Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Just another storm

During the 2005 Hurricane Season, Hurricane Ivan came ashore by Gulf Shores, Alabama. I was living in Birmingham and working at a convenience store. Ivan was a soaker driven by wind when it reached us.

When it started to rain, we went to a huge store near our house to see what we could get. They were out of ice, water, bread, batteries and any rain wear. It rained without stop for a week; we lacked electricity for eight days. No refrigeration, lights or air conditioning. It was primitive as can be, like Gilligan’s Island. We could not get any more gas in our cars because modern pumps run on electricity. At my store, all the candy melted and everything in the freezer became warm.

We were watching footage of people reporting when Hurricane Katrina came ashore. It seemed to have hit central Mississippi and missed New Orleans yet again. Waveland, Mississippi, was obliterated. Shrimp boats were in trees. It was a giant slow-moving storm. Of course, there was wind and rain in New Orleans. People had once again left New Orleans for a false alarm.

We could hardly believe it when the levees started to let go, and water from the Industrial Canal became a toxic stew in a great deluge. We started to see license plates from Louisiana around Birmingham.

For a few days, we could hardly believe what we were seeing on TV. The storm ripped many holes in the Superdome roof. As awful as the conditions were at the Superdome, it was worse at the Convention Center. We could hardly believe senseless looting, but then we became concerned about days without food, water, hygiene, electricity or medical care. Where was the Mayor of New Orleans? Where was the Governor of Louisiana? Where was the National Guard? Where was the resource of Federal government? There was not assistance but only plenty of blame to go around.

For me, my esteem for President George W. Bush took a dive from which it never recovered. The Federal Emergency Management Administration response to the crisis in New Orleans seemed like five lies in one. In Mississippi, FEMA rescued Governor Haley Barbour, who had personally delivered water and got the electricity restored. Only when Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen and Louisiana National Guard General Russell Honore took charge did things improve in New Orleans.

We went to a football game in Baton Rouge after the storm. On the trip, we drove through Mississippi. Many trees had blown down and exit signs had blown away. Blue FEMA temporary roofs were a common sight. There were 12 people in the two-bedroom Baton Rouge apartment on my step-son. Then we drove to New Orleans, which still had those Coast Guard marks on houses. Dumpsters and campers were in front of houses everywhere. The French Quarter was recovering, but employees had trouble finding a place to live.

Of course, it is better five years later. It is not coincidental that New Orleans has a different Mayor, Louisiana a different Governor and the U.S. a different President. It is not coincidental that Mississippi gave their Governor another term. They will all make different mistakes.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Middle East Peace, God Willing

Only God and Allah can make Israel and the Authority of Palestine negotiate what is billed as a two-state solution. It is about West Bank settlements and right of return. The lion also can lay down with the lamb. It is just that the lamb will not get much sleep.

President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Middle East envoy George Mitchell all said that the Arab League signed off on this deal, to be concluded in one year. They were all optimistic that this prospect would yield results and marginalize hard-line factions. Other one-year deadlines have come and gone with no results.

Principal negotiators are thought to be Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu and Authority Prime Minister Mahmood Abbas. Let us reflect that Abbas has the first name by which the Prophet is sometimes called. So this time, negotiations to be augmented by Israel neighbors King Abdullah of Jordan and President Hosni Mubarek of Egypt. The countries of the European Union will be represented by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Why would we think this process would succeed when other failed? Netanyahu has a fragile Majority and so does Abbas. Abdullah presides over a country that his father, King Hussein, expelled Palestinian refugees. Mubarek faces the kind of unrest at home that claimed the life of Anwar Sadat. Tony Blair might need Brussels to approve it. Let us reflect that Barack Obama has already been made weak by rampant U.S unemployment and a debt crisis that makes Greece look like a model of financial responsibility. Far from the stated goal to marginalize hard-liners, this process oddly strengthens them.

I say this as a realist about negotiations between Israel and Palestine. I hate the fact that Iran-backed Hamas rules Gaza. Add Iran as someone who has the capability to turn Israel into a lake of fire and Israel is surrounded by two existential threats.

In 2003, I wrote that Russia had just sold 10 surface to surface missiles to Iran. Now Russia has sold enriched uranium to Iran. Biological agents from their stock might be next. Russia is no friend of Israel or Palestine. Russia also uses natural gas as a weapon against countries of the European Union. Only Russia benefits from continued chaos between Israel, Palestine and the U.S.