric an annual salary of $15 million.

Now, as the AP observes, the question becomes: can Couric's successor--whoever it may be--lift CBS out of the ratings cellar? It's hardly impossible, but to borrow a phrase from Don Rumsfeld, it promises to be a long, hard slog:

News consultant Andrew Tyndall, who tracks the content of the evening newscasts, said he sees "no real way at all" for CBS to escape the basement anytime soon.

CBS is harmed by poor ratings for local newscasts at many affiliates and CBS-owned stations, offering poor lead-ins to network newscasts, Tyndall said. Many viewers don't switch networks from local to national news.

"You can't separate the performance of the evening news from the performance of the local news," Tyndall said.

The wire service notes that CBS was hurt by the loss of strong affiliates in cities such as Atlanta and Detroit, where the Evening News (and other network shows) now air on low-rated UHF stations.

But that's something of a red herring; all of the broadcast networks lost key affiliates in the 80s and 90s, when local stations were cutting the best deal with the highest bidder. ABC, for example, lost stations in Memphis, St. Louis and New Orleans that delivered far more viewers than their eventual replacements. Yet, ABC has somehow managed to remain in second place in the network news wars, behind front-runner NBC.

Likewise, CBS isn't the only network with laggards among its owned-and-operated stations. Ratings at WNBC in New York and KNBC in Los Angeles have almost collapsed in recent years, allowing their CBS competitor to move into second place in some time slots. And with CBS's dominance in prime time, some of the network's owned stations (such as WCBS in New York) are now #1 at 11 pm, for the first time in decades.

So, Couric's ratings problems aren't merely the result of her affiliate line-up, or weak local newscasts at the CBS O&O's. In fact, AP TV writer David Bauder seems to go out of his way to make excuses for The Perky One.

Maybe he's angling for that first interview after she leaves the anchor chair. Or (more likely), she's been a useful, anonymous source in the past. Whatever the reason, Bauder seems unable to reach the obvious conclusion: Couric was a colossal failure as anchor of the CBS Evening News because viewers didn't like her or the broadcast. Whatever she brought to morning TV was soundly rejected at the dinner hour.

And that, in turn, may prompt a reassessment of Couric's success on NBC's "Today Show." For years, it was conventional wisdom in the TV biz that Katie was instrumental to that program's phenomenal success, beginning in the mid-1990s. But the program has remained a ratings juggernaut even without Couric on the couch. In fact, many would argue that NBC's morning show hasn't missed a beat. Hmmm...maybe the presence of Matt Lauer, the hiring of Meredith Viera and poor decisions at ABC's Good Morning America were also responsible for Today's continued dominance in the morning.

According to the AP, Couric's next project will be a daytime talk show, syndicated (perhaps) by CBS. In the post-Oprah era, the departing CBS anchor apparently believes she can be the Next Big Thing. But as anyone in the TV business will tell you, daytime TV is far more cutthroat than the nightly news wars. Syndicated shows come and go, rising and falling on their audience numbers.

For someone like Ms. Couric, syndicators (and local stations) might commit to a two-year deal--something almost unheard of daytime TV. But if the ratings go south, Katie will get the hook far faster than on the Evening News, with affiliates shifting her program to the graveyard timeslot to cut their losses and fulfill the contract.

Put another way: if Couric launches her new show in the Fall of 2012 (as widely reported), we'll know by the Spring of 2013 if the program is a hit or flop. Clearly, it's hard to judge the potential of a Couric talk show without a pilot, which will come months after she signs a syndication deal. But at this point, we don't think Judge Judy has much to worry about.