Friday, December 27, 2013

Free Association

By the time Nelson Mandela died earlier this year, the idea of justifying apartheid was hard to fathom. Just what did P.W. Botha and F.W. de Klerk say in those pre-enlightenment days to excuse a hate-based system of oppression? Well, they started with a noble sounding sentiment: people have a right to freedom of association.

We all agree with that, but in South Africa it was understood to mean that white people could associate with whom they chose, i.e., whites, and also, that nobody could force them to associate with those with whom they chose not to associate, i.e., blacks. Of course that was then, and this is now.

And by “this is now,” I mean people are still claiming that their “freedom of association” is being violated so that they can justify raw bigotry. It’s happening in the U.S.A., and I don’t mean Union of South Africa.

As everyone knows by now, there has been a bit of a kerfuffle because as it turns out, Duck Commander Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Duck Dynasty family said some things that are not politically correct. (Neither were they factually correct, but people don’t seem to object to that so much.) That he would condemn homosexuality should surprise nobody, since his fundamentalist Christian faith is the hallmark of his TV persona. That he would express it in such harsh terms took some people aback, but still, he could justify the sentiments by selective reference to the New Testament.

What was really shocking was his assertion about life in Jim Crow Louisiana when he was growing up:
I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. We're going across the field ... They're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people' — not a word! Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
The take-away from this is that Phil Robertson is a jerk. But who cares? Predictably, people criticized him, and A&E network suspended him from their mega-hit. That’s when the fight started.

Sarah Palin talked about Mr. Robertson’s First Amendment freedom, proving what we already knew: she’s an idiot. Later she defended herself by saying she hadn’t read the Robertson interview. Bobby Jindal said some nice things to say about Phil Robertson. “The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with. …  In fact, I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment.” 

In Alabama, State Sen. Jerry Fielding (R) promised to introduce a bill calling for the state to lend its support to suspended Robertson. Ian Bayne, a candidate for the 11th congressional district in Illinois sent out an email to his supporters comparing Phil Robertson to Rosa Parks. And Newt Gingrich takes a back seat to no one on the stupid bus: He compared Phil Robertson to Pope Francis.

All of this would be funny if it weren’t for the peculiar aspect of right-wing talk that is so obnoxious. I refer, of course to the victim stance, the most egregious example of which is the faux war on Christmas. It was wearing thin until the Duck Dynasty contretemps came along, to breathe new life into the conceit that Christians in America are somehow victims of oppression. 

Here's what Walter Hudson has to offer on his own a reactionary right-wing blog:
As the drama surrounding cable network A&E’s suspension of Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson enters its second week without losing steam, our analysis of the incident becomes more refined by critical thought. Where emotional reactions at first prevailed, we now see thoughtful consideration of why this episode matters so much to so many people.
Caring about Phil Robertson and his ordeal says something about those who stand with him. It reveals a solidarity informed by shared values, and similar experiences. For Christians in today’s increasingly secularized culture, there exists a persistent subversion of our religious expression. While it often takes the form of private censure, as it has in Robertson’s case, the influence of the state can be sensed bearing down on private decisions.
Actually, I can’t sense the influence of the state bearing down on private decisions.  So, as if to help those like me, the author asks what the ACLU would do if A&E had suspended a reality TV personality for urging closeted gays to come out.
We know the answer. We know it because the unequal recognition of the freedom of association lies naked in the various public accommodation and anti-discrimination laws strewn throughout various levels of government. Indeed, mere days before the Duck Dynasty controversy erupted, a judge in Colorado ordered a Christian baker to serve cake for a gay wedding or face fines. Where’s the ACLU on that one? Naturally, they represented the gay couple and stood against the baker’s freedom of association. ‘No one should fear being turned away from a public business because of who they are,’ they said in a statement.[emphasis added]
Did you catch the false dichotomy? You have “public accommodation and anti-discrimination laws” on one hand, and “freedom of association” on the other. Lest you think this was a casual usage of an ill-advised phrase, consider that on his own website his comment policy states: 
Free speech is great. You are entitled to speak your mind in whatever way you see fit – on your own blog. Here, we flaunt the right to free association.
It seems like an odd use of the word “flaunt” which means “display (something) ostentatiously, esp. in order to provoke envy or admiration or to show defiance." But perhaps it is more thoughtful than I gave the writer credit for.

The author is indeed defiant. He opposes government intervention into the private affairs of citizens even when it is to eliminate discrimination and segregation. He adopts the rationale for apartheid that the rest of the civilized world has rejected. Yes, he embraces it -- defiantly.

For a long time now, Progressives have had a strong feeling that Conservatives are racists. It’s a serious accusation and one that ought not to be made without strong evidence. It is true that Conservatives have found a home in the Republican Party, and starting with Nixon, the GOP pursued a Southern strategy that explicitly embraced racism. The vast majority of the South has moved on from the racism of those days, but there persists a strain of it in Dixie. Still, racism is so universally condemned that it is easy to assume that discriminatory laws, e.g. voter ID laws, are not aimed at Blacks because they are Black, but rather because they are Democrats.

When Rachel Maddow asked Rand Paul (R-KY) in May 2010 about his views of the landmark Civil Rights Act, he allowed that he has concerns about the idea of ordering private business owners to implement non-discriminatory practices. (Of course, he lied about it when speaking to Howard University students, but that's Rand Paul for you.)

De jure discrimination is dead in America. But there is a great divide between those who want to be able to discriminate in their private businesses and those who reject the philosophy of apartheid. The former are now embracing even the rationale of the apartheid regime. They flaunt the “Right of Association.”

Keep your eyes out for them …
“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Who can be tougher on Iran -- Democrats or Republicans?

Do you really have to ask? 

Some of my friends are saying that the current administration is not doing enough to oppose Iran’s quest for nuclear arms. It made me wonder: What is the Republican record on this crucial point?

Last year, just before the election, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) wrote to affirm President Obama’s strong support of Israel. He reminded us that, “President Reagan is rightly remembered as a strong friend of Israel, although he led the world’s condemnation of Israel at the U.N. when Israel knocked out Iraq’s threatening nuclear facility.” But that was then.

Back in 2006, I noticed that the Washington Post had reported that: 
President Bush declared [Friday, Jan. 13, 2006] that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose ‘a grave threat to the security of the world’ as he tried to rally support from other major powers for U.N. Security Council action unless a defiant Tehran abandons any aspirations for nuclear weapons.
I wondered at the time how it was that Iran was in a position to seek nuclear arms. As it turns out, it’s a pretty good tale.

In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford proposed to sell nuclear technology to the Iranians according to a declassified National Security Decision Memorandum, signed by Henry Kissinger. Iran was ruled by a Shah, and he convincingly made the case that oil was too valuable to waste on daily energy needs. The Ford strategy paper said the “introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran's economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals.” 

President Ford signed a directive in 1976 offering Tehran the chance to buy and operate a U.S.-built reprocessing facility for extracting plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel. It was a 6.4 billion-dollar deal that would have benefited principally two companies, Westinghouse and General Electric, and it would have resulted in Tehran having control of large quantities of plutonium and enriched uranium. Thank G-d the deal fell through when the Shaw was deposed.

The deal was for a complete “nuclear fuel cycle” -- reactors powered by and regenerating fissile materials on a self-sustaining basis. That is precisely the ability the current administration is now trying to prevent Iran from acquiring, as it was in 2005, during the G.W. Bush administration.

It’s interesting to note that in 1975, President Ford’s Chief of Staff was a man named Dick Cheney, and his Secretary of Defense was a man named Donald Rumsfield. Paul Wolfowitz was responsible for nonproliferation at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. This is the crew that was at the White House when George W. Bush, under false pretenses, removed the only regional counter-balance to Iran.

But let’s not get too far ahead of the story. Before he became Vice President, Mr. Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton. During the 1990’s, Halliburton paid out more than $3 million in fines for selling Libya nuclear detonator devices, which violated a U.S. trade embargo imposed on Libya because of that country's ties to terrorism. Also under Cheney leadership, Halliburton sold an Iranian oil development company key components for a nuclear reactor, according to Halliburton sources. More recently, Cheney has been critical of President Obama’s deal which halted Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.

While Cheney was busy helping a Iranian terrorist regime acquire nuclear capabilities, Bill Clinton was busy being President of the United States.  He imposed some of the toughest sanctions against Iran in 1995, prohibiting U.S. trade in Iran's oil industry in March, and prohibiting any U.S. trade with Iran in May. Trade with the United States, which had been growing following the end of the Iran–Iraq War, ended abruptly. He also signed into law the Iran–Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) imposing severe sanctions on all foreign companies that provide investments over $20 million for the development of petroleum resources in Iran.

The sanctions did have an effect. In 1997 a reformer, Mohammad Khatami, was elected President in Iran. President Clinton responded by easing sanctions somewhat. However, the basic outline of the sanctions regime remained in place, including ILSA.

In any event, George W. Bush was “elected” in 2000. What was going on when he was trying to get the U.N. to impose sanctions in 2006, as reported in the Washington Post, above?

After being elected president in 2005, President Ahmadinejad lifted the suspension of uranium enrichment that had been agreed upon with the France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported Iran's non-compliance with its safeguards agreement to the UN Security Council. The U.S. government then began pushing for UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. What had the Bush government done on its own?

In June 2005, President George W. Bush issued an executive order freezing the assets of individuals connected with Iran's nuclear program. Some might say that was a pretty weak sanction. In fact, some did. In June 2007, the U.S. state of Florida enacted a boycott on companies trading with Iran and Sudan, while New Jersey's state legislature was considering similar action.

The election of 2008 produced Democratic majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and, of course, a Democratic President. Congress passed “the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), which President Obama signed into law July 1, 2010. The CISADA greatly enhanced restrictions in Iran.

These sanctions have been so effective that Iran has been forced to suspend its nuclear program for six months while a long term deal is worked out.

So, what can we learn from this history? If you want to cripple Iran to bring them to the negotiating table and get them agree to dismantle their nuclear weapons program, you’re better off going with the Democrats …

“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Monday, December 23, 2013

More Sanctions for Iran? Why not.

So, there is a regime of sanctions that has crippled Iran’s economy, with the result that Secretary of State John Kerry has managed to get Iran to negotiate a stand down from their nuclear weapons program. Everybody with the good sense God gave animal crackers has made the observation that the Iranians cannot be trusted. Also, the sun rises in the east. Both observations are true, but since the interim agreement does not rely on trust, both are also useless in the context of new sanctions.

Rather than rely on trust, the interim deal provides daily access to Natanz and Fordo sites to IAEA inspectors and access to other facilities, mines and mills. The inspectors will be able to confirm compliance or report breaches of the other obligations imposed on Iran, namely:

·         Halt enrichment of uranium above 5% purity. (Uranium enriched to 3.5-5% can be used for nuclear power reactors, 20% for nuclear medicines and 90% for a nuclear bomb.)
·         “Neutralize” its stockpile of near-20%-enriched uranium, either by diluting it to less than 5% or converting it to a form which cannot be further enriched
·         Not install any more centrifuges (the machines used to enrich uranium)
·         Leave half to three-quarters of centrifuges installed in Natanz and Fordo enrichment facilities inoperable
·         Not build any more enrichment facilities
·         Not increase its stockpile of 3.5% low-enriched uranium
·         Halt work on the construction of its heavy-water reactor at Arak, not attempt to produce plutonium there (an alternative to highly enriched uranium used for an atomic weapon)
·         Provide “long-sought” information on the Arak reactor and other data
To put it mildly, this was a huge achievement. When Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu drew a red line on a cartoon bomb at the United Nations, he said that Iran must not be allowed to go any further than that. The interim agreement more than meets his demand at least as long as it holds up.

On the other side of the negotiation is the P5+1 (viz., five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France, plus Germany.) In return for the foregoing promises, the P5+1 has agreed to a “limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible” relaxation of the sanctions regime. Additionally the U.S. has agreed to transfer about $4.2 billion to Iran in installments from assets seized by the U.S. government from sales of its oil.

A key commitment that the P5+1 made is that it would not impose further nuclear-related sanctions if Iran meets its commitments. Now, several in Congress, including Senators Begich and Murkowsky and 22 other senators, want to impose further sanctions, a move which the Iranians say will queer the deal.

The supporters of new sanctions say that they will be conditional, i.e. would only go into effect if the Iranians fail to live up to their agreement. It is passing strange indeed, that the number one argument in favor of these new sanctions is that they are a hollow gesture. After all, is there anyone in his right mind who thinks that if the Iranians breach the interim deal, America and her allies will have any difficulty imposing new and harsher sanctions? And above and beyond that, the President of the United States has said he will veto the new sanctions bill, even if it were to pass through Congress.

So, there are no benefits to the bill to impose new sanctions. But, and my grandmother once said, “What could it hurt?”

Maybe Congress can over-ride his veto. But to what avail? In the end it is still a meaningless gesture and the debate attendant to a veto override will merely highlight to the Iranians the lack of unanimity in the Congress. If there is a fight over a veto over-ride, along the way, you can expect to see the usual accusations made in some quarters that the U.S. Congress and/or the President are controlled by AIPAC and the Jews. Pollyannas who don’t believe that there is a latent strain of anti-Semitism in America don’t worry about the effects of this kind of talk. I do.

Iran has asserted that if the new sanctions are passed in Congress, they will consider the interim deal breached and proceed accordingly. They express the view that it is a sign that Congress is not interested in a negotiated settlement. This latter point is not irrational, since there are many, including PM Netanyahu, who seem to believe that no deal is a good deal, and that war is the only response to the current regime.

The Wall Street Journal argues that Iran’s position is either a bluff, or a sign that it is looking for an excuse to break off negotiations. From there, it makes the extraordinary leap that we should therefore call the bluff, give Iran an excuse to break off negotiations and then … well, they don’t really tell us what to do then.

The supporters of the new sanctions claim they are a means of strengthening the President’s hand in his negotiations with the Iranians. It is quite obvious that this is a transparent after-the-fact rationalization. The President and Secretary Kerry are opposed to the sanctions bill, and presumably they know whether or not they need the help. Moreover, since when is it a sign of strength to tell your negotiating partner your next step if they fail to comply with your last demand? Rather it is a limitation on what the President will do, since presumably a bunker-busting strike and/or a decapitation strike is not off the table, at least until Congress dictates a different response.

There is another risk, that none of the supporters of sanctions have talked about. The U.S. has managed to persuade the EU, Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan to adhere to a steadily escalating catalogue of sanctions against Iran. These sanctions have been so damaging to the Iranian economy that the regime is now engaged in negotiations to end its nuclear weapons program. How has the U.S. been able to pressure the Europeans and the Asians to adhere to these severe sanctions?

A key has been to portray the Iranians as the crazies, the intransigents, and the blood-thirsty. The Iranians have helped lend credibility to this portrayal every chance they got with wild rhetoric and holocaust denial, etc. But that could change. The Iranians, having signed onto an interim accord could say with some credibility that the U.S. is being unreasonable, unwilling to take ‘yes’ for an answer, and thereby undermine the cooperation that is the bulwark of the current sanctions regime. If Iran can peel off just one or two of the Europeans/Asians, they can buy some more time to advance to a place where they can make a sprint for the bomb. At that point, it is game over.

American interests in the deal are broadly to keep Iran from getting a bomb, fulfill its moral obligation to defend Israel, and support our nominal ally, Saudi Arabia, who is Iran’s main regional competitor. If Iran obtains a bomb the Saudis, and the Jordanians would probably be compelled to seek nuclear weapons as well. These risks are unacceptable, as is the potential for Iranian nukes to fall into the hands of terrorists.

For the foregoing reasons, if Iran cannot be compelled to disavow its nuclear ambitions, there is no alternative to a military option, either by the U.S. or by Israel. Those who don’t trust President Obama to put into place crippling sanctions if the negotiations are not productive, argue that they can trust the U.S. to go to war for Israel. Beyond the fact that it is illogical, it must be observed that even if the President did undertake to go to war to destroy Iran’s nuclear bomb capability, Congress and the American people might not support him. Consider the fact that the President was rebuffed by Congress in his effort to use the military to disarm Syria of her chemical warfare capabilities and the idea was wildly unpopular.

It is true that many Republicans will do anything to see that the President fails. (Witness the unwillingness of Republican governors to take Federal money to expand Medicaid in their states.) But on matters of foreign policy there is a strong tradition and a good reason for entrusting it to the executive branch. Especially when, as now, he has accomplished so much that is so positive.

"... and tell 'em Big Mitch sent ya!"

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What about Syria?

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Attributed to Edmund Burke.)

We have seen unspeakable evil in the case of the Syrian regime’s use of nerve gas on children and non-combatants. Secretary of State John Kerry did not overstate the case when he said it was “a moral obscenity.”

As a general principle, little is gained from comparisons to Hitler. On the other hand, the use of Zyklon B, the murder of children, and the totalitarian regime are fresh – and painful – in our memory. And so is the reluctance of the world to confront the evil of Nazism.

All wars are tragic, and the Syrian civil war seems to be especially so. According to various opposition activist groups, between 80,350 and 106,425 people have been killed, of which about half were civilians. According to the U.N., about 4 million Syrians have been displaced within the country and 1.8 million have fled to other countries. This is in a country of 22 ½ million people.

President Obama has said that the use of gas warfare would cross a “red line.” There is no doubt that nerve gas has been used, nor that the Assad regime is responsible. There is some evidence  that the use of chemical weapons may have been the work of a General who over-stepped his authority. A more likely suspect is Maher al-Assad, brother of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Maher is the commander of its most formidable military division.

Doubters of the responsibility of the Assad regime ask “Why would he invite United Nations chemical weapons inspectors to Syria, then launch a chemical weapons attack against women and children on the very day they arrive, just miles from where they are staying?” Since I am convinced that the Syrian regime is in fact responsible for the nerve gas attack, the question is not rhetorical, and, indeed, it demands an answer.

The only answer that makes sense to me is that Assad made the calculation that America and her allies did not have the stomach to oppose this heinous violation of international law. He wanted to test this proposition with the hope that the answer would be demoralizing to the opposition. Was he correct in his calculus?

Basta! Something must be done! The question is, “What to do?”

Congress is in recess now, but the President has the power to call them back into session. It is fundamentally the power of Congress to declare war. Though this should be a completely non-partisan issue, the current Congress is so intractably anti-Obama that it cannot be counted upon to do the right thing. I would like the President to be able to share the responsibility for his decision with the elected officials and political leaders of our country, but is there any reason to believe that Republicans can act responsibly?

Of course, it’s theoretically possible that the President can get commitments from the Republican leadership in Congress before he calls them back into session, so that he doesn't have to risk embarrassment. However, the rumblings from people like Senator John McCain don’t inspire confidence in this regard.

Unfortunately, whatever is done in Syria will be a tough slog, and the sight of a potential quagmire for the President is too tempting for Republicans, who routinely talk about shutting down the government, defaulting on our debt, and de-funding every program aimed at helping people to improve their lot in life. The President wanted to make America great again after the destruction brought about by the George W. Bush administration, and Republicans openly declared that they wanted him to fail.

History, or fate, has cast this President in the role of a great leader, and now he must lead. Let him be mindful that President Clinton’s biggest regret of his presidency is that 1,000,000 people were slaughtered with machetes and US never intervened.

Some will say, with considerable justification, that this is a matter for the United Nations. The problem is that in the U.N., it is the Security Council that has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. The Russian Republic has a veto in the Security Council and therefore, it is inconceivable that anything positive will come out of it with regards to Syria. If, as I hope, the U.S. can play a constructive role in the resolution of this “Problem from Hell,” then it is possible that Arabs at some future time will recognize that Russia is indifferent to their slaughter, while America took a moral stand, backed by action, to oppose tyranny.

Perhaps the U.N. General Assembly will provide a forum in which the U.S. can lay out its case that the Syrian regime is responsible for a nerve gas attack on non-combatants. Oh, if only George W. Bush had not squandered our credibility!

Still, the U.N. has another role to play in this matter. At the time of this writing, U.N. inspectors are in Syria seeking definitive evidence that nerve gas was used. There are still doubters, encouraged in their doubt by the Russians, and waiting a matter of days to get their report makes sense. For one thing, when (not “if” but “when”) opponents of our President accuse him of jumping the gun, so to speak, it will be nice to have the cover of the U.N. inspectors’ report.

These inspectors have been fired at, and the area they are inspecting has been contaminated with conventional weapons making their task more difficult, but not impossible. In any event, they will not pass an opinion regarding responsibility. Rather they will answer the somewhat straight-forward question of whether or not Serin has been used.

Although the U.N. is not capable of giving international cover to an intervention in Syria, it is important that the U.S. does not act alone. France has announced that it is ready to take action in response to the egregious violation of international law. In Great Britain, the PM has called Parliament into session and it is debating military action in Syria. The task of assembling an international coalition is not done, but it is off to a good start.

Syria’s main allies are Russia and Iran. The Russians maintain a naval facility in Tartus  It is the last Russian military facility outside the former Soviet Union, and its only Mediterranean repair and replenishment spot, sparing Russia’s warships the trip back to their Black Sea bases through the Turkish Straits. This is of strategic importance to the Russians, and any action by the Americans must not directly threaten Russian access to the Med. This is a serious limitation on the range of American choices.

Russia has another interest in Syria. An attack by the U.S. will most likely involve cruise missiles, drones, and aircraft. The Syrian air-defenses will have to be neutralized. These defenses are supplied by the Russians, and it will be a definitive test of their capabilities. My gut tells me that the Russians are not eager to see the results of this test.

Nor are the Iranians, who also have Russian air defenses.

I have said before that Assad made the calculation that America and her allies did not have the stomach to oppose this heinous violation of international law. It makes sense to me that the Iranians encouraged Assad to test this proposition. This is a crucial point, because if my speculation is correct, Iran wants to know the answer as it contemplates is choices with respect to developing nuclear weapons. And even if I am wrong about Iran encouraging Syria to use nerve gas, still it must know that America is not paralyzed in the face of evil, even nuclear threats.

The Washington Post reports that according to Israeli officials and retired officers who serve as military analysts there, the general consensus in the country’s intelligence community is that Syria will not strike against Israel in retaliation for a U.S. launch of cruise missiles. The paper points out that Israeli warplanes have bombed Syria twice so far this year, in January and May, apparently in an attempt to stop the transfer of weapons from inside Syria to Hezbollah outposts in Lebanon. Neither attack provoked a response from Syria.

However, there is a long term risk to Israel and to the U.S. that comes from degrading the capabilities of the Assad regime. Nature abhors a vacuum, and never more so than when it is a vacuum of power.

If the U.S. and her allies intervene in Syria, what will a post intervention Syria look like? Again, quoting from the Washington Post:
“The one thing we should learn is you can’t get a little bit pregnant,” said retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was at the helm of U.S. Central Command when the Pentagon launched cruise missiles at suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and weapons facilities in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “If you do a one-and-done and say you’re going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things. It will suck you in.”
If Allied intervention triggers more brutal attacks by the regime, then our intervention will have been a failure. Therefore, it may seem that our response must be robust enough to prevent an escalation of the regime’s war crimes.

On the other hand, there is a risk that by degrading Assad’s military capability we may be strengthening rebel factions aligned with al-Qaeda, and so, our response must be sufficiently restrained. It’s a difficult balance, to put it mildly. The Obama administration has already announced that any proposed reaction will not be about regime change.

Basically, it boils down to this. What we want in Syria is a stale-mate in the civil war, during which both sides lose blood and treasure. At the conclusion, both sides will be too tired, poor, or degraded to do any further mischief. Shed no tears for the opponents of Assad: they are self-proclaimed enemies of America, of Israel, and of democracy.

In the meantime, the U.S. and our allies need to supply – in a very big way – humanitarian support for the civilians and refugees affected by the war. It is fair to assume that nothing we can do will win favor with the jihadist components of the opposition, and we don’t want to be associated with the tyrant, Assad. But there is a hope that we can go over the heads of the combatants and reach the average Syrian. It is even possible that Israel can play a role in providing humanitarian aid.

I believe in the idea of democracy, and I believe that the arc of history bends in that direction. But there is more to democracy than elections. There must also be open debate, free speech, a right to petition the government, a rule of law, etc.

The question is, how can Syria move from where it is now to that blessed place where democracy can flourish? We need to find a way.

To do so, we must understand that for the time being, Syria will require an autocratic ruler who has the strength and the disposition to oppose the Islamists. America needs to identify and support such a leader, and then gradually groom him to become a father of democracy.

What I have laid out here is an ambitious program, but the reasons stated justify the necessity of undertaking it. Besides, what choice do we have?

Please join me in wishing the President great success and wisdom in facing these challenges.

“… and tell ‘em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Friday, July 05, 2013

The Beauty of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis

State Senator Wendy Davis, a Texas Democrat is an attractive woman, a graduate of Harvard Law and tough as nails. She proved the last point by filibustering an anti-choice measure, for which she was required to use a catheter. But what’s the point of mentioning that she is an attractive woman?

It turns out that Conservatives are being dismissive of her because of her looks. A new website called “The Real Wendy Davis” has exposed Davis as "the first woman ever to look hotter than her 1991 yearbook photo." She's described as a Surgically Constructed “Human Barbie Doll”
"Most people — at least those without a plastic surgeon on retainer — do not become more good looking as they age from their late 20s to their early 50s. Without extreme artificial intervention, even the luckiest among us — those blessed with good genes who exercise prudence toward their physical safety and health (for example, by avoiding guns and alcohol) — can at most aim to delay life’s inevitable physical decline, and come close to maintaining their good looks." 
What these buffoons do not understand is that women like Senator Davis mature and grow as they move from their 20’s to their 50’s. Just like men, they acquire a well-defined sense of self as they accumulate accomplishments, and build self confidence. They discover what is important to them, and they figure out how to pursue it with purpose and determination. Their values crystallize, and if these are values of caring and concern, they exude a sense of power that is charismatic. This is what is so attractive about Senator Davis. 

It’s also true that Senator Davis showed tremendous grace and poise, as, for example, when she responded to Rick Perry’s mean-spirited attack on her which brought up the fact that she was raised by a single mother, and had a child out of wedlock. The contrast between these two Texas politicians highlighted another quality of the Senator’s appeal, but we cannot tell from the 1991 photo if this, too, was acquired with experience.

Conservatives who attack her because she is more attractive than she was when she sat for her yearbook photo 22 years ago imagine that the apex of womanly beauty is youthful inexperience, and powerlessness. A woman in her 20’s is near the height of her fertility, and those who see woman as only useful in the reproduction process, naturally see this stage of a woman’s growth as the pinnacle of her beauty. 

It is easy to dismiss the caviling of conservatives about Senator Davis’s looks as the carping of guttersnipes. I think it reveals in sharp relief the disdain with which they regard women with power and accomplishment.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Peering into the future of Egypt.

Today, Fareed Zakaria opined on the Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer that the interim government in Egypt must allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in future elections.

“If they are not [allowed to participate] then the whole thing would be a complete sham, and frankly, that would be very dangerous. The real story here is that the Islamist political movement – not just in Egypt, but in Tunisia, Morocco and other places, potentially in Jordan –have been joining the mainstream, and joining the democratic process. Remember, there are many parts of the Islamist movement that have always been very distrustful of this. They have wanted a Caliphate, or they've wanted something that doesn't reek of a Western style of government. The Muslim Brotherhood embraced nonviolence and democracy. And so, for them to be ruled out of this process would be very dangerous. It might marginalize them. It might push them underground. And it might push some parts of them toward violence. That is the probably single most important thing to see – that the Muslim Brotherhood is included in whatever democratic processes is now re-established in Egypt.”

Maybe yes, and maybe no.

A constitution is not a suicide pact.  It is possible to have a constitution that incorporates a civil government, which guarantees, if I may borrow a phrase, certain inalienable rights. Given that the Coptic churches are believed to account for 10% of Egypt’s population, and that relations between Christians and Muslims in Egypt are generally harmonious, a constitutional guarantee of freedom of conscience is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

Indeed, this appeared to be a key demand of the protesters in Tahrir Square. Consider, for example, the fact that protesters projected laser images of the cross along with the crescent on buildings surrounding them. Furthermore, the Pope of the Coptic Church of Alexandria was on stage with General Abdel Fattha Al Sisi, when he announced the military intervention, and that he, Pope Theodoros II, endorsed it. (Ninety-five percent of Egyptian Christians regard him as their religious leader.)

Could the Muslim Brotherhood sign on to a guarantee of religious freedom?  As I pointed out in The Dog that Didn’t Bark on Feb 13, 2011, their website stated their vision of the future, thus:

We envision the establishment of a democratic, civil state that draws on universal measures of freedom and justice, which are central Islamic values. We embrace democracy not as a foreign concept that must be reconciled with tradition, but as a set of principles and objectives that are inherently compatible with and reinforce Islamic tenets.

Of course, that same website also said, “We do not intend to take a dominant role in the forthcoming political transition.” 

My point is not that the Muslim Brotherhood can't be trusted: you already knew that. My point is that given the failures of the Islamist government, there is no reason to suspect that the framers of the next Egyptian constitution will not create a secular state similar to the government that brought Turkey into the twentieth century. By the way, in Turkey, the military has always played the role of stop-check against the civil authorities to guard against excesses, as the military has done in Egypt.

I can imagine a constitution that specifically prohibits religious parties. Could the Muslim Brotherhood sign on to that?  I wouldn't bet on it, but as Niels Bohr* famously said, “Predictions are difficult, especially about the future.”  

And that brings up back to where we started. Can a government that forbids religious parties be accepted by the majority of Egyptians? That remains to be seen. For now, the Army is supported by the people, and the Army has been historically non-sectarian. Though this is an implicit rejection of Islamistism, the Army took care  to publish videos of soldiers engaged in their daily prayers today, and it is well-known that General Al Sisi is a devout man, which may account for why Morsy appointed him to head the military.

The Muslim Brotherhood was the largest, but not the only Islamist political party to get support in the last Egyptian elections. For now, it remains to be seen if the pro-secular interests in Egypt can carry the day.

Stay tuned,

“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

* Or Yogi Berra. Or Casey Stangel.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Congratulations to the Tea Party

Sequestration is underway, and Tea Partiers are claiming victory in their war against deficits. They see this as the first win in their campaign to impose austerity on the American people. Many Republicans, fearful of being challenged from the right in a primary, have argued that “everyone knows that spending is out of control.” Never mind that Federal nondefense discretionary spending — all spending minus defense and entitlements — is on track to hit its lowest level as a share of GDP in more than 50 years, according to data from the Congressional Budget Office.

These self-proclaimed deficit hawks argue that we need austerity because, just like many American families, we have to “tighten our belt.” Unlike many American families, the U.S. government can print money. Also, it can spend on a scale that alters the unemployment rate around the country, stimulating the economy and producing more revenues. And it can borrow money at rates that approach zero per cent. Nevertheless, the acolytes of Grover Norquist insist that we must shrink government until it is the small enough to drown in a bathtub.

If only we could be certain of how austerity works. Does it enable the economy to flourish? For that, we would need something like a controlled experiment.

The United Kingdom government “austerity programme” is a series of sustained reductions in public spending, intended to reduce the budget deficit. How’s that working out? The U.K. economy is 3.3% smaller than it was in 2008. The U.S. economy is 2.9% larger (both adjusted for inflation). Get it? The U.K is in recession and the U.S. isn’t.

What’s the number one cause of deficits? Recession. Hail Britannia! As Paul Krugman put it:
“It's important to understand that what we're seeing isn't a failure of orthodox economics. Standard economics in this case—that is, economics based on what the profession has learned these past three generations, and for that matter on most textbooks—was the Keynesian position. The austerity thing was just invented out of thin air and a few dubious historical examples to serve the prejudices of the elite.
Think about that if you have some extra time today. Maybe you are trying to get through the shrunken TSA while trying to catch a plane that is delayed because of layoffs of air traffic controllers. Or maybe you are driving over unsafe bridges and on roads with potholes, with your kids whose Head Start program was shutdown, to get some meat at the market, where, because of a lack of meat inspectors, prices have shot up.

And think on this: the sequestration is the result of Republicans refusal to close tax loopholes that it said were unfair and non-productive when negotiating a way to avoid the fiscal cliff.  They claim that the President “already got his tax hikes.” Of course, last time I checked, Republicans controlled the House of Representatives and had a filibuster/veto in the Senate. So go ask John Boehner to name names: Which Republicans voted for a tax increase?  

“ …. and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Republican Opposition to Chuck Hagel Explained

Republicans promised not to abuse the filibuster. They promptly broke that promise, along with precedent and filibustered Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be Secretary of Defense. What made the Senate Republicans hate Chuck Hagel so?

If it were true that he is an anti-Semite, as alleged by anonymous Republican staffers, I would be right there with them. But he’s not, at least according to the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai Brith. So, that was a rather libelous smear.

They said that he was bad for Israel. Again, if it were true, I’d be all like, “Screw him.” But there’s no evidence there, either. In fact, the evidence was quite the opposite, starting with Chuck Shumer’s endorsement of him.

These and other false accusations were largely propagated by such groups as Americans for a Strong Defense which is run by former Mitt Romney campaign staffers, according to ABC News. Another group, Use Your Mandate, claims to be composed of anonymous Democrats and Independents, but uses  "Del Cielo Media, an arm of one of the most prominent Republican ad-buying firms in the country, Smart Media" according to The New York Times.

Okay, I get it. Republicans hate Chuck Hagel. But it wasn’t always thus. Straight-talking John McCain said he would make a good Secretary of State, back in the day when he was also pushing the line that Sarah Palin was qualified to be President.  And lest we forget, Chuck Hagel himself is a – wait for it – Republican!

Lindsey Graham took after Hagel like a woman scorned. Ostensibly, it was all about Benghazi  The question was what did the President know and when did he know it. Fey! Suffice it to say, Hagel was not in the government on September 11, 2012.

The highlight of the hearing might have been when Senator Graham asked the nominee if he could name one Senator who was intimidated by the Israel lobby, or one dumb thing that the Senate did because of intimidation by the Israeli lobby.

The line of questioning was revealing in this way: it revealed why I would never be confirmed by the Senate. To wit: I would have answered, ‘Damn straight Senator. Someone who is intimidated by the Israeli lobby is you. And one dumb thing you did because of intimidation is ask that question of a Senator who has a perfect voting record on Israel, you shmuck!

Maybe it sounds like I am being a little harsh on Lindsey. Of course, that may have to do with the fact that when Elana Kagen was being confirmed by the Senate, he had to ask her if she remembered where she was on the day the Underwear Bomber failed in his attempt to blow up a jetliner. She offered up some legal mumbo jumbo about giving terrorists legal rights.

"No, I just asked you where you were at on Christmas," Graham said.

"You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant," Kagan replied, garnering a good guffaw from the audience.

But not from me. See, I couldn’t figure out why it was even vaguely relevant. Except that Graham was trying to defeat the President’s nominee by highlighting the fact that she didn’t celebrate Christmas like real Americans do.

So, naturally, I was amused, but not very much, to see Lindsey Graham trying to portray Chuck Hagel as no friend of the Jews. Then again, it’s hardly news that Lindsey Graham is a hypocrite. At least he didn’t join the Log Cabin Republicans in criticizing Hagel for his 1998 opposition to James Hormel’s appointment as ambassador to Luxembourg.  (Hagel’s opposition to Hormel, for which he has since apologized, was based on the fact that he was openly gay.) Graham wasn’t in the Senate when Republicans stood unified against Hormel, and surely he would have been with them.

Some of the criticism of Hagel was just plain ludicrous. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) bought into the report in Breitbart that Hagel had spoken to the Friends of Hamas, a group that is distinguished from all other groups by its non-existence. Tailgunner Ted Cruz (R-TX) said that we don’t know if Hagel spoke to radical groups, but, at a minimum, he shouldn’t be confirmed until we have answers. (Relatedly, we don’t know if Ted Cruz masturbates while watching “2 Girls 1 Cup,” but it may be significant that he has never denied it.)

I think we can all agree that Cruz was not amusing himself with coprophagia when he told the Senate that the Hagel nomination had
 “something that was truly extraordinary, which is the government of Iran formally and publicly praising the nomination of a defense secretary. I would suggest to you that to my knowledge, that is unprecedented to see a foreign nation like Iran publicly celebrating a nomination.”  
When it was suggested that Cruz had gone too far, the ranking member of the committee, Sen. James Inhoffe,  (R-OK) defended Cruz, saying Hagel was “endorsed by [Iran], and you can’t get any cozier than that.”

Not that it matters much, but here’s the basis for that claim: Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast was asked a question about Hagel's views on Israel and U.S. sanctions on Iran at his weekly news conference. He ducked the question, and replied,
 “We hope there will be practical changes in American foreign policy and that Washington becomes respectful of the rights of nations.” 
In the last analysis, it was straight talking John McCain who committed what amounts to a cardinal sin in Washington: he told the truth about why Republicans wanted to filibuster, smear and block Senator Hagel’s nomination. 
“It goes back to … there’s a lot of ill will towards Senator Hagel, because when he was a Republican he attacked president Bush mercilessly, at one point said he was the worst president since Herbert Hoover, said the surge was the worst blunder since the Viet Nam war – which is nonsense – and was very anti- his own party and people. People don’t forget that.”
There you have it! It was all about Hagel’s breach of Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment “Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican.”

Still, it all seemed a little over the top. There must be a deeper level of resentment for Chuck Hagel than what can be ginned up by faux outrage about his criticism of the George W(orst) Bush. What could it really be?

The answer is that the time has come for Republicans to send a message. They must circle the wagons, and let it be known that any defectors will be punished for the rest of their lives. Why? Because Republicans know that they are on the wrong side of the tax debate, the wrong side of the austerity debate, the wrong side of the background check  and assault weapons debate, the wrong side of the gay marriage debate, the wrong side of the immigration debate, the wrong side of the entitlement debate, the wrong side of the voting rights debate.

Maybe there is a philosophical consistency in their positions taken by conservatives, though I am yet to discover it. Be that as it may, in every area mentioned above the public is on the side of the Democrats, sometimes by a wide margin. Democrats won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. A majority of votes cast for members of the House of Representatives were for Democrats, although gerrymandering gave the majority of the House to Republicans. And of course, the Senate is and will be for the foreseeable future, in the hands of Democrats. Republicans know that they are increasingly perceived as a party that can’t govern, doesn’t try to, and stands against the idea that government should work. Far be it from me to say that it is the party of racists, but General Colin Powell intimated as much.

At a time like this, Republicans are bracing themselves against a wave of defections. Governors who opposed Obamacare are starting to accept the idea of expanding Medicaid. Chris Christie earned himself a non-invitation from the CPAC convention because he praised the President's efforts on behalf of his state when Hurricane Sandy hit, and he was unstinting in his recriminations against the Republicans who blocked relief to the devastated parts of New Jersey.

So, now you know. If you’re a Republican and you’re sick of being in the “party of stupid,” in the words of Bobby Jindall, the party of Christine O’Donnell, Michelle Bachmann, Herman Caine, Rand Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin and the rest of the rejects from the funny papers, keep your mouth shut, and your head down.

Otherwise, John McCain will chase you off his lawn with a rake, Lindsey Graham with throw another hissy fit, and Ted Cruz will reprise the tactics of Joe McCarthy to destroy you.

“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Errata: In paragraph 6, the word “Feh!” is misspelled.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Minimum wage. It's the least we can do.

About 1.7 million people earn the Federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Let’s pretend they each work 40 hours a week, and 50 weeks a year, which is to say that they each work 2,000 hours per year. (They don't because most minimum wage jobs are also part-time.) Raising the minimum hourly wage $1.00 would therefore cost employers of these workers, $3,400,000,000. Where’s it going to come from?

Let's take a look at the top fifty employers of minimum wage workers. The average compensation of the CEOs of these companies is $9,397,302. Ninety-two percent of these companies were profitable last year, and 78% were profitable over the last three years. Compared to pre-recession levels, 75% have higher revenues, 63% have higher profits, 63% have higher operating margins, and 73% higher cash holdings. The recession is over and everything is looking up for these companies. Except the wages of minimum wage workers, which haven't seen an increase since 2009. 
The fast food industry is one of the biggest employers of minimum wage workers. Here’s the executive compensation of some of the best paid CEOs in the fast food business.

MacDonalds                  18,403,830
Burger King                   17,072,427
Wendy’s                        10,174,638
YUM                           142,069,337
Starbucks                     483,279,878
Sonic                             17,630,484
Domino’s Pizza              47,821,255
Total:                           736,451,849

Wal-Mart paid its CEO a mere 14.4 million, and we don’t know how much the CEO of Subway made. We do know that he is worth 1.5 billion, and is reputed to be compulsively frugal. Let’s just put him down for making 5% on his money, and call him good for 75,000,000. Add them all together and you get well past one and a half billion dollars.

It’s kind of hard to believe that these guys (they are all men) wouldn't find it worth their while to get out of bed and do whatever they do for half that amount.  If the other half went to increasing the pay of the minimum wage workers, there would be over 22% of what was needed to give every single minimum wage worker in the United States a $1.00/hr raise.

Take a minute to drink that in. By paying 9 CEOs something just south of Croesus, we can finance a quarter of what it takes to pay workers not quite enough to live on. Of course, if the CEOs want to make more money, their path is clear. Hire more low-paid workers and wring your wealth from the sweat of their brow.

“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”