Saturday, April 30, 2011

Fishermen at Forte de Sao Juliao da Barra

A few days ago I walked down the hill on my lunch hour and took some pictures along the sea wall.  These fishermen were casting into the surf from the rocks at the foot of the Fortress of San Julian da Barra.  Even though I've already signed this painting, I'll put it away for a little while before I decide whether it's finished. 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

POTUS reads my blog!

I've had my suspicions for a while now, but this settles it.  The President referred to "carnival barkers" in his most recent speech.  Hardly common parlance for a presidential speech; it probably induced a double-take on the part of the presidential teleprompter.

But if you read this blog, as I now know President Obama does, you know that just four short posts ago, I referred to my secret source within the administration, and divulged that source's code name - wait for it -

Carnival Worker.

Coincidence?  I think not.  Welcome to the blog, Mr. President.

Now buy a painting!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Forte San Antonio do Estoril

Time for painting has been hard to come by lately, so this one proceeded for a long time in five to ten minute intervals.  These old coastal forts are difficult to paint from ground level, because they are very often laid out in a star shape, or some other plan that may allow overlapping fields of fire for defensive guns, but makes for difficult visualization.  You can view this one from above by typing these coordinates into Google Earth: 22 34 54.01n 44 13 06.49e

Friday, April 08, 2011

Let Me Get This Straight

We've just recieved word that military members are non-excepted federal employees, which means that the service we provide is so important that we will continue to provide it even in the event of a government shut-down.  This is not news to me, having served during the government shut-down during the Clinton administration. 

What is news, is that despite being considered essential, military members will not be paid if a budget agreement is not reached by midnight, 8 April.  Ever since the Reagan administration, the guidance in this situation has been provided by an OMB directive that ensured that military members would continue to receive their paychecks in the event of a shut-down.  This new policy is a conscious departure from established precedent.  Is this what people meant when they spoke of voting for change? 

Does the decision to forego obligations to military families reflect a party philosophy?  Is it related in any way to the fact that the same party held the White House and both houses of the legislature last year, and could have passed a budget at any time? 

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Gov't Shutdown May Halt Military Pay

The Optimisic Conservative is reporting that the White House is threatening, in the event of a government shutdown, to interrupt pay for active duty military members.  This would mean that the 15 April paycheck would contain payment only for duty up to 8 April.

There are dozens of readily apparent reasons why this is a bad idea, and almost all of them have to do with the scores of thousands of men and women who are deployed, and whose families are dealing with all manner of problems in their absence.  The one thing those families should be able to count on without question is that the government will honor its word and pay the members who are out there getting shot at.  Families of deployed members have to deal with all kinds of uncertainty.  Wondering whether they'll be able to count on their paycheck should never - ever - be added to the list of worries.

Much farther down on the list of concerns is this small matter.   I’m supposed to go on temporary duty assignment soon. The way this works is, I pay all expenses up-front with my government credit card, and I’m reimbursed at the government's convenience when I file a travel voucher upon my return.

If I’m not being paid for the time being, I’m still supposed to lend the government money to send me on temporary duty, and I’ll still be expected to pay that credit card bill when it comes due – paycheck or no paycheck.

If I refuse to go, I’m failing to obey orders. If I go, I may incur a debt for the government that it could very well refuse to repay in a timely manner.  That, of course, could impact my career.

If Joseph Heller were alive, this would make it into a new edition of Catch 22.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

My Interview on US Foreign Policy

Yesterday I interviewed a high-ranking source in the administration who wishes to remain anonymous. To protect his identity, I will refer to him by the clever code name, Carnival Worker.

Carnival Worker and I met in one of those out-of-the-way bistros a block or two from Embassy Row, where he believed the wait staff would be less likely to recognize him from his frequent TV appearances. There, during a time-limited kinetic engagement of medium rare porterhouse steaks and Caesar salads, I asked him, “How do you characterize the Obama Doctrine?”

Carnival Worker made a credible show of choking on a crouton, but to one with journalistic instincts such as mine, it was clearly a stall for time. I offered the Heimlich maneuver, but he declined. I waited. He took a large gulp of the passable house red, “What do you mean,” he rasped, “How do I characterize it?” even though it was obvious he knew exactly what I meant.

I spoke very slowly, in case the crouton had interrupted the flow of oxygen to his brain, “How do you characterize it – describe it. Put a label on it for me.”

Blank look.

I was beginning to worry just a little about that crouton, but my ever-skeptical journo-instincts still told he was being coy. “When people talk about the ‘Bush Doctrine’ it’s pretty clear what is meant – the whole ‘If you’re not with us you’re against us, preemptive strike, black and white worldview’ sort of thing,” I explained. “How do you describe the doctrine that’s guiding the administration’s foreign policies?”

Carnival Worker patted his lips with his napkin. I sensed that, for the briefest of moments, he was about to mop his brow as well. Instead, he took another slug of wine. “Look,” he said, and mustered up his best condescending, patiently tolerant sort of smile, “One of the reasons we’re in such a mess these days is that the previous administration had that sound bite, one-size-fits-all, good vs. evil Unified Theory, labels, and stereotypes view of how everything works. We’re trying to get past all that.”

“You were in the press then,” I pointed out. “Wasn’t the press instrumental in packaging that view of the Bush Doctrine?”

He traced furrows in the linen napkin with his fork, and watched as balsamic vinaigrette made abstract patterns in the material.

“Looking backward doesn’t do us any good,” he said. “What this administration has always been about is going forward – new policies designed to bring us forward into a new era of global prosperity and security.” He looked very pleased with himself when he’d said that, so pleased, in fact, that I couldn’t resist.

“Did you want to write that down before you forget it?” I offered.

He began to reach into his suit jacket for a pen, but caught himself just in time. Instead, he carefully arranged his silverware so left side and right side implements were equidistant from his plate.

“So if they’re all about moving forward and devising new strategies,” I said, “Why does the administration have so many old heads running the show – at least on the international front? Gates, Clinton, Biden – They’ve been around since the Punic Wars.”

Carnival Worker anxiously searched his salad bowl for a crouton, but none were left. I figured it was time to get us back on track.

“What I’m looking for is the central principle that drives this administration’s foreign policy. Certainly, a label will still be just a label, but if it’s built around a core principle, that can be helpful, right?”

Carnival Worker took a deep breath. He mopped his brow with his napkin, leaving a smear of wine and salad dressing across his forehead. I would have told him, but it lent him the air of a youthful Gorbachev, and added to the likelihood that he would not be recognized. “The President’s guiding principle is the spread of democracy and freedom.”

“Is that what led to the decision to engage in Libya?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, with a deep nod, and only a tiny bit of smugness.

“Then how has it informed our decision to remain hands-off in Iran, and Syria, and Yemen,” I wondered aloud.

I felt we were closing in on something important here. I almost leaned forward in anticipation, but I was prevented by the fear of dragging my tie across my plate, and by the look of discomfort on my companion’s face. I knew it couldn’t be a crouton; I wondered if it could be an allergic reaction.

He opened his mouth and his lips moved, but no sounds issued forth. He looked a lot like a bass that had been momentarily relieved to have a hook removed from its mouth, only to discover that it could no longer breathe. That is, if you can imagine a bass with wine and salad dressing smeared across its brow.

I was about to ask our waiter if there was an atropine injector in the house when Carnival Worker finally began to speak.

“That’s different,” he said.

Long ago, I read in a detective novel that silence can be an interrogator’s best weapon. I said nothing, but nodded, hoping he would continue. After a deep breath, he did.

“I mean,” he said.

I favored him with an encouraging smile, and a look that I hoped mirrored that of a student, awaiting wisdom from a master.

“Well really, it’s…” he tried again, and gestured with his hands spread, palms up, over the table. The movement, as far as I could tell, was meant to suggest that the answer was self-evident – not worth explaining – but to me it seemed more the act of a supplicant in some ancient temple ritual. I maintained my look of hopeful ignorance and kept my mouth shut.

“Look,” he said, seeming to suddenly find inspiration in his perfectly-spaced tableware, “You can’t really expect to find a one-size-fits-all approach to these situations. They have to be examined in the light of their unique contexts.”

I nodded, and smiled as if relieved to finally achieve enlightenment. “So what you’re saying,” I proceeded slowly, “is that the principle of supporting democracy and freedom depends on the circumstances.”

“Exactly!” he said.

“I suppose that makes sense,” I volunteered. “We can’t be expected to stick our nose in everybody’s business, after all.”

“That’s right; we can’t. We don’t have the resources for it, since the Bush administration left us over-tasked.

“But if it depends on the circumstances,” I said, “it’s not really a principle, is it?”

His face fell.

“Which brings us back to the original question. Is there a principle at work here, or is the administration making it up as it goes along?”

“Well of course,” he began, only to be interrupted by his telephone.

“Yes, hello,” he snapped. “Oh, hello Robert,” he said, dispensing a “wait a minute” wave in my direction.

“Yes, I’m enjoying the new job just fine. Stressed? No, I’m not feeling particularly stressed. What about you? How’s the yoga working?”

There was a brief burble of unintelligible phone speak at the other end, but I couldn’t make it out.

“I’m sorry to hear that. Maybe you should avoid starches for a while.”

“Ask about you? No, nobody’s asked about you.”

I’m not sure, but I thought I heard sobbing at the other end.

“Hey, look at the time,” Carnival Worker said suddenly, “I’m due to call the President. Gotta go. Glad you got in touch. Yeah. Right. You bet. Thanks for calling.” He snapped the phone shut and dropped it like it had scorched his hand.

“Where were we?” he asked.

“You were just about to explain the role of public opinion in determining our foreign policy,” I said.

“Ah, yes,” he said, but then he stopped. “Was I really?” he asked.

I made a show of consulting my notes. “I certainly looks that way to me,” I said.

He looked confused, and a little unsure of how to proceed. He began with the bass impersonation again. The waitress arrived with the check, and despite his obvious disorientation, he still managed to indicate that I was buying.

“Thanks for lunch,” he said. He added, “I hope we can do this again sometime soon,” but something made me question his sincerity.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Villa Pinto

I've had the flu for a week now.  I went back to work twice, thinking I was well enough, only to regret it when I felt even worse than I had before. 

I remember an old Peanuts cartoon strip that said, "Happiness is being too sick for school, but not too sick to watch television."  My pesonal version of that would be that happiness means being too sick for work, but not too sick to paint.  It would have been nice to have felt well enough to paint, but for the most part I was too miserable to manage more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time.

Still, over many minute sessions, I finally managed to finish this painting, which has been languishing on my table for several weeks now.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Missing the Boat in Yemen

From the excellent Jane Novak at Armies of Liberation comes this answer to Ambassador Feierstein's question, "What do the Yemeni protestors want?"

It's not that difficult, really.  They are asking for the dissolution of the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, for the implementation of a transition plan, which has been drafted and published, and for the establishment of a constitutional convention in order to build a government that safeguards their personal freedoms.

In their request for the dissolution of Saleh's regime, they seek an end to a dictatorship that has flaunted law and public welfare at every opportunity, and that has raised to an art form the usurpation of public services to private ends.  Unfortunately, the western world has been complicit in this, hoping that financial aid and military hardware would be used by the Saleh regime to combat Al Qaeda and Somali pirates, despite continuous signs that Saleh enjoys a symbiotic relationship with both, and despite the fact that the coast guard vessels provided by the west are openly rented out as escorts by Lotus Maritime Security Services and Gulf of Aden Group Transits Ltd, which are front groups for Saleh's son and nephew.  According to Abdullah Alasnag, Yemen's former Foreign Minister, now in exile in Saudi Arabia,
The Coast Guard was also involved in diesel smuggling to Somali pirates in the area. Although the American embassy was involved in the removal of the previous Yemeni Coast Guard commander in 2007, the operation continues today and has expanded to include sales of arms, GPS, and radar equipment.
In addition to being far cozier with pirates than we would like, the Saleh regime has always concealed the true nature of its relationship with Al Qaeda, which it uses as an enforcer against those who resist presidential authority.  The main challenger for Saleh's job, General Ali Mohsen al Ahmer, recruited Yemenis to fight with Bin Laden in Afghanistan, and then found homes and jobs for them when they returned from the fight.  He used them to support the regime in 1994, when southern Yemen tried to break away to form its own government, and all signs indicate that ties are still strong between them.

Although Saleh skillfully portrays himself as an ally to the west in its war on terror, it is clear that he has no intention of taking any real action against them.  His government steadfastly resisted US efforts to investigate the bombing of the USS Cole, and almost every capture or killing of al Qaeda members by the Yemeni Security Forces is followed closely by an escape, a release, or a miraculous resurrection. 

The bottom line in Yemen is that a dictator with no redeeming qualities is about to go the way of all tyrants.  He is opposed, not by merely 1,000 rebels as recent reports indicate may be the case in Libya, but by the population of Houthis in the north, with whom he has waged war for the last six years, and by the population of the south, which has long chafed under his punishing rule.   Members of his government and his military leaders have abandoned him, and even his tribe, which has long been enriched by his presidency, has called for his departure. 

Yemen, then, especially compared with Libya, provides a very clear picture of a regime about to cease.  We know who the rebels are, and, also unlike in Libya, we know they are not aligned with Al Qaeda.  They are not asking for arms.  They are not asking for no fly zones.  They are asking for a peaceful transition from the Saleh regime to a transitional government.  Perversely, according to Yemen's former Foreign Minister, in recent negotiations regarding that transition, is has been the Americans who

...insisted that key figures including Ahmed Ali Saleh, the President’s son, as well as Yahya Mohammed Saleh and Amar Mohammed Saleh, his nephews who are currently heading the CSF/CTU and the National security agency respectively, are not relieved of duty.  This American insistence seemed bewildering to the attendees, specially considering that the record of these commanders and Saleh in fighting terrorism is full of failures, corruption, and misleading intelligence which has yielded little if any results to show for compared to the aid Saleh has received over the years.  In this regard, there has been no approach by the west towards the opposition or the youth with respect to security matters which is wrong since it seems that Saleh is well on his way out of power.
We seem to have jumped into Libya without knowing who we were supporting, and without examining closely their chances for succeeding.  In Yemen, can it be that we're making exactly the opposite mistake?