Friday, December 27, 2013

Free Association

By the time Nelson Mandela died earlier this year, the idea of justifying apartheid was hard to fathom. Just what did P.W. Botha and F.W. de Klerk say in those pre-enlightenment days to excuse a hate-based system of oppression? Well, they started with a noble sounding sentiment: people have a right to freedom of association.

We all agree with that, but in South Africa it was understood to mean that white people could associate with whom they chose, i.e., whites, and also, that nobody could force them to associate with those with whom they chose not to associate, i.e., blacks. Of course that was then, and this is now.

And by “this is now,” I mean people are still claiming that their “freedom of association” is being violated so that they can justify raw bigotry. It’s happening in the U.S.A., and I don’t mean Union of South Africa.

As everyone knows by now, there has been a bit of a kerfuffle because as it turns out, Duck Commander Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Duck Dynasty family said some things that are not politically correct. (Neither were they factually correct, but people don’t seem to object to that so much.) That he would condemn homosexuality should surprise nobody, since his fundamentalist Christian faith is the hallmark of his TV persona. That he would express it in such harsh terms took some people aback, but still, he could justify the sentiments by selective reference to the New Testament.

What was really shocking was his assertion about life in Jim Crow Louisiana when he was growing up:
I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. We're going across the field ... They're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people' — not a word! Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
The take-away from this is that Phil Robertson is a jerk. But who cares? Predictably, people criticized him, and A&E network suspended him from their mega-hit. That’s when the fight started.

Sarah Palin talked about Mr. Robertson’s First Amendment freedom, proving what we already knew: she’s an idiot. Later she defended herself by saying she hadn’t read the Robertson interview. Bobby Jindal said some nice things to say about Phil Robertson. “The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with. …  In fact, I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment.” 

In Alabama, State Sen. Jerry Fielding (R) promised to introduce a bill calling for the state to lend its support to suspended Robertson. Ian Bayne, a candidate for the 11th congressional district in Illinois sent out an email to his supporters comparing Phil Robertson to Rosa Parks. And Newt Gingrich takes a back seat to no one on the stupid bus: He compared Phil Robertson to Pope Francis.

All of this would be funny if it weren’t for the peculiar aspect of right-wing talk that is so obnoxious. I refer, of course to the victim stance, the most egregious example of which is the faux war on Christmas. It was wearing thin until the Duck Dynasty contretemps came along, to breathe new life into the conceit that Christians in America are somehow victims of oppression. 

Here's what Walter Hudson has to offer on his own a reactionary right-wing blog:
As the drama surrounding cable network A&E’s suspension of Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson enters its second week without losing steam, our analysis of the incident becomes more refined by critical thought. Where emotional reactions at first prevailed, we now see thoughtful consideration of why this episode matters so much to so many people.
Caring about Phil Robertson and his ordeal says something about those who stand with him. It reveals a solidarity informed by shared values, and similar experiences. For Christians in today’s increasingly secularized culture, there exists a persistent subversion of our religious expression. While it often takes the form of private censure, as it has in Robertson’s case, the influence of the state can be sensed bearing down on private decisions.
Actually, I can’t sense the influence of the state bearing down on private decisions.  So, as if to help those like me, the author asks what the ACLU would do if A&E had suspended a reality TV personality for urging closeted gays to come out.
We know the answer. We know it because the unequal recognition of the freedom of association lies naked in the various public accommodation and anti-discrimination laws strewn throughout various levels of government. Indeed, mere days before the Duck Dynasty controversy erupted, a judge in Colorado ordered a Christian baker to serve cake for a gay wedding or face fines. Where’s the ACLU on that one? Naturally, they represented the gay couple and stood against the baker’s freedom of association. ‘No one should fear being turned away from a public business because of who they are,’ they said in a statement.[emphasis added]
Did you catch the false dichotomy? You have “public accommodation and anti-discrimination laws” on one hand, and “freedom of association” on the other. Lest you think this was a casual usage of an ill-advised phrase, consider that on his own website his comment policy states: 
Free speech is great. You are entitled to speak your mind in whatever way you see fit – on your own blog. Here, we flaunt the right to free association.
It seems like an odd use of the word “flaunt” which means “display (something) ostentatiously, esp. in order to provoke envy or admiration or to show defiance." But perhaps it is more thoughtful than I gave the writer credit for.

The author is indeed defiant. He opposes government intervention into the private affairs of citizens even when it is to eliminate discrimination and segregation. He adopts the rationale for apartheid that the rest of the civilized world has rejected. Yes, he embraces it -- defiantly.

For a long time now, Progressives have had a strong feeling that Conservatives are racists. It’s a serious accusation and one that ought not to be made without strong evidence. It is true that Conservatives have found a home in the Republican Party, and starting with Nixon, the GOP pursued a Southern strategy that explicitly embraced racism. The vast majority of the South has moved on from the racism of those days, but there persists a strain of it in Dixie. Still, racism is so universally condemned that it is easy to assume that discriminatory laws, e.g. voter ID laws, are not aimed at Blacks because they are Black, but rather because they are Democrats.

When Rachel Maddow asked Rand Paul (R-KY) in May 2010 about his views of the landmark Civil Rights Act, he allowed that he has concerns about the idea of ordering private business owners to implement non-discriminatory practices. (Of course, he lied about it when speaking to Howard University students, but that's Rand Paul for you.)

De jure discrimination is dead in America. But there is a great divide between those who want to be able to discriminate in their private businesses and those who reject the philosophy of apartheid. The former are now embracing even the rationale of the apartheid regime. They flaunt the “Right of Association.”

Keep your eyes out for them …
“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Who can be tougher on Iran -- Democrats or Republicans?

Do you really have to ask? 

Some of my friends are saying that the current administration is not doing enough to oppose Iran’s quest for nuclear arms. It made me wonder: What is the Republican record on this crucial point?

Last year, just before the election, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) wrote to affirm President Obama’s strong support of Israel. He reminded us that, “President Reagan is rightly remembered as a strong friend of Israel, although he led the world’s condemnation of Israel at the U.N. when Israel knocked out Iraq’s threatening nuclear facility.” But that was then.

Back in 2006, I noticed that the Washington Post had reported that: 
President Bush declared [Friday, Jan. 13, 2006] that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose ‘a grave threat to the security of the world’ as he tried to rally support from other major powers for U.N. Security Council action unless a defiant Tehran abandons any aspirations for nuclear weapons.
I wondered at the time how it was that Iran was in a position to seek nuclear arms. As it turns out, it’s a pretty good tale.

In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford proposed to sell nuclear technology to the Iranians according to a declassified National Security Decision Memorandum, signed by Henry Kissinger. Iran was ruled by a Shah, and he convincingly made the case that oil was too valuable to waste on daily energy needs. The Ford strategy paper said the “introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran's economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals.” 

President Ford signed a directive in 1976 offering Tehran the chance to buy and operate a U.S.-built reprocessing facility for extracting plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel. It was a 6.4 billion-dollar deal that would have benefited principally two companies, Westinghouse and General Electric, and it would have resulted in Tehran having control of large quantities of plutonium and enriched uranium. Thank G-d the deal fell through when the Shaw was deposed.

The deal was for a complete “nuclear fuel cycle” -- reactors powered by and regenerating fissile materials on a self-sustaining basis. That is precisely the ability the current administration is now trying to prevent Iran from acquiring, as it was in 2005, during the G.W. Bush administration.

It’s interesting to note that in 1975, President Ford’s Chief of Staff was a man named Dick Cheney, and his Secretary of Defense was a man named Donald Rumsfield. Paul Wolfowitz was responsible for nonproliferation at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. This is the crew that was at the White House when George W. Bush, under false pretenses, removed the only regional counter-balance to Iran.

But let’s not get too far ahead of the story. Before he became Vice President, Mr. Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton. During the 1990’s, Halliburton paid out more than $3 million in fines for selling Libya nuclear detonator devices, which violated a U.S. trade embargo imposed on Libya because of that country's ties to terrorism. Also under Cheney leadership, Halliburton sold an Iranian oil development company key components for a nuclear reactor, according to Halliburton sources. More recently, Cheney has been critical of President Obama’s deal which halted Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.

While Cheney was busy helping a Iranian terrorist regime acquire nuclear capabilities, Bill Clinton was busy being President of the United States.  He imposed some of the toughest sanctions against Iran in 1995, prohibiting U.S. trade in Iran's oil industry in March, and prohibiting any U.S. trade with Iran in May. Trade with the United States, which had been growing following the end of the Iran–Iraq War, ended abruptly. He also signed into law the Iran–Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) imposing severe sanctions on all foreign companies that provide investments over $20 million for the development of petroleum resources in Iran.

The sanctions did have an effect. In 1997 a reformer, Mohammad Khatami, was elected President in Iran. President Clinton responded by easing sanctions somewhat. However, the basic outline of the sanctions regime remained in place, including ILSA.

In any event, George W. Bush was “elected” in 2000. What was going on when he was trying to get the U.N. to impose sanctions in 2006, as reported in the Washington Post, above?

After being elected president in 2005, President Ahmadinejad lifted the suspension of uranium enrichment that had been agreed upon with the France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported Iran's non-compliance with its safeguards agreement to the UN Security Council. The U.S. government then began pushing for UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. What had the Bush government done on its own?

In June 2005, President George W. Bush issued an executive order freezing the assets of individuals connected with Iran's nuclear program. Some might say that was a pretty weak sanction. In fact, some did. In June 2007, the U.S. state of Florida enacted a boycott on companies trading with Iran and Sudan, while New Jersey's state legislature was considering similar action.

The election of 2008 produced Democratic majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and, of course, a Democratic President. Congress passed “the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), which President Obama signed into law July 1, 2010. The CISADA greatly enhanced restrictions in Iran.

These sanctions have been so effective that Iran has been forced to suspend its nuclear program for six months while a long term deal is worked out.

So, what can we learn from this history? If you want to cripple Iran to bring them to the negotiating table and get them agree to dismantle their nuclear weapons program, you’re better off going with the Democrats …

“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

Monday, December 23, 2013

More Sanctions for Iran? Why not.

So, there is a regime of sanctions that has crippled Iran’s economy, with the result that Secretary of State John Kerry has managed to get Iran to negotiate a stand down from their nuclear weapons program. Everybody with the good sense God gave animal crackers has made the observation that the Iranians cannot be trusted. Also, the sun rises in the east. Both observations are true, but since the interim agreement does not rely on trust, both are also useless in the context of new sanctions.

Rather than rely on trust, the interim deal provides daily access to Natanz and Fordo sites to IAEA inspectors and access to other facilities, mines and mills. The inspectors will be able to confirm compliance or report breaches of the other obligations imposed on Iran, namely:

·         Halt enrichment of uranium above 5% purity. (Uranium enriched to 3.5-5% can be used for nuclear power reactors, 20% for nuclear medicines and 90% for a nuclear bomb.)
·         “Neutralize” its stockpile of near-20%-enriched uranium, either by diluting it to less than 5% or converting it to a form which cannot be further enriched
·         Not install any more centrifuges (the machines used to enrich uranium)
·         Leave half to three-quarters of centrifuges installed in Natanz and Fordo enrichment facilities inoperable
·         Not build any more enrichment facilities
·         Not increase its stockpile of 3.5% low-enriched uranium
·         Halt work on the construction of its heavy-water reactor at Arak, not attempt to produce plutonium there (an alternative to highly enriched uranium used for an atomic weapon)
·         Provide “long-sought” information on the Arak reactor and other data
To put it mildly, this was a huge achievement. When Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu drew a red line on a cartoon bomb at the United Nations, he said that Iran must not be allowed to go any further than that. The interim agreement more than meets his demand at least as long as it holds up.

On the other side of the negotiation is the P5+1 (viz., five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France, plus Germany.) In return for the foregoing promises, the P5+1 has agreed to a “limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible” relaxation of the sanctions regime. Additionally the U.S. has agreed to transfer about $4.2 billion to Iran in installments from assets seized by the U.S. government from sales of its oil.

A key commitment that the P5+1 made is that it would not impose further nuclear-related sanctions if Iran meets its commitments. Now, several in Congress, including Senators Begich and Murkowsky and 22 other senators, want to impose further sanctions, a move which the Iranians say will queer the deal.

The supporters of new sanctions say that they will be conditional, i.e. would only go into effect if the Iranians fail to live up to their agreement. It is passing strange indeed, that the number one argument in favor of these new sanctions is that they are a hollow gesture. After all, is there anyone in his right mind who thinks that if the Iranians breach the interim deal, America and her allies will have any difficulty imposing new and harsher sanctions? And above and beyond that, the President of the United States has said he will veto the new sanctions bill, even if it were to pass through Congress.

So, there are no benefits to the bill to impose new sanctions. But, and my grandmother once said, “What could it hurt?”

Maybe Congress can over-ride his veto. But to what avail? In the end it is still a meaningless gesture and the debate attendant to a veto override will merely highlight to the Iranians the lack of unanimity in the Congress. If there is a fight over a veto over-ride, along the way, you can expect to see the usual accusations made in some quarters that the U.S. Congress and/or the President are controlled by AIPAC and the Jews. Pollyannas who don’t believe that there is a latent strain of anti-Semitism in America don’t worry about the effects of this kind of talk. I do.

Iran has asserted that if the new sanctions are passed in Congress, they will consider the interim deal breached and proceed accordingly. They express the view that it is a sign that Congress is not interested in a negotiated settlement. This latter point is not irrational, since there are many, including PM Netanyahu, who seem to believe that no deal is a good deal, and that war is the only response to the current regime.

The Wall Street Journal argues that Iran’s position is either a bluff, or a sign that it is looking for an excuse to break off negotiations. From there, it makes the extraordinary leap that we should therefore call the bluff, give Iran an excuse to break off negotiations and then … well, they don’t really tell us what to do then.

The supporters of the new sanctions claim they are a means of strengthening the President’s hand in his negotiations with the Iranians. It is quite obvious that this is a transparent after-the-fact rationalization. The President and Secretary Kerry are opposed to the sanctions bill, and presumably they know whether or not they need the help. Moreover, since when is it a sign of strength to tell your negotiating partner your next step if they fail to comply with your last demand? Rather it is a limitation on what the President will do, since presumably a bunker-busting strike and/or a decapitation strike is not off the table, at least until Congress dictates a different response.

There is another risk, that none of the supporters of sanctions have talked about. The U.S. has managed to persuade the EU, Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan to adhere to a steadily escalating catalogue of sanctions against Iran. These sanctions have been so damaging to the Iranian economy that the regime is now engaged in negotiations to end its nuclear weapons program. How has the U.S. been able to pressure the Europeans and the Asians to adhere to these severe sanctions?

A key has been to portray the Iranians as the crazies, the intransigents, and the blood-thirsty. The Iranians have helped lend credibility to this portrayal every chance they got with wild rhetoric and holocaust denial, etc. But that could change. The Iranians, having signed onto an interim accord could say with some credibility that the U.S. is being unreasonable, unwilling to take ‘yes’ for an answer, and thereby undermine the cooperation that is the bulwark of the current sanctions regime. If Iran can peel off just one or two of the Europeans/Asians, they can buy some more time to advance to a place where they can make a sprint for the bomb. At that point, it is game over.

American interests in the deal are broadly to keep Iran from getting a bomb, fulfill its moral obligation to defend Israel, and support our nominal ally, Saudi Arabia, who is Iran’s main regional competitor. If Iran obtains a bomb the Saudis, and the Jordanians would probably be compelled to seek nuclear weapons as well. These risks are unacceptable, as is the potential for Iranian nukes to fall into the hands of terrorists.

For the foregoing reasons, if Iran cannot be compelled to disavow its nuclear ambitions, there is no alternative to a military option, either by the U.S. or by Israel. Those who don’t trust President Obama to put into place crippling sanctions if the negotiations are not productive, argue that they can trust the U.S. to go to war for Israel. Beyond the fact that it is illogical, it must be observed that even if the President did undertake to go to war to destroy Iran’s nuclear bomb capability, Congress and the American people might not support him. Consider the fact that the President was rebuffed by Congress in his effort to use the military to disarm Syria of her chemical warfare capabilities and the idea was wildly unpopular.

It is true that many Republicans will do anything to see that the President fails. (Witness the unwillingness of Republican governors to take Federal money to expand Medicaid in their states.) But on matters of foreign policy there is a strong tradition and a good reason for entrusting it to the executive branch. Especially when, as now, he has accomplished so much that is so positive.

"... and tell 'em Big Mitch sent ya!"