Monthly Archives: November 2019

A call for a moratorium on ‘debunking conspiracy theories’

By Kent R. Kroeger (, November 22, 2019)

The Democrats now use the terms ‘debunked’ & ‘conspiracy theory’ the way the Republicans and President Donald Trump co-opted the use of ‘fake news.’

All three of these terms should be purged from our working vocabulary until we can demonstrate their proper use.

Perhaps the saddest result of Trump’s three years in office is that today’s Democratic Party shares his disregard for facts and honesty. Some would argue the Clintons pioneered the modern art of dissembling and deception, but that conclusion is indeed unfair to the thousands of deceitful politicians that preceded them.


The evidence is vast about the poor state of our nation’s intellectual curiosity:

CNN (November 20, 2019): “No longer is Volker claiming that the idea of investigations — into the Bidens and into a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine somehow had meddled in the 2016 election to help Hillary Clinton and might be in possession of the hacked Democratic National Committee server — ever came up in a White House meeting two weeks before the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.”

The Intercept (November 20, 2019): “…the president continued his unlikely attempt to reinvent himself as an anti-corruption crusader, by stating flatly that “Joe Biden and his son are corrupt.” Without offering any evidence to support that debunked claim, the president who has used his office to enrich himself added, “If a Republican ever did what Joe Biden did, if a Republican ever said what Joe Biden said, they’d be getting the electric chair by right now.”

Business Insider (November 19, 2019): “Despite Trump and (Rudy) Giuliani’s allegations, both US and Ukrainian government officials have confirmed there’s no evidence that the Bidens did anything improper. Former Ukrainian prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko clearly said he had no evidence of wrongdoing by Joe or Hunter Biden.

“I do not want Ukraine to again be the subject of US presidential elections,” Lutsenko said. “Hunter Biden did not violate any Ukrainian laws … at least as of now, we do not see any wrongdoing.”


On this last example, there is this indisputable point: If your wrongdoing defense ever includes these words or equivalent — “I did not violate any Ukrainian laws” — you probably have an ethics problem.

Together, these false ‘debunked conspiracy theory’ narratives fall into one of two categories: (1) the guilt-by-association debunking, and (2) the straw man debunking.

An example of a guilt-by-association debunk is dismissing the idea of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election by using one of its genuinely debunked variants — Ukrainians hacked the DNC and Podesta emails which are now stored on a server somewhere in the Ukraine — to justify ignoring more fact-based lines of inquiry.

Until Giuliani and Trump — the GOP’s Hardy Boys —mentioned Cloudstrike and the alleged Ukrainian server, I didn’t even know about that conspiracy theory, much less that there is no substantive evidence to support it.

To the people who closely followed the Russiagate story, the Ukrainian- interference allegation was always about the 2016 election interactions of the Hillary Clinton campaign and a Democratic National Committee (DNC) consultant with Ukrainians linked to their government.

The Ukraine-interference story is not a conspiracy theory and it certainly hasn’t been debunked. It is rooted in original reporting by Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel (now with The New York Times) and David Stern from their story published on January 11, 2017 (“Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump backfire”).

Their key findings were:

Ukrainian government officials tried to help Hillary Clinton and undermine Trump by publicly questioning his fitness for office. They also disseminated documents implicating a top Trump aide in corruption and suggested they were investigating the matter, only to back away after the election. And they helped Clinton’s allies research damaging information on Trump and his advisers, a Politico investigation found.

A Ukrainian-American operative (Alexandra Chalupa) who was consulting for the Democratic National Committee met with top officials in the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington in an effort to expose ties between Trump, top campaign aide Paul Manafort and Russia, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation.

Is that electoral interference? It is nation-state politics on its most fundamental, self-interested level. Its not like the Ukrainians stole private emails (a crime). They merely assisted Hillary Clinton’s campaign in associating one of her political rivals (Trump) with unlawful behavior (Manafort). [It wasn’t hard to do].

The Republicans will rightfully note, however, that information provided by the Ukrainians about Manafort helped cultivate the false media narrative (‘fake news’) that the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians to win the 2016 election.

Foreign influence in American elections is not restricted to 2016. In fact, it has been a near constant in our elections since 1968 and likely before that.

Foreign governments, acting purely in self-interest, have every incentive to nudge American elections in their favor. Nothing is going to stop foreign influence of American elections. Nothing. And it is naive (and potentially harmful given some of the solutions offered) to think it can be stopped. Minimized? Fine, we should always try to do that. Stopped? Never.

The Ukrainian-interference story is based on real, documented evidence. Do we have a complete understanding of the story? Probably not. Does it warrant Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, sent on a fool’s errand to find evidence of a mythical Ukrainian server containing the DNC/Podesta emails? Absolutely not.

Why is anyone surprised that the Trump/Giuliani brain trust would subsequently confound the Ukrainian server theory with the more substantive Vogel-Stern reporting on Ukrainian assistance to the Clinton campaign?


The second form of debunking is more pernicious: Using a straw man conspiracy theory to debunk legitimate lines of inquiry.

Deemed ‘debunked’ by the mainstream media, the Biden-Burisma corruption allegation is a classic straw man debunk.

First, a little Burisma/Biden background:

Burisma is a holding company for a group of energy exploration and production companies and is controlled by Mykola Zlochevsky through his company Brociti Investments Limited. Charges of corruption by Western governments have followed the pro-Russia Zlochevsky for most of his career — which included a stint as Ukraine’s Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources from 2010 to 2012 under the pro-Russia government of President Viktor Yanukovych. Burisma Holdings is estimated to have had revenues around $400 million in 2018.

A Ukrainian revolution removed Yanukovych in February 2014 and was replaced by a more Western-leaning government eventually led by Petro Poroshenko from 2014 to 2019.

Hunter Biden, along with his legal partner Devon Archer, joined the Burisma board in April 2014, as part of Zlochevsky’s attempt to fend off corruption charges that were likely to be pursued more aggressively under the new political order in Ukraine.

Hunter’s father, Joe Biden, was the U.S. Vice President at the time and was the Obama administration’s point-man on Ukraine policy.

The facts and timeline alone should raise eyebrows among oxygen-breathing journalists. Had the Obama administration been as clean as Barack Obama claims, Hunter’s Ukrainian adventure would have been chop-blocked immediately by the White House ethics office.

And don’t believe the mainstream media when it suggests Hunter’s hiring was a non-issue within Washington, D.C.

Contradicting that assertion is the Washington Post’s reporting that Chris Heinz, Secretary of State John Kerry’s stepson and business partners with Devon Archer and Hunter Biden, opposed his partners Archer and Biden joining the board in 2014 due to the reputational risk. Heinz opposed the Biden-Archer deal because it was unethical, not because it was illegal. Even Vice President Biden asked his son if “he knew what he was doing.”

And this is the essence of the straw man debunk of the Burisma-Biden story: There was nothing illegal, so there is nothing to look at, we are repeatedly told by the mainstream media.

But legality was never the central question surrounding Hunter’s Burisma deal. Private citizens, even those related to vice presidents, are not generally prevented from joining the boards of foreign companies — even those with business interests directly involving the U.S. government. [There are exceptions, such as when the business’ home country is the target of U.S. sanctions, ex. Iran or Venezuela.]

Never mind that recent reporting has shown Burisma lobbied the U.S. State Department regarding the corruption investigations against it, at a time when Joe was still Vice President and Hunter was still on the Burisma board.

Never mind that the business arrangement Hunter Biden crafted with Burisma, where he sat on the board while his law firm was also hired as a consultant to Burisma, would be illegal in this country.

Nothing to look at here, we are told.

“A totally debunked conspiracy theory,” MSNBC’s Joy Reid continues to say about the Burisma-Biden story.

No aid money went from the U.S. government to Burisma while Hunter Biden was on the board, proudly asserts Again, another straw man debunk since few have seriously argued that aid money went directly to Burisma from the U.S. Treasury. The fact that the U.S.-picked Ukrainian prosecutor let Burisma walk away from corruption charges with only $9.5 million in fines (despite evidence Burisma and its subsidiaries failed to pay around $70 million in taxes from 2014–15 alone) is all the payback Burisma ever wanted.

This is what international financial corruption looks like with an assist from the U.S. news media.

And, no, getting Donald Trump out of office isn’t worth condoning the incurious, elite-friendly journalism that now dominates our national news organizations.


Another conspiracy theory debunking does not fit as neatly into the two categories I’ve created.

The chemical (chlorine) weapons attack on Douma, Syria on April 7, 2018 has seen a virtual news blackout since information has slowly emerged suggesting the culpability of the Bashar al-Assad regime is not clear— despite a near universal assumption in the Western media that Assad’s force did it.

MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, NPR, The New York Times, and The Washington Post have all definitely declared the Douma-attack an Assad crime. Any suggestion otherwise has been declared — you guessed it — a debunked conspiracy theory.

In the meantime, the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which investigated the Douma-attack and concluded it was mostly likely conducted by a helicopter drop (i.e., the Assad regime), has seen the release of a dissenting report by one of its staff engineers suggesting the Douma-attack was more likely ground-based, not air-based.

Recently, more potential evidence has been reported suggesting the OPCW may not be the independent watchdog of chemical weapons use it claims to be. [Rogue reporter (her words) Caitlin Johnstone has been reporting on Douma while the mainstream media has been silent. Her latest article on Douma is a must read.]

I wrote about Douma last year and concluded (as if my opinion matters): While the OPCW report (and dissenting report) still leave it unclear who conducted the attack, to state without qualification that the Assad regime did it is a willful disregard for the available evidence.

That is the problem when you let governments and their surrogates control information. They purposely ignore relevant facts so they can, technically, still claim they are not lying.

When the U.S. and its allies attacked Syria with Storm Shadow, MdCN, and Tomahawk missiles on April 14, 2018, the U.S .Department of Defense and its media outlets were still referring to the chemical attack on April 7th as a “suspected” chemical attack. French intelligence would claim they had definitive information that Assad was responsible for the April 7th attack: Judge for yourself the quality of the French information.

That, of course, is the defense and intelligence community’s ultimate fallback position should the full details ever become public: Battlefield information is frequently imperfect and we often need to act on the best information available at the time.

That is especially true when you don’t demand better information. And, naturally, MSNBC, Fox News and CNN didn’t ask for it when reporting on the April 14th missile attack by the U.S. and its allies.

That is how the game is played today and the score is — World elites: 23,265,784 and The Rest of Us: 12. [Glenn Greenwald, our leading scorer, is now mostly playing for the Brazilians.]


At the end of the day, conspiracy debunking is a variation on the Simon Says game we played as children.

If, through their congenital ignorance, Trump and Giuliani misstate a valid point of contention regarding Hunter Biden’s Ukrainian (and Chinese) deals or the 2016 Ukrainian activities of the Hillary Clinton campaign, should these topics be removed from the public debate or no longer the subject of further investigation by an independent press?

Of course not.

But that is exactly the chill the mainstream news media and the Democratic Party has cast over our national dialogue. Instead of arguing on the facts, they hide behind partisan talking points.

This need to kill intellectual inquiry by the U.S. political parties and the national news media is now hard-coded into the system and will be hard to excise from the body politic. It long ago killed from within the integrity of the Republican and Democratic parties and is swiftly killing objective journalism (if that patient isn’t dead as well).

The cure? We all need to stop getting our news and information from a short list of sources. Its OK to watch MSNBC, NPR, Fox News or CNN. It is not OK to get the vast majority of your information from these sources.

Nothing ignites a Democrat faster than saying you watch comedian Lee Camp’s Redacted Tonight on the RT network (a news network partially funded by the Russian government). Or, worse yet, tell them you love jagoff nightclub comedian Jimmy Dore’s YouTube channel. [There should be a required journalism course at Northwestern University titled, “How could Jimmy Dore get Russiagate right and the mainstream media totally f**ked it up?”]

Mention those shows and “Russian propaganda!” is a typical response. Besides the fact it isn’t true in the case of Redacted Tonight or The Jimmy Dore Show, why would that rule out watching something?

Hell yes! I want to know what the Russian government thinks. I want the Chinese Communist Party perspective too. And I want to know what the Iranian Supreme Leader is saying on current events. And, to be fair, I want the U.S. political and economic establishment’s latest propaganda spiel on my subscriber list (the hard part there is choosing between CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, The Washington Post or The New York Times. Usually any one of these sources will do, but, occasionally, genuine internal divisions within the establishment do emerge across those news outlets.).

That is what informed people do. They take in as much diverse information as possible and use their education and experience-informed intuition to sort out fact from fiction, as best as possible.

Its not easy. If it was, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and CNN’s Chris Cuomo would be doing it.

  • K.R.K.

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On the road to Petra

By Kent R. Kroeger (, November 18, 2019)


This essay documents my challenges and observations during my family’s recent travels through Oman and Jordan.

This is the third essay in a series. The previous essays can be found here and here.


The last destination in our journey through southern Jordan was Petra, an archaeological city that was the capital for the Nabataean Kingdom from about the 4th century BC until a major earthquake in 363 AD led to its eventual abandonment.

One of the best preserved structures in Petra, Al-Khazneh, also known as “The Treasury,” is its most famous, having served as the fictional resting place of the Holy Grail in Steven Spielberg’s 1989 movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Paramount Pictures and LucasFilm, 1989)

Of all the touristy things we planned, for Zach, visiting “The Treasury” at Petra was the trip’s most anticipated event. The drive would be a couple of hours from Wadi Rum and the views along the way spectacular, according to Abo, our Jordanian guide.

He wasn’t kidding. The Jordan-Arabah Valley near Petra is deep and wide, employing a limited color palette ranging from grey pewter to buttermilk tan, but giving it a grim starkness no less stunning than the Grand Canyon or Bryce Canyon. My son described the Valley and the Edomite Mountains that define its texture as South Dakota’s “Badlands on steroids.”

Looking west (from Jordan Hwy. 35) towards the Edomite Mountains in the Jordan-Arabah Valley near Petra (Photo by Kent R. Kroeger)

At one point, Abo pulled the car over so we could take a few photos. To get a cleaner picture without the intrusion of cars, homes or highways, I smuggled myself away from the parking lot as far away as possible (without falling into the Jordan-Arabah Valley). From my vantage point there was no evidence of modern civilization, just the vastness of the Valley and its grey mountains. For a brief moment, I was Christopher Reeve in Somewhere in Time, a motivated time traveler. Moses himself, standing on that same spot, would have seen exactly what I saw on that day.

And, not coincidentally, the tallest mountain in my sight was Jebel Nebi Harun (“Mountain of the Prophet Aaron” in Arabic), one of the holiest sites in Jordan, venerated by Muslims, Christians and Jews as the resting place of Prophet Haroun, Moses’ brother.


But, as spectacular as the scenery was as we resumed our drive to Petra, my attention was drawn to Abo as he told us a story about another entourage he once escorted to Petra on the same highway.

No more than 30 kilometers outside Wadi Musa, the gate city to Petra, we passed a black Bedouin tent, one of many that we had seen in Jordan.

A Bedouin tent (Bait al Sha’er — House of Hair) in Wadi Rum (Photo courtesy of

Bedouin tents, called Bait al Sha’er (‘House of Hair’) in Arabic, are made of goat hair, typically black, and are typically divided into two sections separated by a curtain known as a ma’nad. One side is reserved for the men and male guests and is called the mag’ad (‘sitting place’). The other half of the tent, called the maharama (‘place of the women’), is for cooking and female guests.

As we passed this particular Bedouin tent, Abo asked an unexpected question: “Have you heard of Muammar al-Gaddafi?”

In hesitating unison, we all gave a nod, or some indication in the affirmative. Undeniably, I had few positive images of Gaddafi. If we had done a free association exercise, my thoughts regarding Gaddafi would have been: Libyan dictator, Colonel, bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie (Scotland), gave up Libyan nuclear program, female guards (some taken from their homes as young girls and raped before becoming guards), his execution by rebels during the Libyan Civil War.

I do not have a positive view of Gaddafi…though I do have one quirky remembrance of him: In September 2009, he was scheduled to attend a United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York City. As he often did when he traveled abroad, he took with him a large Bedouin tent that he would set up to receive guests and dignitaries. What I did not know, until Abo told me, was that Gaddafi was born a Bedouin and carried its core tradition of exceptional hospitality with him when he became the Libyan leader in 1969 following a military coup.

In Bedouin culture, said Abo, a family will take in guests — who may be complete strangers — to stay in their home for as long as they need, without question. In fact, the host will not ask any questions of the visitor — even their name — until the fourth day of the stay. [I don’t even let immediate family stay more than three days in my home.]

During Gaddafi’s 2009 visit to New York City, he wanted to set up his tent in Central Park, but objections by the U.S. government stopped that idea. So, instead, somewhat ironically, Gaddafi had to rely on the hospitality of a private American citizen with a soft spot for aggrieved dictators — Donald Trump — to locate a large tract of private land in suburban New York City where the tent could be erected.

That is my Gaddafi memory. Abo had his own.

A little background first.

In October 2000, Gaddafi made his first visit to Jordan since King Abdullah II had been crowned the country’s ruling monarch in 1999.

Gaddafi had a famously icy relationship with other Arab leaders, including Jordan’s King Hussein, King Abdullah’s father. Observers would remark that the only thing Arab leaders ever reached a consensus agreement on was their collective dislike of Gaddafi.

Part of their annoyance with Gaddafi was his uncompromising support of the Palestinian cause and willingness expose Arab leaders when he felt they betrayed the Palestinian people. For that, Gaddafi is still admired by many Palestinians today.

But Gaddafi could sometimes just be rude and, especially when directed towards Arab monarchs not accustomed to such treatment, it caused deep-seeded resentment.

At the 1988 Arab League meeting in Algiers, Algeria, Gaddafi invited the other attending Arab leaders to “go to hell,” and, at one point, pulled a white hood over his head when Jordan’s King Hussein was giving a speech.

Gaddafi was the Kanye West of Arab leaders.

The President of the Government of SpainJosé Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and the President of LibyaMuammar al-Gaddafi, in Tripoli (Libya), November 2010. (Photo by:


Abo’s Gaddafi story started as we passed a black Bedouin tent just outside of Wadi Musa. As Abo tells it, Gaddafi’s entourage passed a similar Bedouin tent in this same area back in 2000, on the way to a luncheon with King Abdullah in the ancient city of Petra. However, after spotting the Bedouin tent, Gaddafi had the entourage’s fleet of cars pull over and stop.

“Gaddafi exited his car and asked everyone to place their cellphones in the trunk of one of the cars,” recalled Abo. “Nobody would be able to contact King Abdullah’s staff to notify them of Gaddafi’s likely late arrive to the luncheon.”

The male head of household greeted Gaddafi and invited him for food and coffee, as would be the Bedouin custom.

“Three hours later,” laughed Abo.

Gaddafi was so moved by the hospitality of this Bedouin family he would later send them money to build homes for the parents and their children, according to Abo, who spoke passionately about Gaddafi’s desire to be “with the people, no matter their status.”

Back in Petra, King Abdullah, who waited for Gaddafi’s arrival at the luncheon, was furious. When Gaddafi finally did arrive, King Abdullah let the Libyan leader know how profoundly insulted he was by the tardiness, softening his admonishment somewhat by calling Gaddafi a “mentor.”

As well-know as Gaddafi was for his legendary rudeness, he was equally well-known for his ability to charm enemies and critics (when motivated to do so), and did exactly that with the young Jordanian King.

Years later, King Abdullah would authorize Jordanian special forces to assist in the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011.

Eventually, we did make it to Petra, and it was spectacular.

My son (Zach) and two Bedouin children selling postcards at Petra (Photo by Kent R. Kroeger)
The author (who does not know how to wrap a keffiyeh) and his son (Zach) in front of “The Treasury” in Petra (Photo by Christa Olson)

– K.R.K.

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On the road to Wadi Rum

By Kent R. Kroeger (, November 16, 2019)


This essay documents my challenges and observations during my family’s recent travels through Oman and Jordan.

This is the second essay in a series. The first essay can be found here.


Our Jordanian guide, Abo, a middle-aged man of Palestinian descent, greeted us outside our hotel in central Amman.

“Good morning!” he said with a wide grin across his handsome, sun-weathered face. “We have a long drive to Wadi Rum.” A five-hour drive, according to Siri.

As my wife, two of her work colleagues, and my son piled into a white Dodge Caravan, I hurriedly finished a Boston creme I purchased from a Dunkin Donuts next to the hotel. My wife glared back at me, knowing I would mess Abo’s nicely detailed van if I tried to finish my feeble breakfast there.

“I’m sorry, Christa. I was hungry.” Her glare softened somewhat.

“Just finish it outside.”

My teenage son, Zach, in a constant grump since arriving in Amman, especially after our room’s satellite TV feed went dark, jumped into the far back rumble seat with me and put in his earbuds, immediately losing himself in a YouTube video.

Abo gave us a quick description of the route we’d be taking through Amman’s southern suburbs and then south on Jordan’s Route 15.

“Can we stop at a QuikTrip?” Zach barked up to his mother, sounding like a military officer’s command to an XO. Abo, thinking the question was for him, seemed puzzled.

“I don’t think they call them QuikTrip’s here,” I told Zach.

“A 7–Eleven?” Zach clarified, as if that would help Abo understand. “WaWa?” was Zach’s last halfhearted attempt at generating mutual understanding, as his attention returned to his video.

This was going to be a long ride.


I pulled out my cell phone to plot our trip on Google Earth and wasn’t encouraged when the virtual terrain looked like a mix of Utah’s Salt Flats and Nevada’s Mojave Desert, with a few small villages sprinkled here and there.

I tried to ask Abo about any sights of interest along the drive, but the combination of road noise and my wife’s shoptalk with her colleagues left my question unheard and unanswered.

Perhaps I’ll grab some additional sleep, I thought to myself, but then remembered my wife was in the van. There would be no sleeping.

Among my wife’s best qualities is her limitless curiosity, as she will ask questions and pester hosts right up to their breaking point — and everyone has a breaking point (except for Abo, thankfully).

We were on the road for no more than an hour when we came to an isolated, but sizable town.

“What city is this?” Christa asked.

“Talbieh Camp,” replied Abo. “A Palestinian camp created after the 1967 War.”

Consisting mostly of internally displaced Palestinian Jordanians when it opened, as opposed to Palestinian refugees that crossed into Jordan during the war, the camp today is home to about 9,000 Palestinians living in an area covering roughly 0.13 square kilometers — about three times the population density of Guttenberg, New Jersey (the most densely-populated incorporated municipality in the U.S.).

Entry road to Talbieh Camp near Amman, Jordan (Photo by Kent R. Kroeger)

As we passed the camp, Abo related his own story in which, as a young boy, he was forced to move with his family from Jerusalem to Jordan as a consequence of the ’67 War.

“My family still has a home and property in Israel,” said Abo. “We could sell it, but the Israelis will only let us sell it to the them.”

My follow-up question about whether the property is earning income for his family went unheard as my wife asked why many of the homes in Talbieh had concrete columns with rebar protruding from the top of the dwellings. It was a better question anyway, as it was striking how many homes and buildings in these camps had an unfinished look.

“So they can add a new floor,” replied Abo.

Concrete columns and protruding rebar in Uum Sayoun (Bedouin Village), Jordan (Photo by Joseph Redwood-Martinez)

“Say again?” asked Christa.

Abo explained how the Jordanian government limits the number of floors a home can have, but, under current law, the government won’t make a family tear it down if the additional floor is complete. So, when a family can afford it, the family hires building contractors to come in at night and complete the new floor before morning.

Whether Abo’s story is a complete explanation is less important than the symbolism of these concrete columns. “Necessary incompleteness” is how writer and filmmaker Joseph Redwood-Martinez characterizes this architectural phenomena, which exists in other parts of the world as well, such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, the United States, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Turkey.

Redwood-Martinez quotes a Palestinian artist in Ramallah (West Bank) as saying the concrete columns represent Palestinians’ “optimism for the future.”

Optimism is a word not often associated with the Palestinians in the Western media. But I heard it many times while in Jordan. Abo’s own story is an exemplar of this outlook. A refugee of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a child, as an adult he helped build a successful Jordanian tourism company and, today, his children are college-educated or bound, including a son studying at a U.S. university. Abo and his family’s story is not uncommon in Jordan.

Just over 2.5 percent of Jordan’s total population is enrolled at a university, a proportion comparable to the United Kingdom, and the percentage of Jordanians 25 years old and older with at least a college degree has risen from 9 percent in 2001 to 12 percent in 2014, according to the World Values Survey. In comparison, 36 percent of U.S. adults in this age bracket have at least a college degree.


Abo spoke with obvious pride about his family, particularly with respect to their educational accomplishments, and about Jordan, in general. But his contagious enthusiasm was also laced with a keen understanding of the country’s realities.

Jordan has a lot of refugees, he would remind us as we drove past smaller, more recently opened refugee camps, usually Syrian’s that had fled the Syrian Civil War.

Jordan hosts over 670,000 Syrian refugees, but has not permitted these refugees to seek asylum, according to Human Rights Watch. The Syrian refugees tend to be isolated in remote border areas within Jordan with limited access to humanitarian aid.

In addition to the existing refugees who are fully or partially integrated into Jordanian society, the Syrian refugees will further increase the financial commitment required by the Jordanian government and the international community to handle Jordan’s refugee population.

And the Jordanian education system is already under pressure.

The recent influx of Syrian refugees (in addition to a large number of existing refugees from the West Bank, Gaza, Iraq, Egypt and other parts of the Middle East) have put tremendous pressure on the capacity of Jordan to handle more students. Adding to the stress, the unilateral decision by the U.S. in August 2018 to stop its contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which in amounted to about one-third of the Agency’s $1.1 billion 2017 budget, has had a devastating impact on Palestinian refugees in Jordan, particularly children.

UNRWA services to the 2.3 million Palestinian refugees registered in Jordan include aid for education, health care, food security and other essential day-to-day services. UNWRA also employs thousands of Jordanians.

These funds go toward a modern, secular education for 500,000 boys and girls; vaccinations and health clinics that provide services to over three million refugees and a basic level of dignity for millions who otherwise would lead lives of despair,” said Hady Amr, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brooking Institute’s Center for Middle East Policy, soon after the U.S. decision was announced. “So when UNRWA cuts back services in the impoverished refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza, what forces on the ground will fill the void? Whoever it is, they are unlikely to be America’s friends. Even the Israeli military knows that cutting funding for basic services to refugees are a recipe for disaster for Israel.”

While not necessarily linked to the U.S. action against UNWRA, a November 5th knife attack on tourists in Jerash, Jordan by a young, unemployed Palestinian refugee from the UNWRA-run Jerash Camp highlights a subgroup in Jordan susceptible to radicalization and to committing acts of violence.

According to the assailant’s family, the young man grew more radicalized after being unable to attend a higher education institution due to its cost and, subsequently, finding it difficult to find regular employment.

That is a story that may become even more common in Jordan if it cannot adequately support the growing demand for educational and other social services among its most economically vulnerable populations.


The author, his son, a local Bedouin host, and our guide, Abo Yazan Mahfoze

We eventually made it to Wadi Rum, one of God’s geologic masterworks in southern Jordan, where a number of well-known American movies have been filmed, including David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and, more recently, The Martian, starring Matt Damon.

Wadi Rum’s wind-eroded, sun-drenched sandstone and granite rock formations are beautiful and humbling.

“The Seven Pillars” rock formation in Wadi Rum (Photo by Kent R. Kroeger)

Among the region’s many striking geologic features are The Seven Pillars, which was the inspiration for the title of T. E. Lawrence’s autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an account of his experiences during the Arab Revolt of 1916–18, when Lawrence was based in Wadi Rum as a member of the British Forces of North Africa.

Lawrence grew to respect the harshness of the desert environment surrounding and encompassing Wadi Rum, also known as the Valley of the Moon. “By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars,” he wrote.

The author, trying to keep his hat on (which he eventually lost to a camel), and his son, in the back of an ATV in Wadi Rum (Photo by Christa Olson)

All the same, from the vantage point of a sporty all-terrain vehicle, Wadi Rum seemed quite hospitable to the human desire for play, almost calling out to have you run up one of its limitless number of sand dunes or scramble to the top of one of its towering, craggy rock faces.

We learned quickly, however. Don’t do that.

While its sad to think mass tourism might someday harm the natural beauty of Wadi Rum, the region has many assets working in its favor to mitigate that problem. For one, its relentless, sand-saturated winds can wipe out evidence of human activity in just minutes. Furthermore, if its hair-roasting, bone-dry heat doesn’t convince you of its hostility towards humans, a presumptuous dash up one of its sand dunes will more than break whatever remaining spirit you still possess.

“Try running up this sand dune,” challenged Abo, as he stopped the ATV in the midst of a relatively narrow passage bordered by two parallel rock formations, each about 200 feet in height with walls of sand drifting up perhaps 20 to 30 feet at their base.

“How hard can this be?” I shouted towards Zach, who was 10 feet up the sand drift before he had a chance reply.

Zach at the top of a sand drift in Wadi Rum (Photo by Kent R. Kroeger)

How hard could it be? Really? Zach was already a few feet from the top, talking smack back in my direction.

“Dad, you’re too fat,” was his encouragement.

It did seem like Zach’s 90-pound frame coasted up the drift; where as, my 185-pound heft seemed to get increasingly swallowed by the sand with every step. And when the sand wasn’t chewing me up, it was pushing me back down the dune.

What took Zach maybe five minutes to accomplish, I needed 20, taking a brief respite at the three-quarter mark, a demarcation I dubbed the ‘death zone,’ seriously wondering if my heart might stop if I took one more step. Combined with the energy-sapping heat, I genuinely entertained the possibility I could die right there, on a nameless sand dune in a place that was beginning to look more like Mars than Earth. The warning that someone lost in this desert on an especially hot day could die within hours was becoming palpable.

A month removed from my attempt to scale what was. objectively, a small sand dune, my back still hasn’t forgiven me and I’m still digging sand out of my fingernails.

Wadi Rum’s natural environment is beautiful but not made with humans in mind. It’s uncharitable ecosystem makes it even more remarkable that a group of people like the Bedouins — a nomadic people that live in the desert — have survived off this land since the time of the Old Testament. Jordan alone has 360,000 Bedouins living within its borders, more than any other country except Syria and Saudi Arabia.

A Bedouin Shepherd (Photo by Ed Brambley)

Where Westerners prefer occupying and terraforming hostile environments to fit their wants, the Bedouin’s have, out of necessity, adapted to the challenges of the Arabian desert. And, to a similar extent, the Arabs throughout this region share this accommodative trait with the Bedouins. The Arabic term Naseeb — meaning fate or destiny — is part of the cultural bedrock for Muslims, reinforcing their deference to Allah’s will. In American colloquial language, we’d say the Jordanians and the Bedouins know how to go with the flow.

Has this traditional, almost fatalistic attitude held back economic development and social progress in the Middle East? I’m skeptical, though Western social scientists love using culture-based, Clash of Civilizations-type theories to explain variation in economic and social development across world cultures.

But as I laid on the side of that sand dune in Wadi Rum wondering how long it would take for the wind to completely cover my lifeless body in sand, the last thing on my mind was whether cultural norms centered on self-expression and secular-rational values are best at promoting economic and social development.

I just wanted to get off that sand dune and to our lodging for the night — a tent. A very nice, air-conditioned “tent”…with satellite TV.

The fat author and his son, happy with their “tent” in Wadi Rum (Photo by Christa Olson)



By not running in 2020, Trump would deny his enemies their ultimate victory

By Kent R. Kroeger (, November 3, 2019)

President Donald Trump should familiarize himself with the Jewish Sicarii from the First Jewish-Roman War (66 AD — 73 AD). The Sicarii, a splinter group of the Jewish Zealots, are most revered for their last stand against the Romans on the mountain fortress at Masada (in Israel near the Dead Sea).

Faced with certain annihilation by the Romans in 74 AD, the 960 Jewish Sicarii on Masada took their own lives, thereby denying the Romans the full satisfaction of victory.

In politics, the metaphorical equivalent to suicide is ending your candidacy for public office.

Now is the time for someone Trump trusts to walk the President through the different scenarios most likely to unfold over the next 12 months. None of them end well for the President. But one scenario ends demonstrably better than the others.

First, consider Trump’s worst-case scenario — the path he is on now — in which he is impeached, put on trial by the U.S. Senate, and is either removed from office and/or suffers a landslide defeat at the polling booth on November 3, 2020.

There is no electoral path to victory for Trump in 2020. There will be no surge in Hispanic or African-American votes large enough to give Trump another surprise victory. There will be no backlash over the impeachment hearings and Senate trial large enough to give him the victory either. And the strong economy will not push independents and swing voters overwhelmingly into his corner.

What if the Democrats nominate a deeply-flawed candidate? In all likelihood, they will nominate such a candidate — and Trump still won’t have the votes to win.

Based on the most current polling data, Trump’s maximum potential in the popular vote percentage is in the mid-to-upper-40s. With these numbers, the best-case scenario for Trump is that he doesn’t lose on a Jimmy Carter-like scale.

A strong third-party candidacy from the left or center-left could alter the scenario probabilities. Yet, despite Jonathan Chait’s recent evidence-free rant on the subject, there is no indication that this will happen. It could, but — as of now — not likely.

And the cocksure pundits saying Trump can still win in 2020 are many of the same ones that said he had no chance of winning in 2016.

Rest easy, Democrats. This time around, there really is no meaningful chance of another election surprise by Trump.

Donald Trump will not be re-elected president and here is why…

He has run out of time. One year may seem like an eternity in politics, but in the domain of presidential approval, one year is the blink of an eye.

Like Secretariat’s head-of-the-stretch move in the last quarter of the 1973 Kentucky Derby, relatively unpopular first-term presidents who eventually win re-election are already starting their approval surge by this point in their presidency (e.g., Reagan, Clinton, and Obama).

Trump is not Secretariat. According to the poll average, his job approval has been stagnant since May 2018 (see Figure 1) and, with impeachment hearings in the near future, the prospects for sustained approval growth are doubtful.

Figure 1: Trump Job Approval (Poll Averages)


According to the Gallup Poll, at this juncture in his presidency Trump is significantly behind Bill Clinton, G. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan — all incumbent presidents that were re-elected (see Figures 2 and 3). At 39 percent job approval in mid-October 2019, Trump is 10 points behind Clinton’s pace and 16 points behind G. W. Bush.

Figure 2: Job Approval During First-Term for Trump, GW Bush, and Clinton

Source: Gallup

Figure 3: Job Approval During First-Term for Reagan and Trump

Source: Gallup

At 13 months out from Election Day, Trump most resembles Barack Obama, with a job approval rating of 39 percent (see Figure 4). But that is where the similarity ends.

Figure 4: Job Approval During First-Term for Obama and Trump

Source: Gallup

Every modern president, except Trump, has experienced significant periods of job approval (among U.S. adults) north of 50 percent. Obama had around 50 weeks above 50 percent during his first term. Trump has spent zero weeks in that territory. As Figure 1 (above) shows, Trump’s job approval appears to have a ceiling at around 45 percent. Only in the first couple of weeks of his presidency did Trump enjoy approval ratings above 45 percent — and then, just barely.

Is 45-percent job approval enough to win a presidential election?

Since it has never happened, the answer is probably ‘No.’ In the modern polling era, the lowest job approval near Election Day for a winning incumbent is Obama’s 50 percent (see Figure 5). Obama did have some margin of error in that regard, as he won the popular vote by 3.9 percentage points and the electoral vote by 62 percentage points. But would Obama at 45 percent approval have won in 2012? Probably not.

Figure 5: Comparison of Recent Presidents on Job Approval and Re-election Outcomes

Figure 5 shows that winning incumbents have one thing in common: Job approval at or above 50 percent near Election Day. The two incumbent losers — Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush — possessed job approval ratings of 37 percent at that time. Not a good place to be.

And that is basically where Trump sits today.

Still, Trump is only 11 percentage points short of 50 percent approval. Thirteen months must be enough time for Trump to close the gap, right?

No, not for Trump it isn’t.

Trump’s uncommon problem is his lack of variation in job approval over time. For him to achieve 50 percent approval would require a magnitude of improvement unseen during his administration.

Figure 5 (above) puts Trump’s approval numbers in historical context. With a standard deviation of 2.5 percentage points, Trump has by far the lowest approval variance in of any president in the modern polling era. Second place is Obama with a standard deviation of 5.4 percentage points.

For Trump to achieve 50-percent approval, it would require a shift of four standard deviations from his mean approval level (39.7 percent approval — which is about where he is at now, according to Gallup). Based on his distribution of approval ratings over the past three years, there is about a 0.1 percent chance of Trump ever seeing 50-percent approval.

In other words, there is virtually no chance of Trump seeing approval numbers anywhere close to what he needs to get re-elected.

Even among the one-term presidents, both Carter and H. W. Bush experienced approval rates in excess of 50 percent (see Figure 6) during their administrations. Trump has no such experience and, most likely, never will.

Figure 6: Job Approval During First-Term for Carter, G HW Bush, and Trump

Source: Gallup

Am I being too pessimistic? Just because Trump has never enjoyed the approval of most Americans, that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. Did Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 ever feel possible?

Suppose, instead, that Trump leverages the strong economy while turning a strong majority of American people against the impeachment process underway in the Democrat-controlled U.S. House [Right now, that scenario seems unlikely given recent polling data showing 49 percent of the public supports impeachment and removal.)

In months where Trump’s approval increases, on average in grows at about 0.8 percentage points per month. If, over the next 12 months, Trump’s approval grows each month at that rate, he would enter Election Day around 50 percent approval. Conceivably, he’d be a competitive candidate with that approval level— particularly if a third-party candidacy from the left emerges.

Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that scenario is even remotely possible. Trump has never put together more than three consecutive months of approval growth. To win re-election, he needs 12 consecutive months.

So, why are many Republican pundits displaying so much confidence that Trump will win re-election?

GOP strategist Alex Castellanos thinks the polls undercount Trump’s support. (They don’t.)

Others point to Trump’s huge money advantage. (If the 2016 election teaches us anything, having more money isn’t always enough. Ask Hillary.)

And others assume the Democrats will find a way to screw up another winnable election.

The problem with GOP optimism is its requirement that Trump’s job approval will increase consistently on a scale unobserved heretofore.

Trump has never sniffed 50 percent approval and there is no evidence to think he will.

There are just too many firsts required for a Trump re-election victory to become a reality. To almost quote Hans Solo, presidential job approval just doesn’t work that way.

For Trump, the impeachment process is a cloudy day that won’t go away. Nowhere does GOP optimism get more delusional than when talking about the supposed backlash the Democrats are going to suffer if they pursue impeachment. Remember Clinton! is their battle cry. The American people will punish the Democrats for trying to remove a U.S. president over such a minor incident (the alleged Trump-Ukrainian quid pro quo deal) is their logic.

I do remember Bill Clinton. The Republicans tried to remove him for covering up an Oval Office blow job after years of trying (and failing) to indict him for financial misdeeds surrounding the infamous Whitewater land deal.

Clinton’s situation bears no resemble to one where Trump appears to — at least implicitly — ask a foreign leader to aid his presidential campaign by investigating Hunter Biden’s relationship with a Ukrainian energy company in exchange for the delivery of U.S. surface-to-air defense systems.

[Trump’s defense materializes in one of two forms: ‘It wasn’t an explicit double-dog-dare-you quid pro quo ’ or ‘The president is just really concerned about Ukrainian corruption and its implications on U.S. national security.’ Coincidently, when it is soon revealed Obama explicitly approved the surveillance of an opposition party’s presidential candidate, his defense will be similar to Trump’s ‘in the name of national security’ defense.]

The confidence among Trump’s flock begs the question: How could Trump’s approval gain during an impeachment process predicated on genuine evidence when it didn’t grow at all during the course of the Robert Mueller-led investigation of Russia-Trump collusion? An investigation predicated on exceptionally thin evidence for such an unparalleled allegation.

Trump needs to make the best out of a certain defeat. Certain defeats are prevalent throughout military and political history: The Greeks, 7,000 in number, blocking the passage of 70,000 Persian soldiers in the Battle of Thermopylae. The Chasseurs Ardennais disguising their numbers against the Nazi Wehrmacht in the Battle of BelgiumWalter Mondale picking Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate against Ronald Reagan in 1984. The Jewish Sicarii committing collective suicide on their mountain fortress at Masada rather than allow the Romans the satisfaction of a battle victory.

Despite their defeats, the defeated are remembered more for their heroics than their objective failures. Sure, in Mondale’s case, picking a female VP was more like a Hail Mary than an act of heroism. Nonetheless, history is often kind to losers who go down with honor and flair — particularly when their final act is seemingly selfless.

The words ‘selfless’ and ‘Trump’ are not often used in the same sentence, but a selfless act may be the only “winning” option left for the President. A drubbing at the hands of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren is not going to help the Trump brand, much less a Republican Party on the verge of losing the presidency, House and Senate.

For the sake of his party and his legacy, Trump would be better served walking away from the 2020 election, giving his party at least a puncher’s chance to keep the presidency. Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley or Texas Senator Ted Cruz are more than capable of taking the baton on short notice and putting forth a credible presidential campaign.

He can do a nationwide tour promoting his greatest and most perfect accomplishments. Throngs of devotees can gush over him with messianic-like adoration. Everything he cares most about — himself — confirmed in a series of uncensored, glorious pep rallies.

Just as the Sicarii denied the Romans their want for a victory in battle, Trump can deny the Democrats their want for his head on the figurative platter.

The Roman-era Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus described what the Roman army found when the scaled Masada’s steep walls:

Now for the Romans, they expected that they should be fought in the morning, when accordingly they put on their armor, and laid bridges of planks upon their ladders from their banks, to make an assault upon the fortress, which they did, but saw nobody as an enemy, but a terrible solitude on every side, with a fire within the place as well as a perfect silence.

Battle glory denied.

Trump is not going to win the 2020 election and will likely take down the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate in the process, and probably an innumerable number of state officeholders as well.

For the good of his party and his own self-interest, Trump needs to end his 2020 presidential campaign.

  • K.R.K.

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