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Is There a Place for ‘Catholic Internationalism’?

Last week was an interesting time to be in Ireland attending the Loyola Institute’s conference at Trinity College Dublin, “The Role of the Church in a Pluralist Society: Good Riddance or Good Influence?” Pope Francis was on a historic trip to Armenia, the Pan-Orthodox Council was underway in Crete, and the Brexit referendum was being held in the United Kingdom. (For good measure, Vice President Joseph Biden showed up on the last day of the conference, although the timing was coincidental: He was at Trinity receiving an honorary degree.)

The conference had international appeal and featured speakers from a number of different countries; among those present were Commonweal’s Peter and Margaret O’Brien Steinfels. The location was also notable, in that Ireland is geographically at the junction between continental Europe and North America, and is undergoing transition from a solidly and proudly Catholic country to one in which the role of religion and the church has changed, and not only because of the sex abuse scandal. I left the conference with three distinct impressions of the current debate on the role of the Catholic Church in modern society.

The first was of the divide between European Catholicism and North American Catholicism on perceptions of secular modernity. Many Americans, for instance, see as problematic the unproblematic acceptance of secularity in European Catholicism since the mid-20th century. But Europe is more secular than the United States for a reason, with European Catholics viewing secularity and especially the secular state as a guarantee against the manipulation of religion for political purposes and of the church by the state—authentic concerns after fascism and Nazism. In the United States, meanwhile, a kind of new political Augustinianism has taken root, with radical orthodoxy and the recent shift in the reception of Vatican II undoing the reframing of the relationship between the temporal and the supernatural that the council, along with Gaudium et spes, had introduced.

The second impression concerns the ecclesiological consequences of two different visions of modernity.

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Brexit & Millennial Condescension

Much has been said about the generational divide in the results of the Brexit vote—the tendency of Remain supporters to be in their twenties and thirties, and those voting Leave to be fifty-five or older. Online especially, the young are shouting at the old for condemning them to a future that Leave voters will not have to witness, for sacrificing the stability and cosmopolitanism of the European Union to their racist parochialism. A scroll through my Facebook feed reveals frustration, shock, and despair among my fellow millennials. Buzzfeed, that vanguard of the young, distractible, and vaguely liberal, produces punchy listicles such as “19 Times Tumblr Absolutely Nailed Brexit,” “27 Brexit Tweets Guaranteed to Make You Laugh, Cry, or Probably Both,” and “If the Media Said What anti-Brexit Voters Really Feel,” and they are widely shared among my friends and acquaintances. Also given much attention was the segment on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, in which Oliver wonders a little too earnestly, “If leaving is so universally seen as a bad idea, then who the f**k is in favor of it?”

If you asked anyone belonging to the demographic matching my age (mid-twenties), class (middle), education level (advanced degree), and place of origin (urban Northeast), the only possible response to the Brexit vote is incredulity. How could so many people vote so stupidly when everyone knows the right answer is to stay in the EU? Why would so many Britons want to leave an international organization when everyone recognizes it benefits them and the rest of our world?

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An Interview with Former CIA Analyst Ray McGovern

“Ray McGovern, a former CIA officer who gave the daily brief for President George H.W. Bush, is pretty well known in the intelligence community. He's become a Christian antiwar leftist who goes around bearing witness. Whatever his views, he's harmless.”

—Sidney Blumenthal in an email to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, February 18, 2011

When Ray McGovern was a fresh-faced recruit to the CIA during the Kennedy administration, he was awestruck by the words from the Gospel of John engraved on the entrance of the original headquarters building: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

Those words have stuck with him throughout his career—first during his twenty-seven years as a specialist in Soviet foreign policy at the CIA, and now as a critic of the CIA and U.S. foreign policy. McGovern says there was no damascene moment in his transition from being an analyst to being a dissident, and that he remains a true-believer in the original mission and political independence of the CIA. He argues that, beginning in the 1980s and culminating in the “intelligence fixing” that led up to the Second Gulf War, the analysis branch of the CIA, which was supposed to be an objective fact-finding department, gradually became subservient to the political goals of the executive branch.

McGovern’s indignation at this development was on full display at a press conference in 2006 when he challenged Donald Rumsfeld to explain his September 2002 claim that there was “bulletproof” evidence of links between Al Qaeda and the government of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. A four-minute exchange ensued, with Rumsfeld denying that he had lied. (You can find the exchange on YouTube.)

McGovern has met with both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, and maintains an active schedule speaking and writing on U.S. foreign policy and intelligence. In March, I had a chance to speak with him about Syria and U.S. foreign policy at large.

Nicholas Haggerty: Why did it take five years to get to a ceasefire in Syria?

Ray McGovern: When the Arab Spring moved to Syria, initially it was a grassroots movement. There’s no denying that Assad clamped down with great cruelty, and that served to inflame the situation. But it was not very long till the CIA was sent in there to find “moderate” rebels so that they could assist in causing Assad all manner of troubles and perhaps even bring him down. Why did we do that? What’s in it for Washington? Assad was not a threat to us. He was cooperating with the United States in the War on Terror. He was helping to find terrorists and he was one of the people who took some of our detainees to be tortured and held in prisons while we figured out what to do with them.

One of the main factors is that Israel has inordinate influence on the policymakers at the State Department and in the White House. Syria has been on Israel’s list of countries for regime change since 1996, when several U.S. neocons wrote a paper for Netanyahu just before he became Prime Minister the first time. The paper was “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” The authors made it very clear that the objective would be to foment real problems in Iran, Syria, and Iraq—against all manner of countries in the Middle East that might support Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

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A Worthy Pilgrimage

About a decade ago, I happened to be sitting at the table with a Navy veteran of World War II when the conversation turned to Japan. He was a retired physician, the father of a friend of mine, and if I remember correctly we were discussing an upcoming trip to Japan by someone in his family.

He had never been to Japan, he said, but if the U.S. hadn't dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he would have. His Navy unit was among those poised to invade the Japanese mainland, a battle anticipated to be an epic bloodbath. He likely would have been killed, he added matter-of-factly, after which a somber pause settled over the table.

No one from his family took up the topic, and it wasn't my place to do so. But I think of him every time the subject of Hiroshima and Nagasaki comes up, as it has with news that President Obama will visit Hiroshima when he is in Japan later this month, the first sitting U.S. president to do so.

The White House has made it clear that Obama won't apologize for the use of nuclear weapons, the only time they have been used in warfare, nor have the Japanese asked him to. No apology, in my view, is necessary.

What IS necessary, and too often neglected, is to focus on the fearsome power of these weapons and how essential it is to the future of all nations, peoples and the earth itself that they never be used again. Obama's pilgrimage to Hiroshima is a perfect opportunity, and I applaud him for taking it.

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Can Francis’s Idea of European Catholicism Work Against Trumpism?

Exactly one week after the May 6 speech Pope Francis gave in accepting the prestigious Charlemagne Prize (awarded for work done in the service of European unity), another in a series of planning meetings for this summer’s World Youth Day in Krakow was held. The choice of Krakow as the venue is a tribute to John Paul II, who held the World Youth Day of 1991 in Czestochowa. That was just a few months before the Bishops’ Synod Special Assembly for Europe, eastern nations of which had only recently liberated themselves from communism. The future of Europe looked somewhat brighter then than it does today. The future of European Catholicism also looked different, as did the papal teaching on Europe.

Francis has reinterpreted and updated the positions on Europe of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, putting the accent on the relationship between Catholicism and Europe and emphasizing the pluralistic roots of the continent. This was clear in his May 6 speech; he did not mention the “Christian roots” (or “Jewish-Christian roots”) to which the European Union should return, which was something of a mantra for his predecessors. Instead, he referenced Erich Przywara, one of his favorite theologians, in advancing his main point: “The roots of our peoples, the roots of Europe, were consolidated down the centuries by the constant need to integrate in new syntheses the most varied and discrete cultures. The identity of Europe is, and always has been, a dynamic and multicultural identity.” The church has a part to play in the revitalization of Europe, according to Francis, but it is not the role of guardian in modern Europe’s cultural conformity to a hypostatized Catholic tradition. Rather, it is the role of witness to the Gospel: “Only a church rich in witnesses will be able to bring back the pure water of the Gospel to the roots of Europe. In this enterprise, the path of Christians towards full unity is a great sign of the times and a response to the Lord’s prayer ‘that they may all be one’ (Jn 17:21).”

While Francis’s position on Europe is not quite that of his predecessors, I believe the difference is more marked between Francis and Benedict than it is between Francis and John Paul II. Francis, it should be pointed out, is also one of the few Catholic bishops in Europe who has the courage to repeat John Paul II’s teachings on social issues like capital and labor, human rights, and migrants and refugees. It is noteworthy that those Catholics who cite John Paul II in opposing any possible change in the church (especially on marriage and family) seem forgetful of his words on these other issues.

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Martyrs, Memory, and a Papal-Photo Mystery

The church of La Sagrada Familia in the Colonia Roma section of Mexico City is the de facto headquarters in the cause for the canonization of Miguel Pro, the Mexican Jesuit priest executed in 1927. The story of Padre Pro is recounted on a plaque beneath his portrait, which is mounted to a pillar behind the altar rail. Born in Guadalupe and dedicated to serving the poor, he is said to have been humorous, charming, and a master of disguises. The last was a necessity of his underground ministry; with the presidency of Plutarco Elías Calles, the government in the mid-’20s had commenced to enforce with brutal severity the anti-Catholic provisions of Mexico’s 1917 constitution. Pro, long under surveillance, was eventually arrested under the pretext of involvement in the attempted assassination of Calles’s predecessor, Álvaro Obregón, and convicted without trial. Still conscious after the initial barrage of the firing squad, he supposedly shouted “Viva Cristo Rey!” before taking a final, fatal shot at close range. The government publicized photographs of the execution as a warning to the people, but tens of thousands of Mexicans attended Pro’s funeral—a fact portrayed as a courageous and defiant rebuke to Calles.

Mexico City has the most museums of any city in the world, from collections of fine art and archaeological rarities to the personal effects and relics of notable figures—including Padre Pro, a museum in whose name adjoins Sagrada Familia. Within steps of one another in the Coyoacan neighborhood are Leon Trotsky’s preserved home—its walls not only adorned with photos and artifacts but also pocked with bullet holes from a firefight preceding his 1940 assassination—and the Frida Kahlo museum at Casa Azul, where the tourist crowds seemed unfazed by the artist’s 1954 Self Portrait with Stalin, in which the murderous Soviet leader assumes the role of watchful saint.

Padre Pro’s remains are interred at Sagrada Familia. A steel box beneath his portrait has a slot wide enough for written testimonials of miracles. One sign asks politely that no flowers be left; another warns against touching the candles. It was a little after 5 p.m. on a Thursday, and perhaps two dozen people were in the church, some praying the rosary, others sitting quietly. A few days earlier, an international human rights team investigating Mexico’s handling of the September 2014 disappearance and presumed murders of forty-three students from the state of Guerrero had released its final report. In contending that evidence had been suppressed and torture used in extracting confessions from alleged suspects, it called into serious doubt the “historical account” of the matter that has been put forth by the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. As such it had given hope to the families of the missing as well as human rights advocates inside and outside Mexico that the real details of the case, and maybe even justice, would be forthcoming.

Yet the report seemed to generate little local reaction, adding to worries that indifference was setting in. Banners commemorating the missing may yet hang in various squares and markets across Mexico City, and cement sidewalks are etched with the command “never forget,” but two years later, the colors are fading and the edges are worn. Pope Francis had not met with the families of the missing during his February visit, as some had hoped he would, and a semi-permanent protest outside the National Palace has all but folded its tent.

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‘There Still Linger a Number of Ghosts’: An Interview on the Cultural Revolution

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of China's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The legacy of this event is still controversial. I recently spoke with Professor Yiju Huang of Fordham University on the politics of memory in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. She is the author of Tapestry of Light: Aesthetic Afterlives of the Cultural Revolution, which examines the literature and art produced in the wake of the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of Freudian trauma theory.

Nicholas Haggerty: What’s the standard view of the Cultural Revolution in China?

Yiju Huang: In China, the Cultural Revolution is understood as a decade of chaos, but also there was a hasty attempt to bring a sense of closure. Although Mao’s image was tarnished, his legacy is also salvaged—‘he was misguided by the scapegoat figures of the ‘Gang of Four,’ but now that the dust has settled, we can move forward.’

From my perspective, however, there still linger a number of ghosts. The crimes that were committed in the utopian name of the greater good have not been properly worked through.

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Cat & Mouse / Tom & Jerry

What with all the air being sucked up by the Rise and Fall of Donald Trump, we have been distracted from the Cat and Mouse game between Russia and the United State in Europe. Trump's current hope, seemingly supporting Russian President Putin, is that NATO wraps itself up and goes home. There are many facets to the cat and mouse game: Ukraine, Crimea and sanctions against Russia; Russian maneuvers in the Baltics, Sweden, etc.; Polish hysteria and Baltic angst about Russia that have brought an increase of U.S. troops and promises of more.

Paul Pillar at LobeLog points out the opaque nature of these troop deployments. "Understanding and justifying the strategy are all the more important in that there are costs.... Some of those costs involve relations with Russia. The Russians have a strong case in complaining that such a deployment violates understandings reached with them as the Cold War was ending....The understandings were further codified a few years later in a joint statement by NATO and Russia. The U.S. administration seems to be dancing around the issue of permanent deployments in Eastern Europe by using what technically are temporary rotations of troops." 

No surpise that the Russians are being equally opaque. The Northern route for ME migrants last summer was through Norway on bicycles. More recently it has been through Finalnd in rattle-trap cars abandoned on the the border when the migrants claim asylum. The shift from Norway to Finland and its recent decline in Finland has spooked the Finns and the EU:  "The intrigue flows from a growing suspicion in the West that Russia is stoking and exploiting Europe’s migrant crisis to extract concessions, or perhaps crack the European unity over economic sanctions imposed against Moscow for its actions in Ukraine. Only one of the European Union’s 28 member states needs to break ranks for a regime of credit and other restrictions to collapse."  New York Times

Who is the cat? Who is the mouse? Who is Tom? Who is Jerry?

What's Putin Up To?

Vladmir Putin is seen to be the quintessential trickster. The image of the unreliable actor colors much of the criticism directed at Putin by pundits and government officials alike, and is regularly followed by a Cold War sneeze. True, his actions are usually unexpected and unexplained. True, he is not going to get an A in moral rectitude. His announcement that the Russian air force would begin to withdraw from Syria was unexpected. Initial surprise was followed by grave suspicion that this was a trick. Mr. Putin simply said that Russian goals for intervening in Syria had been met and it was time to pull back.

It is hard to read Putin, no doubt, and difficult to see where he's going. When a pundit manages to do so, it is worth a read. Paul Pillar (Assymetry in Syria and the Russian Drawdown), who writes for the National Interest and appears regularly at LobeLog, has this to say:

"The latest Russian move should not have been at all surprising. To the extent that it was, this is because of imputing to the Russians motives and thought processes that they do not exhibit.... The announced withdrawal shows that Russian objectives in Syria were never unlimited or grandiose. The objectives had to do with such things as a temporary propping up of the Assad regime to prevent it from collapsing, and asserting a Russian role in helping to determine the future of Syria....

"The Russian moves demonstrate in addition that Putin does not apply to the Syrian situation the kind of framework that many American critics of the Obama administration’s policies apply,

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Racing to Cuba

Like many Americans, I've long desired to visit Cuba, and for every American to be free to go there - in that order.

Sure, I want freedom for the Cuban people as well as safe, cheap and open travel lanes between Miami and Havana. Like countless others, I just want to get there beforehand. Hence I greeted today's news that the Obama administration is lifting restrictions on individual travel to Cuba with a discomfiting mix of joy and trepidation.

For years I've been telling my husband, "Time is running out." Lately my entreaties grew even more urgent, and so we signed up for an InsightCuba "people-to-people" tour. Come mid-June, at considerable expense, we are scheduled to spend a week touring Havana and the rugged Vinales region.

Friends who traveled to Cuba last year reported two things were ubiquitous: music and poverty. For good and ill, that won't change inside of three months, nor will the meticulously preserved 1950s American cars and elegant Colonial architecture disappear from sight. If anything, the cars and buildings will be better preserved than ever, to cash in when the floodgates open.

But every day, as a little more of America moves in, we fear that a little more of Cuba will be lost. Not to mention, we wonder if the steep price we are paying to be escorted around the country will wind up foolishly spent, when we could henceforth presumably do much the same thing on our own.

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Obama Out of the Closet UPDATE

President Obama's foreign policy has been a puzzle to some, a source of contempt by others, and a relief to many who don't think we need another war. Now Obama explains his thinking in a long, long interview with Jeffrey Goldberg.

Obama declares himself a "realist," and cites Brent Scowcroft as a source of his foreign policy stance. Scowcroft served as national security advisor to Gerald Ford and George HW Bush. He is a retired air force general. If memory serves, he also reined in George W. in his second term.

In the interview, Obama is surprisingly expansive on his views about other world leaders, about decision making on Libya and Syria as well as Afghanistan. Foreign policy nerds with some time this week-end would find much of interest here.

Please read the interview before commenting. Good reading!  The Atlantic interview.

UPDATE: Paul Pillar has an analysis and longish summary of the points in the interview...in case you don't have time to read the interview! Pillar's clear and compact style is less roundabout than Goldberg's. LOBELOG.

'Prophecy Without Contempt': Watch Cathleen Kaveny, Peter Steinfels & Bishop Robert McElroy in Conversation

On Monday night in New York, Commonweal hosted “Prophecy Without Contempt,” a panel on religious discourse in the public square. Commonweal columnist Cathleen Kaveny, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, and former Commonweal editor and longtime contributor Peter Steinfels took up the question: Can religious speech bring dialogue and reconciliation, instead of division and resentment? Many people joined us in person for the lively and informative discussion that unfolded, and many more streamed the event live. If you weren’t able to be with us, or if you want to watch the discussion again, you can do so here. And feel free to keep the conversation going in comments.

Francis & Mexico's Place in Global Catholicism

It was only four years ago that Pope Benedict XVI visited Mexico, the world’s second-most populous Catholic country after Brazil. But the arrival of Pope Francis this weekend signals something different – in part, but not only, because he’s the first Latin American pontiff.

The Mexico that Francis will see is beset by multiple problems, maybe even more than it was four years ago. There’s the unimaginable violence of the drug cartels and the thousands of desaparecidos (not so different from Chile and Argentina during the dictatorships); there’s the blatant failure of the rule of law and administration of justice and the dire conditions of migrants from other Central American countries. Nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, fanned by a number of Republican candidates for president, further complicate the picture, given the intimate social and economic ties between the two countries.

Meanwhile, the Mexican economy is now fourteenth in the world, owing largely to the extraction of natural resources in indigenous regions, whose inhabitants see few of the fruits of development. The pope who published Evangelii gaudium in 2013 and Laudato si’ in 2015 is bound to view the situation in a way his predecessors didn’t; it’s not that his social message is all that different, but rather that his background is.

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Pope Francis & Patriarch Kirill: Diplomatic 'Controversies,' Ecumenical Concerns

The announcement of the two-hour meeting to be held between Pope Francis and Patriarch of Moscow Kirill on Friday in Cuba has brought a lot of excitement—along with some criticism over Francis’s decision to have the meeting at all. There are three basic lines of critique.

First, there’s the political-diplomatic dimension of the meeting. The pope is going to meet the leader of a church that is seen more and more as part of the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin and an ideological support for his neo-imperial foreign policy. This criticism stresses the risks to Francis’s credibility, especially if considering the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in supporting Putin’s military actions in Syria and in Ukraine. (Kirill was, however, more cautious about Ukraine, given the potential consequences of the loss of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine for inter-Orthodox relations between Moscow and Kiev).

Second, there’s the internal politics of the Orthodox churches, in light not only of the historical rivalries between Moscow and Constantinople for supremacy within Eastern Orthodoxy, but also of the upcoming Great Synod of the Orthodox Churches on the Greek island of Crete in June. Some see Francis as naïve in regard as to how the patriarchate of Moscow could use the meeting to assert a new supremacy at a critical time for the future of the Orthodox churches. Here too the war in Ukraine factors into the equation.

Third, there’s the ecumenical dimension of the meeting. The Russian Orthodox Church has been far less engaged in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church than the patriarch of Constantinople has; in agreeing to meet with Kirill, Francis is accused of sitting at the table with a leader who has not shown the minimum amount of ecumenical spirit required to start a conversation with the pope.

Francis is a risk-taker, and this meeting certainly involves risks.

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Of Kettles and Pots MORE

In a world where charges, counter-charges, and uber-charges of anti-Semitism are rife, there is one place where the charge would be ridiculous--Israel. Think again.

The U.S. Ambassador, Dan Shapiro was attacked as a "little Jew boy," by a former advisor to PM Netanyahu. Shapiro speaking at a recent conference referred to the different legal systems that apply in the West Bank: for settlers, Israeli civil law; for Palestinians, Israeli military law. That characterization, while true, is forbidden to be mentioned. Shapiro may be the first U.S. ambassador to say so publicly, but he is not the first to say it.

But maybe calling Shapiro, "Jew boy," isn't anti-Semitic, maybe it's just anti-American, or anti-Obama, or....whatever.

The Forward has the story and reports "The criticism heaped on Shapiro was not dissimilar to that aimed at Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, who last week called for an independent investigation into Israel’s efforts to quell a surge in violence, saying that in some cases Palestinian assailants were being killed 'extrajudicially.'"

Netanyahu’s energy minister called Wallstrom “anti-Semitic, whether consciously or not,” and the prime minister did not back away from that characterisation, saying of Wallstrom’s suggestion: “it’s outrageous, it’s immoral and it’s stupid.” 

UPDATE: Without mentioning the insult to Shapiro, this NYTimes editorial defends his remarks concerning the different legal treatment of Israelis and Palestinians. "The criticism of Mr. Shapiro, a vigorous advocate for Israel, was unusually personal and unfair. He correctly identified a serious problem. Since 1967, there has been a dual legal system in the West Bank in which Palestinians are subject to military courts, where, experts say, they are almost always convicted. Israeli settlers fall under the Israeli civilian judicial system, with its greater rights and protections. The disparity is likely to become more acute if Israelis abandon the two-state solution in favor of a single state, as some in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet desire."

The Migrant Crisis & Europe's Christian Leaders

The two most important leaders in Europe advocating for more humane policies towards immigrants are Pope Francis and German chancellor Angela Merkel. They are Christians trying to make a case, on the basis of the Gospel, for a more welcoming old continent. But their message is now more unpopular than ever.

In Germany, the position taken by Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor and an unapologetically public Christian, is politically under attack in the wake of the violent assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Among those who recently joined calls for her resignation because of her generous immigration policies is The New York Times’s Ross Douthat, who not only said that “Merkel must go,” but also called for closed borders and “an orderly deportation process for able-bodied young men.”

Pope Francis’s message on refugees—a message he repeated and defended in a speech to the diplomatic corps on Monday—is similarly unpopular. Four months after his Angelus prayer of September 6, when he called on European parishes and religious communities to offer shelter to migrant families, it is not clear how many European Catholics responded to his appeal, but the impression is that the number is not high. This reveals some of the complexities of the relationship between the pontificate of Francis and the ecclesial-political status quo in the West, and especially in Europe. The church of Francis is not anti-political, nor irredeemably disenchanted by the gap between the Christian utopia and the real world. Pope Francis is trying to address the inconsistencies between the Gospel and the institutional Church: the Church must behave less like a pillar of the Western political establishment and more like a Christian community.

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Saudi Arabia: How Do We Know What We Know?

The upheaval and uproar over the Saudi behading of a Shiite cleric continues with Iran now claiming that the Saudis have bombed their embassy in Yemen (hard to believe, of course, that it could still be standing....). 

The juxtaposition of two items I read this morning suggest how fraught and complicated matters can get and not just in the Middle East, but right here in DC.

First, this at LobLog: "Washington's Multi-Million-Dollar PR Machine."  Eli Lake analyzes from Federal Records how much and to whom Saudi Arabia pays DC firms for pr help in a vareity of matters such as press releases and supplying Saudi officials for quotes and interviews.

Second, this at the New York Times"Saudis Applaud a Toughter Line," a story by veteran reporter Robert Worth (though he may now be retired). The account reports that there is widespread applause in the Saudi population for the government's finally cracking down on terrorists and other troublemakers. There are quotes from twitter with names, from former dissidents, from newspaper columnists, etc. The account has no dateline suggesting that the story has been written right here in the U.S., perhaps even in DC!  Worth has always seemed a good reporter, and perhaps he is just doing his job. I assume he speaks and reads Arabic, but you have to wonder how many of those well-paid PR firms are doing what they're paid to do...puff Saudi Arabia. In this case, it appears to show a rousing display of public opinion as if this were a democratic society.

Religious Freedom for Me, but for You... UPDATE

The execution by Saudi Arabia of Shia religious leader Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has set the already fraught ME into a greater uproar if that is possible. The Sheikh may have been a thorn in the side of the Sauds, but his activities hardly seemed to have required execution! even in Saudi Arabia. So you have to ask: Was this a provocation against Iran? We might further ask: if the possibility of an agreement on Syria led Saudia Arabia to stir the pot?

The execution led to the burning of the Saudi embassy in Teheran. Though the Iranian government has critiized the attack and arrested those responsible, Saudia Arabia has cut diplomtaic ties with Iran and been joined by Bahrain, the UAE and Sudan. Here is Amy Goodman at Democracy Now with some of the details and an interview with a man who knew the sheikh and his work. Bruce Reidel  at al Monitor  speculates that the execution of the sheikh and 46 others reflects Saudi concerns about the kingdom's stability. Robin Wright at the New Yorker traces the history of animosity between Iran and Saudia Arabia.

The U.S. imprudently allied with Saudia Arabia in its war in Yemen may find itself further entangled. Condemning the execution of a religious leader might go some way in clarifying exactly how far we think freedom of religion ought to extend and the limits we ask and expect of our nearest and dearest allies.  UPDATE: David Sanger (NYT) explains it all (sort of). More: Does the Administration favor Iran in this fight?  Bloomberg.  HT: Jim Pauwels. Another possible explanation: "A Trap for Washington" at LobLog.  These various analyses are not necessarily in conflict; they do show how complex the situation is and how uncertain the consequences of the Saudi actions.  MORE II, most comprehensive as of 1/5: Charlie Rose: With Phillip Gordon, Vali Nassar, Wendy Sherman, and David Sanger.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan: Favorite False Friends

Kaitlin Campbell has just posted links to the new issue of Commonweal (December 4), with a sobering and remarkably direct critique of U.S. policy toward Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that you are unlikely to read in the MSM. I hope all the political junkies here will read it and comment. False Friends by Vanni Cappelli.

Meanwhile Back in the Middle East

President Obama seems a bit put out by the incursion of Russian military into Syria and by the judgement of President Vladmir Putin that the U.S.-led coalition has made a mess of things in Syria. Russia after some days of bombing has made its way from what have been called moderate Syrian rebels to the edges of ISILs occupied Syria. These reports and claims remain hazy at least in the public realm, but the Russians are certainly doing something. But what? We shall see.

Putin's motives are not exactly clear, but are they as mysterious or as destructive as Washington sees them? Are all the residual anti-Russian feeling stirred up reasonably enough over Ukraine blinding Obama, McCain, Clinton, etc. to a clear-eyed analysis of what could be done to end the carnage in Syria and Iraq, a feat that the current coalition has failed to achieve.

In the meantime, this piece by Stephen Lee Myer at the NYTimes offers a coherent account of Putin's views especially about state sovereignty as background to Russia's actions in Syria.

"...At the heart of the airstrikes is Mr. Putin’s defense of the principle that the state is all powerful and should be defended against the hordes, especially those encouraged from abroad. It is a warning about Russia, as much as Syria.

“Nations shouldn’t be forced to all conform to the same development model that somebody has declared the only appropriate one,” he declared at the United Nations. The Soviet Union, he said, had once sought to export “social experiments, pushing for changes in other countries for ideological reasons, and this often led to tragic consequences and caused degradation instead of progress.”