Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Iranian Deal: Give Diplomacy a Chance

Lots of opinions on the deal struck in Geneva with Iran, and predictably those on the right oppose the deal and those in the center and left support it.  So what’s one more opinion.

The crippling sanctions have nearly shattered the Iranian economy, the pain on Iranian Main St. is real, but has it really stopped the nuclear program?  The numbers say no.  In 2003 Iran had 164 operational; today it has 19,000 centrifuges.  Did the sanctions bring Iran to the negotiating table?  Probably.  President Rouhani’s pledge to improve the economy in the wake of the Ahmadinejad failure could only happen with a relaxation of the sanctions.  But no one should once think this means Iranian citizens have given up on their nuclear aspirations.  The question is in what form these aspirations develop.

I had to laugh at Conservative Pundit Bill Kristol today on This Week when he said our allies oppose this deal.  Keep in mind, this is the same man who said “If we free the people of Iraq, we will be respected in the Arab world... and I think we will be respected around the world.” as he helped bang the drum for war in Iraq and lost whatever little credibility he had when he kept pumping up the failed expedition.  But what allies is Kristol referring to?  Why the rich Sunni Arab nations and Israel of course.  So why would they oppose a deal that could end Iranian nuclear weapon aspirations (assuming they had them to start with)? In the case of Netanyahu and his hawkish government, if the Iranian situation is defused, more attention will be placed on the Palestinian situation and the calls for the two state solution will increase.  Further, Netanyahu is using the traditional Republican Party perpetual campaign rhetoric that his Likud party, like the Republicans, are the true defenders of Israel and understand national security better than its rivals in the Labor Party. His tenuous grip on power is further jeopardized if his state of fear and constant siege is proven false.  As for the Saudis and their coalition of moderate Arab Sunni nations, their proxy war against the Shia Iranians has been ratcheting up since the failed U.S. escapades in Iraq.  When Shias started an uprising in Bahrain, it was the Saudis that sent forces in to squelch the uprising.  And currently this proxy war is being carried out in greater scope in Syria as the Syrian-Hezbollah-Iran axis battles the Saudi funded al-Qaeda militants.  It seems oil isn’t the only thing these sectarian rivals like to export.  And speaking of oil, the Saudis are finding our firsthand that the U.S. is slowly but surely weaning itself off gulf oil.

But back on the question of allies, apparently England, France, and Germany agree with the deal as they were part of the negotiations.  But let’s not stop there:

From Turkey: "We call on the sides to keep up their constructive approaches to carry the process further," the statement said. "We hope both sides will take the necessary steps required by the agreement, so the problem can be solved in a diplomatic way that would satisfy everyone."

From the UK: "This is an important moment, an encouraging moment, in our relations with Iran and in our efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation in the world.”

From France: President Francois Hollande also saw the accord as a step in the right direction “towards stopping Iran's military nuclear program and therefore normalizing our ties.”

Further, the fact that both China and Russia are onboard with this deal marks the 1st time in memory that the security council actually agreed to anything this important. 

But at the end of the day, the critical questions that need to be asked include:

·        What do we lose if inspectors discover Iran has violated the terms?  The west hits Iran with even heavier sanctions than before and it is unlikely that even a few months would matter in the long term when it comes to the development.

·        What do we lose if we continue on the current path?  The current path was untenable for all parties and would lead to further regional destabilization.

·        Does an autonomous nation have the right to develop a peaceful nuclear program?  Absolutely yes.

·        Are the Iranians worse than the Saudis when it comes to human rights violations?  That’s like distinguishing between Jack the Ripper and Hannibal Lecter. 

·        Can we trust the Iranians and can the Iranians trust us?  At this stage no.  Trust is fickle and difficult to realize, this is why this agreement is less about enrichment and sanctions and more about feeling one another out.

At the end of the day, this agreement opens up many possibilities to stabilize the region while not adding significant risk.  In fact this could lead to further agreements and solutions regarding Syria and who knows, it may lead to some positive developments with North Korea.  What I can tell you is a nuclear armed Saudi Arabia with a bomb within the reach of radical Wahhabis is far more dangerous than a nuclear armed Iran.

I don’t see how giving diplomacy a chance is a bad thing, after all it’s unlikely there will be a mushroom cloud as the smoking gun in the near future.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

What does success look like in the Near and Middle East?

Form McCain to Limbaugh, the right loves to criticize the U.S. Near and Middle East policies.  You make sense out of:

Hamas runs Gaza but lost its patron Iran when the Palestinian organization came out against Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.  It then lost its brief patron in Egypt when the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown in a coup.

Israel was paying Hamas military leader Ahmed al-Jabari to keep the peace and when he couldn’t control Islamic Jihad and Al-Qassam, he was summarily executed via missile attack by an Israeli helicopter. 

Iran is now providing money and weapons to Hamas’ rival Islamic Jihad which threatens Hamas’ control  in Gaza.  The new military leaders in Egypt have flooded and sealed tunnels from the Sinai into Gaza strangling the Palestinian economy in the enclave.

Kurds in Syria are fighting with AND against various anti-Assad Islamist factions in Syria.

Iraq’s Shia led government wanted the U.S. out of Iraq, and now is asking for U.S. help to deal with Sunni insurrectionists.

The moderate Sunni Saudis won’t allow women to vote and export the violent militant conservative Wahhabism throughout the region.

The 9/11 hijackers hailed from alleged ‘friendly’ Sunni nations: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and the UAE.

Somehow President Obama allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow Hosni Mubarak and allowed the Egyptian Military overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood.

Inhabitants of many Afghanistan’s provinces do not even recognize the nation of Afghanistan, only their local tribal rulers.

U.S. has historically chosen short term national interests over long term mutual interests: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the ex-Soviet republics.

Saudi Arabia and Israel are equally worried about US-Iranian engagement proving “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is alive and well in the Middle East.

As the U.S. becomes less dependent on Middle Eastern Oil, our strategic interests should pivot towards Asia leaving regional issues to local players: Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

The Kuwaitis, Qataris, and Saudis prefer to fund their proxies and never get their hands dirty.

Turkey continues to slip deeper and deeper down the Islamist path form its secular past hoping to reinvigorate its Ottoman past and control of the Arab world.

In a region littered with terrorist organizations, the heads of states of our alleged friends: Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey are proving to be the most difficult to work with.

Over the last three decades Israel has flourished thanks to strategic partnerships with Sunni autocrats while sewing dissension between rival anti-establishment factions.

Russia continues to maintain its relations with Syria and is now pursuing advanced military ties with Egypt.  Back to the Cold War of the 60’s and 70’s.

Yes Assad must go, but the aftermath will be much worse.

Christian rightwing congressmen in the US are in no hurry to back the Syrian rebels, as the Christian minority there could become victims of sectarian violence.

Saudi Arabia already seeking nuclear technology from Pakistan.

In Syria you have Hezbollah fighting Hamas, Sunnis fighting Sunnis, Iraqis fighting Iraqis, etc.

…and you wonder why a U.S. Middle Eastern Foreign Policy is complicated?




Thursday, November 7, 2013

Endorsement v Coercion & The Town of Greece (NY) v Galloway

Most casual Supreme Court watchers tune in every June to hear how the highest court in the land rules on the landmark cases.  The arguments for these cases take place in the fall and it is one such case that has piqued my interest on both content and personal grounds: Town of Greece (NY) v Galloway.  According to SCOTUSBlog, the issue is Whether the court of appeals erred in holding that a legislative prayer practice violates the Establishment Clause notwithstanding the absence of discrimination in the selection of prayer-givers or forbidden exploitation of the prayer opportunity, but what makes this one personal is I lived in Greece for many years and still spend significant time there. 

Firstly, Greece, NY is a typical northeastern suburban town.  Mostly white, moderate to conservative, predominantly Christian, 24 of the 26 houses of worship fall within the realm of Christianity, with the typical landscape of fast food, pizza places, chain restaurants, strip malls, neighborhoods, and local bars where everybody does know your name.  And unlike the media reporting, it is not a small quaint town, it is big town of over 90,000 residents.  This is neither hard core red state evangelical country nor liberal granola eating tree hugger country.

The background, courtesy of Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project: Since 1999, the Greece town board has opened its monthly sessions with a prayer. In 2007, Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, who is atheist, complained that the prayers “aligned the town with Christianity.” As non-Christians, they said they felt both coerced to participate and isolated during the ceremony. The board responded that anyone (regardless of faith tradition or beliefs) could volunteer to recite a prayer and the town was not trying to exclude anyone, as a result, the meetings have begun with Christian, Jewish, Baha'i, and Wiccan invocations.

Over the last five years, the case has made its way through federal court, district court, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and now the U.S. Supreme Court.  And while I am no lawyer, constitutional or otherwise, I did take a Business Law class, watched a lot of L.A. Law, and slept in Holiday Inn Express.  Joking aside, First Amendment cases have always intrigued me, especially those involving the Establishment Clause and the lesser known Endorsement Test, and when you mix in the politics of the now, you have a potentially groundbreaking case.

The case law is extensive and various court opinions are intriguing.  If you want to learn more, I suggest Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) source of the aptly named Lemon test, Lynch v Donnelly (1984), especially Sandra Day O’Connor’s opinion which created the Endorsement test, and the more recent Justice Kennedy’s Coercion test from Allegheny County v ACLU.

What’s my take?

I am a staunch supporter of the 1st Amendment in both the protection of free speech and the prohibition of an established religion.  I believe prayer has no place in public schools, and I have no problem with nativity scenes.  I know the original Pledge of Allegiance did not include “under God”, and it was modified about the same time “In God We Trust” became our national motto; it was the 1950’s and we had a new enemy, the godless Soviet heathens.  I sang the Christmas Carols, much to the chagrin of my classmates who had to hear me, in elementary school while I was going to Hebrew School.  You don’t have to share my beliefs to be my friend, and your beliefs are not a prerequisite to friendship.  I am bothered by the preoccupation with our elected officials’ beliefs, and does the President really need to end every speech with “God Bless America”?  I know politics leads to a lot of arguments, and when you throw in religion, families and friendships can be torn asunder. Trying to include all seems like a good idea and is often seen at as a compromise, but rarely solves problems.  Merry Christmas doesn’t bother me, and an Islamic Center in New York City shouldn’t bother you. Religion has its place in the public square, just not in public policy.

What’s the big deal?  Congress has two chaplains and sessions include prayers.  By opening the meeting to all invocations isn’t the Town of Greece doing the opposite of establishing A religion?  Does the Establishment Clause prevent the selection of one religion over another AND the use of any religion over no religion?   People have places of worship where they can practice their faith, should legal proceedings include a religious element? Legally, this may come down to the Endorsement test vs. the Coercion test.

Politically speaking, those on the left will back Galloway and Stephens and those on the right will back the town.  Hannity and O’Reilly will call this the continued war on Christmas, David Barton will claim we are a Christian Nation, Bill Maher will ask why is a prayer even necessary, and whatever side loses will call these jurists activist judges.  Justice isn’t blind, it’s political.

My take?  I would feel a lot more comfortable if religious invocations were not part of the governmental process.  We seemed to do just fine before we had to tell the world “In God We Trust.”