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Sunday, February 07, 2016

Hats Off to Jersey Fats for Gouging, then Trouncing Rubio

"You weren't even there to vote for it. That's not leadership. That’s truancy.” - Chris Christie

Why Chris Christie’s beatdown of Marco Rubio was the only moment from the GOP debate that mattered

Why Chris Christie's beatdown of Marco Rubio was the only moment from the GOP debate that mattered

The moment when Saturday night’s Republican presidential primary debate was effectively over came long before the seven candidates left the stage at the St. Anselm’s College Institute of Politics in Manchester.

About 30-odd minutes in, ABC’s moderators, the frankly abysmal Martha Radditz and David Muir, turned the klieg lights onto Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio. What transpired next was one of the best pieces of debate-stage political theater in recent memory (which isn’t saying much; although I’d bet guys like Carl Diggler had fun).

And if it’s possible for a moment from a debate to have a lasting impact on a presidential campaign — which recent history suggests is no small question — I’m guessing that the gleeful whooping Christie proceeded to administer to Rubio will be remembered as one such moment. Before I explain why, though, you’ll have to let me set the scene.

Going into the debate, neither Christie nor Rubio were especially likely to come out of next week’s New Hampshire primary with a win. According to the polls, overall, New Hampshire remains what it has been for much of this primary: Trump territory. The real game, then, was over which “establishment” candidate — Rubio, Bush, Christie, or Kasich — would finish second (or conceivably third, if Cruz was the runner-up).

After parlaying a third-place finish into first-place momentum in the Iowa caucuses — with a lot of help from the media, by the way — Rubio was the most likely second-place finisher. Which explains why Christie, who has basically been living in New Hampshire for the past year, started hammering the senator as a novice with no accomplishments; a nice guy, sure, but also a rookie. It explains Bush and Christie’s unofficial, temporary détente, too.

It was bound to be dramatic, therefore, when Christie and Rubio were first pitted against one another. Still, even if we acknowledge that the matchup of these two abnormally telegenic politicians (in the broadest sense of the term) was bound to make for better television than the somnambulant, passive-aggressive, I’m-not-mad-I’m-just-disappointed nonsense Dr. Ben Carson was laying on Sen. Ted Cruz, the results were extraordinary.

Things got started when Rubio was asked to respond to Christie’s allegation that, after experiencing the presidency of Barack Obama, who was elected as a first-term U.S. senator, it would be especially unfortunate if the Republican Party were itself to nominate Marco Rubio, a first term U.S. senator, for the White House. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,” Christie had said (bettering his former benefactor, George).

Rubio’s comeback was pretty good, if a little obvious in its intent: He argued that experience was overrated; if it mattered, Vice President Joe Biden would be a good candidate for commander-in-chief. He then argued that an unspoken premise of the criticism — that Obama has failed in part due to his inexperience — is faulty. Obama knows exactly what he’s doing, Rubio said. The president is not a fool; he’s a menace.
Christie wasn’t having it, dismissing Rubio’s Biden straw man and recommitting to his initial attack. Rubio’s a nice guy, a smart guy, Christie said; but the simple fact is that he’s never had to make an important decision. This got a noticeable round of applause from the audience. And perhaps that’s why Rubio then proceeded to self-destruct.

What Rubio’s next five or so minutes such a disaster wasn’t really what he said — but the fact that he had already just said it. Looking mighty flummoxed, Rubio tried to parry Christie’s second attack by pivoting once again to Obama, hoping to bring the crowd around to his side by using generous helpings of ideological red meat to help their tribal identification overwhelm their intellect. It had already failed, but he was doing it again. Worse still, his second answer was almost a verbatim repeat of his first.

Remember: The knock on Rubio has always been, essentially, that he’s a lightweight. He’s young, pretty good-looking, and he exudes the kind of Kennedy-esque earnest, “idealistic” machismo that seems to send a thrill up the legs of the Republican Party’s aged voter base (as well the aging ranks of the elite political press). As they once said of that cherubic whippersnapper Al Gore, Rubio is an older person’s idea of a young person. There may not be much there there, in short.

Well, it’s hard to imagine anything Rubio could have possibly done that would more immediately, and humorously, affirm the caricature. Here he was, really being challenged for the first time  — and by Christie, a world-class bully, no less — and he was wilting. He was like an artificially intelligent robot confronted with a logical question his programming couldn’t handle. I worried for a moment that my stream of the debate had begun to skip.

Whether due to incompetence or pity, the moderators tried to move on. But like a really big, mean, and sadistic shark, Christie was all over it. He mocked Rubio for falling back on his talking points — something all politicians do, but rarely so conspicuously — and continued to shred the senator’s (lack of a) record, as well as tout his own hands-on experience governing New Jersey.

Rubio tried to tu quoque Christie, noting that the governor had only grudgingly returned to the Garden State during a recent snowstorm. Christie all but rolled his eyes and laughed it off while the audience booed — at Rubio. And then, unbelievably, Rubio started to fall back into repeating the talking point (let’s not pretend Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing…) yet again. “There it is!” Christie interjected. The crowd was with him. Rubio’s emasculation was all but complete.

And, I swear to God, about 40 minutes later, he used the same line again.

Now, as I said at the beginning, this was far from the end of the night’s festivities. But I’m guessing that the whole rest of the debate put together won’t matter nearly as much as those five minutes. Because perhaps more than any other single traditional element of a presidential campaign, the response to debates — especially primary debates, and especially primary debates on a Saturday night — is influenced by the media. Sometimes it’s a negative influence, granted. But that’s influence all the same.

And the media, I promise you, is going to be obsessed with this first, most dramatic Christie-Rubio confrontation. Because not only does it make for good television and good copy (here I am, 1100 words in, and you’re still reading), but it’ll make for great late night jokes and “Saturday Night Live” skits, too. That’s thanks, in part, to its already fitting a pre-established narrative. Christie, the bully you like despite yourself; Rubio, the young, handsome and über-ambitious empty suit.

So expect Christie’s dismantling of Rubio to be the part of Saturday night’s debate that people remember — if anyone remembers any of it at all. It does not rank among the United States’ most inspirational moments of civic engagement, admittedly. But if nothing else, it showed that professional bullies like Chris Christie can provide a valuable public service every now and then.

 Elias Isquith
Elias Isquith is a daily columnist at Salon who focuses on politics and inequality. He tweets at @eliasisquith.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Russian-Backed Syrian Forces Press Aleppo, Refugees Fleeing: Centcom - Aleppo not an immediate concern for the U.S. military, since the opposition group defenders were battling the Assad regime and not ISIS.


Aleppo is about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Turkish border, and Ankara enjoys wide influence in northern Syria. Most of the rebels' supplies flow across the Turkish border.

Russia has stepped up its airstrikes in areas close to the frontier, and opposition activists in the area say the warplanes have targeted trucks from Turkey in recent weeks.

As the fighting intensifies, thousands of people are fleeing toward the Turkish border. If the government forces surround the city, it could lead to a siege that would isolate tens of thousands of civilians and eventually force the surrender of rebels hold up inside. (ags)

Syria: The Mother of all Battles for Aleppo is Joined

Aided by a massive Russian bombing campaign and Hizbullah and Iranian (or likely actually Afghan) reinforcements, the Syrian Arab Army has broken out of the siege imposed on West Aleppo by rebel forces toward the north, and now seems positioned to besiege East Aleppo, which is under rebel control. The Lebanese newspaper al-Nahar reports on the situation based on a range of Arabic wire services.

In early October, the shoe had been on the other foot, and rebels had cut the Damascus-Aleppo road to the south, depriving regime-held West Aleppo of food and supplies, so that it could have fallen to the Free Syrian Army. Russian aerial bombardment and government troops along with auxiliaries like Hizbullah took back control of the road and allowed deliveries to West Aleppo.

But the western enclave was still besieged from the north, as were two Shiite villages, Nubl and Zahra.

In the past couple of days, the army and its paramilitary allies, especially Hizbullah, relieved Nubl and Zahra. They had been under siege by al-Qaeda (the Nusra Front) since 2012 and only survived via airdrops of food. Had they fallen, hyper-Sunni al-Qaeda would likely have committed bloodthirsty reprisals against the Shiites there, who are said to have organized pro-regime local militias.
Then on Thursday the Syrian Arab Army took Mayer and Kafr Naya, putting the army and its allies in a position to cut off the roads north of Aleppo to Turkey and so put east Aleppo under effective siege. 

Al-Nahar alleges that US military supplies have flowed to the rebels consistently during this fighting, but the small and medium weapons (including T.O.W. anti-tank weaponry) were insufficient in the face of 200 Russia air raids in a matter of hours.

It also quotes a source alleging that the Jerusalem (Quds) Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was absolutely central to the new government advance and that its leader, Qasem Soleimani, is on the battlefield.  Al-Nahar also reported that IRGC Brigadier General Mohsen Qajarian was killed north of Aleppo during the fighting.

Steffan de Mistoura suspended the Geneva peace talks in the face of the Russian bombing campaign and advances on the battlefield. It is alleged that the latter were in part made possible because the Russians tricked the US into pressuring Turkey and Saudi Arabia to halt temporarily resupply of the Aleppo rebels while the talks were going on.

I talked a couple years ago to a journalist who had been in Aleppo, embedded with the rebels, and he told me that the rebel forces ran low on supplies every day, but that there appeared miraculously every morning shipments of ammunition. The implication was that they were being resupplied from Turkey, and very efficiently so. That resupply is now in danger.

Rebel forces in east Aleppo, mostly locals and mostly Free Syrian Army rather than Saudi-backed Salafi Jihadis, are now in danger of falling to a regime reconquest of Syria’s largest city. This could be horrible in its reprisals and torture, and thousands of Syrians are already fleeing north to Turkey, but the border there is closed and they are willy nilly camped in the wilderness. 
At the same time, the Kurdish YPG militia has seen an opportunity to unite its Kobane enclave with Afrin to the west, north of Aleppo, and it is also moving into the area above the city, which will reinforce a blockade of rebel-held east Aleppo.

The intrepid Liz Sly at WaPo, among our more experienced and insightful Middle East war correspondents, thinks that the battle of Aleppo could, if the regime wins it, be a turning point in the civil war. The regime could win it all.

Syria’s population was only 22 million before the war, of whom a good 4 million are now outside the country, leaving 18 million. Greater Aleppo before the war had 4 million people. It may still be about that, since people have come in from the insecure countryside. That would be 22 percent of the remaining in-country population. The regime probably has 5 million under its control in Greater Damascus, another couple million in Homs and Hama, and nearly 2 million in Latakia province (which it has completely secured in the past month). That’s 13 of the 18 million, nearly three quarters of the in-country population. It is hard to see how, thereafter, Idlib (1.5 million) and Deraa (1 million) hold out (the regime has already struck into central Deraa in the past couple weeks).

The US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries appear now to have a choice of acquiescing in a Russian fait accompli in restoring Syrian regime control to much of the country, or of attempting to greatly increase rebel capabilities. The latter want anti-aircraft manpads, which the US has so far declined to supply. Liz Sly seems to think that in any case that the supply routes are being cut, and the battle will be over before such materiel can reach the FSA units, even if the US changes its mind about supplying it.

These dramatic events may have impelled the Saudis to talk about sending troops to fight Daesh (ISIL, ISIS), which controls areas east and southeast of Aleppo. The presence of Saudi troops on Syrians soil might at least give Riyadh some say in the post-war settlement and prove an impediment to a mere restoration of the status quo ante. This scenario strikes me as far-fetched and desperate; the Saudi infantry is not known for boldness.

On the other hand, given the massacres committed by the regime and its mass murder of POWs, and recent indiscriminate Russian air strikes on civilian areas, I just find it difficult to believe that it can be restored to power in any straightforward way. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have a Chechnya strategy in mind, with Bashar al-Assad playing Ramzan Kadyrov, the secular Chechen strong man ruling Chechnya as a comprador for Moscow after Putin crushed the Muslim fundamentalist second Chechen uprising in the early zeroes.
But Syria is bigger and more complex than Chechnya, and aside from al-Qaeda and perhaps some Gulf donors, outsiders recognized it as Russian province.
The Resistance could go underground and go on fighting, using covert tactics and terrorism, as happened in Sunni areas of Iraq during the prime ministership of Nouri al-Maliki.

The Fat Lady hasn’t sung yet, by a long shot.
—— Related video

Friday, February 05, 2016

Christopher Hitchens on Abraham and Isaac Bible Fable

“Abraham and the wonderful meanings of his stories”  - Boobie

The huge global scale of female genital mutilation has been revealed in disturbing new statistics, which show at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone ritual cutting, half of them living in just three countries.
The latest worldwide figures, compiled by Unicef, include nearly 70 million more girls and women than estimated in 2014 because of a raft of new data collected in Indonesia, one of the countries where FGM is most prevalent despite the practice being banned since 2006.
In the analysis of 30 countries, published to mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, statistics showed women in Indonesia, Egypt and Ethiopia account for half of all FGM victims worldwide. Somalia has the highest prevalence of women and girls who have been cut – 98% of the female population between the ages of 15 and 49.