Friday, March 28, 2008

The nightmare in Iraq

Ever since I started this blog in 2005, I have been lambasting the Bush Administration for the Iraq invasion and occupation.

As the war goes into its sixth year, I have become more frustrated and angrier as I see the disastrous results of the monumental Bush blunder: the unnecessary death of at least 4,000 brave American soldiers; the waste of a trillion or more dollars that could have been spent to bolster Medicare and Social Security and to cope with other domestic problems; the weakening of American military capabilities; the serious damage to the nation's international prestige and diplomatic power; the increased threat of Islamic terrorism because of the military diversion from fighting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraq's emergence as a new terrorist breeding ground for radical Muslim extremists.

Despite this nightmare, President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney continue to claim that we are "making progress and making sure that we achieve victory" in Iraq. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, insists that "we are succeeding...and are on the precipice of winning a major victory against radical Islamic extremism."

But there is no victory and success in sight in Iraq. The U.S. invasion and occupation have proven to be a disaster.

The Administration and its supporters argue that we must remain in Iraq to help the country defend itself against a foreign enemy, presumably Iran. With an Iraqi Shiite regime now in power, however, that claim is absurd. The American presence in Iraq has actually increased Shiite Iran's influence in the country. For Iraqi's majority Shiite population, Iran is now a Shiite ally, not an enemy. For most Shiites, the U.S. occupation force is the enemy.

Al-Maliki, Iraq's U.S.-backed leader, recently gave Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a public, red-carpet welcome on his visit to Baghdad. But when Bush, Cheney, McCain and other American political dignitaries visit Baghdad, they have to arrive secretly, protected by a military shield. Iran, incidentally, is now supplying the bulk of electric power to Basra, Iraq's second largest city, and to much of the surrounding southern region.

The absurdity of the American presence in Iraq is underscored by our role playing referee in the string of civil wars plaguing the country. Sunnis, who as a minority ruled Iraq for centuries, are battling the Shiite regime while rival Shiite militias are fighting each other and the al-Maliki regime.

Meantime, Sunni insurgents continue to war against the U.S. occupation forces. In a bizarre tactical move, the U.S. has begun to pay some Sunni tribes to desert the anti-U.S. insurgency campaign and to fight their fellow Sunnis. But American troops, unable to distinguish friends from foes, recently attacked and killed Sunni gunmen who are on our payroll.

Such is the nightmare that is Iraq.

Sen. McCain, on a recent visit to Iraq, claimed that Iran is training and equipping Al-Qaeda fighters and shipping them to Iraq. Until Sen. Joe Lieberman, who accompanied McCain on his visit, corrected him, McCain was apparently unaware that there is deep-rooted religious hostility between the fundamentalist Shiites of Iran and Al-Qaeda, the extremist Sunni Muslim movement based in Afghanistan and the neighboring Pakistani frontier provinces.

I would not be surprised if President Bush himself and some of his top advisers did not know the difference between Muslim Sunnis and Shiites when the Iraq invasion began.

There is a small insurgent group within Iraq that calls itself "Al-Qaeda in Mesopatemia." But American military commanders regard it as a homegrown force led by foreign Arabs and not a major threat. The "Al-Qaeda" name is being adopted by indigenous terrorist groups in various Arab territories. It has evidently become a Muslim terrorist franchise name--like Kentucky Fried Chicken in the fast-food business.

The Bush Administration's much-touted "surge"--shipping about 30,000 additional troops to Iraq last year--reduced violence for a few months. But both the attacks on U.S forces and sectarian strife between rival militias are now on the rise again. Even Baghdad's Green Zone, the capital city's fortress-like, heavily defended neighborhood that houses U.S. military headquarters and the U.S. embassy, is now under attack from the Mahdi army, the major anti-American Shiite militia.

Most important, al-Maliki and his fundamentalist Shiite supporters have yet to meet U.S. demands that they bridge political divisions and establish a "national unity" government. Bush's goal to "bring American-style democracy" to Iraq has proven to be a joke.

In short, the Bush Administration's invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a dismal failure. The most bitter aspect of that failure is the nonsensical insistence by the Bush Administration that the Iraq war has made the U.S. safer from terrorist attacks. Actually, we and other Western democracies are now more vulnerable to Islamic terrorism because Iraq has been turned into a recruitment center and training ground for anti-American Muslim extremists. Iraq has assumed a role that was Afghanistan's two decades ago when there was a Islamic struggle against the invasion by the former Soviet Union and its subsequent brutal occupation.

To justify the war, the Administration--and particularly Vice-President Cheney--continues to imply that there was a link between the 9/11 attack and Saddam Hussein, the deposed Iraqi leader, disregarding evidence that this is a myth.

So is there a solution to the Iraq nightmare?

I see no alternative but to withdraw the approximate 160,000 U.S. troops from Iraq. Obviously, because of logistics problems, this would have to be a phased withdrawal. But we can begin to deploy them out in such a fashion that we are no longer operationally involved in refereeing a civil war and training Iraqi troops to defend their country against both local anti-government forces and the phantom foreign enemy, Shiite Iran.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

ABOUT ME: A mini bio (continued)--My mother's family

I am a first-generation American. Both my parents were born in the former Czarist Russian Empire and were brought to this country as children more than a century ago. I have always felt that my personal link to the immigrant experience has profoundly affected my love for America and my appreciation of our nation's very unique nature.

I never knew my grandfathers, but both my grandmothers lived long enough to have seen me grow from infancy until I was a married man with a child of my own. I am most familiar with the background of my mother's family because my maternal grandmother, a widow, lived with my parents when I was a boy. I was thus well exposed to tales of the "old country," since Grandma often discussed her harsh life before coming to this country with me.

She and her husband, Chaim (Herman) Rabinowitz, arrived in New York City with three small children in 1903 aboard the S.S. Nordam. The ship had sailed from Rotterdam in Holland. I never learned the details of what must have been a very arduous journey from the family's rural home in the Belorussian province of Minsk to the Dutch port.

The ship's manifest, which a cousin of mine retrieved from the immigration archives, shows that my grandfather arrived with $110. Only one of the 27 individuals on the same page of the manifest is shown to have landed in this country with more money. The manifest listed my grandfather's age as 34.

My mother, who died in 1989, was about five years old when the family arrived here. She had an older brother and two younger sisters, one of whom was born in the U.S. On the family's arrival, the immigration officials converted my mother's Russian Jewish first name, "Chashkeh," into Katherine. They bestowed the similarly non-Jewish name of Mary on my grandmother, whose Jewish name was "Merkeh," a Yiddish nickname for Miriam.

My mother's father died in 1907, only four years after the family landed here. My mother always said that she could not remember him. When he married Grandma, he moved to her home to work for his father-in-law, Moshe Aharon Tsivin, who was a miller. I don't know where my grandfather came from nor how he met my grandmother.

The mill was located outside a village my grandmother always called Puzhets. It was apparently the Yiddish name for Puchovici. The family lived among the local peasants, far removed from a Jewish community. Grandma had two sisters and five brothers. Because of their isolation, their father employed a live-in tutor to educate his children.

The education was aimed primarily at the sons, but my grandmother evidently sat in on their classes, for she was literate in Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian. She was probably also familiar with the Polish and Lithuanian spoken by some of her peasant neighbors. Moreover, she was undoubtedly far more learned in the Bible than most East European Jewish women of her generation.

Sadly, however, she never learned to speak English, despite living in the U.S. for about a half-century. As a single mother of four children, she apparently had little opportunity to learn the language. And there was little pressure to learn English because she lived in neighborhoods where everyone with whom she came into contact spoke Yiddish.

According to family lore, my maternal grandfather came to this country to escape imprisonment. A Czarist Russian government quota specified how many Jews were allowed to live in the district in which his father-in-law's mill was located. My grandfather exceeded the authorized number.

A Jewish informer eventually notified the authorities about his presence, and he was put in jail. He was released only after his father-in-law bribed the appropriate Czarist bureaucrat, and he agreed to leave Puzhets--and, indeed, all of Russia. He apparently had no desire to return to his own home town.

Financed by his father-in-law, he brought his family to New York City, where they settled in East Harlem. He went to work for his wife's two older brothers, Sam and Ike Sivin, who were prosperous men's clothing manufacturers. (They had simplified the family surname by substituting an "S" for the "ts" sound.)

My grandfather died in Mt. Sinai Hospital nearly four years after arriving here. According to his death certificate, the cause of death was cardiac failure. The certificate also identifies his occupation as an "operator"--of a sewing machine, I assume.

After his death, my grandmother's brothers supported her and her children until the children were old enough to work. After graduating from high school, my mother went to work for her uncles as a bookkeeper and her brother as a traveling salesman. A younger sister took on my mother's job after I was born. Another sister, who had been an invalid, died in childhood.

Two decades later, when my parents were married, my father--who had also gone to work for the uncles--met a man who told him that he came from Puzhets, the Sivin family's home town. When my father told this to my grandmother and described the man, Grandma recognized him as the informer responsible for her late husband's imprisonment in Russia.

I do not know whether she ever sought revenge against the man. Perhaps the opportunity to find a new life in America was far more satisfying than the desire for revenge.

(to be continued)

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Advice for Hillary and Obama: Play nice

The Democratic primary battle between Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama is becoming increasingly ugly. Unless they begin to campaign in a less poisonous fashion, they will commit political suicide and ensure the election of Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate.

Despite polls showing that both Hillary and Obama now lead McCain, I am convinced that McCain will win the Presidential election unless the two Democratic candidates tone down their personal attacks upon each other. By November, the poisonous charges they are now exchanging will have been more fully absorbed by the electorate.

The behavior of both the Clinton and Obama camps is a good argument that maybe the Democrats ought to return to the venerable process of picking candidates in smoke-filled rooms during the Presidential conventions. In those days, the dirty stuff rarely emerged in time to affect the voters, particularly independents or the undecided.

As the Democratic primary campaign becomes more bitter, the Republican attack-dogs are collecting all the dirty stuff that the Clinton and Obama camps are throwing at each other. What better ammunition could they have for the November election?

The Democratic primaries are especially pathetic because the policy views of the two candidates are virtually indistinguishable. Moreover, when you compare the abilities of both Hillary and Obama to the White House's current occupant, there's no doubt that both candidates are eminently qualified to be President.

Hillary and Obama have cheapened the primary campaign by trying to tear each other down. The issues should be which one makes the more forceful argument against McCain and the more penetrating and meaningful critique of the Bush Administration's blunders.

Perhaps my view of the primary race is a bit of sour grapes. I would have preferred Al Gore or John Edwards as the Democratic candidate. Or Senators Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Joe Biden of Delaware. I have to hold my nose watching Hillary and Obama go at each other. Their antics, I feel, are making McCain's election inevitable.

I'm reminded of my grandmother's impatience while she watched her small grandchildren playing too boisterously for her taste. "Play nice!" she would demand. I would give the same advice to Hillary and Obama.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The miracles of the Internet--and its dark side

I never cease to be amazed by the miracles of the Internet. Last week, for example, I received an e-mail message from some one describing herself as "a young researcher living in Manhattan who's desperately curious about [a] recent purchase."

The lady had bought what she describes as a "unique, vintage set of scissors and letter opener." She said she is trying to learn the set's manufacturer. All she knows is that the set was originally purchased from Goldsmith Bros., a New York office supplies store that was once the nation's largest retailer of stationery products. It has been out of business for many decades.

"If you know of anything that could help, such as the names of some manufacturing companies Goldsmith Bros. may have purchased from, or the location of some contemporaneous Goldsmith Bros. catalogs," she wrote, "I would genuinely, sincerely appreciate the help."

What does all this have to do with me?

"I Googled around a bit," she explained, "and one of your old blog entries came up." She referred to a story I posted nearly two years ago about having had a job as an office boy with RKO-Radio Pictures' publicity department in the early 1940s. The story told that the highlight of my brief "career" was delivering a bottle of whiskey to Lucille Ball in her Manhattan hotel room. At the time, the famed actress was visiting New York to promote a new movie.

In the piece, I mentioned that I had previously worked for Goldsmith Bros. for several months, starting out as a 16-year old delivery boy and being promoted to shipping clerk and--after graduating from high school--becoming a salesman.

That was it!

I do not understand how the lady seeking information about her vintage set of scissors and letter-opener connected with me. Out of curiosity, I checked Google and found no reference to Goldsmith Bros. under my name and no listing for the now-defunct store. But her inquiry vividly demonstrates how the Internet has become an extraordinary source for information-seekers. In this case, unfortunately, the lady has yet to obtain the information she seeks.

The miraculous nature of the Internet, however, has a dark side: the loss of personal anonymity. Even people who are unfamiliar with computers and the Internet are vulnerable to the exposure of sensitive personal information.

Out of curiosity and possible boredom, I have gone to Google and other search engines, typing in names of old acquaintances with whom I have lost touch just to learn what has happened to them. In a few cases, I was saddened to learn that the subject was no longer alive.

On a couple of occasions, however, I have been startled to find personal and embarrassing information about the subject. The person would be shocked to know how such information has become easily accessible to the public because of the Internet.

One case involved a man I casually knew as a boy. We grew up in the same apartment house but were not friends, largely because he was several years younger than me. Indeed, I do not recall that he had any play mates. He was a shy, reclusive kid who was regarded by the neighbors as a "Momma's boy." He was an exceptionally brilliant boy, disinterested in athletics but consumed in school and books. Now I was curious to know whatever happened to him.

I typed his name into Google and learned that he had become a psychiatrist. His surname is an uncommon one so I was confident that I had the right person. A legal document, derived from the public record, came up in my search, disclosing that his license to practice medicine had been revoked. No reason was provided. Another item revealed that he had continued practicing medicine without a license and was heavily fined. Again, no explanation. There were no subsequent references to indicate his current status.

I had a similarly disturbing experience when I typed in the unusual family name of some one I knew in school. Among the items that showed up was a reference from the public record to a woman bearing the same surname. I do not know whether she is related to my former school mate. Surprisingly, my search uncovered a case that resembled that of the other man.

The woman had been a social worker employed by a state welfare agency. She was dismissed from her job and had her professional license revoked because of what the public record showed was "an improper relationship with a client."

I wonder whether the two people I've written about are aware that their private records are so accessible to the public. The Internet is indeed a miraculous institution, enabling those seeking information about virtually any subject to satisfy their search so easily. As I have seen, however, the price can be the loss of personal privacy and anonymity.

But don't get me wrong. I am not advocating restrictions on the operation of Internet search engines. The Internet has become an integral element in my day-to-day activities, and I would be lost without it.

As a blogger, I regularly reveal personal, often sensitive information about myself, and I have not worried that it is so easily accessible to strangers. Perhaps I have unknowingly sought and found an inexpensive substitute for psychoanalysis.

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