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?
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,Read more
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.Read more
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.
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.Read more
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.Read 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 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.Read more
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Volkswagen’s installation of software for circumventing emissions standards in at least 11 million cars worldwide is just the kind of thing that makes people think of “business ethics” as a contradiction in terms. It doesn’t help that the auto industry as a whole has a long and tarnished history of such behavior. From the hard-to-handle Corvairs that helped launch Ralph Nader to fame, to the exploding Pintos of the 1970s, to more recent examples involving ignition cutoffs, unintended acceleration, and malfunctioning airbags—defects their respective manufacturers often knew about but kept secret—sneaking substandard, potentially dangerous products into showrooms seems as much a part of the deal as offering undercoating. Not every recall notice is compelled by a government agency’s post-sale discovery of a sometimes deadly defect. But enough are to remind us why regulations and regulatory agencies are needed. Is this also the place to bemoan the rarity of severe and enforceable punishment, including damaging fines and criminal penalties?
A few things stand out about the Volkswagen revelation. First, it seems to many a kind of personal betrayal: Why did they do it? Timmons Roberts at the Brookings Institute gets to this, writing about his “long love affair” with VWs dating back to childhood, a love affair now soured. Anyone who grew up in or around families (or had college friends) with VW buses, or learned how to drive stick-shift in an old Beetle, would probably understand.Read more
With this July officially the hottest month in recorded history, and 2015 likely to top 2014 as the hottest year; with wildfires consuming swaths of rainforest in the Pacific Northwest; with heat-trapping carbon dioxide having risen from pre-industrial-era levels of 280 parts per million to above 400 ppm this year (where they’re likely to stay absent significant action to reduce emissions), it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the state of the earth’s climate, if not legitimately depressed. Climate researchers themselves increasingly show signs of what psychologists have labeled “pre-traumatic stress”—the anger, panic, and “obsessive-intrusive” thoughts that come with the daily work of charting what looks like an increasingly bleak future. Relentless attack on the part of climate-change deniers is said to play a contributing role.
“Certainly the possibility of extremely bad effects should weigh heavily on our minds,” David Cloutier wrote on this blog in May. “But the contemplation of such effects can even have paradoxical effects, leading us to despair, especially when we recognize that any individual changes we make may be lost in humanity’s massive collective activity.” The giving up of hope, however, is exactly what we need to guard against when it comes to climate change. To that end it’s been interesting to see how two of the most typically gloomy writers on the topic have recently been finding silver threads in the gathering clouds.
For instance, Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent profile of Christina Figueres, who heads the U.N.’s Secretariat of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, bears the hopeful tagline, “The Woman Who Could Stop Climate Change.” Figueres is characterized as such for her near certainty that something positive will emerge from the upcoming annual Conference of the Parties on climate change, to be held in Paris. Figueres, Kolbert writes, is aware of the danger of high expectations but “is doing her best to raise them further, on the theory that the best way to make something happen is to convince people that it is going to happen. ‘I have not met a single human being who’s motivated by bad news,” she told me. “Not a single human being.’” That she can maintain this attitude—not only while working within the bureaucracy of the U.N. but also while being charged with persuading 195 countries to scale back their use of fossil fuels—is something she attributes to being the daughter of the man who led the Costa Rican revolution of 1948. “I’m very comfortable with the word ‘revolution,’” she tells Kolbert. “In my experience, revolutions have been very positive.”
Bill McKibben, meanwhile, earlier this summer hailed Pope Francis’s Laudato si’, not least for the fact that “simply by writing it, the pope—the single most prominent person on the planet, and of all celebrities and leaders the most skilled at using gesture to communicate—has managed to get across the crucial point” that climate change is the most pressing issue of the day.Read more
I confess I didn’t know there was a third Berrigan brother who was also a political activist and peace protester, though not an ordained one. Nevertheless, he appears to have possessed the characteristic Berrigan sense of vocation and certitude.
And did you know that the gangster (Paulie) played by Paul Sorvino in Goodfellas (was it pasta he was cooking to serve with the lobsters in his posh prison cell?) was based on a Brooklyn mobster named Paul Vario? Or that it was an undercover cop, who also happened to be a former teenage delinquent from Brooklyn, who set up Vario and hundreds of other gangsters in one of the NYPD’s most successful sting operations? “As soon as the guy thinks you’re a cop, it’s just like him knowing you’re a cop,” explained Douglas LeVien, the detective who infiltrated the mob. “If he’s suspicious, he’s gonna ask you who’s your mother and who’s your grandmother. And that test you’ll never pass. Then you’re dead.” Ah, gangsters and their mothers. What’s up with that?
Or what about noir and B movie actress Coleen Gray, she of the “luminous skin”? Gray, born Doris Bernice Jensen, played an ingénue opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawke’s classic Red River (1948), and often complained of not being cast as more of a seductress. Later in her career that wish was evidently granted when she starred in The Leech Woman (1960), playing a predator who somehow used fluid from men’s brains to forestall aging.Read more
President Obama spoke at American University on August 5. In defense of the Iran nuclear agreement he said many things, worth thinking about. Among them a recognition that U.S. and Israeli national interests (at least as seen by PM Netanyahu) are not congruent:
OBAMA: "I have also listened to the Israeli security establishment, which warned of the danger posed by a nuclear armed Iran for decades. In fact, they helped develop many of the ideas that ultimately led to this deal. So to friends of Israel and the Israeli people, I say this. A nuclear armed Iran is far more dangerous to Israel, to America, and to the world than an Iran that benefits from sanctions relief.
"I recognize that prime minister Netanyahu disagrees, disagrees strongly. I do not doubt his sincerity, but I believe he is wrong. I believe the facts support this deal. I believe they are in America's interests and Israel's interests, and as president of the United States it would be an abrogation of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes temporary friction with a dear friend and ally.
"I do not believe that would be the right thing to do for the United States, I do not believe it would be the right thing to do for Israel."
Can I say a few words in defense of Germans? The Euro crisis that’s been building for years now, with Greece as its molten core, is hard to comprehend. I mean, I get the general idea. Two dozen nations (give or take) are united by one currency but lack a governing entity that can set fiscal policies. It’s like trying to run an orchestra without a conductor. But is it in fact true, as Paul Krugman has been repeating for years, that Brussels and its technocrats are “trying to run Europe on the basis of fantasy economics”? For an untrained person, the fine points (or any points) of macroeconomics and international finance can get pretty murky.
What has been clear is the role increasingly assigned to Germany, at least here in the United States: villain. A recent article from the New York Times, ominously titled “Germany’s Destructive Anger,” faults the Germans not merely for being selfishly shortsighted in their economic policies, but for being rigid, vindictive, self-righteous and dyspeptic. The article is by an economist, and that’s significant. Most “average” Americans may only vaguely know that a Euro crisis is happening (“you mean, the soccer thing?”), but if you sketch for them the outlines of the current situation, most will say that the Greeks need to clean up their act and pay their debts. Why should the Germans be blamed? But the opposite opinion prevails among economists, almost all of whom see Germany at fault. The main points:
1) Austerity in Europe has been a mistaken policy. When financial crisis hit here in 2008, our government responded with bailouts, government spending, and cheap money to inflate the economy. Europe should do the same.
2) Germany fails to grasp its own self-interest. If lesser countries are allowed to leave the Euro zone—or forced out—it will over time almost certainly damage Germany’s powerful export machine. But Germans are choosing to punish Greece, rather than taking a coolly systemic view of the situation.
3) Germans are conveniently forgetting the role debt and debt forgiveness played at critical moments in their own history: after World War I, when massive debt destabilized governments and led to fascism; and after World War II, when the victorious allies chose the Marshall Plan (another proposal, the Morgenthau Plan, which sought to keep Germany perpetually under-developed, was rejected), forgave war debts, and laid the foundation for the postwar “economic miracle” in West Germany.
Increasingly, though, the critique rests on the idea that Germans are mean and vindictive.Read more
AIPAC, Sheldon Adelson, and some other members of the U.S. Jewish establishment have announced their intention to spend millions (maybe billions!) to defeat the Iran nuclear deal.
And Yet...the dependable J.J. Goldberg of The Forward tells us that much of the Israeli military and intelligence establishment thinks Israel should support its passage. Instead of being obstructionists, they argue, Israel should work with the Obama Administration to insure its implementation. What a great idea!
P.S. Saudi Arabia appears to be on board with the agreement.
Pope Francis’ recent speech in Bolivia has rekindled the debate over Pope Francis’ views on economics and inequality. Francis’ defenders have argued that the pope is merely offering a robust presentation of Catholic social teaching. His more fevered critics see him as a herald of a resurgent Marxism.
The frustrating thing about this debate is that it usually operates at a level of abstraction, as if the choices facing policymakers really did boil down to a choice between capitalism and, well, something else. To a great extent, this reflects the penchant of American conservatives branding even modest efforts to redress economic inequality as “socialism.”
As fond as I am of Francis, however, I think the pope also bears some responsibility for this. Phrases like an “economy that kills” and “an economy of exclusion” remind me of John Paul II’s “culture of death” and Benedict XVI’s “culture of relativism.” In none of these cases do I find the phrases adequately descriptive of the phenomenon in question or analytically helpful in developing remedies.Read more
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