Friday, March 27, 2015

I don't get MAD

Today, I saw a Professor Heldman of Occidental College opine that we are “behaving like Persians don’t understand mutually assured destruction, when clearly they do.”  Here’s why that is so dangerous.

Up until now, the political dialogue has been between those who favor going to war against Iran now, and those who say, “wait a few more days to see if there is a negotiated solution.” It is predictable that some will say, “let’s wait a couple more weeks.” I’ve been in the few-more-days camp, and even if Secretary of State Kerry is in the couple-more-weeks camp, I wouldn’t want that communicated to the other side just yet.

Basically, this puts me out of step with my peacenik friends so let me say straight away: War is hell and it should be avoided if at all possible. Every effort should be put into negotiating a solution to the problem of Iran, and I am more optimistic than my right-wing friends. But if they are correct, then this may be one of those terrible instances when war cannot be avoided. We’ll know soon enough.

It doesn’t help that a man who has been so wrong, so often, on such important questions seems to agree with me. Of course, I am referring to John Bolton, author of an article that appeared in the New York Times and entitled, “To stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran.” Though I detest everything about the man, (except his moustache) I am okay with the bottom line, which is No Nukes for Ayatollahs, and the idea that if necessary we can back it up with our own Air Force.

As usual, Josh Bolton, goes way beyond what the evidence will support. He suggests that Arabs would welcome a strike in Iran, and that he thinks that we could bring down the Iranian regime. Well, maybe he should be assigned to cleaning up the candy and flowers that greeted American liberators in Iraq. Thanks to American gullibility regarding Bolton's last prediction of being greeted as liberators, we are now giving air support to a Iraqi counter-insurgency in Tikret to oust Islamic State, in which effort we find ourselves allied with the Iranians.

I don’t know if Arabs would welcome an America strike in Iran or not, but, frankly, I don’t give a damn. If they have a better plan for achieving a “No Nukes for Ayatollahs” solution, I am open to it. I have been listening, and haven’t heard anything, but, as I said, I am willing to wait till the end of the month.

But along comes Professor Heldman, and she says that we don’t have to insist on No Nukes for Ayatollahs, because we can manage the risk of a nuclear Iran. She suggests one means of control is the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, but presumably she is open to other strategies. But I am not. And here are two reasons why.

First, if Iran acquires a nuclear breakout capability, other nations in the area are going to insist on the same. Reliance on mutually assured destruction is complicated and involves a series of very careful calibrations. With two parties, the complexity is great, but each new party raises the complexity exponentially. Ayatollahs-with-nukes is unacceptably bad. A nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with Israel and Iran already having nuclear capabilities, is far worse.

Second, assured destruction sounds bad to me, but I confess I have no way of knowing the degree to which that is a threat for Ayatollahs. I respect religious folk, but I don’t understand the Islamic religion, especially in its eschatological aspects.

Professor Heldman may have other strategies for managing the proliferation risk and the Ayatollahs with a finger on the nuclear button, but the one she came out of the gate with was mutual assured destruction. If the professor has another idea, let’s have it, because that dog won't hunt.

Even someone as consistently wrong as Josh Bolton got that one right. But what bothered me more about Professor Heldman’s suggestion is that it is the camel’s nose in the tent. The camel in this metaphor is the idea that a nuclear Iran can be managed. It is an attractive proposition to peaceniks like me, who believe that war is hell, which should be avoided if at all possible. But that doesn’t make it true.

“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Natural born questions

Every-word of the Constitution is important. Let’s take a look at three that have been in the news today: “natural-born Citizen.” First of all, it is clear that there are two classes of citizens in the vision of the framers, namely “natural born citizen,” and “others.” Clearly, naturalized citizens are in the “other” class and therefore not eligible to be President of the United States. 

Are there citizens who are neither naturalized nor natural born? Such a citizen would not be eligible to be President, according to the express terms of the Constitution.

Of course, there are those who are citizens but not eligible because of age or residency requirements –- thirty-five and 14 years respectively. But are there people other than naturalized citizens who are ineligible for the presidency because of the nature of their citizenship? And might Ted Cruz be one of them?

First, some background: The Constitution says that a qualification for being President is being a “natural born Citizen.” However, the Constitution doesn’t define “natural born Citizen.” The Third Congress enacted The Naturalization Act of 1790, which provided "the children of citizens of the United States, that may be born beyond sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural born citizens: Provided, That the right of citizenship shall not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States." Presumably, this is the law that Ted Cruz referred to when he said the matter has been settled law for over two hundred years.

The statute clearly recognized a distinction between non-naturalized, foreign born citizens of the US, and “natural born Citizens.” The 1790 Act provided automatic citizenship to the minor children of persons duly naturalized, and according to the language of the statute, such individuals, providing they are residents, become “citizens of the United States” automatically. In the very next sentence, act grants to the children born to citizens overseas the status of “natural born citizens.” The proximity of the two clauses strongly supports the conclusion that the statute creates two different classes of citizens: (1) Natural born citizens (and those granted that status) and (2) others, including naturalized as well as those who are minors acquiring citizenship automatically as children of naturalized citizens. Those in the first class are eligible to be President: those in the second class are not. And the facts of the case support the conclusion that Ted Cruz is in that former class: the class of automatic citizens who receive the additional status of the “natural born citizens” who are eligible to be President. As Ted himself might say, “Case closed, eh?”

But here’s the funny part. That statute was superseded by the naturalization Act of 1795, which provided, “the children of citizens of the United States, born out of the limits of jurisdiction of the United States, shall be considered as citizens of the United States,” provided that the father of such a child had been a resident of the United States. Did you catch that? The superseding statute removed the words, “natural born” from the description of children born to citizens abroad. These children are "birthright citizens" to be sure. 

Far be it from me to suggest that Ted Cruz is not a birthright citizen. But the statute makes it clear that not all birthright citizens are natural born Citizens, eligible to serve as President. 

Congress is presumed to have intended to make a distinction between the language of the 1790 statute, and the language with which it superseded that law.  And the courts are tasked with giving effect to the Congressional intent. In fact, there are lots of people who say that the courts should stick to the literal letter of statutes and these people were out in force recently when King v Burwell was being argued.

What will they say now? 

I hope that as a minimum, any defense they have to what looks to me like a slam-dunk will at least have the decency to include an apology for the last 6 years of birtherism. But don't count on it.

“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Give 'em hell, Barry! Part III

Back in August of 2008, I argued that President Obama should recall the election of 1948, and run against a “do-nothing, good for nothing” Congress in his campaign for re-election.  See, here and here.

Once again, I am urging the President to emulate the predecessor known for plain-speaking.

First, an example of how President Truman earned that reputation.

Truman didn’t much care for a review of his daughter’s singing performance that appeared in the Washington Post on December 6, 1950. The music critic Paul Hume described Miss Truman as “extremely attractive,” but went on to state “Miss Truman cannot sing very well.”

The president jotted off a note to Mr. Hume: 
“Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”
All of this comes to mind because the President who has made a career of being “the least aggrieved black man in America,” has just had to endure a mean-spirited attack from the one of whom Joe Biden once said, “The only three things he mentions in a sentence—a noun and a verb and 9/11.” 

Republicans are not exactly distancing themselves from Rudy Guiliani.

The White House responded to Guiliani’s despicable comments. Press Secretary Josh Earnest dealt out the most genteel smack-down ever uttered without using the words “Bless his heart.” Said he:
"It's sad to see when somebody who has attained a certain level of public stature -- and even admiration -- tarnishes that legacy so thoroughly. The truth is, I don't take any joy or vindication or satisfaction from that.
"I think really the only thing that I feel, is I feel sorry for Rudy Giuliani today." 
Now, I have been saying that Guiliani was a complete fraud since May of 2007, as you can see here.  A couple of months later, Wayne Barrett of the Village Voice, joined me in calling “Bullshit!” on Guiliani’s self-promoting narrative. 

Nowadays, Wayne Barrett is with the NY Daily News, and he is obviously still disgusted by Rudy Guiliani, this time attacking Rudy’s pathological family relations.

Why can’t the President do the same? He might be accused of picking the low-hanging fruit, but considering the pass that Guiliani has enjoyed, it’s time someone mentioned some of the things that Barrett brought up. They say it is a rule of politics that you don’t want to punch down, but when you are at the top of the heap, what else is there to do?

It will be hard to top Truman’s directness. Still, the President is liberated from having to run for office again and someone has to mention the fact that when Guiliani attacked the President’s upbringing he crossed into forbidden territory. To get the ball rolling, let me suggest an opening gambit:
“Mr. Guiliani has attacked me, which is part of his shtick. That’s fine, because when I signed up for a lifetime of public service to the country I love, I knew full well that there would be guttersnipes along the way that would put hatred of me over their professed love of country. But I didn’t sign up for an attack on my mama. That’s not acceptable coming from a lying son-of-a-bitch like the worthless Guiliani.”
Fill in the rest, Mr. President…

“   and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Making history with Iran

The U.S. and Iran may be on the verge of making a historic deal on nukes. The possible compromise was revealed ahead of the next negotiating round on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference that starts Friday. Will it be historically good, or historically bad?

First, let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. Reagan famously said of the Soviet empire that one must, “Trust but verify.” It’s a Russian proverb, Доверяй, но проверяй (doveryai, no proveryai) and the Gipper used it to great effect in negotiating arms reductions with Gorbachev, or so they say.

Some people also say that we are in a “Trust but verify” situation with Iran. This is completely false. Trust must play no part in our dealings with Iran. They absolutely cannot be trusted to comply with any treaty obligations. The only thing they can be trusted to be is true to their nature. You can trust that they are an atavistic, apocalyptic, totalitarian theocracy, determined to destroy Israel, and that they have financed terror operations against Jewish targets in Argentina, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere.

As for their nuclear ambitions, trust that the Iranians will pursue weapons before, during and after these negotiations. The question on the table is whether or not sufficient obstacles can be placed in the way of an Iranian bomb. And by sufficient, I mean, sufficient to be certain that they won’t get a bomb that can be used in any way, including as a threat, or to arm a proxy.

The plan being floated about is that Iran will keep 10,000 centrifuges. That’s a lot – enough to build a bomb. However, the idea is that Iran will have to export all of its production, and there will be an inspection and regulation regime to regulate the inputs and outputs to prevent Iran from getting the capacity to build a bomb. Finally, the centrifuges will be modified to limit how much nuclear fuel produced. I haven’t heard that the grade of the uranium produced is subject to controls under the proposed agreement, but my gut tells me that it is.

This might be a good outcome but only if Iranian compliance can be verified. Can the U.N. International Atomic Agency be trusted with the responsibility of verifying Iranian compliance, as contemplated in the compromise? I trust the Iranians to try to skirt the regulations, avoid the inspections, and get away with breaching the agreement. And then what?

War is the obvious option. The problem is that it takes time it takes to recognize a breach of the agreement. And then it takes more time to act on that knowledge, even in the case of unilateral military action under the command of the Commander-in-chief. What if, in that time, Iran gets a nuke? Depending on the outcome of the negotiations, Iran might be as little as one month and as much as a year from having a nuclear bomb under the terms of the compromise.

The work-around for this little problem is that, at least in theory, the U.S can act upon less than certain knowledge. Maybe there is no will to go to war, but in the past, the U.S. has used sanctions to coerce Iran to behave better. The main sanction that the U.S. can impose is in the area of banking. By freezing bank accounts, the U.S. can more or less freeze the Iranian economy. As we shall see, this is a mixed blessing.

Before we dismiss the rumored agreement out of hand, we need also to see what else is rolled into it. Will Iran commit to no longer funding Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the PLO (or, rather, it’s successor, the PA) and other terrorists around the world? What about a promise to stop its mischief in Iraq? All of this would be good, but there’s a rub.

How would we enforce these collateral deals? Obviously, war is not an option because if it were, we would have gone to war a long time ago. Recall that the proposed deal depends upon Iran exporting all of its nuclear fuel. If, by a series of sanctions, we can prevent Iran from participating in international trade, that leaves them with no money, no food, and an excess of nuclear fuel. That’s not good. In other words, the problem is that the nuclear deal may reduce our leverage in non-nuclear arenas.

The devil is in the details. How certain can we be that we will be able to detect Iranian cheating when it occurs? How much time will we have to react once we detect evidence that Iran is cheating? What will be our options, once we confirm cheating? Without these details we won’t know if this is a historically good deal or the opposite.

We can be certain that this deal is not good enough for the Israelis, if for no other reason than that the current PM will go to any lengths to embarrass our President, especially if he thinks it will advance his chances of re-election. Bibi giving his hechsher to a deal negotiated by President Obama is not in the cards. I am concerned that this is the attitude of Republicans, especially the fundamentalist wing of the party. What a shame it would be if a good deal is scrapped for this reason. As has been said, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

There’s talk that the deal is not likely to be good enough for France. And I must confess that I was disappointed when I heard the number 10,000 both because it is a large number, and because it does not reflect any movement by the Iranians. I am a big supporter of Obama, but I need to be persuaded that this is both a good deal, and the best deal we could get. I guess, I trust Obama, but I want to verify.

In the last analysis, any deal with Iran must include the condition that a breach means a “shock and awe” style attack on the mullahs. And that has to be the outcome if no deal is reached, too. And that’s why I am not in favor of provisional sanctions.

Stay tuned.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Time for an old joke to explain what’s going on.

First, the joke:
“Zeyde! Zayde! Babe Ruth just hit his 6o home runs.”
“Nu? Is this good or bad for the Jews?
So, let’s take a look at where we are. Things are very nasty between the Democrats, who control the White House, and the Republicans, who control the Congress. As with any grievance, the decisive factor will be this: Who frames the narrative? Each side has a tale to tell in Washington, D.C. Call it “A City of Two Tales.” As usual, each grievant tells a tale in which he plays the role of victim in the opening salvo.

Republicans claim that the President started it all when he took unilateral actions regarding immigration. It’s hard to take this seriously, but at the time, Boehner talked about “poisoning the well,” or “playing with matches.”

They also claim that the President threw down a gauntlet at the State of the Union address when he said that he would veto any bill that would result in a break-down of negotiations with Iran, such as the conditional sanctions bill in the Senate now. These Republicans didn’t pay attention to the fact that the President also said that if negotiations break down, we will have to go to war.  

Some Democrats, including Jews join these Republicans, because they are disappointed with the progress of negotiations with Iran. Some find the demands of Israel to be unrealistic. Iran will not dismantle anything that can be used for a nuclear weapon program, especially since, as signatories to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, Iran has a right to develop a civilian nuclear program.

In the Democratic narrative, the story starts with Boehner’s invitation to Bibi and the attendant breach of protocol. Not to mention law: The Logan Act (1 Stat. 613, 30 January 1799, currently codified at 18 U.S.C. § 953) is a United States federal law that forbids unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. It was passed in 1799 and last amended in 1994. Violation of the Logan Act is a felony, punishable under federal law with imprisonment of up to three years. Some say that Boehner does not have the authority to invite any foreign leader to Congress and that only the POTUS or his designated official can.

The Democratic view is that Mr. Obama is the duly elected mouth-piece for foreign policy, especially if the message is one everybody absolutely agrees upon. Everybody absolutely agrees on this message: The alliance between the United States and Israel is ironclad, inviolable, and sacrosanct. Everyone also agrees that Iran absolutely cannot be permitted to become a nuclear military power.

We should be saying these things with a united voice. Choose your patter: “We are not a red country or a blue country,” or “Politics stops at the water’s edge.” Some Republicans are attracted to this message just out of respect for the office of President. Some Democrats, inclined to take Bibi’s side, are pulled back onto the reservation just out of loyalty to the occupant of the office of the President. So battle lines in this dispute are not completely congruent with party lines.

Nu? Is this good or bad for the Jews?

Funny you should ask. As it turns out, some Jews are Republicans, and they think the President can’t be trusted with negotiating an existential threat. They can say, with some validity, that they are standing with the duly elected PM of Israel, so who can complain? 

President Obama's supporters say, we are willing to threaten war against Iran if they don’t figure out a way to live without a nuclear bomb, but we draw the line at Bibi interjecting himself in partisan domestic politics. And further, international norms of behavior look upon interfering with another country's election. Inded, Obama used this as justification for announcing that he would not meet with Bibi when he was in Washington.

Should Bibi be taking a side in the debate that we are having in the U.S. between two political parties on the issue of how to conduct foreign policy?

Bibi says, “It’s my job. I will go anywhere, anytime I feel I can influence the debate in favor of not making a deal with Iran, unless it is an acceptable deal to Israel. After all, the bomb is intended for us!” I’ll give him that. But he doesn’t have to give the President a gratuitous dose of disrespect. Message to Bibi: Put your personal animosity for our President aside. There are some things that are more important than you getting re-elected. And, by the way, being rude to the POTUS might not help your chances of getting re-elected anyway. Right now, you're no better than a coin-toss.

The real debate should be about what will be most effective in preventing Iran from getting nukes. The President is entrusted with foreign policy, and, so far so good. Are we okay with Syria not having chemical weapons? Thank you, Mr. President. But, remember: that outcome required cooperation from Iran.

Basically, the way I see it is we need an adult to negotiate with Iran, and the Congressional foreign policy caucus is not that adult. They have proved this with the impudent, childish way Bibi’s visit came about.

The difference in the approach is that one side wants to negotiate until failure is clearly the fault of the Iranians, and then go to war. Good faith requires that the negotiation be conducted with the belief that it is possible and reasonable to come to a peaceful solution. But realism requires that you acknowledge that “the biggest long-shot Louie at Hialeah wouldn’t put a fin on the fate” of a nuke deal with Iran.

I heard an AIPAC guy say that “Obama believes that he should appeal to the Iranian’s better nature.” That’s not what Obama believes at all. If war comes, America will want the right to say, “We tried diplomacy.” That’s important, because we will need allies if we go to war with Iran, and, they will need to hear that. And, there’s no way a war plan can get the requisite support from the American people, if they don’t hear that every alternative was exhausted first.

Team Boeher, as well as Bibi, say, “enough already with the diplomacy,already” and “It’s time for the U.S, to be strong.” They should recall that for America to flex military muscles she must have the support of a war-weary public, and this is so much harder to do because the previous President was a little too promiscuous with his use of force. The result is great instability in the mid-East, and that can’t be good for the Jews.

Even if the U.S. did resolve to torpedo the negotiations and use force, consider for a moment some of the problems that would involve. You’ve got the rise of ISIL, which directly challenges the Jordanian regime, the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah in Lebanon, instability is Afghanistan, regime change in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and Hamas in the Gaza. It’s hard to see how military action could be confined to stopping Iranian centrifuges. 

Maybe Republicans are right to believe that war is inevitable and to say, “If not now, when? When will Iran be more vulnerable?” I trust the President to arrive at good answers to these questions, and I don’t trust the Congress, especially in the run-up to the 2016 silly season.

Two out of three Jews voted for the President, most of them twice. Jews are a core constituency of his party. Significantly, the pro-Israel Evangelicals are a core constituency of the Republican Party. The two constituencies are at odds with each other in this matter, even though each sees itself as staunchly pro-Israel.I blame Boehner and Bibi for aggravating the rift and, no, it's not good for the Jews.

AIPAC and Likud side with the CUFI Republicans. J Street and most Jews, especially liberal ones, side with the President and the constitution. In a rather unpleasant moment, left-leaning MS-NBC host Ed Shultz called Netanyahu a “war-monger,” a term that is usually reserved for American neo-cons. It made me decidedly uncomfortable and I wondered if what I was feeling was a visceral reflex to come to the defense of a fellow Jew being attacked by a gentile. Now, to be sure, Ed Shultz is no anti-Semite. But was he aware of how the choice of words sounded like age-old anti-Semitism? (And how did the Rothschilds make their money?)

But then I reminded myself that Netanyahu is not the State of Israel. In fact, he might not even be the PM of Israel in 6 weeks. Still, whoever is responsible for lefties publicly rebuking the PM has not served Israel well. Some of the blame goes to Bibi himself, but Boehner is clearly responsible. It is understandable that when the Speaker of the House, and Bibi conspire to disrespect the President, someone might just conclude that, to borrow a phrase, there will be a price to be paid. Already, we have seen very sharp criticism from the White House directed at the Israeli ambassador, accusing him of putting Bibi's interests ahead of Israel's.

Boehner wanted to appeal to his base, especially the growing number of pro-Israel evangelicals, who share Boehner’s view on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. Christians United For Israel (CUFI) is an organization emblematic of this constituency. Boehner figured that he could dis the prez, boost his pro-Israel bona fides, and side with Israel in a spat between Israel and the United States. What could go wrong?

What went wrong is that Jews and most Americans don’t want to see our President dissed, don’t appreciate Boehner playing nuclear roulette to help Republicans polish their anti-Obama cred, and don’t particularly like to see a spat between Israel and the U.S. especially one that is aired in public.
So, nu? Is that good or bad for the Jews?

It’s not good. But it’s what will happen inevitably if you put CUFI  ahead of Jews. Eventually, their hatred of the President will trump their love of Israel. Their love of Israel exceeds their love of Jews, and that's why I can't trust it. And that’s why I condemn Boehner and Bibi. They put the first crack in the non-partisan wall of American support for Israel, by playing politics with the special relationship. And it didn’t work.

The timing is right for Obama to make a bold move in the Middle East if he wants this to be part of his legacy. Actually, he has no choice in the matter: He must make a bold move. The situation in the mid-East demands it. He knows that an atavistic, Iranian apocalyptic theocracy with hegemony over so much of the world’s oil reserves, extraterrestial ambitions, and a nuclear bomb just won’t fly. 

But what else can be rolled into the deal? Obviously, the Iranians want relief from sanctions, but what else? U.S. to step up against ISIS? Assad to be gone in Syria? Progress in Israel-Palestinian conflict?
What even constitutes progress? 

The U.S. and Israel are both officially committed to a two-state solution, but how committed are they? And can Obama ever really believe that he can get from here to there in two years or should he simply accept that it is hopeless. Ought he to be guided by the words of Pirke Avot: “Yours is not to finish the work, but neither are you free to walk away from it.” For now, I am gratified by the fact that he is not pressuring the Israelis to make a bad deal with Palestinians.

At present, the important thing to do is to repair the Israeli-American relationship. That has to start with Bibi figuring out a way to back out of his date with Congress. He may also have to recall Ambassador Ron Dermer, who is credited with having the horrible idea of having Bibi go over the head of the President to speak to Congress.

If not, I fear that the U.S. will declare Dermer persona non grata. Would this be good or bad for the Jews? It might seem good to you especially if you are the kind who believes that Republicans are better for the State of Israel than Democrats, and that Republicans can frame this as the President snubbing our most important ally. Further, you must believe that expelling the ambassador will bolster Bibi’s election prospects, and that Bibi is good for Israel. I am doubtful of each of these propositions. On this last point -- is Bibi good for Israel? -- a majority of Israelis seem to think not, but we will know for sure on St. Patrick’s day, when Israeli elections are scheduled. 

What seems incontrovertible is that the relationship between Israel and the U.S., and especially between Bibi and Obama, is at a low point. I condemn Boehner for aggravating the situation, especially since it was not merely a miscalculation. It was a conscious decision to insult the President. 

The most generous thing I can say about Bibi is that he was sucked into this, though obviously, he was not dragged kicking and screaming. If AIPAC takes up with Boehner and Bibi, they are siding with the ones who thought that it was okay to play politics with the special relationship. It's not even nearly okay.

And they owe us an apology.

“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”