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Monday, July 28, 2014

GAZA: DISARMAMENT; THE UNDERLYING REQUIREMENT


Cease fires come and go.  They are short term solutions to the limited objectives of ending destruction and death.  While this is an important issue, the longer term solution to the conflict between Israel and the political/terrorist organization Hamas in Gaza, cannot be ignored.  Indeed, extended cease fire agreements will in all probability actually extend the conflict by allowing Hamas to reorganize and rearm, while enjoying the glow of victimhood spread by many in the international community and media, over the disproportionate levels of  destruction and casualties which the Palestinian residents of Gaza have endured.  Of course the sympathizers in Europe and the Middle East choose to ignore the fact that Hamas, who governs Gaza, has imposed the violence on its own citizens by continuing its pointless attacks on the state of Israel and its civilian population through terrorist attacks and barrages of thousands of rockets.
These attacks are nothing new.  Israel voluntarily ended its occupation of Gaza in 2005.  In 2007 Hamas won political control , militarily ousted the Palestinian Authority’s governing party Fatah, and escalated  a sustained assault on Israel territory with rockets and terrorist attacks. In 2008 Israel responded with a ground invasion of Gaza in an attempt to neutralize Hama’s military capability.  The invasion ended with a cease fire agreement, the problem did not.
In 2012, another Israeli operation was carried out in response to Hamas attacks. After eight days a ceasefire was declared. Hamas rearmed.

Now in 2014, international pressure is being applied to Israel to once again agree to a cease fire which the proponents say, could lead to renewed negotiations for a broader peace settlement.  Some in the Israeli government argue correctly that such a cease fire without the demilitarization of Hamas would simply produce the same outcome as the earlier cease fire agreements which was the rearming of Hamas and the rebuilding of its infrastructure, including cross border tunnels,  in preparation for a new round of rocket and terrorist attacks. 
 
In essence, cease fires are attempts to treat the symptoms of the immediate problem of armed conflict and resultant civilian casualties but as recent history shows, the underlying obstacle to peace negotiations remains in place.  That is the existence of a militant and militarily capable force which rejects the whole concept of a peace settlement based on a two state solution.
Here are relevant excerpts from the founding Charter of Hamas (a.k.a the Islamic Resistance.)

“The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that “the land of Palestine” has been an Islamic Waqf “(an Islamic endowment of property to be held in trust and used for a charitable or religious purpose.) throughout the generations and until the Day of Resurrection, no one can renounce it or part of it, or abandon it or part of it.” “The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them)”;

 “Peace initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement. For renouncing any part of Palestine means renouncing part of the religion; nationalism of the Islamic Resistance Movement is part of its faith, the movement educates its members to adhere to its principles and to raise the banner of Allah over their homeland as they fight their Jihad: "

 “ There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad. The initiatives, proposals and International Conferences are but a waste of time, an exercise in futility.”

 
Thus, as is widely recognized, Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and is committed to Israel’s destruction.  Neither does Hamas recognize the legitimacy of international diplomacy as a process to reach the only final settlement possible and the one accepted by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank which is a two state solution. 

 Cease fires as “time outs” in never ending episodes of armed attacks on the state of Israel by Hamas and its equally intransigent and hostile client, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and its military wing, the al-Quds Brigade will lead no where.

 The existence of Hamas as the controlling political authority in Gaza with its 1.8 million residents, has undermined long term peace negotiations for years.  Israel found it impossible to accept commitments from a Palestinian government that was divided into two opposing entities, one committed to Israel’s destruction.  On April 23, 2014 the Fatah  led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank territory signed an agreement with the Hamas government in Gaza to form a unity government.  Israel then terminated peace negotiations led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, saying that agreements with a government which included a terrorist entity would not be possible.  Nonetheless, on June 2, 2014 the Palestinian Authority did form a unity government which included five ministers from Gaza. 

 The U.S. and the European Union both stated that they would continue to work with the new Palestinian Authority government, a position harshly condemned by the government of Israel.   Both the positions of the U.S. and EU  were based on the acceptance of assurances by Palestinian Authority President Abbas that that the deal did not contradict their commitment to peace with Israel on the basis of a two-state solution and[that the unity government would recognize Israel, be non-violent, and be bound to previous PLO agreements.

 srael ridiculed the U.S acceptance of these “assurances” as naïve.  Events which soon followed support the Israeli position.  In mid-June three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinians from Gaza.  The Israeli response was swift and resulted in the deaths of several Palestinians. Hamas’ military wing commenced a rocket barrage and later declared that “all Israelis were legitimate targets”.

 To underscore the meaninglessness of President Abbas’s assurances regarding the continuing goal of a two state solution by the new “unity government”, on July 27, 2014 the leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaad appeared on NBC’s Face the Nation and said that he would not recognize Israel’s right to exist. Separately, a spokesman for Hama’s military wing, the Qassam Brigades, rejected the idea of a cease fire.


 

 Thus it is becoming clear that the Israeli prior conditions on a solution to the Gaza crisis and long term peace negotiations is a basic truth;  Hamas and its affiliated terrorist organizations, must be disarmed and Hamas’ political organization must accept the Israeli state as a permanent entity as has the larger Palestinian Authority under President Abbas. This position received significant support on July 22 when the twenty-eight foreign ministers of the European Union called for the “disarmament of Hamas and other militant groups in the Gaza Strip. The statement, which was issued at the end of the monthly meeting of the Council of the European Union, included a strong condemnation of Hamas for its rocket fire and for using the civilian population as human shields.”

 Unfortunately, and unlike the EU foreign ministers,  Obama fails to see the importance  of this simple fact to both the on going crisis in Gaza and the restarting of comprehensive peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.  His stated position  on July, 28, 2014 was that the “disarming of Gaza terrorist groups would only take place within the context of a formal overall Israeli-Palestinian agreement.” 

But unless Hamas and the other terrorist groups residing in Gaza are disarmed, Israel will continue to be attacked, will continue to respond, civilians on both sides will continue to be killed  and there will be no negotiations for a “formal overall” agreement.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

IRAQ: NOW A REGIONAL CRISIS


As Americans watched the World Cup soccer games, the Wimbledon tennis tournament and the interesting but less exciting nomination battles leading up to the 2014 congressional elections, there was a strange lack of serious discussion about yet another significant regional political and military crisis.  The breakdown of political order in the Middle East which initiated  the “Arab Spring”  overthrew the old order of authoritarian governments in Tunisia Egypt, Libya, and Egypt and falsely heralded, as the media inspired label implies, a new Middle Eastern paradigm of representative government and nascent democracy.  But the reality of tribal and sectarian conflict killed democracy in its crib and naïve Western visions of new national unity in these states vaporized in as the internal conflicts became more violent.  Nowhere was historic reality more ignored than in Iraq and Afghanistan where the wartime strategies of the U.S. and an array of allies, morphed into a hopeless belief in “nation building”. 

The failure of the “elected” government in Iraq to address the severe sectarian divide in terms of political inclusion and the benefits which flow from the central authority, left the state in a tinder box condition.  In simple terms, the Shi’ite majority felt no responsibility towards the Sunni minority which had enjoyed power and privilege for decades under the reign of Saddam Hussein.

The Sunni minority expressed their opposition to the Shi’ite government by almost daily bomb attacks on government facilities, police and civilian Shi’ite populations after the American withdrawal , but the tinder box was lit by the civil war which broke out in neighboring Syria in 2011 after peaceful protests similar to the Arab Spring revolts were put down by military force.  The resulting militarization of the conflict resulted in the fragmentation of the forces opposed to Bashar Assad’s government.  Once again the conflict is based on sectarian divisions.  The Assad regime is a minority Alawite  government which represents only 12% of the Syrian population. The rest are predominately Sunni’s.  Alawites are a sect with theological connections to Shi’ism and thus Assad found support from Shi’ite Iran.

The Sunni based opposition forces attracted militant extremists from across the Middle East who formed separate and competing armed militias.

Thus the Syrian conundrum faced by President Obama was whether to supply military aid to the insurgency which might then fall into the hands of extremists groups who would then represent a threat to regional stability, or to stand by and let the Assad regime continue its brutal suppression of the insurgency and the civilian population.  Obama’s indecisiveness and ineptness in the early stages of the revolt when “moderate” Sunni forces were leading the effort, no doubt contributed to the escalation of the violence and the radicalization of the opposition forces.  Obama’s famous “red line” threat and retreat in the face of Assad’s use of chemical weapons on the civilian population turned the conflict first into a stalemate and then into the government’s advantage.  This early equivocation allowed Russia’s President Putin to score a diplomatic coup by negotiating a phased removal of Assad’s chemical stock pile.  It thus encouraged the regionalization of the war by bringing in radical Islamist elements and energizing the domestic radical Sunnis.

Now the most radical Sunni militias whose extremism exceeds the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have coalesced into a quasi-military force which has gained control of important sections of northern Sysria and have spread across the western border of Iraq.  It has declared itself a modern version of the 7th Century Islamic caliphate which swept across the Middle East.

As preposterous as this sounds, the underlying facts of such an extremist group gaining control  of large sections of Syria and Iraq presents serious problems for other states in the region and for the expansion of international terrorism.

The magnified threat this group poses is based on the differences between it and its former affiliation with the terrorist Al-Qaeda network which has evolved into loosely affiliated separate terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which now has become The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) then the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant  (ISIL); and which now has taken the name of simply The Islamic State.  Unlike AQI, the Islamic State has defined itself as a regional political entity.  It seeks control of trans-national territory and has had significant success in northern Syria and most dramatically in Iraq.

The chronology of its success is striking:

In March, 2013 it occupied the Syrian provincial capital of Raqqa.

In January 2014 it took over the Iraqi city of Fallujah.

Since then it has partially occupied the Iraqi provincial capital of Ramadi.

On June 10, 2014, Iraq’s third largest city Mosul fell to ISIS.

Currently, the forces of the Islamic State are within 50 miles of the capital of Baghdad.

A failure of the current Shi’ite government in Iraq and the occupation of large portions of the nation by the Islamic State would produce a multi-party civil war between the radical Islamists, the Shi’ite majority, tribal based Sunnis and the Kurds who currently control the Northeast portion of Iraq.

This is the medium term bad news.  In the longer term, a successful consolidation of the Islamic State in northern Syria and Iraq would present the Western world with another terrorist state with significant oil based wealth.  The inherent regional instability this would cause would stimulate irregular energy markets including higher prices as well as security threats.  The Islamic State’s publicly announced regional territorial ambitions should be taken seriously. After consolidation in Syria and Iraq it should be expected that the more moderate and Western oriented governments of Syria’s border states Lebanon and Jordan would be at risk. 

The Islamic State’s military is not exceptionally large but it is well equipped with weapons, captured from Syria and U.S. weapons provided to and captured from,  the Iraqi military.  While assistance to the current government in Iraq is problematic the fundamental issue is one of supporting the lessor evil.  It is widely recognized that the vulnerability of Iraq is partially due to the unwillingness of the Maliki  government to extend participation and equity to the large but minority Sunni population.  This has caused an attitude of indifference or actual support among this population for the Islamic State’s forces as they move south across Iraq.  Prime Minister Maliki is being pressured by the U.S. and elements of the international community to form a more inclusive government or even to resign but so far has resisted both efforts.  However these are medium term political efforts which will take time to produce any positive effect.  The military occupation of more and more Iraqi territory won’t wait for difficult political solutions. 

As usual in international security crises, European nations are indecisive and lack the initiative to take robust action, preferring to let the U.S. take the lead.  This allows them political cover from any backlash by Islamic entities and domestic political cover from potential casualties or large defense expenditures.  Unfortunately, President Obama prefers to “lead from behind”, an oxymoron which in this case translates into doing the minimum and hoping for some unforeseen positive outcome. While nobody is leading from the front, and the Islamic State  advances on Baghdad, he has emphatically stated that American ground troops will not be reintroduced into Iraq.  This is typical Obama rhetoric since no credible member of Congress has suggested such a response.  Instead, Obama’s response is simply political posturing. 

At a recent news conference Obama outlined his “response” to the military crisis in Iraq.

As I said last week, ISIL poses a threat to the Iraqi people, to the region, and to U.S. interests.  So today I wanted to provide you an update on how we’re responding to the situation.’

First, we are working to secure our embassy and personnel operating inside of Iraq. 

Second, at my direction, we have significantly increased our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets so that we’ve got a better picture of what’s taking place inside of Iraq. 

 Third, the United States will continue to increase our support to Iraqi security forces.  We’re prepared to create joint operation centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq to share intelligence and coordinate planning to confront the terrorist threat of ISIL.  Through our new Counterterrorism Partnership Fund, we’re prepared to work with Congress to provide additional equipment.  We have had advisors in Iraq through our embassy, and we’re prepared to send a small number of additional American military advisors -- up to 300 -- to assess how we can best train, advise, and support Iraqi security forces going forward.

Fourth, in recent days, we’ve positioned additional U.S. military assets in the region.  Because of our increased intelligence resources, we’re developing more information about potential targets associated with ISIL.  And going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action, if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.  If we do, I will consult closely with Congress and leaders in Iraq and in the region.

I want to emphasize, though, that the best and most effective response to a threat like ISIL will ultimately involve partnerships where local forces, like Iraqis, take the lead. 

Finally, the United States will lead a diplomatic effort to work with Iraqi leaders and the countries in the region to support stability in Iraq.

In summary, President Obama’s response to the creation of a radical Islamist state in parts of Syria and Iraq  is to; protect the U.S. embassy; increase reconnaissance; send 300 “advisors” to “train and support” the Iraqi army after eight years of training and equipping that very army; send an additional aircraft carrier and two cruisers to the Persian Gulf in what is essentially a “show the flag” exercise since it is highly doubtful that Obama will commit manned aircraft to the conflict. 

The IS forces are highly mobile and moving quickly.  While it is true that it will be up to the recently ineffectual Iraqi military to ultimately defeat the insurgency, the use of armed drones or U.S. tactical aircraft would be a significant help and provide an important motivational boost to the Iraqi forces who are struggling with a lack of commitment and  poor leadership.  Air support has once again been criticized as too dangerous to civilians who may be intermingled with the IS forces.  However, the IS forces must travel by road between cities and regions where they are exposed.  Civilian populations should not be expected to sit by during battles in populated areas, intermingling with combatants.  Air controllers on the ground and precision ordnance could be expected to minimize civilian casualties while providing the one major advantage to government forces fighting the insurgency. 

Calls for “diplomacy” as a strategy make little sense since the IS has nothing to negotiate.  They are successful aggressors motivated by an intransigent religious ideology to accomplish a single goal; an Islamic caliphate stretching across the Middle East.

The “Arab Spring” has died.  The region is in chaos in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Sub-Saharan Africa only being the most obvious cases.  Iran continues to meddle in the Syrian and Iraq conflicts while it stalls serious negotiations on it’s nuclear weapons  program.  (Obama has just granted another in a series of extensions for the resumption of negotiations, taking the process well into the Fall of 2014.) Another terrorist state in the region, even one without well defined borders would be disastrous for regional and world security.  Special envoy to the Middle East and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair explained the situation quite clearly:

 “It is in our interests for this jihadist extremist group to be stopped in its tracks. I understand entirely why people say ‘it is nothing to do with us and I don’t want to hear about it’.”

But he said the Jihadis “are not simply fighting Iraqis and they are also willing to fight us and they will if we don’t stop them”.

“It is vitally important that we realize what is at stake here and act. We are going to have to engage with it or the consequences will come back on us as we see in Syria today.

“The best policy for us to realize that whatever form of intervention we choose is going to be difficult but it’s better than the alternative. You do not need to engage as we did in Afghanistan or Iraq, but we do have interests in this.”

Obama should take a strong position on the situation and show some leadership without worrying about purely political consequences.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

HOBBY LOBBY: RELIGION AND THE RULE OF LAW


The much awaited verdict on the Hobby Lobby religious freedom vs. ObamaCare birth control coverage is in.  As expected there has been much ideological and partisan based spin on the 5-4 verdict in favor of Hobby Lobby.   Conservatives have hailed the decision as an affirmation of religious freedom and liberals and feminists have condemned the verdict in any means they could think of.  It has been described as an assault on women’s rights, health, and personal freedom of choice.  Others have described the decision as one made by “an all male majority”, as if this were unusual on a court comprised of six men and three women.  The implication is that the male justices are somehow ineligible to vote in cases involving female citizens as a group.  It is clear however, that the vote broke down along the familiar conservative-liberal voting blocs.

However, most of the “analysts”/pundits ignored the basic facts of the case.  This was not a constitutional case involving first amendment rights.  It was not primarily a birth control case involving women’s access to birth control products.  The case was a statutory case decided by the justices on their interpretation of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restitution Act.  The legislation was passed by 97-3 in a Senate controlled by the Democrats and by voice vote in the House also controlled by the Democrats and then signed by President Bill Clinton.

The core provision of the Act states that:  “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”[3] “The law provided an exception if two conditions are both met. First, the burden must be necessary for the “furtherance of a compelling government interest.”[3] “Under strict scrutiny, a government interest is compelling when it is more than routine and does more than simply improve government efficiency. A compelling interest relates directly with core constitutional issues.[4] The second condition is that the rule must be the least restrictive way in which to further the government interest.”

Thus the Court’s majority found that Hobby Lobby’s owners, who claimed that being forced to provide certain birth control products which prevented a fertilized human egg from implanting in the uterus was the equivalent of abortion and was an infringement on their religious principles as protected by the 1993 Act.  This interpretation of the law thus did not address any direct impact on the female employees, let alone the post-verdict exaggerated claims made by various women’s advocates about a wholesale attack on women’s rights and health.

Essentially, the majority found that the ownership of closely held, for profit corporations are entitled to the protections of the 1993 statute and that the facts of the case showed an insufficient “compelling government interest” in imposing the birth control insurance requirement via ObamaCare.  They also cited the belief that the requirement and the harsh penalties which applied for non-compliance did not represent “the least restrictive way in which to further the government interest.”These interpretations could certainly be debated and most likely were the subject of discussions by the Court in their private deliberations.

 On the dissent side, which included all three of the Court’s female justices and the reliably liberal voter, Justice Stephen Bryer, the focus of the minority opinion written by Justice Ruth Ginsburg was largely about outcomes rather than the applicability of the 1993 statute.  This is a typical orientation of the liberal bloc.  They want to interpret or reject laws to create outcomes which fit their ideology based views of a just society.  Thus the emphasis was on the alleged negative impact on women’s health which she mentioned forty-three times.

“. . . Women’s reproductive well-being is vital to both their personal prospects and the country’s fortunes.”

While this generality is no doubt true, it is too overly broad to rise to the level of a “compelling government interest”.  There are many methods of birth control but the most common is “the pill”, which became available in 1960.  The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act which made health insurance coverage for birth control products mandatory didn’t come into existence until March of 2010.  Was there an epidemic of female health issues related to the absence of free birth control in the previous sixty years?  Indeed for throughout those six decades millions of women provided their own birth control without widespread hardship or much controversy.  Today, a variety of birth control pills are available for around nine dollars per month.

The issue of insurance coverage has taken on symbolic/political importance to feminist groups which outweigh its practical effects, as the temptation for political pandering in the run up to the 2014 congressional elections demonstrates.  Here is Harry Reid, Democrat Senate Majority Leader looking for votes sufficient to keep his job as Majority Leader which is at risk.


     “If the Supreme Court will not protect women’s access to health care, then Democrats will,” Reid said in a statement. “We will continue to fight to preserve women’s access to contraceptive coverage and keep bosses out of the examination room.”

Despite all the hyperbole, Justice Ginsburg did include one argument in her dissent that exposes the key flaw in the majority opinion:

            “. . . A decision of startling breadth and it allows companies to opt out of any law they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

While not precisely accurate since the conditions imposed by the 1993 statute would still have to be met, this decision certainly opens the door to an unlimited variety of such claims with regard not too just ObamaCare but as Justice Ginsburg points out, “any law” found objectionable on religious grounds by the owners of closely held corporations and other types of businesses.  Supporters of Hobby Lobby were focused on the beliefs of parts of the nation’s dominant Christian faith, but the Courts ruling applies to also to all established belief systems and will no doubt be tested by smaller groups well out of the mainstream of American religious practice.

With regard to this particular case, it seems to defy credulity that the owners of Hobby Lobby being required to pay for birth control methods as part of much larger health insurance plan ,that neither they nor any of their employees were required to use, constituted a “substantial burden” to the owners “exercise of religion.”  Surely the Green family’s (the Hobby Lobby owners) exercise of their Christian faith encompassed far more in terms of belief and practice than this narrow issue whose application by their employees might never have been used and which they, as owners, would never be aware, much less be directly responsible.

The celebration by the political “Right” has emphasized the issue of “religious freedom” but it is likely that there is considerable overlap over satisfaction for what appears to be another crack in the foundation of ObamaCare.  While ObamaCare has never enjoyed majority support and is seriously flawed, this case was not about ObamaCare.  Nor, as stated earlier was it about women’s rights.  It was a narrowly decided case about the eligibility of closely held, for profit corporations to make claims under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restitution Act.  The Court had already found in the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission 2010 opinion that corporations had First Amendment rights similar to individuals, or put another way, that individuals acting under a corporate identity retained their individual First Amendment rights.  So it came down to the applicability of the 1993 Acts standards of a “substantial burden” to religious exercise, the “compelling government interest”, and the availability of “less restrictive” way to further that interest.

 The Court defined the substantial burden on the Green family in an overly broad fashion. It diminished the importance of the compelling government interest which depends on equal accountability of all persons and corporate entities under the law, instead opening the door to what may be “observance of the law by the willing” under the guise of religious freedom. 

 With regard to the facts and the law, the dissenting Justices were only partially right.  The majority opinion was simply wrong.