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A breath of fresh air and a dose of reality

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."

The text of the talk from the Washington Post.   

Paul Pillar analyses Obama's idea of "mindsets."

Talk about wasting your money!

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.

Iran Nuclear Agreement...so far, so good

President Obama announces that the P5+1 have reached an agreement with Iran to limits its nuclear production capacity. New York Times

Congress wil get its say. It will be lobbied. The Forward: "Israel Hopes to Scuttle Iran Deal."

Blessed are the Negotiators.

Think again

U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East presents one of the most complex and convoluted set of issues the country faces. Yet very little changes in how we (or our leaders) think about it. Paul Pillar -- retired CIA officer, visiting scholar at Georgetown and Brookings (also served in Vietnam) -- writes regularly and intelligently about U.S. policy.

In a current essay, he asks what prevents us from conducting a "zero-based" review of MIddle East policy. His premise is that "historical baggage" weighs down politicians and policy makers who resist looking again at why we are doing what we are doing. 

MIddle East policy began with FDR's visit to Saudi King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud; in effect, stepping in for the British in the Middle East. "The oil bargain" they struck needs rethinking. Seventy years later, Pillar observes: "In any other historical context it would be bizarre for the United States to treat as a coddled ally a state that not only is a family-ruled authoritarian enterprise with zero freedom of religion and based on an intolerant ideology that is a basis for violent jihadi extremism but also more recently has been a destabilizing factor as the family pursues its own vendettas and narrow interests in other Middle Eastern states."

Other baggage includes the Iranian hostage crisis, 9/11, the Iraq War (the last one!), and our relationship with Israel. On the latter: "The evolution [of the U.S.-Israeli relation]...has been one from a plucky little Jewish state, created in the shadow of the Holocaust and besieged by neighbors, to the militarily dominant power of the Middle East, which repeatedly throws its weight around with disregard for the sovereignty and security of others. It is a state that has moved ever farther from any commonality with laudable American values...."

Pillar recognizes, certainly in the case of Saudi Arabia and Israel, how hard it would be to rethink our policies. In enumerating the barriers to shifting historical baggage, he points to democracy itself. "With limits to policy being set by deeply entrenched popular attitudes and beliefs that democratically elected politicians continually recite, the history that gave rise to those attitudes and beliefs is a heavy restraint on any leader who might see the wisdom of following a different path."

Illusions Here and Abroad

Earlier this month, I happened to turn on the PBS NewsHour and caught a roundtable discussion on President Obama’s decision to send another 450 military “advisers” to help train the Iraqi army in its fitful fight against ISIS. One of the panelists was Commonweal contributor Andrew Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, among other books. Also on the panel were Ret. General Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. Central Command, Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of policy at the Department of Defense, and Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense. Zinni, Flournoy, and Panetta were all supportive of sending more advisers and even expanding the scope of the rules of engagement. Not surprisingly, Bacevich was skeptical. As he saw it, whatever skills the U.S. military might instill in Iraqi forces, they will not “be able to transfer the will to fight, which would seem to be the fundamental problem.”

Panetta was hawkish and optimistic about an expanded U.S. military mission. He seemed to think that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad could be pressured into arming its Sunni and Kurdish partners in the north. “We’ve got to push the Iraqis,” he said. No one asked why we would have more leverage with the Shiites now than we did when we had a hundred thousand troops in Iraq. Panetta insisted that ISIS posed a grave threat not just to U.S. interests abroad, but to our domestic security. Bacevich responded that Panetta was “vastly exaggerating” any threat ISIS might pose to the United States. Given the disasters of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we “ought to be a little bit humble” about thinking that U.S. military can fix problems in that part of the world. Bacevich observed that we had in fact created many of those problems by invading Iraq in 2003. “The evidence is quite clear,” he said. “U.S. military intervention in this region creates greater instability, not stability.” 

Isn’t that a simple statement of fact? Evidently not to Panetta. He reads recent history quite differently. “The fact is, we’re good at counterterrorism,” he said. “The reality is that we know how to do this without deploying the 101st Airborne or a large number of brigades.”

I confess to being nonplussed by that statement. Does Panetta honestly think Iraq and Afghanistan have been rousing counterterrorism success stories? I suppose that might be true if the goal was to occupy both countries indefinitely. But there are limits to American dominance, and limits to what we should ask of our men and women in the armed forces.

To his credit, Bacevich was having none of what Panetta was selling. “With all due respect,” he answered the former secretary of defense, “we don’t know how to do this.”

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New issue is live

We’ve just posted our June 1 issue to the website. Among the highlights:

Amanda Erickson describes the struggle of a Catholic parish community in Freddie Gray's Baltimore neighborhood to respond adequately, in the wake of the riots, to the root causes of hopelessness there:

The life expectancy of those born in Sandtown-Winchester is thirteen years shorter than the national average. Those are problems that can’t be fixed by one man, or in one morning. So instead, Rev. Bomberger grabbed a broom and headed across the street.

Andrew Bacevich reviews Andrew Cockburn’s “imperfect but exceedingly useful book,Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, about the motives behind and justifications for targeted assassinations and drone warfare—now common practices in U.S. foreign policy. 

Cockburn quotes one U.S. Air Force general bragging, “We can now hit any target anywhere in the world, any time, any weather, day or night.” Yet why bother with bombing bridges, power plants, or communications facilities, when taking out Mr. Big himself provides the definitive shortcut to victory? Here was the ultimate critical node: Decapitate the regime. As an approach to waging war, what could be more humane, not to mention efficient?

Plus: New poetry from Marie Ponsot, Celia Wren explains why the once-promising plotlines of Mad Men hit a dead end, Paul Johnston reviews the latest from Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi, Molly Farneth reviews the latest, uncomprehensive but newly non-Eurocentric Norton Anthology of World Religionsand Charles Morris reveals the dirty little secret of major-league banking bankers don't want to believe. 

See the full table of contents here.

New stories on the website

We've posted two new stories to the website.

First is Robert Mickens's latest Letter from Rome, in which he tracks the angry reactions of traditionalist-leaning Catholics to certain words from an archbishop (one of Francis’s most trusted theologians) interviewed by an Italian newspaper. He also examines the continuing threats of schism from these Catholics "should Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops allow for changes in church teaching on marriage" and gives an interesting look into how Opus Dei has taken advantage of the saint-making process, which was streamlined by St. John Paul II in 1983.

Read the whole thing here.

Next, the editors weigh in on the European Union’s welcome, if belated, announcement to take an active role saving refugees and expediting asylum requests for the hundreds of thousands fleeing war, poverty, and religious and ethnic persecution in Africa:

…certainly the nations that are blessed with relative economic strength—and whose military and political missteps have helped bring about the crisis in [Africa]—owe it to the afflicted to stop the loss of lives at sea.

Could the Obama administration’s response to the migration crisis in Central America be a useful model for European nations dealing with their own migration crisis?

Read the whole editorial here.

New issue, new stories

On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:

Jo McGowan examines the effects violence against children has on society at large—effects so drastic it is being treated as an "any other epidemic," “says forensic psychologist Karen McCluckey:

Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.

Jerry Ryan reflects on his struggle to discover "what the person of Jesus means" to him, spiritually and theologically:

Classical theology has the angels deciding their destiny in a single, unalterable choice. I sometimes dream of being able to imitate such an act, one that would free me from all my ambiguities and contradictions, my half-hearted aspirations and ineffectual resolutions. This is not the way things work, however...

Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.

Eve Tushnet reviews an exhibit produced by over 40 artists at the National Museum of African Art that recreates Dante's Divine Comedy on three floors:

I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!”

Read about the beautiful, horrific, beatific and redemptive show here.

Also in the May 15 issue: James Sheehan on how Greece and Ukraine are "testing Europe"; reviews of books about abortion, the short history of the black vote, a young Lawrence of Arabia, and secular humanism—plus poetry from Michael Cadnum, Thomas Lynch, and Peter Cooley; and Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on bodily decrepitude and wisdom.

Also featured on the site now, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., who writes about a senator's sensible stance on faith and secularism. Read the whole thing here.

Judith Miller and Jon Stewart on journalism

"All journalists are manipulated." I have to say, that line Judith Miller used in her interview with Jon Stewart this week is irking me. It's probably true, certainly for myself, that at some time or another, skillful PR people have managed to mislead, sidetrack, obstruct and otherwise manipulate every reporter. 

But part of the job is to recognize when that's being done, and Miller, promoting her new book The Story, comes across under Stewart's questioning as willfully oblivious to that.

During the interview, Stewart calls Miller's  attention to a September 8, 2002 front-page New York Times story Miller wrote (with Michael Gordon, as she noted) showcasing the Bush administration’s contention that Saddam Hussein had “embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.”

Stewart pointed out the phrase that says administration “hard-liners” were arguing that the first “smoking gun” to be sighted from Saddam's supposed build-up could be a “mushroom cloud.”  (Condoleeza Rice used the  line publicly the same day, and President George W. Bush repeated it in a speech the following month.)

“It’s a very powerful line, and it explains their thinking,” Miller responds.

Stewart retorts that the phrase originated with a White House speechwriter, Michael Gerson. “It’s a political line directly tied to the White House,” he says. In other words: recognize that it's spin.

"Jon, were we not to report what it was that had the community, the intelligence community to be  so nervous about Saddam?" Miller replies. "Were we supposed to keep that from the American people?"

Stewart: "No-- you should have reported it though, in the context that this administration was very clearly pushing a narrative and by losing sight of that context  by not reporting"--

Miller: "I think we did, the story said"--

Stewart: "I wholeheartedly disagree with you."

Miller: "Now, that’s what makes journalism."

Stewart: "It’s actually not what makes journalism, so let’s continue with this."

 

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Your Congress at work for the West Bank Settlements

As the "Trans-Pacific Partnership" makes its way through the U.S. Congress, the trade agreement (with Pacific and Asian countries) is being amended to penalize BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions) efforts against the West Bank Settlements.

The amendments from House and Senate committees "require U.S. trade negotiators to 'discourage politically motivated actions' by foreign countries and international organizations that aim to 'penalize or otherwise limit' commercial relations with Israel or 'persons doing business in Israel or in territories controlled by Israel."

"Territories under the control of Israel," of course, refers to the occupied land beyond Israel's 1967 borders. The measures are directed primarily at European countries and businesses who are increasingly opposed to the West Bank Settlements and to Israel's refusal to recognize a Palestinian state. The Occupation of the West Bank is against international law. If passed, these amendments would contervene long-standing U.S. policy opposing the Settlements.

Recall that the BDS movements was started as a non-military, non-violent protest against Israel's Occupation of Palestinian Territory. The movement has garnered more sympathy in Europe than in the U.S.; but even in Europe little has come of it.

How exactly is the U.S. Congress empowered to limit the free speech and political decisions of European countries? Why not ask your Senator or Representative?

J.J. Goldberg of The Forward has the story and the language of the amendments.

House Bill.  AIPAC Press Release: House Fast Track Bill Targets Economic Attacks against Israel.

Coffin or Suitcase? Goldberg on Europe's Jews

In the April issue of The Atlantic, several thousand words into Jeffrey Goldberg's deeply reported, timely, and sobering assessment of Euorpean Jewry, he asks whether it's 1933 again.

Anti-Semitic attitudes have increasingly turned into anti-Semitic attacks, and perhaps 2015 is the tipping point. Goldberg was interviewing a group of Jews in a cafe near Sarcelles, a center of 2014's anti-Jewish riots. 

The [town's] synagogue is now also used as a base of operations for the more than 40 soldiers who have been assigned to protect the town’s Jewish institutions.

“We’re very glad for the soldiers,” one of the men, who asked me to identify him only as Chaim, said. “But soldiers in the synagogues means that there is no life here, only danger. This is why I’m leaving.” It is, he said, using an expression common during the Algerian civil war, a choice between le cercueil ou la valise—“the coffin or the suitcase.”

After reading Goldberg's reporting, that stark dilemma does not seem melodramatic. Weaving interviews and synagogue visits with hate-crime data from throughout Europe, he portrays an existential anxiety among Jewish communities from Sweden to France to Greece. In one of history's most macabre twists, the tiny Jewish population of Gemany may have the strongest state support on the continent. Angela Merkel is "among the world's chief defenders of Jews." 

Casual and even well-educated observers of modern European religion can learn much from Goldberg's narrative, so much of which shows a rapidly changing everyday experience for Jews. With the Shoah slipping from living memory -- and its memorials defaced, its museums attacked or empty -- anti-Semitism no longer lies dormant.

A younger generation tells its parents to stop going to their Jewish doctors. Jewish students are afraid to go to school: if to public school, they are individual targets; if to Jewish schools, a collective target. A Swedish rabbi and his wife do not walk in public together, for fear that they might both be attacked and leave their children orphans. 

Goldberg concludes by considering whether emigration to Israel or the United States--the suitcase options--is the best hope for European Jewry. "Do you have a bag packed?" he asked Alain Finkielkraut, a celebrated French intellectual, referencing a classic question in Jewish culture. "We should not leave," he said, "but maybe for our children or grandchildren there will be no choice."

As an American Jew whose family left Moldova just before its Jews were exterminated, Goldberg is not optimistic for the future of Jewish life in Europe. He visited what used to be the synagogue in the town of Leova, where his grandfather would have prayed. It is now a gymnasium. "The caretaker tried to sell it to me," he quips. A bid for the future? Goldberg demurs, and leaves us with this:

I am predisposed to believe that there is no great future for the Jews in Europe, because evidence to support this belief is accumulating so quickly. But I am also predisposed to think this because I am an American Jew—which is to say, a person who exists because his ancestors made a run for it when they could.

 

The Impeachables

Forty-seven Republican Senators have written to the "leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran," warning them that whatever agreement President Obama and Secy. of State Kerry might come to on Iran's nuclear progrgam, there's a good chance it will be dumped in a new administration. (Wonder which new administration?)  Here's the NYTimes story with over 3500 comments.

Is this an Impeachable offense? Oh wait! Would these 47 have to bring articles of impeachment against themselves?

The Iranians seem to know enough about the U.S. government to call it a "propoganda ploy"; that's a little stronger than the President's observation calling the letter "somewhat ironic," putting the Senators on the same side as Iranian hardliners. Here's the letter; check out those signatures! From satirist Andy Borowitz: "Iran Offers to Mediate Talks Between Republicans and Obama."  Amy Davidson at the New Yorker  points out that the senator who wrote the letter has been in the Senate for two months. Marking the fence posts? Jim Pauwels points out below that they may have all used the same blue pen to sign.  Even the Daily News!!  And The Logan Act (1799) (text below) HT: Pat Lang.

March 11 @10:33: Having just finished reading the paper, I am thinking maybe this mess could prove a turning point. 1. The Democrats are backing away from new sanctions legislation; 2. Herzog and Livni running against Netanyahu are pulling up in polling; 3. Tom Frideman does a fact-filled column on how Sheldon Adelson is buying U.S. and Israeli politics.  (Cites below in comments @10:44). Too pollyannish?

He is running for office--in Israel

PM Netanyahu has delivered his speech to the Joint Session of Congress at the invitation of Speaker Boehner. Netanyahu's grand entrance to the floor of the house a la the President's for the SOU should not confuse us. Netanyahu wants to remain Prime Minister of Israel, but if he can manage U.S. foreign policy, he would consider that a plus.

Here is his address to the Congress, via CSPAN (at about 15 minutes).

Commentary: William Galston at Brookings on recent polling. Robert Hunter at Lobelog on outcomes of successful negotiations. Bernard Avishai at the New Yorker on what Netanyahu really wants--war. George Friedman at Stratfo on the U.S. dilemma in shaping a ME balance of power with or without Israel (HT: Jim Pauwels). Here's a British take on the speech.  Reporters from the Guardian have annotated the speech. And here's Jon Stewart!! (R-rated metaphors!)

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Who Speaks for the Jews?

Here is a vigorous rejoinder from the Jewish Daily Forward to PM Netanyahu's claim to speak for Jews everywhere. Well argued too.

51st State reappears

An unnoticed side-effect of the Republican victory in the mid-term is the decision to launch the party's own foreign policy. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, has invited the governor of Israel, our 51st state, Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. This appears to be part of the continuing effort of members of Congress to deep-six negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran over the latter's nuclear program. The Congress has threatened to pass legislation increasing the sanctions against Iran. In his State of the Union speech, President Obama said he would veto such legislation, arguing that it would likely end the negotiations and raise the specter once again of bombing Iran's nuclear facilities. Presumably, Boehner thinks that a pep talk from Netanyahu would rally votes to override any veto.

It is not Boehner's responsibility to invite Netanyahu and the White House has objected. It is not Netanyahu's responsibility to interfere in U.S. politics. Perhaps common sense will prevail. Netanyahu will stay home. Congress will not pass further sanctions. Obama cannot therefore veto them. Talks will continue and perhaps an agreement will be reached. Stay tuned.

The Forward has this analysis: "Did Benjamin Netanyahu and the GOP just pull off a coup--or lay an egg?"  Jim Lobe has a good round-up of everyone who wasn't asked about the visit, and is now angry, as well as some speculation about who actually proposed it, not Boehner or McConnell he opines.

With Friends Like These....

Jewish settlers attacked American consular officials Friday during a visit the officials made to the West Bank as part of an investigation into claims of damage to Palestinian agricultural property, Israeli police and Palestinian witnesses say....Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that a small number of settlers threw rocks at officials who had come to an area near the Jewish settlement outpost of Adi Ad in two consular vehicles to look into Palestinian claims that settlers uprooted scores of Palestinian olive trees the day before."

More here: Christian Science Monitor.

Gosh. Wonder if the FBI, CIA, State Department are investigating. Sanctions? Drone surveillance?

 

Tracking Syria's Cultural Heritage

It goes without saying that the worst tragedy of Syria's war is the loss of life and liberty. Those with the power to ameliorate suffering must do so. But academics and other scholars of the region don't have that power, and instead they have been developing their own means of trying to help Syria. The past two years have seen a dramatic expansion in efforts to track Syria's cultural heritage.

Cultural property -- monuments, buildings, artifacts, museums -- is not superficial ornamentation of a nation's identity. Rather, nations use cultural heritage to understand their pasts, bolster their spirits during times of conflict, and imagine their futures. For these reasons, archaeologists and historians of Syria, whether professional or amateur, have built up an impressive infrastructure for the acquisition and dissemination of information.

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Meanwhile, back at the war

Perhaps you have been distracted by doings at the Vatican and the fear-filled news of Ebola (Although, there's this: Nina Pham, a critical-care nurse who cared for Mr. Duncan, the Ebola victim,  is now in isolation herself at Texas Presbyterians. She has been described as a compassionate and caring person [I felt proud reading that she grew up in a Vietnamese Catholic family]). NYTimes

But back to the ME: Things seem to be falling apart. Patrick Cockburn of the Independent, who always sees the dark side of things (he may be right this time), writes today that the Shiite militias who are the only real fighting force protecting Baghdad are also busy kidnapping and killing Sunnis. (So much for a coalition government.) Meanwhile ISIS has moved further south in Anbar province and are now due west of the Baghdad International Airport. They have moved up their artillerly. (Do U.S. advisors now in Baghdad have an alternate departure route?) Juan Cole has much the same news with the addition that ISIL has looted heavy weapons from the Iraqi army base it captured in the Anbar province of Hit.

Turkey is dragging its feet on cooperating with the U.S. and its "coalition," while it is also reported that the Turkish Air Force is bombing Turkish Kurds while Turkish Kurds are leading protests against President Erdogans's foot dragging.  Here is an analysis of the Turkish/Kurdish struggles from a Turkish source.

What would a deal with Iran mean? And no deal?

The negotiations on Iran's nuclear development with the U.S. and five major powers are coming up against a November 24 deadline. Charles Freeman, retired diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, offers an assessment of the central issues in reaching a deal--or failing to.

Should the negotiaitons fail, he notes at least three serious consequences: 1. the sanctions will seriously weaken (the sword the U.S. believes it holds over Iran); Iran could proceed with its program without international monitoring; nuclear proliferation woud increase in the Middle East. All of this, he argues, needs to be measured against the current upheval in Syria and Iraq.

At LobLog. Iran Nuclear Talks: Ironies, Observations, and a Bottom Line.

What Next? Who Benefits?

What is the U.S. doing in the Middle East? A senior retired diplomat, Robert Hunter, looks back on U.S. policy after 9/11 and looks forward to the effort to degrade ISIL. He argues that U.S. presidents have failed to ask two questions: What follows? Who benefits? He points to the cross-purposes and their conseuqences as the U.S. once again tries to lead a grand coalition against ISIS/ISIL.

"The US has committed several key errors, some out of lack of knowledge, some out of the felt need to respond to external events, and some in misguided response to the desires of US partners in the region.

"After 9/11, the US chose not only to extirpate those responsible for the first attack on the continental United States since 1814, but also to overthrow the Taliban regime, occupy the country, pull in all 27 other NATO allies to help, and try—but fail—to create a New Afghanistan. Then in 2003, a small group of advisors around President George W. Bush leveraged popular reaction to 9/11 to invade Iraq, one of the greatest foreign policy mistakes in US history....

"With the invasion of Iraq, the US blundered into the midst of civil war in the Middle East. It overthrew a Sunni regime that dominated a Shia majority population. Most of the troubles the US now faces in the Middle East flow from that fact. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states have sought to “redress the balance,” in particular by getting the US to overthrow the minority Alawite (Shia) regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.... Thus the United States became an active party in a Sunni-Shia civil war, first unwittingly on the Shia side (invasion of Iraq) and subsequently on the Sunni side. It has also been supporting the geopolitical interests of states that oppose Iran, among other countries, which are competing for power among themselves, thus double-binding the US in support of others’ regional agendas that should mean little or nothing to the United States and its interests.....

And it goes on, check out Hunter's analysis at LobeLog.