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Vladimir Putin’s plan to annex Crimea to Russia is happening. Shortly after the Crimean parliament voted to join Russia, it announced a referendum that would ratify the vote – initially set for the end of the month, but which was then pushed forward to March 16. Members of Parliament were in such hurry they all must have been double-parked outside the building.

This development follows weeks of turbulence in Kiev where pro-Russia Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown and forced to seek refuge in Russia. Fiscal woes had pushed Ukraine to the brink of default of its obligations. Both the European Union and Russia offered to help. Yanukvych’s accepted Russian aid against his people’s wishes. Protesters took to the streets and demanded his resignation. Protests turned violent and the ensuing crackdown led to Yanukovych’s ouster.

obama putin

Crimea came into play because its southern city of Sevastopol hosts Russia’s Black Sea naval forces. Putin was either playing gracious Winter Olympics host in nearby Sochi, or egging Ovechkin and his hockey team to score a goal, when the Kiev unrest broke out. Putin didn’t like it. So he set things in motion, invaded Crimea, and now it is his, back in the Russian orbit. The U.S. and the EU balked, and that  brings us to this round of negotiations, posturing, sanctions, threats and more posturing.

Now, looking at my Dollar Store crystall ball, a few thing become clear:

  1. Putin is going to play hadball with Obama. He is secretly a religious man and a forgiving father. Ukraine, Azerbaijan, they are like prodigal sons to him. So are Belarus, Latvia and Estonia. They went away but they will be back. He wants them back. There was much joy and frolic in the big house when the boys were home. If only he could bring back the Cold War.
  2. Russia will lean on the new Crimean stooge he will install to crack down on the bourgeoise lifestyle learned from the West. Property will be appropriated, industries nationalized.
  3. A Putin potentate would suggest playing “Back in the U.S.S.R” in the airwaves the way proletarian songs blared in the days of the revolution, but Putin is of two minds about it. The title itself is uplifting, triumphant. But the rest of the lyrics is pure bourgeois —  sunbathing in a Miami beach, Ukaraine and Moscow girls knocking people out, puking in a paperbag. No.
  4. Putin is a closet Beatles fan. He likes McCartney ­– if only he would retire already ­– his singing voice is gone. But he likes the Lennon guy better, the one who was shot by some schmuck in that city of bohemian lifestyle and capitalist excess they call New York. That Lennon guy wrote beautiful lyrics: “… imagine there’s no country … imagine no possessions … and no religion, too.” Classic. Very Russian.
  5. Putin’s next move would be to pounce on Urkraine. “The only way to protect the border is to expand it”, Catherine the Great must have said that, and Putin hasn’t forgotten. But he would tread carefully. Economic sanctions, frozen assets, visa restrictions, stock market losses, isolation from trading partners – Putin knows Russia in 2014 can handle the initial blow. But it won’t be long before it’s the ‘80s again – food shortages, long lines for bread and toilet paper, and crappy cars that writers in the West loved to ridicule.
  6. Obama will be on the phone with Putin several times in the course of the  negotiations. They won’t use Facebook because they both hate Facebook. Obama loathes it because it is not secure – in fact, nothing is secure. Somebody in Langley is monitoring every keystroke. Putin hates it because he despises young billionaire capitalists like Mark Zuckerberg.
  7. Blindsided, Obama couldn’t believe this. Where was the CIA, the NSA, and all those sleep-inducing acronyms? Why did they have to be caught sleeping at the wheel all at the same time? Why did they have to be caught spying too much on Americans and too little on Russians?
  8. Obama would be very careful in dealing with Putin, knowing Putin would claim he is just taking a page from the Bush-Cheney playbook on regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the dynamic duo also stole from others who came before them, most of them Russian. Putin hates NFL football – what’s with those pads and helmets?  – but he likes playbooks.
  9. Ukrainian member of parliament Vitali Klitchko will be under heavy surveillance by the KGB in Kiev. The former heavyweight boxing champion wants to run for president in the new government. Putin doesn’t want a big guy with a big punch leading a country he wants to re-acquire in the future.
  10. Ditto for his brother Wladimir, reigning heavyweight champion, who has both a fight and a wedding on his plate. Expect Russian-speaking paparazzi in the set of the TV series “Nashville,” where Wladimir’s fiancee Hayden Panettiere plays one of the lead roles. Putin despises both Klitchko  brothers. Truth be told, he thinks Ivan Drago would knock the daylights of them both. And Drago would do it for Mother Russia.

But seriously, Putin’s maneuverings in Crimea, timed perfectly with China’s growing belligerence in Asia, is starting to worry people. Many cringe at the thought of Putin reprising that funny World War II character with the funny hair and moustache in that movie Inglorious Basterds. China showing off its glistening pectorals and gluts is bringing back memories of a ruthless invading army from the Land of the Rising Sun, World War II edition.

Obama and allies are in for a long Crimean spring right on the heels of a tumultuous Ukrainian winter, even as the Arab Spring still hasn’t died down  — what, by the way, is with the name of the season being identified with trouble?

The world’s only superpower is trying to slim down, but recent developments might compel it to beef up. If negotiations with Russia fail, use of force becomes inevitable. But is it worth going to war to stop ethnic Russians from joining Russia?

This is a nightmare, Obama must be thinking. First Snowden, and now this. And that’s not including Obamacare and the Republicans.

But back to Putin. Does he have a Plan B?

Con artists, entrapment and an ice fishing story that couldn’t be told in one sitting

Two small-time con artists, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sidney Prosser (Amy Adams), are on their way up the food chain  when they are nabbed by an ambitious but reckless FBI agent  Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and coerced to participate in a sting operation that would entrap politicians, power brokers and the Mob in a fictional Atlantic City redevelopment deal.

Serious stuff.

Not really, because what unfolds is a comedy of errors that includes bad hair requiring a meticulous comb-over, conjuring images of the man who never fails to ask for Obama’s birth certificate; a surprisingly Arabic-speaking Mob honcho puzzled by an Arab sheik who could barely speak the language; a scorned wife blabbering about her husband’s work to a Mob hencman; an ice fishing story that never gets told completely in one sitting; and a $2 million wire transfer that’s gone awry.

As in any confidence game tale where things are not really what they look like, it’s about figuring out the big play and who’s playing whom. It is one big acting workshop where real-life actors play characters who have mastered acting for a quick buck.

Also out of left field, the character with the most gravitas is a politician (Jeremy Renner). How’s that for a fresh take on the con game during the ‘70s  disco era?

Some observations:

  1. Bale, a Brit, plays Irving, an American. Adams, an American, plays Sidney Prosser, an American parading around as English royalty. Bale sounds convincing enough as an American while Adams somehow struggles with her English accent and practiced stiff upper lip.
  2. Richie’s (Cooper) boss Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.) is the typical weakling, a pushover. His ice fishing story that seems to be going nowhere is good comic relief.
  3. A slimmed down Robert De Niro, uncredited in the movie, is masterful as Mob enforcer Victor Tellegio.
  4. Soundtrack was great but mostly early ‘70s ­– Chicago, The Temptations, America – and little bit of Tom Jones.

Overall,  it was fun to watch. Good but not great.  It didn’t have enough hustle to win a single Academy Award, but I’ll take it.

Am Hustle

Originally published in April 2013

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When you have hundreds of Filipino muslims brandishing assault rifles descend on the shores of Lahad Datu, Sabah, professing to reclaim the land in the name of whom they call its rightful owner, Kiram III, Sultan of Sulu, what can you expect?

A shootout with Malaysian police, which can escalate into a full-blown ground battle, that can morph into a guerrilla warfare requiring Malaysian reinforcements — helicopter gunships and more men armed to the teeth and ready to kill. A purge of the area to flush out the intruders and kill Filipino sympathizers. Hundreds, possibly thousands of Filipinos living illegally in Sabah in a mad rush across the sea to Philippine shores.

And this is exactly how Kiram III’s little adventure has created this powder keg, caused this senseless bloodletting and brought the Philippines into the uncomfortable business of dealing with an agitated neighbor. A neighbor whose elusive goodwill the country had worked hard to win, culminating in Malaysia just recently brokering the peace between the mainstream Philippines and Muslim secessionists in the south. A neighbor whose support the country, and the entire region, needs to deal with a belligerent China who, with its economic might and beefed up military, is starting to flex its muscles and project power in the region.

And now this.

soldier

Malaysian soldier during mop-up operations.
Photo by asiancorrespondent.com

Lost cause

The Sabah claim is like a toothache that won’t go away. Not to discredit the veracity of the claim and the credibility of the claimants — there are a few of them who claim to be the real Sultan of Sulu and dispute each other’s claim — but the Philippines had its best shot in 1963 when the then Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah were just constituting themselves into what is now the Federation of Malaysia. The Macapagal government filed a claim with the International Court of Justice, but without success. The claim was caught in a tide of decolonization that was sweeping the world at the time — a tide that gave primacy to the right of self-determination for people who lived in disputed territory  — such as Sabahans, whose land they believed belonged to Malaysia but was being claimed by the Philippines. And to underscore the ominous timing of the Sabah claim, the population of Sabah voted as one to join the Federation of Malaysia. Sabah could have opted out, as Singapore did, but did not. From then on, Sabah had pledged allegiance to Malaysia, participated in its elections and taken part in Malaysian daily life.

When Marcos came to power, he was not impressed. So he put together a little invading army of Muslim diehards to force the issue. The problem was Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., a former war correspondent who had sources in the most unexpected places, exposed “Merdeka” or “Jabiddah,” embarrassed Marcos and snuffed out the life of his expansionist designs. Since then, other than modest attempts by subsequent administrations to revive the issue,  the Sabah claim became dormant.

Fast forward to today. President Noynoy Aquino has urged Kiram ‘s men to lay down their arms and surrender to put a lid on this tinder box — and let a legitimate claim to Sabah start its course one more time. Kiram’s men will be prosecuted, no doubt, because an armed intrusion into foreign territory is an explicit act of war in Bahasa, Pilipino, English or whatever language. It is indefensible.

A few loud voices in the Philippines, many of them obviously grossly uninformed, are urging  President Aquino to be more aggressive in dealing with Malaysia — to defend the honor of the country and to show Malaysia that the Philippines is no pushover.

Translation: they want the country to go to war with Malaysia. Absurd, but in a democracy, such voices are to be expected.

Think about it. Generations who never experienced war as their parents and grandparents did, who never came face to face with an invading Japanese Army, are now urging their president to go to war.  Iraq, Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all the war-instigated violence in the Middle East and Africa  — are all of these lost on them who imagine it might be cool to have the “smell of napalm” in the morning.

A war you cannot win

Has life become so boring to some Filipinos that they want to spice it up with some little war. And what will they have to go to war with? World War II-vintage ships, Vietnam War-era helicopter gunships and other weapons that would break down before they could put to use. The Philippine’s estimated annual budget for defense is $375 million, or 0.9 percent of its $416.7 billion Gross Domestic Product. Malaysia’s is $998 million, or 2.03 per cent of $492 billion, a larger share of much larger pie, which makes it almost three times the Philippine spending. The $628 million annual difference is crucial — it is going to mean plenty of lives.

Leadership is always misunderstood by those who were born to be followers but harbor ambitions of being in charge. So in a case like this, the first thing that comes to mind is the knee-jerk reaction to strike back, to inflict harm to the enemy who caused you dishonor. But a true leader has to consider all sides to the issue, weigh all options and choose the path that serves best the interest of his country. Will the leader be swayed by the few who are calling for blood? Or will he follow reason, save the fight for another day, and work with his neighbor to find a common ground where the interests of both countries will be served? Will he be swayed by polls or will he follow his instincts and do what he believes is right?

President Aquino is walking a tightrope, understanding fully that he alone could make this decision because a democratic election put him there to do it.

Originally published two days after the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut

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It’s been two days since the tragic mass killing in a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school, but the revolting feeling lingers, not helped at all by the seeming paralysis of America as a nation to deal with the problem.

America is under siege. It is staring right at the barrel of a gun – a powerful, automatic, bullet-spewing killing machine that common criminals and social misfits have easy access to. The shooting, where 27 people where killed, 18 of them innocent boys and girls, is just the latest in a long list of mass shootings that has the nation reeling and wondering when, if ever, this insanity would end.

Photo from CTV

Guns, guns and more guns

A quick look at the more notorious ones in recent memory: Killeen, Texas in1991 (22 killed); Columbine, Colorado in 1999 (15 killed); Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia in 2007 (33 killed); Binghamton, New York in 2009(13 killed);  Ft.Hood Texas in 2009 (13 killed); Aurora, Colorado earlier this year (12 killed).

The common denominator in all these senseless deaths is guns – powerful, automatic assault rifles and handguns fed by high-capacity magazines that ensure rapid, continuous firepower. Military-grade stoppers comparable in ferocity to the ones used by U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Laws regulating the sale, possession and use of guns in the U.S. pathetically haven’t caught up with the development in high-powered firearms and their easy availability on the street. In some states, you can walk into a WalMart store, show your driver’s licence, fill out some forms, and expect to collect the piece in five days.

First, there is not one unified federal law that applies across the board and supersedes all others. States enforce their own gun laws that vary in form, content, coverage and level of restriction. And to make matters worse, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling stipulates that state and local police departments are not legally bound to enforce federal gun law.

The Brady Law, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, set a minimum five-day wait period for a gun purchase from a federally licensed dealer, and a background check on the buyer off a comprehensive database. Although the law must have blocked thousands of purchases by possible criminals, the sale of guns to legitimate buyers has also raised concern because of the simple fact that guns are so easily stolen – and then used by people not authorized to use them.

Strict gun laws

Mass shootings are not unique to the U.S.; other countries also have their share of weirdos going on a shooting spree when they become unhinged. But other countries have demonstrated that strict gun laws minimize the number of mass shootings and fatalities. Fewer people with access to less powerful guns usually means fewer deaths. A shooter with an old fashioned revolver, with only six rounds to work with before he needs to reload, has a high chance of being stopped by somebody before he could kill more. But no one stops a hail of bullets from an Uzi or a Sig Sauer, and lives to tell the tale.

The government of Australia learned its lesson from the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre, where 35 people were killed and 21 wounded when a deeply disturbed man opened fire on shop owners and tourists using two military-style semi-automatic rifles.

Responding to the tragedy, Australia now has one of the most restrictive gun ownership laws in the developed world, where assault rifles are grouped in the category of war weapons, such as machine guns, rocket launchers and flame throwers – all restricted weapons, off limits to civilians. The government also conducted a gun buyback program from1996 to 1997, netting more than 600,000 firearms.  That’s more than half a million guns beyond the reach of possible mass killers.

Here in Canada, where the waiting period to purchase a handgun is 28 days, anyone buying a gun must have a witness confirm, to the best of their knowledge, that the applicant is who he says he is – that the information given in the application form is true, and that the photo accurately identifes the applicant.

On top of this, the applicant has to have two people, other than a spouse, sign a statement confirming that they have known the applicant for at least three years and, to the best of their knowledge, the information on the application is true and the applicant is not a threat to public safety.

This added layer of requirement makes it harder to purchase a gun and has been known to be an effective deterrent. Finding three people who would be willing to vouch for your character, knowing they can possibly be summoned as a witness in a court of law if the gun in question is involved in a crime, is a tough hurdle. Also, the long wait for approval gives authorities enough time to do a thorough background check.

Lethal weapon

While various arguments are put forward, pinning the blame on drugs, violent video games, the breakdown of society, neglect of people suffering mental problems – it still goes back to the lethal weapon that made the killing possible. Guns don’t kill, people do, insists the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the rest of the gun lobby. But if a deranged, suicidal person has nothing but a knife, what are the chances he could kill 33 young adults, as happened in Virginia Tech? But with an automatic or two, he is unstoppable.

Society cannot ban people just because they are mentally ill-equipped to co-exist with others. But society can – and should – ban the weapons of destruction that push these people over the edge.

Otherwise no one would be safe. Sitting in a fast-food joint, one never knows whether that harmless-looking skinny teenager wrestling mightily with a Baconator is just what he looks like – a harmless teenager – not somebody who has totally lost it and who, any minute now, will pull out a Glock out of his hoodie and play real-life Terminator.

Originally published two days after the November 2012 presidential elections

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The people have spoken. It’s an old cliché that somehow never gets tired — taken for granted, no doubt, by those who think they can outsmart the one real source of power in a democracy, but nevertheless always reasserting itself if only to demonstrate that a political party can only ignore the voice of the people at its own peril.

The Republican Party finds itself unable to unseat a Democratic president burdened by a still struggling economy and handicapped by so many promises unkept. President Barack Obama rode on a popular wave of change in 2008 and won the hearts of a nation grown weary of the excesses and incompetence of the ideologically driven Bush administration. But the soaring rhetoric on which rode his blueprint for change met with the hard realities of actual governing. Now, four years later, with growing discontentment wafting in the air, Obama was right for the picking.

So the Republicans thought. Wrong.

Mountains of statistics on demographics, would explain how Republican candidate Mitt Romney failed to win the presidency, but the loss can be pinned to one glaring fact — they did not heed the voice of the people. Either they did not recognize which it is among the many, or they simply chose to ignore it.

Who are these people who spoke so eloquently and insisted that they be heard? Hispanics, African Americans, other minorities, women, young people, the middle class, the poor, the disenfranchised. Each of them has a voice, and with that voice a vote. But Republicans, driven by a conservative ideology that stubbornly sticks to a strategy that worked before but is now passe, turned a deaf ear.

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Photo from globalpost.com

Conservative base

And who did they count on for support instead? The old dependables of the party, the conservative base — old white men, working class white men in the cities, the rural white population. And they fed this demographic with a diet of promises that address their cultural-social aspirations, buzzwords right out of the Republican playbook — small government, lower taxes, immigration control, lenient gun control, anti-abortion legislation and legislation against same-sex marriage, among them.

The strategy worked — almost.

Until it ran into a mathematical reality: they are fewer in number.

The Republicans are running out of old white men to vote for them. Middle-aged white men are not getting younger. Young white men, specially the educated ones, are becoming more liberal than conservative. Young women detest a government that wants to interfere with their reproductive rights. Educated young Republicans, who call themselves fiscal conservatives, are turned off by the Christian Right’s Bible thumping and obsession with abortion and same-sex marriage. And the urban white wage-earner has to, more and more, work and interact with Hispanics, African Americans and other minorities in the workplace.

Votes that will shape the future

The Republicans are losing, by default, the key demogaphics that will elect the leaders in future elections and shape the America of the future, the very constituencies that Democrats are working hard to nurture. While conservatives long for those days when the charm of Ronald Reagan and the wrongheaded blustery of George W. Bush was enough to win the White House, Democrats continue to connect with the Spanish-speaking young man texting on his iPhone, his African American friend who couldn’t get over his amazement with the music recording app on his iPad, and the young woman who wants equal pay and would readily flash a finger to any politician who wants to repeal Roe vs. Wade.

This is the new face of America and it is staring Republicans in the face. And they better get used to it.

Now the conservatives have Obama where they want him – on the defensive.

Oh, boy. The boy wonder who blazed the presc drugstrail to the White House on the wave of millions chanting “Yes we can!” is now reeling under the attack of a different set of slogan key words – “Government-run health care”, “Socialized medicine”, “Rationing”, “Euthanasia”, “Private insurance killer”.

Well, you live by the slogan, you die by the slogan.

Who would have thought that a wildly popular Democratic president, with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, would have difficulty passing legislation designed to reform a health care system that more than half the American population think is too costly, too inefficient, too profit-driven and too messed up to be allowed to continue?

Probably nobody, specially during the heady post-election days of November last year.

But now it is happening. Obama is losing this battle and here are the reasons why:

First, Obama did not learn his lesson from the failure of Bill Clinton’s health care reform initiative in the early 1990s.Everyone in the Obama administration who has something to do with the current legislations in Congress would say they did actually learn from Clinton’s mistakes. No they did not.

Their plan was just to do the opposite of whatever Clinton did. Clinton’s team, on its own, without input from Congress, drew up an ambitious, detailed plan to wean the country away from the current system, introduce a public health insurance option and eventually make the transition to a single-payer universal health care system. To Obama’s team, this was a no-no. So they announced the broad intent to improve health care by waving a blank slate, then asked if parties involved would like to come forward and help fill in the details.

In effect, they announced a party then asked who would secure the venue, bring the food, provide the music and run the party games.

Who took up the call for ideas? Predictably, parties representing the big players of the health care industry, each one promising to bring down their costs by x million dollars now that legislation to reform health care and rein in its cost seemed imminent.

Today, months after those promises were made – and at a time the health care discussion has grown into a full-blown polarizing debate – where are those promises? Where are the numbers to back up the assumption that those promises are more than lip service – and that those who made the commitment will deliver on them? Has it ever occurred to anybody that it is not in the interest of a health care insurer to bring down the cost of premium and deductibles? That it is not in the interest of health care providers to slash their own earnings?

Not the way to lead

The morale of the story here is … you do not lead this way. This is not the way to lead. You do this and you invite all sorts of suggestions, more than enough to confuse you and make you wonder how you got into this mess. Some call it consensus-building; it is not. It is plainly a failure to lead.

You lead this way and, yes, you show an openness and willingness to listen to other ideas on the way to forging cooperation. But you also come across as unprepared, indecisive, and worse, bereft of ideas.

The second reason for the faltering health care initiative is the failure of the Obama team to figure out that the issue is best dealt with when broken up into two manageable parts –one, overhauling the existing inefficient and wasteful system, and two, finding a way to finance the overhaul.

Presenting the issue as a single complex problem invites questions of funding, which has the effect of diluting the main message and shoving it aside. Not that funding is not very important – it is – but arguing spiritedly about money and where it will come from tends to dominate the discussion and leave the core issue in a fog. A few voices raised loud enough, repeatedly, and most everyone forgets what they were arguing about.

Exactly the scenario preferred by the opponents of health care reform.

Look back at what has happened over the past several weeks– hundreds coming to town hall meetings on health care reform to boo speakers and shoot down proposals; a swastika spray-painted on the office of a town advocate of health care reform; or red-faced seniors on Medicare and Medicaid coverage denouncing government involvement and decision-making in health care – hurling invectives at the very government-run system that keeps them protected beyond what their meager social security checks can cover.

Ignorance is bliss

It has been observed that many Americans tend to make decisions that work against their own interests. Whether it is the deplorable standard of education or the desperate desire to cling to what worked in generations past, this inability to make informed decisions based on facts is just not helping.

This country bombed Iraq without worrying about the cost. No one raised a hue and cry about how many millions of dollars a day it would cost to contain the insurgency and keep the killing beyond the protected zone. It is still costing billions now that the Bush-Cheney gang of bullies has been voted out of power.

Sure, reforming health care will cost trillions of dollars over the next 10 to 20 years. But it is already costing billions now with about 45 million Americans walking around without insurance, with no solution in sight.

The biggest defeat for the President himself would be the demise of the proposed public insurance option – the core of the proposed legislation, everything else is just detail – which he promised during the campaign and which opponents of health care reform are now taking apart even as we speak. What would be left would be the status quo.

Of course, health care reform opponents would always cite figures saying a large majority of Americans who have health insurance cannot be happier with their situation and prefer to keep it that way. Yes, the same working Americans who, in this recession, are just one layoff away from the poor house. They can afford it now, no problem, but let’s hear them sing that tune when the pink slip arrives.

The travails of Obama and the Democrats as they fumbled their way into announcing their health care initiative can be best described in baseball parlance: President Obama, the self-confessed Chicago White Sox fan, stood on the pitcher’s mound, his 98-mile-an-hour fastball cocked and ready. He could just let it loose, straight down the pipe, and dare the batter to catch up with it.

But what did he do? He nibbled on the sides, throwing a puny breaking ball that did not break sharply enough and ended up in the middle of the strike zone. In the blink of an eye, the hitter pounced. The ball was airborne and into the hands of a fan 450 feet out in straightaway center field. Home run.

Obama and company want that pitch back. But in life, as in baseball, that is not going to happen.

kim jong ilThe release of two American journalists captured at the Chinese-North Korean border in March this year invites another glimpse into the enigma that is the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.

The two female journalists, Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, were picked up by North Korean soldiers while they were making a TV documentary about the trafficking of North Korean women to China. They were accused of illegal entry into North Korea.

Upping the ante

In the two women, the eccentric North Korean leader saw two unwilling pawns that opened up a few strategic moves for him in this protracted chess match he had long been playing with the United States and the world. There had been a long, droning pause in the game and Kim Jong-Il saw that America had not been an enthusiastic combatant. So he decided to up the ante by slapping the U.S. with a direct threat on two of its citizens.

Not satisfied, Kim decided to dial up the action a little bit more. To the chagrin of an Obama administration that is just getting its feet wet on Pyongyang’s weapon-infested pond, North Korea conducted on Aug. 3 an underground testing of a new nuclear weapon – a missile supposed to be more powerful and more technologically advanced than the one it tested in October 2006. Russian missile experts estimated the power of the blast to be between 10 to 20 kilotons – about the size of of the atomic bombs that were dropped by U.S. forces on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.

For sure, the irony of rubbing the nose of the world’s lone superpower on the magnitude of nuclear destruction it once unleashed on an enemy – something no U.S. leader wants to be part of again – is not lost on Kim.

Respect

Since he assumed absolute power over his country in 1998, four years after the death of his father Kim Il-Sung, the “Eternal President”,  Kim Jong-Il has tried to position his country as a force to reckon with in the geopolitical arena, commanding more respect – and therefore fear – than other players the free world would not entrust with a nuclear toy or two – Iran, Iraq, maybe Libya. But as he was posturing, nobody was paying attention.

For the past eight years, Kim wanted to dance, but the Bush administration was not obliging. Kim craved an audience with America but wanted it to look like the U.S. was dying to have an audience with him. It did not help that Bush the Cowboy, with his six-shooter loaded and cocked, did not make a good impression on the North Korean despot. Kim, was waving a dance card but Bush’s name was not on it.

Which brings us to the extraordinary 22-hour effort that finally freed the two journalists from Kim’s prisons. Both Ling and Lee were allowed to communicate to folks back home and relay the message – that the “Dear Leader” might be persuaded to sit down with an American leader of world stature and discuss what it would take to send the two women home. This time, the name on the dance card was Bill Clinton, former U.S. president.

But this was no ordinary sit-down of the Tony Soprano-John Sacramoni variety. This one involved cameras, studio lighting and a wavy backdrop, among many things. This was a giant photo op for Kim, a chance to show his people their supreme leader at his finest – sitting smug across the table from the leader, albeit a former one, of the free world, working to settle an international dispute that every news outlet in the planet should be reporting.

This was huge.

And to think Kim did not even have to fire a single Taepodong missile to get this result.

Face-saving

In hindsight, it does not really make a difference whether or not Clinton really apologized to Kim Jong-Il. What is clear is that Clinton appealed for leniency on the matter – and he got it. America was on its best behavior on the negotiating table, Kim got his face-saving tableau going, the two journalists were freed and everybody is happy.

Some would say the U.S. was a sucker for Kim’s antics. But the lives and freedom of two Americans should be reason enough to leave the sword in the scabbard and, for a change, negotiate like a responsible, pragmatic leader.

Whether North Korea has finally started to recognize and respect international law, or whether it would now be a willing participant in multilateral talks on nuclear disarmament, is yet to be seen.

Kim Jong-Il maybe crazy, delusional, petulant, inscrutable – and his bouffant hairdo maybe the most hideous thing since Jim Carey’s abominable coiffure in Ace Ventura, Pet Detective – but one thing he is not is stupid. He saw that his pissing match with America was not getting him anywhere, so he tore a page off the Mob’s handbook. He showed that he knows how to get things done.

Originally published in http://www.cometomarket.com