Confusion over the politics behind the opposition in Kiev is gradually clearing. This profile of a rightist group leader underlines the problem of political maturity--or as some of the quotes suggest political immaturity. It is interesting and instructive to watch the NYTimes reporters on the scene catching up with the blogosphere and providing a clearer picture of the situation, though it is still not the whole picture. "Front and Center in Ukraine Race, A Leader of the Far Right."
Yes, there is also thuggish behavior (and worse than thuggish) in Sevastopol, Crimea. The Washington Post has this story, including the disappearance of those opposed to a union with Russia.
Francis will probably say something newsworthy again soon, but in the meantime, here is more ruminations on the situation in Ukraine.
In an interview with McClatchy DC, former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul, just returned to the U.S. says: Putin is "a shrewd leader who wants to show the world a modern, new Russia but too often operates out of what the ambassador called an 'exaggerated' sense of U.S. power in the world." Putin sees the US as “fomenting instability and revolution in the Middle East, in Russia and, now, Ukraine.” (Side question: is it prudent to change ambassadors in the middle of a crisis?)
C.J. Chivers in Kiev (NYTimes) talks to locals about people missing in the aftermath of the protests. Some 600 were reported missing; many have now been found; but a couple of hundred have not. Kievians tell Chivers that in the midst of the chaos there may have been Russian agents/troops involved in rounding up people. This goes along with stories about men breaking up pro-Kiev demonstrations in other parts of Ukraine. (Fact? Fiction? Paranoia?)
At Foreign Policy, Leon Aron, argues that foreign adventures keep Putin's approval ratings up when everything else is in a downward direction. "As the economy staggers along at 1.5 percent growth, as capital flees the country at a record pace, and even as nearly half of Russians agree that the ruling "United Russia" party is the 'party of thieves and swindlers,' Putin can still point to his wins on the world stage -- from saving Syria to shielding Iran from U.N. sanctions after 2010 to, more generally, returning Russia to its former position as a power that counts, one that happily wields its U.N. Security Council veto -- to convince his compatriots that the motherland is in good hands." Hmmm! Sounds vaugely familiar.
International New York Times: More on the anti-Semitism issue in the Ukraine-Russia stand-off. (File in use and abuse thereof.)
Some follow-up stories on Ukraine, Putin, the snipers, and anti-Semitism.
Who were the snipers in Maiden that provoked the outrage that toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovich? At first, rumors were Ukrainian intelligence services, then it was elements of the Opposition wanting to provoke more outrage, and now? The Russians, of course. Here: an AP report from Haaretz.
Why did Putin do this: Stephen Lee Meyer of the NYTimes, writing from Moscow, has a story suggesting that this was an ad hoc decision born of Putin's anger at Western interference in Ukraine. It is suggestive that Meyer seems to have gotten the story from leakers in the Kremlin and business world who may not be happy about how things are turning out.
Here is James Stewart on the NYT Business Pages "Why Russia Cannot Afford Another Cold War," offering an optimistic assessment of why Putin's plan will not work: Why? Russian capitalism. Too optimistic?
Anti-semitism? The Jewish Daily Forward, here in NYC, has an account.
And the Tatars? 300,000 live in the Crimea and form 15 percent of the population. They do not want to be joined to Russia. The New Yorker has this account.
The small but dedicated world of Jewish-Christian relations is busy this morning trying to figure out what's going on. The Times of Israel reported yesterday that the Pope's trip to Israel has been canceled due to a labor dispute.
A source at the [foreign] ministry confirmed to The Times of Israel on Thursday that the pontiff’s trip was cancelled because Foreign Ministry workers are currently on strike and are unable to make the necessary arrangements for the high-profile visit.
The cancellation is likely to cause “large, measurable economic damage, with all the lost tourist revenue that would have accompanied the visit,” the source said.
The strike within Israel's diplomatic service would also endanger a visit from British PM David Cameron.
But a few hours ago, the Jerusalem Post countered yesterday's news:Read more
The sniper shootings in Kiev's Maiden Square led to charges that President Yanukovich had ordered the killings. Putin dened the charges on behalf of Yanukovich. Now a YouTube Video has the Foreign Minister of Estonia telling Catherine Ashton of the EU that the snipers shot both the police and the opposition. What to conclude? The medical doctor who was the source of the FM's story denies it; she attended the wounded and does not know who shot them. The YouTube video has gone viral.
In the meantime, our own media asks, "Who in D.C. is to blame for Ukraine?"
- Obama? He let Assad Syria cross a red line!
- GWBush? He invaded Iraq!
- Lindsay Graham: "It all started with Benghazi." Or when the South lost the Civil War.
- John McCain accused the Intelligence Services but attacked SOD Chuck Hagel who happened to be sitting there trying to testify about defense cuts.
- Paul Ryan declared it was Putin.
In Kiev, C.J. Chivers, the NYTimes reporter who knows about Kalashnikovs and men at war interviewed the Opposition groups still occupying Maidan in Kiev, including members of the Right Sector (often described as ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic). According to their pr guy: "The Right Sector hoped to win enough votes in elections in May to become a formal party. Until then, he said, its ranks would remain on the square. He also said that the group was wary that Russia could portray any further actions by its members as the work of fascists, so its leaders forbade members from traveling to Ukraine’s east."
Those fascists? Trying to conceal their real goals!!
There is Henry Kissinger sounding sensible (good old Henry!): "We should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction. Russia and the West, and least of all the various factions in Ukraine, have not acted on this principle. Each has made the situation worse. Russia would not be able to impose a military solution without isolating itself at a time when many of its borders are already precarious. For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one." Washington Post.
For those of you following events here are some more (and other) comments/views, etc.
Francophones: Le Monde "The Ukraine Crisis in Five Minutes," a short history ending in the current crisis. My French is fading, but I could make it out.
David Ignatius in the Wash Post: "Putin's error in Ukraine Is the Kind that Leads to Disaster."
Dana Milbank in WP offers a vigorous riposte to Obama's critics ending in a mild defense of the president.
Ann Olivier forwards this: Time, "How Putin's Ukraine Invasion Is Already Losing in Ukraine."
Robert Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO (1993-98): Nato, Russia, and Ukraine.
Chancellor Angela Merkel: She may be the key to a stand-down. NYTimes, March 4
MORE: The British take: Do the U.S. and the EU know what they're doing?
In the Ukraine-Russia stand-off, the word “fascist” is increasingly used to describe the opposing force. Russians are calling the Kiev forces “fascists”(and anti-Semites). While some in Eastern Ukraine have characterized the Russian “tourists” infiltrating their cities as “fascists.” It is a derogatory word invoking the history of Hitler’s invasion of Eastern Europe as well as the Soviet Union’s control of Eastern Europe down to 1990-91. The word may carry emotional clout in the struggle that’s now going on, but does it throw any light on the character of those forces.
Philosophers, historians, linguists, newspaper readers, liberals, fascists, and communists, what do you say?
Here is Wiki’s summary (which it declares in need of further work):Read more
You might say it also regurgitates. All of us following events in Ukraine (including Crimea) and surroundings now know far more about its georgraphy, history, languages, etc., than we did a week ago. We may not know all that much about how matters have come to this pass, but it has a certain familiarity.
The U.S. media is big on the events of recent days and, in some cases, the perfidy of Vladmir Putin. But nothing's simple, including Ukraine. This post by former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, (19887-1991) Jack Matlock steps back from the fray, offering a cool assessment of what is going on. Here is his take on Obama's "you will pay a price."
"Obama’s 'warning' to Putin was ill-advised. Whatever slim hope that Moscow might avoid overt military intervention in Ukraine disappeared when Obama in effect threw down a gauntlet and challenged him. This was not just a mistake of political judgment—it was a failure to understand human psychology—unless, of course, he actually wanted a Russian intervention, which is hard for me to believe." Matlock's whole post is here.
In the same vein, news that SOS John Kerry will go to Kiev seems ill-advised. A drawback to big shows of support by the U.S. is that it encourages people to do provactive things (case in point, the Syrian Opposition when Obama said Assad must go), and then we pull back.
Here is Professor Stephen F. Cohen, another Russian expert, on U.S. media coverage.
Professor Charles King of Georgetown: "The Crimean affair is a grand experiment in Mr.Read more
Events over several decades in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans remind us that upheavals in the present looking to the future also summon the past. Ukraine is a case in point.
A reminder of its past is captured in the phrase, "fascist riffraff," shouted by Russian-speaking Ukrainans against the Ukrainian-speaking groups now in charge in Kiev. It summons the Russian memory that the parents and grandparents of the current protesters fought with the Germans against Russia in WWII. Putin and Company's charges of terrorism and extreme nationalistism refer to this history. As prior dotCommonweal posts have noted Ukraine has been part of Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Luthuania as well as Russia. It is a borderland as the geo-politicians like to point out. It is also Bloodlands as historian Timothy Synder called it in a history that examines the war between Hitler and Stalin; both engaged in the mass killings of Ukrainians and other inhabitants of the borderlands before and during the war.
In the meantime, here is a brief assessment of the dangers all around: New Yorker
Yesterday, the New York Times published a letter from Myroslav Marynovych, vice rector of Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, in response to this disturbing report--one of many about the ongoing crisis there. Marynovych has written a longer open letter titled, "What Can Ukraine Expect from the West Now?" Here it is, in full:
I write to you as a former prisoner of conscience of the Brezhnev era. All other titles are rapidly losing sense in the light of the bleeding Ukrainian Maidan [the central Independence Square].
All my life I admired Western civilization as the realm of values. Now I am close to rephrasing Byron’s words: “Frailty, thy name is Europe!” The strength of bitterness here is matched by the strength of our love for Europe.
If it still concerns anybody in decision-making circles, I may answer the question in the title.
First and foremost, stop “expressing deep concern”. All protestors on the Maidan have an allergy to this by now in these circumstances senseless phrase, while all gangsters in the Ukrainian governmental gang enjoy mocking the helplessness of the EU.
Take sanctions. Don’t waste time in searching for their Achilles’ heel: it is the money deposited in your banks. Execute your own laws and stop money laundering. The Europe we want to be part of can never degrade the absolute value of human lives in favor of an absolute importance of money.Read more
Two new stories to highlight on our homepage. First, in "Botched Arguments," the editors comment on political gestures and the pro-life cause, in light of a recent New Yorker article that
makes the case that desperate women will seek abortions regardless of the dangers, and that restricting access to the procedure only guarantees their further victimization. This has long been the argument for keeping abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” If the prolife movement is going to respond to it persuasively, it will have to convince Americans that its concern for the women involved in abortion is as great as its compassion for the unborn. As Peter Steinfels wrote in these pages (“Beyond the Stalemate”), the movement needs to shift more of its energies from partisan gestures and all-or-nothing legal gambits to the tasks of persuasion and witness. Gestures like the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” will change no one’s mind—and are not intended to. Neither do they protect the unborn—and they are not expected to.
Read the whole thing here.
And, in "Secularists for Christmas!," Albert Wu discusses the rise of groups in France like Résistance Républicaine that are wielding an old notion of "secularism" (laïcité) in a new way:
[T]hese groups employ the term as a form of aggressive anti-Islamic politics. They take pride in their contempt: the Résistance Républicaine website proclaims, “Islamophobia is not a crime…. It’s legitimate defiance,” and, “I’m an Islamophobe and I’m proud.” At [a] December demonstration, marchers switched seamlessly from chanting “Hands off Christmas” to “Islamists, fascists, killers.”
It might be easy to dismiss this hyperbolic rhetoric as limited to fringe groups. A routine demonstration against unemployment and inequality earlier in December attracted four thousand (about four times as many people as the Résistance Républicaine rally drew). An antigay marriage protest in May brought out nearly a hundred fifty thousand. But defining laïcité in a way that preserves France’s Christian identity is far from a marginal idea. It is also taught to new immigrants at a “day of civic formation,” a full-day class on French law, history, culture, and “Republican values.” Attendance is mandatory for all who wish to obtain a long-stay visa. Truancy can result in the rejection of future visa applications.
As Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to present the U.S. framework for two-states in Israel and the Occupied Territories, the rhetoric is heating up. And so is the politics. There is a rich trove of news and opinions this week-end some of it focused on the impact of BDS on Israel and on the Israeli government's reaction; some of it focused on U.S.-Israeli Relations.
PM Netanyahu and Israeli cabinet members: "strongly criticized groups who are threatening a boycott of Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians. Their remarks were a sharp retort to Secretary of State John Kerry, who warned a day earlier that the risk of boycotts would intensify should the current Middle East peace effort fail."
The State Dept retort: "Secretary Kerry has a proud record of over three decades of steadfast support for Israel’s security and well-being, including staunch opposition to boycotts,... At the Munich Security Conference yesterday, he spoke forcefully in defense of Israel’s interests, as he consistently has throughout his public life. In response to a question about the peace process, he also described some well-known and previously stated facts about what is at stake for both sides if this process fails, including the consequences for the Palestinians. His only reference to a boycott was a description of actions undertaken by others that he has always opposed.” Even a little wishy-washy there at the end sent Netanyahu off the cliff. NYTimes.
And there are these: "Israeli Official Paints Bleak Scenario of Failed Peace Talks" / "Israel Needs to Learn Some Manners" / "Loosing the Propaganda War" / "Why Israel Fears the Boycott" / "A Star Stumbles in the Settlements"
In the State of the Union, President Obama said he would veto any effort to increase sanctions on Iran. Previous White House threats seemed a bit oblique, now his direct threat has pulled some Democratics back from the brink of voting for the "Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act" introduced by Senators Mendez (D.) and Kirk (R.). Rand Paul, one of the few Republicans to stand back from supporting the bill, now opposes it. All to the good.
Paul Pilar, senior fellow at Georgetown and The Brookings Institutions as well as a former CIA officer, has a long memory. He enumerates all the ways over the years in which relations with Iran have come under fire, and not just for their nuclear program. In the National Interest. He expects that as negotiations continue other and older reasons to bring down Iran will emerge.
UPDATE: event to be rescheduled due to weather and campus closing on February 3.
In the past month, several major news outlets have raised the question of whether Pope Francis is having an effect on political figures in the United States. Kathleen Hennessey's A1 story in the Los Angeles Times reported on how and why President Obama, for example, had come to quote the Pope.Read more
Robert Gates memoir, Duty, has gotten a rough reception in the media. But considering his view of the media, and of Congress, and of Obama staff, that should be no surprise. That's why Tom Rick's opening paragraph in his front-page review at the NYT Books is refreshing with just the right splash of vinegar.
"As I was reading “Duty,” probably one of the best Washington memoirs ever, I kept thinking that Robert M. Gates clearly has no desire to work in the federal government again in his life. That evidently is a fertile frame of mind in which to write a book like this one."
Duty seems to be the story of a dutiful guy who has served, it says, eight administrations and went to the Department of Defense in the nadir of the Iraq war. I am a few chapters in and what I find is instructive so far:Read more
Just posted to the website, our January 24 issue. Among the highlights: The first part of an exclusive excerpt from Elizabeth A. Johnson’s forthcoming book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God Love (subscription required). An excerpt from the excerpt:
“Ask the beasts and they will teach you,” we read in Job (12:7). My new book takes its title from that verse, placing the natural world as envisioned by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in conversation with Christian belief in a loving God who creates, redeems, and promises a blessed future for our world. When we ask the animals and plants about their origin and relationship with God, a picture emerges of how they are cherished by divine love prior to, and apart from, the emergence of humanity. The evolution of the human species introduces sin into the world, seen today in our destruction of habitats and the resulting extinction of species. In this context, listening to the beasts fosters a deep ecological ethic as humans aim to replace their domination over nature with mutual regard and responsible care in the community of creation. The goal of this dialogue is to discover how love of the natural world is an intrinsic part of believers’ passion for the living God—to practical and critical effect. In this essay, the first of a two-part series, I hope to make clear how Darwin’s work changed our understanding of nature and humankind’s place in creation.
Also featured in the new issue: Jo McGowan with a personal reflection on moving her aging father into assisted living, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels on the peril of letting an ally determine our foreign policy, and Nick Ripatrazone on a new book of poems from Averill Curdy.
And we’ve also posted E. J. Dionne’s latest column, on the problems New Jersey governor Chris Christie could face with conservatives in the still unfolding “Bridgegate” scandal.
Right now, two new pieces from the upcoming issue.
First, James L. Fredericks and Andrew J. Bacevich in an exchange on Reinhold Niebuhr's The Irony of History in the age of Obama:
Barack Obama has vigorously prosecuted the war against Al Qaeda even while ending U.S. military engagement in Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan. These seeming paradoxes make Obama an ironic figure of the kind that interested Niebuhr most—the self-conscious, existential irony of a man who knows he must act in history while being unable either to control the outcome or to escape the moral ambiguity of his choices.
Read it all here. Also, Richard Alleva reviews Philomena and Saving Mr. Banks. On the performances of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in the former:
Critics speak about the autumnal grandeur of “lateness in art”—the tranquil power of Beethoven’s late quartets or the swan-song poignancy of Verdi’s Falstaff. Judi Dench has that quality as an actress nowadays, and it’s not just an inevitable feature of her old age. She’s in possession of a still center, and from that center she radiates. But the critical praise heaped on Dench shouldn’t keep us from noticing that Steve Coogan’s wry underplaying of Sixsmith makes Dench’s beatific comedy possible. With his boredom-glazed eyes desperately beseeching invisible gods for mercy as she blathers on and on, and his smooth baritone subtly inflected by covert sarcasm, Coogan is the Oxbridge Oliver Hardy to her female Stan Laurel. And would Stan be truly funny without Ollie?
Read it all here. And come back to the website Monday, when we'll be posting the rest of the new issue.
In 2000, our editors wrote: “Will Nelson Mandela ever stop astounding and humbling the world by the force of his moral vision and the transformative authority of his personal courage and conviction?” The question was in response to Mandela's efforts to end Brundi's civil war, but it expresses what has been said in so many of the tributes in the week since his death, in wonder over how much he was able to accomplish. Commonweal over the years chronicled Mandela's fight against apartheid, his imprisonment, and his release and subsequent election as president of South Africa. But we'd like to single out this brief item our editors composed after Mandela's 1990 U.S. tour. Read it here.
Today an appeals court in Malaysia delivered a major setback to the religious freedom of Christians. A Catholic newspaper, the Herald, may not use the word "Allah" to refer to God.
Christians in the Western hemisphere might be confused by the headlines. The ruling is not about Christians' referring to the God worshipped by Muslims, but rather about what Christians may call the God they themselves worship. Catholics in Malaysia, as in many other countries, call God by the word "Allah."
Arabic-speaking Christians do so, as do Arabic-speaking Jews. The word sounds almost exactly like the way Aramaic-speaking Jesus would have pronounced it.
The unanimous decision by three Muslim judges in Malaysia's appeals court overturned a 2009 ruling by a lower court that allowed the Malay-language version of the newspaper, The Herald, to use the word Allah -- as many Christians in Malaysia say has been the case for centuries.
"The usage of the word Allah is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity," chief judge Mohamed Apandi Ali said in the ruling. "The usage of the word will cause confusion in the community." ...
Lawyers for the Catholic paper had argued that the word Allah predated Islam and had been used extensively by Malay-speaking Christians in Malaysia's part of Borneo island for centuries.
They say they will appeal against Monday's decision to Malaysia's highest court.
"The nation must protect and support the rights of the minority," said Father Lawrence Andrew, the founding editor of the Herald. "God is an integral part of every religion."
Christians in Indonesia and much of the Arab world continue to use the word without opposition from Islamic authorities. Churches in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak have said they will continue to use the word regardless of the ruling.
The defendants fear that the decision will also apply to other Christian publications in Bahasa Malaysia. This could end up being the most important religious liberty story of the year, with wide-ranging implications for religious pluralism in southeast Asia. At issue are three of the minority rights at the very core of modern rights-based polities: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press.Read more
Perhaps to everyone's surprise, Iran's President Rouhani sounds like he wants to make a deal. President Obama seems like he is willing to talk about it. But as Stephen Walt points out there will be naysayers on all sides if anything comes of these friendly gestures. He underlines the fact that the sanctions put into place to bring Iran around seem to be having their intended effect, and that the U.S. would be foolish to retreat before its own strategy.
Walt writes: "Does this mean a deal is in the offing? I don't know. I think one can be confident that this is a genuine opportunity: Iran's current leaders are sincere in wanting a deal, and they aren't just pretending to be nice in order to hoodwink us. But they aren't pushovers either, and a willingness to bargain in good faith doesn't mean they won't bargain hard. The United States and Iran may begin direct discussions and explore lots of options, yet ultimately end up unable to cut a deal. That effort will be complicated by the opposition from hard-liners on both sides...."Read more
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