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Iran on Edge

The Rouhani Tsunami: A Presidential Phone Call Offers Another Iranian Surprise

September 28th 2013

Rowhani

Capping a week full of headlines, controversy, spectacle and schmoozing, Iran's new president Hassan Rouhani made history on Friday by concluding his inaugural visit to the United States with an unprecedented telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama. In a perfect diplomatic minuet, the call was invited by Iranian officials and initiated by the White House. The conversation ended nearly 35 years of silence between the two leaderships and inspired hopes, as expressed by President Obama, that "we can reach a comprehensive solution" to the Iranian nuclear crisis and potentially even more — the start of a new relationship between America and Iran.

The phone call followed another historic first, a meeting between Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The news sparked giddiness among many Iranians on social media, where an account linked to Rouhani announced the call and recounted the details only moments before Obama spoke before a hastily-organized press conference in Washington, D.C. to do the same. However, upon his arrival at Tehran's Mehrbad airport, Iran's president was greeted with a more dissonant tone, as his effusive supporters were joined by a small group of hardliners hurling shoes and eggs in protest. It was a small but stark reminder of the obstacles the Iranian regime will have to navigate if it is to amend even slightly one of the defining elements of its raison d’être, antagonism toward America. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Syrian Rebels: Demand Radical Islamism; U. S.: We Can’t Hear You!

September 27th 2013

Syrian Rebels

Can it be more obvious? Thirteen Syrian rebel groups–including the most important in Aleppo and Damascus–demand an Islamist state in Syria and say they don’t care what the official rebel, U.S.-backed politicians say.

By the way, only one of these groups is an al-Qaida group, Jabhat al-Nusra. There is also the large Salafi Islamist group, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya. The others include the powerful Liwa al-Tawhid (Aleppo) and Liwa al-Islam. Both groups operated as part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) umbrella.

What about the U.S-backed Free Syrian Army? As the GLORIA Center’s Syria expert Dr. Jonathan Spyer put it: “This is much of the Free Syrian Army.”

The Syrian rebel statement, distancing these militias from the FSA’s leadership said, “These forces call on all military and civilian groups to unite in a clear Islamic context that… is based on sharia (Islamic) law, making it the sole source of legislation”. “The [Syrian] National Coalition and the proposed government under Ahmad Tomeh [the Obama Administration- supported “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood puppet who wields little power] does not represent us, nor do we recognize it,” said 13 of Syria’s most powerful Islamist rebel groups. Read more ..


Broken Government

Cruz Ruse

September 26th 2013

Ted Cruz

If only Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had been correct last March when he criticized House Republicans for their “meaningless show votes” to repeal ObamaCare, insisting that Congress could defund it with the votes of Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate alone. “We don’t need a single Democrat vote,” the freshman senator said, knowing it wasn’t true.

If only his Don’t Fund Obamacare website was telling the truth with its declaration that “Republicans in Congress can stop Obamacare if they refuse to fund it.” If only his marathon Senate floor speech this week was actually a filibuster that could stop a vote, instead of a show Cruz sought permission for from the Senate Democratic leader. Not only would it have been less inauthentic and goofy, but then his website would have actually been correct with its headline urging visitors to “Watch the Obamacare filibuster live.”

How many of the 1.7 million petition signers on the website, many of whom have clicked on the green bar that reads “donate,” actually believe the Affordable Care Act is about to be stopped with their support? If only all those supporters could be rewarded with results — or at least the truth — instead of being had.

But as Cruz succeeded in snookering the grass roots, he built his brand, his email list and his donor list. Along the way, he also deliberately threw House Republicans under the bus. He and the outside groups that are supporting his Cruz-ade to shut down the government if any spending bill funds the new healthcare law barraged House Republicans with letters, emails and phone calls, urging them to do something they couldn’t do. Nowhere in his speeches at town halls this summer, or on his website, has he informed the public that it would take supermajorities of two-thirds of the House and Senate to override a veto the president would surely sign after any attempt to defund his signature legislative accomplishment. Read more ..


Broken Goverment

DC Ignores Jobs and The Economy

September 25th 2013

Employee applications

There are two interrelated myths of politics today that drive me crazy. The first is that Republicans spend all their time catering to Wall Street and the financiers of the economy. The other fairy tale is that politicians in both parties are guided by poll results.

Neither of these legends is true, and recent weeks have shown this to be the case more than ever before. Wall Street wants Republicans to do something — anything — to get this economy going.

Polls are consistently showing that “job creation and the economy” top every list of the most important issues or problems facing the states and the nation as a whole. Yet Republicans are dogging other rabbits. We need to get back to chasing the issue that has been our nation’s top priority for several years running: jobs. Read more ..


The World on Edge

The Myth of a United Nations

September 24th 2013

UN HQ NYC

The U.N. General Assembly’s 68th session will open its annual “general debate” in New York on Tuesday, with leadoff speakers including President Obama and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. There is every prospect that Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani will exchange the handshake Mr. Obama has longed for ever since his 2009 inaugural address.

For some, that handshake alone justifies the U.N.’s existence, as though the financial costs the United States bear (assessed contributions of 22 percent of most U.N. agency budgets), relentless political attacks against us and close friends such as Israel, assaults on free expression under the guise of religious tolerance, endless treaty negotiations where the hidden agenda is constraining America’s flexibility and influence, and countless other intrusions on issues properly decided by our own constitutional system were of little consequence. Read more ..


Islam on Edge

Wave of Islamic Mass Murder Strikes Across the World

September 23rd 2013

Pakistan religious minorities

While Islamist terror groups attacked targets in Kenya, Yemen and Iraq over the weekend, the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for two suicide bombers killing upwards of 75 Pakistani Christians as they left church services on Sunday. "The double-suicide bombing outside a Catholic church [in Peshawar, Pakistan] has killed about 75 Pakistanis. It's considered one of the worst attacks on Christians in that predominately Islamic nation," said Hettinger, a former member of the police intelligence unit.

The two bombers detonated their explosive-laden vests as churchgoers exited All Saints Church on Sunday morning following a Catholic Mass, police reported. As if police weren't busy enough dealing with the casualties and the crime scene investigation, they also had to contend with a protest by relatives and friends of the victims who complained about their government's inability to protect them from radical Muslims such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Read more ..

Broken Government

No Surrenders

September 22nd 2013

Ted Cruz

Earlier this week, there were reports and commentary to the effect that the House Republican leadership had surrendered and fallen in with those conservatives who think that the continuing resolution to fund the government can be used to stop funding for Obamacare. Then there were claims that Senator Cruz had given up on fighting Obamacare in the Senate. Both of these perceptions were false, and they’re related.

Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor are just as convinced as ever that a partial government shutdown would not advance any conservative goal, and just as determined to avoid one. They have merely made a tactical retreat in that effort. They want to pass a continuing resolution that denies funding to Obamacare, thus demonstrating that it’s the outcome House Republicans favor. If, as expected, the Senate defeats it, they then want to pass another continuing resolution that leaves Obamacare alone: Shutdown avoided. Boehner and Cantor would like to see Obamacare defunded, but they are not willing to let the government shut down over it–and even as they announced that they would go ahead with a vote on the resolution that Senator Cruz et al are promoting, they said nothing to the contrary.

Senator Cruz understood what Boehner and Cantor intended even if some reporters did not. (Standard disclaimer.) That’s the context for his much-criticized statement that if the Senate passes funds for Obamacare, it will be up to the House to hold firm. That didn’t mean that he was going to “wave the white flag of surrender,” as Rep. Sean Duffy (R., Wisc.) put it. (Anonymous aides to House leaders were quoted making similar points in nastier terms.) Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Iran and Syria: Peace in Our Time

September 21st 2013

Hassan Rowhani

Rumor has it that big things are going to happen between the United States and Iran next week at the United Nations General Assembly. Count me among the really excited for what promises to be a new world of openness and communication between the freshly minted Rouhani government and the slightly less fresh Obama administration. Because, after all, what could go wrong?

But I have a little confession: Something is gnawing away on the periphery of my diplomatic euphoria. I’m a little worried about the Syria precedent. What’s that, you ask? Isn’t that last week’s problem? So…I dunno…August? It’s true, we have a deal with the Russians. The Syrians are going to cough up a comprehensive list of their chemical weapons this week soonish. It’s true, Assad signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. And he is a man who, once an international obligation is made, really sticks to it. I mean, look at how strictly Syria has adhered to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (What were the Israelis doing there in 2007 anyway?) Read more ..


Broken Government

We Have the Tools to Prevent Another Shooting Spree

September 20th 2013

Sandy Hook Shooting

As a psychiatrist, I have frequently seen psychotic patients brought into the emergency room by police, only to be released into the night because of a toxic combination of restrictive commitment laws and a desperate shortage of psychiatric beds. For the most part, such sad stories affect only the patients themselves and their families. On a few horrific occasions, they are a missed opportunity to prevent a larger, bloodier tragedy.

We will never know his precise motivations, yet it is becoming increasingly clear how Aaron Alexis, who police say shot and killed 12 people at the Navy Yard in Washington this week, fell through some cracks in our mental health system.

On Aug. 7, police in Newport, Rhode Island, responded to a call from Alexis, who was staying at a Marriott hotel. According to the police, Alexis said he had an argument at the airport with a stranger who had sent three people to follow him and who were keeping him awake by talking to him through the walls and by sending vibrations to his body from a microwave machine. He said he had already switched hotels twice to escape them. Read more ..


Europe on Edge

The German Elections and the Euro Crisis

September 19th 2013

Spanish protesters

The German federal elections on September 22nd will have importance well beyond Germany’s borders, particularly in Europe. However, the effects on the rest of Europe are likely to be subtle rather than constituting a decisive turning point. There is also considerable uncertainty about the outcome and its immediate consequences.

What we know
Merkel will remain in charge.
To be fair, this is not an absolute certainty but rather a very high probability. Polls clearly show that her parliamentary faction will be the single largest, with over a third of the seats. That lead, combined with the increasing fragmentation of the party structure in Germany, makes it difficult at this point to envision a viable coalition without her faction, although it is not impossible. Her status as the current Chancellor, her personal popularity, and control of the largest parliamentary faction effectively would guarantee her the Chancellorship yet again in any such coalition. This would give her a great deal of control over government policy, even if she is forced to share power with the Social Democrats rather than her much weaker current partner, the Free Democrats. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Pew Poll Says 62% of Palestinians Say Suicide Bombing Is Justified

September 18th 2013

Hamas Kid

A new Pew Research Survey has shown that a large majority –– 62% –– of Palestinians justify the use of suicide terrorism. In the words of the Pew Survey, “in some countries, substantial minorities of Muslims say attacks on civilians are at least sometimes justified to defend Islam from its enemies; in the Palestinian territories, a majority of Muslims hold this view.” Among Palestinians, 37% said suicide bombing was often justified and 25% said it was sometimes justified. Only 16% of Palestinians said that suicide bombing is never justified (‘Muslim Publics Share Concerns about Extremist Groups,’ Pew Research Survey, September 10, 2013).

This chilling finding replicates results in numerous other surveys in recent years showing strong Palestinian support for terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians:

October 2010: A Palestinian Survey (PSR) Research Unit poll (no. 37) found that 49% of Palestinians support suicide bombing attacks upon Israelis, while a virtually equal number (49.2%) oppose such attacks. 14% of Palestinians strongly favored such acts of terrorism, while 6% of Palestinians strongly opposed them (PSR Research Unit, ‘Palestinian Public Opinion Poll No (37),’ October 24, 2010). Read more ..


Broken Healthcare

Health Insurance Coverage Rises in 2012, Driven by Increase in Medicare Enrollment

September 17th 2013

Medicare Protest2

The Census Bureau published new estimates of health insurance coverage showing improvements in coverage in 2012 compared with 2011. The percentage of Americans without health insurance declined 0.3 percentage points in 2012, falling from 15.7 percent to 15.4 percent. Most of the improvement was concentrated in the population under 35, especially among children. This is the second successive year of improvement in insurance coverage. In 2011 noncoverage fell 0.6 percentage points, declining from 16.3 percent to 15.7 percent. Noncoverage rates spiked in the Great Recession, increasing 1.6 percentage points between 2007 and 2010.

Following a pattern we have seen since the end of the economic expansion of the late 1990s, improvements in coverage were mainly traceable to government programs or government mandates. In 2012 government health insurance coverage rose 0.4 percentage points while employment-based coverage fell 0.2 percentage points. Since 2000 employer sponsored health insurance plans have provided coverage for a steadily declining percentage of the population. In 2000, 65.1 percent of Americans obtained coverage under an employer-sponsored plan; in 2012 only 54.9 percent of Americans were covered by employer plans. Read more ..


America and Iran

America and Iran: Backchanneling In Plain Sight

September 16th 2013

Hassan Rowhani

President Barack Obama confirmed in an interview broadcast today that he has exchanged letters with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in what may be the first successfully reciprocated communication between leaders of the two countries. The confirmation vaults what had been a quietly evolving process of bilateral diplomacy between the two long-time adversaries into the public eye at a particularly sensitive moment — immediately on the heels of a U.S.-Russian deal to avert military action in Syria and right on the eve of Rouhani's departure for his first-ever visit to the United States.

In my recently-released Brookings Essay on Iran, I make the case that Rouhani was elected in order to staunch Iran's economic troubles by reorienting its approach to the world. This latest development only strengthens my conviction that what we are witnessing is a historic shift by Iran — one that is nowhere near complete and that may still go up in smoke, but one that if carried to fruition could result in a reduction in the threats posed by the Islamic Republic to its neighbors and to its own citizens. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Meet the Next Peace Laureate

September 15th 2013

Putin

On September 12, two days before the announcement on the agreement between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on a plan to destroy Syria's chemical weapons--an agreement that has yet to be approved by Bashar Assad--Pravda reported that Vladimir Putin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Sergei Komkov, President of the Russian Foundation for Education, who must have known already that the agreement was in Putin's pocket. 

Komkov's letter to the Nobel Committee praises Putin's contribution to the peaceful settlement of the conflict in Syria, arguing that Putin showed his commitment to peace in practice: "Being the leader of one of the leading countries of the world, he makes every effort to maintain peace and tranquility in his own state and actively contributes to the peaceful resolution of all conflicts arising on the planet." This gave the recommendation the special oomph to justify the nomination of this human rights abuser, who has been busy oppressing his own people and giving aid and succor to criminals like Bashar Assad and the Iranian Mullahs.

According to the agreement reached in Geneva on Saturday, Syria has one week to provide a complete list of its chemical assets and their locations. "The first international inspection of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile" will take place in November, and the destruction or removal of the weapons should be completed by the middle of 2014. The speed at which 1,000 tons of "sulfur, mustard gas and the ingredients for sarin and the nerve agent VX" is unprecedented.

An expert on chemical weapons at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies commented: "This situation has no precedent. They are cramming what would probably be five or six years' worth of work into a period of several months, and they are undertaking this in an extremely difficult security environment due to the ongoing civil war." Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

FBI Files Reveal al-Qaeda Leader Invited to Visit Pentagon

September 15th 2013

Arab terrorist

The American Islamist who helped to radicalize convicted multi-murderer Maj. Nidal Hasan, a U.S. Army psychiatrist, was a guest at the Pentagon even while FBI agents followed his movements before he left the United States, according to more than 250 pages of FBI surveillance reports obtain and released on Friday by a public-interest watchdog in Washington, D.C.

According to officials with Judicial Watch as well as a news story aired on Fox News Channel on Friday, the files reveal the incompetence of the U.S. national security establishment, including the counterterrorism maven Richard Clark, when it came to intelligence-gathering regarding American jihadist Anwar al-Awlaqi.

Read more ..

Broken Government

Congress Must Be Prepared for the Worst to Protect Americans

September 14th 2013

US Capital Day

I write this on the bright and sunny morning of Sept. 11. Exactly 12 years ago, I was on my way to Dulles Airport. As I drove on the access road, convertible top down, I marveled at the beauty of the day. When I parked and went inside to get my boarding pass, the counter was abuzz with the news that, apparently, a small plane had wandered off course and hit the World Trade Center. I took the van across to the United terminal, and watched the news coverage for a bit while I waited to board my plane—and saw the news that a second plane had hit the towers.

On the jet bridge, we were stopped and turned back—air traffic had been frozen as it became clear that this was not some errant pilot but something bigger. I retrieved my car and drove home, and turned on the television and watched, transfixed and horrified.

By late afternoon, the news was that United Flight 93 had crashed in Pennsylvania and that brave passengers had thwarted hijackers from their terrorist mission. What made UA 93 different from the other flights that hit the Pentagon and the Twin Towers? It had left Newark, N.J., 45 minutes late, giving its passengers an opportunity to communicate with the outside world and learn that they were a part of a suicidal terrorist plot, not a standard hijacking. Read more ..


The Media on Edge

Laughable Time Magazine Report Shows Correspondent is Clueless

September 13th 2013

Dome-of-the-Rock

The latest dispatch from TIME magazine’s Jerusalem bureau chief Karl Vick would just be laughable if it wasn’t so downright ridiculous.

In a piece entitled “Cheer Up, Obama. Israel Is Happy With Your Syria Plan,” Vick purports to gauge “the verdict from Israel” on the outcome of President Obama’s diplomatic oscillation this week over what to do about the alleged recent use of chemical weapons by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

After earlier bringing the U.S. to the brink of a strike against Syria, Obama ended up agreeing in principle to a Russian proposal to allow Assad to give up his WMD arsenal to international control. According to Vick, Israel then fell in love with President Obama. He is now “being hailed as a model of principled resolve, a Churchillian figure,” he claims. Read more ..


Broken Economy

Five Years After Lehman, We're Much Safer

September 13th 2013

Economic Collapse

It is almost five years since the worst phase of the financial crisis began with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and the ensuing market panic. We are much safer now, and will be safer still going forward, but this is not the message that the public hears.

It is fashionable and easy to claim that the fundamental risks remain and that the efforts of regulators and politicians are simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, or perhaps even counter-productive. This ignores how markets and regulation really work and the major improvements that have been made through the Dodd-Frank Act, the Basel III global agreement on capital and liquidity, and safety improvements forced by market participants acting in their own interest.

The most important single improvement is probably the dramatic increase in bank capital. In particular, regulators are now demanding that a bank's common shareholders fund about a tenth of a big bank's assets, adjusted for their riskiness, whereas the earlier rules required only 2 percent be funded by common shareholders. Read more ..


Broken Education

The DOJ Attempt to Block School Vouchers in Louisiana Undermines Civil Rights

September 12th 2013

Education - Child at Blackboard

The U.S. Department of Justice has entered into a lawsuit opposing Louisiana’s voucher system.    The state’s program, passed into law in 2012, offers a voucher to attend a private school to students from families with incomes below 250 percent of the poverty line attending low performing public schools.  Parents apply for the vouchers and to date about 90 percent of the recipients are black.

The DOJ is not intervening as you might naively expect because of concerns about the constitutionality of voucher programs, or because they believe that private schools in Louisiana discriminate, or because they think the state has designed its voucher program in a way that discriminates against minorities.  No.  Their argument is that the voucher program will have an impact on federal desegregation orders that require certain school districts to achieve a racial distribution in each of their schools that mirrors the racial composition of the district as a whole.  So, if 40 percent of the school-aged population in these districts is black then each school has a target of 40 percent black enrollment. Read more ..


The Way We Were

Same-Sex Marriage

September 12th 2013

Armstrong_Williams

I have been asked over and over again what I think of same-sex marriage. I can offer no easy answer because same sex marriage is a very complex issue for people of faith. When I look to the Bible, Genesis tells me that God created man and woman and that together they will become husband and wife.  Leviticus commands that it is an abomination for a man to lie with another man as if with a woman. But is also in Jesus’ teachings to love thy neighbor and render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. 
 
Christians believe that the New Testament has surpassed the Old, giving us a new covenant. Consequently, obscure tenants of the ancient Judaic faith--such as growing out the forelocks, eating Kosher, and wearing clothes with blended fabrics- have been discarded. However, many believe that some of the Mosaic Laws are still applicable. The declaration of marriage being between a man and woman is one of them.
 
I understand same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue, which are  rights belonging to an individual by virtue of citizenship, especially the fundamental freedoms and privileges guaranteed by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and by subsequent acts of Congress. These include civil liberties, due process, equal protection of the laws, and freedom from discrimination. However, it is a moral issue for the church. The church operates under certain behavior based on a code of conduct.  There are plenty of individuals within the church who are engaged in same-sex relationships.  Read more ..


Obama's Second Term

While We Wait

September 11th 2013

Barack Obama with Flag

A flurry of diplomatic activity has overtaken the Senate debate on the use of force by the United States against Syria as punishment for/deterrence against the use of chemical weapons. The world awaits the next meeting, the next announcement, the next slip-of-the-tongue, or the first bomb.

The interregnum is a good time to note that the president has been blaming the Iraq war for American reticence on war in Syria. "I'm not sure that we're ever going to get a majority of the American people -- after over a decade of war, after what happened in Iraq," he told PBS. What, exactly does the president think, "happened in Iraq" and why does he think the war was only "a decade" long?

The Iraq War began in 1990 with the invasion of Kuwait and as a direct outgrowth of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, in which the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein. President George H.W. Bush said of the occupation of Kuwait, "This aggression will not stand," and indeed it did not. But when Kuwait was liberated, the U.S.-led coalition made a decision not to invade Iraq and not to depose Saddam, but according to Gen. Colin Powell's memoirs, "our practical intention to leave Baghdad enough power to survive as a threat to an Iran that remained bitterly hostile toward the United States." A ceasefire, then, and political accommodation with a properly chastened Saddam. UN Security Council Resolution 687 was duly approved on 3 April 1991, including the following clauses:

7. Invites Iraq to reaffirm unconditionally its obligations under the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, signed at Geneva on 17 June 1925, and to ratify the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, of 10 April 1972; Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Are Non al-Qaeda Syrian Rebels "Moderate"

September 10th 2013

Syrian Jihadis

For elected representatives and the public to have the necessary discussion regarding action in Syria, it is crucial that a clear picture of the realities on the ground in Syria be presented.

Regarding the Assad regime and its apologists, nothing needs to be cleared up. This is a regime characterized by murderous brutality since it first emerged in the 1960s. It has been perhaps the single most destabilizing factor in the Levant throughout the years of its existence. An apparent use of nerve gas against its own civilians fits entirely with the more general pattern of its behavior.

But as the U.S. grapples with the issue of what, if anything, is to be done, it is clear that a rival campaign of deception is underway: an attempt to present the Syrian armed rebels as consisting in the main of “moderate” and pro-democratic forces. If only that were so: in reality, the spectrum of orientation among the observable Syrian rebel units spans from a Muslim Brotherhood-type outlook to open identification with al-Qaeda. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Obama, Syria, and the Perils of 'Red Line' Declarations

September 9th 2013

Obama pensive with flag

Amidst a heated and confused debate on the question of U.S. intervention in Syria, President Obama made one of his infrequent appearances before the press to explain the red line he laid down more than a year ago regarding the use of chemical weapons. “First of all, I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line,” Obama said.

Setting aside the fact that this is, at best, a tortured locution (as the president did indeed say, “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized”), Obama’s attempt to rewrite his own rhetoric has obscured an important lesson: Red lines are too often idle threats that hamstring the good guys without constraining the bad. Predictability in international affairs is a virtue. The better rogue nations understand the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, the less likely they will transgress. Read more ..


Venezuela on Edge

Venezuela’s Supreme Court Dismisses Electoral Fraud Charges

September 8th 2013

Henrique Capriles Radonski

The war of nerves between Venezuela’s ruling chavistas and its battered adversaries intensified this week, following the decision of the country’s Supreme Court, the TSJ, to summarily dismiss opposition charges of electoral fraud during last April’s presidential election.

The charges, filed by Henrique Capriles, the leader of the opposition MUD coalition, were based on thousands of reports of electoral irregularities submitted by independent observers on election day. Capriles, who was defeated by Hugo Chavez’s chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, by a little over 200,000 votes, insists that he was the true victor. Maduro’s triumph, Capriles says, was handed to him by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, or CNE, a nominally autonomous body that has been fatally compromised by fourteen years of chavista rule.

Daniel Duquenal, a dissident blogger who monitors the macabre twists and turns of Venezuelan politics, believes that the TSJ decision is a stark sign of Maduro’s determination to dispense with the niceties of the electoral process. Notice has been served to the opposition, Duquenal wrote this week, that “the days of ‘dissent’ are over, and that we are moving toward a more classical form of dictatorship.” Read more ..


Broken Government

By Dropping Syria In Congress's Lap, Obama Creates The Worst Of The Bad Old Days

September 7th 2013

US Capital Day

In the olden days, before the 75 percent debt ratio, when compromise meant achievement rather than dishonor, service in the Congress was rewarding, fulfilling, and often, fun. But, even in those kinder, gentler times, there were occasional days when Congress was a pain, even to its most enthusiastic members.

The bad days were times when members were called upon to make decisions on problems where there were no apparent good choices, and no good outcomes. On those days, win or lose; right or wrong; members had to take political heat from friend and foe, often to no good purpose.

Those tough votes might have been on Congressional pay raises, or supporting one’s president when his position was debatable, or an impeachment vote. Congress has always had to face difficult votes from time to time. Read more ..


Broken Economy

America’s Broken Dream

September 6th 2013

People lined up for jobs

The United States has long been viewed as the “land of opportunity,” where those who work hard get ahead. Belief in this fundamental feature of America’s national identity has persisted, even though inequality has been gradually rising for decades. But, in recent years, the trend toward extremes of income and wealth has accelerated significantly, owing to demographic shifts, the economy’s skills bias, and fiscal policy. Is the collapse of the American dream at hand?

From 1997 to 2007, the share of income accruing to the top 1 perceent of US households increased by 13.5 percentage points. This is equivalent to shifting $1.1 trillion of Americans’ total annual income to these families – more than the total income of the bottom 40 percent of US households.

Inequality’s precise impact on individual well-being remains controversial, partly because of the complex nature of the metrics needed to gauge it accurately. But, while objective indicators do not provide a complete picture of the relationship between income inequality and human well-being, how they are interpreted sends important signals to people within and across societies. Read more ..


Broken Education

How to Make College More Affordable? Improve Productivity

September 5th 2013

university students and laptops

In recent decades, the cost of going to college has skyrocketed, more than doubling in inflation-adjusted terms since the 1960s. There are three ways to make college more affordable. The first is for government or philanthropy to pick up more of the tab. The second is by borrowing the money in the hopes that the increased earnings that graduates receive will enable the borrower to pay back the loan. The third is by improving the productivity of the sector so that students learn as much (or more) but at a lower (or the same) cost.

So far, students and their families have coped by relying more on assistance from government or philanthropy or by borrowing large sums of money. While state governments have been cutting back on subsidies to community colleges and state universities, the federal government has taken up some of the slack and is now spending a total of $137 billion a year on subsidized loans, grants, and tax credits. Borrowing has also risen sharply. Outstanding student loan debt is now over $1 trillion and almost a sixth of borrowers are more than 90 days delinquent on their payments. Continuing to rely on taxpayer support during a time of fiscal constraint, and on the ability of students to borrow large sums of money with no certainty than they can repay their debts is not a sustainable policy. We must address the third reason for rising costs: the failure to improve the productivity of the higher education sector. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

No Way To Launch a War in Syria...or a Punitive Action

September 4th 2013

Bomb Damage

President Obama’s August 31 decision to seek Congressional support for military action against Syria caught nearly everyone by surprise. Many in the Middle East and elsewhere see it as a sign of White House indecision—or worse, that the president would not mind being able to blame Congress for not taking military action. Recovering presidential credibility will not be easy.

Over the past two years, the president has taken a cautious attitude toward Syria. Having extracted the United States from Iraq and on the verge of a significant reduction in the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, he shows little desire to engage in yet another conflict in that part of the world.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has waged an abhorrent military campaign, leaving some 100,000 Syrians dead and millions displaced. He has inflicted a horrific humanitarian tragedy on his own people. In an ideal world, the international community would react with more than just revulsion—but it has not and likely will not. Russian support for Assad assures that the UN Security Council will take no serious action. Read more ..


Broken Government

The Budget Battle

September 3rd 2013

Capitol Hill

What’s more confused, the Obama administration’s Middle East policy or its economic policy? Really kind of a pick-’em situation. While the Syrian befuddlement is more in the headlines right now, the brewing battle over the budget and the debt ceiling will soon remind America of the White House’s illogical obsession with more federal tax increases despite a glacial economic recovery. As Treasury Secretary Jack Lew recently told CNBC, “The president made clear he was prepared to do tough things on entitlement programs, but those tough actions on entitlement programs require balance in terms of revenue both for fairness and . . . for economic results.” Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Is Syria a Terminal Case?

September 2nd 2013

Syrian Dead

The world has watched Syria being destroyed from within for more than two years. The death toll has mounted steadily, month after month, and refugees continue to pour into neighbouring countries. The country’s infrastructure is being obliterated. With 100,000 dead and likely more to come, millions internally and externally displaced, and thousands imprisoned, injured, maimed, and psychologically scarred, it is getting worse everyday.

It isn’t getting better politically either. The Assad regime continues to kill indiscriminately in a desperate effort to regain control. The merciless army it has deployed to wipe out dissent is destroying entire rebel-held towns. The horrifying chemical weapons attacks it most likely carried out on innocent civilians may be only a terrible prelude to more massacres.

Syria’s secular rebels are losing ground to hardened, better financed fighters with ties to networks that provide them with superior weapons to take on the regime. Radicals from around the world have been pouring into Syria to fight the regime under the al-Qaeda banner. The watching international community repeatedly talks of ‘reconciliation’ even as the armed parties express their willingness to kill or be killed to “liberate the country”. Whatever their cause, the fighters speak of having only one choice: “Victory or death”. Read more ..


Latin America on Edge

Latin America and American Intimidation Habits

September 1st 2013

Rafael Correa

When Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa indignantly denounced the U.S. spy program and spoke up in defense of whistleblower and leaker Edward J. Snowden, the United States Senate took up the issue, fearing that Correa’s next move would be to grant Snowden asylum. Senator Charles Schumer (D—N.Y.) wanted Ecuador to be punished preemptively, pressing his colleagues in Congress to eliminate the $23 million USD in trade preferences that Ecuador enjoyed under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act.

This sort of U.S. intimidation used to work on smaller Latin American nations like Ecuador. But Quito was insouciant about the threat, responding by simply canceling Ecuador’s participation in the U.S. tariff reduction program. Furthermore, Correa saw this as an opportunity to mock the United States, offering $23 million USD to the United States for “human rights training.”

United States Secretary of State John Kerry visited Bogotá, Colombia earlier this month, meeting with President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, as well as the foreign minister and the defense minister. Kerry moved on to Brasília, Brazil the next day for meetings with President Dilma Rousseff and Foreign Minister Antonio de Aguiar Patriota. It was Kerry’s first visit to Latin America as Secretary of State, and a most disappointing debut.

Kerry spent most of his energy in an unpersuasive effort to defend the Obama administration over embarrassing revelations of mass U.S. eavesdropping on Latin American nationals, promising a fuller explanation at some unspecified later date. Kerry, who in fact developed a reputation as a senator attuned to the sensitivities of Latin America, labored to shore up sagging U.S. influence in the region. He dutifully rehearsed the conventional U.S. agenda for the region: more neoliberal economic policies, support for the U.S.-led war on illegal drugs, and cooperation in stemming the flow of unauthorized immigration. Read more ..


Broken Education

Don't Stifle the Schools of Tomorrow

August 31st 2013

Student at Blackboard-Togo

For all of the doom and gloom surrounding the American education system, it is an exciting time to be involved in schooling.

Yes, it is true that on international assessments, American students have been found to lag behind their peers around the world. On the most recent iteration of the Trends in International Math and Science Study exam, U.S. eight graders scored just above the international average in math, placing them in the same pack as Hungary and Slovenia, well below Asian nations like South Korea and Japan.

It is also true that reports show an intellectual gulf between where students are when graduating from high school and where they need to be for college. ACT, for example, reported that only 25 percent of students that took its exam hit college readiness benchmarks in all four subjects. But at the same time, all across the country numerous organizations are rethinking how to deliver instruction and redefining what it means to be a "school" and a "teacher." Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Losing Isn't Better

August 30th 2013

John Kerry

"It's a pity they can’t both lose.” So Henry Kissinger famously said about Iran and Iraq during their long and ugly war in the 1980s. Having squandered the many opportunities created by the uprising in Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and with the Syrian opposition increasingly dominated by al Qaeda-associated fighters, this has now become the de facto policy of the Obama administration.

Even accounting for Secretary of State John Kerry’s finely crafted expression of outrage at “the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons,” actions he called a “moral obscenity,” the White House remains strategically and militarily ambiguous. Interviewed on PBS NewsHour, President Obama repeatedly struck a “jaw-jaw” tone that undercut Kerry’s “war-war” speech. “I have not made a decision” to attack Syria, he told Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

President Obama has Big Choices on Syria

August 29th 2013

Free Syrian Army fighters

What will the commander-in-chief order our military to do in Syria, and what will it accomplish?

President Obama has two big sets of choices should he want to launch military action against Syria: What to do before the first shot is fired, and what to do once military action commences. As U.S. warships cruise off Syria, Obama’s national security team has already presented him with a menu of options. For a president who likes to take his time deliberating, decision time is fast approaching.

Question one: Go it alone? The president abhors unilateralism; it was one of his big objections to the war in Iraq, and to earlier intervention in Libya. But the UN Security Council is a nonstarter, given veto promises by close Syria ally Russia. No wonder the State Department said on Wednesday the U.S. would do what it needs to do with or without the UN. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

America’s Impending Defeat in Syria

August 29th 2013

Barack Obama in Thought

It’s really pretty simple. The American people understandably don’t want to go to war with Syria — not to mention with Syria’s patron, Iran — and especially not for the goal of putting the Muslim Brotherhood and murderous Islamists into power there. Going to war is a serious matter, to say the least. There’s no assurance how long it will take, how many lives it will cost, and what turns it may take. And the Middle East has just had several examples of these wars.

Iraq and Afghanistan cost a lot of money and lives as they extended for a much longer time than had been expected. In addition, they derailed the Bush administration’s electoral fortunes and domestic programs. With the main emphasis of the Obama administration being a fundamental transformation of America, such distractions are not desired. Read more ..


Cities on Edge

Wanted: A Modern, Global Mayor

August 28th 2013

New York skyline dusk

New York’s upcoming mayoral election is a pivotal one, and not just because Mayor Bloomberg is leaving office after 12 intense years. This election also coincides with a remarkable shift in power and leadership in the country as a whole, which is radically altering and elevating the role and responsibility of mayors.

New York City’s mayor, executive of the nation’s largest city by far, should be among the leaders of this new, ambitious group of public chief executives.

It is no secret that U.S. cities face enormous challenges. The country needs to gain 10 million jobs to make up for the jobs lost in the Great Recession and to keep up with population growth; the vast majority of those jobs will be created in cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas. We also need better jobs to counter the sharp growth in poverty and near-poverty: Between 2000 and 2011, the number of poor and near-poor in the United States increased from 81 million to 107 million. Read more ..


The Media on Edge

Beware al-Jazeera Coming to America

August 27th 2013

al-Jazeera

Al-Jazeera is "breaking in with something we think is unique, and are confident, with our guts and some research, that the American people are looking for," according to its America's president Kate O'Brian. If she is claiming "guts" and "research" are among the qualities sought by American viewers, she may be right, although what puts Al-Jazeera uniquely in a position to provide either is unclear. In a Time.com article, Al-Jazeera political analyst Marwan Bishara worried that it would become "too American," with too many American accents and "watered down" journalism – hardly the stuff of unique "guts."

The real concern for American viewers is not the quality of the product on the screen, but rather two mostly hidden issues: the government behind the network, and the difference between Al-Jazeera's Arabic and English versions. Read more ..


Broken Healthcare

Fear-Mongering Won't Scuttle Obamacare

August 26th 2013

Obamacare

Opponents of Obamacare know that time is not on their side. If they can’t kill the health care law by threatening to shut down the government, as some Republicans are suggesting, the game will be over, and they know it. That’s because there is an expiration date on their long-running campaign to scare the bejesus out of Americans about the awful things that will happen if health care reform is not mortally wounded by year’s end.

Fear mongering has a shelf life. The strategy the president’s opponents have been using to influence public opinion is based on the premise that people fear the unknown. Most of us just don’t like uncertainty.

President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law on March 23, 2010, but the most important consumer benefits and protections won’t go into effect until January 1, 2014. That has given the president’s political adversaries three and a half years to spread lies and misinformation. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

The Day After Assad Wins: The Hard Truths About Post-War Syria

August 25th 2013

pro-Assad Rally Damascus

We will probably never know whether Bashar al-Assad lost any sleep over the horrific chemical weapons attacks he allegedly ordered during his country's ongoing civil war. But Syria's president has probably already taken solace in the fact that, despite the thousands of Syrians who have lost their lives in the fighting, things could have easily gone worse for him personally. With insurgents losing ground to the regime's forces and succumbing to ever more infighting among themselves, it seems increasingly likely that Assad will avoid losing the war -- which will qualify, in this context, as an outright win.

For the many countries, including the United States, that have based their policies on the hope that Assad would eventually be forced from power, Assad's resilience has probably come as a disappointment. (But given their generally indecisive interventions in the war, the outcome should not come as a shock.) Nevertheless, Washington and its allies need to reckon with the bitter trajectory that Syria is now on. The regime that emerges from the civil war will be more oppressive and more anarchic than the brutal yet stable one that existed before the war. Read more ..


Broken Education

College Costs Will Keep Rising Under Obama Plan

August 24th 2013

Graduates

Colleges’ exploitation of young Americans through rapidly rising and increasingly exorbitant fees is a national scandal that can no longer be ignored. In his college tour this week, President Barack Obama is speaking at length about what he intends to do about it, after promising “tough love” on higher education for the last two years. Some of what he proposes is good in principle; some is very bad.

He wants to expand access to information on colleges by having the Department of Education issue a ranking of institutions relating outcomes to costs. The government has the power, via the Internal Revenue Service, to get some interesting data on college graduates’ earnings, and providing that data to consumers would be useful. Even independent college rankings -- such as those published by U.S. News & World Report and Forbes (the latter compiled by my Center for College Affordability and Productivity) -- could be improved with more data.

Tying federal funding after 2018 to the new federal ratings, which in turn incorporate performance measures such as graduation rates, may be a step toward giving colleges incentives to take cost reduction seriously. But the potential for unintended and damaging consequences is high: If the key to federal funding is raising graduation rates, colleges may lower already abysmally low standards. Similarly, the proposed funds for promoting educational innovation are, in principle, a good idea. But previous federal education spending in this area has had a pretty dismal result. Read more ..



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