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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Location: Douglas, Coffee Co., The Other Georgia, United States

Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Shields and Brooks on Clinton money questions

From Shields and Brooks on the PBS Newshour:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it certainly is a — at least a debate in the short term. And the president saying today that we’re going to — that he’s going to reevaluate and look at whether any changes can be made.

But let me turn you to something else closer to home, but very much in the news this week, David, and that is the stories yesterday in your newspaper, The New York Times, and other news organizations about the Clinton Foundation, about money going to the foundation, about a uranium mining company, a Canadian company with donations, again, the head of the company giving money to the foundation, and then that company needing an OK from the U.S. government for the Russians to buy controlling interest.

What are we learning here about the Clinton Foundation and the charities they run?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, it’s way more egregious than I expected.

I thought there were donations and people were giving money. But there were probably people giving money for the noblest of reasons to the foundation, some people not — apparently giving money not for the noblest of reasons. And this uranium story, where there’s a connection, where the secretary of state nominally sits on this government body which gives OKs to mergers with national security implications, and then a company deeply involved in that kind of merger giving lots of money in the opportune money to the Clinton Foundation, according to my newspaper, the foundation not reporting it really adequately, that’s reasonably stark.

Now, the defense is, she didn’t know, she wasn’t directly involved. Well, that’s completely plausible. But the fact is, you’re sitting on — as secretary of state, or you’re Bill Clinton running the foundation, and somebody’s giving you all this money and you know it has government implications, and that doesn’t ring all sorts of alarm bells?

Where’s the self-protection there? Where is the self-censorship or the self-thing, no, this is not right? And so I’m sort of stunned by it. I’m surprised by it. And, you know, the paradox of it right now is for Hillary Clinton’s president — or candidacy is, people think she’s a strong leader.

But the latest Quinnipiac poll suggests they don’t trust her, they don’t think she’s honest. They have these two thoughts in their minds at the same time. And it just seems, with the Clinton family, there’s going to be a lot of competence and a lot of great political talent and governmental talent, but you’re going to have a run of low-level scandals throughout the whole deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that what you see?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think there’s two separate memories that Democrats have of the Clinton years, the golden Clinton years, the lowest unemployment rate in the history of the country for African-Americans, and Latinos, lowest unemployment rate in 40 years for — among women, the first — greatest surpluses and budget deficit — budget in the country’s history, first balanced budget in 50 years, I mean, just rather remarkable.

Then there’s the transactional part of the Clinton administration, sort of the darker part, the major donations and renting out the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House, the briefings in the Map Room at the White House for businesspeople who contributed and meet their regulators, and, worst of all, the Marc Rich pardon, where his wife, Denise, who has since, let it be noted, renounced her American citizenship and gone to a tax haven, gave $201,000 to the Democratic Party, $450,000 to the Clinton Library, and $100,000 to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

And, in return, apparently, she got a pardon for her husband, the fugitive financier, who is really one the sleaziest people on the planet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, this is bad at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

MARK SHIELDS: This is the end of the administration.

But this is what it evokes, this kind of — the sense of the money and is their transactional politics. And I just think it comes now at a time when you have got to be totally transparent and get it out there, now amending their filings.

But I think this is — there is sort of dispirited feeling among Democrats. There’s enormous respect for her as a leader and her talents, but there’s a question of, my goodness, are we going to have more of this?

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does it mean for her campaign?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first, for the Democratic Party, it should mean, let’s look around. Is this all we have got? Whether she’s strong or not, you don’t know what’s going to happen.

Second, it re-raises the e-mail issue. Now it just — before, she could have some plausible case that the e-mails were destroyed because they were nobody’s business. But now, each time you get another scandal, you think, oh, that’s why she destroyed the e-mails, because she didn’t want — to hide.

And so it just brings that up again. And then they raised a lot of money. And Bill Clinton gave a lot of speeches. And she gave a lot of speeches. It’s very unlikely this is the last of the cases, this one uranium. And there’s the book coming out in a few weeks possibly detailing more of the cases. And so it will just be a steady theme, a subtheme of her campaign.

MARK SHIELDS: Let me just make one quick point.

And that is, Bill Clinton did get $500,000 for a speech — that’s a lot of money — in Russia. David goes for half of that. No, but…

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Seventy percent.

MARK SHIELDS: Seventy percent.

But Ronald Reagan, when he left office in 1989, went to Japan, he gave two speeches of 20 minutes each for $2 million, $2 million, which is $4 million in today’s dollars, and $2 million contribution to the Reagan Library.

The difference? Nancy Reagan wasn’t secretary of state. Nancy Reagan wasn’t getting to run for president of the United States. I mean, George W. Bush has made a lot of money on speeches. But that’s what makes it unseemly. And that’s what makes Democrats nervous.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But one of the arguments the Clinton people are making, though, is it’s disclosed, that they have disclosed everything, and if they haven’t, they are going to get everything out there.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. They have got to get everything…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does that take any of the bad taste…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Transparency — I think, at some point probably, the president is going to — former President Clinton is going to do almost a grilling, explaining what the Clinton Foundation did.

But I think this is — it’s a time for transparency, but it’s also a time for accountability here. And I think it’s going to be a — to their advantage, this is April of 2015. If it were Labor Day of 2016 and she were the nominee, this would really be a serious blow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the transparency thing?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think it helps.

But the thing they don’t know is why people gave them the money. A lot of people were giving them millions of dollars. And some people did it probably because they believe in the foundation work, and they did it for beautiful reasons. A lot of people give money to these things and to presidential candidates because they want to be near the flame of power. They just want to be in the room.
They can go home and say, oh, I chatted with Bill Clinton. But some people give it because they are imagining a quid pro quo. I doubt there’s an actual quid pro quo. Mitt Romney said today it looked like bribery. I think that’s — there’s no evidence of that.

MARK SHIELDS: No.

DAVID BROOKS: But you want to plant the seed. And you have got an issue before the government. And you think, well, this is how government works in a lot of other countries. It probably works a little like this in the U.S., too, and therefore I’m going to plant the seed of goodwill, I will get in the room.

And there’s no quid pro quo, but it’s not great. And so there are all these people giving them money for all different motives, some of them good and some of them pretty bad.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, just one quick thing — $93 million Sheldon Adelson and wife gave to Republican candidates in 2012.

And the Koch brothers are talking about raising $900 million. They are not altruists. I mean, they have an agenda. Make no mistake about it. That’s what we’re talking about with the dimension of money now in our politics, which is very much in the saddle.

And to Lindsey Graham and Hillary Clinton’s credit, they are the only two people I know running who say we need a constitutional amendment to change it.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. It would just say, quickly, there is a difference between an ideological agenda, which seems to me legitimate, and a business deal that you want to get ratified.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, OK. No, I’m not questioning — I would rather — I would take the second, quite frankly.

DAVID BROOKS: Interesting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You would take which?

MARK SHIELDS: I would take a business — I would take a business deal, rather than somebody who is making foreign policy for the United States.

Friday, April 24, 2015

LifeLine, $6.31 a month. There is no free lunch.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Under the Federal Communications Commission program, called Lifeline, phone companies receive money for providing discounts to low-income customers. In 2012 the FCC passed new regulations designed to reduce fraud in the program, including a requirement that all beneficiaries certify their eligibility annually. That led to significant declines in enrollment. But this year’s drop was especially large.

Among those dropped are people who appear to qualify based on the program’s criteria. Sofiya Altshuler, of Brooklyn, N.Y., said she was surprised when she received a Verizon bill for $59.89 in February, up from $6.31 in January.

In 2014 the Lifeline program spent $1.6 billion to discount 12.4 million phone lines.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Turkey Breaks From West on Defense - Ankara takes steps to boost its own arms industry and reduce its military dependence on its NATO allies


From The Wall Street Journal:

ISTANBUL—Since the Ottoman Empire traded swords for guns two centuries ago, Turkey’s military has relied on Western arms and know-how. Now, the country’s leadership is pushing to end that arrangement in a shift that is rattling its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.

Ankara has recently moved to diminish Turkey’s military dependence on the West, including last month inaugurating rocket testing and a radar technologies facilities. Both are part of Turkey’s effort to boost a fast-growing arms export industry that also is supplying its own forces with locally built tanks, warships, drones, missiles and—by the republic’s centenary in 2023—a jet fighter.

Ankara has also rejected bids by its NATO allies for a missile-defense system in favor of a Chinese-built one that one these partners say is incompatible with their technology and threatens intelligence cooperation.

Turkey’s Islamist-rooted government argues it needs a more independent military force to avoid the fate of the Ottomans, whose empire collapsed after banking on alliances with Germany and Austria-Hungary, only to be invaded by the U.K. and France—a bitter historical chapter that still fuels mistrust toward the West.

“We lost World War I because the Ottoman state did not have its own combat technique,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at a March ceremony at the 100th anniversary of the Turk victory over the Allies in the Dardanelles. “A nation that doesn’t have its own defense industry cannot have a claim to independence.”

The government’s historically grounded concerns also have modern precedents: The U.S. imposed a crushing arms embargo on Turkey for more than three years after Ankara’s 1974 military intervention in Cyprus. And only after long and contentious discussions did NATO allies agree to deploy Patriots to protect the country during the 1991 Gulf War and 2003 Iraq war.

Still, the policy shift is roiling Turkey’s decadeslong alliance with the West, just as both sides seek each other’s help to counter security threats, particularly in the battle against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.

“Turkey is recasting itself as a nonaligned country in its rhetoric, which is making NATO very uncomfortable,” said a Western official in Brussels. “Turkey’s stance will be an issue for years to come, not only if the Chinese missile deal happens, but also because of its politics.”

Many officials in Washington and Brussels view the developments as part of a broader pivot by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose efforts to forge an independent foreign policy also led to other strains—over Syria, Egypt and Israel, for example.

Coming to power in 2003, the Turkish leader for years embraced close Western ties as the country bid to join the European Union. But accession talks stalled in recent years amid mounting Western concerns that Mr. Erdogan was becoming more autocratic, while he accused the West of undermining Turkey’s progress.

Still, Ankara has repeatedly stressed its commitment to NATO; the president’s spokesman said in February that Turkey’s membership in the alliance wasn’t up for debate. Turkey still cooperates closely with NATO.

Mr. Erdogan’s government said it deported 1,000 would-be jihadists and boosted intelligence sharing following Western criticism that Turkey wasn’t doing enough to combat Islamic State. Last month, Turkey let the U.S. deploy armed drones at the Incirlik Air Base to help fight the militants. Since 2013, it has hosted 750 NATO troops and five Patriot batteries from the alliance. And Turkey joined NATO’s antipiracy operation off Africa’s coast in March and participated in the U.K.-hosted Joint Warrior drill this month.

“Turkey contributes to strengthening our collective defense in response to Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine, and Turkey is also making a significant contribution to our missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan,” NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said.

But Turkey—which has the second-largest land force in NATO after the U.S.—is also making an aggressive push to carve out a more independent military, making old friends nervous.

“You’re not in a situation where people in Washington and Brussels are asking, ‘Whose side is Turkey on?’ But one or two more big negative decisions, and you’ll be there,” said Marc Pierini, a former European Union ambassador to Ankara who is now at the Carnegie Endowment in Brussels.

Exhibit A is Ankara’s plan to buy a $3.4 billion national missile-defense system produced by China Precision Machinery Import & Export Corp., a company sanctioned by the U.S. multiple times since 2003—most recently in 2013 for violating a nonproliferation act targeting Iran, North Korea and Syria. Mr. Erdogan picked China over vehement NATO objections because its offer was cheaper and promised more technology transfers than bids from Western companies Raytheon,RTN1.25%Lockheed MartinLMT-0.26% and Eurosam (though Ankara says the bid from Franco-Italian Eurosam could be revived if the China deal falls through).

“No one else is giving up their technology to Turkey,” a Turkish defense industries official said.

“They don’t want a strong Turkey,” Mr. Erdogan said as he opened weapons manufacturer Aselsan ASASELS0.73%’s Radar and Electronic War Center in Ankara in March, referring to the West. “Supposedly these are countries that we cooperate with, that we are together with in NATO.”

The Chinese deal is risky. Western officials and analysts say the technology is outdated and couldn’t be integrated into NATO’s defense shield. That would increase Turkey’s vulnerability as Syria’s government deploys Scud missiles against rebels, these people said.

Turkish officials have sent mixed signals on the matter. Defense Minister Ismet Yildiz has said Turkey is seeking to build an independent national missile-defense system that wouldn’t be integrated with NATO. But the presidency’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, recently said the Chinese system can be integrated while protecting Beijing from spying on NATO—something the alliance rejects. “It is out of the question for the missile system not to be NATO compatible,” Mr. Kalin said.

But a Chinese system also would undermine a 2010 NATO initiative for members to collectively build a ballistic missile-defense system to protect the whole alliance.

“This sort of missile defense capability as such will reduce efficiency, harming the integrated approach that today’s threat environment invariably necessitates,” according to the Turkish authors of a mid-March report published by the German Marshall Fund, an American think tank. While alliance members can purchase weapons as they see fit, Ms. Romero said, “In general, it is important for NATO that the capabilities allies acquire can operate together.”

Monday, April 20, 2015

Unions and national progressive groups went some distance to nationalize the Chicago campaign by aggressively backing Emanuel's opponent: Lessons From Chicago for Clinton’s Candidacy - Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s runoff-election victory could provide insight into how to woo progressives in 2016

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Hillary Clinton’s nascent presidential campaign is billed as a test of how the Democratic Party’s centrist, establishment machine will do in pacifying a progressive wing unhappy with her ties to financial interests and hungry for some alternative.

In fact, a test of that very struggle was conducted just this month. The setting was the mayor’s race in Chicago, where incumbent Rahm Emanuel—veteran of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns and White House, and inheritor of the Clinton family’s inclination to build bridges to the financial community—was challenged by an unabashed liberal, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County commissioner.

Like Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Emanuel was the object of deep skepticism on his party’s left—a skepticism that in his case ranged up to outright hostility. The skepticism was born both of what he had done and what he had failed to do while in office. On top of substantive disputes, his record of maintaining good ties—and a hefty donor base—among Chicago’s business and financial leaders was seen as both a sign and cause of misplaced priorities.

Unlike Mrs. Clinton thus far, Mr. Emanuel also faced a real, live opponent, who became the vessel for all that progressive angst and anger.

Result? Mr. Emanuel won easily, 56% to 44%, in a runoff election on April 7. He won the white vote handily but also every African-American ward in the city, despite intense unhappiness there over his closure of almost 50 schools. He won in wards heavily represented by officers of the police and fire departments, despite intense controversy over reductions in city pension programs that are running deep in the red. He didn’t win the Hispanic vote, but, while running one-on-one against a Latino foe, won nearly the same share as four years earlier.

How did he do it? In part by running as a kind of modified progressive, one who embraced the same priorities as his party’s liberal wing but with policies moderated enough to prevent scaring off moderates and business interests who would consider a more strident progressive agenda a declaration of class warfare.

In essence, Mr. Emanuel’s pitch was that he was offering working-class, poor and minority voters programs that improved their chances of succeeding without breaking the bank in the process. He terms it a choice between “opportunity-based progressivism” and the liberal wing’s “class-based, resentment-based progressivism.”

There are limits to how much of this story applies to a national presidential campaign, of course. David Axelrod, a friend of Mr. Emanuel’s and a longtime Chicago political operative, cautions that it’s easy to overstate the parallels between a mayor’s race and a national political debate. Mayoral elections tend to be more focused on personalities, competence and local issues than on ideology. “Most Chicagoans were basically measuring these guys as mayors,” Mr. Axelrod says.

Still, unions and national progressive groups went some distance to nationalize the Chicago campaign by aggressively backing Mr. Garcia and seeking to upend Mr. Emanuel. Certainly the mayor was highly vulnerable to attacks from the left. That was largely because of the anger stirred up by his decision to deal with a budget crisis by closing schools, many in African-American communities, and his decision to push for a longer school day. Those moves put him at odds with minority leaders and powerful teacher unions, a spat that became bitterly personal and led to a brief teacher strike.

That alone was enough to set a fire, but additional kindling came from Mr. Emanuel’s famously cozy relations with the moneyed interests of downtown Chicago, and his equally famously abrasive personality. Put it all together and you had the formula for a center-vs.-left conflagration.

Mr. Emanuel tried to douse it by crafting his own version of his progressive credentials, trying to show he embraced the same goals as the movement but with more achievable tactics for moving toward them. He raised the city’s minimum wage (though not as much as progressives wanted). He provided universal full-day kindergarten (though not the universal all-day prekindergarten some wanted).

He also tried to counter the perception that in closing elementary and secondary schools he had undercut his city’s poor and minority students. He did so by emphasizing a different education initiative: a program to waive community college costs for city high school graduates with a B average, a program especially beneficial for minority students.

It worked, in the sense that Mr. Emanuel won with relative ease after an early scare.

For Mrs. Clinton, the lesson may be that it is possible to craft a progressive narrative that is different from, though not necessarily at odds with, the one pushed by those who would rather have Sen. Elizabeth Warren running. Chicago shows Mrs. Clinton ignores Democrats’ new energy on the left at her peril; less clear is whether she, more than Mr. Emanuel, can find a way to actually channel it.

"Morally problemic?" Get real: U.S. Muslim Community Divided Over White House Outreach Plan - Law-enforcement efforts to prevent radicalization provoke both support and suspicion

From The Wall Street Journal:

MISSION VIEJO, Calif.—On a recent Friday in a mosque on the edge of an office park here, congregants filled rows of plastic chairs to hear community leaders discuss the role the White House hopes they will play in a new government effort to fight terrorism.

Instead, what they got was a debate over the proposed law-enforcement outreach to Muslim groups through community events, mentoring and youth programs, which are intended to prevent radicalization and identify extremists. Some Muslim leaders argued the government’s plan unfairly casts suspicion on the entire Muslim community, while others urged involvement as a way for Muslims to have a voice and safeguard their communities.

“We’re being pushed into this law-enforcement framework that’s inappropriate,” said Todd Gallinger, a representative of the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR, in the mosque discussion. “This is something we need to avoid.”

But Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, encouraged participation, saying, “CVE is a tool.” He added that the community should think about how to “leverage CVE so that our community is seen for what it is—that it is part of the solution and has nothing to do with the problem.”

The rift playing out in the Orange County mosque and elsewhere demonstrates the challenge the Obama administration faces as it attempts to sell its plan, called Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, to the communities crucial to its success. The issue has gained potency with the rise of Islamic State, or ISIS, a violent Islamist group aggressively recruiting young Westerners.

On Monday, the U.S. charged six Minnesota men in connection with attempts to join Islamic State, in a case involving one of the largest groups of potential foreign fighters. Minneapolis, with the country’s largest Somali immigrant population, is one of three pilot cities meant to test CVE programs before they are rolled out on a larger scale. Federal officials said the test cities, which include Boston and Los Angeles, were chosen because of strong existing relationships between the Muslim communities and law enforcement.

Government officials and supporters of the program say it isn’t a spy or intelligence-gathering mission. They note it was developed with the input of Muslim leaders from across the country, with an emphasis on mental health, social services and community-style policing, according to an administration official.

The U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations, an umbrella group, said earlier this year that the CVE singles out Muslims for law-enforcement scrutiny, which it called “constitutionally questionable and morally problematic.”

“We have concerns about any program that might violate civil rights, and on the other side, we are very much concerned about individuals falling into the trap of the wrong argument ISIS is putting out there to recruit innocent young people,” said Oussama Jammal, secretary-general of the group. “We’re in a tough position.”

The CVE programs are tailored to specific community needs, administration officials say. For example, many of the Somali immigrant Muslims in Minneapolis struggle with unemployment. Muslim communities in Los Angeles are more economically and ethnically diverse, and new immigrants often have trouble finding social and health services. In Boston, a college town that draws a diverse Muslim student population, the program could include psychologists to work with young people.

Federal officials are meeting with Muslims groups across the country to discuss the program, the administration official said.

Already, more than two dozen religious and civil-rights groups have publicly opposed or criticized CVE, including the American Civil Liberties Union, CAIR, Muslim Advocates and New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, as well as some Muslim student associations and Muslim religious leaders. Some say they fear that the plan may include surveillance of Muslims.

Despite the criticism, government officials say many Muslim communities have embraced the program, such as in Denver and Detroit, especially in the wake of more high-profile prosecutions of young people from the U.S. attempting to join Islamic State.

“People are really worried about” ISIS recruitment, said an administration official. “So if Muslim American groups are concerned, that’s not the government singling them out. That’s the government responding to their needs.”

Another administration official recalled that in meetings with Muslim leaders at the White House earlier this year, President Barack Obama said that “there have been cases in the past that made the community more mistrustful, and said that’s why it’s so important for the community to be more involved.”

“The core of this program is building healthy and resilient communities, promoting civic participation,” said Joumana Silyan-Saba of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, who worked on L.A.’s CVE. Law enforcement has a role, she said, but the program also calls for beefing up social services for immigrant families.

That hasn’t been enough for some Muslims, who point to high-profile instances of surveillance in the past decade, including a Federal Bureau of Investigation informant in Orange County, Calif.

In the latter case, Craig Monteilh, a convicted check forger, said in court documents that the FBI hired him to pose as a Muslim and spy on mosques in the area. The FBI said it used him as a “confidential human source,” but didn’t detail his actions in court documents. An FBI spokeswoman said the FBI doesn’t target any individual or group based on religion.

Metra Salem, a 36-year-old mother of three and the daughter of Afghan immigrants, said she supports the Obama plan. “I want my kids to be part of this country. I’m tired of this victim-minority-group, marginalization narrative,” she said.

Mohannad Malas, a member of the mosque’s board, said he hadn’t heard enough to come to conclusions. His mosque regularly hosts visits from local law enforcement and city officials, he said, adding, “We have nothing to hide.”

But Mr. Malas cited the visit years ago by an official from the FBI’s Los Angeles office. “He told us that he thinks of our community as the solution, and after that visit, we felt part of the solution,” Mr. Malas said. “Turns out, they were planting an informant [Mr. Monteilh].”

PTL: Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia to Seek Re-Election

From The New York Times:

Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a Democrat known as a bridge between the parties, said on Sunday that he would run for re-election, quieting speculation that he would abandon his seat to run for governor.
 
Mr. Manchin, who has voiced frustration over the fractious nature of Congress, said he was now optimistic about the Senate’s capacity for bipartisanship.
 
“I think we’ve made some inroads,” he said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “I really believe that we’ve changed the whole process to a certain extent in the Senate to where we’re willing to put our country first.”

The world according to Jeb Bush

From The Washington Post:

If Jeb Bush is elected president, the United States won’t be on speaking terms with Cuba and will partner more closely with Israel. He’ll tighten sanctions on Iran and urge NATO to deploy more troops in Eastern Europe to counter Vladimir Putin. And he’ll order the U.S. military to root out “barbarians” and “evildoers” around the globe.

Far from running from or playing down the views once expressed by his brother George W. Bush, Jeb Bush is embracing them — and emphasizing them.

It is clear when he calls for closer engagement with Arab leaders to combat the growing threat of the Islamic State. Or when he criticizes President Obama for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq. It is most apparent when he refers to “evildoers” — a formulation used widely by his brother — and argues that the United States needs to engage but doesn’t have to be “the world’s policeman,” a view voiced by his brother that was also embraced by their father, George H.W. Bush.

“We now have a president — the first one, I believe, in the post-World War II era — that believes that America’s power is not appropriate and America’s presence is not a force for good,” Jeb Bush told a crowd of business leaders in Columbus, Ohio, this week. “He’s wrong. With all due respect, he is just plain wrong.”

“America needs to lead. America needs to stay engaged,” he added. “America’s friends need to know that we have their back over the long haul, and our enemies need to fear us a little bit.”

Bush’s views put him squarely in the middle of GOP consensus on foreign affairs — a consensus that formed as his brother reshaped U.S. engagement with the world. But by endorsing some of his brother’s views, he puts himself at odds with most Americans, who remain wary of the two wars launched during the last Bush presidency.

Even George W. Bush admits he’s a political liability. Speaking at a health conference in Chicago on Wednesday night, he told the crowd, “That’s why you won’t see me out there, and he doesn’t need to defend me,” before adding that he loves and supports his brother, according to reports of the speech.

In recent years, nearly 6 in 10 Americans have believed that the Iraq war was not worth fighting, though Republicans have been slightly more supportive, according to polling by The Washington Post and other organizations. In more recent years, public opinion has similarly turned against the war in Afghanistan.

He is not officially a candidate, but Bush has gone far beyond perfunctory criticism of Obama, thanks to his frequent engagement with voters, the press and a brain trust of nearly two dozen experts.

“Bush’s criticisms of Obama’s policies are pretty much what you would expect. ‘Not’ — as Jerry Seinfeld might have said — ‘that there is anything wrong with that,’ ” said Gary Schmitt, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

But Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor of political science who once advised George W. Bush on Iraq, noted that, so far, Jeb Bush “doesn’t feel that he has to emphasize differences with the previous Presidents Bush. But he’s not insecure about it or defensive about it — he doesn’t list 20 things that he would do differently.”

As Bush prepares to launch a presidential campaign, he is calling upon his personal experiences abroad and a growing cast of advisers well versed in global conflicts.

He likes to remind crowds that he lived in Caracas, Venezuela, in the late 1970s when he was a vice president for Texas Commerce Bank. He lived in the city’s Santa Rosa de Lima neighborhood with his wife, Columba, his son, George, and his daughter, Noelle. (Their third child, Jeb Bush Jr., was born later.)

Bush has also said he has “forced” himself to visit Asia several times in recent years. While declining to provide specific destinations and dates, aides said that he has traveled to Asia 14 times since leaving the governor’s office in 2007, including several times to China, with other stops in Japan, South Korea and Singapore. He never visited China when his father, George H.W. Bush, was top U.S. envoy there, because Columba Bush was pregnant at the time with their first son, George P. Bush.

Early in the exploratory phase of his likely campaign, Jeb Bush unveiled a foreign policy advisory team that reflects the disparate views of GOP thinking on the world. The group includes two former secretaries of state, George P. Shultz and James A. Baker III; two former CIA directors, Porter J. Goss and Michael V. Hayden; former attorney general Michael Mukasey; and Paul Wolf­owitz, a former deputy defense secretary and a lead architect of the Iraq war. Several other lower-level officials from both Bush administrations are also members.

Several members of the group declined to comment for this article or did not respond to inquiries. Aides said Bush frequently interacts with group members directly via e-mail — just how he interacted with advisers as Florida governor.

He has hired two staffers, Robert S. Karem and John Noonan, to help develop his foreign policy platform and keep in touch with the bigger group. Most recently, Karem was a top policy adviser to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), while Noonan was a spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee after advising Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign on defense policy.

In speeches, meetings with voters and interviews across the country, Bush usually faults Obama for his “consistent policy of pullback and retrenchment.”

“It’s not that we necessarily have to be the world’s policeman,” he told a crowd in Denver last week. The country needs “a consistent policy where our friends know that we have their back and our enemies fear us a little bit — or our possible enemies believe that the United States will act in its own security interest.”

During a recent interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, Bush accused Obama of withdrawing U.S. military troops around the world because he felt that “American power in the world was not a force for good.”

“What he’s learning is that voids are filled,” he added. “And now they’re filled not necessarily by nation-states. They’re filled by barbarians. They’re filled by nation-states using surrogates. They’re filled by evildoers that now have technologies at their fingertips to be able to undermine not just the neighborhood in which they are, but undermine the world.”

He is especially concerned by Russia’s Putin, who he told Hewitt is “a ruthless pragmatist” who “tries to undermine or underwrite the risk on every action he takes.” To counter Putin’s threats against the Baltic states, Bush said last month, Obama should consider invoking

Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which states that an attack on one ally is an attack on all allies.

“I think there needs to be clarity in Moscow that we’re serious about protecting the one alliance that has created enormous amounts of security and peace in the post-World War II time,” he said, adding later that “if we’re not serious about Article 5, then we ought to have shut down NATO. And I think shutting down NATO would be a disaster.”

Bush’s comments came on the same day that a U.S. Army squadron was completing a 1,100-mile tour de force through six Eastern European countries after completing a months-long training exercise with Polish forces.

On Iran, Bush has repeatedly argued that Obama “negotiated downward” from his original goal of stopping the Iranian regime from building a nuclear weapon. He strongly opposed the framework agreement recently brokered by the United States and Iran.

“By creating this perpetual negotiation . . . we’re lowering what our expectations are and the Iranians are doing nothing in return,” he said last week in Denver, just days after the agreement was announced.

When it comes to Iraq, Bush is mostly supportive of his brother’s legacy there.

“There were mistakes in Iraq for sure,” he said during a speech in Chicago in February. “Using the intelligence capability that everybody embraced about weapons of mass destruction, it turns out to not be accurate.”

But in that appearance, he also called the 2007 Iraq troop “surge” “one of the most heroic acts of courage politically that any president’s done.”

“It was hugely successful and created a stability that when the new president came in, he could build on to create a fragile but more stable situation,” he said.

Bush has said repeatedly that Obama’s decision to withdraw forces from the region further destabilized Iraq and neighboring Syria and led to the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group.

The situation in Syria has “been made worse by actually not having a . . . small contingency force in Iraq, where we’ve had similar to Korea and other places where having a small contingency force would have allowed some degree of stability to take place,” he said in Columbus, adding, “Now those voids are being filled by this Islamic terrorist threat. . . . So our pulling back, it precipitated part of this problem.

That point is strongly disputed by Obama, who told Vice News last month that the Islamic State “is a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion. Which is an example of unintended consequences. Which is why we should generally aim before we shoot.”

Undeterred by public opinion polls that suggest his views are not shared by a majority of voters, Bush believes that global events might prompt Americans to eventually embrace his thinking. During an appearance in San Francisco in January, he accused Obama of exploiting America’s war fatigue to justify withdrawing U.S. military forces abroad.

“When you start beheading Americans in far-off lands because a void was created because we pulled back, guess what — people’s attitudes change about that pretty darn quick,” he said. “You can’t run foreign policy as a leader by following the polls. You have to persuade the American people — even if it is tough for them because of the economic situation — that we have to be engaged in the world.”

The article doesn't note it, but the government pushed such loans; go Quicken: Quicken Strikes Back, Suing DOJ and HUD Over Investigations - Detroit lender alleges it’s a target of a political agenda, being pressured to settle fraud cases

From The Wall Street Journal:

Long on the attack in mortgage-fraud cases, the U.S. government now finds itself the defendant in a lawsuit brought by one of the country’s largest consumer lenders.

Quicken Loans Inc. late Friday sued the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Justice Department, alleging it is a target of a “political agenda under which the DOJ is ‘investigating’ and pressuring large, high-profile lenders into paying nine- and 10-figure sums and publicly ‘admitting’ wrongdoing.”

In its complaint, Quicken says it is fed up being pressured to settle charges for fraud it says it didn’t commit.

The lender says the government threatened to file a lawsuit unless the company paid a multiple of damages based on a sampling of its loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration, admit that its lending practices were “significantly flawed” and publicly state that it had committed fraud under the False Claims Act.

Spokesmen for the Justice Department and HUD declined to comment.

The complaint from the Detroit-based company, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, said that the Justice Department investigation was launched almost three years ago and that the department had subpoenaed more than 85,000 documents.

The lawsuit is a rare pre-emptive move by a company under investigation and a twist in government efforts to collect crisis-related penalties. It also reflects lenders’ frustrations with what they say are unfair moves in the government’s yearslong effort to punish firms involved in the crisis.

The Justice Department has been investigating a variety of lenders in connection with mortgages insured by the FHA before the financial crisis.

Quicken, as a large issuer of FHA mortgages, is part of that probe, but since it isn’t a public company, it hasn’t disclosed any investigations as other big lenders have.

Over the past few years, the Justice Department has reached several multimillion-dollar settlements with banks including J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., SunTrust Banks Inc. and U.S. Bancorp for submitting loans for insurance to the FHA that the government says weren’t eligible or had mistakes.

The FHA sells insurance to make lenders whole if borrowers default and is one of the primary means through which borrowers with low credit scores and low down payments get loans.

However, for the past few years, some lenders have been pulling back from the program, citing heavy and uncertain penalties on loans made during the crisis.

“It’s a shame the DOJ would choose to attack the country’s largest and highest-quality FHA lender providing government lending for home buyers and homeowners across all 50 states at the very time our nation needs expanded access to credit for middle-class Americans who benefit most from the FHA program,” said Quicken Chief Executive Bill Emerson.

In the complaint, Quicken said that the Justice Department based its settlement demands on a sampling of 55 of 246,000 loans and that the defects included miscalculating a borrower’s income by $17 and lending a borrower $26 too much.

Because lenders must certify the FHA-backed loans they make have no errors, the government has sometimes pursued damages under the False Claims Act, a Civil War-era law that lets the government recover triple damages.

That has led to what some banks say are onerous settlements for minor penalties. Rather than audit banks’ entire loan portfolios, the Justice Department also tends to extrapolate mistakes based on a sample, another practice that has drawn some banks’ ire.

“The risks of doing FHA loans for lenders is too high and marks a low point when a Quicken Loans has to fight back,” said David Stevens, president of the Mortgage Bankers Association, which lobbies on behalf of lenders. “This has gone too far and will only hurt consumers’ access to credit.”Mr. Stevens is a former FHA commissioner.

A Quicken spokesman in an email said that the company would continue to make FHA loans in the near term and that “like nearly every lender in the country, we will be evaluating the prudence of our continued participation with FHA.” Last year, Quicken’s FHA loan volume declined roughly in line with the rest of the industry.
_______________

And see article on suit by government against Quicken Loans in this 4-24-2014 WSJ article.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A deeper look at Georgia’s fast-changing electorate

Greg Bluestein writes in the AJC's Political Insider:

Georgia’s electorate is changing even faster than some experts predicted, and a new analysis projecting the state’s demographic evolution through 2060 shows vast changes are coming.

“I sometimes feel like Georgia flies under the radar,” said Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress. “But things are changing there so quickly.”

The analysis was done by the Center for American Progress, the American Enterprise Institute and William H. Frey from the Brookings Institute as part of a report on the demographic evolution of the American electorate. It shows that Georgia will become a majority-minority state in 2025 and that minorities will outnumber whites among eligible voters by 2036.

A narrow majority of students in Georgia’s public schools are now non-white and the data show that the proportion of white children will shrink to about 30 percent by 2060. Unlike states like Texas and California where Hispanics make up the brunt of the growing minority populations, the surge in Georgia will mostly be powered by black residents.

“Blacks have more proclivity to vote in one direction than Hispanics or Asians,” said Teixeira. “It’s definitely changing the character. And one thing that will really make a huge difference in Georgia is if white voters vote more liberally. You don’t need much of a shift in the white vote for there to be a tipping point.”

Democrats have long touted the coming demographic changes, but they didn’t manifest in the last election. Republicans swept every statewide office and consolidated their power in the state Legislature despite unprecedented voter registration efforts to turn out minority voters by left-leaning groups. In that election, black voters overwhelmingly supported Democrats, but whites came out disproportionately to fuel the GOP sweep.

Teixeira sees opportunities for both parties.

“If I’m a Georgia Democrat I’d look at these trends and think my chances are even better in the future than maybe we thought,” he said. “On the other hand, if you’re a Republican you look at these data and you realize you can’t just rely on the white vote forever.”

And conservatives, he said, shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security by the November elections if they want to retain their grip on power.

“It’s hard to look at these data and think the state political environment will stay the same as it is today,: he said. “It’s one of the clearer cases we have that shows demographic changes will likely lead to political ones in the near future.”

You can download the report’s Georgia charts.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

It's only money for our grandkids to pay:: Empty Ebola Clinics in Liberia Are Seen as Misstep in U.S. Relief Effort - After spending hundreds of millions of dollars and deploying nearly 3,000 troops to build Ebola treatment centers, the United States ended up creating facilities that have largely sat empty: Only 28 Ebola patients have been treated at the 11 treatment units built by the United States military.

From The New York Times:

MONROVIA, Liberia — As bodies littered the streets and the sick lay dying in front of overwhelmed clinics last year, President Obama ordered the largest American intervention ever in a global health crisis, hoping to stem the deadliest Ebola epidemic in history.
 
But after spending hundreds of millions of dollars and deploying nearly 3,000 troops to build Ebola treatment centers, the United States ended up creating facilities that have largely sat empty: Only 28 Ebola patients have been treated at the 11 treatment units built by the United States military, American officials now say.
 
Nine centers have never had a single Ebola patient.
 
Facing criticism that his reaction to the devastating epidemic had been slow and inadequate, Mr. Obama announced his signature plan in mid-September, focusing on Liberia, America’s historical ally.
 
But even before the first treatment center built by the American military opened there, the number of Ebola cases in Liberia had fallen drastically, casting doubt on the American strategy of building facilities that took months to complete.
 
The United States has spent $1.4 billion on its Ebola mission in West Africa, with most of it going to Liberia. Deploying the military cost $360 million, not including the construction, staffing and operating expenses at the treatment centers it built.
As the world’s biggest donor to the Ebola campaign, the United States also supported a wide range of important efforts, like building a new cemetery and increasing body-collection teams. But the vast majority of aid, about 90 percent, came after Ebola cases in Liberia had already begun to drop.
Of the 11 centers built by the American military, all but one opened after Dec. 22. By then, Ebola cases had already fallen to the point that Liberian and foreign officials were discussing the closing of treatment units built by other organizations that were no longer needed.

U.S. Widens Role in Saudi-led Campaign Against Yemen Rebels - Washington has concerns about Riyadh’s goals in the conflict

From The Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. is expanding its role in Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen, vetting military targets and searching vessels for Yemen-bound Iranian arms amid growing concerns about the goals of the Saudi-led mission, according to U.S. and Arab officials.

U.S. officials worry mounting civilian casualties will undermine popular support in Yemen and in other Sunni Arab countries backing the campaign. At least 648 civilians have been killed since the intervention began, and Saudi-led strikes have hit hospitals, schools, a refugee camp and neighborhoods, according to U.N. officials. The Saudis have blamed the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and their Yemeni allies for civilian casualties and said they were doing their best to limit them.

Saudi officials have said they aim to degrade the military capabilities of the Houthi rebels who have overrun much of Yemen and to restore President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power after militants forced him to flee the country.

The Obama administration is skeptical the airstrikes will reverse the Houthi gains. Worried by the risk of more direct intervention by Iran, U.S. officials say they are urging the Saudis to set their sights more narrowly on halting rebel advances and reaching what amounts to a battlefield stalemate that leads all sides to the negotiating table.

Seventeen days of Saudi aerial and naval bombardment have prevented the Houthis from holding Yemen’s main port city, Aden, but failed to thwart the group’s advances elsewhere.

The campaign has made one of the world’s poorest countries the center of a regional proxy fight with high stakes for the Obama administration. The April 2 framework agreement that the U.S. and other world powers reached with Shiite Iran to trade sanctions relief for limits on its nuclear program has prompted the Saudis and their Sunni Muslim allies to resist what they see as Iran’s efforts to impose its influence in the Middle East—often along sectarian battle lines.

Prince Saud Al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, underscored the tensions on Sunday, telling reporters his country is “not at war with Iran” in Yemen. But he demanded Iran end its political and military support for the Houthis, who adhere to the Zaidi offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Geez: Puerto Ricans who can’t speak English qualify as disabled for Social Security

From The Washington Post:

Hundreds of Puerto Rico’s residents qualified for federal disability benefits in recent years because they lacked fluency in English, according to government auditors.

The Social Security Administration’s inspector general questioned the policy this month in light of the fact that Spanish is the predominant language in the U.S. territory.

Under Social Security regulations, individuals are considered less employable in the United States if they can’t speak English, regardless of their work experience or level of education.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Would New Borders Mean Less Conflict in the Middle East? - The region is living with the combustible legacy of states artificially carved from the remains of the Ottoman Empire.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Shortly after the end of World War I, the French and British prime ministers took a break from the hard business of redrawing the map of Europe to discuss the easier matter of where frontiers would run in the newly conquered Middle East.

Two years earlier, in 1916, the two allies had agreed on their respective zones of influence in a secret pact—known as the Sykes-Picot agreement—for divvying up the region. But now the Ottoman Empire lay defeated, and the United Kingdom, having done most of the fighting against the Turks, felt that it had earned a juicier reward.

“Tell me what you want,” France’s Georges Clemenceau said to Britain’s David Lloyd George as they strolled in the French embassy in London.

“I want Mosul,” the British prime minister replied.

“You shall have it. Anything else?” Clemenceau asked.

In a few seconds, it was done. The huge Ottoman imperial province of Mosul, home to Sunni Arabs and Kurds and to plentiful oil, ended up as part of the newly created country of Iraq, not the newly created country of Syria.

The Ottomans ran a multilingual, multireligious empire, ruled by a sultan who also bore the title of caliph—commander of all the world’s Muslims. Having joined the losing side in the Great War, however, the Ottomans saw their empire summarily dismantled by European statesmen who knew little about the region’s people, geography and customs.

The resulting Middle Eastern states were often artificial creations, sometimes with implausibly straight lines for borders. They have kept going since then, by and large, remaining within their colonial-era frontiers despite repeated attempts at pan-Arab unification.

The built-in imbalances in some of these newly carved-out states—particularly Syria and Iraq—spawned brutal dictatorships that succeeded for decades in suppressing restive majorities and perpetuating the rule of minority groups.

But now it may all be coming to an end. Syria and Iraq have effectively ceased to function as states. Large parts of both countries lie beyond central government control, and the very meaning of Syrian and Iraqi nationhood has been hollowed out by the dominance of sectarian and ethnic identities.

The rise of Islamic State is the direct result of this meltdown. The Sunni extremist group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has proclaimed himself the new caliph and vowed to erase the shame of the “Sykes-Picot conspiracy.” After his men surged from their stronghold in Syria last summer and captured Mosul, now one of Iraq’s largest cities, he promised to destroy the old borders. In that offensive, one of the first actions taken by ISIS (as his group is also known) was to blow up the customs checkpoints between Syria and Iraq.

“What we are witnessing is the demise of the post-Ottoman order, the demise of the legitimate states,” says Francis Ricciardone, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Egypt who is now at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “ISIS is a piece of that, and it is filling in a vacuum of the collapse of that order.”

In the mayhem now engulfing the Middle East, it is mostly the countries created a century ago by European colonialists that are coming apart. In the region’s more “natural” nations, a much stronger sense of shared history and tradition has, so far, prevented a similar implosion.

“Much of the conflict in the Middle East is the result of insecurity of contrived states,” says Husain Haqqani, an author and a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. “Contrived states need state ideologies to make up for lack of history and often flex muscles against their own people or against neighbors to consolidate their identity.”

In Egypt, with its millennial history and strong sense of identity, almost nobody questioned the country’s basic “Egyptian-ness” throughout the upheaval that has followed President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in a 2011 revolution. As a result, most of Egypt’s institutions have survived the turbulence relatively intact, and violence has stopped well short of outright civil war.

Turkey and Iran—both of them, in bygone eras, the center of vast empires—have also gone largely unscathed in recent years, even though both have large ethnic minorities of their own, including Arabs and Kurds.

The Middle East’s “contrived” countries weren’t necessarily doomed to failure, and some of them—notably Jordan—aren’t collapsing, at least not yet. The world, after all, is full of multiethnic and multiconfessional states that are successful and prosperous, from Switzerland to Singapore to the U.S., which remains a relative newcomer as a nation compared with, say, Iran.

In all these places, a social compact—usually based on good governance and economic opportunity—often makes ethnic and religious diversity a source of strength, not an engine of instability. In the Middle East, by contrast, “in the cases where the wheels have come off, there was not good governance—there was in fact execrable governance,” says Mr. Ricciardone.

A century ago, many hoped that Syria and Iraq, too, would follow Switzerland’s path. At the time, President Woodrow Wilson sent a commission to the Middle East to explore what new nations should rise from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire.

Under Ottoman rule, neither Syria nor Iraq existed as separate entities. Three Ottoman provinces—Baghdad, Basra and Mosul—roughly corresponded to today’s Iraq. Four others—Damascus, Beirut, Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor—included today’s Syria, Lebanon and much of Jordan and Palestine, as well as a large strip of southern Turkey. All were populated by a hodgepodge of communities—Sunni and Shiite Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans and Christians in Iraq, and in Syria, all these groups as well as Alawites and Druse.

President Wilson’s commissioners, Henry King and Charles Crane, reported back their findings in August 1919. In Europe at the time, the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires was leading to the birth of new ethnic-based nation-states. But the U.S. officials had different ideas: They advised Wilson to ignore the Middle East’s ethnic and religious differences.

What is now Iraq, they suggested, should stay united because “the wisdom of a united country needs no argument in the case of Mesopotamia.” They also argued for a “greater Syria”—an area that would have included today’s Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The end of Ottoman rule, King and Crane argued, “gives a great opportunity—not likely to return—to build…a Near East State on the modern basis of full religious liberty, deliberately including various religious faiths, and especially guarding the rights of minorities.” The locals, they added, “ought to do far better under a state on modern lines” than under Ottoman rule.
The hopes of the Americans didn’t pan out.

In Syria, the French colonial authorities—faced with a hostile Sunni majority—courted favor with the Alawites, a minority offshoot of Shiite Islam that had suffered discrimination under Ottoman rule. The French even briefly created a separate Alawite state on what is now Syria’s Mediterranean coast and heavily recruited Alawites into the new armed forces.

In Iraq, where Shiites make up the majority, the British administrators—faced with a Shiite revolt soon after their occupation began—played a similar game. The new administration disproportionately relied on the Sunni Arab minority, which had prospered under the Ottomans and now rallied around the new Sunni king of Iraq, whom Britain had imported from newly independent Hijaz, a former Ottoman province since conquered by Saudi Arabia.

Those decisions helped to shape the future of Iraq and Syria once the colonial order was gone. The Assad family has ruled Syria since 1970; Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq in 1979. Notwithstanding their lofty rhetoric about a single Arab nation, both regimes turned their countries into places where the minority ruling communities (Alawites in Syria, Sunni Arabs in Iraq) were decidedly more equal than others.

Attempts by the Sunni majority in Syria or the Shiite majority in Iraq to challenge these harshly authoritarian orders were put down without mercy. In 1982, the Syrian regime bulldozed the largely Sunni city of Hama after an Islamist revolt, and Saddam unleashed his wrath to crush a Shiite uprising in southern Iraq after the Gulf War in 1991.

In Syria today, many Alawites are backing President Bashar al-Assad against largely Sunni rebels out of fear that the regime’s collapse could wipe out their entire community—a threat reinforced by Islamic State, whose Sunni extremists offer Alawites and mainstream Shiites a stark choice between conversion and death.

In Iraq, the Shiite-dominated governments that have ruled since the U.S. invasion in 2003 have turned the tables on the country’s former rulers by discriminating against the minority Sunnis. As a result, Islamic State managed to seize Sunni parts of Iraq last year largely unopposed because the group was often seen by the locals as a lesser evil.

“It’s not just the territorial boundaries that are an issue—it’s the map of governance that was contrived by Europe,” says Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University and a former State Department adviser. “Colonial powers within the states created colonial administrations that educated, recruited and empowered minorities. When they left, they left the power in the hands of those minorities—they left the dictatorship of the minorities.”

“Power was so out of alignment in Iraq, Syria and many of these countries, and there is no proper formula of how to make this right. The winners don’t want to share, the losers don’t want to give up power,” Dr. Nasr added. “The Middle East is going through a period of big turmoil, after which it will end up with a very different political configuration and perhaps also a different territorial configuration.”

But how much appetite is there in the Middle East to change these territorial configurations? And if they were changed, what might a new map of the region look like?

One obvious possibility involves the Kurds, whose desire to win an independent state in what is now eastern Turkey and northern Iraq was endorsed by the short-lived Treaty of Sèvres, a 1920 pact among the Western allies and the Ottomans. That treaty was promptly repudiated by Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state. Until recently, in fact, Turkey has denied the very existence of a separate Kurdish ethnicity.

The Kurds, who live scattered across Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran, have already enjoyed decades of virtual independence under an autonomous government in northern Iraq—the mountainous part of what was once the Ottoman province of Mosul. They have now established three autonomous “cantons” in northern Syria.

“I’d be surprised if, in 20 years, there won’t be a country called Kurdistan,” said Karim Sadjapour, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Endowment. “It already exists, de facto.”

With their separate language and culture, the Kurds in Iraq already control their borders and security, limiting entry by Arab Iraqis. As civil war has raged in Syria, Kurdish militias there have come to identify, by and large, with a different national project. “The other rebels fight for Syria, but we have our own Kurdistan, and that is what we care about,” said Farid Atti, an official with a secular Kurdish militia combating Islamic State near the town of Kobane, which is one of the three autonomous Kurdish “cantons” in Syria.

Beyond Kurdistan, however, the case for separate new nations becomes much less clear, despite the ethnic and sectarian horrors that torment the region today.

For one, no matter how artificial they originally were, the post-Ottoman states have proven surprisingly resilient. Consider Lebanon, a country of some 18 squabbling religious communities that survived a bloody, multi-sided civil war from 1975 to 1990 and has repeatedly defied predictions of its imminent demise. Despite—or perhaps because of—that strife-filled history, Lebanon remains an island of relative stability amid the current regional upheaval, even as it is being overwhelmed by more than a million Syrian refugees fleeing the chaos next door.

“The rulers of those countries that were formed along admittedly artificial borders initially have put plenty of effort into building a sense of nationalism. The question is how much it took?” says Michele Dunne, a former senior State Department official who is now a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment. “It may not be as strong as in a country that had a sense of itself for centuries, but it still may be there.”

Indeed, even in battered and tattered Iraq and Syria, nationalist feelings remain very much alive. “If any country passed through what Iraq has passed through in the last 12 years, it would have been dismembered by now,” said Ayad Allawi, Iraq’s vice president and a former prime minister. “What kept the country going was the will of the people.”

In Syria, a 19-year-old student Mohammed Ali recently recalled the way that locals reacted to the arrival of Islamic State in his hometown of al-Boukamal, near the Iraqi border. As part of its campaign to erase colonial frontiers, the new rulers detached al-Boukamal from the Syrian province to which it belongs and incorporated it into Islamic State’s new “Province of Euphrates,” governed from the Iraqi city of Qaim.

At first, Mr. Ali said, the locals were excited by the destruction of the nearby border. “For 30 years, we have not been able to cross and visit our relatives on the other side,” Mr. Ali said. Since then, however, the mood has turned to patriotic backlash amid resentment of Iraqis flooding the area, lording over al-Boukamal and trucking “stolen” Syrian oil across the frontier. “We don’t want them here; we now want the border back,” he said.

Standing in the way of possible new partitions in the region is another set of issues: Where exactly would you draw the lines? And at what cost?

Despite the ethnic cleansing of recent years, Sunnis and Shiites still live together in many parts of Iraq, including Baghdad, and a great many Syrian Sunnis would still rather live in cities controlled by the Assad regime than in war-ravaged areas under rebel sway.

Mr. Allawi, the Iraqi vice president, points out that many of the country’s traditional tribal groups include both Shiites and Sunnis—and that many Iraqi families, especially in the larger cities, are mixed too. “You’d have to go through the bedrooms of people to separate the country,” he quips. And in Iraq as elsewhere, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds are hardly unitary, consensus-driven groups; rivalries abound within them.

The only recent partition of an Arab country—the split of Sudan into the Arab north and the new, largely non-Arab Republic of South Sudan in 2011—doesn’t provide an encouraging precedent for would-be makers of new borders. South Sudan quickly slid into a civil war of its own that has killed tens of thousands and uprooted two million people.

“There is no alternative to replace the state system,” says Fawaz Gerges, who teaches Middle East studies at the London School of Economics. “Otherwise, you might replace one civil war with multiple civil wars, and that’s exactly what can happen in Syria or Iraq. This is a catastrophic cycle.”
Forging a new bottom-up social compact within the region’s existing borders—something likely to happen only after populations tire of endless wars—is the only way forward, says Stephen Hadley, who served as President George W. Bush’s national security adviser and now chairs the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

The real problem in the Middle East, he says, “is a collapse not of the borders but of what was happening inside the borders: governments that did not have a lot of legitimacy to start with and did not earn legitimacy with their people. You’re not going to solve these problems by redrawing the borders.”

Finding those solutions, Mr. Hadley acknowledges, won’t be easy.
“It may be past redeeming,” he says. “Getting out of this is going to be the work of a generation.”

Thursday, April 09, 2015

For Saudis, Yemen conflict risks ‘becoming their Vietnam’

From The Washington Post:

— Two weeks into a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, the airstrikes appear to have accelerated the country’s fragmentation into warring tribes and militias and done little to accomplish the goal of returning the ousted Yemeni president to power, analysts and residents say.
The Yemeni insurgents, known as Houthis, have pushed ahead with their offensive and seem to have protected many of their weapons stockpiles from the coalition’s bombardments, analysts say. The fighting has killed hundreds of people, forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes and laid waste to the strategic southern city of Aden.

The battles are increasingly creating problems that go beyond the rebels opposing President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the forces supporting him. The conflict has reduced available water and food supplies in a country already suffering from dangerous levels of malnutrition, and created a security vacuum that has permitted territorial advances by al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP).


For the Saudi government and its allies, the military operation in Yemen may be turning into a quagmire, analysts say.

“What’s a potential game-changer in all of this is not just the displacement of millions of people, but it’s this huge spread of disease, starvation and inaccessibility to water, combined with an environment where radical groups are increasingly operating in the open and recruiting,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Yemen conflict, he added, could become a situation where “nobody can figure out either who started this fight or how to end it.”


Saudi Arabia, a Sunni powerhouse, views Yemen’s Houthi rebels as proxies of Shiite Iran. The air campaign that began March 25 is widely seen in the region as an attempt by the Saudis to push back against the expanding influence of Iran, which has gained significant sway in Arab countries like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Hadi, the internationally recognized Yemeni president, was pushed out of the capital, Sanaa, in February. He then attempted to establish an authority in Aden before being forced to flee to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, last month.

In a media briefing in Riyadh this week, a Saudi military spokesman painted a positive picture of the offensive in neighboring Yemen, saying that Houthi militias had been isolated in Aden and groups of rebels were abandoning the fight. Saudi officials have argued that a two-week time frame is too short to judge the operation’s outcome and have emphasized that they are moving carefully to avoid civilian casualties.

The Saudi-led coalition, which the U.S. government supports with intelligence and weapons, consists of mostly Arab and Sunni Muslim countries, and the level of coordination among their armed forces has impressed analysts. The United Arab Emirates and Jordan are believed to have joined Saudi Arabia in conducting air raids that have destroyed scores of military bases and arms depots, said Theodore Karasik, a Dubai-based analyst on Middle Eastern military issues. The Saudis also have received support from Egypt’s navy in patrolling the coast of Yemen, he said.

Still, Karasik said, Houthi rebels appear to have successfully hidden from bombardment significant stores of weapons, possibly by moving them to the insurgents’ mountainous northern stronghold of Saada. To destroy those arms and persuade the Houthis to halt their offensive and agree to peace talks, a ground attack would be required, he said.

“This illustrates that air power alone cannot rid enemy ground forces of their weapons and capability,” Karasik said. “It makes them scatter, and it makes them hide their weapons for a later day.”

Difficult choices

Ground troops would certainly face stiff resistance from the Houthi militiamen. Seasoned guerrilla fighters, they seized southern parts of Saudi Arabia during a brief war in 2009, killing over 100 Saudi troops.

Saudi Arabia has not ruled out a ground attack, but its allies appear wary of such a move. The kingdom has asked Pakistan to commit troops to the campaign, but that country is deeply divided over participating in an operation that could anger its own Shiite minority.

Though fraught with risk, continued airstrikes and a possible ground incursion may be the only choices that Saudi Arabia sees itself as having, said Imad Salamey, a Middle East expert at the Lebanese American University. He said that officials in Riyadh probably are concerned that relenting could be perceived as weakness, especially in Iran.

“The stakes are so high for the Saudis right now that it’s hard to imagine any alternative resolutions,” Salamey said. Saudi Arabia considers Yemen to be its back yard, he noted. “As far as the Saudis are concerned, this is a fight for their homeland, the existence of their regime.”

On Thursday, Iranian leaders issued strong condemnations of the Saudi-directed assaults. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called them a “crime and a genocide” in a televised speech. In separate remarks, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the operation a “mistake” and “wrong.”

Crumbling support

The Yemen campaign is part of an increasingly assertive Saudi policy in the region that is driven in part by what analysts say is concern over an emerging agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. The Saudis fear such a deal could amount to U.S. recognition of Iran’s growing influence in the region.

The Saudis have said that they want to restore Hadi and his mostly exiled government. But the president’s support base – both in the splintered military and among the public – appears to be crumbling.

Many residents say they resent how Hadi and fellow exiled leaders cheer on coalition assaults from abroad as Aden residents confront heavily armed Houthi militiamen and their allies.

“He’s only ever let us down,” said Ali Mohammed, 28, an unemployed resident of Aden.

Wadah al-Dubaish, 40, who is leading a militia in Aden fighting the Houthis, said that Hadi is no longer welcome in the city. “We don’t want him here and don’t want to see his face here,” he said.

In other areas where anti-Houthi sentiment runs high, Hadi’s stock also appears to be falling. Ahmed Othman, a politician in the southern city of Taiz who opposes the Houthis, blamed Hadi for not organizing military resistance against the rebels. He also expressed worry about unidentified fighters who are increasingly staging attacks on Houthi positions in the city.

“The biggest concern we have now in Taiz is the absence of security,” he said.

Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni analyst and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said that mounting civilian casualties from the air raids have fanned public anger. So, too, have worsening shortages of food and water, he added.

He said the chaos is creating fertile ground for extremist groups like AQAP, which has played an increasing role fighting the Houthis. The al-Qaeda group, which uses Yemen as a base to stage attacks in the West, has seized significant territory during the fighting, including Yemen’s fifth-largest city as well as a military installation on the border with Saudi Arabia.

The collapse of order is so dramatic that it may be impossible to put Yemen back together, Muslimi said.

“The days of a Yemen that could be run by one person who could be dealt with and who could take care of things are gone,” he said.

That leaves the Saudis with no obvious military or diplomatic exit, he added. “This is becoming their Vietnam.”

What next for the elites: University of Michigan cancels, then reverses on “American Sniper” screening

From The Washington Post:

The University of Michigan canceled a showing of the film “American Sniper” after nearly 300 protesters spoke out, saying the film advances “negative and misleading stereotypes” against Muslims. The university has since reversed its decision.

“American Sniper” focuses on the story of Chris Kyle, often described as the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. As a Navy SEAL, Kyle reportedly recorded 160 kill shots during his four tours in Iraq.

In response to the initial cancellation, Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh tweeted support for the film and said his players will watch it.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Democrats Rethink Social Security Strategy - Shift from fighting cutbacks to boosting benefits could challenge a Clinton candidacy

From The Wall Street Journal:

For years, liberal Democrats have fought against proposals to cut Social Security benefits. Now, they’re pushing the party not just to defend benefits but to increase them, and that could present a problem for Hillary Clinton.

The call for higher benefits is a marked difference from recent years in which the White House and Republicans were negotiating deficit-cutting deals, leaving liberals to argue merely for staving off benefit cutbacks. Separately, many experts in both parties have long argued that extending the solvency of the program would require a combination of benefit cuts and tax increases.

The liberals’ argument is that Social Security benefits are meager and that people in retirement need more, not less, money. Some also contend that concerns about the program’s solvency are exaggerated. And inside the Democratic Party, that argument is gaining traction. Legislation increasing benefits, and boosting payroll taxes to cover the cost, now has 58 co-sponsors in the House.

But there could be a conflict between this sentiment and the heavy favorite for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination. When Mrs. Clinton last weighed in on Social Security, she supported a bipartisan commission to tackle the program’s long-term financial imbalance. The widespread view was that such a commission would lead to a compromise in which Democrats support benefit cuts in return for Republican support for a tax increase, all to extend the life of the program.

Social Security, the long-cherished retirement income program, suffers from a demographic imbalance, with an increasing number of retirees collecting benefits and a decreasing number of workers paying taxes to support them. The program’s trustees project that, without changes, reserves will run out by 2033, at which point the program would be able to pay only about 77% of promised benefits.

My goodness - Transgender Inmate’s Hormone Treatment Lawsuit Gets Justice Dept. Backing

From The New York Times:

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department put the nation’s prisons and jails on notice on Friday that it regarded blanket policies prohibiting new hormone treatment for transgender inmates to be unconstitutional.
 
In court documents, the Justice Department backed a lawsuit brought by a prison inmate who says the state of Georgia illegally cut off the hormone treatment that she had been taking for 17 years.
 
It is believed to be the first time that the Justice Department has weighed in on the question of whether hormone therapy for transgender inmates is necessary medical care that states are required to provide. Though the Justice Department did not explicitly say the prison should provide the hormones, it argued that Georgia’s treatment policy and those like it were unconstitutional.
 
The guidelines, known as “freeze frame” policies, allow inmates to continue any treatment they were receiving before their arrest but prohibit them from expanding or starting new treatments. The Justice Department argued that the Constitution requires prison officials to make treatment decisions based on independent health assessments.
 
Federal civil rights law does not explicitly ban discrimination against transgender people, but Mr. [Eric] Holder announced in December that the Justice Department considered such bias to be prohibited under the same civil rights law that outlaws sex discrimination.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Lord, what next? - This new but little-known immigration program seeks to reunite Central American families in U.S.

From The Washington Post:

The Obama administration in recent months has rolled out a new but little-known program that allows Central American immigrants who reside legally in the United States to bring family members to the country.

The new policy applies to children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who face harm from violence and other dangers. Admission is also possible for spouses and grandchildren of immigrants in some cases.

The State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services implemented the program in December. Vice President Joe Biden first announced it at a summit on economic development with Central American leaders in November, but the administration has barely promoted the initiative domestically aside from posting announcements and details on agency Web sites.

Officials say the change is necessary to prevent children from risking their lives to cross the border and protect them from exploitation by smuggling networks.

Obama announced plans in November to defer deportation for an estimated 4 million undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents who have lived in the country for at least five years.

Conservatives lashed out at the administration for changing major immigration policies without congressional approval. The White House contends that Obama used his executive authorities in the same manner as past presidents, including Republicans.

A federal court ordered a temporary hold on the program in February after 26 Republican-run states challenged the executive actions. The Justice Department is appealing the decision, but Obama has agreed to comply with it.