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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

KHASHOGGI: TRUMP IS RIGHT



On October 2, 2018 Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian citizen living in the United States since June, 2017, went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul,Turkey to obtain  Saudi marriage documents.  He never left the Consulate.  It was later determined that a team of Saudi executioners attacked and killed Khashoggi and disposed of his body, which has yet to be found.

The incident has since become an international cause célèbre  especially among a few Western European states, Turkey, and even more so in the United States. Why this is so is interesting considering that while state sponsored murder is condemnable in any context, it is also unfortunately,  historically and contemporarily commonplace, even on a much greater scale.  

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted and prosecuted  leaders of Serbia, and African  nations for genocides involving thousands of civilians.  The Russian government, led by Vladimir Putin has been accused of assassinating and trying to assassinate Russian citizens living in both Russia and England. Civilian Al Qassam Brigades suicide bombers sponsored by the governing  Hamas  party in Gaza have killed not only themselves at the instruction of their government but hundreds of Israeli citizens and are ignored or even praised by some as simply “resistors”.  

What makes the Khashoggi case different is again context.  Although  Khashoggi was a Saudi citizen, killed in a Saudi government facility, by Saudi operatives, his death is being described as particularly heinous, first, because he was a political dissident highly critical of the autocratic, and in many ways, medieval, government of the Saudi kingdom.  Also, Khashoggi’s murder appears to have been given special significance in the U.S. because he was a temporary legal resident and an opinion contributor to the Washington Post.

But the Khashoggi affair has quickly been politicized. Trump has adopted a realistic position towards the Saudi kingdom choosing not to jeopardize America’s influence and vital interests with Saudi Arabia  based on the important role it plays in Middle East politics and yes, in the world’s energy markets.   Democrats see it as yet another opportunity to attack and discredit President Trump, and some Republican politicians like Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC)  haven’t been able to resist the urge to adopt  a morally superior attitude usually favored by liberals by declaring that the Saudi head of government, Mohammed  bin Salman is “insane”, and that he “won’t deal with him” in any capacity.  That politically motivated proclamation while being irresponsible, is also a safe threat to make since Senator Graham is not in a position to deal with Saudi Arabia in any way save his own vote in the Senate.

This position fits neatly with the other dire exaggerations coming from the Left which howl about Trump abandoning “American values” and “giving a green light to the world’s dictators to commit murder.”   Trump of course declared the Khashoggi murder to be  “ . . .an unacceptable and horrible crime.” But that is not enough for his critics, many of whom on the Left oppose the autocratic Saudi government on ideological grounds and wish to diminish the President in any way possible.

Trump has not made his basic  common sense position not to disown or reject the decades old U.S. relationship with the Kingdom any easier by engaging in his usual Trumpian exaggerations and lack of focus on those issues.  Seeming to once again contradict his own intelligence assets with respect to the Saudi Crown Prince’s connection to the murder, making questionable claims about the size and importance of pending Saudi defense spending with U.S. contractors, and diminishing the role of the government of Turkey in their investigation and conclusions of the crime which occurred in their territory, has unnecessarily provided more fuel for his critics.

However, the real issue is not Trump’s leadership incompetence; it is a matter of prioritizing critical foreign security and economic issues against the symbolic exercise of confirming a universally known American rejection of political murder on moral grounds.

The Saudi/U.S. diplomatic relationship is, and has been, important on at least three vital issues for decades. The first is the seventy year old Arab conflict with Israel, America’s staunchest ally in the region, which has resulted in four multi-state wars in the Middle East and several separate conflicts between Israel and Palestinian guerilla forces.

Saudi Arabia, as a conservative Islamic, Arab state has for most of that long period been a political supporter of the Arab-Palestinian forces.  Now however, the Kingdom, under the rule of the young Crown Prince has taken a more pragmatic approach, distancing itself  from the violent tactics and political demands of the terrorist groups the Islamic State and Hamas in Gaza, whose  stated goal which they share with the Iranian government, is to destroy the state of Israel.  Saudi Arabia has considerable influence with the other Arab “Gulf  states” and has even proposed an “Arab peace plan”, which while it has failed to get serious consideration, could still perform as a realistic basis for negotiating a peaceful, two state solution to this seemingly permanent and  destabilizing impasse. This is important since it implies an acceptance of Israel’s right to exist.

The second vital issue is the regional aspirations of Iran which threaten to divide the Middle East into two permanently hostile blocs, with the prospect of armed conflict.  Iran, an Islamic theocracy, ruled by a religious cleric who holds the title  Supreme Leader, is the leader of the Shi’ite sect of Islam which views the larger Sunni branch as religious apostates.  Combined with the nationalistic based efforts to expand its influence/ control in the region, Iran has established a Shi’ite proxy in Lebanon  with its military and financial support of Hezbollah, the “party of God”, which is a government within a government in Lebanon.  Iran is also intervening in the civil war in Syria.  It provides troops, weapons and money to the Shi’ite associated Alawite minority government of  Bashar Assad, and with the similar intervention of Russia, has secured the reign, and continued dependence, of Assad.   A similar effort by Iran is being made in Shi’ite majority Iraq which is battling the Sunni Taliban insurgency. 

The civil war in Yemen, a small nation on Saudi Arabia’s southern border in the Arabian peninsula, has also become a major issue with anti-Saudi politicians and opinion writers.  The conflict pits Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies against a Shi’ite Houthi insurgency vs. the Saudi supported Yemeni government.  The war is a humanitarian disaster, as much of the economic infrastructure of the country has been destroyed resulting in famine conditions for the populace.  While critics of the chaos blame the Saudi coalition and U.S air refueling support (which has been terminated), they largely ignore the role of Iran in the conflict which supplies the Houthi forces in yet another Iranian attempt to create an anti-Saudi surrogate in the region.

The major obstacles in Iran’s path to regional dominance are the military and secular leaning government of Egypt and the conservative Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia.  Iran is a major supporter of international terrorism, anti- West and anti-Israel policies and a potential nuclear weapons state.  It is clearly in the interests of the United States its allies to work with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia to block Iran’s goals.

Thirdly, although the political Left is perpetually in denial about the necessity of accepting it, is the significance of Saudi Arabia’s position as the second highest  holder of oil reserves in the world.  Saudi Arabia exports 13% of the world’s oil supplies.  Because the Saudi’s also have the infrastructure to immediately raise or lower their production  they have a more enhanced role in the world’s supply of oil and thus its world market price.  While critics reject the importance of Saudi oil to the U.S. based on increased domestic production which in terms of volume makes it look like the U.S. is energy independent with respect to oil, this is inaccurate.
First, oil comes in different grades.  Shale oil which has produced the higher levels of supply in the U.S. is a “light” oil which the major U.S. refineries, built years ago, are not designed to process into the types of petroleum products most used by the U.S.  Thus most of this shale surplus is being exported. Meanwhile the U.S. still imports oil including 1.1 million barrels a day in September of 2018.

But even if the U.S. were to become totally oil independent, that would not protect U.S. consumers from an international price shock.  The price of oil is based on the world market. A sudden shortage in production would dramatically raise the market price including U.S. assets since U.S. production is part of that market. The damage to the economies of important oil importers like Japan, South Korea and some European nations  would be profound and have a serious impact on the U.S. economy. 

Saudi Arabia is currently keeping production up, and prices down,  to make up for the decrease in  the world supply  resulting from the U.S. sanctions on Iran’s exports which are part of the strategy to bring Iran back to the negotiating table regarding their nuclear ambitions, missile delivery systems development, and  and regional aggression. Putting this cooperation at risk by imposing sanctions on Saudi officials including their head of government makes no sense.

What is clear is that American values are intact and national leaders across the globe know where the U.S. stands with regard to civil rights and human rights.  What should be clear to Trump’s critics is that foreign dictators, friendly or not, don’t look to the U.S. for a “green light” to commit acts that violate these rights, nor are they deterred by by the protestations of U.S. leaders, politicians and media or even the threat of economic sanctions.

This should be obvious to all based on the murderous acts of Russia’s Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il. Still political engagement with these governments and others like China and Cuba present a sometimes discomforting but necessary alternative to a non-productive and futile attempt to project U.S. “values” onto authoritarian regimes for domestic crimes .  This does not mean that such crimes should not be publicly condemned or that similar crimes of greater scale should not be firmly addressed.  For these, there are international responses available which the U.S. could lead.  Economic sanctions can be imposed through the UN Security Council, and individual heads of government can be indicted as mentioned above, by the International Criminal Court.  

With regard to the Khashoggi affair, the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have written a letter to President Trump triggering the Global  Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act of 2016, which requires the President to respond in 120 days as to whether “gross violations of human rights” have been committed by individuals in any nation and whether the President, at his discretion, will impose travel and/or financial sanctions on any individuals in that nation.

President Trump has already imposed such sanctions on seventeen Saudi’s in connection with the Khashoggi murder.  There is little prospect, and rightly so, that he will seek to impose such punishments on the head of government of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or other members of the royal family.  The stakes are just too great.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

HUMAN RIGHTS AND REALITY: THE NATIONAL SOVEREIGNTY CONUNDRUM

On July 2, 2018, Canadian Foreign Secretary  Chrystia Freeland proved once again that conducting foreign policy by Twitter is fraught with danger from over simplification, impulsive and/or careless, or simply not well thought out  pronouncements.  While not in the same league as U.S. President Trump’s daily deluge of Twitter carelessness, her short declaration set off a diplomatic storm with the government of Saudi Arabia.  The subject was the arrest and imprisonment  by Saudi authorities of one of several female activists who were detained for criticizing the government. Freeland’s “Tweet” was as follows:

“Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.”


This seemingly innocuous protest would typically be  the subject of a brief statement of rejection or be simply ignored by most of the world’s authoritarian governments.  However in the case of Saudi Arabia, the broader context is somewhat different.


Saudi Arabia is a monarchy.  It describes itself as “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.  Like all authoritarian, i.e. non-democratic governments, it relies on suppression of basic civil and human rights to maintain itself in power.  In the Kingdom, it has always been so.  Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist Sunni Islamic state is currently under pressure on its borders from Iranian  sponsored Shi’ite forces attempting to overthrow the government of Yemen, as well as Shi’ite militancy in neighboring Bahrain. 


As the birthplace of Islam and the home of the two holiest sites of that religion,  Saudi Arabia has declared that its constitution is the Koran and the Sunnah, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed.


In spite of the social and legal constraints imposed by this strict adherence to conservative Islam, Crown  Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the thirty-three year old de facto head of government, has embarked on a massive modernization program.  This  includes a long range plan to diversify the Kingdom’s economy away from dependence on it’s vast oil reserves, a moderation of social restrictions on Western style entertainment, a recent end to the decades old ban on driving privileges for females and a reduction in the powers of the religious police.  These reforms have not come without resistance from Islamic conservatives and Salman is sensitive to criticism which might seem to be pushing him to far, to fast. 


Thus the Saudi government’s response to Freedland’s Tweet was severe.  The Global News’ reports that:

“Since the Middle Eastern kingdom launched the dispute on Sunday evening over tweets sent the week prior, Saudi Arabia has recalled its ambassador, expelled Canada’s ambassador, frozen new business and trade, ordered Saudi students studying in Canada to go somewhere else, ordered Saudi citizens seeking medical care in Canada to go somewhere else, blacklisted Canadian wheat and barley, and ordered the asset managers of their central bank and pension funds to dump Canadian assets “no matter the cost.”

It’s hard to know how seriously the Canadian government takes these events.  So far neither Foreign Secretary  Freeland nor Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seem too publicly  concerned.


Trudeau summed up his position briefly:  “Canada will always speak strongly and clearly in private and in public on questions of human rights ... at home and abroad, wherever we see the need.”

“Canadians expect that, and indeed people around the world expect that leadership from Canada,” he said.

Despite this slightly grandiose claim, the Canadian government has a particular interest in the case of the Badawi’s. Samar Badawi is the sister of Raif Badawi a Saudi blogger who was imprisoned and sentenced to 1000 lashes for religious apostasy and criticism of the Saudi regime.  His wife and three children sought amnesty in Canada and are now Canadian citizens.


In a sign that the Saudi reaction is more troubling than is publically admitted, Foreign Minister Freedland is reported to have sought the assistance of officials in Germany and Sweden, both of which have experienced similar confrontations with Saudi Arabia over criticism of alleged civil and human rights violations.


The importance of this episode is that it is a reminder in the age of national interest based “Trumplomacy”, which is the subject of harsh partisan criticism, of the tension between reality based foreign policy and idealistic based policies.  It is an obvious fact that the world would be a better place if all nations observed liberal democratic standards of human and civil rights.  Not only would this be a victory for common moral codes, but such codes when embodied in legal systems would produce democratic political systems.  Such systems are much less likely to engage in armed conflict with each other, would produce healthier economic conditions which would benefit their citizens and facilitate more efficient international trade and reduce the world’s immigration problems.


But the reality barrier is significant.  Freedom House’s “Democracy Project” uses a measurable list of categories to evaluate each of the world’s nation  states. These include: free and fair elections; rights of minorities; freedom of the press; and the rule of law.  Similar standards are included in the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (1966) which together are labeled the International Bill of Rights.


In 2018, Freedom House found that 25% of countries holding 37% of the world’s population, were “Not Free”.  Another 30% of countries with 24% of the world’s population were only

“Partly Free” thus leaving only 45% of the world’s countries with only 39% of the world’s population categorized as “Free”.

While the majority of the offenders in the first two categories are in the developing world, a few, i.e. Russia, China, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia have such high levels of international importance in terms of geopolitics, nuclear weapons, and international economic influence that they require a difficult assessment of the proper response to human/civil rights violations in those countries. 


This problem is complicated by two other realities.  First, at what point does violation of rights within a nation, require a violation by other nations of the offending nation’s sovereignty, a concept also enshrined in international law ?


A  second reality is the question of what kind of external policies toward offending nations if any, would be likely to be effective in bringing about changes in the internal policies of the offending nations?


Admonitions, condemnations, public protests by government officials, non-governmental organizations and various public groups, all have a poor record of success in these types of issues as in the case of Raif Badawi whose ten year prison sentence and corporal punishment became an international  “cause celebre ” which was summarily rejected by the Saudi government. Although Badawi’s lashing was suspended after fifty strokes, he remains in prison.


Although President Trump has been criticized for not supporting the Canadian position on both Samar and Raif Badawi (Britain has also declined), he has taken the opposite tack with regards to a similar event in Turkey.  In 2016, American evangelical pastor, Andrew Brunson who had lived in Turkey for twenty-three years, was imprisoned in a wide spread reaction to a coup attempt against Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan. Brunson was accused of espionage and terrorist related charges and is currently being tried in a Turkish court. 


The Trump administration has denied those charges and demanded that Brunson be released. The Erdogan government has refused and President Trump has resorted to economic sanctions in the form of tariffs on the importation of Turkish steel and aluminum.  Turkey has responded with tariffs on U.S. cars, electronics and several consumer goods.


While Trump’s strong reaction to Brunson’s predicament should provide him with some cover over the Left’s criticism of his diffidence in the case of the Badawis, the differences in the two cases are obvious.  First, Trump is Trump, and he gets no relief from the criticism by the Left no matter what the facts are.  Second, Brunson is an American citizen and entitled to the protection of the American government; the Badawis are Saudis in trouble with their own government.  Third, U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia are currently more important than U.S. relations with Turkey or Canadian relations with Saudi Arabia.


This last, may seem harsh to human rights advocates but this fact has the potential to impact many more lives in the U.S. and in the Middle East than the plight of two Saudis whose situation has little hope of redress no matter what the level of outcry from foreign actors. Nonetheless, U.S. relations with Turkey are important in their own right and imposing economic sanctions on Turkey was an over reaction which makes the Brunson situation a face saving situation for Turkey. This complicates Turkey’s role in NATO and U.S. opposition to its support for Iran in the face of Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement and reimposition of sanctions against that nation.

However, Saudi Arabia stands with the U.S. and Israel against the terrorist support and regional and nuclear ambitions of Iran.  An of course there is the issue of the international oil market which is heavily influenced by Saudi production and influence in the OPEC cartel, plus the sales of military equipment by the U.S. to the Kingdom.

Also, because Turkey’s economy is currently in a state of high inflation due to mismanagement by the government and Erdogan personally, Trump’s economic sanctions have unusual weight.  While the charges against Brunson seem preposterous, once again, the position of the Erdogan government is based on maintaining resistance against an attack on its national sovereignty. The result so far is a deteriorating impasse.


Dealing with authoritarian governments has been part of international diplomacy throughout history and as the  Freedom House report indicates, it remains a harsh reality today and for the foreseeable future.  Despite the moral impetus for strong advocacy of human rights/civil rights there is little reason to believe that authoritarian governments and their leaders would be willing to risk their regimes by voluntarily liberalizing the repressive laws and political culture which supports them.


That doesn’t mean that some progress on individual cases need not be pursued.  However, quiet diplomacy involving quid pro quos have more chance of success than public condemnation or simple “demands” that appear to be interference in the internal affairs of target nations. Trump recently had such success with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-Un when he successfully negotiated the release of several American citizens who were being held captive in N. Korea.


 Basically, a substantive change in the political culture of a nation towards improvements in civil and human rights requires broad support from the people in those states as it did in the Eastern European republics after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  However, some cultures which are divided by heavy tribal, ethnic and religious influence are not ready for Western style liberal democratic systems, a fact which the Bush administration found in its failed “nation building” strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such conditions provide opportunities for authoritarian governments to prevail or simply replace similar governments after social uprisings, as was the case in Egypt.  Indeed, all the  “Arab Spring” movements, with the possible exception of Tunisia, fell victim to such conditions.


In the Badawi and Bruson cases Trump made the mistake of major over reaction which created another set of problems; Freeland made the mistake of not understanding her adversary and using an inadequate and one way public communication tool for a complicated problem.  Both her and Prime Minister Trudeau’s public comments appear to be directed more towards civil and human rights advocates than to Saudi government officials. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

THE SUPREME COURT AND ELECTIONS

If you don’t live on the East or West coasts you probably haven’t felt the earth shaking as the tectonic plates of liberal hysteria break apart.  The voices of panic from the Left would have us preparing for the “end of days”.  The imminent catastrophe ?   The impending seating of fifty-three year old Washington D.C. Circuit Ct. Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Ct.

That’s it.  But Kavanaugh isn’t some radical outlier; he’s the very prototype of the elite legal establishment; a graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, a legal functionary in the George W. Bush administration and a long term veteran of the D.C, Circuit Ct., perhaps the most consequential Circuit Ct. in the nation.  Those who know him personally sing his praises as a legal scholar, dedicated family man, educator, and volunteer in his community.  

Still, what can only be described as unhinged behavior by the far Left fills the media and internet.  An open letter by “students, educators and graduates” of Kavanaugh’s own Yale Law School predicts  Armageddon.  Ignoring the fact that as Dean of Harvard Law School, currently  sitting, liberal Supreme Ct. Justice Elena Kagan hired Judge Kavanaugh to teach at Harvard Law, apparently without fear of the end of everything Americans and Harvard Law students hold dear. The Yale group of hand wringers proclaim; “Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination presents an emergency for democratic life, for our safety and freedom, for the future of our country.” Yes, an “emergency.” It even declares that “people will die if he is confirmed.” 

The end of democracy? Death by confirmation?  They apparently felt no need to describe why these catastrophes will take place or how one Justice, or even a quasi bloc of five could bring them about.   But of course the Yale students are not alone in their condition of brain dissolving ideological hatred and panic.

Here is former governor of Virginia and potential 2020 Democratic candidate for President Terry McAuliffe:
“The nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh will threaten the lives of millions of Americans for decades to come and will morph our Supreme Court into a political arm of the right-wing Republican Party." 

Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) didn’t bother waiting for the Kavanuagh nomination before reacting to “any” Trump nomination for the Supreme Ct.
In June shortly after Justice Kennedy announced his impending retirement, Harris dusted off her crystal ball, gazed through the Left hemisphere and predicted “. . . the destruction of the  constitution”.

Left wing political commentator Paul Waldman:

“Overturning Roe v. Wade will be just the beginning. They're likely to outlaw affirmative action, validate every means of suppressing votes and rigging the electoral system Republicans can devise, and perhaps return us to the days when having a pre-existing condition meant you couldn't get health insurance. More than that, they may well launch an attack on the entire structure of government regulation. Environmental laws, labor laws, civil rights laws—any and all could be the target of sweeping court decisions restricting the ability of the government to do anything to stop the powerful from preying on the rest of us.”

And so it goes; from the pages of the so called “mainstream press” aka the Washington Post and the New York Times, to the far Left journals, (The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Nation) to the equally radical internet sites (Huffington Post, Salon, Slate, Vox) who share each other’s simple minded disaster scenarios which require one to believe that by creating an informal bloc of five jurists who share a judicial philosophy that emphasizes legal interpretation vs. judicial legislation based on the constitutional framework of separation of powers, will bring down the 229 year old American success story.

No doubt there are many on the Left who are energized by their role playing as social justice warriors and pseudo revolutionaries, that have repeated these radical fantasies so often in other contexts that they have come to believe them.  But at the risk of being too kind to the Democratic political leadership, it is all but certain that they are fully aware of the absurdity of their claims.

Supreme Court justices may have conservative or liberal philosophies but these orientations are more part of a spectrum of general beliefs rather than a set of specific instructions that one must follow.  The Court doesn’t rule on political or social philosophies; it rules on specific cases whose individual legal complexities vary and which can produce inconsistent results if viewed from a political philosophy point of view.  Chief Justice John Roberts is well known for being part of the “conservative bloc” despite his deciding vote upholding the penalty for not securing health insurance which was critical to making ObamaCare workable. Thus the personal demonization of Judge Kavanaugh portrays an astounding level of ‘anything goes” political dishonesty and demagoguery. 

In short, with little hope of denying Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation, their tactic is to throw red meat to their radical base and foment hysteria among the less informed, Left leaning moderates and Independents in the hope of bringing about 2018 election victories. The ultimate goal of course is to take control of one or both of the houses of Congress. The defamation of Judge Kavanugh’s character, intellect and legal expertise is then simply collateral damage in the fight for political power.

The question then is “Will it work?”  Odds makers would probably say no.  How many false disaster scenarios can one party shout before credibility becomes comedy.  Two years into Trump’s administration the Left’s predicted “authoritarian state” and “destruction of the Constitution” hasn’t happened.  Trump’s “irrational finger on the nuclear button” hasn’t started a nuclear war with “North Korea”. . “China” . . .“Russia”, as predicted.   The Supreme Court drama has already had one screening with the seating of Justice Neal Gorsuch in the “conservative bloc”.  In a recent series of 5-4 decisions the “moderate, centrist” Justice Anthony Kennedy who Judge Kavanaugh will replace, sided with the conservatives and the Constitution still stands, the press is still “free” and no one has died.

The verbal violence of the Left has been characterized by some pundits and Democrats as a newly energized Progressive movement.  The upset winner of the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional district by political newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who defeated ten term House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley, has been described by Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez as “the future of our party”. Republicans can’t wait, and should use her as the ‘current’ face of the Democratic Party in the 2018 campaign.  Here’s why.

While Ocasio-Cortez is young, (28) attractive, intelligent and energetic, she ran as the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants in the heavily minority and poor NY 14th district as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. The DSA is not a political party; it is a self described “movement”.
Obviously her appeal in a district which is 50% Hispanic; 14% black and only 32% white and 16% of the population make less than $50,000 dollars a year in high tax, high cost New York City, will not be matched across the nation.  That appeal includes the socialist program of the DSA whose goals can be found on their web site.
1. “Undermine the power of the capitalist sector” through nationalization of major industries and use      of “democratic management all businesses by workers and members of the communities where the are located.
2.  “dismantle the “privilege” of “whiteness”,       “males”, and heterosexuality.
3.  oppose “free trade agreements”
4.  “abolish the U.S. Senate” and install “direct democracy” through referenda and the use of proportional representation in the House of Representatives
5.  "free"  health care, day care, education K through college, “shelter”, “transportation”, and a “universal basic income”.
6.  “create a reduced work week and expand vacation time.”

The practical absurdity of the economic, social, and political, structural destruction proposed, combined with the rest of the “rainbows and unicorns” socialist babble of the DSA manifesto, is good for a laugh, but at a minimum, Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate should ask their Democratic opponents how they feel about  Chairman Perez’s plan for the “future” of their party which calls for the abolition  of the office for which they are campaigning.

Meanwhile, Brett Kavanaugh will take his seat on the Supreme Court, the sun will still rise in the East each morning and the Democrats will have to pass legislation in the Congress instead of relying on the Supreme Court to do it for them.

Monday, June 11, 2018

THE IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL: TRUMP'S DO OVER


The controversy over President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has diminished somewhat in the shadow of the summit meeting in Singapore between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jung-un. But the Iran deal continues to simmer in the background as angry European leaders and their advisers try to put together a strategy to maintain their sanctions relief to Iran and support their individual renewed economic relations with Iran.  

Trump and his  advisers believe that the agreement is seriously flawed and he intends to bring maximum economic pressure on Iran to bring them back to the bargaining table.  He is correct with respect to the flaws but renewed negotiations will not be easy if even possible.

The written text of the Iran nuclear agreement,  contains a ten and fifteen year program to reduce Iran’s stock of gas centrifuges which are used to enrich uranium and to limit the remaining enrichment levels to 3.67%, far less than that required for weapons grade uranium.  The basic intent of the agreement is similar to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty which Iran joined in 1970, and the conditions of which are monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) through the standard use of a separate agreement.  The details of these conditions, which include self declarization by Iran of all it’s existing nuclear research facilities and subsequent use of an inspection regime by IAEA experts seem detailed and comprehensive as far as they go.  Thus the major “flaws” cited by the agreement’s critics, with the exception of the fifteen year “sunset” clause,  are not so much what is contained in the agreement as what is not contained.  However, the “sunset” clause is huge. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty contains no such temporary conditions. Once states enter the treaty they are permanently committed to its terms as long as they are members. The fundamental requirement is that states that do not possess nuclear weapons or the technology to create them will not pursue such abilities. Thus the JCPOA contradicts the provisions and intent of the NPT.  

The process which would inevitably lead to Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state (NWS) represented an outcome so serious and destabilizing to the entire Middle East region that the West and UN Security Council which includes Russia and China, had imposed strong economic sanctions  against Iran several years prior to the commencement of current negotiations.  A nuclear armed Iran represents an existential threat to the state of Israel which Iran has sworn to destroy; a major threat of nuclear weapons proliferation by Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, whom Iran considers an adversary, and a shift in the ability of other states with vital interests in the stability of the region to confront Iran’s aggressive behavior. 

Why would the P-5 + 1 negotiators (U.S, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, & EU) agree to anything but a permanent ban on Iran’s ability to manufacture highly enriched fuel whose only purpose is the creation of nuclear weapons?

The simple answer is that Iran refused to make such a commitment and the other states conceded the point.  Russia, which is currently allied militarily with Iran in the Syrian civil war in support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and which has achieved a Mediterranean naval base in Syria,  obviously sees benefits in remaining an ally of Iran as well as the possibility of renewed negotiations to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons in the future  as a position of leverage against the Western powers who make up the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s core membership.  China, well known for its long term approach to geo-political expansion would have a similar interest in having an anti-West state in an important region of the world maintain a negotiating position of strength while thus giving China’s support for one side or the other, significant influence in future negotiations.

U.S. President Obama was determined to find an accomplishment that would enhance his “legacy” and Great Britain, France, Germany and their collective representative from the Europen Union were anxious to get something done to take the problem of a nuclear Iran off the table for the time being and reestablish profitable economic trade and investment in that country. But essentially they were simply out negotiated by an intransigent Iran whose diplomats were willing to walk away if they were pressed to agree to permanent safeguards.

The agreements critics believe that it cannot be credibly evaluated in isolation of the wider political and security contexts within which is must operate.  It is here that the agreement represents its greatest weaknesses and the failure of the Western nation’s negotiators to take advantage of the significant leverage they had but which now is for the most part gone.

  The regional security context:

A simple look at a map of the Middle East and the related conflicts therein, make Iran’s regional ambitions obvious. Iran established itself as a Shi’ite Islamic republic after the 1979 revolution which over threw the Western installed and supported Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.  Internecine conflict between the two major sects of the Islamic religion in the Middle East cannot be underestimated.  It played a horrific role in the expansion of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq  (ISIS), and served as an instrument of repression by the Sunni minority government of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Iran now uses the religious identity of Shi’ites as a tool and a wedge to expand its influence in the region.  

Iran supports the Shi’ite Houthi insurgency in Yemen which has evolved into an armed conflict with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf state allies who have Sunni majorities and governments. On Iran’s western border, the Shi’ite majority has taken power in Iraq after the U.S. led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, opening the door for Iranian penetration and influence. The recent political victory of Iraqi Shi’ite leader  Muqtada al-Sadr over more moderate Shi’ite leaders may lead to further Iranian influence. Iran has also moved one state further west with its military intervention into the Syrian civil war on behalf of the dictator, Hafez al-Assad and his Alawite (an off shoot of Shi’ism) minority government. Iran has long supported the armed Shi’ite militia, Hezbollah which controls southern Lebanon and which is fighting along side Assad’s government troops against the Sunni rebels. Hezbollah  represents an on going threat to Israel on its Lebanon and Syrian borders and supplies arms, including missiles, to Hamas, the radical anti-Israeli political leaders of Gaza.  

Thus President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have taken the wider view that Iran’s nuclear fuel enrichment program is just part of the national and regional security threat that Iran poses.  They believe that the narrow scope of the agreement and the fear of its disruption by Western European nations as well as China and Russia, all of which have strong economic motives for its perpetuation, provides cover for Iran’s expansion and aggression in the region.

Pompeo has said that Iran “must end all nuclear activity completely, halt its support for Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and cease development of any nuclear-capable missiles.”   He has threatened the imposition of even harsher economic sanctions than those in place prior to the signing of the nuclear agreement.

The JCPOA is not a treaty.  President Obama did not submit it to the U.S. Senate for approval because he knew that it did not have anywhere near the two thirds majority support necessary for ratification. Concerned about his “legacy” and confident that his former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election, he agreed to the narrow scope of the agreement required by the Iranian negotiators as well as the return of 1.5 billion dollars in sequestered Iranian funds which represented a significant incentive for the Iranians to reach a deal and could have been withheld as leverage for additional concessions by Iran with respect to regional issues, missile development or a permanent agreement on nuclear enrichment. 

Despite the parade of European leaders from Britain, France, Germany, who came to Washington to try and convince Trump not to withdraw from the agreement, Trump was unwilling to let Iran pursue it’s regional aggression and strategic missile development threats as well as leaving the door open for Iran to become a nuclear weapons state in the future.

The agreement is seriously weakened, if not mortally wounded without U.S. participation. Trump’s threat to hold private entities in the other member states of the agreement liable for violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran with sanctions on them as well has caused enormous hand wringing and threats of defiance among them.  In an effort to avoid such a confrontation, some have suggested limited renegotiations to expand the agreement in ways to address Trump’s concerns.

President Macron of France approached Iranian leaders with such a proposal but it was soundly rejected, as should have been expected.  Iranian President Hasan Rouhani is quoted as saying; 
“I have spoken with Macron several times by phone, and one time in person at length. I have told him explicitly that we will not add anything to the deal or remove anything from it, even one sentence. The nuclear deal is the nuclear deal,” 

The political fallout from Trump’s decision is, in terms of rhetoric, extreme, as would be expected.  The European Left, which didn’t like Trump before and whom many in their ranks have had open disdain, if not hostility, for the U.S. for decades, are claiming that Trump’s decision and threats of collateral economic sanctions on defiant European businesses is an assault on their state’s sovereignty.   The American Left is claiming that Trump is “destroying our relationship with our closest allies”.  But international relationships are always based on national interests, not “special friendships” between political leaders who are temporarily in leadership positions.
Reagan and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher had a famously close relationship but it was based on an identity of conservative political ideology.  The U.S. and Western European nations continue to share an identity of interests in international security as exemplified by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which recently survived Trump’s demand that the membership boost their defense spending to reduce their dependence on the American defense “umbrella”.
Even in the face of Trump’s current demand that trade relations with Europe be liberalized and his imposition of tariffs on selected goods to make his point, trade and investment between EU nations and the U.S. is enormous and ties these economies together with the U.S. no matter what the character of the political leadership in the separate states.

The outcome of this issue is difficult to predict but is sure to create much political grandstanding. What is probable is that Trump will impose harsh economic sanctions on Iran and collateral sanctions on European businesses that continue to violate these sanctions. Several businesses are already cutting back their relationships with Iran and most will probably fall into compliance with Trump’s sanctions. Efforts by individual governments may be made to protect businesses from the effect of U.S. sanctions or retaliatory sanctions may even be attempted on U.S. manufacturers in a face saving political effort.. However the sheer size of the U.S. economy and its global web of relationships should eventually bring compliance.

Iran has already threatened to restart its nuclear fuel enrichment process and will probably make a show of doing it.  The outcome will come down to the level of economic pain Trump’s new sanction regime imposes on Iran and how much political pressure the other members of the JCPOA,  including China and Russia can apply to the Trump administration. 

There are a number of processes which could lead to a reduction in tensions.  It is possible that under political pressure Trump may negotiate some individual sanctions relief for JCPOA businesses in return for trade concessions unrelated to Iran which would also defuse the current tariff controversy between the U.S. and Western Europe. 

 A negotiated withdrawal of Iran’s military from Syria could also be a partial solution to the U.S./JCPOA sanctions battle as would a cessation of Iranian support for Yemen’s Houthi Shi’ites. A return by Iran to accelerated nuclear fuel enrichment represents a negative outcome for all sides as it would not take Iran more than one to two years to acquire enough weapons grade uranium to create a nuclear device.  Such and outcome would also enhance the possibility of a military strike by Israel against Iran’s nuclear facilities as well as the perception by Saudi Arabia that it would need a nuclear arms program of its own as a deterrent against a hostile Iran.  

Thus President Trump’s decision to leave the JCPOA was a bold step to address Iran’s current regional aggression and medium term goal of becoming a nuclear power.  Like much of what Trump does, what it lacked in finesse it made up for in common sense as  neither of Iran’s policies could have been ignored or put off without serious consequences.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

NORTH KOREA: TRUMP AND KIM, TWO BULLS IN CHINA'S SHOP

The current rush of events with respect to the future relationship between the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (North Korea), the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the United States, stands in remarkable contrast to the decades of  isolation, hostility and open conflict that commenced in June of 1950 with the invasion of the South by the North and which lasted until 1953.

Recent events, started with the secret visit of CIA Director Mike Pompeo, now Secretary of State, in early April to North Korea and a meeting with that country’s young dictator, Kim Jong-un.

Pompeo was laying the foundation for an even more dramatic event, a summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and President Trump sometime in June. The proposed agenda for this meeting is to be the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  Kim’s April meeting with South Korean President Jae-In Moon was equally dramatic, as the two leaders each stepped across the border between each other’s country in a symbol of cooperation that had never been seen before.  Their meeting resulted in a declaration of intent for the negotiation of a peace treaty to replace the Armistice that ended the conflict in 1953 as well as their stated intention to negotiate a “nuclear free Korean peninsula”.

These remarkable and unexpected events thus open the door for both historic success and unfortunately, for striking failure.  Enthusiasm must be couched in caution. It was just a matter of months previously that Kim Jung-un was threatening a nuclear attack by long range missiles on the U.S. territory of Guam and bragging that the continental U.S. was now in range of his ICBMs.
He and Trump had engaged in a tit-for-tat series of name calling and mutual threats. This ironically, was nearer the normal U.S./North Korea relationship of the last 70 years than the possible new one which could bring an opportunity for dramatic change, but it will be difficult to simply walk away from decades of hostility and mistrust. 

Some simple facts describe the difficulties and the historical context that makes it so.

1. North Korea is an extremely bureaucratic, hierarchical Communist dictatorship and has been since it’s creation in 1947 after the Japanese defeat and expulsion in WWII.

2. Kim Jong-un is the product of a ruling dynasty. He became the absolute leader of North Korea by succeeding his father Kim Jong-il who ruled from 1994 to 2011.  Kim Jong-il succeeded his father Kim Il-sung  (1948-1994) who was the founding leader appointed indirectly by the Soviet Union to rule over a client state which shared the peninsula with the Republic of Korea.

3. During and after the North’s unsuccessful invasion of the South in 1950-1953 and the subsequent stalemate which has survived ever since, Kim Il-sung, his son and now his grandson, have  built a national security state around a Stalin like model of “cult of personality” in which each succeeding leader was practically deified through life long government propaganda and “education” processes imposed on their people.

4. The “national security state” i.e. the creation of a powerful military and an internal security apparatus is thus designed to provide security from internal threats to the leadership  and to serve as part of the politically designed and deeply embedded  “external threat” scenario used to rationalize the extreme economic hardship, the absence of civil liberties and the complete control of the daily lives of the general population. 

What this means for the difficult task of negotiations that lie ahead is that to reduce or eliminate an important part of N. Korea’s military capabilities implies a reduced external threat to the nation, which in turn implies the need for less sacrifice on the part of the people and less need for a demi-god like leader. It thus could be perceived by Kim Jong-un as reducing his personal security and enhancing real or imagined threats to his regime from internal sources. This is important to Kim who has already brutally eliminated senior military leaders and family members who could have been potential rivals for power.

None of this implies that Kim’s pursuit and accomplishment of a viable nuclear weapons capability was just for internal propaganda use, although that was an important component.  Becoming a nuclear power enhances a leader’s and a nation’s prestige and importance on the regional and world stages. Now, how do you tell your nation that after sacrificing and then reaching this stage of importance, that you are suddenly going to give it up? And after teaching generations of citizens with a religious like certainty, that the U.S. and South Korea are evil aggressors intent on destroying their nation, how do you explain that the threat no longer exists?

The U.S. under several presidents and the international community have been down this road before with Kim’s father Kim Jung-il and grandfather, Kim Il-sung. The current Kim is undoubtedly familiar with the negotiation tactics and the outcomes they produced.

Kim Il-sung: 1948-1994

Discussions, negotiations, bargaining and inconsistent behavior by the Kim dynasty with regard to nuclear weapons development has been on-going since December,1985 when N. Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il-sung agreed to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1970), which basically states that non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) will agree to not pursue development of nuclear military capability and existing nuclear weapons states (NWS) will agree to help NNWS develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes i.e. power generation, medical technology. All members of the Treaty also agree not to transfer nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons technology to other nations.  The Treaty also requires that the existing nuclear weapons states (NWS) agree to pursue the abandonment of nuclear weapons.

However, N. Korea refused to fully comply with the treaty’s requirements for completing a Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which requires disclosure of existing nuclear research facilities and IAEA inspections.  It was not until 1991 that N. Korea agreed to the Safeguards provisions, which they signed in January, 1992 in return for the North and South signing a Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.  This was just after U.S. President George Bush unilaterally announced the withdrawal of all nuclear weapons from South Korea.

In 1993, the IAEA believing that N. Korea had been cheating on its obligations under the NPT demanded inspections on two sites. N. Korea denied access to these sites and in March, 1993 announced that it was withdrawing from the NPT.

Although later in 1993 N. Korea said it was suspending its decision to withdraw from the NPT, after another incident of refusal to allow inspections at it Yongbyon plutonium reprocessing plant, N. Korea withdrew from its participation in the IAEA regime in June, 1994.  By then U.S. intelligence estimated that N. Korea may have already produced one or two nuclear weapons.
Clearly, the whole on and off again NPT compliance had been a charade.

Kim Jong-il: 1994-2011

In October, 1994 N. Korea, now under the rule of Kim Jong-il, who succeeded his father after the older Kim died the previous July, signed the  Agreed Framework, in which N. Korea agreed to dismantling, “freezing” and elimination of various nuclear facilities in return for the construction of two “light water reactors” which have no military utility, and annual shipments of heavy fuel oil.

In late 1994, U.S. attention turned to N. Korea’s missile development and foreign sales which had been the object of economic sanctions by the U.S.  N. Korea agreed to talk about its missile development but demanded that the economic sanctions be removed first.

In May,1996, the U.S. imposed more economic sanctions on N. Korea and Iran for missile technology transfers. Despite these sanctions, N. Korea in 1998, was again the object of economic sanctions along with Pakistan, over transfer issues.

Between 1998 and 2000 talks between the U.S. and N. Korea went on but N. Korea was not deterred in its missile development program and stalled the talks with its insistence that all economic sanctions be removed prior to any substantive limits on its missile program and in July, 2000, N. Korea demanded $1billion per year in return for halting missile exports.

In late 2002 N. Korea admitted that it had a secret program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, a clear violation of the NPT and Agreed Framework. In December, 2002, N. Korea told the IAEA that it was restarting one of its nuclear reactors and reopening the other nuclear facilities closed under the Agreed Framework . It then ordered IAEA inspectors to leave the country.  In January, 2003, North Korea announced that it is withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty again.

In April, 2003 N. Korea made the claim that it now possessed nuclear weapons. In August, 2003 N. Korean officials at Six Party talks in China, offered a proposed “solution”.
This would require the United States to conclude a ‘non-aggression treaty”, normalize bilateral
diplomatic relations, refrain from hindering North Korea’s “economic cooperation” with other countries, complete the reactors promised under the Agreed Framework, resume suspended fuel oil shipments, and increase food aid. They also threatened to test their nuclear weapons or “demonstrate the means they have to deliver them.”  

In July, 2006 N. Korea test fired seven ballistic missiles. The U.S. condemned the tests as a “provocative act” and the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning N. Korea also.  Japan and S. Korea imposed sanctions on food and fertilizer aid. N. Korea rejected the resolution.

In Oct. 2006, N. Korea conducted an underground nuclear test explosion and blamed the U.S. for its “nuclear threat”, “sanctions” and pressure”, but said that N. Korea still remained willing to “denuclearize” the Korean peninsula.

On April 5, 2009. NK launched a three stage ballistic missile claiming it was a satellite launch but all three stages including the pay load fell into the sea making it obvious that it was an ICBB test. The UN Security Council issued a statement condemning the launch and called for strengthening punitive measures under a previous Resolution.  North Korea then withdrew from the Six Party talks and said it would no longer be bound by any of its previous agreements.

In May, 2009 N. Korea conducted another nuclear explosion test.

On March 26, 2010, North Korea, in an unexplained provocation, torpedoed a South Korean navy patrol ship.  On November 23, 2010, North Korea fired artillery rounds at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong.
Thus the reign of Kim Il-sung was a continuation of provocation, threats, demands for aid and removal of economic sanctions in return for moderating its behavior which lacked substance.

Kim Jong-Un:  201l-present

The seven years of the third Kim dictatorship have been the most adversarial, dangerous and duplicitous of the sixty-five years since the Armistice ended the Korean conflict in 1953.
This relatively short period has been characterized by open militarization in the form of missile and nuclear weapons development in violation of treaties.  The U.S. and international response has been “talks”, “negotiations” and on and off again economic sanctions. Unpersuaded and undeterred, Kim Jung-Un has brazenly pursued his goal of producing medium and long range delivery systems for nuclear warheads while offering the empty promises of his predecessors as a delaying strategy to accomplish his military development goals.

In February, 2012, shortly after assuming power, Kim agreed to suspend operations at the Yongbyon uranium enrichment plant. President Obama responded by providing 240,000 metric tons of food aid.

In April, 2012 North Korea carried out a significant missile launch test in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1871 and 2006.  Obama suspended the food aid program.

In December, 2012, North Korea conducted another test of a long range missile, putting a satellite into orbit. This was followed in February, 2013 with the underground detonation of a nuclear device.

The following August, 2013, Kim restarted the Yongbyon nuclear enrichment plant.
Between March 21st and December 15, 2014 North Korea conducted numerous short and medium range missile tests, initiated an artillery duel with South Korea near the maritime border between the two countries and conducted a missile launch test from a submarine which failed but which was followed by another such test that was successful.

On January 6, 2016, North Korea announced its fourth nuclear explosion which Kim claimed was a hydrogen bomb. In September, 2016 North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test detonation and in August, 2017 announced a “test plan” for a nuclear missile attack on the U.S. territory of Guam, inspiring newly elected U.S. President Trump’s threat of “fire and fury” if such an attack occurred.

On September 6, 2017, North Korea detonated its sixth nuclear device which international authorities estimated at 100 kiloton yield, over six times the size of the WWII Hiroshima blast.

Kim Jong-un started off 2018 with New Year’s announcement that North Korea would “mass produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.”

Just two months later, on March 6, 2018, South Korean officials reported that North Korea was willing to begin negotiations with the U.S. on denuclearization issues if its “security is guaranteed as part of a five point agreement reached by Kim and two South Korean officials at an earlier meeting in North Korea .  He also agreed to the “North/South Summit” which was held in April with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

It is highly doubtful that President Trump is familiar with even with this brief history of the struggle to bring peace and stability to the Korean peninsula. Hopefully, he will bring in experts to brief him in detail before he tries to “make a deal” with Kim Jung-Un who was raised as a “dictator to be” with the elevated ego and ruthlessness that goes with such indoctrination.

The relevant facts revealed by the actions of all three generations of Kims are these.
Denuclearization or significant cut backs in nuclear research and development has been offered by all three as negotiating tactics and then withdrawn.

Trump should also take note of the fact that of North Korea’s six nuclear test explosions , four have been conducted by the current Kim Jung-Un government, as well virtually all of the advancements in intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Does this mean that a genuine process of denuclearization on the Korean peninsula is just a political mirage?  Not entirely, as improbable as that is.  The X factor might well  be the Chinese.   Prior to his meeting with South Korean President Moon, Kim Jung-un embarked on a semi-secret train trip to China for important talks. China has made it abundantly clear in the past that it does not want another conflict, conventional and especially nuclear on its border which means that it opposes a nuclear armed North Korea.  China could have reached a tipping point which resulted in the threat of severe economic consequences in addition to the many sanctions already in place, if 
Kim Jung-un persists in his provocative and reckless nuclear policies.  

Nothing binding will be actually accomplished at the Trump/Kim meeting in June even if verbal understandings are made,  but it is a vital first step between two unpredictable and aggressive political leaders neither of whom are practiced in the norms of diplomatic discourse. They have with a long way to go and Trump must be patient and fundamentally wary of the generational tactics of deceit that he is likely to face. 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

GUN CONTROL: PROTEST, POLITICS, AND REALITY

The gun control debate has been drowning out almost everything in national political media coverage with the exception of President Trump’s sex life twelve years ago.  Recently however, a poll shows that the relative importance attached to this issue is dwindling somewhat, as might be expected after the emotional trauma of the Florida school shooting subsides. Another reason might lie in the evolution of the “gun control movement” which immediately followed the shooting.

The movement originated as a series of protest marches led by student “survivors” of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and supporting marches by students across the nation.


Several of the Florida students have been touring the country to speak at “town halls” and support rallies, college campuses, and televisIon news panels.  The announced strategy is to confront politicians who accept donations from the National Rifle Association, who gun control advocates identify as the source of all resistance to gun control legislation. The student activists are demanding that once identified, voters should deny these politicians reelection on the basis of this single issue. As a side bar to the public appearances of the teenagers from Florida, groups accompanying them are attempting to register other young people to vote, assuming they will join the effort to defeat any legislator who doesn’t agree to refuse donations from the NRA and vote for gun control measures which will presumably be offered in various legislatures by anti-gun members.


The young activists, who apparently have dropped out of school to pursue their new mission, are a politically appealing group. Defined by the media as “victims” or “survivors”, and as innocent children stepping up in defense of all the nation’s school children, they offer a difficult to criticize movement with abundant positive media coverage, or they did until recently.


The most prominent of the teen aged movement leaders is eighteen year old David Hogg who seems to have morphed from advocate to aggressive activist as national media provided him with a platform. He now appears to be brimming with adolescent self importance after he organized a Twitter campaign to boycott advertisers on Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s nightly television show. This was to punish Ingraham for teasing him on Twitter for the non-gun control issue of being denied admission to several prominent universities. Several “sensitive” and politically correct advertisers actually caved to Hogg’s threat and canceled their contracts with Ingraham’s show. In the aftermath of this adolescent “coup” attempt, Ingraham’s viewership increased by twenty percent. 


Hogg has now called for another boycott by customers of two of the nation’s largest investment firms, Blackrock and The Vanguard Group, both of which invest indirectly in the stock of gun manufacturers through their management of index funds. If an eighteen year old high school student trying to intimidate  two multi-trillion dollar investment management companies by Twitter attack seems to a controversy weary public, like another episode of politically contrived theater, it is perfectly understandable.


Still, like the “never go away” political issue, immigration, gun control is, and will be, a point of social conflict and election significance for the foreseeable future.  The debate is now cluttered by unrealistic claims on both sides and a rejection of contextual reality. 


Some simple facts provide the parameters within which a reasonable debate should be carried out.

1. There are an estimated 300 million firearms in private hands in the United States. This means that the most extreme or simple minded gun demand by gun control advocates for an Australian style voluntary trade in, or confiscation of guns is both logistically and politically impossible. 

2. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing the right of fire arm possession has been upheld by the Supreme Court in two modern cases:

District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 and McDonald v. Chicago in 2010 which clarified Heller to say that neither the federal government nor state governments can infringe on the right to fire arms possession.

3. In spite of retired Supreme Ct. Justice John Paul Stevens call to support the student gun control movement by repealing the Second Amendment to the Constitution, the repeal process makes such an event politically impossible. The procedure requires a two thirds vote in both houses of Congress and approval by three fourths of the fifty states legislatures. Currently the House of Representatives has 193 Democrats, the party most likely to support repeal, but a two thirds vote requires 292. In the Senate, a two thirds vote requires 67 in the affirmative. Currently the Democrats have 49 seats and the Republicans 51. While there would likely be a small level of cross party voting both “for” and “against”, the numbers required are far out of reach in either house.  


The three fourths requirement for approval by state legislatures is equally daunting. Thirty-eight states would have to approve the repeal meaning only 13 states are required to block it. There are at least 30 states, mostly in the South and West that would likely not approve of such a repeal. Indeed, 31 states currently allow the open carrying of pistols. Other states allow concealed carry.


What this means for the gun control movement is that banning possession of firearms by the federal or state governments is politically impossible and should be taken out of the debate.

It also means that the National Rifle Association’s “slippery slope” objection to all gun control measures based on the ultimate “threat” of registration leading to confiscation is fiction.

Thus the debate should be narrowed to policies that might achieve a consensus.  The measures most frequently mentioned and which are part of the demands of the student movement, include

banning the sale or possession of so called “assault rifles”. These are rifles, made by a number of manufacturers both domestic and foreign, that resemble the U.S. military’s M-16 rifle, itself an adaptation of the civilian Armalite AR-15.

The horror of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School attack brought back the memories of what seems like a plague of similar mass shootings, the most notorious being the Columbine High School attack in Colorado, the Newtown, CT. elemantary school attack,  and the Las Vegas massacre in 2017 which left 59 dead and 422 wounded. All of these incidents involved the use of AR-15 style rifles.  Thus the frustration with the apparent inability of the legal system to act as a deterrent for these unfathomable acts is understandable. But such a legislative deterrent has been tried before and it’s provisions and limitations need to be studied before any similar effort is undertaken.  


The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Act of 1994 was passed in the aftermath of several mass shootings; the 1989 Cleveland Elementary School shooting in Stockton, California in which the shooter used an AK-47 semi-automatic rifle to kill five students and wound thirty; the 1991 Luby’s shooting in Killeen,TX which claimed the lives of twenty-three and left 27 wounded; the shooter used two semi-automatic pistols; and the 101 California Street shooting in San Francisco in 1993 in which eight people died and six were wounded. The shooter used three semi-automatic pistols.


This “assault weapons ban” prohibited “the manufacture, transfer, or possession of semiautomatic assault weapons" as defined by the Act. The “definition” included a list of specific brands and models, plus a list of features that would be used to fit the label of “semi-automatic assault weapons”, some of which included certain types of hand guns. There was particular mention of “large capacity magazines”.


While the legislation was being debated, and in anticipation of it’s being passed and signed by President Clinton, sales of the already popular AR-15 type rifles boomed. Faced with the impossibility, both practical and political, of identifying the owners of millions of weapons and then creating some kind of program to take possession of them, led to the inclusion in the  Act of a "grandfather clause" that allowed for the possession and transfer of weapons and ammunition that "were otherwise lawfully possessed on the date of enactment".


The The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Act of 1994 also contained a “sunset” provision of ten years. The law thus expired in 2004 and efforts to renew it or make it permanent failed.

In 2008, presidential candidate Obama stated his preference for renewing the ban on “assault rifles” and stimulated another buying frenzy among gun enthusiasts. That initiative never gained ground. However the same mind set among a growing set of gun possessors is now currently active.


While media attention and school children marches and protests seem to be creating a positive political environment for a renewed effort, the same major weakness of the original legislation exists in inflated form.  No one actually knows how many “assault weapons” are in private hands in the U.S.  Various “experts” from the FBI, ATF and the gun manufacturing sector have provided “guesstimates” and the numbers range from five to ten million.  This represents a permanent and formidable private market for these weapons as well as the same political and practical barrier to any goal of eliminating their private possession. 

The renewal of the ban might deter some impulse driven teenager from purchasing one unless he sought out the delayed gratification in the secondary personal market. But the availability of numerous standard semi-automatic handguns with internal magazines, some of which hold up to eighteen rounds, would probably be an attractive option at a fourth of the price of most of the AR-15s.


Thus while passing an assault weapons ban which would necessarily be similar to the 1994 version, would provide political cover for politicians and partially satisfy the demands of the pressure groups and protesters, the emphasis for dealing with the problem of mass shootings, especially at schools should be elsewhere. Assuming that deadly firearms of various types will always be available to individuals intent on carrying out these horrendous acts, the logical alternative policies to deter them should be about the potential shooters themselves. 


The student protest movement’s demands include enhanced universal background checks on individuals attempting to purchase any kind of firearm. The school shooters have been obviously psychologically disturbed individuals whose behavior should have elicited warning signs to parents, teachers, school counselors and mental health personnel who may have come in contact with them. A reporting system including an easily accessible central data bank is a doable project. Legal modifications to an over restrictive personal privacy regime would need to be made along with a scale of risk to allow appeals for removal. This would be a political challenge but would also test the level of genuine concern that gun control politicians have for public safety.


In the case of school shootings, the perpetrators have been students themselves, recent students, or just disturbed young people. A federal age limit of at least twenty-one to purchase a firearm or ammunition would have deterred the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooter who is twenty. The legal age for the purchase of alcohol is twenty-one.  The typical age requirement for the states now allowing recreational marijuana sales is twenty-one. It would seem logical that the purchase of a firearm should require at least the same level of maturity as your typical pot head.


Thus the list of potentially effective legislative options for dealing with mass shootings with the use of semi-automatic weapons is limited. Additional armed and properly equipped security officers would serve as a deterrent as would video monitoring of hallways and public spaces in schools between classes.  Arming teachers is a bad idea. In all probability, most teachers would decline that responsibility. Aside from full time carrying, making a loaded weapon both quickly accessible and secure against unauthorized access would be a physical problem and could be a legal nightmare in case of accident or misuse. 


Even a ban on “high capacity” magazines if enforceable, would provide little inconvenience to shooters. The 1994 law allowed only magazines with a capacity of ten cartridges but shooters can carry multiple magazines and can reload in a matter of seconds.


Thus a ban on the manufacture, sale, or possession of “assault weapons” and “high capacity magazines” and rarely used “bump stocks” are mostly political responses to the problem. The focus should be on identifying and deterring or neutralizing the sick individuals who carry out these horrendous acts. Still,  mass shootings, like the vast majority of gun crimes are matters of random personal behavior and in a politically democratic nation with a historic firearms culture and a constitution that protects it, aberrant personal behavior is impossible to completely control.