Media commentators are confused. On the one hand, they say, we’re on the same side as Iran fighting against ISIS in Iraq, but on the other hand, we’re on the other side from Iran opposing the Houthi rebellion in Yemen. The media confusion has been attributed to policy confusion in the White House.
But I think the Obama policy at work here is perfectly clear.
The Obama position on ISIS has been one of limited opposition – air attacks in Syria and Iraq, modest non-lethal support for the least objectionable Syrian rebels, and more expansive military support for the Iraqi government; but no combat troops on the ground. Our opposition to ISIS in Iraq derives from ISIS’s threat to the democratically elected Iraqi government – not because Iraqi democracy is well established, but on the contrary because Iraqi democracy is so fragile.
Iran also opposes ISIS, but that doesn’t make Iran our friend or ally. There is no reason to think that Iran is at all concerned about Iraqi democracy. Iran is concerned to retain Shiite rule in Iraq, and therefore the threat to Iraq from ultra-Sunni ISIS is a threat to Iranian interests. In other words, the U.S. opposes ISIS because they are terrorists, and Iran opposes ISIS because they are Sunni.
In Yemen, the circumstances are different but the principles are similar. Until 1990, Yemen was two separate countries: the Yemen Arab Republic, or North Yemen, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, or South Yemen. North Yemen was predominantly Shiite, and South Yemen was predominantly Sunni. The re-united country of Yemen is about 65 percent Sunni.
The president of North Yemen was Ali Abdulla Saleh, a Shi’a who became the president of united Yemen in 1990. He held onto rule until the Arab Spring – a Shi’a tyrant suppressing a Sunni majority by brutal force. In this respect Saleh was the mirror image of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni tyrant suppressing a Shiite majority in Iraq. Saleh’s ouster was one of the great victories of the Arab Spring.
Saleh left power in compliance with an internationally negotiated agreement. He was succeeded by his vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who is a south Yemeni Sunni. Hadi formed a national unity government with the opposition party, but Saleh retained influence – his son, for instance, remains a prominent general in the Yemeni military.
The Houthi rebellion originated in 1992 as a religious movement among northern Shiites. When Saleh attempted to crack down in 2004, the movement became an armed insurgency. The insurgency intensified after Hadi, a Sunni, took power in 2011. Only somewhat ironically, the Houthi insurgency is now allied with Saleh loyalists.
Obama Administration policy is to support the Hadi government and oppose the Houthi-Saleh rebellion. In recent weeks, Sunni governments from Morocco to Pakistan formed a military coalition to intervene on behalf of the Hadi government.
As with ISIS, our motivation is not necessarily the same as the motivation of the others fighting our common foe. The Sunni coalition is motivated to rescue the Sunni Hadi and protect the Sunni majority in Yemen from Shiite Houthi rule. Conversely, Iranian support for the Houthi is motivated by Iran’s desire to promote Shiite power. President Obama is motivated to protect the more legitimate, less brutal and more democratically inclined Hadi government from restoration of the Saleh tyranny.
As with our opposition to ISIS, our opposition to the Houthi-Saleh alliance is limited – mainly drone strikes and reconnaissance, but no ground troops.
So far from confused, situation-specific policy-making, the Obama approach is guided by three clear principles. First, the U.S. has intervened to oppose terrorist groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda. Second, the U.S. has intervened to defend governments with claims to democratic legitimacy, like Iraq and Yemen, from overthrow by less legitimate, less democratic threats. And third, American military involvement has been modest.
It is all too commonplace to say that the Arab Spring accomplished nothing – the notion being that the overthrow of dictators in Libya, Tunisia and Yemen only resulted in the substitution of stable tyranny for unstable civil war. But that’s a stunningly short-sighted view of things.
Democracy does not spring fully developed from the brow of a tyrant. Even our own enlightened founders did not create a pluralistic democracy – it took four score, seven years and a terrible Civil War to end the enslavement of Americans by Americans. Building pluralist democracy is all the harder for a society emerging from decades of brutal dictatorship.
Tyrannical rule breeds social pathologies that don’t just go away with the death of the tyrant. The Arab Spring unleashed those pathologies – pulled the lid off the pressure cooker. Condemning the Arab Spring because four years later there are only two, all-too-imperfect Arab democracies (Iraq and Tunisia) entirely misses the point.
It has already taken a century and a half, and Americans have still not fully healed the pathologies of our slave-holding past. Sunni-Shiite hostility will not die quietly either. But in neither case does that mean we should not start. I believe that ISIS and Al Qaeda and all their ilk are products of those pathologies. The difficulty Shiite Iraqis are having sharing power with Sunnis – the difficulty that Shiites and Sunnis have sharing power anywhere – is another product of those pathologies.
Here’s what’s good about events in the Middle East. Iraqis elected their own government for the first time in 2010. It was disappointing that Iraqi voters chose Nouri al-Maliki over the more secular Ayad Allawi. Al-Maliki excluded Sunnis from power, which certainly facilitated ISIS’s quick blitz into Iraq in 2014. Even al-Maliki’s supporters realized that Shiites could not govern without Sunni cooperation, so they pushed al-Maliki aside after the 2014 elections and selected the more inclusive Haider al-Abadi as prime minister.
Meanwhile, the whole Muslim world has turned against ISIS. The horrific immolation of the Jordanian air force pilot ended all sympathy for ISIS’s opposition to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Iraqi Sunnis who have been freed from ISIS rule are, at least for now, eager to make common cause with Iraqi Shiites.
Another thing that’s good is that Middle Eastern countries are taking the lead in their own defense. The coalition of many countries fighting against ISIS is without precedent where Americans weren’t in the lead. Many Americans say that Islamic terrorism can’t be beaten until Muslims lead the fight. Well, this is what that looks like.
There is no small risk that these fights will degenerate into a region-wide civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. Thus the fourth American principle must be containing sectarian aggression by either Sunnis or Shiites. A good start is our continuing negotiations with Iran, part of a multilateral effort to contain that country’s nuclear ambitions.
I may be in the minority here, but I see lots of promise in developments in the Middle East. But it’s a long game, and Americans are impatient for short-term success. It concerns me that some on the right are once again clamoring for war, this time against Iran. It concerns me that many believe that President Obama’s Middle East policies have failed, suggesting that we need to be either more aggressive or less engaged. I think we’re just where we should be – participating, but not taking point.
Benjamin Solomon Carson, Sr., is a retired neurosurgeon of astonishing accomplishment. At just 33 years old, he became the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In 1987, he led a team of surgeons through a 22-hour procedure to separate conjoined twins who had been joined at the back of the head – the first such successful separation.
On his retirement from surgical practice in 2013, Carson raised the possibility of a move to politics, but left the decision “in the hands of God.” And Dr. Carson did take up politics. In 2013, he began writing a weekly column for the Washington Times, and he has made himself a prominent presence on-line, at political events, and on the political talk shows. In 2014, the previously non-partisan Carson joined the Republican party as “a pragmatic measure” in preparation for the 2016 presidential campaign.
For the most part, Carson voices standard-issue Tea Party positions. “Law-abiding citizens,” for example, “should have every right to own all legal weapons.” He favors a flat tax – a fixed percentage of income to be paid by all income-earners – that he likens to a “tithe.” He rejects evolution, he compares liberalism to slavery and totalitarianism – and, of course, the Affordable Care Act is “the worst thing that has happened in this country since slavery.”
Dr. Carson made his assault on Obamacare at a national prayer breakfast in 2013, with President Obama sitting a few feet away. His speech was so political and so hostile to the sitting president that even Fox News contributors found it to be “inappropriate” to the event, and one said that Dr. Carson should apologize to President Obama. Carson’s defense was that “somebody has to be courageous enough to stand up to the bullies” – the President of the United States presumably being the “bully.” Then he said, “What I would like to see more often in this nation is an open and intelligent conversation, not people just casting aspersions at each other.”
Ben Carson is, not at all surprisingly, adamantly against same-sex marriage. As a Christian, he says, he loves all people, including gay people, and he wants gay couples to have all the rights of married couples – except for the marriage part. He was discussing this with Chris Cuomo on CNN yesterday morning. As the interview proceeded, it became apparent that Carson in effect blames gay people for their condition – prompting Cuomo to ask the obvious question: do you think that gay people choose to be gay?
Carson’s answer was unhesitating and unequivocal, and he repeated it when Cuomo restated the question: “Absolutely.”
Cuomo next asked Carson why he believed that, and here’s the thing you need to pay attention to. Here is the scientific mind at work, the wunderkind of brain surgery at Johns Hopkins: “many people go into prison straight — and when they come out [sic], they’re gay.”
I’ve never been to jail in my life, at least not as a prisoner – a couple of law school classes, a summer job, three terms as a judge, a few visits to see an in-law. I have actually met a couple of gay people who have been to jail, but all of them were gay when they got there. The huge majority of gay people I know have never been to jail, even for law school classes. I myself knew I was gay by the time I was 11 years old, well before prime imprisonment age.
By yesterday afternoon, controversy was a-swirl. Dr. Carson acknowledged that he did not actually know how every single person “came to their sexual orientation,” and he apologized to those he had offended – presumably, those of us who did not choose to become gay while doing time. He went so far as to acknowledge a theory that sexual orientation is genetically determined.
Remembering his base, Dr. Carson concluded by blaming the “liberal media” for the controversy: “every time I’m gaining momentum, the liberal press says, let’s talk about gay rights – and I’m just not going to fall for that anymore.” Still, he insisted, marriage is for one man and one woman: “We have something that’s worked just fine for thousands of years to create a nurturing environment for raising children, and I think that’s where we ought to leave it.”
The New York State Assembly has been in Democratic hands since the Democratic wave election of 1974. Since then, there have been five speakers of the Assembly. The current speaker, Sheldon Silver, has served more than half of that time, since 1994.
The list of New York Assembly speakers includes some great names, like Hamilton Fish II and Al Smith. But the list of speakers also includes some scoundrels, especially over the last 40 years.
Stanley Steingut was elected speaker in 1974, despite reports that he used his political connections to funnel money to his law firm and his two insurance firms. While speaker, Steingut was indicted by the Brooklyn district attorney on charges that he had promised a job in exchange for a contribution to his son’s New York City Council campaign. The indictment was ultimately dismissed on the ground that all of the alleged actions had occurred in Manhattan, and thus the Brooklyn D.A. lacked jurisdiction to prosecute. Although Steingut escaped criminal punishment, voters punished him at the polls, electing an insurgent to Steingut’s seat in 1978.
In 1991, Speaker Mel Miller was convicted of federal fraud charges related to a private real estate deal. He automatically lost his seat upon conviction, according to New York law, although his conviction was reversed on appeal. During his tenure, Miller vigorously opposed investigations into no-show jobs given to legislators’ friends, families and contributors, and actually asserted a violation of separation of powers when two legislators were indicted for paying campaign workers with state tax money.
Today, Assembly Speaker Silver was arrested on federal corruption charges alleging kickback and bribery schemes whereby Silver used his political and governmental power to feed business to allies in exchange for a hefty cut. This is on top of the income that Silver discloses, from the law firm of Weitz & Luxenburg. It has long been one of Albany’s great mysteries exactly what Silver does for the compensation he discloses. Silver himself maintains that Weitz & Luxenburg pays him to spend a few hours a week reviewing potential personal injury claims, referring those that “appear to have merit.”
New York State government is widely recognized as one of the most corrupt in the country, if not the most corrupt, and the power of the Assembly speaker is one of the keys to that corruption. The speaker is so powerful that law is not made in the sunlight, by legislators holding public hearings, but in back rooms – New York State government is famously run by “three men in a room” – the governor, the speaker and the majority leader of the Senate, cutting deals behind closed doors. Disclosure and transparency are minimal.
Another key to New York State’s corruption is gerrymandering. Legislative districts are drawn to minimize competition – each house of the legislature draws its own legislative lines. In a heavily Democratic state like New York, it takes no sleight of hand to ensure that the Democratic Assembly will remain Democratic. But the power of gerrymandering is proved in the Republican Senate – Republicans won control in 1938, and they have held it almost continuously ever since. Although voters adopted a provision last November that purported to reform the redistricting process, the measure was a “phony reform” that retains partisan control over redistricting.
Governor Andrew Cuomo ran on a platform of reform – as did one of his recent predecessors, Eliot Spitzer. Spitzer resigned after a prostitution scandal, having achieved no significant reform whatever during his 15 months in office.
Cuomo established a commission to investigate public corruption in 2013. The commission opened investigations into a number of state legislative leaders, including Speaker Silver, and Cuomo shut it down after less than a year. The United States Attorney in Manhattan responded by opening an investigation of his own – into the commission, into the commission’s investigative targets, and into Governor Cuomo’s alleged interference with the commission’s work.
It’s hard to say what it would take to clean up Albany if electing gubernatorial candidates who promise reform isn’t enough. Throwing the bums in jail one at a time hasn’t worked – we’ve been doing that for decades. Throwing Sheldon Silver in jail seems like a fine idea. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to believe that his successor won’t be just as corrupt as he is.
Same-sex marriage will become legal in Florida on January 5, making Florida the 36th marriage equality state.
On August 21, 2014, United States District Judge Robert Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction ordering Florida officials to stop enforcing Florida’s statutory and constitutional ban against same-sex marriage. A preliminary injunction is issued pending the conclusion of a case, when the plaintiffs show that they are likely to win the case. Even though Judge Hinkle’s injunction was only preliminary, his ruling clearly stated his conclusion that marriage equality is required by the United States Constitution, which supersedes contrary provisions of state law.
Judge Hinkle stayed his injunction until January 5, to allow for appeals. The state officials asked the federal Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to extend the stay, but the Court of Appeals refused, on December 3. The state officials then asked the Supreme Court to extend the stay, but that court refused also, on December 19, with only Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissenting.
With the state’s options exhausted, Judge Hinkle’s stay will expire on January 5, his preliminary injunction will go into effect, and same-sex marriage will become legal across the state of Florida, the third most populous state in the country. On January 5, more than 70 percent of Americans will live in marriage equality jurisdictions.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court at its conference session on January 9 will consider whether to hear appeals from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. On November 6, 2014, that court upheld same-sex marriage bans in four states, setting the stage for the Supreme Court to rule, once and for all, that marriage equality is constitutionally required.
In September 1933, a Cuban army sergeant named Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar led a coup against the Cuban government that was called the Revolt of the Sergeants. For the next seven years, Batista exercised effective control of the Cuban government. Then in 1940, he promulgated a progressive constitution and won popular election as president of Cuba under that constitution.
Batista carried out social and economic reforms, advancing health care and promoting labor unions, earning him the support of Cuba’s nascent Communist Party. But Batista’s constitution limited him to a single four-year term as president, and his hand-picked candidate to succeed him lost the 1944 election.
Batista ran for president again in 1952. Trailing badly in three-way race, Batista engineered another coup and resumed the presidency. His second time around, Batista was no progressive. Although Cuba as a whole did well economically, inequality was severe. Batista was the first non-white Cuban president, and perhaps for that reason, he badly wanted the approval of Cuba’s economic elite. When Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was asked to assess the second Batista government for the Eisenhower Administration, he concluded, with considerable prescience:
“The corruption of the Government, the brutality of the police, the government’s indifference to the needs of the people for education, medical care, housing, for social justice and economic justice … is an open invitation to revolution.”
Batista cultivated a corrupt relationship with American organized crime running gambling, prostitution and drug operations in Cuba. John Kennedy, during the 1960 presidential campaign, condemned Batista’s regime and the Eisenhower administration’s support for it:
“Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in seven years … and he turned Democratic Cuba into a complete police state – destroying every individual liberty. Yet our aid to his regime, and the ineptness of our policies, enabled Batista to invoke the name of the United States in support of his reign of terror. Administration spokesmen publicly praised Batista – hailed him as a staunch ally and a good friend – at a time when Batista was murdering thousands, destroying the last vestiges of freedom, and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the Cuban people, and we failed to press for free elections.”
The revolution predicted by Schlesinger was led by Fidel Castro, who took power on January 8, 1959, a week after Batista fled to exile in Portugal, granted asylum by the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar.
Castro’s revolution was followed by several waves of Cuban emigration to the United States, mostly to the Miami area. Many of the first emigrants, who included large numbers of the social and economic elites that Batista had courted, hoped to be able to return home soon, and worked hard to make it so.
In July 1960, the American government responded to confiscation of some American-owned properties by reducing the import quota for Cuban brown sugar. The Soviet Union promptly promised to buy the excess sugar. Economic sanctions escalated to embargo three months later, and the embargo has been strengthened by a series of executive and legislative acts, most recently the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000.
The American embargo has earned worldwide opposition. Every year since 1992, the United Nations General Assembly has adopted resolutions condemning the embargo as a violation of international law and the UN Charter. In recent years, of all the nations in the world only Israel has joined the United States in opposing these resolutions.
Disproportionately influenced by the Cuban-American voting bloc in the large electoral swing state of Florida, American presidents and would-be presidents have been almost entirely unwilling to take on the embargo, or the broader issue of American-Cuban relations. Cuban-Americans are free to send money called “remittances” to family members in Cuba, and to travel to Cuba, but any suggestion that American tourist travel to Cuba be allowed, or that the trade embargo be loosened, is met by widespread Cuban-American condemnation: American trade and tourism would provide the money needed to keep the Castro regime in power. Curiously, Cuban-American remittances and travel to Cuba aren’t said to have the same effect.
Cuban-American immigrants are aging, and their children and grandchildren do not share their anti-Castro animus. American attitudes as a whole have softened toward Cuba.
President Obama announced yesterday the resumption of normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, and he asked Congress to lift the economic embargo. He said that after 50 years of shunning Cuba without any benefit to show for it, we should try something else.
American standards for establishing and maintaining diplomatic relations are not, and should not be, especially strict. Today, we lack diplomatic relations only with Bhutan, Iran, and North Korea. Neither democratic self-government nor respect for human rights has been a pre-condition for diplomatic relations with the United States. After all, we have embassies in Belarus, in Vietnam, in China, in Sudan, in Venezuela, in Saudi Arabia, in Russia.
Karl Marx said that capitalism is a natural stage of development on the way to socialism, but I think he may have had it backwards. The moral justification for capitalism is the notion that we compete on a level playing field and succeed or fail entirely according to our own merits. But if the playing field is not level, and we succeed or fail in large measure according to the circumstances of our birth, capitalism loses moral legitimacy.
Castro’s Cuba has leveled its playing field in many respects, so that capitalism could succeed now in a way that it could not under Batista. I don’t want to diminish in any way the Cuban government’s abuse of its people, but the fact is that Cubans enjoy universal education and universal medical care. The Cuban literacy rate is 99.8 percent, comparable to the American literacy rate of 99 percent. Cuban life expectancy is 79.4 years, comparable to Americans’ 79.8 years – and Cubans spend a mere fraction on health care of what we spend.
Anti-Cuban sanctions have a history of fuzzy rationale. Initially intended to punish Castro for confiscating American property, sanctions have variously been held up as means to turn Castro away from the Soviet Union, achieve regime change in Cuba, moderate Castro’s anti-American actions abroad, and enhance Cuban civil rights. Throughout, though, the suspicion has hung in the air that the real purpose of the sanctions was to court the votes of Florida’s anti-Castro Cuban-Americans.
News reports yesterday and today showed popular celebration in Havana – the Cuban people are overjoyed at President Obama’s news. Especially if we are going to preach the gospel of democracy, we should trust the Cuban people to know what is in their interests, and stop worrying about whether a decent respect for Cuba helps or hurts the Castro regime.