Sep 30 2013

“Have a nice day!” “Thank you. Khodahafez.” This, according to a Twitter account belonging to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, is how the first direct talks betwen U.S. and Iranian leaders since 1979 concluded on September 27. President Obama ended the 15-minute phone with the Persian equivalent of ‘goodbye,’ which translates as “God go with you.”

Since Rouhani stepped in for former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August, a stunning transformation has occured in Iran’s diplomatic stance toward the West–one that is moving so quickly that Iran itself can’t seem to keep up. It is a widely-noted irony that Rouhani’s Twitter account has become such an important tool of his diplomacy when, for now at least, Iran’s citizens are still denied access to Twitter and other social media sites.

In a year marked by overwhelming violence in the Middle East and tinged with a melancholy acceptance of the world’s political impotence to resolve the region’s numerous crises, the sudden softening of tensions with Iran seems too good to be true. To many Israelis, it’s even downright suspicious. It was just over a year ago that the two nations appeared to be on the verge of an armed confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program, and now Israel’s leaders are warning that Rouhani’s gestures are only a tactic to divert attention away from what they believe to be Iran’s goal: joining the fraternity of nuclear-armed nations.

That remains to be seen, and it’s natural to say that words are not enough–that Iran must make real, tangible actions to back up its friendlier tone (and tweets). But in what has essentially been a three decade-long war of words, a change in rhetoric is significant in and of itself.

It’s worth remembering that Israel and Iran have not historically been enemies, nor have they engaged in open hostilities. The idea that Iran could pose an existential threat to Israel has been based almost solely on rhetoric since the 1979 revolution, especially Ahmadinejad’s firey and provocative statements over the past decade. But despite all of that, the conflict between the two countries is not marked by the scars of violence and terrorism like other disputes in the region. “In the back of the historical memory of the Israelis, when you speak about Iran, Iran is considered to be a good friend of Israel,” said David Menashri, an Israeli expert, in an 2012 CNN article.

While Iran’s political trajectory is still ultimately decided by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it shouldn’t be taken for granted that Rouhani, known to be a moderate very different from Ahmadinejad, was elected with strong support from the Iranian people. This sends a signal to Khamenei as well as the rest of the world, that Iran is under internal pressure to take its diplomatic strategy in a different direction. Yes, Iran will insist on the right to develop its own advanced technologies, especially nuclear energy, and Khamenei will never let go of the Islamic revolution that first put Iran at odds with Israel and the West. But he may come around to the idea that the global community is willing to cooperate with an Islamic Iran, and that such an arrangement would be preferable to isolation and harsh sanctions that have seriously harmed Iran’s economy.

The reason that shift of position may just be possible now is due in part to President Obama’s Middle East strategy, which has been characterized as “measured and cautious” by supporters, and “leading from behind” by detractors. Either way, it’s been a consistent show of restraint compared to predecessors, and as a result, Iran has every reason to feel more secure against the threat of outsider influence and threat of regime change these days. Even the world’s current number one pariah, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, has managed to stave off international intervention in his three-year-long civil war. At the same time, the region has seen home-grown revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia come to the brink of devolving into civil wars of their own. No rational policymaker would be pushing for a major revolution in Iran right now.

Khamenei’s belief that the West and Iran are ideological and mortal enemies, and that the U.S. is always secretly working to engineer a revolution could be characterized as paranoia, were it not for the CIA’s recent admission of its role in Iran’s 1953 coup that overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Exchaning pleasantries is one thing, but restoring diplomatic trust with such a history will be a long process.

The potential benefits of investing in an improved relationship are certainly worthwhile, though. Driven to isolation, and labeled by former President Bush as a member of the “Axis of Evil,” Iran was forced into a positon where it had to pretend to be crazy enough to build–and use–a nuclear weapon. Under Ahmadinejad’s strategy, this was seen as the only way to be treated respectfully by the international community, but it put the whole region, and the world, on edge. It also pushed Iran toward building a closer alliance with Russia and China, who have been working to consolidate a coalition with the power to work outside of the rules imposed by the U.S. through global institutions like the UN.

Iran’s sudden turn will not immediately satisfy Israel, nor will it sufficiently alter the political landscape to find a meaningful resolution in Syria, but there’s nothing to lose by welcoming the friendly gesture and showing that the door really is open for it to rejoin the international community. The West will have to be prepared to take concrete actions to show good faith as well, though, because just as we have skeptics here, Iran has its own influential players who believe the U.S. will stop at nothing to keep them isolated and vulnerable.

“I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight ,” President Obama told the United Nations. “The suspicion runs too deep.” But a phone call and some tweets are a good start.

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Occupy the World

Jul 08 2013

The Occupy Wall Street movement feels like a long, long time ago now.  The protest camps have long been removed from New York’s Zuccotti Park and D.C.’s McPherson Square, although the “99%” rallying cry is still heard from time to time.  The movement may have sealed its own fate when it defined itself as a leaderless, multi-issue protest, resulting in a lack of focus and, ultimately, irrelevancy (No one has even updated Occupy D.C.’s Wikipedia page to note that it’s been gone for well over a year).  Its most enduring legacy appears to be the #Occupy hashtag on Twitter that is often quickly adopted by youth-led protests that pop up around the globe.

One recent entrant, #OccupyGezi, rose to prominence on Twitter to label an outbreak of protests in Istanbul, Turkey, that quickly spread to the country’s other major cities in June.  In late May a small group of protesters gathered in Gezi Park to rally against government plans to build a shopping mall on top of one of the city’s few green spaces.  After an excessively forceful response by police, more people came out to the nearby Taksim Square in support of the protesters, escalating into a large scale movement voicing grievances against the Turkish government and its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  After twelve days of the protest, the Square was raided by riot police firing rubber bullets, water cannons, and teargas to disperse the crowd.

Meanwhile in the Western hemisphere, Brazil faced its largest protests in decades as 1 million citizens took to the streets of several cities with a range of complaints including government corruption, poor public services, high taxes, and excessive government spending on preparations for hosting next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.  In true ‘Occupy’ style, the movement is leaderless and has no clear set of demands.  Like the demonstrations in Turkey, Brazil’s revolt began with an isolated protest (in this case, against an increase in city bus fares) that sparked something much larger after police intervened with excessive force.

If you’ve been following international news the last few years, a couple of unrelated protests on separate continents hardly raises an eyebrow, especially since they’re more in the mold of the inconsequential Occupy movement than the Arab Spring protests that shook up the Middle East.  But what makes these cases interesting is that both countries are fairly successful democracies with strong economies and popular elected leaders.

In a piece about Turkey that could just as well apply to Brazil, William Dobson writes for Slate, “In the last two years, we have become so accustomed to seeing people rise up against their governments (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, the list goes on) that we expect them to share the same goal—toppling their government. But that’s not what most of the people in Taksim Square were clamoring for. They are in no hurry to throw out the system. The truth is that as countries go the system in Turkey has worked pretty well.”

Turkey has drawn international praise over the past decade as Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (Known by its Turkish acronym, AKP) have enacted successful policies that have earned decisive reelections and approval ratings well above 50%.  Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff was just elected in 2010 and is expected to be a strong favorite for reelection in a country that continues to display a vibrant and innovative participatory democracy.

Where the similarities between the two countries and the recent protests break down, however, is in the personalities and responses of their elected leaders.  Brazil’s President Rousseff responded sympathetically to the protesters, acknowledging their grievances and vowing to meet with representatives to discuss reform options.  Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, on the other hand, labeled protesters as terrorists and thugs, blamed them for hurting the economy, and vowed to counter demonstrations with even larger crowds of his own supporters.

Turkey and Brazil demonstrate how democracy is not a single, easily definable concept, but rather comes in different strengths and varieties.  Brazil’s “participatory democracy” gives citizens ample opportunity to voice concerns even between election cycles.  Although still widely popular, Rousseff could face stiff competition in the next election if she fails to show an adequate response to the protests.

Erdogan, on the other hand, has little to fear from the demonstrations, and observes a strict “majoritarian” view of democracy.  Under this system, citizens get to vote in free elections, but that’s where their invitation to participate ends.  The winner of the election leads the country as he sees fit, without regard for minority interests, and Erdogan has been in power so long that he and the AKP have drifted closer to authoritarian style rule.  Despite promising to uphold Turkey’s secular laws, Erdogan, a devout Muslim, has recently begun invading peoples’ private lives by passing restrictions on alcohol consumption and arguing that women should bear at least three children.  Dobson argues that Erdogan is the authoritarian equivalent of a rock star, even more successful than the late Hugo Chavez in that he has taken on the role of dictator while also winning international acclaim for his democratic reforms and economic policy successes.

It’s too early to close the book (or finalize the Wikipedia pages) on “Occupy Gezi” and “Occupy Brazil,” but already they may tell us something about democracy in the United States, and why its own Occupy movement failed.  Our democratic republican form of government is certainly more majoritarian in nature than Brazil’s, or most countries’ with a parliamentary form of government, for that matter.  Politicians here can, to an extent, ignore protest movements, particularly those that refuse to produce leaders who can seek to build influence within the two-party system.  However, unlike Turkey, civic participation extends beyond just voting every couple of years, and we have two (some will say ‘arguably’) viable choices in parties.  A question worth asking, then, will be whether the U.S.’s middle-ground position on this democracy spectrum is the most desirable style of governance.

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Give Transparency Another Try

Jun 06 2013

May is the start of the summer Hollywood blockbuster season, but for political news junkies the best popcorn show in town was the endless stream of scandals erupting in Washington. First, the neverending investigation of the September 2012 attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi somehow picked up steam again. Then the IRS clumsily broke the story that it had improperly targeted Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status for extra scrutiny. The kicker appeared to be the revelation that the Department of Justice secretly acquired phone records for over 100 Associated Press reporters as part of an investigation into a national security leak. But this seems to have given way to a drip, drip of fresh stories about federal investigations of even more journalists, sparking a fierce discussion in the press about the Administration’s attitude toward the First Amendment.

The spectacle of outraged politicians and journalists, and Congressional oversight hearings that jumped between topics so quickly that they were sometimes hard to follow, was certainly entertaining to watch (if that’s your thing). But like any other summer blockbuster, the May scandals were mostly a barrage of deceptive special effects lacking a plot to string them all together.

What we had were not really White House scandals at all, and, contrary to what President Obama’s critics on the right said, or wished, they did not uncover any pattern of abuse of power or come anywhere close to Watergate or the Iran-Contra affair. As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post put it, “…Absent more revelations, the scandals that could reach high don’t seem to include any real wrongdoing, whereas the ones that include real wrongdoing don’t reach high enough.”

If anything, the hysterics of a handful of Republicans who started talking about impeachment before knowing the basic facts of the cases somehow managed to look worse than the President in what would have been a very challenging few weeks for him if they had shown more restraint.

The more reasonable critics argued that, even if Obama was not directly involved or knowledgeable of things like the IRS scandal, he shares responsibility for setting a tone that allowed the behavior to continue without drawing the proper level of scrutiny. This is not an impeachable offense, but it may be a valid critique of his management style.

Where those detractors went wrong is in saying that the President set a hostile, offensive tone against his “enemies.” Columnist Jonah Goldberg, for example, said of Obama that, “He’s made it clear that people who disagree with him are fevered, illegitimate, weird, creepy, dangerous, stupid, confused, ignorant, or some other adjective you might assign to a revamped version of the Seven Dwarfs.” I don’t blame him for feeling this way, but I don’t think that’s the message coming from the President.

Instead I see a defensive stance from the Executive Branch, a vain attempt to control the flow of information in a political and media climate so volatile that–no joke–even the President requesting a Marine to hold an umbrella over him during a rainy outdoor press conference sparks a firestorm of angry tweets and blog posts.

The Obama Administration developed a reputation for being tight-lipped going all the way back to the 2008 Presidential Election, where the candidate earned the moniker, “No-Drama-Obama,” for the disciplined, leak-devoid nature of his campaign. But some of this anti-leaking tone is also a result of the decade-old War on Terror.

With operations in Iraq finished and those in Afghanistan winding down, the War on Terror has evolved into the nebulous, borderless, mainly covert war that it always sounded like. Drones have replaced boots on the ground, and the lines between military and CIA operations often remain a blur. The counter-terrorism strategy employs a broad umbrella of secrecy over everything from drone policy to handling of detainees, and has long incurred criticism from the left.

At the same time, the Administration has earned the dubious distinction of having indicted twice as many individuals (six) for leaking classified information to the press than all previous administrations combined, and has alarmingly gone so far as to consider at least one journalist a co-conspirator in a criminal leak investigation.

Explanations for why this has happened are not all sinister in nature. Rather than any top-down policy, some experts argue that the investigations were pursued by separate prosecutors working independently. It has also become easier to track down the sources of leaks electronically. But the underlying reason there are so many leaks to begin with could have something to do with just how much information is classified these days.

The culture of secrecy in Washington is routinely justified on the grounds of national security, and this is usually a legitimate explanation. But it may have also inadvertantly set an example for other federal agencies that, when the public and the media cannot be trusted to correctly interpret certain information that could reflect poorly on the Administration, it is okay to keep it secret in order to avoid confusion. As the past month has shown, such thinking ends up causing more harm than good.

Contrary to claims made by President Obama, Eric Holder, and others, this administration has never impressed anyone with its efforts to promote transparency. Obama’s May 24 speech at the National Defense University, covering a huge swath of foreign policy and beginning to define an endgame for the War on Terror, was an important step in the right direction, and one that felt a couple years overdue. With the bulk of the goals set forth at the War’s outset now realized, it’s time to refocus on fully restoring the open, democratic society that the 9/11 attack disrupted. The questions will be whether this administration has the right temperament to shift in that direction over the next three years, and whether the people are patient and trusting enough in their government at this point to allow it to do so.

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Friendly Fire

Apr 02 2013

One of my former political science professors told my class that the higher one climbs in political leadership–or any management position, for that matter–the more time one spends praising others and receiving blame. The accuracy of that statement is abundantly clear for members of Congress, who might feel a great relief if their jobs were merely thankless during the last few years of cyclical fiscal crises that have driven their approval ratings to historic lows.

Whether or not people know what “Sequestration” is by now, chances are that they are angry about it and so frustrated by Congress’s inability to resolve the disputes it has created for itself that they are giving up on reasonable solutions and grasping instead for poetic justice. A common suggestion has been to dock Congress members’ pay until they come to a compromise. It’s unlikely this would achieve much, but the Constitution’s 27th Amendment forbids Congress from tampering with its own pay anyway. (That hasn’t stopped the idea’s populist appeal, though, so John Barrow, a Democrat from Georgia, went so far as to propose a change to the amendment so that it only restricts Congress from voting itself pay increases, but not decreases.) Meanwhile, Congressional offices could still receive budget cuts, but all that does is hit the underpaid staffers, not to mention the constituents they serve. That won’t really satisfy anyone.

These days Representatives are routinely shamed for acting like petulant children, but that comparison is misleading. For ‘accountability’ to actually mean something, voters have to look beyond the politicians’ public personae and understand the political forces that push them into behaving the way they do.

For decades the balance of power in Washington has been shifting in favor of special interest groups who use member fees to pump money into influencing elections. That’s not new, but what is interesting lately is that some of these groups no longer just spend their money backing one party’s candidates over the other’s, but instead are threatening to back primary challengers to their own party’s sitting members in retaliation for any behavior perceived to be too moderate.

During budget negotiations a few months ago some Democrats, hoping to end a bitter stalemate, offered a relatively minor concession to the Republicans, who have sought to cut unnecessary spending on Social Security and Medicare by recalculating annual inflation so that the benefits seniors receive would more accurately reflect increases to their cost of living. Senior advocacy groups leaped into action and mobilized to put intense pressure on the Democrats not to “throw seniors under the bus.” One group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) openly threatened to back primary challengers to any incumbent Democrats who backed the offer. Today the plan is still extremely controversial, and prominent Democrats, including Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen, strongly oppose it, limiting their bargaining options.

The strategy has popped up even more frequently on the other side of the aisle. The conservative Club for Growth has threatened primary challenges against any Republican incumbents they believe to be compromising on pure conservative principles. The group even launched a website called “Primary My Congressman!” featuring nine Representatives it pegs as “Republicans in name only,” or R.I.N.O.’s.

“…In districts that are heavily Republican,” the website explains, “there are literally dozens of missed opportunities to elect real fiscal conservatives to Congress — not more ‘moderates’ who will compromise with Democrats to just increase spending and grow government a little bit slower than usual.”

If you’re looking for one of the big sources of partisan gridlock in D.C., look no further. These special interest groups are dedicating their time and money to turning “moderate” into a dirty word and ensuring that compromise is next to impossible.

Like I said, this strategy by such groups is not new, and has been strongly linked to greater partisanship since the 90s. It’d be an oversight, however, not to see some of the Tea Party’s influence in this trend. Whether the Republican establishment didn’t know what they were getting themselves into when they worked to co-opt to the Tea Party movement, or just didn’t care, the resulting fissure in their party has become increasingly public. And for now, the bulk of popular enthusiasm seems to be favoring the insurgent, uncompromising far-right over the more moderate establishment.

To be clear, the same divisive forces are at work in the Democratic party, and they could become just as problematic in the future. The difference for now is that, by the will of the voters, the Republicans are the minority party, but are not acting like one. The Tea Party and groups like the Club For Growth are not content to admit defeat and work towards rebuilding their base of support for the future. Their solution to losing ground is to go to even further ideological extremes, and they sell their vision to diehard supporters like it’s never been tried before.  They are the very roadblock to resolution that they accuse other members of Congress of being.

There aren’t any easy solutions to this problem. Some political scientists argue that the proliferation of interest groups that clog the gears of Congress and uphold an increasingly untenable fiscal structure that benefits a few at the expense of the many is the inevitable result of a flaw in our form of governance. That’s biting off a lot more than I can chew here, but getting a little closer to understanding why our elected officials are stuck in the mud on Sequestration and other fiscal matters is a useful endeavor. Sure, they’ll still get the blame either way, as befits their position, but there’s more than enough to go around to the lesser known players standing in the way of progress.

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