Olympic Spirit

Olympic ideals–excellence, friendship and respect–have seemed diminished in the era of network bidding, global commercialization and drug scandals. But here’s hoping that maybe, just maybe, the two-Koreas approach will yield something transcending sport and endorsements at this year’s Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Both North and South Korean athletes will symbolically march under a “unification flag” in opening ceremonies next month.

Don’t look for many, or maybe any, of the 22 participating North Koreans to bring back medals for Kim Jong Un to gloat over. But do look for the world to exhale a bit as any sign of rapprochement, North Korea’s overall agenda notwithstanding, in a time of nuclear tension is more than welcome.

Persian Plots

I’ve spent some time in post-Shah Iran, enough to know that there’s a frustrated, festering young population, especially women, who are less than pleased about dress codes and public-morality policing. Worse yet is the hypocrisy that it’s not remotely like that–including liquor in a dry country–behind closed doors in certain privileged communities.

As a means of placating would-be reformers and angry protesters, police in Tehran have announced that they will no longer arrest women for failing to observe the Islamic dress code that’s been in place since the 1979 revolution.

Just a hunch. This won’t work.

The massive, increasingly violent, street protests–expedited by social media–that we’re now seeing in Tehran and elsewhere reflect something we can identify with right here: It’s the economy, stupid. Inflation, unemployment and the shortage of consumer goods are roiling the masses. Blatant, hard-liner corruption adds insult to the outrage, and expensive foreign-policy adventures are scorned. The 2015 nuclear deal hasn’t brought a better life yet.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has no mandate from these masses. Moreover, he’s become the target of “Death to the Dictator” chants. Maybe the Pahlavi family doesn’t look so bad after all.

One thing the U.S. should not do: Get involved. Unfortunately, President Trump finds Iranian protests to be irresistible grist for his tweet mill. The U.S. is still relatively toxic in official Iranian circles, so Trump’s insertion–goading the government and cheerleading the protesters–is counterproductive, provocative and, ironically, a welcome diversion for the government.

So far, the upheaval in Iran has little to do with the “great Satan,” but Trump’s intrusion could alter that script.

Foreign Fodder

*Grizzly murders. Corpuses of intimidation hanging in public. A cartel culture. International condemnation  over a wave of journalist killings. It doesn’t make the case for an unnecessary, obscenely expensive border wall, but it might make the case for a Mexistan moniker.

* One notable impact of “Brexit”: Net migration in England is down by more than 100,000, the biggest annual drop since records began in 1964. Notably impacted: Farms, construction, hospitality industry, hospitals and universities. Another reminder that populist rhetoric can win a referendum, but there’s a bottom-line reality beyond the pandering nationalism.

* Imagine, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler, has become known as a reformer and an advocate of fiscal austerity. He’s also the new owner of the $300-million Chateau Louis XIV near Versailles, a $500-million yacht and a $450-million Leonardo da Vinci painting. Sounds like Saudi “fiscal austerity” now rivals American billionaire “populism” for oxymoronic hypocrisy.

Foreign Fodder

* Who would have thought less than a year ago that the 30-something, internationally unknown Frenchman, Emmanuel Macron, would now be a major world-stage player and the de facto leader of a fractured Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel can’t form a coalition government and no longer wields uber influence. The leaders of Britain, Italy and Spain have serious home-front priorities. President Macron is now the EC’s go-to guy for progressive thinking, continental optimism and hope for some form of unity. Sacre bleu.

* “My desire  to  resign is voluntary on my part and arises from my concern for the welfare of the people of Zimbabwe and my desire for a smooth, non-violent transfer of power.” So said, possibly with a straight face, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, 93, who once vowed to rule for life. Well, his 37-year, corruption-rife, economically-chaotic rule ended before his life did. As for that “voluntary” resignation, chances are impeachment proceedings and military house arrest were key motivators.

* This just in from impoverished North Korea and blind-sided Egypt, which just experienced a horrific, massive assault on a mosque full of worshipers. Are there more outrageous examples of warped, tragically unconscionable priorities than nukes over food or the murder of innocents in the name of religion?

Foreign Fodder

* Not that it’s a major consolation, but it’s now apparent that the Russians didn’t limit themselves to the U.S. when it came to sovereign, political disruptions. Britain and Spain also have issues with Russian meddling: the former with its Brexit referendum and the latter over Catalan independence.

The common theme, as noted by British Prime Minister Theresa May, is Russia’s intent to “sow discord  in the West.”

* Hardly surprising, but still somewhat humbling that other countries issue travel warnings to its citizens who are planning to visit the U.S. And those warnings have been picking up apace recently. A scary gun culture, beyond-volatile politics and a rash of high-profile violent crimes are the major factors behind the advisories. The countries involved include Canada, England, New Zealand, Ireland, Germany and the Bahamas.

Embassy Departures

The U.S. State Department has announced that it is withdrawing all “non-essential personnel” from its embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia. For those impacted, it was undoubtedly appreciated; these are starkly dangerous, terrorist times. Have to wonder, however, if it isn’t just a bit bittersweet. How does it feel to be labeled, well, “non-essential”?

Catalonia Chasm

Seems an eternity ago, but it was only 1992 when Spanish King Juan Carlos welcomed the world to the Barcelona Olympics. Spaniards and local Catalans regaled in the international exposure and status of hosting the XXV Olympiad.

Catalonia pride was officially underscored. The 1992 Summer Olympic Games were also spelled out in Catalan: “Jocs Olimpics d’estiu de 1992.” Plus, the King rolled out his country’s rhetorical welcome mat in Catalan, the ultimate–these-are-no-longer-the-fascist-Catalonia-suppressing-days-of-Francisco Franco–gesture.

That was 25 years ago. A generation as an epoch.

Last week the Catalonian Parliament voted to secede from Spain. Within hours, the Spanish prime minister had fired the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, as well as the director general of the regional police force. Madrid took control of Catalonia’s government. Catalonia was stripped of its autonomy.

There are no plans for King Juan Carlos to intercede.

Marseille Attack

Terrorism is as old as human history. Evil, insanity, and perverted ideologies and religions have long littered mankind’s vulnerable landscape. Having said that, could there be anything more unconscionably sacrilegious than a murderous attack on innocents preceded by a “God is great” (“Allahu akbar”) invocation? Wholly heinous.

Foreign Affairs

* Were it not so frightening, it would merely be outlandish. Here was the U.S. and South Korea, upping the war-games ante by joining in live-fire, bombing exercises that simulated precision strikes against North Korea’s “core facilities.” North Korea called it a “rash act.” And here was North Korea firing off a midrange ballistic missile and conducting a nuclear test. President Donald Trump called it “very hostile and dangerous to the United States.”

More envelope pushing at the world’s nuclear trip-wire. Who backs down first? Call it “East-West Side Story.” What it would look like if the Sharks and Jets had nukes.

* The U.S. is seriously considering sanctions to pressure China and anybody else who trades with North Korea. We get that. Don’t preclude any option shy of outright war. What doesn’t make sense, however, is the continued need to search for ways to motivate the Chinese to help out more with its menacing, next-door neighbor. The next-door neighbor that is an existential threat, especially in its own neighborhood.

We know about the Chinese rationale: not wanting an officially failed state leeching millions of refugees across the border. The Chinese also don’t want to risk a unified Korea that would be a more formidable U.S. proxy. Having said that, c’mon Beijing. Do the pragmatic, expedient, common sensical and, yes, ultimately self-serving thing, by maxing out on your overwhelming economic leverage over North Korea. No winking and nodding this time, clamp down. It would also help your case against those U.S.-S.K. war games.

* We know the U.S. Navy is pursuing an inquiry into the Pacific-based 7th Fleet after two tragically-disturbing collisions and two other avoidable accidents. One likely reason for preventable incidents: an over-reliance on technology. It breeds complacency, which leads to night-time accidents in high-traffic–military and commercial–areas.