Archive for the ‘International Affairs’ category

02.01.17 Trump/Bannon or Pence?

February 1, 2017

For the first few days of this regime, I was rather celebrating the utter insanity (meant literally) and incompetence in the White House. I saw a ray of hope in its great potential for immobilizing dysfuntionality, not to mention the potential to alienate even the GOP Forces of Evil in Congress (who have thus far thrown aside their own stated policies in deference to the new Führer).

(See this outstanding piece by David Brooks in yesterday’s New York Times: The Republican Fausts. I often disagree with Brooks and don’t agree with everything in this piece, it is a powerful read and he is mostly, alarmingly spot on.)

Mike Pence as an alternative seemed worse. A competent, not crazy certified Thirteenth-Century Theocrat with strong ties to GOP elites would certainly get more done and hurt our society and culture even worse, right?

The news that Trump had elevated Steve Bannon to the National Security Council — over the Joint Chiefs of Staff — turned my outrage to terror. Brooks is not the only one in recent days to observe that Bannon is quickly consolidating control over all levers of power and government. His virulent racism, coupled with Trump’s nonstop temper tantrums are making me rethink a Pence presidency. Yes, Pence would gut necessary government spending, work tirelessly to enrich the wealthy, destroy the environment, and outlaw reproductive freedom (wherever he can). But so will Trump/Bannon!

What Pence seems unlikely to do would be to actively undermine world stability, start trade or military wars, empower foreign autocrats (Putin!), and actively undermine the US Constitution (further than the GOP already does through voter suppression, etc).

My mind is just about made up in favor of a 25th-Amendment (or impeachment) solution to this global crisis. My remaining hesitation is mostly about expecting a greater aggressiveness by Pence against LBGT rights than Trump and the idea that Trump/Bannon’s explicit racism is easer to counter than the GOP’s pervasive, implicit racism.

Twenty-Fifth Amendment, Section 4

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.

What do you think, Dear Readers?

PS. I will no longer refer to well-known autocrats with their first names; hence, “Trump” (without Donald) and “Putin” (without Vladimir). These are monsters, not human beings and should not be personalized in any way.

©2017

01.29.17 Watch your words

January 29, 2017

What we call things makes a difference (note the Tea Party use of “Death Panels” — this was no accident). Here are two vocabulary changes I am now adopting:

  • I will not refer to the cabal that temporarily rules our country as an “administration” or “government.” Rather it will always be “Trump regime,” “GOP regime,” and (when I think even that is too gentle), “fascist regime.” Regime conveys the illegitimacy of the racist authoritarians in power and their contempt for the norms of democracy and rule of law.
  • I will make few, if any, further references to Great Britain or the United Kingdom. It is the racists of England who produced Brexit, just as the racists of the United States brought us our regime. The other nations that make up the UK had nothing to do with it. And as England carries this noxious policy through (led by PM Theresa May, who has appointed herself Trump’s lapdog, making even the ever- docile Tony Blair’s relationship with W look well adjusted), Scotland will certainly leave. So, “Little England” will be left (perhaps with its own lapdog, Wales, and perhaps with Northern Ireland in order to keep the Troubles from erupting again). Little England is a contemptuous moniker for a once-great nation that will deserve the international isolation it ends up with.

I maintain a “boycott list”: countries I will never set foot in because their people have chosen a path of racism, authoritarianism, and/or aggression. I am hereby adding Little England to that list, which now includes Austria, Hungary, Israel, Poland, and Russia. (Elections in Russia are hardly free and fair, but with Putin’s astronomical approval ratings, we know where the Russian people stand.) If I weren’t a US citizen, this country would certainly be on my boycott list, at least until the current regime were replaced.

©2017 Keith Berner

01.14.17 Israel. And the Democrats who support it.

January 14, 2017

I’m Jewish. (I feel I have to start all my comments on Israel by declaring my ethnicity, because so many Israel supporters conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. I am not a self-hater.)

The US actually allowed passage of a recent UN resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policy. Not that our country actually supported the resolution. But, by abstaining (i.e., by refusing to express a view), rather than vetoing (as the US almost always does when the topic of Israel comes up), our country took a baby step towards bringing its Middle East policy in alignment with its stated values.

Oh, the uproar this caused. AIPAC and other Likud-aligned US organizations expressed their customary outrage with their customary breathless bluster. Then, a majority of Democratic House members (109-76), including new MD Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD-8), voted to denounce the UN resolution, saying it was unfair to Israel. They joined an overwhelming majority of Republicans (233-4) to undermine President Obama’s gentle turn against rubber stamping everything Israel does.  (This gentle turn comes only after Obama committed $38 billion of our tax dollars to underwriting Likud and illegal settlements for 10 years to come).

Two years ago, our Senator — Ben Cardin — joined only four other Democrats to oppose the nuclear deal with Iran, perhaps Obama’s foremost foreign policy achievement. The other three “traitors” to the president were Robert Menendez (NJ), Joe Manchin (WV), and Chuck Schumer (NY). This graphic tells an interesting story:

picture1

Manchin is the outlier here: he is from a deep-red state and does not have a great record of party loyalty. The others, though, are rock-solid Dems who cast a rare vote against their party and president. And what do they have in common? Jewish identity (Schumer and Cardin) and reliance on Jewish support (those two, plus Menendez).

Is Israel being treated unfairly by the US and the world?

Certainly, there is a great deal of hostility to Israel from hypocritical anti-Semites whose behavior differs little from what they go after Israel for. Certainly, Israel has a right to paranoia, based on the Holocaust and the Arabs’ unremitting hostility and aggression.

But, even for those of us who believe Israel has a right to defend itself in a hostile world, there was never any justification for civilian occupation of foreign land or for Israel’s unjust treatment of its own Palestinian citizens. Since 1973, Israel’s aggressive de facto appropriation of other people’s land and sovereignty has turned it from victim to perpetrator. Even under brief periods of Labor Party rule (including right after the Oslo Peace Accords), Israel has never stopped expanding its settlements on the West Bank, stealing property that doesn’t belong to it.

Israel’s apologists in this country say (more or less), “Hey, no fair criticizing Israel, unless you rebuke in equal measure the knife-wielding Arabs who attack us.” A knife versus the most powerful military force in the region. Resident uprisings, sometimes violent, in the face of daily humiliation and nonstop brutality. At this point, it’s hard for me to see any distinction between the plight of the Palestinians and that of the Africans who had to battle Apartheid for decades, against all odds and the concerted power of South Africa, the US, and Britain. People with no recourse to justice and no hope of progress explode. Wouldn’t you?

Yeah, but what about all the other countries in the world that are oppressive, racist, and/or aggressive? Well, I certainly hate illiberal, bigoted regimes like Russia’s or Hungary’s, not to mention the numerous African states who are murdering and imprisoning their homosexual citizens. Obviously, Israel has no monopoly on outrageous behavior.

But there are three reasons why Israel deserves special opprobrium (at least from me):

1. Most of the other outrageous countries in the world are not fundamentally kept afloat by my tax dollars. The fact that I am paying for Israeli racism and oppression gives me a right – nay, a duty – to forcefully oppose its behavior and US support for it. (For what it’s worth, I’d love to see an end to US support for Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well.)

2. I have special contempt for democracies whose people choose racism, oppression, or aggression. Israelis have been voting for right-wing governments for most of the country’s history. The last three elections have produced governments that are ever narrower, ever more nationalist, ever more fascist. I don’t blame the Saudi people the way I blame Israelis: Saudis have no input on their leaders, nor say in their policies.

I am hardly being unfair to Israel. I maintain a boycott list of countries where the citizens themselves are responsible for their countries’ policies, including Austria, Hungary, and Poland. If I weren’t an American, I would throw this country into that same category: a country where a functional majority chooses bigotry and imperialism.

3. The very fact of my Jewishness requires for me to take greater responsibility for the state supposedly founded in my name. I was raised without the Jewish religion. Rather, our religion at home was that of the Civil Rights Movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. I grew up understanding that — as a member of a historically oppressed people — I could not turn my back on oppression of others. My progressivism is rooted in my heritage. I would be betraying my parents if I were to support Israeli aggression or even only turn a blind eye to it.

How Jewish-American politicians contribute to anti-Semitism:

I get how Joe Manchin could side with the right-wing on the nuclear deal. I get how Jewish Americans who have long sided with neocon aggression or spent decades supporting authoritarian freaks in the name of anti-communism could find themselves on the “wrong” side on Israel. At least they’re being consistent with their values.

It’s another matter when the Cardins, Raskins, and Schumers of the US body politic vote against their party, their president, and their proclaimed values on only one issue: Israel. The more these politicians give Israel a hypocritical pass, the more they reinforce the idea in the rest of the world that there is no gap between Jewishness/Judaism and Likud. The more they destroy the very possibility (in the eyes of others) that Jews can be just, that Jews can be peaceful, that Jews can respect human rights and human dignity, the more hatred against Jews they engender.

And this leads us to the great self-defeating tragedy that Likud Jews are engaged in. Israel cannot survive as a democratic, Jewish state if it will not allow a two-state solution. Likud and the majority of Israeli voters who support it are dooming themselves either to a future of apartheid (I would say it has already arrived) or to being a minority in a new Palestine. The Israeli people are assuring a disastrous future for their homeland.

And hypocritical Jewish liberals in the US are undermining Jewish security and safety everywhere by demonstrating that they cannot be trusted on this topic. They sap their own power as progressives (making us progressives less likely to support them) and feed right into the thinking of anti-Semites who want to see Jews has a fifth column with a nefarious agenda.

Is the UN being unfair to Israel? Not this time, in any case. Am I being unfair to Israel? Excuse me, but no fucking way!

It is time for the US to join the rest of the civilized world (however much of that remains in this year of democracy-in-peril) in condemning Israel. (Abstention is not enough!) Further, we must stop underwriting that horrific regime and its racist people. It well past time for my elected representatives, no matter their ethnic or religious affiliation, to be true to their values and to earn my vote not only through a commitment to civil rights and civil liberties at home, but also abroad.

©2017 Keith Berner

03.05.16 Responsibility to protect: A moral dilemma in the Middle East

March 5, 2016

I just finished watching “The Square,” a moving documentary about the brief rise and harsh fall of the Egyptian revolution, 2011-13. In the film, we follow three activists (two liberals and one Islamist) who take part in the massive people-power overthrow of brutal dictator Hosni Mubarak. We see the military hijack the revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood betray it, resulting in the absolute religious dictatorship of Mohamed Morsi. The film ends as first the people and then the military, led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, overthrow Morsi.

“The Square” doesn’t show us the aftermath, as el-Sisi reinstates an absolute military dictatorship, murders thousands, and eventually releases Murbarak from prison. Neither do we witness the increase in terrorism across the country as Brotherhood supporters and the crushed remnants of liberal democrats wage a war of attrition against the military in a destroyed nation.

When I see or read about events like these, my heart breaks for the people on the ground. At the same time I am outraged about this country’s complicity. For decades, a United States, obsessed with stability for Israel, supported Mubarak with a blind eye to his terrors. (The Clintons, who consider the Mubaraks good friends, are – perhaps – the most complicit of our fellow citizens.) For a brief time, perhaps half the time that the liberal revolution seemed to have a chance, the US seemed to be on the right side in Egypt. But then the US backed the blatantly unfair elections that put the Brotherhood in power (elections do not equal democracy!).

The US switched back to supporting military oppression as soon the Morsi was overthrown. Only months after the el-Sisi massacre in Tahir Square and the full institution of rule by brute force, the shameful John Kerry (backed, of course, by Barack Obama) was in Cairo, embracing the butcher and praising him as a democrat.

The broader lessons here are (1) the US fails (at least its stated values, if not its great-power interests) when it chooses sides in fraught situations, (2) the US fails when it embraces dictatorships in the name of stability over human dignity, and (3) the US has been failing every single day for 50 years in supporting Israeli security over nearly every other priority.

+++++++++

In the international human rights field (where I spend my working hours), there is a concept called “responsibility to protect” (RTP). This noble principle is meant to prevent further Holocausts, Rwandas, and Srebenicas (to name three of myriad examples). The idea is that the rights of human beings trump those of regimes, that state sovereignty is subordinate to preventing atrocities and genocides. In fact, states with the means to intervene in such situations are required to intervene.

If one cares about human life and dignity, this seems an unimpeachable moral philosophy. Indeed RTP is why I supported US intervention, as Muammar Gaddafi prepared to slaughter his opponents in 2011. The recent two-part series in the New York Times “The Libya Gamble” focuses on Hillary Clinton’s advocacy for intervention and the irony of her hubris about positive outcomes, with the Iraq War disaster still in the present. Not only was I with Clinton in 2011, I was also – briefly – on the side of US military intervention in Syria in 2013.

The NYT stories cover not only the decision making leading to US intervention, but also the aftermath, as the West loses interest and Libya slides into chaos, becoming (perhaps) a greater hotbed of international terrorism and human suffering than even in Gaddafi’s worst years.

This story is not really about Clinton or just Libya. Rather is it about the helplessness of the West to predict or manage outcomes, even on those relatively rare (in my view) occasions when its intentions align with its values. The US destroyed Iraq, increasing Iran’s power and creating ISIS. The US helped turn Libya into a failed state. The US repeatedly supported the wrong side in Egypt.

So, what does this mean in regard to RTP? It is a terrible moral dilemma. How do the lives lost in Libya’s collapse compare to those if Gaddafi had massacred his opponents? How does human suffering in Syria compare to an unknown outcome if the US had started bombing the in 2013? Do we have more blood on our hands by staying (mostly) out of conflicts or by intervening and “owning” the result?

My belief in RTP has been fundamentally shaken by the NYT series, as I have related it back to events of the past 15 years.

The GOP and its unrepentant neocons admit no moral dilemmas. For them, the answer is always intervention and always military. They never acknowledge the great hypocrisy of US foreign policy over 170 years, as the US preached democracy, but propped up dictatorships in service to US business interests. They never give up their simplistic and arrogant ideology, in the face of complexity and limited ability to dictate outcomes.

I have not become a complete non-interventionist. We should have stopped the Rwandan genocide (the country is now ruled by a dictator who has brought universal healthcare and massive economic development to his impoverished people – another moral dilemma) and were right to stop the one in the Balkans (where a cold peace rules and underlying issues have never been resolved).

I guess where I land is that principles and ideology (whether RTP or GOP/neocon) are no excuse for not thinking, not seeking to grasp complexity, and – above all – not acting with humility. We can’t declare we will never act. But if we do not face the world with an acknowledgement of limited power and understanding, then positive outcomes are utterly impossible. Ultimately, morally fraught situations must be considered individually and after deep deliberation, rather than through a single, simple moral lens.

I have reluctantly come to agree with Obama’s decision not to become enmeshed in Syria (though, I condemn the shear incompetence that led him to declare “red lines” he was unwilling to enforce). In the midst of this horror, nonintervention is more responsible than the alternative. (And, we cannot know whether doing a better job of arming the so-called democratic rebels in 2012-13 would have made us proud. We can see a long history of US-supplied arms being used against us after we exit the bloodbaths we have created). But, deciding not to intervene militarily, does not, cannot, excuse US support for the el-Sisis of the world. Egypt is a case where the moral thing to do was to exit with our tail between our legs and let el-Sisi sink or swim on his own. (As for Israel, it deserves no support at all from the United States as long as it remains a racist, hegemonist power.)

©2016 Keith Berner

08.26.15 Maryland’s Senators Silent on Iran Deal

August 26, 2015

Here is my open letter to Senator Ben Cardin. I will be sending a similar letter to Barbara Mikulski. Maryland Democrats should be outraged that both of our senators appear to be in thrall to Likud and AIPAC. Express your views to Cardin (202-224-4524) and  Mikulski (202-224-4654) or by visiting their websites. Though this should hardly matter on the substance of the issue, Cardin is Jewish and Mikulski is not. Just the same, the latter has been known to consistently take the AIPAC line on Israel.

Dear Senator Cardin:

I read in yesterday’s New York Times, that you are undecided on the nuclear deal with Iran.

Your fence-sitting is disturbing, because the logic in favor of the agreement is an absolute no-brainer: whether or not you love the details or the way Obama and Kerry negotiated, the horse has left the barn. The sanctions regime is dead, dead, dead.

If you liked the George W. Bush administration’s cowboy unilateralism, you’ll love US foreign policy after Congress kills the agreement with Iran. The US would be on its own internationally (with Israel is its sole ally). Not only will usual suspects, like Russia and China, rush to do business with Iran, but so will Europe. In fact, the rush is already on. And without any international sanctions regime, the only remaining leverage the United States (and Israel) will have will be military.

If you oppose this agreement, do you have a plan for recovering US influence and prestige afterwards? Do you relish a unilateral war that will cost enormous blood and treasure and only briefly delay Iran’s nuclear progress?

The question is not whether this negotiated agreement is perfect (by definition, no negotiated agreements are), but rather, what is the alternative? I have yet to hear a rational one from the belligerent right.

We know why the GOP is lockstep opposed to the agreement. First, there is the party’s long history of opposition to negotiations and arms control in principle (see this Times article reminding us of right-wing opposition to even Reagan’s and Eisenhower’s talks with the Soviets). And there’s the fact that anything and everything Obama does sends the GOP into paroxysms of feigned rage.

We know why Israel is opposed: it is in thrall to the racist, hegemonic regime it elected. That regime is, sadly, behaving contrary to Israel’s own interests, but is blind to this fact, as is the aggressively right-wing pro-Israel lobby in this country (led by AIPAC).

I cannot fathom why any Democrat – regardless of creed – would be in opposition. I am embarrassed that the only Democrats in stated opposition are Jewish (Schumer of NY) or count on Jewish votes (Menendez of New Jersey and Schumer).

I am a Jewish American. I use that formulation, since – in an irony of English-language construction – it is the second element of that phrase that is dominant. That is, I am American more than I am Jewish.

Are you? If you are, then your equivocation is uncalled for. You must prioritize US interests over Israel’s (notwithstanding Israel’s current inability to recognize what its true interests are).

Ben Cardin: You face a choice. Are you going to be a Democrat representing Maryland or a Likudnik representing Israel? Maryland Democrats can wait no longer for you to make up your mind and do the right thing.

Sincerely,

Keith Berner

©2015 Keith Berner

04.02.15 Breaking News: Indiana declares war on Iran

April 2, 2015

BREAKING NEWS: Indiana declares Iran nuke deal dead on arrival, declares war on Iran and Washington, DC.

In Arkansas, Gov. Hutchinson counseled caution as he awaits guidance from Walmart.

Meanwhile John McCain and Benjamin Netanyahu have been rushed to emergency rooms with apparent aneurysms.

©2015 Keith Berner

05.11.14 Don’t carry Assad’s water

May 11, 2014

An old friend of mine (call him “Joe”) withholds a small part of his federal income taxes every year to protest various US policies and writes an annual letter to the IRS detailing the reasons. This year, his top policy objection was Obama’s promised cruise-missile attack on Syria as punishment for Bashar al-Assad’s alleged chemical-weapons use last year. Joe points to an excellent article by Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books that sows considerable doubt about Assad’s responsibility for the particular use of sarin gas. With W and the neocons’ manipulation of evidence to justify the unjustifiable in Iraq, I’m with Joe and Hersh at this point: very willing to disbelieve US intelligence and the politicians who decide how to make use of it.

I have trouble with Joe’s selection of this case, though. First, he’s going after a policy that was stopped in its tracks by public opposition in the US and UK. The US attack on Syria never happened, so why waste ink on it as a lead instance of US wrongdoing?

Second, Joe is willing to admit that “Assad may have used chemical weapons in the past” but elsewhere declares that Assad “was not violating international law.” Well, I guess the meaning of “was” is the bone of contention here. For Joe, the fact (which is in dispute) that Assad didn’t use chemical weapons on one occasion absolves Assad of guilt for use on other occasions. In considering Assad’s guilt or innocence under international law, Joe also blithely ignores Assad’s use of mass starvation and cluster munitions against civilians, which are in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Ok. I get the very narrow argument Joe is making. US bluster and threats of violence were uncalled for in response to a single crime that there is reasonable doubt about. Never mind the rest of the crime spree.

Now, Joe and I have a very deep philosophical disagreement. He is almost a pure pacifist, which I’m not. I believe as much in the duty to shoot an individual who is about to kill 100 as I do in an international duty to protect: the responsibility of bystander nations to stop atrocities that (1) they know about and (2) have the means to stop. Though I find US foreign policy to be replete with imperialist aggression and violence against the innocent, this does not, in principle, change my view that the US must sometimes use force to stop evil, as we did in the Balkans (some years too late) and didn’t do in Rwanda. Yes, I distrust US motives and policymakers. No, I do not believe the US can never do good by opposing evil.

Readers of this blog may recall that I ended up opposing US intervention in Syria last year because of a third principle of justified intervention: near certainty that the good to be achieved through such an intervention will outweigh the harm caused. I didn’t believe then and don’t believe now that Obama and those in his administration who supported a war policy had thought for a moment past the initial strikes they planned. They were not bothering to weigh ends, means, and consequences. I ended up believing that this poorly thought-out policy would likely result in a much larger scale of death and suffering than it could possibly prevent. (This mirrors, in part, my well-borne-out opposition to the neocons’ Iraq war: their ideology had so blinded them to the need for advance planning and consideration of consequences that, even if one believed Hussein had WMD [and I admit I allowed myself to be duped in 2003], there was just no possibility that W & Co. could be trusted to conduct a rational and balanced policy around it that would minimize death and suffering.)

Back to Joe. It disturbs me when thinkers and leaders on the left, in their eagerness to oppose the US or imperialism, choose to let other evildoers off the hook — even climb into bed with them. Joe denies that he is aligning himself with Assad by declaring the latter innocent under international law. It sure smells like alignment to me. I find this somewhat analogous to Hugo Chavez, who — in justifiably fearing US aggression against his desire to redress social and economic ills in Venezuela — found the need to make friends with North Korea’s Kims, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, Putin, and (of course) Assad. Sure, Joe: go after the US, but do you need to carry Assad’s water to do so?

I admire Joe’s withholding of tax payments out of principle. (I don’t make that same decision, because by paying my taxes, I feel better equipped to fight against the Kochs and others who oppose all public expenditures.) There are many things I regret seeing my money go for: US subsidies to industries that drive up food prices or worsen global warming; horrific amounts of spending on unnecessary weapons systems; the money put into the NSA and others who threaten civil liberties; elimination of estate taxes on the mega weathy. Why choose as your #1 target a policy that never was implemented (and which hardly any money was spent on) and make pals with a horrific mass murderer in the process?

PS. “Joe” is a real person, but his views are more nuanced than I present them here. Consider this fiction in order to make a point.

©2014 Keith Berner