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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.

Monday, July 29, 2013

In Mideast, Obama Finds He Has Limited Leverage - Escalating Violence in the Region Poses a Threat for the U.S. President

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

The Middle East has a tendency to eat up American presidencies, and suddenly that is a real danger facing President Barack Obama.

The region is much closer to a broad conflagration than most Americans realize, with Sunnis now facing off against Shiites, and secularists against Islamists across a wide swath of lands. The dream of fostering a new wave of democratic, multiethnic governments—embraced by two successive American administrations—may be withering before our eyes.

As a result, Mr. Obama is coming face-to-face with two hard questions: Does the U.S., with a shrunken checkbook and a weary military, have the power to steer events? And does the U.S., tired after a decade of war in Iraq and happy to be growing less dependent on Middle East oil, even care enough to try?
The problems start with the bloody turmoil in the streets of Egypt, the cornerstone of American influence in the region for 35 years. There, a new military strongman seems more intent on crushing the Muslim Brotherhood than heeding American counsel to find a way to include the Islamists in a new government.

Meantime, Syria has become a proxy war for the entire region, pitting Shiites against Sunnis and drawing in combatants from all over. The nasty Alawite/Shiite axis of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran and Hezbollah has fought back to even with Sunni opposition forces, armed by Persian Gulf states and, soon, the U.S.

This now is essentially a sectarian war, and it's starting to spread next door to Lebanon. Sunnis there resent the fact that Hezbollah's Shiite fighters have been using Lebanon as a springboard to enter the fight on behalf of Mr. Assad. Car bombs and street fights between Sunni and Shiite groups are popping up; Lebanon is in danger of sliding back into its familiar rut of sectarian war.

Iraq now also seems infected. While most Americans have largely checked out of Iraqi news, a new wave of Sunni-Shiite violence is building. On Monday alone, 18 bombs exploded, killing at least 58 people. Whatever stability a decade of American military presence left behind seems newly imperiled.

Nearby, Jordan is becoming home to a giant, destabilizing refugee population of Syrians fleeing the fighting in their homeland. An estimated 650,000 refugees have entered Jordan; one refugee camp now is Jordan's fourth-largest city. It is an economic and demographic crisis of the first order for Jordan's king, one of America's most reasonable and reliable allies.
Oh, and Libya, home to a vast stockpile of weapons that seem to be finding their way around the region, is drifting into lawlessness; a thousand inmates were sprung in a giant jail break over the weekend.

In the middle of all this sits Israel. It now is surrounded by trouble and the march of Islamist forces in every direction—in Egypt to the West, Jordan to the east, Syria to the northeast and Lebanon to the north. It's no wonder that Israel agreed, after extensive prodding from Secretary of State John Kerry, to open new peace talks with the Palestinians in Washington this week. Amid this mess, it needs to buy a little stability on the home front if it can.

The impulse is to think the U.S. should do something—anything—to contain the risks.

But what? The U.S. once had great leverage over the Egyptian government because it provided the biggest chunk of aid. No longer. Saudi Arabia now writes much bigger checks, and it is urging the military leader there, Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, to hang tough against the Muslim Brotherhood. Each of the rival sides in Cairo's streets seems to think Washington is supporting the other, limiting American influence with both.

The U.S. military once might have waded into the mess in Syria, but the president is wary and the Pentagon tends to view engagement in Syria right now as a losing proposition. More broadly, the notion that Mr. Obama's relative popularity in, and overtures of friendship toward, the Islamic world could temper behaviors has faded in a period when hard power is what seems to matter.

The counter temptation is for the U.S. to simply step away, tending to the economy at home and pivoting toward Asia abroad. The problem is that history teaches that the Middle East doesn't like being ignored. Through soaring energy prices, or the scourge of terrorism, or some other calamity, it has a habit of insinuating itself onto the American agenda.

That leaves the U.S. the unsatisfying option of working with allies on a series of half-steps to move the region back from the brink so transformation can start anew: With the Saudis to convince Gen. Sisi in Egypt to contain his security forces; with the Europeans to help Jordan to contain the refugee crisis; with Arab allies to exert enough pressure to expel Syrian President Assad before Syria fractures permanently.

Not a satisfying list, but perhaps the only one available.

How the Obama campaign won the race for voter data - Jim Messina, President Obama’s 2012 campaign manager: “There’s always been two campaigns since the Internet was invented, the campaign online and the campaign on the doors. What I wanted was, I didn’t care where you organized, what time you organized, how you organized, as long as I could track it, I can measure it, and I can encourage you to do more of it.”

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post:

From the moment Barack Obama took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009, and every day thereafter, his team was always preparing for the 2012 campaign. Everyone said Obama’s 2008 operation had rewritten the book on organizing. But that was just a beginning, a small first step toward what the team envisioned when it began planning the reelection campaign.

In one of their first conversations about 2012, campaign manager Jim Messina said he told the president that they could not rerun 2008. Obama seemed puzzled. “You know we won that one,” Obama said. Messina said too much had changed. For one thing, Obama was now an incumbent with a record. But technology had also leapfrogged forward, with new devices, new platforms and vastly more opportunities to exploit social media. The whole campaign would have to be different.
The president sent the team off to Chicago, far away from the hothouse of Washington and Beltway chatter, to use 2011 to build the foundation and reassemble the army from 2008. As the Republican candidates were gearing up and then battling one another through the summer and fall of 2011, the Obama team was investing enormous amounts of time, money and creative energy in what resembled a high-tech political start-up whose main purpose was to put more people on the streets, armed with more information about the voters they were contacting, than any campaign had ever attempted.
The Obama team had to be better in 2012. The weak economy made the president vulnerable to defeat. His political advisers knew well that turning out the vote would be far more challenging in the reelection effort than it had been in 2008. Many of his early supporters were disappointed and some were outright frustrated with Obama’s performance in office. The advisers recognized that Republicans were trying to block his agenda by questioning whether he had the leadership skills or the tenacity to get done what his first campaign had promised. Obama advisers also knew this campaign would have to be far more negative than the first — with few of the aspirational themes of 2008 — and they began preparing to attack Mitt Romney, the presumed challenger, long before the Republican primaries and caucuses began.
One of the hallmarks of Obama’s 2012 campaign was its prodigious appetite for research. The trio at the top — Messina, senior strategist David Axelrod and White House senior adviser David Plouffe — were enthusiastic consumers of research. Though different in their approaches to politics — Axelrod operated intuitively, Plouffe’s watchwords were “Prove it” and Messina wanted to be able to measure everything — they all pushed the campaign for more research, testing, analysis and innovation.

Message and media operated on one track. The other track focused on identifying, registering, mobilizing and ultimately turning out Obama voters. At the Chicago headquarters, these efforts were guided by Messina and Jen O’Malley Dillon, the deputy campaign manager, along with a sizable team of political organizers and tech-savvy newcomers.

The first steps toward building the reelection operation around a single target — maximizing turnout to reach 270 electoral votes — were taken in the months after Obama’s 2008 victory. Campaign staffers compiled a series of after-action reports. “We did a very detailed postmortem where we looked at all kinds of numbers, looking at the general stuff like the number of door knocks we made, phone calls we made, number of voters that we registered,” said Mitch Stewart, who would direct the campaign’s 2012 effort in battleground states. “But then we broke it down by field organizer, we broke it down then by volunteer. We looked at the best way or the best examples in states of what their volunteer organization looked like.”

The project produced a three-ring binder that contained nearly 500 pages and was filled with recommendations on how to strengthen what was already considered a state-of-the-art field operation. Another early step was the decision to massively expand the investment in technology, digital, cable, new media and particularly analytics.
The Obama campaign had the usual contingent of pollsters and ad makers and opposition researchers and, like all campaigns today, a digital director. But it also had a chief technology officer (who had never done politics before), a chief innovation officer and a director of analytics, which would become one of the most important additions and a likely fixture in campaigns of the future. The team hired software engineers and data experts and number-crunchers and digital designers and video producers by the score. They filled the back of a vast room resembling a brokerage house trading floor or tech start-up that occupied the sixth floor of One Prudential Plaza overlooking Millennium Park in Chicago.
No campaign had ever invested so heavily in technology and analytics, and no campaign had ever had such stated ambitions. “Technology was another big lesson learned from 2008, leap of faith and labor of love and angst-ridden entity and all the other things that you can imagine, because we were building things in-house mostly with people that had not done campaign work before,” Dillon later told me. “The deadlines and breaking and testing — is it going to work, what do we do? . . . At the end of the day, it was certainly worth it, because you can’t customize our stuff, and so we just couldn’t buy off the shelf for anything and you know that, and fortunately we had enough time to kind of build the stuff. I don’t know who else will ever have the luxury of doing that again.”
Messina was as data driven as any presidential campaign manager in modern times, and Dillon had concentrated her efforts while at the Democratic National Committee in 2009 and 2010 on the programs that would make Obama’s groundbreaking 2008 campaign look old-fashioned in comparison. They wanted all the data the campaign accumulated about voters to be integrated. The campaign had a voter list and a donor list and volunteer lists and other lists, but what it wanted was the ability to link all the contacts each person had with the operation into one database.
“There’s always been two campaigns since the Internet was invented, the campaign online and the campaign on the doors,” Messina told me. “What I wanted was, I didn’t care where you organized, what time you organized, how you organized, as long as I could track it, I can measure it, and I can encourage you to do more of it.” It took the technology team nearly a year, but it produced software that allowed all of the campaign’s lists to talk to one another. The team named it Narwhal, after a whale of amazing strength that lives in the Arctic but is rarely seen. Harper Reed, the chief technology officer, described it as the software platform for everything else the campaign wanted to do and build.
The next goal was to create a program that would allow everyone — campaign staffers in Chicago, state directors and their staff in the battlegrounds, field organizers, volunteers going door to door and volunteers at home — to communicate simply and seamlessly. The Obama team wanted something that allowed the field organizers in the Des Moines or Columbus or Fairfax offices to have access to all the campaign’s information about the voters for whom they were responsible. They wanted volunteer leaders to have online access as well. That brought about the creation of Dashboard, which Messina later said was the hardest thing the campaign did but which became the central online organizing vehicle. It was enormously complicated to develop, made all the more difficult because the engineers who were building it had never worked on a campaign and did not instinctively understand the work of field organizers. Some of them were sent out to the states briefly as organizers to better understand the needs of those on the front lines.
“Dashboard is what we needed to communicate,” Dillon said. “It was all about the users, so if the users didn’t have a good experience, there was no point in it. . . . That’s why it was the Holy Grail.”
Reed described it as a way to bring the field office to the Internet. “When you walk into a field office, you have many opportunities,” he said. “We’ll hand you a call sheet. You can make calls. You can knock on doors, and they’ll have these stacks there for you. They’ll say: ‘Harper, you’ve knocked on 50 doors. That’s great. Here’s how you compare to the rest of them.’ But it’s all very offline. It’s all very ad hoc, and it’s not very modern. And so what we set out to do was create that offline field experience online.”

Reed said that near the end of the campaign they received an e-mail from a wounded Afghanistan war veteran who was in a hospital. He was logging into Dashboard and participating in the organizing effort the way any other volunteer walking precincts was doing. Reed was astonished by the message. He said, “I could have quit that day, and I would have been satisfied with my role.”

The Obama leaders not only wanted all the lists to be able to talk to one another, they also wanted people to be able to organize their friends and family members. This was taking a concept introduced in 2004 by George W. Bush’s reelection team — the notion that voters are more likely to listen to people they know than to paid callers or strangers knocking on their door — and updating it to take advantage of new technology, namely the explosion of social media.
Early in 2011, some Obama operatives visited Facebook, where executives were encouraging them to spend some of the campaign’s advertising money with the company. “We started saying, ‘Okay, that’s nice if we just advertise,’ ” Messina said. “But what if we could build a piece of software that tracked all this and allowed you to match your friends on Facebook with our lists, and we said to you, ‘Okay, so-and-so is a friend of yours, we think he’s unregistered, why don’t you go get him to register?’ Or ‘So-and-so is a friend of yours, we think he’s undecided. Why don’t you get him to be decided?’ And we only gave you a discrete number of friends. That turned out to be millions of dollars and a year of our lives. It was incredibly complex to do.”
But this third piece of the puzzle provided the campaign with another treasure trove of information and an organizing tool unlike anything available in the past. It took months and months to solve, but it was a huge breakthrough. If a person signed on to Dashboard through his or her Facebook account, the campaign could, with permission, gain access to that person’s Facebook friends. The Obama team called this “targeted sharing.” It knew from other research that people who pay less attention to politics are more likely to listen to a message from a friend than from someone in the campaign. The team could supply people with information about their friends based on data it had independently gathered. The campaign knew who was and who wasn’t registered to vote. It knew who had a low propensity to vote. It knew who was solid for Obama and who needed more persuasion — and a gentle or not-so-gentle nudge to vote. Instead of asking someone to send a message to all of his or her Facebook friends, the campaign could present a handpicked list of the three or four or five people it believed would most benefit from personal encouragement.
Digital director Teddy Goff told my colleague Aaron Blake, “For people who allowed us, we were able to say to them: ‘All right, you just watched a video about registering to vote. Don’t just share it with all your friends on Facebook. We’ve run a match, and here are your 10 friends on Facebook who we think may not be registered to vote and live in Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, Florida.’ ” This was especially helpful in trying to reach voters under age 30. On Obama’s target lists, the voter file contained no good contact information for half of those young voters — they didn’t have land lines, and no other information was available. But Goff said 85 percent of that group were on Facebook and could be reached by a friend of a friend. Reed described another example. Someone interested in health care might click on an ad on Facebook, and up would pop an infographic about health care. At the end of it would be a “share” button, and if the person clicked on it, names of friends the person could share the information with would appear. The campaign knew from its own database which of those friends were most likely to respond to information about health care. “We went through and we looked at all those friends and found the ones that were the best matches for that specific piece of content,” Reed said.
Google’s Eric Schmidt, who offered advice to the campaign, said: “If you don’t know anything about campaigns you would assume it’s national, but a successful campaign is highly, highly local, down to the Zip code. The revolution in technology is to understand where the undecideds are in this district and how you reach them.” That was what the integration of technology and old-fashioned organizing was designed to do for Obama in 2012.
Dan Wagner had come to the DNC after the 2008 election to expand what was initially a tiny analytics operation. In early 2010, others on the Obama team had an epiphany about the value of analytics. It came just before the special election to fill the Senate seat of the late Edward M. Kennedy in Massachusetts. Many Democrats were still in denial about the direction of the race, incredulous that a little-known Republican state senator named Scott Brown could have enough momentum to defeat Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakley. Wagner, who was operating with the analytics team out of the DNC, analyzed the numbers and surmised that Brown would win. He delivered his conclusions and the data to Messina. “He said, ‘We’re going to lose, and here’s why we’re going to lose,’ and it happened almost exactly like that,” Messina said. “That’s when we first started saying this modeling can really be something.”

Dillon and national field director Jeremy Bird brought Wagner to the re­election campaign. Eventually the team modeled practically everything — voters, states, volunteers, donors, anything it could think of to improve efficiency — to give it greater confidence in its decision making. It wanted to know who was most likely to serve as a volunteer, and it created a model to find out. The campaign established record numbers of offices in the states, and record numbers of staging areas for volunteers, based in part on analysis of how much more likely people were to volunteer if they were close to an office. “We built a model on volunteer likelihood,” Stewart said. “We built a model on turnout, we built a model on support, we built a model on persuasion — who’s most persuadable.”

From modeling and testing, the campaign refined voter outreach. Virtually every e-mail it sent included a test of some sort — the subject line, the appeal, the message — designed to maximize contributions, volunteer hours and eventually turnout on Election Day. The campaign would break out 18 smaller groups from e-mail lists, create 18 versions of an e-mail, and then watch the response rate for an hour and go with the winner — or take a combination of subject line and message from different e-mails and turn them into the finished product. Big corporations had used such testing for years, but political campaigns had not.
The team’s attention to detail rivaled that of the most successful corporations. One innovation was the recruitment of corporate trainers or coaches, who volunteered to help teach everyone how to manage. “We recruited a whole group of pro bono executive coaches,” Bird said. “These are people that coach Fortune 100 companies.” Obama’s team recruited them as volunteers, but instead of having them knock on doors, they were asked to provide management training. “We had them partner up with our state leadership,” Bird said. “They didn’t need to know anything about campaigns, because we didn’t want their advice on how to run a campaign. We wanted their advice on how to be a manager.”
The campaign also sought advice from what the New York Times later called a “dream team” of academics who described themselves as a “consortium of behavioral scientists.” The group included political scientists, psychologists and behavioral economists. The campaign was operating well outside the traditional network of political consultants.
Throughout 2011, Obama advisers were baffled by the slow start to the Republican presidential race. They knew from their experience in 2008 how long it took to build a field operation capable of winning a campaign. They were even more keenly aware of the lead times and money required to assemble the technological infrastructure to support a sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation for 2012. Republicans could see that the Obama campaign was spending tens of millions of dollars in 2011. They just weren’t sure on what.
The gap between the Obama and Romney operations crystallized in the key battleground state of Ohio in the closing weeks of the general-election campaign. Members of Obama’s team had been on the ground in Ohio for years. They knew the state intimately. Obama had at least 130 offices there, plus 500 or so staging areas for volunteers. He had almost 700 staffers on the Ohio payroll alone. Thousands of volunteers contacted voters.
Romney had to put together an organization in a matter of months. He had about 40 offices and 157 paid staff members, although most of them were on the Republican National Committee’s payroll. Scott Jennings, Romney’s Ohio state director, said after the election that there was no way the Republicans could conquer Obama’s head start. “Our ground game was as good as it could have possibly been, given the time and resources we had to work with,” he said. “There’s just no substitute for time. Six months . . . wasn’t enough to overcome six years of a constant campaign run by the other side. Truly it is remarkable to see what they did, in the rearview mirror.”
Aaron Pickrell, Obama’s chief Ohio strategist, told a story about himself that illustrated the disparity between the two campaigns’ ground operations. An Obama volunteer knocked on his door during the summer, just to check in and see if he had any questions. The volunteer did not know who Pickrell was. He knew, based on campaign data, only that Pickrell should be a solid Obama voter, someone who needed to be contacted once at most.
Pickrell and his wife later ordered absentee ballots. When the ballots arrived, they set them aside on the kitchen table, where they sat for two weeks. “I got thrown back into the database of people who needed to be contacted,” he said. Soon an Obama volunteer knocked on their door to remind them to turn in the ballots. Once they did, there was no more contact. That was the level of the campaign’s efficiency. Meanwhile, Pickrell said he received a dozen direct-mail pieces from the Romney campaign, a waste of money and effort on the Republicans’ part. He got no direct mail from the Obama campaign because the database said he didn’t need persuading. Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director, eventually learned the scope and sophistication of the Obama operation. “They took that to another level,” he said.
Through modeling, voters were rated on a scale of 1 to 100 on their likelihood to support Obama. A similar scale was used to predict the likelihood that people would turn out. So if someone had a high support score and a low turnout score, meaning that person was very likely to support Obama but not so likely to vote, the campaign tried to make sure that person got registered and then cast a ballot, preferably during the period of early voting. Banking those sporadic voters became a top priority.
The Obama team had done support and turnout estimations in 2008 but more experimentally. This time, the campaign added a third measure, a persuasion score. This helped weed out people who said they were independent but really were not. In the final weeks of the campaign, the team focused on voters with persuasion scores of 40 to 60. Those with higher scores were likely to vote for Obama without much persuasion. The others probably weren’t going to back the president no matter how open they said they were.
“In the old days you would say, ‘Here’s a list of people we think are independents, go to those houses,’ ” Messina said. “But you waste your volunteers’ time all over the place because despite what someone says, there are a very small amount of undecided voters.” By knowing the voters and modeling the electorate, the campaign wasted less time pounding the pavement.
No get-out-the-vote operation works precisely as planned — or as characterized in after-action reports by the winning campaign. It always sounds better than it is. On the streets, it never looks as smooth as described at headquarters. But the payoffs for Obama were real on Election Day.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Arab Spring two years later


Thursday, July 25, 2013

This won't work: Some Democrats Look to Push Party Away From Center

From The New York Times:

If positions on foreign policy and specifically the Iraq war marked the dividing line in the Democrats’ last fierce internal debate, issues related to banks, entitlements and the rights of consumers broadly could shape the party’s next search for an identity.

Liberals, pointing to a bankrupt Detroit and new reports of diminished class mobility, believe the plight of lower-income and young Americans is so severe that the party must shift away from the center-left consensus that has shaped its fiscal politics since Bill Clinton’s 1992 election and push more aggressively to reduce income disparity.
“The sooner we get back to a good, progressive, populist message, the better off we’re going to be as Democrats,” said Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa.
The growing intraparty economic debate comes even as there is increasing cohesion on the cultural issues that once divided Democrats. Many in the party see progress on matters like gay rights, gun control and immigration, topics that Mr. Obama has spent time on this year but mentioned only glancingly in his address Wednesday at Knox College, in Galesburg, Ill.
The votes and stances on these issues among Democrats in Congress are now far more uniform than they were as late as the 1990s. And it is unthinkable that — whether their 2016 standard-bearer is Hillary Rodham Clinton or somebody else — every major contender in the next Democratic primary season will not be down-the-line progressive on cultural issues.
But there is a growing frustration among progressives who are now saying the party must move toward a more populist position on the issue that many on the left see as the great unfinished business of the Obama years: economic fairness.
Center-versus-left tensions have come into view in just the last few days amid speculation that Lawrence H. Summers, the center-left former Harvard president and senior economic official in the Clinton and Obama White House, is a serious candidate to become chairman of the Federal Reserve.
And while the issue has largely been dormant since Mr. Obama’s budget proposal earlier this year, he signaled in his Wednesday speech that he would again try to push through changes to Social Security and Medicare, programs the left considers sacrosanct.
But past arguments by Mr. Clinton and other moderate Democrats that positioning the Democratic Party in the political center was the only way to win elections could be harder to make at a moment when the economy is still wheezing, powerful strains of populism have emerged in both parties, and the Republicans are fighting their own civil wars and face serious demographic challenges.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Two-thirds of Egyptians are not Islamists and, though many are pious Muslims, they don’t want to live in anything close to a theocracy.

Tom Friedman writes in The New York Times:

[T]wo-thirds of Egyptians are not Islamists and, though many are pious Muslims, they don’t want to live in anything close to a theocracy.

It is difficult to exaggerate how much the economy and law and order had deteriorated under President Morsi. So many Egyptians were feeling insecure that there was a run on police dogs! So many tour guides were out of work that tourists were warned to avoid the Pyramids because desperate camel drivers and postcard-sellers would swarm them. A poll this week by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research found that 71 percent of Egyptians were “unsympathetic with pro-Morsi protests.”
[T]his government offers the best hope for that. It has good people in important positions, like Finance and Foreign Affairs. It is rightly focused on a fair constitution and sustainable economic reform. Its job will be much easier if the Muslim Brotherhood can be re-integrated into politics, and its war with the military halted. But the Brotherhood also needs to accept that it messed up — badly — and that it needs to re-earn the trust of the people.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Residents to Answer Assad’s Call - Debate higher stakes in the Old City, where for centuries Sunnis, Shiites, Christians &, until recent decades, a sizable community of Jews lived & woed together in a vibrant symbol of Syrian coexistence. Residents of a wide range of sects & poitical beliefs share a desire to preserve its landmarks & diersity, even if they disagree on the methods.

From The New York Times:

Rafiq Lotof strode through the Syrian capital’s Old City, past his father’s shoe shop, past cubbyhole bars and antique shops, through streets that in normal times would buzz late into the evening with tourists and wealthy Damascus families. But on this recent night, the shops were shuttered, and Mr. Lotof’s errand was a wartime one.

At the entrance to a Shiite Muslim quarter, Mr. Lotof inspected a new checkpoint guarded by a baby-faced 18-year-old clutching a rifle nearly his height. Fresh from training in Iran, the teenager belonged to one of the growing neighborhood militias that Mr. Lotof is arming and organizing on behalf of the Syrian government — part of a nationwide effort to enlist more citizens in the fight against the rebels challenging President Bashar al-Assad.

After volunteering to defend a Shiite shrine south of Damascus, the young man, Hussein Beydoun, said he was flown with 500 other Syrian Shiites to Iran, where Revolutionary Guards trained them to use rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Proudly looking on, his mentor, Mr. Lotof, said the heavier weapons might come into play if rebels ever tried to breach the Old City’s walls.

“If they come,” Mr. Lotof said, “they might do anything.”

Mr. Lotof, a son of the Old City, has returned after years in America for what he sees as a mission to defend its ancient streets, relatively unscathed by two years of war. This area of Damascus, inhabited since at least the third millennium B.C., is for many Syrians the heart of the country.

Mr. Lotof and many other government supporters believe the new militias prevent attacks, kidnappings and infiltration by rebel sleeper cells.

But some residents fear the militias are bringing the war inside the Old City’s bubble of relative security, creating a military target where there was none, projecting a new threat to those who dissent and empowering gunmen who, some say, have harassed merchants and residents.

“Once you give a man a gun, you will never get it back,” said an Old City merchant who supports the uprising and, like many people interviewed, declined to be identified for his safety.

Across Syria, the militias have been one of the chief controversies of a war that has killed more than 100,000 people. Early in the uprising against Mr. Assad, pro-government gangs known as shabiha attacked demonstrators. As the protest movement became an armed conflict, pro-government militias expanded, fighting alongside security forces, and were accused of massacring civilians and of intimidating even government supporters.

Over the past year, the government has sought to formalize the militias under a structure called the National Defense Forces. Mr. Lotof and several government officials said they were now being armed and registered under the direct control of Mr. Assad’s presidential office. The goal, Mr. Lotof said, is to curb abuses and tap Syrians who are unwilling to serve in faraway provinces but who want to defend their own neighborhoods.

Some militias sprang up spontaneously to defend neighborhoods, he said. “Some of them started to do bad things,” he said. “So they are being organized.”

Mr. Lotof and others close to the government confirmed what the rebels and American officials have long said: Mr. Assad’s allies Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah are providing training and logistical support for the militias.

For critics, the support of those Shiite entities has bolstered a view that the militias are sectarian, pitting members of the president’s Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiism — as well as members of Syria’s much smaller Shiite minority against the mostly Sunni uprising.

Mr. Lotof, however, said that groups from different sects had signed up to defend against rebels they view as sectarian extremists and criminals. Indeed, several Sunnis whom Mr. Lotof had helped release from jail said they had recanted pro-opposition views that had landed them there, formed a militia with Mr. Lotof’s help, and were now armed and patrolling a Sunni enclave of the Old City.

Nowhere does that debate carry higher stakes than in the Old City, where for centuries Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and, until recent decades, a sizable community of Jews lived and worked together in a vibrant symbol of Syrian coexistence. Residents of a wide range of sects and political beliefs share a desire to preserve its landmarks and diversity, even if they disagree on the methods.
They fear the example of Aleppo’s Old City in the north, where centuries-old mosques and markets have been destroyed in the fighting.

They fear the bombings that have targeted parts of downtown Damascus, just blocks away, and the shells that have occasionally hit the Old City.

And they fear a growing wave of kidnappings that have ensnared residents on trips outside the enclave; Christians and Shiites believe they are particular targets.

Mr. Lotof, 42, a Shiite Syrian-American, said he left behind his businesses in New Jersey — a Domino’s Pizza franchise and an Arabic-language newspaper — to take on a striking combination of roles here. He not only hands out weapons, he also runs the Old City’s government-sponsored reconciliation committee, billed as a venue for citizens to bring problems directly to municipal officials and to smooth community relations.

In that role, he and residents said, he has helped ransom dozens of kidnapped Shiites and brokered deals to release Sunnis jailed on charges of supporting the uprising.

But skeptical residents say that the committee seems to be more about consolidating support for the government and that government critics have not been invited.

At a recent committee meeting in the Ottoman palace that serves as the Old City’s administrative offices, many committee members appeared to be militia members, and the main topic was security.

One militia leader complained that one of his men had been beaten by security officers, accused of insulting the president and dragged away.

“I’m protecting my community and my neighborhood,” he said. “Security people come in and beat my guys. Why?”

Sitting under a portrait of Mr. Assad, Mr. Lotof said he would check on the case — maybe the gunman was guilty, he said — and promised better coordination with the government.

Another afternoon, a half-dozen Shiite and Christian residents of the Old City packed Mr. Lotof’s office to request weapons for new militias.

Unlike militias in contested areas, those in the Old City appear to have played a little military role so far beyond staffing checkpoints and reporting into their walkie-talkies on the movements of strangers. But their presence responds, and contributes, to a new atmosphere of wariness.

On Mr. Lotof’s nighttime tour, five bodyguards flanked him, eyeing the minarets and balconies above the narrow streets. The silence was broken only by the click of their heels and the occasional crack of outgoing mortar shells followed by a heavy thud as they landed in rebel neighborhoods.

Along the Old City’s most storied thoroughfare, mentioned in the Bible as “the street called Straight,” they came to a tiny park. Once frequented by whispering couples, it was now occupied by middle-aged Christian businessmen with rifles.

“We are peaceful people,” said Toufiq Isra, 40, a contractor whose dress shirt seemed out of place in his sandbag shelter. “We reject carrying weapons, but we don’t have any options.”

In an apartment draped with philodendrons in the nearby Shiite quarter, Bassem Wehbe described why the militia was needed. A Sunni gang had kidnapped him from his nearby grocery store, he said, taunted him with sectarian slogans and chopped off his finger with an ax. His finger still bandaged, he played a video of the act that the captors had sent to his family.

He said he tried to reason with his captors — who he believed were Syrians influenced by televised sermons of radical clerics in Saudi Arabia — telling them of the Sunni-Shiite mixed marriages and business dealings common in the Old City.

“They said, ‘No, this period is over,’ ” Mr. Wehbe said. “Is it possible we were in this country?”

A few days later, Christians packed the Street Called Straight, carrying the coffin of a man killed by kidnappers to a nearby church.

Watching was one of the militiamen from the park, who had said earlier that he joined only to protect the neighborhood. Now, he said he would happily deploy to fight rebels in the suburbs.

“The best way to defend,” said another militiaman, “is to attack.” 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Europe Raises Pressure on Israel - New Guidelines Meant to Keep EU Funds Away from Israeli Groups in Occupied Territories

Israel reacted angrily Tuesday to an effort by the European Union to keep EU funds from flowing to Israeli organizations operating in the occupied territories, the latest bump in the sometimes-rocky relationship between Israel and Europe.
The EU move comes on the eve of a visit to the region by Secretary of State John Kerry, who has held several rounds of shuttle diplomacy in recent months to try to persuade Israel and the Palestinians to restart peace talks that have been deadlocked for years.
Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid said in a statement that the EU had made a "miserable'" decision, but he also said that every day of stalemate hurts Israel's international standing. Many Israelis fear that if negotiations remain stalemated, their country will eventually face an even broader economic boycott.

Currently the EU is negotiating an agreement with Israel on research and innovation funding that could benefit Israeli universities and other organizations, as well as a pact for greater cooperation between the EU police unit Europol and Israeli authorities.

But under guidelines set to be published Friday in Brussels, Israeli entities based in the occupied territories—the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights—would be banned from receiving grants, prizes or other money from the common EU budget, starting in January.

Such accords would then have to include a clause specifying that EU resources couldn't be used in the occupied territories, although some flexibility would be allowed, officials said.

While Israel annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and doesn't administer them as occupied territories, the international community never recognized the move.

Over the past seven years, Israel has received some €800 million ($1.05 billion) in funding from the EU. Of that, the EU estimates only around 0.5% went to entities in the occupied territories, according to an EU official.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the EU should focus on the "more pressing'' issues of Syria's civil war and Iran's nuclear program rather than Israeli settlement activity.

"We won't accept any external dictates on our borders," said Mr. Netanyahu at a special meeting of cabinet ministers to discuss the new guidelines. "That issue will be decided solely in negotiations.''

A spokeswoman for EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton said the new guidelines are in line with the EU's "long-standing position" that it doesn't recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territories and that Israeli settlements there are illegal.

The guidelines were prepared "to make a distinction…between the state of Israel and the occupied territories," said the spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic.

Some EU members have called for an even tougher stance against Israeli settlements, as well as a stricter application of rules on labeling Israeli exports to the EU from those regions.

The EU already charges customs duties on Israeli imports that originate in the occupied territories that would otherwise enjoy free-trade exemptions.

At the same time, EU member states next week could fulfill a long-standing Israeli request to add the military wing of Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah to its terror list, as the U.S. did years ago.

The EU has long sought to play a role in Middle East peace talks and has recently been urging direct talks between the two sides.

But Brussels has come under fire from Israeli politicians, who accuse the EU of siding with the Palestinians on key issues, while Palestinians have urged the EU to go beyond criticizing Israeli policy and impose sanctions on the country.

Israeli Energy Minister Silvan Shalom, a former foreign minister, said in an interview with Army Radio that the new policy "proves, again, regretfully, how detached Europe is and how it cannot be a genuine and balanced partner in negotiations with the Palestinians."

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin said the decision could prompt EU member states to demand similar limitations bilaterally. The EU guidelines don't apply to the member states individually.

Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the EU, said the guidelines could cause "colossal damage'' because they could potentially be applied to large entities in Israel that are found to have even the smallest presence in the occupied territories.

But Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee, said the decision would "have a positive impact on the peace process."

She added that "the EU has moved from the level of statements, declarations and denunciations to effective policy decisions and concrete steps."

Monday, July 15, 2013

Legal Fears Slowed Aid to Syrian Rebels

 From The Wall Street Journal:

A string of cautionary opinions from administration lawyers over the last two years sheds new light on President Barack Obama's halting and ultimately secretive steps to provide military support to rebels in Syria's deadly civil war.

Members of the so-called Lawyers Group of top legal advisers from across the administration argued that Mr. Obama risked violating international law and giving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the legal grounds—and motivation—to retaliate against Americans, said current and former officials.
The group's arguments in part help explain why the White House agonized over Syria intervention and why Mr. Obama eventually opted to provide military aid to the rebels covertly through the Central Intelligence Agency, to help mitigate the legal risks and keep the U.S.'s profile low.
Administration lawyers recently determined that providing such aid was allowed under U.S. domestic law, helping to clear the way for limited arms shipments to handpicked groups of rebels likely starting in August. But the lawyers sidestepped questions over international law by asserting that supporting the rebels was justified by a number of factors: the humanitarian crisis in Syria, alleged human-rights violations by the regime and Iranian arms shipments that violate U.N. Security Council sanctions.
"They are assuming the risks," said a former administration official involved in the legal debate.
Experts say President Bill Clinton took a similar approach in justifying the Kosovo bombing campaign in 1999, which, like the Syria effort, wasn't authorized by the U.N. Security Council.

"An old trial lawyer adage is that when the law is not on your side, argue the facts instead," said John Bellinger, a former State Department legal adviser during the Bush administration. "Here, the [administration] is saying that the aid is permissible under U.S. domestic law but is careful to avoid saying the aid is permissible under international law."

U.N. Security Council resolutions that could authorize outside intervention in Syria have been blocked by Russia, which was critical of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led mission in Libya in 2011, constraining the U.S.'s legal options.

As a consequence of the decision to provide support through the CIA, officials say, U.S. military aid to rebel forces is more limited than it would have been had it gone through the military.

The CIA's arming of the rebels is expected to begin now that a tentative accord has been reached with lawmakers who had threatened to freeze some funding, officials said. Lawmakers are still demanding that the administration report back with further justification for the CIA program before taking additional action, officials say.

A reconstruction of the debate over arming the Syrian opposition shows how much administration lawyers played a cautionary role in the process, parrying calls for more assertive U.S. action by citing the risks of skirting international law, triggering a shooting war and setting legal precedents that could be cited by other countries, such as Russia and China.

At the State Department, lawyers reviewing the proposals found themselves at odds with their more forward-leaning bosses—former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and now John Kerry—who both pushed a reluctant Mr. Obama to ramp up military support to the rebels, including through the provision of arms.

Some of the lawyers involved were uncomfortable with what they saw as a policy that could be seen as similar to the Reagan administration's backing of Nicaragua's Contra guerrillas in the 1980s.

Some of them cited a 1986 decision from the International Court of Justice on the American role in Nicaragua that said the U.S. was in "breach of its obligation under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another state."

U.S. officials give two possible explanations as to why the lawyers were cautious. Some say it reflected the extent to which Mr. Obama and his legal advisers sought to draw a distinction with the Bush administration and its approach to international law. Others say it reflected Mr. Obama's deep reluctance to take steps that could lead the U.S. into another war in the Middle East. The Lawyers Group, which has existed in previous administrations, works by consensus in order to avoid presenting "the client"—the president—with split legal decisions.

Key members of the group raised objections soon after the start of the Syrian uprising, in March 2011, when some in the State Department argued for recognizing the opposition and severing ties to the regime, said current and former officials.

Then-State Department legal adviser Harold Koh and other administration lawyers argued that could be viewed as meaning the U.S. no longer recognized Mr. Assad's government, officials involved in the debate said.

That, they argued, could relieve him of his responsibilities under international law such things as the use of chemical weapons under his government's control. After months of internal debate, the administration called on Mr. Assad to "step aside" but didn't recognize the opposition.

In summer 2012, the White House began to focus on State Department and CIA proposals to ramp up support to the rebels, from providing nonlethal military support, including body armor and night-vision goggles, to small arms, officials say.

In response, the Lawyers Group questioned whether the State Department could provide military support directly to forces fighting a war in which the U.S. wasn't formally engaged. Lawyers also told the White House that providing military aid would allow Mr. Assad under international law to declare Americans combatants, whether in military uniforms or not, and target them for taking sides in another country's civil war.

The lawyers said even a State Department proposal to supply rebel fighters with food rations could give Mr. Assad legal grounds go after Americans.

"The giving of aid is the equivalent of taking sides—if you give them guns or you give them food to survive, you're still supporting them in the effort and the other side can consider you the enemy," one former Obama administration official said.

In December, Mr. Obama recognized a Western-backed opposition coalition as the "legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime," a carefully worded statement that administration lawyers believed stopped short of full recognition.

The legal debate over providing military support to the rebels came to a head earlier this year.

In February, Secretary of State Kerry was poised to fly to Rome where officials hoped he would announce a U.S. decision to, for the first time, provide nonlethal military equipment along with halal meals and medical kits, directly to the Western-backed rebel army of Gen. Salim Idris, current and former U.S. officials said.

At the time, the administration balked at authorizing the State Department to provide military equipment: Using the State Department to do so was "legally available" under domestic law, but questionable under international law. As a result, Mr. Kerry announced only plans to provide food rations and medical kits, disappointing the opposition.

Some lawyers continued to raise objections to even the pared-down plan, arguing that Gen. Idris's Free Syrian Army should deliver the supplies only to unarmed civilians, instead of giving them to fighters, said an official briefed on the matter.

In the end, the State Department delivered the rations and medical kits based on a legal determination that such provisions didn't count as military aid because they didn't improve the fighters' ability, officials said. Moreover, the White House decided the aid couldn't be given exclusively to fighters, but should also go to nonfighters.

While the smaller CIA footprint may reduce the risk that Mr. Assad will launch attacks on U.S. personnel arming and training rebels mainly in Jordan and diplomats and aid workers in other countries such as Lebanon, current and former officials say the legal risks remain.

The lawyers told the White House that Mr. Assad was under no obligation to draw a distinction between the CIA and other branches of the U.S. government.

"Once Assad claims a right to attack American citizens, we're in a whole new game," a former official said.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

As Agriculture Booms, Farm Bill Gets Yawns - Legislation Fails to Engage at Grass-Roots Level as Farmers Reap Big Profits. The farm bill combines support for agriculture with food stamps—a formula since the 1970s that mobilized rural advocates of agriculture and urban backers of food stamps. But assistance for low-income people has doubled since the 2008 economic downturn and some Republicans are now questioning the link between the two programs.

R.D. Wolheter has gotten a stream of mailers from farm groups urging him to help pressure Congress to pass a farm bill. But as the agricultural sector remains strong, the grower of corn and soybeans on 3,000 acres in northeast Indiana has let them stack up on his desk.
For decades, the farm bill has served as the main vehicle for U.S. agriculture policy, getting renewed about every five years to keep billions of dollars flowing to farm subsidies and rural development programs. But lobbyists and lawmakers say the measure is drawing less grass-roots support from the Farm Belt this time around as the House struggles to pass the measure for a second straight year.
"I think there are a number of farmers asking what do we need a farm bill for," said Mr. Wolheter, whose office is adorned with dozens of hats from tractor and seed companies. "The federal debt is the real concern."

Roger Johnson, president of the lobby group National Farmers Union, said farmers overall have been noticeably muted compared with past debates over renewing the farm bill. He said stronger incomes from higher prices on commodity crops like corn and soybeans have left farmers less willing to fight for federal support. The sector is seeing its highest returns on an inflation-adjusted basis since the mid-1970s as corn and soybean prices are at historical highs.

"There has not been the sense of crisis people might have expected," said Bill O'Conner, a former House Agriculture Committee staff member, who now lobbies Congress on farm issues.

In certain slices of agriculture, the bill is attracting strong interest. Growers of vegetables, cotton, peanut and rice have pushed for an expansion of federal subsidies for crop insurance. In the dairy sector, a fight has erupted between dairy farmers and dairy-product producers over government price supports.

The safety net for farmers is changing from automatic payments to farmers regardless of their economic circumstances, to crop insurance and other programs. Both the House and Senate support eliminating $5 billion a year in the direct payments to farmers, and would expand federal subsidies toward the cost of crop insurance.

As farmers see less for the agriculture sector in the bill, they have become more frustrated with the growth of food aid for the poor.

The farm bill combines support for agriculture with food stamps—a formula since the 1970s that mobilized rural advocates of agriculture and urban backers of food stamps. But assistance for low-income people has doubled since the 2008 economic downturn and some Republicans are now questioning the link between the two programs.

And so farmers in this corner of Indiana are questioning the composition of the bill like never before. "There is more concern about what they're doing in other areas than the agricultural end of it," said Stanley Sickafoose, who farms 6,500 acres of corn and soybeans.

U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, who represents the region and farms 4,000 acres with his father and brothers, voted against the farm bill and found support from farmers as he returned home for the Fourth of July break. The Indiana Republican is pushing in Congress to split off the nutrition programs from the core farm bill.

"What's worked in the past isn't working right now. Farm policy is going in one direction. Food-stamp policy is going in the other," said Mr. Stutzman last week as he opened a barn door on the family farm to display several hulking tractors.

He has found interest from House Republican leaders, who in recent days have been trying to rally support among the GOP rank and file for the dual approach in the wake of last month's defeat of the bigger bill on the House floor. It remains unclear whether they will be able to persuade enough Republicans to support this strategy, and if they can't, what their fallback plan would be. The House failed to take up the bill last year as it expired and a yearlong extension of existing policies expires on Sept. 30.

Splitting the legislation in the House would complicate negotiations over a final bill in the Senate, where the Democratic leadership in control of the chamber is staunchly opposed to a breakup.

Rep. Collin Peterson, who represents a district in rural Minnesota and is the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, has warned that if the farm bill is split, no House Democrats would vote for it, and it would die in negotiations with the Senate anyway. He says he fears that without a farm bill, growers would become more exposed to a sustained decline in prices.

Farmers "are very quick to forget the bad times," Mr. Peterson said. "Right now they're not too worried about this."

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Bring it on: U.S. Considers Faster Pullout in Afghanistan

From The New York Times:

Increasingly frustrated by his dealings with President Hamid Karzai, President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a “zero option” that would leave no American troops there after next year, according to American and European officials.

Friday, July 05, 2013

This week’s military coup may merely bring Egypt back to where it was: a bloated and dysfunctional superstate controlled by a self-serving military elite. But at least radical Islam, the main threat to global peace, has been partially discredited and removed from office.

David Brooks writes in The New York Times:

The debate on Egypt has been between those who emphasize process and those who emphasize substance.
Those who emphasize process have said that the government of President Mohamed Morsi was freely elected and that its democratic support has been confirmed over and over. The most important thing, they say, is to protect the fragile democratic institutions and to oppose those who would destroy them through armed coup.

Democracy, the argument goes, will eventually calm extremism. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood may come into office with radical beliefs, but then they have to fix potholes and worry about credit ratings and popular opinion. Governing will make them more moderate.

Those who emphasize substance, on the other hand, argue that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are defined by certain beliefs. They reject pluralism, secular democracy and, to some degree, modernity. When you elect fanatics, they continue, you have not advanced democracy. You have empowered people who are going to wind up subverting democracy. The important thing is to get people like that out of power, even if it takes a coup. The goal is to weaken political Islam, by nearly any means.

World events of the past few months have vindicated those who take the substance side of the argument. It has become clear — in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza and elsewhere — that radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government. Many have absolutist, apocalyptic mind-sets. They have a strange fascination with a culture of death. “Dying for the sake of God is more sublime than anything,” declared one speaker at a pro-Morsi rally in Cairo on Tuesday.

As Adam Garfinkle, the editor of The American Interest, put it in an essay recently, for this sort of person “there is no need for causality, since that would imply a diminution of God’s power.” This sort of person “does not accept the existence of an objective fact separate from how he feels about it.”

Islamists might be determined enough to run effective opposition movements and committed enough to provide street-level social services. But they lack the mental equipment to govern. Once in office, they are always going to centralize power and undermine the democracy that elevated them.

Nathan Brown made that point about the Muslim Brotherhood recently in The New Republic: “The tight-knit organization built for resilience under authoritarianism made for an inward-looking, even paranoid movement when it tried to refashion itself as a governing party.”

Once elected, the Brotherhood subverted judicial review, cracked down on civil society, arrested opposition activists, perverted the constitution-writing process, concentrated power and made democratic deliberations impossible.

It’s no use lamenting Morsi’s bungling because incompetence is built into the intellectual DNA of radical Islam. We’ve seen that in Algeria, Iran, Palestine and Egypt: real-world, practical ineptitude that leads to the implosion of the governing apparatus.

The substance people are right. Promoting elections is generally a good thing even when they produce victories for democratic forces we disagree with. But elections are not a good thing when they lead to the elevation of people whose substantive beliefs fall outside the democratic orbit. It’s necessary to investigate the core of a party’s beliefs, not just accept anybody who happens to emerge from a democratic process.

This week’s military coup may merely bring Egypt back to where it was: a bloated and dysfunctional superstate controlled by a self-serving military elite. But at least radical Islam, the main threat to global peace, has been partially discredited and removed from office.

The Obama administration has not handled this situation particularly well. It has shown undue deference to a self-negating democratic process. The American ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson, has done what ambassadors tend to do: She tried to build relationships with whoever is in power. This created the appearance that she is subservient to the Brotherhood. It alienated the Egyptian masses. It meant that the United States looked unprepared for and hostile to the popular movement that has now arisen.

In reality, the U.S. has no ability to influence political events in Egypt in any important way. The only real leverage point is at the level of ideas. Right now, as Walter Russell Mead of Bard College put it, there are large populations across the Middle East who feel intense rage and comprehensive dissatisfaction with the status quo but who have no practical idea how to make things better. The modern thinkers who might be able to tell them have been put in jail or forced into exile. The most important thing outsiders can do is promote those people and defend those people, decade after decade.

It’s not that Egypt doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients.

Morsi Ally Hamas Faces Waning Sway - Aided by the Muslim Brotherhood's Rise, the Group Loses a Critical Patron

Hamas and its supporters in the Palestinian territories once touted the recent upheaval across the Middle East as an "Islamic Spring,'' but the coup that deposed Egypt's leader has left the militant group bracing for a backlash.
The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, which supported President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, was a boon for the Islamist movement's militant offshoot next door in the Gaza Strip.
The Brotherhood helped the group gain prestige in the region after years of diplomatic and physical isolation, and helped to set up a new headquarters in Egypt and broker a cease fire with Israel.
But the coup, as well as the deflated image of political Islam in the region, has the organization feeling besieged once again.
Now that Hamas has been stripped of a critical patron, Gazans expect Egypt to tighten control of the border and the militant group's security officials fear reprisals in Egypt as part of the military's crackdown there, said a senior Hamas security official in Gaza.
The official said he also expected Hamas to have to decamp from Egypt, where the Brotherhood had welcomed Hamas after its leadership fled its longtime Damascus headquarters due to Syria's civil war.

"We were very upset and frustrated," the official said. "We are sure it will have a negative impact on us sooner or later.''
Relations between Hamas and Egypt turned testy even before Mr. Morsi's demise. Gazans have grappled with price rises in recent months because Egypt's army has been shutting down smuggling activity underneath the Gaza-Sinai border. 
The end of the Brotherhood's rule in Egypt is the latest in a series of setbacks for the Palestinian group as a result of the Arab awakening in 2011. The organization has lost two longtime financial and military backers: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and more recently Iran.
Hamas spokesmen weren't available for comment on Thursday. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah organization is a bitter rival to Hamas, released a statement congratulating the Egyptian armed forces for "preserving Egypt's security'' and anti-Morsi protesters "who rose up to save Egypt.'' Hamas stayed quiet because its leaders, based both in Egypt and in Qatar, are afraid of being viewed as meddling in Egyptian domestic affairs, the Gaza official said. 
It might be too late: The Palestinian militant group has been accused in the Egyptian press and by some in the Egyptian public as being involved in attacks on Egyptian soldiers in Sinai and of training Brotherhood security guards. Hamas rejects those accusations.
The security official said he expected Egyptian forces to clamp down even tighter on smuggling activity and to block the movement of Hamas officials at the Egyptian border. The smuggling tunnels funnel basic commercial goods in short supply from Israel's tightly controlled border crossing as well as weaponry used by Gaza militants against Israel.

Nashat Aqtash, a former campaign adviser to Hamas-allied candidates in the West Bank, predicted years of hardship for Hamas in Gaza. "After the failed experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in ruling Egypt, there will be no mercy on Hamas. Hamas will have to depend on its own power,'' he said. "Before, almost all the Egyptian people had sympathy with Hamas. I'm not so sure any more.''
One year ago, after years of isolation by the regime of former Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood's electoral victory gave Hamas unprecedented access in Egypt. It also gave Egypt increased leverage over Hamas, something which was widely credited with helping Mr. Morsi and the Egyptian intelligence services broker a cease fire after one week of cross border fighting between Israel and Hamas last November.

The loss of the backing could make Hamas more volatile and prone to lashing out against Israel after enforcing a ceasefire for six months, said analysts.

Many Palestinians who believed that the Brotherhood's rule in Egypt gave Hamas a boost in its rivalry against Fatah in the West Bank now wonder whether the six-year split between the two Palestinian factions is any closer to resolution.

"Hamas was under the impression that the…Arab Spring was playing to their favor, and that the region is coming gradually under the control of Islamists, and that time was on their side,'' said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian government spokesman. "This atmosphere didn't live for long.''

Blows to Health-Care Law Pile Up, Cutting Its Sweep - For people above the poverty level, the federal government is encouraging enrolling for coverage through the insurance exchanges. But it has limited funding for getting that message out in 33 states where it is partly or fully responsible for the exchanges.

From The Wall Street Journal:

The big expansion of health insurance envisioned under the 2010 Affordable Care Act is now looking less sweeping.

The latest indication that the coverage net won't be as wide as initially expected came this week when the Obama administration delayed for a year a requirement that larger employers offer health insurance to workers or pay a penalty. The move means businesses with 50 or more employees that don't currently offer coverage—such as some retailers and restaurants—can continue on that track without penalty until 2015.

While the unexpected move received attention, it is at least the third time that a development since the law's passage has potentially limited the expansion of insurance.

The two earlier snags involve Medicaid, a federal-state program for the poor, and the new health-insurance exchanges where individuals can buy coverage. The law was supposed to expand Medicaid to include more of the poorest Americans, but a Supreme Court ruling last year allowed states to opt out of that expansion; at least half are poised to do so.

At the same time, analysts warn that hiccups are possible in implementing the exchanges after more than 30 states refused to set up their own versions, forcing the federal government to operate them on states' behalf.

"You've got three body blows toward expansion of coverage," said Paul Keckley, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, a research unit of Deloitte LLP. "It's three punches in a row."

The law was designed to extend insurance to most of the 50 million Americans who lack coverage. But when the main features of the law go live Jan. 1, the share of those people set to remain uninsured is bigger than the proportion set to gain coverage. That raises the prospect of a long battle to make the law work as its supporters intended, and the likelihood that opponents will dismiss it as a costly failure.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected soon after the law passed that it would reduce the number of uninsured to 23 million people in 2019, from about 50 million people now. In an updated projection earlier this year, the economists estimated around 30 million people would still be without coverage that year. The office has yet to revise its estimates in the wake of this week's announcement.

Some analysts played down the employer-requirement delay. "It is much ado about very little," said Gerard Anderson, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. "So many people in firms larger than 50 already had health coverage."

Critics of the law predicted further problems. "Much like Humpty Dumpty, Obamacare had a great fall and all of King Obama's bureaucrats cannot put it back together again," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R., Kan.).

In sectors that employ many lower-wage hourly employees, such as agriculture and services, fewer than half of workers have employer-sponsored coverage, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Plans currently offered often include limited-benefit policies known as "mini-meds" that can't be sold next year because the law bans lifetime or annual payout limits, a feature of such plans.

Under the original version of the law, states would enroll in Medicaid everyone who earned up to about a third more than the federal poverty level. Under that plan, many employees making up to about $10 an hour were to set to qualify. Eligibility for Medicaid currently varies by state but in many parts of the country, childless adults don't qualify even if they have income significantly below the poverty line.

In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, officials in 28 states have indicated they plan to sit out the Medicaid expansion next year or are still debating it.

Those 28 states are home to about 9.6 million uninsured people who would become newly eligible for Medicaid, according to estimates from the left-leaning Urban Institute think tank. Those people can try shopping for coverage on the new insurance exchanges. However, an estimated 7.4 million of them won't be able to obtain subsidies for that coverage, because they are below the poverty level and the law is written to give subsidies only to people above that line.

"Just when we think we have something, someone in the capital says we don't," said Sarah Bates, an uninsured, self-employed oboe teacher in Austin, Texas.

Ms. Bates, 27 years old, had an income of about $4,000 last year after adjusting for business expenses. She takes three prescriptions and needs treatment for asthma and a hormone disorder. For now, she receives care at a local hospital sponsored by an Austin group for uninsured musicians.

For people above the poverty level, the federal government is encouraging enrolling for coverage through the insurance exchanges. But it has limited funding for getting that message out in 33 states where it is partly or fully responsible for the exchanges. Some 28 million uninsured people live in those states, according to government data.

Despite the delay in the employer mandate, the Treasury Department said the individual mandate requiring people to carry coverage starting in 2014 or pay a tax penalty remains in place. So do subsidies for people who are eligible. The penalty, however, is set to be small in the first year, with most low-income people exempt.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has said she believes the administration is on track to meet its goal of enrolling seven million people in coverage through the exchanges in the first year and her department hopes more states will ultimately decide to join the Medicaid expansion.

For now, groups that favor expansion under the law say the confusion is making it harder for them to explain options to the uninsured. "This ever-changing landscape is just getting more difficult," said José Camacho, executive director of a Texas association for clinics treating mostly uninsured people.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The next wave may come from Democrats: Some Democrats Worry Newcomers Will Crowd Job Market

From The Wall Street Journal:

Dexter Jackson, a chef at a barbecue restaurant in South Carolina, worries that unemployment is high and that Congress is about to make it worse. Easing immigration rules, he says, "takes jobs away from Americans."

In his skepticism about current proposals for overhauling immigration, Mr. Jackson, a 24-year-old living in Piedmont, S.C., joins many lawmakers in Congress. But unlike most of them, he is a Democrat who has voted for President Barack Obama.

Democrats wary of immigration are a minority within their own party, but it is a group that is largely made up of lower-earning people. Now, with immigration proposals facing a difficult path through the House, the voices of these Democrats, combined with similar concerns voice by Republicans, could add fuel to the arguments that allowing more guest workers into the U.S. and legalizing illegal immigrants would squeeze the wages and jobs of native-born workers.

"I'm still a liberal.…I just don't think they should pass immigration," said Rebecca Leach, a 36-year-old former licensed nurse assistant in Laconia, N.H., who has gone back to school so she can get a higher-paying job. Ms. Leach, a Democrat who voted for Mr. Obama, said she finds the idea of bringing more workers into the country "very frustrating," given her own challenges in earning a living.

"I have to struggle, and I've been in this country all of my life," said Ms. Leach, a single mother.

When a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey asked in April whether immigration strengthens or weakens the country, 68% of all Democrats polled said it strengthened the country. But among Democrats with household income under $30,000 a year, 53% saw immigration as beneficial, with a large minority of 42% saying it weakened the country.

Republicans remain more apt to see immigration in a negative light and to oppose efforts to overhaul immigration laws. Among all Republicans, the Journal/NBC survey found, only 37% said immigration strengthens the U.S., with 52% saying it weakens the country.

Fears of immigrants' effect on the working class prompted some labor unions and Democratic lawmakers to oppose the last big push for an immigration shake-up, in 2007. Similar sentiments are being heard again, though they are more muted this time.

Now, labor unions are among the most important supporters of the Senate's plan to rewrite immigration laws, as they see newly legalized workers as potential members at a time of big declines in union enrollment. Democratic lawmakers increasingly see Latino voters, who tend to favor an overhaul of the laws, as a key constituency.

And this time, a Democratic president is backing the overhaul, whereas it was a Republican, George W. Bush, who put his weight behind the last push.

That leaves Republican lawmakers as the most vocal advocates for the argument that adding foreign workers will harm native-born workers.

"This bill is going to bring in huge amounts of new workers to take the few jobs being created,'' said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) on the Senate floor recently.

In interviews, some Democrats cite similar fears of competing with newly legalized immigrants or guest workers. "A citizen should get the job before an immigrant," said Max Morcha, who works for a concrete placement company in Olathe, Kan. "I've been doing this type of work for the last 20 some years, and I've seen it change from citizens that live here to a bunch of Spanish descent. It's a shame."

As a result of such sentiments, some lawmakers in both parties have tried to add worker-training provisions to immigration legislation, aiming to give native-born workers a better opportunity to take jobs that are open, particularly high-skill jobs.

Labor unions, a key component of the Democratic coalition, argue that legalizing immigrants will boost all workers, making it easier to enforce wage standards and labor-condition rules. Jeff Hauser, political media liaison for the AFL-CIO, said native-born workers already are competing with illegal workers. The overhaul, he said, means that "unscrupulous" employers who rely on illegal labor will have to return to fair hiring practices.

Similarly, Adriana Kugler, professor of public policy at Georgetown University and former chief economist at the Department of Labor, said immigration makes it easier for companies to hire in the U.S. for jobs that might have been sent abroad. "It's not that immigrants are taking jobs away from people who are here. What seems to be happening is that immigrants are taking jobs away that are otherwise being outsourced elsewhere," she said.

Ms. Kugler also rejected the fear that increased immigration would drive down wages, pointing to a clause in the bill that requires employers to hire immigrants at the prevailing wage.