Monday, March 31, 2014

Ukraine et ceteras

Part I
Some 1,500 years ago, the Roman historian Vegetius put pen to codice and wrote the phrase "Igitur qui desiderat pacem, pareparet bellum." If you want peace, prepare for war.

More than a millennium later, George Washington adopted the idea during his first presidential inaugural address when he stated that "to be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace."

Later still, Will Rogers put a twentieth-century spin on it by observing that "if you want to know when a war might be coming, you just watch the U.S. and see when it starts cutting down on its defenses." On a similar note, Rogers dispensed true hayseed wisdom by remarking that "diplomacy is the art of saying 'nice doggie' until you can find a rock."

If only our president shared such wisdom. If only he didn't clothe himself in the delusion that history is driven by words rather than actions.

Does anyone really believe that Vladimir Putin would have sent Russia's military to seize the Crimean Peninsula if Barack Obama had not: 1) bowed before him by reneging on our promise to defend Poland and the Czech Republic with a missile shield; 2) mocked Mitt Romney for pointing out that Putin's Russia is an international threat; 3) said, prior to the 2012 election, that he would enjoy greater "flexibility" to kowtow to Putin after the election was over; 4) acted ineptly by "leading from behind" in Libya; 5) dishonored America's "beacon of hope" responsibility by not even saying anything supportive of Iran's dissidents when they tried to revolt; 6) pledged to reduce American military spending to pre-World War II levels; and 7) embraced the "reset" analogy to broadcast his belief that the U.S. has been the bad guy in U.S.-Russia relations?.

Or if, for that matter, Ukraine had not given up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for the implicit promise that America would defend it from the Russian bear? Barack Obama has now broken Ukraine's trust in the worst way imaginable by refusing to even give it weapons, much less outright defense.

Putin's desire to restore Russian imperialism to its Soviet heyday is not a secret, so as America unilaterally retreats from its crucial role in world affairs, innocent people in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are no doubt trembling over their future while we nonchalantly blabber about baseball's Opening Day and the upcoming NFL Draft. Which brings me to...

Part II
Also known as The Hitler Parallel. What Putin cites as justification for invading the Crimean Peninsula (and what he has said to calm Western nerves since the invasion) should sound eerily familiar to students of history.

Yes, we all know Russia has a naval port on the peninsula and that Putin has spoken vaguely about Russia needing to "protect its interests" there. However, what he has said without vagueness is that Russian-speaking people on the peninsula were being abused by Ukrainian-speakers and thus Russia was duty-bound to protect them -- never mind that those Russian-speakers were not Russian citizens, and never mind that there were no credible reports that any abuse was even happening.

Flip back to the events that directly precipitated World War II, and you will find Adolf Hitler using virtually identical arguments to justify his seizure of Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland. His unsupported claim was that German-speakers in the Sudetenland were being abused by the Czech-speaking majority, and that he could not claim to be leader of Germany if he stood idly by while ethnically Germanic people anywhere on the planet were being mistreated.

After Hitler seized the Sudetenland under that pretense, he assured the jittery leaders of the West that he had no intention of seizing anything else. Deferring to his plausible-sounding rationale, and hoping to placate the lion by allowing it to eat its stolen mean, the West opted to let Hitler retain his new territory without any consequences. He then responded by gobbling up the rest of Czechoslovakia.

Hitler went on to unleash the Blitzkrieg that took down Poland, justifying it by claiming that he was reacting to Polish soldiers having crossed into Germany. However, the shot-to-death "Polish soldier" whose body he displayed as evidence of an incursion was, in reality, a German criminal. Hitler had ordered that he be killed and his corpse dressed in a Polish uniform to deceive the world.

History often repeats itself, and just as Western leaders in the 1930's failed to show resolve in the face of Hitler, today's Western leaders are failing to show resolve in the face of Putin. They might be different men, but dictators are dictators, and Putin is a known deceiver who has proven in Chechnya and Georgia that he does not mind slaughter. If he believes he can get away with militaristic power grabs by cooking up rationalizations, he will keep rationalizing and keep grabbing. 

Part III
So do we go to war with Russia over a rhombus-shaped peninsula in the Black Sea? Of course not. But we must respond to Putin's aggression; we must do so with unambiguous strength of will; and we must never announce that the option of eventual war is off the table.

I do not claim to know all the answers, but I do know we should immediately announce that the Pole/Czech missile shield is back on. Importantly, we should also announce that we are expanding the shield's umbrella to cover not only those two nations, but all the nations that were left stranded behind the Iron Curtain from 1945 through 1992.

We should announce that we stand solidly with the Ukrainian movement to bring freedom and representative democracy into its borders -- and we should show we mean it by arming them with all the weapons they request.

Those steps, rooted not in abstraction but in concrete, would give Putin pause and stay his hand from attempting at least some of the things he wants to pull off. Bullies understand the difference between spin and resolve, and they respond accordingly. Remember Part I!

Part IV
Spare me the "can't be the world's policeman" whine. Yes, we definitely shouldn't intervene in border squabbles between Greece and Turkey or fishing disputes between Peru and Ecuador. But when a country that has exported totalitarianism around the globe for centuries starts rattling its sabers and inserting its proboscis into the affairs of sovereign neighbors who are too small to defend themselves, we not only can but should push back.

The Soviet Union collapsed and millions were freed from its yoke not because Reagan and Thatcher fired missiles at Moscow, but because they pushed back against Moscow and did so in credible fashion. Again: Remember Part I!

Part V
This is not only about Europe. It is also about the Pacific. Our willingness to stand strong during the Cold War not only kept Russia in check, but also kept North Korea out of South Korea and China out of both Taiwan and Japan.

People of those latter nations have enjoyed the blessings of freedom because both they and their potential tormentors knew we could be counted on to defend our allies. Today they have probably lost confidence in us thanks to Obama's cold-shouldering and promise-breaking, so he must get to work restoring that confidence. Does he really want to go down in history as the man who squandered the hopes of the less fortunate by allowing the forces of despotism to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat?

Part VI
Does Barack Obama have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to Putin and defend the rights of man? Sadly, I doubt it.

I and millions of others are hoping he spends the next three years proving us doubters wrong.

Thursday, March 27, 2014


Years go by in -- cliche alert! -- the blink of an eye. It was 15 years ago today that Erika and I exchanged vows in a gazebo, on a gorgeous spring afternoon beneath an arching blue sky.

With good health and a little luck we should wind up logging more than a half-century together here on Earth before taking our relationship up to Heaven, so perhaps 15 years is not much in the long run. But when you are 28, like I was that afternoon, 15 years seems like an eternity. When you are 28 it's hard to picture yourself at 43, and now at 43 I find myself wondering how I got from there to here so fast.

Still, when I look back and remember how much has happened and how much we have experienced since then, I realize that 15 years is not a short duration. During that span Erika has borne four children, two of whom are currently driving us nuts bringing us a wealth of joy, and two of whom died in the womb. During that time we have made friends who will remain friends for a lifetime, whose children are growing up with ours. We have seen other friends come brightly into our life and then quietly fade from it, some for reasons that are understandable and others for reasons that aren't.

We have felt the heartache that comes from the death of family and friends, some of whom were far too young to die. And on the other side of the coin, we have seen the light in our parents' eyes when they became grandparents.

To be sure, Erika and I have experienced difficulties over the last 15 years, but we have also experienced bliss and our bond has grown stronger. We have stood by each other's side in times of success and times of failure. Financially, we have been somewhat rich at times and strikingly poor at others.

We have walked beside the sea and hiked above timberline; strolled the streets of big cities from New York to San Diego; stood at the bases of waterfalls; skied the slopes of the High Sierra; kissed while walking through Key West, and gotten lost while walking through San Francisco.

I love raising Sarah together, even though she is a strong-willed challenge of a daughter and I dread the thought of her upcoming puberty.

I love raising Parker together, even when he decides to test boundaries. What could be better than watching the facial expressions of a two-year-old who sees the entire world as something new and exciting?  

Viewed as a balance sheet, these last 15 years for Erika and me are very much "in the black," if you will forgive me for using an accounting term. Yet I have faith that our best years lie ahead. And for some reason, while sitting here right now, what brings the biggest smile to my face is a memory from that night 15 years ago: After the reception was over, after we had made it to our hotel and done what newlyweds do, we sat at the table and talked about what a fun day it had been. We passed a bottle of wine back and forth, chugging straight from the bottle while scarfing down sausage balls that my Aunt Barbara had made for the reception. And we couldn't stop smiling.

I love you LOML. Incredibly, I love you even more than I did then. Happy Anniversary!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Spring Equinox

Some thoughts about spring on its first day:

I love how it is often warm and rarely humid.

I love that bright, shimmering shade of green that new leaves give to old trees.

I love how wildflowers turn ordinary roadsides into vivid profusions of color and life.

I love going swimming with my daughter again.

I love watching my son run through the outdoors (see above!).

I love sitting outside in the afternoon and drinking a margarita beneath a cloudless blue sky.

I love spring training baseball.

And finally, I am riveted by the most intense pursuit in all of sports: the NHL playoffs.

Monday, March 17, 2014

St. Patty's Day

As a child growing up in the U.S., you are told that St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland (true) and that he drove the snakes out of Ireland (false). You are also told that wearing green is the main point of the holiday that bears his name, with failure to do so resulting in you getting pinched.

As you grow up you see the snakes story for the crock it is, and based on your observations (and eventually on your experiences) you come to believe that the main point of St. Patrick's Day is pounding sipping Guinness before and after stuffing yourself with dining on shepherd's pie.

In many ways, St. Patrick's Day is one oddity of a holiday. It celebrates a genuine Catholic saint, but few of us know anything about him other than the fact that people celebrate him by getting drunk every March 17th... And most of us who celebrate him in the U.S. are not Catholic, instead identifying ourselves as Protestant or even agnostic... And although the holiday is specifically tied to an island with a population smaller than New York City's, it is celebrated around the entire friggin' globe.

Jaded, fortysomething Americans such as myself like to say (while consuming a pint of Murphy's Stout and ordering a round of green Bud Light) that St. Patrick's Day is an American construct gussied up in Irish drag. We like to say that it has no real ties to religion, that it goes unobserved in "the old country," and that it is nothing more than an excuse for our alcoholic countrymen to get falling down drunk and chalk it up as "tradition." But we are wrong -- wrong! -- because the Vatican made it an official holiday way back in the 1600's. Even the gluttony/drunkenness thing has some churchy basis when you consider that on March 17th the Vatican lifts the Lenten restrictions on drinking alcohol and eating.

Perhaps the diaspora of Irish people explains part of St. Patrick's Day's wide appeal, since the sheer size and extent of their dispersal makes the scattering of Jews from the Holy Land seem trifling.

Long ago I remember hearing that there were 4 million people living in Ireland and 44 million Irish people living in the United States... Huge percentages of the populations in Canada's Atlantic provinces, especially Newfoundland and Labrador, are made up of people from Irish stock... An estimated one million people of Irish ancestry reside in Argentina...Ireland accounts for the second largest ancestry group in Australia... etc. etc.

When you consider the outsize influence Ireland's diaspora has had on the world, you really start to appreciate the role Irish genealogy plays in our affairs. We know the Beatles as an English band, but all of them except Ringo trace their ancestry to Ireland, not Liverpool...Oscar Wilde made his mark as London's biggest playwright, but was born in Dublin...John Wayne came from Irish stock and so did Maureen O'Hara, the smoking-hot redhead who often starred alongside him and is still alive and kicking at the age of 93.

In the decisive decade of the Cold War, America's president was Ronald Reagan and Canada's prime minister was Brian Mulroney. Both were Irish by blood, and together they helped hasten the end of the Soviet Union. In the following decade, Irish-by-blood Tony Blair became the most influential British Prime Minister of the post-Thatcher era.

In the sports world, seemingly white-as-can-be boxing champ Jack Dempsey was an American of Irish descent -- and so was seemingly black-as-can-be boxing champ Muhammad Ali, whose great-grandfather was born in County Clare, on Ireland's west coast, before moving to America.

Still, genealogy and diaspora can't completely explain the global reach of St. Patrick's Day. Not when Japan (yes, Japan!) celebrates it not just on March 17th but all month long. Not when Russia's notoriously xenophobic government plays a part in staging an annual St. Patrick's Day parade in Moscow. And not when prickly French Montreal also hosts a parade.

Some things just can't be explained. And it's often better that way.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Closing Thoughts

The Olympics have been over for more than a week...And it seems much longer, seeing as how Russia just invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea as its own...But since I did quite a bit of opining about the Olymics while they were happening, part of me feels like it would be an incomplete effort if I didn't share a few final observations about them before moving on to weightier topics.

The Medal Count
The United States finished at #2 in the medical count and with our second-highest tally of all time. Despite a dismal showing in some sports at which we are usually good (speedskating, figure skating) and despite seeing our highest profile gold medal favorite (Shaun White) finish with no medals at all.

It's hard to complain about that, especially when we were once a bit of a non-factor in the winter games, and when you consider that we earned multiple medals in the "sliding sports" (bobsled, luge, skeleton) that have traditionally been a major weakness. I am competitive by nature and have a hard time not thinking about what might have been, but I know I am largely wrong to think that way.

Hockey - U.S.
There is never any shame in losing to Canada, especially when the margin is only one goal, nor is there any shame in losing to Finland. One of those nations is the game's birthplace and continues to produce a plurality of NHL players, while the other is a wellspring of talent that has churned out such luminaries as Teemu Selanne, Esa Tikkanen, and Jari Kurri.

Of course, now it is time for the but, for there is shame in ending the Olympic tournament not merely by losing to Canada and Finland, but by failing to score a single goal against either of them. Especially when you enter the semifinals red hot and playing like a juggernaut, and especially after you go undefeated in the preliminary round and crush the Czechs in the quarterfinal.

In the end, Team Canada and Team Finland were simply better than Team USA, but the way Team USA finished out of the medals -- more so than the fact it finished out of them -- will gnaw at our players for a while.

But hey... least our men's team didn't go down the way our women's team did. It is brutal to blow a two-goal lead in the last four minutes against anybody. It is soul-crushing to do it against your arch nemesis, when the sole reason many of your players returned to the Olympics this year was to beat that nemesis.

For our women, it would have been better to win no medal at all than to "win" silver yet again and fall to Canada yet again. I guarantee you that every time one of our women looks at her 2014 silver medal, she will look at is as a symbol of her biggest failure. That sucks, and that might not be fair, but that is reality; and if it ever ceases to be reality, it will mean that competitiveness (and therefore excellence) have ceased to exist.

Hockey - International
American hockey is light years ahead of where it was when the Miracle On Ice took place. In the 34 years since then, U.S.-born players have won multiple Conn Smythes and multiple Vezinas and had their names engraved on Lord Stanley's Cup in numbers that were once unimaginable. It was not until 15 years after the miracle that Joe Mullen became the first American to reach the 1,000-point mark, and now seven more have joined him.

Yet in all this time, Team USA has won only two medals and neither of them were gold, and that says a lot about the quality of depth in international play.

Something else that says a lot about that quality of depth is this: Russia has not appeared in a gold medal game since five Olympics ago, and lost that one.

Something else which says a lot is that whenever the Olympics are held, at least one of hockey's "second tier" nations always puts dents in the "big seven" nations. Belarus shocking Sweden in Salt Lake is the most famous example, but Slovenia upending Slovakia this year was noteworthy, as was Switzerland blanking the Czechs.

Still, perhaps the main takeaway from Sochi is this: Anyone who ever doubted that Canada is king of the hockey hill should be averting their eyes. I remember a time, two decades back, when some folks fretted that the influx of non-Canadian talent into the NHL suggested that Canada was losing its game; when people were unhappy about Scotty Bowman fielding an all-Russian line for the Red Wings; when people squinted about the "Yank Owns The Canucks" symbolism of a Seattle businessman buying a controlling interest in Vancouver's hockey club.

Over the last couple weeks, however, Team Canada marched through the Olympics not only without losing a game, but without ever trailing in a game. After medaling just once in the first three Olympics that included NHL'ers, Team Canada has won two straight gold; and although Finland has won more medals than Canada during this era, all of Canada's have been gold compared to none of Finland's.

Where from here?
The next Winter Olympics will return to the Far East for the first time in two decades. Exactly 20 years after Nagano, Japan hosted the games in 1998, Pyeongchang, South Korea will host them in 2018. This will mark a kind of "return to roots" because Pyeongchang, unlike the last two hosts, is a smallish city with frigid winters. Its population is roughly 8 percent of Vancouver's and its February temperatures average 30 degrees colder than Sochi's.

For those reasons, I love the choice. A lot is riding on Pyeongchang, because how well it does will go a long way toward determining whether traditional sites such as itself get chosen on into the future. I, for one, hope it does a helluva job.

When it comes to 2022, however, you might want to cringe. Neither the U.S. nor Canada is placing a bid. Meanwhile, Munich and Saint Moritz declined to bid and Stockholm surprised everyone by withdrawing its name from consideration.

For Europe, that leaves Oslo and Krakow. The former sounds perfect, except for the fact that most Norwegians are not supportive of the bid. As for the latter, I find it to be especially intriguing because Poland has never hosted an Olympics, and doing so would do a great deal of good for that tough but often put-open nation; however, the dearth of ski resorts in Poland leaves the Krakow bid in the awkward position of suggesting that a spot in an entirely different country (Slovakia) be the site of its snow events, and I doubt that will fly with the Olympic Committee.

Technically, there is a third potential European host submitting a bid, but I don't think Lviv, Ukraine has much of a chance since that country is in the throes of revolution by its own citizens (good, but not stable) and invasion by Russia (bad).

That leaves us with two non-European bids. One is from Almaty, Kazakhstan and the other from Beijing, China. The first is Borat's country. It is pretty, but third-world and populated by lots of nomads. The second city recentlty staged a Summer Olympics so why go back there so soon? Plus, it is home to one of the most repressive regimes on Earth and that has gotta count against you sometime.

So it's all yours Oslo, whether your citizens want it or not!