Saturday, May 23, 2015

Bibi blows up any prospect for peace

Still in the first weeks of his newly formed government, Benjamin Netanyahu has retained for himself the position of Foreign Minister.    However, the European Jewish Press reported this week that he has assigned to his Interior Minister, Silvan Shalom, the role of top negotiator for peace talks with the Palestinians.   He will replace the more moderate Tzipi Livni.

Shalom is on record as being opposed to Palestinian statehood, having told party activists in 2012 that, "We are all against a Palestinian state, there is no question about it."  In addition, as reported in the Huffington Post, Shalom blocked the water supply to the West Bank town of Rawabi.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat responded to the Shalom appointment:  “With the dust beginning to settle on the new Israeli coalition government, the face of a new form of racist and discriminatory Israel has been revealed:  Benjamin Netanyahu vehemently leading the charge to bury the two-state solution and impose a perpetual Apartheid regime …” 

The communications director of J Street, the more moderate pro-Israel organization in the U.S., responded:  “Appointing an opponent of two states to manage negotiations with the Palestinians is yet another sign of Prime Minister Netanyahu's expectation that he can successfully defy the international community in this upcoming term. It is up to the Obama administration to demonstrate that he has badly miscalculated.”

Having to rely on far right religious political groups to form his coalition government, Netanyahu can be expected to tilt to the right.   But this egregious slap at the peace process itself is typical Netanyahu provocative behavior.

Still, even Netanyahu responds to the condemnation of the most extreme anti-Palestinian moves, particularly when it comes from Europeans.   He quickly quashed a plan advanced by his defense minister to segregate the buses going into Palestine, when it evoked outraged cries of "apartheid."    But, if the future of Israel-Palestinian peace depends on Netanyahu's having to rein in his own cabinet appointees -- as they have shown just these first few weeks -- the region is in big trouble.

This cannot end well.   The sooner this government fails and they have new elections, the better.


Friday, May 22, 2015

What if Jeb really meant his first answer?

Sam Stein, political analyst for Huffington Post, wrote about an interview with former Sen. Gary Hart (D-CO), who has raised the question:   What if Jeb Bush wasn't confused about what question he was asked by Megyn Kelly?   What if he was answering honestly and really would still authorize the Iraq war even knowing what we know now?   Shouldn't we be worried about that?

Stein quotes Hart:
"I'm trying to avoid being categorical about a whole family.  But the Bushes do not demonstrate analytical minds. They demonstrate visceral minds. The father I knew and liked a lot. The sons respond to events and respond to stimuli, and they are not analytical thinkers. And that comes out in their rhetoric . . . and their thought process and how they look at complex issues. Governor [Jeb] Bush, half his mind is how to protect his brother. The other half is, How do I answer without alienating two-thirds of the Republican Party?”
Hart was opposited to the Iraq War when it was being launched in 1993.   He had been the front-runner in the 1988 Democratic presidential primary race until scandals emerged concerning other women as well as campaign finances.   Nevertheless, he regained respect as an occasional spokesman on national issues of importance.   One of those issues is his opposition to the Iraq war.

In the recent interview with Sam Stein, Hart said that, instead of asking what presidential candidates would do now, knowing what was wrong then, we should be asking them what they would have done in the moment.    Would they have overlooked the doubts that were raised about the supposed evidence?

There were some in high places who did oppose going into Iraq.  For example, former Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) recently said that the narrative being pushed today -- that most everyone agreed that Iraq had WMD -- "doesn't pass muster. . . .  Frankly, knowing what we knew then, we shouldn’t have gone to war."

Former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) was chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time.  In a recent communication with the Huffington Post, Graham blamed the Bush administration for withholding evidence from Congress that cast doubts on the case for war.  "In some instances public statements were made which the people who made [them] knew or should have known they were not consistent with the actual evidence, which has and continues to be classified.” 

Graham also faulted lawmakers for being too willing to trust what they were told by the Bush administration.    He was less critical than Hart was of Jeb Bush, however.  “I've known Jeb for a long time. I disagree with him on policies, but he has always struck me as an intelligent, thoughtful person;  and I would not use those same words -- particularly 'thoughtful' -- to describe his brother."

Jeb may be more thoughtful than George, but that's a very low bar to have in a president.   Frankly, I am not impressed with what I have seen thus far of Jeb.   Last week, he came across as a political neophyte, and a not very astute or quick witted one even for a neophyte.  This week, trying to repair the damage, he is coming across as a two-bit political hack.  He should not be let off so easily.  Let's not "move on" quite yet.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Abolish the death penalty

The Nebraska legislature has passed a bill to repeal the death penalty by vote of 32-15.   The governor has said he will veto it;  but this vote would be enough to override a veto.

Congratulations to Nebraska for what I think is the sensible, moral position.   Nebraska makes it 19 states now without a death penalty.   Disaster has not descended on those 19 states.


Former Bush adviser: "Fox News is hurting the Republican party"

As reported by Alana Horowitz of HuffingtonPost, Bruce Bartlett, who formerly served in the administrations of both Ronald Reagen and George W. Bush, has authored a study of viewers of Fox News.

He confirms previous studies that show viewers of Fox News tend to be "less informed about current affairs than people who watch mainstream news -- and even people who don't watch the news at all."

Bartlett writes:  "Republican voters get so much of their news from Fox, which cheerleads whatever their candidates are doing or saying, that they suffer from wishful thinking and fail to see that they may not be doing as well as they imagine, or that their ideas are not connecting outside the narrow party base."

Specifically, they tend to have misguided beliefs about the Iraq War, the Affordable Care Act, and others, and to be biased against Muslims.   And Bartlet concludes that "It appears that right-wing bias, including inaccurate reporting, became commonplace on Fox . . . [such that] "many conservatives now refuse to even listen to any news or opinion not vetted through Fox, and to believe whatever appears on it as the gospel truth."

Even some Republican politicans are now expressing concern, including Newt Gingrich in 2012 (despite his frequent appearances on Fox).   Former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) said last year that some Fox shows are "totally not fair and totally not balanced."

We liberals have been saying it for years.   It's with a bit of schadenfreude that I gloat over that concern now cropping up in their own upper ranks.

Now what I want to see are similar studies of the viewers of MSNBC.   The right counters criticism of Fox by claiming that MSNBC is biased toward the left.   I'd like to see comparative studies of the degree of "being well informed about current events" between the two sets of viewers.

I agree that MSNBC news programs consistently lean leftward in their emphasis;  but I do not believe that this extends to distortions or incorrect reporting.   I am quite confident that MSNBC viewers would score far better than Fox News viewers on a quiz about current events.    Bring it on.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dubya holds himself up as example to SMU graduates

Former president George W. Bush gave the commencement address at Southern Methodist University, where his presidential library is located.   In part, he lauded religious freedom in a way that left little doubt that he would prioritize one person's freedom of religion over another person's right to equal treatment:  that is, to deny publicly offered services to those whom one's religion disapproves of, as in refusing to bake a wedding cake for lesbians because they are lesbians.

That's predictable and, though disagreeable, it's not what I wanted to write about today.   What churned me up about Bush's address was what he probably considers some of his everyman wisdom (which really masks a rather enormous egotism, with not much to brag about IMHO).

Bush made fun of his lackluster grades at Yale (C+ average), telling the graduates:   "Those of you who are graduating this afternoon with high honors, awards and distinctions, I say well done.   And as I like to tell the C students: you too can be president."

Yes, it's possible -- with the Bush family name, with Pappy's friends and rich donors, with Karl Rove deciding to be kingmaker, and then with Dick Cheney appointing himself the puppet-master to make it all happen.

Frankly, I don't think it serves George W. well to remind people that he really wasn't very smart.  Maybe, if he'd been a little smarter -- or had studied harder at Yale and learned something -- his presidency might have been less of a disaster.  And the rush to dumb down America might not have accelerated on his watch.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Errors and Lies" about the Iraq war

Paul Krugman's May 18th column in the New York Times is titled "Errors And Lies."   It starts by pointing out that, thanks to Jeb Bush's botched answer, "we may finally have the frank discussion of the Iraq invasion we should have had a decade ago."

Most of the "political and media elite" are hoping to dismiss the subject as simply a terrible mistake -- and then move on.   Krugman continues: 
"Well, let’s not — because that’s a false narrative, and everyone who was involved in the debate over the war knows that it’s false.  The Iraq war wasn’t an innocent mistake, a venture undertaken on the basis of intelligence that turned out to be wrong.  America invaded Iraq because the Bush administration wanted a war. The public justifications for the invasion were nothing but pretexts, and falsified pretexts at that. We were, in a fundamental sense, lied into war. . . .

"But truth matters, and not just because those who refuse to learn from history are doomed in some general sense to repeat it. The campaign of lies that took us into Iraq was recent enough that it’s still important to hold the guilty individuals accountable. Never mind Jeb Bush’s verbal stumbles. Think, instead, about his foreign-policy team, led by people who were directly involved in concocting a false case for war.

"So let’s get the Iraq story right. Yes, from a national point of view the invasion was a mistake. But . . .  it was worse than a mistake, it was a crime."
Yes, that is the real problem here -- not the question Jeb tried to answer, nor the question he tried not to answer.   Are we going to do anything at all about those who committed these crimes?

Apparently not.    In fact, there's still a chance that Republicans will nominate Jeb, who has already named one of the architects of that scheme to his list of advisers on foreign policy.


Monday, May 18, 2015

A long-range look at the Iran nuclear agreement

This article is from Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times, April 22, 2015.  It has added a useful perspective to my understanding.
 "Deal or No Deal?"

"The Obama team’s effort to negotiate a deal with Iran that could prevent the Iranians from developing a nuclear bomb for at least a decade is now entering its critical final stage. I hope that a good, verifiable deal can be finalized, but it will not be easy. If it were, we’d have it by now. Here are the major challenges. 

"First, you can negotiate a simple arms control agreement with an adversary you don’t trust. We did that with the Kremlin in the Cold War. By simple, I mean with relatively few moving parts, and very clear verification procedures that do not require much good will from the other side — like monitoring Soviet missile sites with our own satellites. You can also negotiate a complicated arms control deal with a country that shares your values: Japan and South Korea regularly submit their nuclear facilities to international inspections.

"But what is hard to implement is a complex arms control deal with an adversary you don’t trust — like Iran or North Korea. Each moving part requires some good will from the other side, and, because there are so many moving parts, the opportunities for cheating are manifold. It requires constant vigilance. Are the United States, Russia, China and Europe up for that for a decade? After the Iraq invasion, we took our eye off North Korea, and it diverted nuclear fuel for a bomb. With Iran, the U.S. Energy Department is planning to put a slew of new, on-the-ground monitoring devices into every cranny of Iran’s nuclear complex, which should help. But there also has to be zero-tolerance for cheating — and a very high price if there is.

"Second, for us, this is solely an arms control agreement. For Iran, this isan identity crisisthat it’s being asked to resolve, and it’s still not clear it can do so, says Robert Litwak of the Wilson Center and the author of “Outlier States: American Strategies to Contain, Engage, or Change Regimes.”

"America’s engagement with Iran, said Litwak, is like “the Cuban missile crisis meets the Thirty Years’ War.” For us, this is a pure nuclear negotiation, but, for Iran, the nuclear issue is a proxy for what kind of country it wants to be — an ordinary state or an Islamic revolutionary state. And this divide goes back to the origins of its revolution” in 1979. Most revolutions eventually go through some cultural rebalancing that breaks its fever and turns it toward normalcy and integration, Litwak added: “But Iran has never gone through that process. It tantalized us with reformist presidents who didn’t really hold power and when push came to shove never challenged the fundamentals of the revolutionary deep state that had the monopoly on the use of force” and control of its nuclear program.

"There is a hard core in Tehran for whom nuclear weapons are not only a hedge against foreign invasion but also a deliberate thumb in the eye of the world meant to block the very integration that would open Iran to influences from America and the West — an opening they fear would dilute whatever revolutionary fervor is left in its youths, many of whom are fed up with Iran’s isolation. That is why Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was telling the truth when he recently said that he has not made up his mind about this deal. He’s having an identity crisis. He wants sanctions relief without integration. After all, if Iran is a normal state, who needs a medieval cleric to be the “supreme leader?”

"The challenge for Obama is whether he can do a deal with an Iran that, as Litwak puts it, “doesn’t change character but just changes behavior.” Obama’s bet — and it is not crazy — is that if you can get the right verification procedures in place and deprive Iran from making a bomb for a decade (that alone is worth a deal, given the alternatives) then you increase the odds of Iran’s own people changing Iran’s character from within. But then so much rides on implementing a fail-proof verification regime and “snapback” sanctions if Iran cheats.

"I think President Obama believes that nothing has stymied U.S. Mideast policy more in the last 36 years than the U.S.-Iran cold war, and if that can be prudently eased it would equal a Nixon-to-China move that opens up a lot of possibilities. Again, that’s not crazy. It’s just not easy given the forces in Iran who have an interest in being isolated from the West.

"Finally, you have the regional challenge. Iran, with about 80 million people, is simply a more powerful and dynamic state today than most of the Sunni Arab states to its west, half of which have collapsed. Iran, even if it had good intentions, almost can’t help but project its power westward given the vacuum and frailty there. When Nixon opened to China, and helped unleash its economic prowess, China was largely surrounded by strong or economically powerful states to balance it. But an Iran enriched by billions in sanctions relief would be even more powerful vis-à-vis its weak Arab neighbors. Our Gulf Arab allies are deeply worried about this and are looking to the U.S. for both protection and more sophisticated arms. I get that. But unless we can find a way to truly ease tensions between Shiite Persians and Sunni Arabs, we will find ourselves unleashing Iran to the max while arming the Arabs to the teeth. Maintaining that balance will not be easy.

"These are not reasons to reject the deal. They are reasons to finish it right."

*   *   *
I would add two thoughts:
1.   It's not just the Sunni Arab states that feel threatened economically by a free Iran but also Israel.   They speak of fearing an Iranian nuclear bomb;   I think what they really fear is an economically powerful Iran.

2.  The complexity of this also underlines why Obama cannot use his best arguments for this deal with his critics in Congress.   He can't publicly be advocating something that Iran's clerics fear like the integration into Western society -- even if some of the dumb clucks in the Republican House could understand such complexity.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

The "changing a lightbulb" joke.

You know the old joke series that begins "How many ------ does it take to change a light bulb?"    My favorite one, because it targets my profession, is "How many psychoanalysts does it take to change a light bulb?"     Answer:   "Only one, but the light bulb has to really really want to change."

OK.  So that's the background.   As I predicted last week, Jeb Bush's flub on the question of invading Iraq has reached the stage of becoming a joke.

An article in the New York Times quoted "a party strategist" who overheard "a group of Republican senators" joking about "how many press aides are needed to respond" to the question about invading Iraq.

The straight answer must be "quite a few," since it took Jeb four tries to get it right.   First it was "Yes I would."   Second try:  "I misunderstood -- later 'misinterpreted' -- the question."  Try # 3 gave us:   "hypothetical questions like that are a disservice to our troops."   On the 4th attempt, Jeb finally acknowledged that, knowing all we know now, he would not authorize the invasion.

So it must have involved quite a few aides and multiple strategy sessions to get that dim bulb to glow.