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Monday, December 26, 2011

ERIC HOLDER'S WAR ON STATES


The Department of Justice, under Attorney General Eric Holder is fast becoming the most activist anti-state Justice Department in modern history. Supposedly guided by the responsibility to uphold federal law and the Constitution, the Holder Department in recent lawsuits filed against individual states attorney's general is arguably motivated more by ideology and politics. As of November 23, Utah became the latest of four states which are the targets of the Justice Department over state laws related to illegal immigration within their boundaries. The others are South Carolina, Alabama and Arizona.

These states, have found themselves dealing with significant financial, education, health and criminal justice issues resulting from large numbers of illegal immigrants who have entered the countries porous southern borders. The scandal of ineptitude and lack of political leadership by the Obama Administration with regard to border enforcement and the current estimated 12-14 million illegal immigrants residing in the U.S. is well known. The Obama Administration's reluctance to anger open border interest groups within the Democrat Party such as labor unions and Hispanic advocacy groups has led state's legislatures who are most affected, to pass laws similar to the federal laws which are not being enforced. Arizona led the effort by requiring state and local law enforcement officers to verify the immigration status of persons whom they came in contact with over other suspected violations of the law. Other states passed similar laws on the Arizona model even though the Arizona law has been partially enjoined by a federal court while it wends its way through the federal court system which will eventually lead to a judgment by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Justice Department is currently reviewing similar immigration laws which were passed in Georgia and Indiana. The Utah law requires people to “prove their citizenship” if arrested for serious crimes and allows police to check the citizenship of those arrested for lesser offenses.

Alabama has passed what most observers see as the most restrictive anti-illegal immigrant law. It contains provisions which require public schools to verify the immigration status of enrolling K-12 students and disallows enrollment of illegal aliens in state colleges and universities.

The Justice Department says that the federal government has the sole authority over immigration issues and such state legislation “usurps” that federal authority. It further asserts that the state's laws could “potentially”, “lead to”, harassment and detention of U.S. citizens and authorized visitors.

While the Department says it “welcomes” state and local “support” of federal law, when state's legislatures step into the vacuum of federal enforcement to facilitate such “support” the Administration makes a political statement by seeking to block the state's efforts in federal court. Not surprisingly, the government of Mexico has issued a statement in support of the Justice Department's lawsuits.

It is clear that states have a fundamental interest in enforcement of the federal immigration laws since they bear the costs of lack of such enforcement and federal courts should find such support compatible with federal laws and thus constitutional even if some revisions need to be made. Hypothetical effects of “potential” harassment should carry no weight since hypothetical effects are endless and actual cases of harassment can be litigated if and when they ever happen.

South Carolina, a reliable “red state” and its newly elected Republican governor, Nikki Haley, seems to be an appealing target for Attorney General Holder. While the immigration lawsuit goes on, his Office of Civil Rights has, under authority granted to it by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, rejected recently passed state legislation which requires voters to provide a photo ID at the polling place. South Carolina has a large black population, who are themselves reliable votes for Democrat candidates. Holder's Justice Department claims that the photo ID requirement discriminates against these minority voters because they are “20% more likely” than white voters to lack such identification. Under the Voting Rights Act, several southern states with a history of voting rights abuses against black voters, must gain Department of Justice approval for any legislation which might change voting opportunities for minorities. However, this action by the Office of Civil Rights lacks credibility on several fronts.

The requirement applies to all voters; photo IDs are required for many transactions nation wide i.e. credit card purchases, airline boarding passes, driving privileges, etc. Voting fraud is a reality as evidenced by numerous Illinois scandals in the past and the recent defunding of liberal advocacy group Acorn which was found to be registering fictitious voters. The South Carolina law accepts five different types of photo ID for voting purposes including a free one which can be obtained from the state especially for use in voting. Thus most registered voters will have one and anyone can obtain one.

Twenty states have similar laws and eight states have recently passed them. Besides South Carolina, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama fall under the requirements of the 1965 Civil Rights Law. The Georgia and Indiana photo ID laws have received federal court approval. The Indiana case, which was a lawsuit brought by liberal advocacy groups, went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court in a 6-3 vote (2008) found that the law was “not unconstitutional and that the state has a valid interest in improving election procedures as well as deterring fraud.” The Court rejected the same claims now being made by the Department of Justice in the South Carolina case, that the poor, the old and minorities would be disadvantaged. Indeed, liberal Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (now retired) wrote an opinion in support of the Indiana law and rejected claims that the law was an invalid political maneuver by Republicans. “The justifications for the law should not be disregarded simply because partisan interests may have provided one motivation for the votes of individual legislators.” As in the recently passed South Carolina law, the Indiana law provides for a free government issued photo ID if registered voters lack one of the more common ones.

In the face of this powerful precedent, it is hard to explain why the Holder Justice Department has rejected the South Carolina law, which will almost certainly be appealed to the federal courts. The only explanation for both this and the immigration law suits must be that the Obama/Holder Justice Department has become a campaign tool and is trying to energize the liberal Democrat base for the 2012 presidential election.

Friday, December 9, 2011

THE PRIMARY SYSTEM: TIME FOR A CHANGE?





In August Michelle Bachmann won the Iowa Republican presidential nomination “straw poll”.  Political commentators and media pundits were effusive while bestowing on her the “front runner” label. Howard Fineman, then of Newsweek and currently of the Huffington Post, advised candidate Newt Gingrich, now leading polls in Iowa and nationally, to quit the race after only winning 385 of the 16,674 votes cast, and because of her status of “front runner”, Bachmann appeared on all five of the Sunday morning political talk shows after the poll. This is because it has long been part of the media's political lore that the winner of the Iowa caucuses, which follow the straw poll five months later, and are the nation's first nominee selection process, has a major advantage in subsequent contests.


While it is understandable, though unfortunate, that the news hungry media inflates the importance of this early exercise, in reality it makes no sense. A few statistics show why.
Iowa has a total population of approximately 3 million or about 1.1 times the size of the city of Chicago. It is 91.3% white and 38.9% live in rural areas. An estimated 37%-40% of Republican voters in Iowa self identify as religious evangelicals. This pushes the political debate and campaign style of the candidates away from the most important issues and towards the so called “social” or “value” issues on which the president has little influence (abortion; gay marriage; school prayer; evolution). 


In 2008, John McCain, the eventual Republican nominee, won just 13.1% of the total 118,696 Republican caucus votes cast in January of that year. Clearly Iowa voters are in no way representative of the national electorate.
“Judd Saul, founder of the Cedar Valley Tea Party who considers himself a member of the Christian right said he was more concerned with “values than perceived electability”. "We live in a society where everyone judges talent. We sit in our living rooms and watch American Idol, and we become a society that judges what is talent," he said. "We're looking at people for the wrong principals."

In other words he thinks competency for the most important political position in the world should be subordinate to the personal values of the voter. He said he was not alone in his beliefs. "The really hardcore right is hardcore Santorum," he said.

Recently the Rev. Cary K. Gordon, a Sioux City evangelical leader who was prominent in the defeat of three Iowa Supreme Court justices over gay marriage, endorsed Rick Santorum. Santorum's appeal is almost entirely based on his inflexible opposition to abortion under any circumstances. Santorum is currently polling in Iowa at 5.1% and nationally at 3.3%. While this is not significant, the three most socially conservative candidates who brandish their fundamentalist religious views in Iowa as campaign strategies, Santorum, Bachmann and Perry, all in single digits individually, are polling at a collective 21% of the vote thus distorting the process. A November New York Times/CBS poll of Iowa's evangelicals found that only 10% of would consider voting for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for no other reason than he is a Mormon, a religion that Mormons themselves say is a Christian belief system. These intolerant voters are either ignorant of, or choose to ignore, the fact that there are currently six Mormons serving in the U.S. Senate and nine Mormons serving in the US. House of Representatives from both parties, all with no apparent negative effect on the quality of their service or the moral character of the nation. Outside Iowa, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 75 percent of Republicans nationwide said “it does not matter one way or another if a candidate for president is a Mormon”. This is another indication that the Iowa caucuses have diminished relevance to the national election in November where voters are more concerned with economic issues and the intelligence, knowledge and leadership qualities of the candidates. 


Even current front runner, Newt Gingrich, a recent convert to Catholicism, who has lead what some observers might describe as a “secular” lifestyle, has felt compelled to join the anti-abortion, anti- gay rights campaign style. Gingrich now says that “marriage should be between a man and a woman”, or in Gingrich's case, three women. 


The situation in New Hampshire doesn't get much better. While a more secular state, New Hampshire has the nation's first primary (vs. caucus). The importance of a win or second place showing in New Hampshire is a well established but nonsensical fact. The population of New Hampshire is approximately 1,316,000 or just 44% of Iowa's. It is 93% white and only 18% of the population reside in the three cities with populations over 30,000. New Hampshire is a really nice place to visit but as a tiny rural enclave it's role in the presidential primary selection process is clearly over emphasized.


It has been a common observation among the punditocracy that wins in Iowa, New Hampshire and a strong showing in South Carolina by any candidate means that the nomination battle “is over”. Even if those were the actual results for one of the candidates, and might indeed shift momentum and money raising efforts, it would at best be a self fulfilling prophecy and at worst a major distortion of the electoral process. The marathon primary battle in 2008 between Obama and Hillary Clinton, while it did not follow this scenario, showed the importance of the voters in the later primaries.
In their race to be “important” by staging early contests, the four states with January caucuses or primaries (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida) select only 115 total delegates out of the total of 2,066 who cast votes at the Republican convention in August. The idea that three of these or even all four should decide the nominee even if one candidate wins all, is ridiculous.
The primary process lasts until June 26th when Utah has the final primary. Eleven states have primaries on March 6th and the four largest states (Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, California) with a total of 494 delegates or 23.9% of the total, have primaries from March 6th to June 5th


The “horse race” competition created by the media and the pandering to small under-representative constituencies to the possible exclusion of large numbers voters in other states could be eliminated by establishing a single, nation wide primary/caucus date. This procedure works well in some Western European nations and by scheduling such a primary in the Spring or early Summer, it would provide plenty of time for candidates to be thoroughly vetted and avoid the wasting of resources by over spending in the early states with single issue or non-typical constituencies.


It would also open the process to credible candidates who don't appeal to narrow constituencies in the current early primary states or because of low initial name identification, need more time to develop support. Current candidate John Huntsman falls into this category and several other credible Republicans including New Jersey Governor Chris Christy, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour might well have taken a serious look if they felt the campaign would be an appeal to voters nation wide.


Primaries and caucuses are essentially the “property” of state party committees and any effort to persuade them to join a single national primary would be difficult, especially in those states who somehow see some kind of prestige in being “first” or “early”. But some progress was made in this direction by the establishment of the so called “super Tuesday” primaries conducted by eleven states on March 6th of 2012. It would be a significant improvement to the important presidential selection process to diminish the influence of the pundits, press and small and early states and allow full participation in the nominating process by the same voters who will select the President.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

IRAN: TIME AND OPTIONS RUNNING OUT

     
Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, the theocratic state that emerged has been a dangerous international outlaw in a dangerous, unstable region. In recent years it has sought to become the dominant regional player by supporting religious fundamentalist/terrorist factions in perennially unstable Lebanon (Hezbollah), in the breakaway Palestinian territory Gaza (Hamas), and anti-government, anti-U.S. militias in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also has sought to divide the Arab world by cultivating an ally in Syria and taking a hostile stance towards Saudi Arabia.

Over the last few years, while developing the capacity to develop nuclear weapons, it has spurned all efforts by the international community, acting through the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to inspect and verify its claims that its nuclear program was exclusively for domestic energy purposes.

The international response to Iran's intransigence via the United Nations has been low key rhetoric about the "unacceptable" nature of their “research” program and a series of minimal and ineffective economic sanctions. Now the Iranian government has once again demonstrated its disdain for international standards of behavior and universally accepted international law, by fomenting an attack on the British embassy in Teheran. President Obama's reaction to the assault was: he was "deeply disturbed".

After the futility and naivete of Obama’s attempt to “extend the hand of friendship” to this pariah state, this latest demonstration of aggression, following the latest IAEA report, demands a continuing, serious, and robust international effort beyond what has been implemented, to make Iran’s religious leadership aware that they have reached the limits of hostility and intransigence versus the West.

The proximate cause of the attack on the British embassy was the imposition of the most recent economic sanctions on Iran by the British government in relation to Iran’s nuclear program and the above mentioned report by the IAEA that Iran was conducting nuclear computer tests with military applicability, and then,yet another rejection by Iran of the UN’s demand that inspectors be allowed to evaluate their nuclear program.

The Iranian government's nuclear development program has been on going since approximately 2002-2003. Repeated demands by Western nations and the UN for inspections have been rebuffed. Only after years of stalemate on this issue has pressure in the form of economic sanctions been applied. Attempts to impose economic sanctions that would be in theory, universally applicable through the UN Security Council, have proved difficult because of the opposition of China and Russia, both of whom have a veto. Thus, on the UN level, only weak sanctions have been possible. The latest effort, UNSC Resolution 1929, passed in 2010, only extends a ban on armaments and on economic transactions specifically related to nuclear weapons technology.

Outside the UN, the U.S, Canada and the European Union have adopted more rigorous economic sanctions relating first to banking relationships and financial transactions, and then with the the passage by, the U.S. Congress in 2010 of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, which contains the earlier proposed Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act of 2009. These provisions are the most punitive sanctions implemented so far in any venue. Iran, which is the world's fourth largest petroleum producer, has limited refining capability and thus imports roughly 40% of it's refined products i.e. gasoline, diesel, heating oil. Unfortunately, although the U.S. has influence over some of the world's refining entities, U.S. law does not apply directly to the major suppliers of Iran's refined product needs. Approximately 80% of Iran's imports come from two Dutch based energy companies.


Iran remains defiant and with the protection of Russia and China in the Security Council, the weak UN sanctions and even the more robust U.S., EU and Canadian sanctions are simply painful inconveniences. Thus the problem of finding a workable strategy on the part of those seriously concerned about the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran remains.


The conventional wisdom regarding the efficacy of economic sanctions in pursuit of their primary goal, the modification of the target state's behavior, in this case, the acquisition of nuclear weapons, is that they don't work. The fundamental reason for this, especially with regards to general trade embargoes, is that there are always non-complying nations and entities that continue to trade in essential goods with the target state. In the case of Iran, numerous states fall into this category. However, this does not mean that economic sanctions directed at Iran should be be abandoned. Iran is still several years away from having an operational nuclear weapon and a viable delivery system. Meaningful sanctions impose a cost on Iran and send a message of broad consensus among the world's leading economic powers and four (U.S., France, UK, Israel) of the current nine (Russia, China, Pakistan, India, N. Korea) nuclear weapons states that Iran will continue to pay a price if it achieves nuclear weapons status as well as being the target of enhanced military deterrence strategies.






Critics of economic sanction policies always complain that they impose harsh conditions on “innocent” civilian populations and not the governing authorities and are thus unjust and ineffective. But this is a flawed position. It is not possible to separate the political authorities of a nation and the general population into two distinct and opposing groups. The Iranian revolution and take over of the U.S. embassy and the resulting hostage crisis in 1979 itself, demonstrated the public support for the new anti-west, anti-liberal theocratic government. A weak reformist political movement which has since developed does not have the support of the full Iranian population as the recent take over and ransacking of the British embassy makes obvious. Economic sanctions make clear to the general population that the policies of the government are unacceptable to the international community and place them in danger of more harmful circumstances that could easily spin out of control. 
 
Economic sanctions are an alternative to military action and thus more acceptable to the international community and less harmful to the target nation's general population. In the current situation, the prospect of failed economic pressure and diplomatic isolation could lead directly to a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities and a regional war. Thus the imposition of even more punitive economic sanctions becomes a last resort to a major regional crisis with potentially devastating consequences. 
 
The main weaknesses in the economic sanctions efforts remain China and Russia. China is aggressively engaging Iran in a rapidly growing trade and investment relationship with Iran as a major purchaser of Iranian oil and investor in Iranian energy development. Bilateral trade was $30 billion in 2010 and is estimated to grow to $50 billion by 2015. Russian bilateral trade was only $2 billion in 2010 but will grow rapidly as Russia provides nuclear technology, oil and gas equipment and consumer goods. Russian energy giant Lukoil, in conjunction with China's Zhuhai Zhenrong energy company have recently completed a huge sale of refined petroleum to Iran in opposition to the West's refined products embargo on Iran. 
 
While the depth of these economic relationships make cooperation on economic sanctions against Iran problematic, negotiating efforts could still possibly produce some progress. Obama made a major concession to Russia when he abandoned the Bush administration's plan to build a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic as a defense against the future development of Iranian long range ballistic missiles. Russia was vehemently opposed to this plan and Obama could have used it as leverage to negotiate Russian cooperation on Iran. Instead the abandonment of the plan in 2009 without conditions, had the look of Obama's simplistic “reset” of the U.S. relationship with Russia. Now Obama has announced a modified plan to place interceptor missiles capable only of destroying Iran's intermediate range missiles in Romania and Poland along with an early warning radar system in Turkey. Russia is now threatening to target these facilities unless concessions are made with respect to their operation and control. This again provides an opportunity to negotiate a modification of Russia's position with respect to Iran if Obama should take it. An aggressive and nuclear armed Islamic theocracy on its border should also be a significant concern to Russia who somehow finds an American/European anti-missile shield on its borders to be a security threat.


Additionally, since Russia and China's reluctance to join in deterring Iran from becoming a nuclear power is primarily based on Iran's petroleum and gas resources, there is built in contradiction with the prospect of the military strike end game. Israel is preparing for such a strike, Obama says it is “on the table”, and all the credible Republican presidential candidates say it is the last option. Such an attack would in all probability result in counter strikes by Iran and then secondary strikes by Israel or even the U.S. Such a scenario could have a huge impact on the availability of Iran's oil supplies and investment opportunities in that sector. As the prospect for military action becomes greater it would be in both Russia and China's interests to persuade Iran to pursue another course. 
 
This is the most serious foreign policy issue currently facing the U.S. and the Middle East region. Robust diplomacy based on increasingly coercive measures seems to be the only course available as simple persuasive diplomacy based on reason has been consistently rejected by Iran. The U.S. is not without leverage with both Russia and China and it is important that President Obama engage in that effort.