AMERICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST : TOWARD A COHERENT POLICY AT LAST

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Defending our friends ; (top) Kurdish troops rescue the Yazidis on Sinjar Mountain (photo by Harem Karem) (bottom) big rally “I Stand With Israel” in Paris

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The world is finally alive to the barbarians who call themselves ISIS. It took a while; but the world is now responding, and so are we, the United States. we are defending the Kurds, our best allies in the Mesopotamia region. We are fighting on their side. we will not fail; because we can’t, and neither can they.

The President’s people that they are doing this because they didn’t want another Benghazi. Maybe so ; but on the ground, the facts are what they are. And what they are — along with the facts of our rock solid support for Israel in its fight against Hamas, is that we, the United States, are now actively defending — with money and weapons and with people — our two best allies in the entire region, the only full democracies in it.

We are doing this at the same time that we have a friendly, solid government in place in Egypt, for the first time in six years; a solid, moderately reforming autocracy in;place in Saudi Arabia; a solid friend ruling Jordan; a deal in process with Iran, whose enemies are ours too; and with Russia distracted by its dead-end adventure in the Ukraine.

We are defending our friends and showing our other friends in the region that we mean business — finally.

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President Obama ; ‘this will take a long time”

Not since the Fall of Iran’s Shah in 1979 has our Middle east Foreign Policy shown such effective coherence. that event upended the region and unhinged our own policy. An era of terrorism came upon us and demanded our attention. we focused on the immediate crisis. Even Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, in 1990, was an immediate, local crisis; we solved it as we had the other local crises; but our policy seemed to look no further.

then came the biggest crisis of them all, 911; also a local crisis, though we did not realize it at the time. this one, too, we solved — so thoroughly that President Bush was riven to overreach ; the second Iraq war was terribly planned, miserably misconceived; it was pursued under flag of freedom : the President said so. freedom is, of course, a good thing; but most of the Middle East has rarely known any freedom and moves at a tribal level merely. Reaching for freedom was several bridges too far.

Then there is Israel. Again, we have treated Israel’s many struggles with Hamas and others as local crises; we support Israel, yes we do — always. But that support has often, since 1979, seemed unrelated to any general policy principle, much less ;policy in action.

But now that has changed — If we realize it. If we see that we are now defending not freedom but autonomy; not democracy as such, but the right of our allies not to be slaughtered by barbarians or terrorist rockets. Not regime change, but regime support.

Encourage our friends, whatever their lifestyle, so to speak. In this, our Middle East policy seems to mirror the best of our domestic arrangements : celebrate diversity. Don’t try to make people be who you want them to be; respect them as they are, and defend their rights.

That, it seems to me, is the right policy for us to parade all across the Middle east, as we fight only those who threaten our friends without seeking to make our friends be what we are.

The new policy has enormous political consequences here in America. Yes, almost everybody supports the Kurds, but a significant portion of the non-Jewish left does not support Israel — indeed, oppose it. The new Middle east policy unites almost all the Republican party : the Christian right, for religious reasons supports Israel; the realists support it for policy reasons. the Democratic party, however, looks badly split, between the realists in Washington and Jewish Democrats on the one hand versus the non-Jewish left on the other. Before the ISIS mob attacked the Kurds, the split over Israel looked a big deal. Now it has, to a large extent, been forgotten in light of the horrors being wreaked in northern Iraq.

Still, that split is real. I myself have been “unfriended; on facebook by a few people who I thought were pretty good friends — obviously i was mistaken. I imagine the same thing has happened — a lot — to everyone who defends Israel on social media.

The split may heal before the 2016 election begins to heat up ; but it also may not heal. Friendships have been broken, and no one on either side is likely to forget that. Certainly Jews can NOT forget it. Jewish history reeks of abandonment by almost everybody. Every person of Jewish ancestry knows the history and has probably experienced it personally as have I.

Meanwhile, the disparate pieces of our local-crisis Middle East policy are cohering into one comprehensive, very doable, very realistic message : “friends, we stand with you, money and weapons if need be; to defend you as you are and as you want to be !”

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

below : ( 1 ) the Goldins bury a son ( 2 ) Kurdish Pesh Merga fighter rescuing & embracing a Yazidi child (photo by Hare,m Karem)

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ANNALS OF DIPLOMACY : PRESIDENT OBAMA’S SURPRISINGLY SUCCESSFUL FOREIGN POLICY

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^ Syria peace talks to begin in Geneva — old-school diplomacy : John Kerry working with Russia’s foreign policy negotiators

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As the late George Kennan pointed out, in his book Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin, it is difficult for a democracy to conduct a successful foreign policy. The political demands upon the President inject domestic concerns into an exercise that isn’t domestic. Blocs of voters, of this or that ethinic origin, call upon the President (and his party), with an upcoming election in mind, to favor the nation or ethnicity whence these voter blocs came or to which they feel kinship. In war as in peace these electoral pressures lean upon the President’s decsion, angling them in a direction, perhaps, that, objectively considered, should not be the case. A prime example — hardly the only — is Israel. I have long argued that Israel’s foreign policy, no matter how compelling its case, must not be allowed dictate ours; but the significance of Israel sympathy, in both our political parties albeit differently in each, makes my argument difficult to apply. It was the same, with Russia, before, during, and after World war II. People were affronted, then pleased, then scared, by what the Soviet union seemed to represent; and these feelings led American policy makers to mistakes that could have been avoided.

Prime among the mistakes avoidable was our support of authoritarian dictators because these were opposed to communism. Of course they were; but they also opposed democracy, an ideal which we profess to the whole world, whose peoples often believe us. Perhaps we should not profess democracy to the whole world. Maybe that is the ultimate mistaken pressure by our domestic politics upon our foreign policy. Certainly the argument has been made by many among us, that we should support dictators who will keep lids on populations whose political ways cannot be predicted and of which many are anarchic at best, violent, cruel, terrible. The argument has merit; yet I disagree with it. Eventually dictators fall, and when they do, we have to live in the consequences.

There is no guarantee at all that peoples who overthrow a dictator will thank America for supporting their cause. A dictator makes almost every group his enemy. That his enemies can’t agree on almost anything other than his fall is his prime survival asset. Yet if America means anything in the world any more, it’s that we are a friend to ordinary people seeking normal lives; and among the enemies of a dictator these are almost always the majority. We refuse this lesson at our peril. Who, today, would not say no, if we could do it again, to the CIA’s role in overhrowing Iran’s Mossadegh government in 1953, an overthrow that has tainted Iran’s relationship with our country ever since ? This is a lesson that we have in fact learned; today our diplomacy supports and encourages peoples seeking freedom. The result is not always happy. Oppressive dictatorships are hardly a great school for teaching democracy — a culture of tolerance, of discussion, of differences equally respected. Yet are we wrong to encourage people to seek it ? Not at all. Too easily we forget how long it took the West to move from feudalism to oligarchy to revolution to democracy. Why should peoples elsewhere find the path any easier ?

The lesson I have outlined above has been learned by some of us; not much by others. Unhappily, most Republicans favor a foreign policy of supporting “friendly” dictators and of military first. This policy, they argue, worked with the Soviet Union, and it kept the peace in the Middle East for 50 years. And so it seemed to; but the Soviet Union collapsed largely of its own, bankrupted by its fear of our military might, morally ruined by its incompetence and rigidity, deafened by the din of outmoded theory. The most effective step against Soviet dominance taken by our Republican policy makers wasn’t military at all. it was six words spoken in Berlin by President Reagan : “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall !”

The voice spurred eastern Europe’s peoples. They believed Reagan. They also believed in themselves. Some three years later the wall did indeed come down.It was a superb moment in American diplomacy; yet in retrospect it was an easy moment. The Soviet union was already crumbling.

Far more difficult the moments of crisis, most unprecedented, to which the Obama Administration has had to respond : the “Arab Spring” ; the Syrian Civil war; Iran’s nuclear development ; relations with Russia ruled by the mercurial Vladimir Putin and with a secretive and cruel North Korea ; the antics of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela ; the fight against Al Qaeda. In every case where moves could be made — not much can be done about Kim Jong Un — the Obama Administration has moved very well indeed. We have managed relations with the uprising populaces of Libya, Egypt, and Syria about as well as these anarchic situations allowed. And if in Libya we miscalculated Benghazi — and still find it hard to keep up with its 26 shell games — we aced the big picture : most every tribe in Libya thanks us for our part in overthrowing Gaddafi. In Egypt, we avoided — while praising the Cairo “street” generally — committing fatally much to any faction, and thus we retain a fair reputation with all, even with the current military rulers. Secretary Kerry brokered a rapprochement between Netanyahu’s Israel and Erdogan’s Turkey without alienating Erdogan’s growing number of enemies.

Secretary Kerry — without realizing it at first, but once he did realize it, capitalizing superbly — found a means to a pact with Russia that ended the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons stores and use. Most important of all, Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif reached an interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, and that interim agreement is now working. Granted, that the agreements and pacts that Kerry has achieved were brought about by both sides — it really does take two to tango; yet one can’t get diplomacy without doing diplomacy. Which means that the two sides have to respect one an other and openly accord each other that respect. Kerry, like Hillary Clinton before him, has done that.

Kerry’s diplomacy has not been the same as Clinton’s. Hillary Clinton made the world’s women her special constituency. The world is full of cultures in which women take second, even third place; Clinton never missed an opportunity to condemn the downgrading of women or to call upon women to assert their rights. Kerry is not female and cannot speak as Clinton spoke. His diplomacy has been much more old school. It reminds me of the diplomatic practice of British foreign ministers of the 19th Century — a diplomacy of personal relationship, of flexibility and tolerance, a diplomacy also of money deals. We have never pursued such a diplomacy because America had never benn, until recently, a satisfied nation as was Great Britain after the defeat of Napoleon. Until recently, we have either been an expanding nation, even an imperial one, or we have — like Britain during the era of Napoleon — confronted by a huge world-encompassing enemy (or two : Mao Tse-dong’s China as well as Soviet union). Today all that is past. Amderica has finished expanding, and e no longer confront huge rivals. We exist now in a multifold world of many powers, just as did the Great Britain of Castlereagh, Palmerston, Gladstone, Disraeli, and Lord Grey, and it is to President Obama’s great credit (and to John Kerry’s), that our diplomacy fully recognizes our current situation and seems quite skillful at sailing upon it. I know of no current Republican who similarly gets what is really happening outside our borders.

As i write, Kerry is taking America into perhaps his most delicate negotiations yet : the Syria peace discussions set to begin in Geneva as son as all the details can be worked. we already see how hard this negotiation will be in the affair of inviting Iran. First invited, then dis-invited, evidently because President Obama objects. But if Iran were to be invited, how to leave out the Kurds, who have a major presence in eastern Syria (and the bordering part of Iraq) and are pressing a world-wide campaign on twitter and facebook demanding that that they be included. This may take months to manage, and no success is at all assured.

As a foreign policy president Obama has also been lucky. As George Kennan pointed out in the book i mentioned at the start of this column, it matters greatly who in a country is doing the diplomacy. Much of our diplomacy during the Lenin and Stalin years failed because the preconceptions borne by our foreign  policy people ill accorded with the facts. (So too did diplomacy then often fail because of false preconceptions on the Russian side.) Our policy people also badly misread the situation in Nazi Germany; and of course Nazi Germany misread us. There seems to be less misreading going on these days in the foreign ministries of major nations — ourselves as well. In large part that’s the result of the internet and social media. No nation gropes to understand other nations 1000s of miles away as they did in the 1960s, 1930s, 1910s. This is the setting in which President Obama finds his good luck. But it isn’t all luck. it’s also how open foreign policy people are to the facts unfiltered by preconception. The Obama foreign policy people read the facts better than almost anyone.

His political opponents disparage him so much that they do not see what he (and secretary Kerry) are achieving, or why, or are solely fixated on the fight against Al Qaeda, a fight on which all our policy makers agree (a fight that Obama has pursued with a warlike ruthlessness) and also because they do see Obama’s great policy mistake ; the NSA and its huge, wartime-ish overreach. Obama really does see the fight against Al Qaeda as all-out war; and it is ironic that, on this score, his Republican opponents, until reecntly so military-minded, want to scale back. On this issue, I happen to agree with Obama’s Republican opponents. The threat posed by Al Qaeda terrorists is not so mortal that we need compromise our civil liberties to fight them. It is time to curb NSA much more radically than Obama now proposes; maybe even to dismantle the department of homeland security, which seems to have inconvenienced many of us and violated the rights of some, to no great accomplishment. In these things, shrewd vigilance by all our people counts for much more than blanket micro-surveillance by headstrong bureaucrats. It would be a shame if Obama’s brilliant record, so far, of diplomatic accomplishment and near destruction of Al Qaeda were nicked and mocked by his insistence on a surveillance society.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

POLITICS AFTER OBAMA : THE COMING 2014 ELECTION

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^ in the post-Obama era, insurgents find common ground : Elizabeth Warren and John McCain

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The 2014 mid-term elections are under way, and both parties are preparing a battle which won’t resemble that of 2012 much at all.

We’re moving into the post-Obama period. Agendas are advancing that the President either does not want or has little to do with. Even in foreign policy he doesn’t have his way undisputed : witness the Senate bill, presented by 13 members from each party, to toughen Iran sanctions if the recent Interim Agreement doesn’t lead to a permanent one. The bill’s point is hard to disagree with, but it’s hard to see how diplomacy is assisted by legislation that feels like interference.

I agree with the Wall Street Journal that the hiring of John Podesta as a Presidential adviser announces that Democrats will campaign 2014 as a “class warfare” election. But it’s difficult to see how that translates into support for Obama’s remaining initiatives : immigration reform, gun control legislation, tax reform. The “class warfare” cry seems geared to invigorating the Democratic party for 2016. Same is true of nominating Senator Max Baucus of Montana to be Ambassador to China. Baucus was up for re-election next year; he had already announced his retirement. Montana was carried by Romney in 2012, by 14 points. Electing a Democrat to succeed Baucus was going to be difficult. Now, however, a Democrat — probbaly Lieutenant governor John Walsh, as the Wall street journal says — will assume Baucus’s seat, by appointment, and run in 2014 as the incumbent. It’s a smart move and a party move. Retaining the senate is a must for their 2016 basis.

Obama has wiggle room to pursue party-building stuff because the Republican Party is having to change as well, in the direction of compromise, so that it can be seen as a realistic governing party and not as obstruction. Republican strategy now accords vital budget and funding agreements, even as Obama concentrates on party-building in opposition.

As I have noted in several columns, Democrats at ground level having been moving for many months now to advance an agenda largely (but not entirely) Left-populist : union workers’ rights, higher minimum wages, banking reform, teacher union control of public education, alleviation of pay inequities, greater public spending on infrastructure and aid to families in need. It was easy to see that the infusion of these priorities into Mayor elections in Boston and New York was not happening only for local reasons. Clearly the leaders of this agenda had in mind the 2016 Democratic nomination for President.

At times the intensity of this movement has threatened to split the Democratic party, and i have decried that. we don’t need the Demotratic party to become “Left-tea’d,” as I have put it. But I wonder now if my warnings have been superseded by events. The 2014 campaign is upon us, the Democratic Party as a whole seems committed to the Left-ing agenda, and this is probably a wise decision for the party to make at mid-term time.

What must not happen is for this agenda to appear the Elizabeth Warren for President campaign. THAT would personalize the issues, and generate all manner of opposition to from Democrats threatened. Speaking of Warren, how come I do not see as much love for Senator Bernie Sanders as for her ? Sanders has been an eloquent voice for a Left-populist agenda — much of it very needed — long before Senator Warren appeared on the scene. My suspicion is that Warren Love arises from the 52 million dollars she raised for her 2012 campaign. It is ironic that the Left-populist movement wants big big money even while decrying its influence.

Readers can now ask me : what, if any, of the Left-populist agenda do I support ? Answer : I support quite a bit of it.

1. We do need a higher minimum wage. Substantially higher. Why should taxpayers have to sbsidize low-wage employers who pay their workers so little that they need public assistance to make ends meet ?

2. Employers should not be allowed to use job seekers’ credit scores as a hiring factor except if the job being sought is a financial one such as a comptroller or bank employee.

3. Financial institutions that specialize in customer deposits should not be allowed to use those deposits to engage in arbitrage trading. Or else such trading should be subject to the Federal Reserve’s margin requirements just as these are already imposed on customer accounts at stock-broker firms.

4. Union workers’ pension and benefit rights, as contracted for, should never be subject to legislative negation.

5. Infrastructure is as communal as anything in our society. Maintaining and improving our infrastructure is a vital economic duty. If tax dollars are needed, they should be granted.

But :

1.Education reform. This was the big divisive issue in the Boston Mayor election. I do not agree that teachers’ unions should control public school reform or that corporations have no defensible interest in school performance. I support school competition, because it is from competition that we find out what works well or not so well. I accord teachers unions a central voice in school reform because it is they who must do the teaching and who must work competigtively. But decsions on how to proceed with education reform must be collegial. Corporations have a vital interest in public education because the jobs they must fill depend on school graduates being prepared sufficiently to do them.

2.Unions in general : as I wrote almost every day during the Boston Mayor campiagn, union workers deserve strong representatipon in the halls of power, but they shouldn’t own the halls of power. Union workers number only about 10 %, nationally, of all employees, and no next-generation jobs in the innovating economy easily translate to unionization because almost all such jobs are individually dfifferent, employed by small units constantly reshaping, and involve pay that isn’t just a paycheck but includes benefits, stock, bonuses, and collaboratives. How to accommodate the innovation economy will be a major challenge for Democratic policy leaders facing 2016. Many in the innovation economy might just find a newly reasonable Republican Party more sympatico than a Democratic party committed to Left Populism. Take the fake-“Christian” stuff, the contempt for needy people, and the anti-immigration bigotry out of the Republican agenda, and the possibility is very real for the innovation community to prefer Republican entrepreneur-ist reform to Democratic Left-Populism.

After all, if Elizabeth Warren and John McCain, insurgents both, can co-sponsor banking reform legislation — and they have — then economic innovators are as free to find a useful home on the McCain range as on the Warren one.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

ANNALS OF 2016 : CHRIS CHRISTIE RISING

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^ working with Democrats when that’s what gets the job done : Chris Christie with New Jersey’s new senator, Cory Booker

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Right now, watching Governor Chris Christie rise to the top in New Jersey, winning re-election with 60 % of the vote, I have to pinch myself to remember that he is a Republican. By which I mean, a Republican of now. 30, 50, 60 years ago there were many Republicans with an agenda like Christie’s. His entire stance is that of an insurgent; an optimist; “getting the job done for people.” Yes, his rhetoric sometimes sounds like recent GOP talk, and he’s a bit of a social conservative — but so are many ethnic city Democrats — yet on the ground he is a man who works with whoever he needs to work with to get progress done.

Christie’s talk, stance, and method are those of Fiorello LaGuardia — a fellow Sicilian and northeastern Republican — who, coincidentally, looked a lot like Christie. Stubby, chubby, full-faced. The GOP hasn’t seen someone who looks and talks like Christie in maybe that many decades.

Like LaGuardia and his fellow Progressives, Christie doesn’t suffer fools. He calls out the House GOP and Ted Cruz nonsense in Washington — as it needs to be called out. At times he sounds as though he were running AGAINST the Republican party rather than with it. Of course the Tea folks are running against the Republican party as well; but they are running against it for trying to govern; Christie runs against the party for REFUSING to govern. A huge difference.

You might expect that a man so out of phase with what we have come to think of as the modern GOP would be a fringe character in its 2016 Presidential nomination, but you would be wrong. Christie currently leads the field in almost every poll, and he polls significantly better against potential Democratic nominees than any of his rivals. No, he is not the candidate of GOP think tanks, of planners of principle, of testers of litmus. He does not think the Democratic party treasonous, socialist, or contemptible. The right wing charlatans of entertainment demagoguery hate him — a hate which he sees, rightly, as an asset for him. He’s about as unlike a pastor of bigotry as it’s possible to be. He has no patience for those who would tell people how to live their lives. He doesn’t think poor people are lazy, homeless people useless, gay people damned. He doesn’t think that you need an ID to vote and if you don’t have one, you’re committing vote fraud. He doesn’t sling the word “patriot” around like a vomit grenade, doesn’t fart about 1776, doesn’t throw shoes at undocumented immigrants.

Yet he is a Republican. Of now. And not JUST a Republican; maybe, just maybe, he is THE Republican. His surge to the top of most polls tells me that the Republican electorate, if not yet its crowd-fund queen bees, has moved on from bitterness, contempt, ignorance; from vileness of all sorts; that the Republican electorate actually wants its leader to be ABOUT something; to want to “get the job done for people.”

There are signs aplenty that such is the case. Tea folk are losing primaries : in Alabama and in Louisiana, no less. Anti-Tea money is coming into the picture big-time. The GOP national committee is moving to make primaries the method of choosing an ominee, not caucuses. So far the change hasn’t nicked the House GOP much at all; but in the Senate the push back to normality has been huge, and lasting. Today the Senate’s Republiacn caucus can often be counted on to “get things done for the people.” (And let us give credit here to John McCain, who has had maybe his best and certainly most influential Senate year in his long career there.)

In New Jersey, Christie has formed alliances with whichever Democratic legislators and interests he needed to ally with in order to move his State’s agendas forward. He has done so even in preference, at times, to members of his own party Famously, this week he decided not to support Tom Kean, Jr., an influential Republican state senator and son of New Jersey’s revered former Governor Thomas Kean, Sr., as Senate President: because that was what the state senate’s Democratic leader, Steve Sweeney, insisted upon. Sweeney and Christie have frequently worked together on New Jersey legislation. the combination continues.

It would surprise me if this “get the job done for people” mantra did not pretty soon become the top theme for a party that has all but abased itself to the point of no return. In politics, the great thing about points of no return is that, return is then the ONLY option. Thus the move to Chris Christie, the man who embraced President Obama when it made a huge point and who still embraces him, with respect to the rocky rollout of Obamacare. Why ? Because he sees a President who is trying to “get the job done for the American people.”

Just as he, chris Christie, promises to do. Not a bad promise at all for ANY serious politician to make to the American people.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

TO SYRIA OR NOT TO SYRIA ? OUR VIEW

TO SYRIA OR NOT TO SYRIA ? OUR VIEW

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The President is mulling things. He says he has made no decision yet on Syria. We fully understand his predicament.

It arises because the government of Bashir Assad in Syria has crossed the “red line.” They used chemical weapons to kill almost 400 Syrian civilians — women and children too. The results have been posted online, gone viral.

So what do we do about it ? Do we do anything about it ?

Ask around, and you get just about every opinion possible. Our view is that no option we may choose is a good one. We are screwed if we do nothing. We are stuck if we send troops into the battle. We look like jelly if we hit Assad with an airstrike or two. Even if we inflict a continuous air war upon him but send no troops — the option most likely — we may succeed only in adding to Syria’s misery. Can a prolonged air war by itself oust Assad and his men ? It didn’t work in World War II, in Viet Nam, or in the first iraq War. Boots on the ground were needed to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Air attack succeeded in Kosovo in the 1990s, but that was a much lower-intensity conflict and one in which distinct foes faced off. In Syria, there are at least four separate forces, maybe more, all interlocking, almost impossible to separate out. Let us look :

1.Syria’s Sunni muslim majority — is itself divided into three parts :

( a ) secular and moderately obervant, Arab Sunnis are the basic core of those who have opposed Assad from the first, two yreasrs ago when the war began.
( b ) Kurds living in the Northeast of Syria don’t really oppose Assad, but they do want to join their abutting Kurdish fellows in Turkey and Iraq in an autonomous Kurdistan
( c ) zealous Al Qaida-affiliated Sunnis joined the fight against Assad about a year ago and provide the rebels some their fiercest fighters.

2.Syria’s Christians : the oldest Christian congregation in the world, reaching back almost to Jesus’s time, total about 15 % of Syria’s population. They have been protected by Assad and his regime and do not want to oppose him, because the Arabic Sunni rebels already have it in for the Christians, whose neutrality in the civil war they see as giving Assad some legitimacy.

3.Syria’s Alawites : less than 10 % of the nation, the Alawites — an odd mixture, partly Islam and partly Syrian Christianity — are Assad’s tribe and the bulwark of his support. Unlike Syria’s other tribes, the Alawites live almost all in the coastal region — tobacco-producing mountain towns and seaside resorts. It has been guessed that Assad’s plan of last resort is to retreat into this beautiful, once highly touristed region and set up a separate state there.

6.Hezbollah-backed Shi’ites : Syria has few Shi’ites, but Lebanon has a lot, and they have aligned with the Assad regime and recently joined its fight.

For the United states, protection of Syria’s Christians of course ranks a top priority. But how to do this, without also aiding Assad ?

For our nation, removing Assad the torturer — in 27 “torture centers,” no less — and killer of at least 100,000 Syrians is a moral imperative. But how to do it without endangering Syria’s Christians ?

For America, punishing a warrior who uses chemical weapons on his own nation is something we have promised to do — this time. But why now, when during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s we aided Saddam Hussein against the mullahs who had kidnapped our diplomats even though he was using chemo weapons ? Explanation doesn’t come easy.

Once into the Syria war, how to we resist calls to get into it even deeper ? every minute a humanitarian tragedy occurs there. Which humanitarian horrors do we punish, and which do we duck ?

These are the questions that we think matter. Among those that do notl in our view, bear on our ddcision are those involving our going into battle on the same side as Al Qaida. we can fight Al Qaida just fine elsewhere and another day. If they and we happen to concur in wanting Assad gone, why is that a problem ? It is said, though, that if we go into Syria on the rebel side, some Al Qaida militias will acquire American weapons. Maybe so; but those weapons eventually become obsolete.

None of the above gives any answer at all to the unhappy options the President is now dealing with. We hope he does not decide to go all-in. We won'[t be thrilled if he opts for a few air strikes. We will not look very tough if he decides to do nothing. As for increasing our arms ales to the revels, that aggravates the Al Qaida acquisition issue, helps fuel battles already occurring among the various rebel factions, and doesn’t do much to punish Assad.

The only option that makes any sense is a protracted air campiagn — and no boots on the ground. It probably won’t work. But it might. It’s more worth trying than any of the other options we’ve heard.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

OBAMA-CARE IS HERE TO STAY, AND IT’S GOOD FOR THE ECONOMY

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^ The President argued thus for the ACA

Obama-care – the Affordable Health Care Act enacted into law in 2009 – is here to stay. It should be. It is going to be a huge benefit to the economy, not to mention to the 50,000,000 Americans for whom it will provide basic health insurance.

The 50 million who the ACA will insure will now enjoy better heath, fewer sick days out from work, and far less expensive medical care. Currently the 50 million have only one choice : use an emergency room at a hosp[ital, at which, thanks to legislation enacted 30 years ago, all care is fully paid for by the Federal government. That care is hugely expensive. Under the ACA, people who had only the emergency room option will now have insurance. That insurance will be purchased through exchanges, on which competition between insurance companies will drive down costs – indeed, is already driving them down.

New York State is only the first to announce, recently, that health care costs for its residents have dropped almost 50 per cent. The same will be true in every other state.

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^ Governor Cuomo, announcing that the ACA has given NY an almost 50 % decrease in the state’s health care costs

Or, should we say, the same will be true IF the other states fully implement the ACA and its purchase exchanges. Many Republican-governed states are refusing to do so. Others are implementing the ACA only in part. In many such states, purchase costs are rising, not dropping. This seems to be policy in some Republican states. They want the law repealed, and by squeezing the law so as to make insurance more expensive they hope to turn public opinion against the ACA. It’s cynical, and it’s quite immoral.

Why would even Republicans not want every resident to have health insurance, when such insurance provides such palpable benefits to the economy ? Fewer sick days taken by workers, better health for workers generally, and lower insurance costs ? With lower insurance costs and fatter pay checks, more income available for consumer discretionary spending ? Remember that two-thirds of the ENTIRE economy is consumer spending. Any economy-conscious politician would want as much consumer spending as feasible.

It’s a fascinating question. Since voters all vote – assuming they aren’t kept from voting by various GOP “vote suppression” laws – one would think that the GOP would want to win these votes, not throw them away. Why are they doing this ?

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 ^ 40 times, the GOP-controlled House has voted to repeal the ACA.

The GOP is well funded by huge corporations who view employees as a burden, not an asset; who don’t want to promote employee loyalty, or job satisfaction, and who don’t understand, or give a damn about, the economic impact of stress and poor health. These same companies are – or say they are – delaying to hire new workers because they can’t yet process the ACA’s impact on their health insurance contributions.

We at Here and Sphere do not believe it. What company would delay hiring workers needed to service expanded demand for product or service ? What company would deliberately retard its revenue that way ?

Other companies that fund the GOP are refusing the ACA because, so they claim, their religious values forbid them from insuring women’s reproductive health. This is outrageous. What right does an employer have to impose its religion on employees’ health ? Then there’s the employers that are hiring but only for part time work covering less hours than would require health insurance. Surely this is an unfair labor practice that the NLRB needs to challenge.

It is these corporations which, by huge donations directly to the GOP or by way of ALEC, the legislative drafting arm of America’s anti-ACA, anti-women, anti-civil rights interest groups, are buying the non-compliance of GOP office holders and thereby grievously impacting the course of ACA implementation. Grievous delay is, not, however, going to stand. It will not last long. The Act will be implemented, insurance costs will go down, and eventually the nation might even work its way toward the real health care solution: enrolling all Americans in Medicare.

That would be simple. Unhappily, in politics, simple is never liked by those who profit of complication.

— the Editors / Here and Sphere

THE PRESIDENT’S SPEECH ON RACE IN AMERICA

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President Obama gave an unscripted, 18 minute speech yesterday, on race relations, race perceptions, and racial injustice in America as they live on today, 50 years after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was a speech that touched us at Here and Sphere to the core; it spoke to our soul and to yours. In it the President laid bare the fear and discouragement that black men feel every day as others make clear their wariness of Black men’s presence.

It is horrific to go about knowing that people fear you; that they assume that your presence is a menace. It collapses one’s soul, wounds one’s dignity, cripples one’s confidence. It makes one angry, bitter, determined — not always in a positive way; and this is very understandable. you would react the same.

The specific occasion for the President’s words was People v. Zimmerman. Not the verdict, not even the evidence and testimony, most of it garbled or amateurishly handled. What occasioned the President speaking was simply that the entire mindset which gave rise to the Zimmerman case should never, ever have taken place. Not the profiling of Trayvon Martin, not Zimmerman’s disregard for police advice, not the tracking of Martin. None of which was justified in any way whatsoever. A young man going about his peaceful business was killed as a result.

People, we must do better. We must rid OURSELVES of the fears that corrode us and injure men of color. The President said it all, eloquently as he has ever spoken of it; his speech should be required reading for every American, young and old. To that end, we reprint it entire, as follows :

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THE PRESIDENT: “I wanted to come out here, first of all, to tell you that Jay is prepared for all your questions and is very much looking forward to the session. The second thing is I want to let you know that over the next couple of weeks, there’s going to obviously be a whole range of issues — immigration, economics, et cetera — we’ll try to arrange a fuller press conference to address your questions.

The reason I actually wanted to come out today is not to take questions, but to speak to an issue that obviously has gotten a lot of attention over the course of the last week — the issue of the Trayvon Martin ruling. I gave a preliminary statement right after the ruling on Sunday. But watching the debate over the course of the last week, I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit.

First of all, I want to make sure that, once again, I send my thoughts and prayers, as well as Michelle’s, to the family of Trayvon Martin, and to remark on the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it.

The second thing I want to say is to reiterate what I said on Sunday, which is there’s going to be a lot of arguments about the legal issues in the case — I’ll let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues. The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works. But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling.

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.

There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

Now, this isn’t to say that the African American community is naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact — although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.

And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.

I think the African American community is also not naïve in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else. So folks understand the challenges that exist for African American boys. But they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it and that context is being denied. And that all contributes I think to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.

Now, the question for me at least, and I think for a lot of folks, is where do we take this? How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction? I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through, as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family. But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do.

I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government, the criminal code. And law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.

That doesn’t mean, though, that as a nation we can’t do some things that I think would be productive. So let me just give a couple of specifics that I’m still bouncing around with my staff, so we’re not rolling out some five-point plan, but some areas where I think all of us could potentially focus.

Number one, precisely because law enforcement is often determined at the state and local level, I think it would be productive for the Justice Department, governors, mayors to work with law enforcement about training at the state and local levels in order to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.

When I was in Illinois, I passed racial profiling legislation, and it actually did just two simple things. One, it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped. But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize what they were doing.

And initially, the police departments across the state were resistant, but actually they came to recognize that if it was done in a fair, straightforward way that it would allow them to do their jobs better and communities would have more confidence in them and, in turn, be more helpful in applying the law. And obviously, law enforcement has got a very tough job.

So that’s one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear if state and local governments are receptive. And I think a lot of them would be. And let’s figure out are there ways for us to push out that kind of training.

Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it — if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.

I know that there’s been commentary about the fact that the “stand your ground” laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case. On the other hand, if we’re sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see?

And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

Number three — and this is a long-term project — we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys. And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?

I’m not naïve about the prospects of some grand, new federal program. I’m not sure that that’s what we’re talking about here. But I do recognize that as President, I’ve got some convening power, and there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes, and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed — I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation. And we’re going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.

And then, finally, I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.

And let me just leave you with a final thought that, as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I seem them interact, they’re better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.

And so we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues. And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did; and that along this long, difficult journey, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.

Thank you, guys.”

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—- posted by Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere