News & Propaganda: Skoolz Out Edition

Friday, May 8, 2015

As usual, things have been quite busy lately up here at the Borderlands Lodge. Classes at Montana State ended on May 1, and now the summer is finally upon us.

So I guess I can say that life is pretty good. 

But enough with the chit-chat. Here's the N & P:

What could go wrong? 

Next week, the US and Turkey begin their joint training of Syrian rebels in their effort to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. 

From the Turkish Daily Tattler
The programme to train and arm a force that is expected to eventually total more than 15,000 troops has been mired in delays as many details of the plan, such as whether or how Washington would come to their aid on the battlefield, remain unclear. A rebel commander last month told Reuters he expected the training to start in July.
On Friday Çavuşoğlu told Turkish daily Sabah that the U.S. and Turkey share the view of a Syria without President Bashar al-Assad.
"There isn't any political or other issue. At first, 300 people will be trained, followed by the next 300 and, at the end of the year, the number of trained and equipped fighters will reach 2,000," he said.
Here's another story about the joint training exercises.

Arguments over Syria are somewhat reminiscent of the debate regarding US and French intervention in Libya in 2011. Back then, a lot of people--even some folks on the left like Juan Cole--thought it would be a great idea to get involved with the conflict between then-Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and rebels in Libya. Supporters of American involvement in Libya had various reasons for making their arguments. Some framed US involvement in humanitarian terms, while others felt it would be good for the US to get in on the ground floor of post-Qaddafi Libya and its oil industry. 

Obviously, there are no easy choices in Syria, just as there were none in Libya. Assad is, of course, a real tyrant, and there are numerous humanitarian reasons that anyone could invoke in arguing in favor of American intervention. Playing a role in overthrowing Assad, moreover, could conceivably give a country more of a say in shaping Syria's post-Assad future. 

This won't end well: Qaddafi and Assad

At the same time, however, I don't really have much of a sense of what the long-term plan is supposed to be regarding Syria. I get the part about getting rid of Assad, and I also understand the value and desirability of training "moderate rebels" and helping them get into power. What I don't understand, however, is the intermediary step that's supposed to take place between "getting rid of Assad" and helping the "moderates" gain power. How do we get from step 1 to step 3? 

It all reminds me a little bit about the underwear gnomes from South Park, who never figured out how to get from phase 1 (stealing underwear) to phase 3 (profit). 

What was Phase 2 again?

I've talked about Syria elsewhere (here and here, mainly), and throughout all of this my main question has been: why work so hard to overthrow a regime when there really seems to be no agreed-upon plan regarding what to do once Assad is gone? Doesn't that seem...problematic? And, now that I think of it, doesn't that kind of sound like what happened in Libya four years ago? 

Photo of recent clashes in Benghazi, Libya

You don't replace something with nothing. Overthrowing Assad without a clear and realistic plan regarding what happens next would, I think, just be tantamount to setting up Syrians for still more misery. Kind of like overthrowing Qaddafi without having a clear plan for what would come next. Remember the underwear gnomes!

This isn't a rhetorical question, it's a real one: does the fact that Assad is totally discredited internationally really make him worse than the Islamic-state rooted regime that would, were it to take power, have access to Syria's treasury, military and whatever else the Syrian state has at its disposal right now? While I don't think the US should be supporting Assad, I'm also pretty skeptical about the wisdom of working toward regime change. Haven't we learned anything about the unintended consequences involved with overthrowing regimes in the Middle East? 

It's a lot easier to topple a regime than to create one

Assad is in many ways presiding over a regime that resembles that of Saddam Hussein. Assad's Syria is a brutal, militaristic state that has worked to promote a mainly secular-nationalist identity for the country. In the case of both Hussein and the Assads (including father Hafez, who died in 2000, and son Bashar, who has ruled since then), the man in charge came from a religious minority, and therefore was more prone, under most circumstances, to avoid talking about religious identity altogether. 

Hafez al-Assad, his family, and their bikes


I'm not a fan of the Assads, but I think that if the Syrian government were to fall under the present circumstances, the bloodshed would make today's violence seem mild by comparison. I'm not at all sure where the US administration hopes that overthrowing Assad will lead us. 

One thing, though: Bashar al-Assad must have a pretty loyal inner circle. It's hard to imagine that the people around him haven't been contacted by folks looking for a partner with whom they could stage a coup, get rid of the Assads, and keep the Ba'ath Party in power. Given the history of American policymaking in Syria, I could see some folks in Washington viewing such a scenario as a magic bullet of sorts, a way to square the circle. You could remove Assad, whose personal brand is arguably beyond saving, and still keep the Islamic State from taking over Syria.

A Ba'ath Party beyond Assad?

It would definitely be a risky move. After all, it's quite likely that removing Assad from power in some sort of coup would be precisely the sort of action that could precipitate the final downfall of the Ba'ath Party in Syria, which would likely lead to Syria turning into even more of a violent free-for-all than it already is. Or, it could just lead to the Islamic State taking over Damascus. Presumably these are not options that US policymakers greet with much anticipation. 

So the plan now seems to be to train our own fighters and see what happens. Somewhere, the underwear gnomes are shaking their heads.  

Looking for trouble...and finding it

A pretty big story from this past week related to police shooting and killing and two gunmen who had apparently attacked an exposition and contest relating to cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad. 

Dress to impress, Texas!

The idea, it seems, was to celebrate "freedom of speech" in a way that was bound to piss off Muslims, even the vast majority of whom who have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever for violence in the name of religion. The event was sponsored by an outfit calling itself the American Freedom Defense Initiative. The contest's winning entry was a crude offering that resembles what you would get if you put a Hitler mustache onto a character from Planet of the Apes.

Here's a brief outtake from the story: 
Pamela Geller, president of the AFDI, told the AP before Sunday’s event that she planned the contest to make a stand for free speech in response to outcries and violence over drawings of Muhammad.
Though it remained unclear several hours after the shooting whether it was related to event, she said Sunday night that the shooting showed how “needed our event really was.”
I talked a little bit about this phenomenon in a recent post regarding Charlie Hebdo. Obviously, speech needs to be protected in instances like this. At the same time, however, I can't say that I feel a lot of sympathy for folks who were going out of their way to make other people upset. Daring people to knock a chip off of your shoulder is hardly the best use of anyone's time, energy or resources. 

Yellowstone Pix

I'll be doing a fair bit of traveling outside of the US this summer. Last weekend, however, I managed to head down to a more local place: the park (Yellowstone) for a couple of days with some friends. Here are some of the better shots from the excursion. 

On the way down to Yellowstone

It's calving season for buffalo, and by the side of the road we saw a mother that had recently given birth to a calf. The placenta was still hanging out.

Mother, calf, and dangling placenta in rear

Speaking of buffalo, I've been eating a lot of non-placenta (I'm assuming) ground buffalo meat lately. Buffalo enchiladas, buffalo spaghetti, and other treats have been on order in recent months at the Borderlands Lodge. It's a lean mean, less savory than beef, but still quite good. It's really clean, too, and you don't have to worry about mad cow disease. You can find it at all the supermarkets here.  

Anyway, while we were watching the mother and her newborn calf, a pretty cool thing happened. We saw the calf get up on very shaky legs and take a few tentative steps--perhaps its first ever. 

Shaky calf taking some early steps

After our encounter with the buffalo, the calf, and the placenta, we kept moving to the west and south. About an hour later, and once we were in another part of the park, we came across a grizzly bear. 

Staring down the grizzly--from afar

It was a pretty exciting moment. I'd seen a few black bears since coming to Montana in 2009, all of them in the park, but this was the first time I'd ever seen a grizzly.

Perhaps a visitor from Memphis?

It looked a bit groggy, frankly, lumbering around by the side of the road without paying a lot of attention to us. Grizzlies are still emerging from hibernation, especially smaller ones like this one. All in all, it was probably about 100 yards away from us. We watched the bear for about 15 minutes until it walked back up into the woods on the side of the hill. We then decided to go check out some geysers. 
Heading back up to the forest

Driving south, we headed down to the part of the park where Old Faithful is located. There are loads of thermal springs and hot spots down there, and we checked a few of them out.  

Thermal stuff

More thermal stuff

All in all, I've been down to Yellowstone probably 12-15 times since moving to Montana six years ago. Every time I go there it feels like a brand new experience. 

Vodka News

Or is it vodka propaganda? In any case, one of the revelations earned during last week's tenure celebration dinner was that there's a distillery in Bozeman that produces Huckleberry vodka. I found the place--they're actually right downtown but I hadn't known about them--and bought a bottle of the stuff today. It's pretty smooth. 


This isn't the first Montana vodka that I've grown fond of. Up in Butte there's a distillery called "Headframe" that I like a lot, too. I've made a few trips to Butte--which is a completely awesome place to hang out--in the past year which ended in a field trip to the place. I'll still head to Butte, but it's nice to know that there's some local vodka available as well.  

According to Montana law, you can have two drinks in the distilleries, and can buy a maximum of two bottles at one time. There are also a number of breweries in the area, making Montana beer. It's certainly nice to have so many drinking options nearby. 

As for the price, the huckleberry vodka costs more than the lighter fluid that I usually drink, but is quite a bit cheaper than other specialty drinks. At home, I've been giving it the honor of being consumed with the extra-special Bebek Bar swizzle stick, from one of my favorite spots in Istanbul. 

The scene is always hot at the Bebek Bar!

It's no small gesture, you know. The Borderlands Lodge is, after all, one of the last redoubts of Kemalism in Gallatin County. We've got certain standards to uphold.  

Wonderlust: a retrospective

I've been teaching a class for the "Wonderlust" MSU Extended University over the past six weeks. The class is called "Turks Across Empires," and yes, it's based upon my book of the same name

Paul Harvey sez: Buy the book for the rest of the story

It's been a fun experience. I had about 35 people in the class, many (but not all) of them at around retirement age. There's no reading, no homework--basically give a lecture for 40 minutes, questions for 10, and then another 35 and 15 minute lecture/Q & A split. Many of my students have traveled, and they tend to be a lot more opinionated and informed than my undergraduates. 

The whole experience reminds me a little bit of giving private lessons back when I was an English teacher in Istanbul. In those days, I'd travel by taxi or bus from one part of town to another, teaching English at workplaces and at people's homes. Riding my bike out to the Aspen Pointe retirement community to meet with my Wonderlusters earlier this week, I felt the thrill of free market teaching once again. It's a nice sensation.

I won't be giving up my day job anytime soon. All in all, I definitely find it a lot more rewarding to teach undergraduates, just because of who they are and what they are going through at this time in their lives. Nevertheless, the Wonderlusters gave me an intellectual thrill that reminded me yet again of what a cool community there is in the Bozone.

Hanging with the Turkish Club

This week I also had the chance to hang out with the MSU Turkish Club, which was cool. As I mentioned last week, we'd had a Turkish party on April 23rd. This week, on the other hand, we were just kicking back over some pizza. 

MSU has over 100 dual-degree students, who spend two years here and two years at their university in Turkey, though we've had some regular exchange students as well. The coolest thing about the evening was asking the Turkish students, individually, what their best memories of the year had been. Most of the ones that I talked to included events from the Turkish Club among their favorite moments from the year. It was really sweet.

It's stuff like this that reminds me how much I like my job. Looking back 17 years, to when I was an English teacher living in Istanbul and preparing to take the GRE, I think I would have been ecstatic to learn that one day I'd have a job like this one. 

It's not always easy being a Turk across empires, but sometimes it's got certain benefits.  

2015 Mehmet Okur Award Winner

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, there were still three Turkish players remaining in the NBA playoffs. Well, the number is now down to one, which means we have a winner for the 2015 Mehmet Okur Award winner: Hedo Türkoğlu of the Los Angeles Clippers! 

Our 2015 winner


Türkoğlu's Clippers are in the second round. This means he's outlasted his two Turkish rivals for the honor: Milwaukee's Ersan Ilyasova (lost in 6 to Chicago in first round, first runner-up) and Ömer Aşık of New Orleans (lost in 4 to Golden State in first round, second runner-up).

The Mehmet Okur Award, named after the former Detroit Piston legend, is given each year by the JMB to the longest-lasting Turk in the NBA playoffs. 

Mehmet Okur (r) and Ben Wallace in 2004

Congratulations Hedo, and tebrikler. Good luck in the second round!


That's one of the themes of the N & P this week, I'd say. Whether it's the annual freeing of professors from their classes, the dangling placenta of a freshly-born bison, or the emergence of a new vodka distillery in your neighborhood, springtime is the season of regeneration. As for me, once I've finished with my grading I think I'll head over to the Bebek Bar, or at least a close approximation of it, and try to regenerate there. 

I'll meet you on the deck once I've submitted my grades


Over the next day or so I'll be finishing up with grading and a couple of other obligations, and then I hope to have some productive me-time before I begin my anticipated travels. 

For now take it easy, and may your borderlands always be bright.    

Like the Borderlands? You'll love the book! Order your copy now at the OUP website.   

More links, commentary and photographs available poolside at the Borderlands Lounge

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