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March 10, 2015 [LINK / comment]

GOP senators challenge Obama's foreign policy

Today's Washington Post reported that 47 Republican senators wrote a letter to Iran concerning the Obama administration's ongoing negotiations with that country. Basically, it served notice to Iran that any deal that is reached over Iran's nuclear development program would only be an "executive agreement" and therefore subject to cancellation by a future president. Coming on the heels of the recent awkward appearance by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a joint session of Congress, it reaffirmed that idea that nothing less than total compliance will be acceptable to the Senate. That's not a realistic goal, so in essence it's saying "no deal," period.

So, of course this set the stage for another volley of polemical tirades between pro-Obama and anti-Obama forces. Democratic leaders such as Vice President Joe Biden were shocked -- shocked! -- at the unseemly display of partisanship on a sensitive matter of national security. Meanwhile, Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Zavad Zirif (educated in the U.S.) took the occasion to lecture Senate Republicans on international law and the U.S. Constitution. He called that letter a "propaganda ploy," which is rather ironic coming from a repressive theocratic regime. It is, most certainly, an upside-down world we are living in.

Some Democrats have suggested that the Republicans' letter was a violation of the Logan Act, which forbids U.S. citizens from interferring in American diplomacy. Ironically, some Republicans have made similar criticisms of Democrats in years past. For example, Rep. Nancy Pelosi met with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2007, an act of freelance diplomacy that undercut the Bush administration. Now the shoe is on the other foot. As Michael Crowley wrote in, the GOP letter to Iran was the latest spat in a long-running feud between the parties over control of U.S. foreign policy. Its unusual nature merely reflects the current poisoned atmosphere in Washington, where the opposite ends of Pennsylvania [Avenue] hold each other in mutual contempt.

Battles between the executive and legislative branches over foreign policy date back to the Vietnam War, when we learned the sorrowful consequences of pursuing international goals without a solid domestic consensus. The War Powers Resolution (1973) was one such battle, and the Reagan administration's support of the "Contra" rebels fighting the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua was another. This much is certain: The power of the presidency has expanded far beyond what the framers of the U.S. Constitution had intended, and our continued status as a republic (as opposed to an empire) rests to a large extent on whether Congress will be able to rein in presidents. Say what you will about Sen. Tom Cotton [(R-AR)], the author of the letter, or the other Senate Republicans who signed that letter, but they are duly elected government officials -- just as President Obama is.

Presidents need a certain amount of leeway in the conduct of diplomacy, and the GOP letter is a blunt (and in my view, unwarranted) attempt to deny the president any such leeway. It may make the world more dangerous by killing any chance at a peaceful resolution of the basic dispute. As for the administration's claim that the President has the authority to reach executive agreements without approval from Congress, that is certainly true of smaller-scale agreements of a technical nature, such as carrying out weapons inspection. But it would be rash and imprudent to make an agreement of such great importance as the prospective deal with Iran without substantial input from Congress. That is why, viewed from a different perspective, is quite appropriate to make a bold assertion of the Senate's constitutional duty to give "advice and consent" to the president in making treaties. Are those who are skeptical of Iran's intentions supposed to just stand idly aside? No. I just wish they had expressed their views in a more proper, respectful manner.

In a real sense, President Obama invited this showdown by his habit of making major policy decisions entirely on his own, such as the suspended enforcement of certain immigration laws which he announced in November. But even if the senators had a valid concern and had no ulterior political motivatations, the letter was still needlessly embarrassing and potentially disruptive to negotiations -- for whatever they may be worth. Instead of declaring their position to the American people, to whom they are accountable, they stooped to the President's level in a childish, tit-for-tat game of one-upsmanship. That is not the way to do block executive branch usurpations. As Joe Scarborough lamented on MS-NBC this morning, "Really? Really?" It's not that he was opposed to what the Republicans were doing, but was simply exasperated by the tactless way they did it. Almost everything Obama does these days is aimed at enraging his opponents, and the Republicans need to refrain from taking his bait. In sum, the letter to Iran was regrettable -- and quite understandable.

As background for this blog piece, I referred to a book from my graduate school days, The President, the Congress, and Foreign Policy, ed. by Edmund S. Muskie, Kenneth Rush, and Kenneth W. Thompson (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986).

For the record, I have updated the Foreign leaders and U.N. Security Council pages.

March 10, 2015 [LINK / comment]

In pursuit of elusive wild birds

Jacqueline and I took advantage of the beautiful weather on Sunday by taking a drive up north a ways. I was looking for birds, and she was just enjoying getting outside. The first stop was the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport, where I was hoping to get another look and/or photo of the Smith's Longspur, which I first saw on February 26. Others saw it there yesterday, but not us. We did get some nice closeup looks at Horned Larks, however, a species which Jacqueline had not seen before. Then we went to Bridgewater, where some Common Mergansers have been seen on the North River recently. It took a while, and finally I spotted several of them, but they were nearly 100 yards away, so the photos weren't that good. We drove back and forth between three different riverside parks in Bridgewater, but those darned Mergansers just kept eluding us.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was seeing several Common Grackles, which are supposedly year-round residents in Virginia, but are hardly ever seen during the winter. It was the first such sighting of the year for me, a definite sign that spring is drawing near! Here is a summary of the birds we saw yesterday:

Common Merganser, male

Common Merganser (male), on the North River in Bridgewater.

Other new photos are on the Wild birds yearly photo gallery page. Today I took some great closeup photos of a male Pileated Woodpecker in our back yard (quite unusual), but haven't transferred them to the computer yet. Stay tuned!

March 31, 2015 [LINK / comment]

Spring training nears an end

Technically, Spring only started ten days ago, so it seems a little odd that Spring training is already drawing to a close. For people like me with busier-than-average work schedules (see note at the bottom of this post*), the days and weeks have been zipping by like a freight train.

The Washington Nationals are currently 10-14 in spring training, 13th out of 15 in the National League, but the world champion San Francisco Giants are in last place at 10-20, which shows you how much those numbers mean. Opening Night will be this Sunday (Easter!), as the St. Louis Cardinals visit the Chicago Cubs in Wrigley Field, where the bleacher rebuilding project has not yet been completed. (!!??) Opening Day for the rest of the teams will be on Monday.

Ted Bosiack Field, snow

Ted Bosiack Field, home of the Staunton Braves, covered in snow on March 7.

Nats are banged up already

With a pitching rotation full of superstars and a solid, balanced lineup, the Washington Nationals are widely considered one of the best teams in baseball, if not the very best. Just read what it says in Sports Illustrated! (Good luck finding the in-print article on their Web site.) But everything hinges on keeping the players healthy, and in that respect, the Nats are starting the 2015 season with one hand tied behind their back. Center fielder Denard Span had some kind of muscle injury, right left fielder Jayson Werth is recovering from (and a brief jail term), and new third baseman Anthony Rendon injured his knee (an "MCL sprain"), and is doubtful as well. See (Bryce Harper is switching places with Werth this year, going from left to right field.)

So the backup crew will get lots of playing time in April: Danny Espinosa at third base (!??), Michael Taylor in center field, and perhaps Kevin Frandsen in left field.

Hurry it up, will ya?

In an effort to counteract the lamentable trend toward longer and longer games, Major League Baseball announced new rules to speed things up. Batter will be required to keep one foot in the batter's box after taking a pitch. Also, pitchers will have a limited time to warm up. Violators will presumably get a fine of some sort, but how this works out remains to be seen.

I'll repeat my long-standing suggestion, for what it's worth: Every second throw by a pitcher to first base counts as a ball, and every second time a batter asks for time counts as a strike.

R.I.P. Ernie Banks

In the first major league game I ever saw, on the north side of Chicago way back in 1963, the star attraction was Ernie Banks. Known as "Mr. Cub," he was not only a slugging superstar (with 512 career home runs), but epitomized good sportsmanship and fun at a time when race relations in the United States were extremely tense. It was his fate to play on a hard-luck team, but losing season after season never affected his upbeat outlook in life at all. Even after the Cubs' heartbreaking collpase toward the end of the 1969 season (when the "Miracle Mets" won it all), Ernie Banks kept smiling and saying, "Let's play two." See the full obituary at

In the January 25 Washington Post, Thomas Boswell wrote of Banks:

The outward joy Banks professed, even if it was partly innate to his temperament, was also a daily act of will: a lifelong private commitment to enthusiasm as a guiding principle. ... When you find a Banks, who sticks to those guns all his life, that's the definition of a role model.
Wrigley Field Ernie Banks statue

Statue of Ernie Banks on the west side of Wrigley Field. (October 4, 2008)

Target Field update

Target Field Way back in January, I updated the diagrams for Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins. But I didn't announce it because I realized I had to fix a few things, and then a few more things, etc. etc. They have been at top-level accuracy for over a month now. Aside from the increased accuracy and detail, there are new lower deck and upper deck diagrams, the latter showing all of the entry portals as well as the unique up-side-down tripod roof supports.

One thing that has changed since the last major Target Field revision (five years ago!), is that the upper deck in left field is now considered part of the mezzanine level, since there is just a small staircase separating them. It's the same way with the upper deck between the foul poles, and at almost all baseball stadiums built in the last ten years. To me, a "deck" is a structurally distinct entity, which is why I don't consider the small luxury suite levels in most contemporary stadiums to qualify as a "deck" per se. But that's just me.

Candlestick Park demolition

Yes, it is really happening. The wrecking crews are busy tearing down the former home of the San Francisco Giants and 49ers. As you can see at CBS local station, the upper deck in right field is already gone. They are using an old-fashioned wrecking ball rather than implosion because of safety concerns voiced by neighbors. If any fans in the Bay Area would like to submit a photo of the demolition process, I'd be glad to present them here.

Speaking of Candlestick Park photos, I'll have some exciting "news" to report very soon...

Construction in near Atlanta

As if to offset the destruction on the west coast, in the east there is some ballpark creation going on. Sun Trust Park, the future home of the Atlanta Braves is now under construction, with much excavation and foundation work already completed. Target date for completion is 2017. I still can't get my head around the idea that Turner Field is going to be replaced, but I'll probably get used to it before long.See for some renderings of what it's supposed to look like.

More ballpark news

Here are a few news items courtesy of Mike Zurawski from earlier this year: The Toronto Blue Jays are spending $600,000 to study weather grass can be put in Rogers Centre; see It may be trickier than they thought to control the moisture.

In Cincinnati, the Reds are making some improvements to Great American Ball Park, which will host the 2015 All-Star Game. See Lots of new brick walls, and a few additional seating sections.

In Oakland, new videoboards and LED displays are being installed at " Coliseum." See

In Miami, the Marlins have been awarded the 2017 All-Star Game. See And finally, the Dolphins are moving ahead with another big phase of renovations to Dolphin Stadium, or whatever they're calling it this week. See ESPN and

* Go (Bridgewater) Eagles!

I am teaching at Bridgewater College this semester, the first institution at which I have taught in quite a few years that has a baseball team. They played a home game this afternoon, beating Washington and Lee by a score of 4-3, but I had something else to do. The Eagles are currently fourth place in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (6-6), and 15-7-1 overall. See I am also teaching at Sweet Briar College, which recently made news by announcing that it will soon close, and at Central Virginia Community College. No, it is not normal to have such a heavy teaching load, but I had a special opportunity and went for it. Suffice it to say that I am thoroughly exhausted, but loving every minute of it. Once the semester is over in mid-May, I'll be able to enjoy a more-or-less normal life once again -- especially baseball!

March 31, 2015 [LINK / comment]

Horned Grebe -- at last!

I noticed on the shenvalbirds e-mail listserv that someone had spotted a Horned Grebe on Lake Shenandoah recently, so I went over there after my class this afternoon. Sure enough, within a few minutes, there it was, and I was able to get close enough for a so-so photo before it dove underwater and disappeared. I waited, and looked all around the lake, but that bird was nowhere to be seen. Finally, about ten minutes later, I spotted it again, within a few feet of the shore. I got much better photos that time, including a couple in which the Grebe is devouring a crayfish it had just caught. Just like a miniature lobster -- yum!

It was overcast this afternoon, so the photo conditions were mediocre. I may give it another try if we get a sunny day in the next week or so. I have only seen Horned Grebes once or twice in my life (perhaps not since 2002), and it would be great if this bird stays in Lake Shenandoah long enough for it to change into its full breeding plumage, which is spectacular. This one was in a transition stage between winter plumage and breeding plumage.

It was my first visit to that lake in several months. I noticed that they recently built a new trail made out of crushed stone for the first hundred yards along the lake, replacing the dangerous, narrow dirt trail. The lake is managed by the Virginia Department of Games and Inland Fisheries, and a fishing permit or visitor's permit is required to enter.

Candlestick Park

Horned Grebe. (Click on the image to see it eating a crayfish.)

I also saw my first Tree Swallows of the year flying over the lake, as well as a Pied-Bill Grebe and a Ring-billed Gull. Yesterday I saw a Chipping Sparrow out back for the first time this year.

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