Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

They Said It:

What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes.

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives. Ever since we left the Pleistocene, some ten millennia ago, the effect of these Black Swans has been increasing. It started accelerating during the industrial revolution, as the world started getting more complicated, while ordinary events, the ones we study and discuss and try to predict from reading the newspapers, have become increasingly inconsequential.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan:  The Impact of the Highly Improbable, 2007.



Lebanon is, without question, the most enigmatic of the Arab lands.  It is both beautiful and desolate, civilized and shattered, tolerant and fanatical.  It is, by far, the most liberal and liberated Arab nation.  And yet it is also the most radical and segregated.  Once upon a time – less than 80 years ago – it was almost entirely Christian.  Today, it is still more than one-third Christian, and thus still by far the most heavily Christian nation in the Middle East.  Even so, Hezbollah, the Iranian-funded, armed, and trained Shiite militia is the country’s most dominant political force – and its most inflammatory.

Almost exactly forty years ago, the tensions between Lebanon’s Christian and Muslim factions spilled over into civil war.  The war raged for 16 years, provoking an invasion by Israel, a global peacekeeping mission, direct Iranian intervention, and the most devastating and deadly terrorist attack on American interests prior to 9/11.

Even after the war officially ended in 1991, Lebanon’s troubles continued.  The country was unofficially occupied for much of the next decade-and-a-half by Syrian forces.  In 2005, the Syrians assassinated the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was revered among his countrymen for his role in ending the civil war.  The murder prompted widespread outrage and yet another United Nations intervention.  Syrian forces officially left Lebanon later that spring, but anti-Syrian leaders were routinely assassinated for months afterward.

In 2009, the late, great Christopher Hitchens visited Lebanon to write about its post-revolution, post-occupation progress.  He captured the glory of the country, as well as its turmoil.  He put it this way:

As Arab thoroughfares go, Hamra Street in the center of Beirut is probably the most chic of them all.  International in flavor, cosmopolitan in character, it boasts the sort of smart little café where a Lebanese sophisticate can pause between water-skiing in the Mediterranean in the morning and snow-skiing in the mountains just above the city in the afternoon.  “The Paris of the Middle East” used to be the cliché about Beirut: by that exacting standard, I suppose, Hamra Street would be the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

Not at all the sort of place you would expect to find a spinning red swastika on prominent display.  Yet, as I strolled in company along Hamra on a sunny Valentine’s Day last February, in search of a trinket for the beloved and perhaps some stout shoes for myself, a swastika was just what I ran into.  I recognized it as the logo of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a Fascist organization (it would be more honest if it called itself “National Socialist”) that yells for a “Greater Syria” comprising all of Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, and swaths of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt.  It’s one of the suicide-bomber front organizations—the other one being Hezbollah, or “the party of god”—through which Syria’s Ba’thist dictatorship exerts overt and covert influence on Lebanese affairs. . . .

Martyrs’ Square, the huge open space in downtown Beirut, dominated by the finest imaginable Virgin Megastore and by a brand-new sandstone mosque in the Turkish style commissioned by Rafik Hariri, was absolutely thronged by a crowd of hundreds of thousands.  Although it was a commemorative event, there were no signs of the phenomena that the media have taught us to expect when death is the subject in the Middle East.  That is to say, there were no hoarse calls for martyrdom and revenge, no ululating women or children wearing suicide-bomber shrouds, no firing into the air or coffins tossing on a sea of hysterical zealotry.  As I made my way through the packed crowd I wondered why it seemed somehow familiar.  It came to me that the atmosphere of my hometown of Washington on the day of Obama’s inauguration had been a bit like this: a huge and unwieldy but good-natured celebration of democracy and civil society.

Lebanon is the most plural society in the region, and the “March 14” coalition, the group of parties that leads the current government, essentially represents the Sunnis, the Christians, the Druze (a tribe and creed unique to the region), and the Left.  Hezbollah has a partial stranglehold on the Shiite community but by no means a monopoly, and one of the speakers at the rally was a Shiite member of parliament, Bassem Sabaa, who argued very strongly that Arab grievances against Israel should not excuse Arab-on-Arab oppression.  Almost nobody displayed any religious emblem, and even the few who did were usually careful to put it next to the ubiquitous cedar-symbol flag of Lebanon itself.  Women with head covering were few; women with face covering were nowhere to be seen.  Designer jeans were the predominant fashion theme.  Eclectic musical choices came over the loudspeakers.  The average age was low.  Nobody had been bused in, at least not by the state.  Nobody had been told to leave work and demonstrate his or her loyalty.  You get my drift.

We mention all of this today for a specific and potentially bloody reason.

To date, Barack Obama’s efforts to stop Islamic State’s incipient caliphate and to destroy its terrorist operations has been a complete and utter disaster, but not a particularly alarming one.  Sure, a few tribal, tent-dwelling desert people have murdered a few Westerners here and there and killed a bunch of Iraqi Shiites and Christians.  But that has not affected too many Americans directly.  So what’s that to us?  After all, we are more worried about our iPhones, or Uber, or the stock market’s record highs.  Let’s face it.  Iraqis and Syrians; Kurds, Arabs, and Persians have been killing each other for years.  Centuries even.  What’s new?

Well, according to the Beirut’s Daily Star, an English-language newspaper formerly affiliated with the International Herald Tribune, what’s new is the Islamic State’s next plan for the expanse of its caliphate.  Michael Totten, the highly regarded journalist and author who has covered the Middle East for years, cited the paper in his latest warning about the Islamic State as follows:

ISIS has announced that Lebanon will be the next state to fall under the sway of its “caliphate.”  According to Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper, the only reason ISIS hasn’t attacked yet in force is because they haven’t decided on the mission’s commander.

The Lebanese army is one of the least effective in the Middle East—and that’s saying something in a region where the far more capable Syrian and Iraqi armies are utterly failing to safeguard what should be their own sovereign territory.

So France is going to send a three billion dollar package of weapons to Lebanon and the Saudis are going to pay for it.  It won’t solve the problem any more than a full-body cast will cure cancer, but it beats standing around and not even trying.

Up to now, when ISIS has slaughtered infidels, it has done so in rather limited numbers – by necessity.  Iraq’s Christian population was, at most, 400,000 before ISIS began its campaign to rid the “caliphate” of its “people of the book.”  Lebanon’s Christian population is more than ten times that – not including probably at least a half-million Christian refugees from Syria.  And as Totten points out, unlike their Iraqi brethren, the Lebanese are not protected by a large, American-trained, American-equipped army.  They are, essentially, on their own.

Add in the fact that Lebanon’s Shiites and Druze comprise another, roughly one-third of the population, and are defended by the Iranian-armed and trained Hezbollah, and one can expect an Islamic State attack on Lebanon to turn messy quickly.  As Totten put it, “A serious invasion of Lebanon by ISIS could unleash a bloodbath that makes the civil war in Syria look like a bar fight with pool sticks and beer mugs.”

Moreover, all of this will be taking place on Israel’s northern border and in one the Mediterranean’s most vibrant port nations.

Some of you may recall that in our foreign policy forecast piece this past January, we predicted that the Islamic State would fall, being no match in the end for the much richer and much better equipped Iranians.  We still think that will likely be the case, but that’s not to say that the end will come easily.  The Obama administration’s policy has been, more or less, to hope that the Iranians deal with the problem before it gets out of hand.  A full-blown regional war, with the Iranians and Hezbollah on one side, the Islamic State on the other, Saudi Arabia playing both sides against each other, the nearly five million Lebanese Christians caught in the middle, and the Israelis preparing to face down the eventual victor, which will then likely turn its attention toward Jerusalem, strikes us as having the potential to get out of hand, even if the Iranians eventually win.  And even then, the real problems would only be beginning. . . .

Despite Barack Obama’s attempt to minimize the importance of the Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress today, no one should doubt that this speech is more than a simple political gambit on his part.  He is clearly concerned.  And the rest of us should be as well.

Israel has been lucky thus far to avoid being drawn into this war.  But as the fighting moves ever closer to the Israeli border, it becomes ever more possible that its luck will run out.  And if Israel is pulled in to a full-scale regional war, all hell will break loose.

Totten, we should note, takes some solace in the fact that Lebanon has, over the centuries, proven as lethal to invading armies as has Afghanistan.  He writes:

Foreign armies don’t do well in Lebanon over the long term.  The Israelis managed to invade and occupy a large part of the country during the civil war in 1982 and even exiled Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, but they ended up fighting a grinding counterinsurgency against Hezbollah until 2000.  The Syrians invaded and dominated the rest of the country, but the biggest demonstrations in the history of the Middle East forced the Assad regime into a humiliating retreat in 2005.  Those are just the most recent examples.  At the mouth of the Dog River is a mural of sorts.  Seventeen conquering armies carved inscriptions into the stone cliffs congratulating themselves for seizing new territory.  All, Ozymandius-like, have been vanquished.

That’s nice, we guess.  But it’s not the “long term” that concerns us right now.  The near term and its potential for casualties in the tens or hundreds of thousands is our bigger worry, as is the escalation of the Middle Eastern hostilities on Israel’s border.

Mass slaughter is one thing.  Mass slaughter in the Arab world’s most cosmopolitan state, a vacation hub for the region, and the site at which East meets West on the Mediterranean is something else altogether.  Mix in Hezbollah, Iran, and Israeli interests and you have the makings of a breakdown in global order, one that has the potential to disrupt world trade at a bare minimum.

Could an ISIS invasion of Lebanon be the event that sparks a full-scale global political meltdown, followed by a full-scale market meltdown?  That’s a question that is probably above our paygrade.  But it might be wise to consider the possibility.



Anyone who paid any attention at all to the two large conservative conclaves last week, at which the GOP’s top presidential contenders displayed their wares, had to come away with the understanding that the Republicans are not happy with the state of American education.  If there is anything upon which all of the potential candidates seemed to agree, it was the need to take the responsibility for the education of Americans out of the hands of Washington and put it back in the hands of the nation’s states, counties, cities, towns, and citizens.  Yet, to our knowledge, no top Republican candidate at either of those two events accused the American people of being stupid as a result of their lack of education.  Now it is possible that they were just being kind – or “politically careful,” if you will.  But it didn’t seem so.  After all, their discussions of the nation’s many problems and their proposals to improve matters were, for the most, prepared and presented with the understanding that the audience was both well informed and highly able to deal with complex issues.

On the other hand, while the Democrats are spared the need for such a meeting of hopefuls by their widespread loyalty to their political savior Hillary Clinton, one can tell by their routine, day to day, pronouncements that they are reasonably contented with the state of American education.  Of course, they are always seeking to make it better by instituting such measures as Common Core and liberal doses of political correctness.  But by and large, they like the job that the nation’s teachers’ unions and the Department of Education are doing.

Interestingly, though, unlike their Republican counterparts, the Democrats make no effort whatsoever to hide their firm belief that the American people are stupid.  Indeed, they not only think that you – the voters of America – are too dense to understand the world, but that your stupidity is a big part of all the problems in the world today.

As you may or may not recall, your lack of intelligence has been an issue for Democrats for quite a while now.  Back in 2010, just before the FIRST Republican midterm sweep of the Obama presidency, we noted that much of the enthusiasm for the GOP came from the fact that Americans were tired of the Democrats who insisted that they knew better than voters what they needed.  We put it this way:

Given the probability of a “wave election,” in which the Republicans will pick up more seats in the House than either party has picked up in more than half-a-century, the Democratic leaders. . . spent this past week stumping furiously and desperately, hoping to hit on a theme that just might have an impact on tomorrow’s vote.  And, after much reflection, field-testing, and focus-grouping, they finally came up with an argument they seemed sure would carry the day.  To wit:

“Hey, you!  Voter! You’re stupid.  Or Crazy.  Now, vote for us!”

Sounds like a winner, eh?  Not that anyone should be surprised by this.  After all, this has been the left’s go-to argument for at least the last year-and-a-half.  Americans are dumb.  Tea Partiers are stupid.  Voters are ungrateful.  And anyone who opposes us or, worse yet, is having buyer’s remorse about giving us all of the levers of power in Washington is just plain cuckoonutso.

It turns out, of course, that you – and we, presumably – were much smarter two years later, when Americans went to the polls to reelect Barack Obama.  That was a smart thing to do, according to the people who consider themselves qualified to make such judgments.  You were redeemed…

…But only temporarily.

You are, we’re very sorry to say, now dumb again.  How do we know this?  Well, first of all, you elected an overwhelmingly Republican Congress.  That’s dumb.  And maybe evil.  More specifically, though, we know you’re dumb because, once again, the Democrats have decided to tell us so.

Just over a week ago, the Democratic Party released its post-election analysis, in which they seek to explain the losses, their causes, and their potential remedies.  And shockingly, the Democrats have determined that they are not the problem.  YOU are.  You don’t really understand what they’re telling you.  You don’t really know what’s best for you.  You don’t really know what you want.  Because if you did, you would never, ever (EVER!) vote for a Republican.  This is ALL your fault.  And just to prove that point to you, they’re going to carry on precisely as they did before the election, the “will of the voters” be damned.  Writing in The Atlantic, Russell Berman put it this way:

Democrats released an official autopsy of their defeat in the 2014 midterm elections over the weekend.  It’s a document that reveals a party largely unshaken by its stinging defeat in the midterm elections.  Just nine pages long, if you include the front and back covers, the report from the Democratic National Committee is not a particularly detailed dissection of the November drubbing.  Its conclusions boil down to a familiar refrain from losing parties: The problem is the packaging, not what’s inside the box.

“It is clear that Americans overwhelmingly support the people and issues that the Democratic Party fights for every day,” the report asserts.  In other words, Democratic ideas are better, but somehow more people voted for Republicans.  At the same time, the members of the Democratic Victory Task Force — a collection of state and federal party leaders, consultants, and patrons like Google’s Eric Schmidt — suggest that while Americans back Democrats on individual policies, they don’t actually recognize the party’s core principles.  The report proposes launching a “National Narrative Project” to “create a strong values-based national narrative that will engage, inspire and motivate voters to identify with and support Democrats.”

They need a national narrative project.  That’ll help them fix everything.  They’ll talk s-l-o-w-e-r, presumably so that you can understand better.  They’ll use smaller words, also, presumably, because you need them to.  Everything will be OK – heck, it’ll be better than OK! – just as soon as you are able to process the information that you are being given.

Under normal circumstances, in normal times, we’d be pretty giddy about this post-mortem.  Think about it.  The Democrats just suffered an historic defeat.  They were crushed.  They weren’t beaten by a few points here or a few points there.  They were soundly thrashed, up and down the board, all across the country, at all levels of government.  And in response, they’ve decided that they didn’t do too badly, that they can win it all back just by tweaking their message a little bit, making it easier for stupid Americans to connect their desires to the policies and the politicians who will make those desires a reality.  From a conservative’s perspective, what could be better than that?  Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, baby!

Of course, as we have said more times than we can count, these are not normal times.  The next two-plus years are going to be filled with precisely the same type of contempt for the will of the people as has been on display the last two months.  When the Democrats say that they don’t believe that they have much to change with respect to their policies and that their real problem lies in communication, what they’re really saying is that they don’t give a damn what the voters want or what they said explicitly last November.  They are going to do whatever they feel like doing.

Voters don’t want amnesty for illegal aliens?  Who cares?  We do.  And we have the presidency and executive orders and administrative memoranda and all that other good stuff that makes the dirty business of passing and enacting laws superfluous.  Voters support Israel and its Prime Minister Netanyahu?  To hell with them.  We’ll boycott that dirty . . . uh . . . Zionist’s speech anyway.  Voters don’t know anything.  We do.  Voters don’t want Iran to get nukes?  Meh.  We don’t care about the nukes.  We care about . . . well . . . whatever it is we care about.

With respect to this last bit, the fact of the matter is that the Obama administration is not only pursuing a nuclear deal that the majority of Americans oppose, but they’re doing so with the express intention of denying the people’s representative, in this case, the Senate, from carrying out its constitutional responsibility to approve any foreign treaty.  Worse still – and this might be even more difficult even to fathom – the deal the administration is pursuing is actually opposed, at least in principle, by the United Flipping Nations.  The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin explains:

It seems inconceivable that the “P5+1” could get a deal from Iran of the type they started out trying to obtain and is required by U.N. resolutions.  The [original] goal, one can barely recall, was to deprive Iran from obtaining any recognition of the “right to enrich” — something that seems to have already been given up on in the Joint Plan of Agreement.  Now, we are quibbling about how many thousands of centrifuges Iran can keep.  Unless all these leaks are wrong and President Obama is chasing, desperately, a deal means Iran is really going to give up a lot (the opposite is true, of course), then there will be some variation that will allow breakout at some point in the future and that will rely on outside inspectors who have not been told where all aspects of the illicit program have been housed.  It would also assume we have the ability to detect cheating in a closed society and the willingness to reimpose sanctions or strike militarily to prevent a breakout.

Everyone hates the Obama-Iran deal:  Israel, the Saudis, Egypt, Congress, the American people.  The only ones who want a deal are Obama and the Iranians.  But that’s enough for the Obama folks.  They want something.  The rest of the world be damned.

This also means that the next two years will be filled with the administration’s constant and insulting lies about what it is doing and why it is doing so.  Consider, for example, the speech given yesterday at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual meeting by Samantha Power, the administration’s ambassador to the United Nations:

We believe firmly that Israel’s security and the U.S.-Israeli partnership transcends politics and always will . . .

Talks, no talks, agreement, no agreement, the United States will take any steps that are necessary to protect our national security and that of our closest ally.  We believe diplomacy is the preferred route to secure our shared aim, but if diplomacy should fail we know the stakes of a nuclear-armed Iran as well as anyone here.   We will not let it happen.  There will never be a sunset on America’s commitment to Israel’s security. Never.

Likewise, John Kerry, the ever-tiresome Secretary of State, told a national television audience this past weekend that the United States has “a closer relationship with Israel right now in terms of security than at any time in history.”

Both of these statements are patently and incontestably false.  They are no less dishonest than the claim that a youtube video caused the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi; or the declaration that there is not one shred of evidence that the IRS did anything wrong; or the repeated insistence that you can keep your doctor and keep your health insurance plan if you like them; or any of the other countless lies that the Obama administration has peddled believing firmly that they could get away with them simply because the American people are too dumb to know any better.

In his summary of the Democratic midterm post-mortem, Russell Berman noted that the Democrats apparent denial about the 2014 election “may be a reflection of the party’s confidence heading into 2016.”  That sounds about right to us.  But then, that confidence is itself based on the notion that the American people are incredibly stupid.

The Democrats believe that they have the 2016 presidential contest all sown up because they think that the American people will gladly welcome a Hillary Clinton presidency, apparently not noticing that Hillary is not Bill, that she has a history of ethical lapses that would make Nixon blush, that her record since leaving the White House is insipid at best, that her husband continues to carouse with convicted sex offenders, that she has made herself into one of the richest women in the world by leveraging her political clout, and that she believes that her vast fortune gives her some glimpse into the woes of the middle class.  In short, the Democrats are confident “heading into 2016” simply because they believe, firmly and unshakably, that the American people will vote for a woman – any woman – regardless of her qualifications, character, or abilities.

And that doesn’t even touch the vetting that Hillary will all but certainly get from the Republican Congress, if no one else.  By now, we suppose you have heard that the erstwhile Secretary of State likely violated federal law by maintaining a private email account that was, by definition, not subject to the federal requirements that all emails be preserved.  She had NO public email account.  Two months ago, when her emails were requested by State in order to comply with federal law, Miss Hillary’s personal staff sorted through the emails and decided which ones to send to the government.

Please note that these emails – and the flagrant violation of law they comprised – were discovered by the House Select Committee on Benghazi, not by anyone in the media or the Obama administration.  Note as well that Congressman Trey Gowdy (SC), who runs the committee, is an exceptionally smart and tenacious former federal prosecutor.  If there is more dirt to uncover about Hillary – and why wouldn’t there be – Gowdy will find it in the course of his investigation.  As the columnist Sean Davis put it, “This Hillary e-mail stuff is only surprising if you are literally 100% ignorant of everything the Clintons did before 2000.”

Back in 2010, in the lead up to the election, we warned Democrats that their arrogance and disdain for the American people would cost them dearly at the ballot box; that their outrage at the American people for having the temerity to question Democratic priorities would turn the midterm into a rout.  We were right.

We can’t help but think that a similar dynamic is developing once again.  Both the Democrats and the mainstream media – which is to say the Democrats’ unofficial mouthpiece – believe that the American people are unable to handle and process important information or real policy positions.  And so the media plays gotcha games about evolution and Barack Obama’s religion, while the Democrats continue to push an agenda that has been explicitly rejected by voters, even as they tell those voters how they’re all on the same side, pushing for the same things.  Eventually, the voters will grow tired of the dishonesty involved.

Last week, when they asked him about Obama’s religion, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker told two Washington Post reporters that “this is a classic example of why people hate Washington and, increasingly, they dislike the press.”  “The things they care about,” he continued, “don’t even remotely come close to what you’re asking about.”  We think that’s pretty close to spot on.  The Post – and the Democrats – of course, played up Walker’s claim that he doesn’t know much about the President’s religion, suggesting that the Governor is intentionally feeding the notion that Obama is “not one of us.”  Only a fool would think that that’s what Walker actually meant.

And that’s precisely what the Democrats are hoping.


Copyright 2015. The Political Forum. 8563 Senedo Road, Mt. Jackson, Virginia 22842, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.