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“A Progressive Perspective”: Congress Should Approve The President’s Request To Punish The Use Of Chemical Weapons

I began my work in politics and the Progressive Movement working for civil rights and the end of the Viet Nam War in the 1960’s. And I worked hard to end one of the greatest foreign policy outrages of my lifetime – the War in Iraq.

I believe that U.S. military and covert actions to support the status quo in Central and South America, Africa and Asia were utterly indefensible.

But I also believe that there are times when the use of military force is not only justified – but required.

Bashar al Assad cannot be allowed to use chemical weapons to kill 1,400 people – over 400 children – in the plain site of the entire world – with impunity. It’s that simple.

Since the end of World War I – almost a century ago – there has been a worldwide consensus that human society will not allow combatants in conflicts to use chemical or biological weapons. After World War II, nuclear weapons were added to the list.

These true weapons of mass destruction present a danger far beyond their effects on the immediate combatants – or even the innocent bystanders – of a particular conflict. If the world allows and thereby legitimates their use, it will unleash forces that could endanger huge swaths of human society – and even the existence of humanity itself.

While chemical weapons cannot do damage as extensive as nuclear or radiological weapons – they have the potential of killing and maiming tens of thousands of our fellow human beings within hours or minutes. And their horrific effects have been graphically demonstrated in real time on the television screens of the world documenting Assad’s attacks on innocent civilians.

Sometime in the last century, human society entered a gauntlet. As we pass through that gauntlet, a race is on to determine whether our values and political structures evolve fast enough to keep up with the geometric increases in our technology? If they do, technology could propel human beings into an awesome and unprecedented period of freedom, possibility and fulfillment. If not, we could destroy ourselves and turn into an evolutionary dead end – like our cousins the Neanderthals.

To survive that gauntlet, it is critically important that we do everything in our power to absolutely ban the use of weapons of mass destruction – and to make those who violate that ban into worldwide pariahs. We must make their use unthinkable.

In political and historic narratives – some moments take on an iconic, symbolic importance. Assad’s use of chemical weapons is now one of them. Will the world stand idly by while we watch – up close and personal – as a government uses chemical weapons with impunity? Or will someone take action to require that the perpetrators of this crime be made to pay a price?

Most people in the world wish that someone had stepped up to stop the horrific genocide in Rwanda. Most now believe President Clinton and NATO did the right thing to prevent ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

History will judge us harshly, if we stand by idly, and legitimate the use of chemical weapons – and weapons of mass destruction in general – by allowing their use in the view of the full world to go unpunished.

And let’s be clear. We’re not debating who has the right to possess these weapons – or to possess nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction here — a major topic of political debate in the world for the last decade. We are talking about their actual use.

If we agree that we cannot allow that actual use to occur with utter impunity, then the only question remaining is – who will act to impose a serious sanction?

Unfortunately the United Nations has not yet evolved into an institution that has the ability to escape gridlock if one of the world’s major powers stands in the way. It will not act. Russia and China will prevent it.

So as a practical matter, if the United States does not lead some sort of international action to do so, it will not happen.

Of course the legacy of the War in Iraq casts a giant shadow on this showdown over chemical weapons in Syria. Its legacy casts doubt on the accuracy of American intelligence, and causes everyday Americans to be very reluctant to support any use of force in the world.

But this is not Iraq. The President is not asking for authorization to go to war – or to become engaged in the Syrian Civil War. He is not proposing – as Bush proposed in Iraq – an American military invasion. He is not proposing a campaign of “regime change” or “nation building.” America’s decision will surely have implications for the Syrian Civil War, but this decision is not even mainly about the Syrian Civil War. It is mainly about the use of chemical weapons.

The President is proposing that the Congress authorize him to take action in this very narrow circumstance. He is proposing that the world community demonstrate that if someone uses chemical weapons, there will be a substantial cost to that action – that we do not allow such an act to occur with impunity. Because if the world sits by, the message will be crystal clear: that the use of chemical weapons has once again become an acceptable means of armed conflict. That would be a tragedy – and would endanger the future of all of the world’s children – who could one day find themselves writhing in pain and gasping for breath like the Syrian children we all watched on television.

Condemnation and “moral outrage” against the use of chemical weapons do not constitute a sanction. They are, in fact, no sanction at all. We would never allow the perpetrator of a rape or murder in the United States to be subjected to “moral outrage” and sent home to contemplate his deed. How much less can we allow that to the be case when a government has murdered 1,400 of its own people using weapons that have been universally condemned by the entire international community for almost 100 years. That defies common sense.

I would argue that the control – and ultimate elimination of weapons of mass destruction – chemical, biological and nuclear – is one of the most critical priorities for Progressives like myself, and for our entire society. To secure the future of our species, we must eliminate them – not only from the hands of tyrants like Assad, or unreliable nation states, or non-state actors – but from all of the world’s arsenals, including our own.

We have begun to make progress down that long and difficult road with the end of the Cold War, the chemical weapons treaty, nuclear weapons treaties – and most importantly, the developing worldwide consensus that their use is unthinkable.

The world cannot afford an iconic use of chemical weapons to go unpunished. And the United States of America alone in the world has the ability to lead an appropriate international response.

By: Robert Creamer, The Huffington Post, September 1, 2013

September 2, 2013 Posted by | Syria | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A New Kind of Union”: Best Hope For Restoring Political Equality Is For The Poor And Middle Class To Organize Politically

The financial challenges low- and middle-income Americans face are daunting. But the poor and middle class are in an equally serious, if less well recognized, political predicament: the government has become almost entirely unresponsive to them.

This a profound political failure. A democracy in which government policy responds to the rich and not to the poor or the middle class is a democracy unworthy of the name.

For several decades now, we have tried to deal with the problem of money in politics with campaign finance regulation, but reform has failed. Political actors, enabled by the Supreme Court, have responded to regulations simply by redirecting their spending in unregulated directions.

The end of campaign-finance reform, however, is not the end of the line. Although we pay too little attention to this fact, there are still sources of power in American politics that are not dependent on wealth. Primary among these is political organization. In fact, the best hope for restoring political equality is to make it easier for the poor and middle class to organize politically.

Throughout much of the 20th century, we had a legal system in the United States that was remarkably successful at promoting just this kind of political organizing. That legal system was labor law, and it is not a coincidence that during these same decades the labor union was able to serve as a highly successful political voice for the lower and middle classes.

Unions, after all, represent workers, nearly all of whom are in the income classes currently lacking effective political representation. Unions turned out their members to vote and consolidated millions of modest contributions into powerful campaign and lobbying operations. Sometimes, unions pushed for politically liberal causes, and sometimes for conservative ones. But when they were powerful, unions were able to insist that government policy respond to the views of the poor and the middle class.

In contemporary America, however, there is a nearly insurmountable impediment to unions’ ability to serve as a collective political voice for workers. It stems from the legal requirement that unions bundle political organization with collective bargaining, which means that in order to take advantage of the union as a form of political organization, workers must organize economically for collective bargaining purposes.

This bundling of functions, an artifact of how unions formed historically, is a major problem for political organizing today. This is true most obviously because managerial opposition to collective bargaining has become pervasive. It is also true because changes in markets have made the practice of collective bargaining difficult. And because substantial numbers of American workers say they do not want to collectively bargain with their employers, traditional unions are not an attractive form of political organization for many.

All of this has contributed to a dramatic decrease in unionization rates, which has in turn played a central role in the declining responsiveness of government.

But what if we unbundle the union and allow workers to organize politically without also organizing for collective bargaining? If we shift our aim away from reviving collective bargaining and toward enabling political organizing by underrepresented groups, we would allow workers to organize “political unions” even when they don’t want to organize collective bargaining ones.

It’s more straightforward than it sounds. The key is that we would make the workplace available as a site for political organization. While the law would continue to protect workers’ right to organize traditional unions, it would also protect workers’ right to organize strictly political ones. Workers would have the right to talk about politics with one another at work, as long as they did so during nonworking time.

Employers would be prohibited from retaliating against their employees who organized politically, and if the workers did form a political union, they would be entitled — as traditional unions are — to use voluntary payroll deductions to finance their activities. But these political unions would be prohibited from collective bargaining, and no worker would ever be required to pay dues to a political union — or to be represented by one — unless she chose to be.

The types of policies that political unions chose to pursue would be entirely up to their members. Some might fight for bread-and-butter issues like a higher minimum wage, but others might concentrate on social issues or even foreign policy. But whatever issues they chose to pursue, these unions would give a political voice to those in America who currently lack one.

Campaign-finance reform has failed because it does nothing to address the underlying disparities in wealth distribution that produce political inequality in the first place. Legal reforms that enable political organizing are fundamentally different because organization, like wealth, is its own source of political power.

Allowing workers to organize for politics, even when they decide not to organize for collective bargaining, would help restore balance to a democracy that wealth has so badly skewed.


By: Benjamin I. Sachs, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, September 1, 2013

September 2, 2013 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Unions | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Unlike The Invasion Of Iraq”: The Syrian Government’s Use Of Chemical Weapons Matters To U. S. National Security

On Saturday President Obama said that a large-scale chemical weapons attack “presents a serious danger to our national security.”

This is a key notion in the debate about whether the U.S. should again choose to meddle in the Middle East.

The president gave three reasons:

1) “It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.”

Earlier this week Ian Bremmer told Business Insider the U.S. “has to respond given international norms against the use of chemical weapons” because the “costs of not responding at this point are too high.”

The international norm argument underlies Obama’s “question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?”

2) “It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.”

The U.S. stated, in a law signed by Obama in July 2012, that the strategic environment in the Middle East poses “great challenges to the national security of the United States and our allies in the region, particularly our most important ally in the region.”

And several of America’s other allies in the region are calling for U.S. intervention aimed at toppling Assad so that the devastating 29-month conflict ends.

“Obama never needed to go searching for a coalition of the willing for Syria; one … has been knocking, in fact, at the door of the Oval Office for quite some time,” Interpreter Magazine Editor-in-Chief Michael D. Weiss wrote in Foreign Policy. “Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, all see Syria as a grave short-term threat to their national security.”

3) “It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.”

This reason involves the fear that Assad would transfer chemical weapons to Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based terrorist group and Iranian proxy that has more than 60,000 rockets pointed at Israel.

Furthermore, Michael Gordon of The New York Times reported that effective strikes “may also send a signal to Iran that the White House is prepared to back up its words, no small consideration for an administration that has proclaimed that the use of military force remains an option if the leadership in Iran insists on fielding a nuclear weapon.”

In Obama’s words: “If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?”

So, unlike the invasion of Iraq, it appears that the Assad’s regime’s perceived large-scale use of chemical weapons — and a response to such an action — actually involves legitimate national security interests.


By: Michael Kelly, Business Insider, August 31, 2013

September 2, 2013 Posted by | Middle East, National Security | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Correlation Does Not Imply Causation”: The Myth Of Murderous Chicago, Neat, Simple And Wrong

A neatly typed letter arrived at the office the other day. It included a check made out to the National Rifle Association, on my behalf.

The reader, disgruntled by my call for reasonable gun control laws, thought it pertinent to take another lick at one of the right wing’s favorite whipping boys: Chicago. “If one thinks that gun control works,” he wrote, “I would ask them why Chicago, with some of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation, had over 500 homicides in 2012.”

For those who don’t watch Fox News or regularly peruse WorldNetDaily, this is a favorite theme on the right. Chicago is the murder capital of the nation, and also its gun control capital. I will disprove that first contention in a moment, but first let’s take the implied argument at face value: Gun control laws permit more murders to happen.

Correlation does not imply causation, but for a moment let’s enter the wingnut world where it does. In 2012, there were 507 homicides in Chicago. Ten years earlier, the statistic was 656. Ten years before that, it was 943. Holy cow! Chicago’s anti-gun laws must be working!

Not so fast. The murder rate has declined sharply across the country in the last 20 years. Chicago might still be at the top of the heap for murders. Indeed, 507 is a big number, the biggest of any city in the U.S. in 2012. But Chicago is a big place. The key is to take the number of murders, multiply by 100,000 and then divide by the population. That gives you the standard expression of the homicide rate: murders per 100,000.

How does Chicago stack up? Turns out it’s a dangerous place, but not even in the top 20 most deadly cities. Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn unraveled the myth of his city in a July piece that crunched preliminary FBI data on homicides, noting Chicago was safer than, among others places, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Little Rock, Kansas City, Montgomery, Memphis and Richmond.

And in 2013, Chicago’s homicide numbers are down. Zorn pointed out that in the first six months of 2013, there were 26 percent fewer murders than the prior year, the lowest raw number since 1965.
Explaining changes in the murder rate on the basis of a single factor, such as stricter gun control laws, is at best quack social science. Peruse the list of the top 20 cities by homicide rate and you will see metropolises in Northern blue states and Southern red ones, on the East Coast and the West Coast and smack in the heartland – all with gun restrictions that vary with regional preference.

So why do conservatives love to portray Chicago as a wasteland of bloodshed? Simple. Chicago is President Obama’s hometown, long a political stronghold for Democratic politics. For many, that’s reason enough to demonize the city, to degrade it by twisting something as dire as murder to fit an ideological narrative.

This is not an argument that everything in Chicago is hunky-dory. What about August reports that with the opening of Chicago’s public schools, hundreds of city employees were necessary to escort students through dangerous parts of town? And what about all of those headlines from the summer, like 4th of July weekend, during which 72 people were shot and 12 killed?

All true.

However, what citywide statistics don’t show is that over the last 20 years a great divide has opened up between Chicago neighborhoods in terms of safety, even as murders have dropped by half. As Daniel Hertz, a masters student at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, put it in his blog, City Notes, “at the same time as overall crime has declined, the inequality of violence in Chicago has skyrocketed.”

Hertz points out that crime and violence were never evenly distributed in Chicago, but that if you compare the present to the “bad old days” of the early 1990s – as he did, using Chicago Police data – you see that the relatively safe areas advanced to Toronto levels of security, while some marginal neighborhoods (including those near the city center and those in or near gentrifying areas) made stunning progress. Sadly, some neighborhoods, particularly on the South and West Sides, are more violent than they were in the 1990s, which is staggering to imagine.

Another way to put it is that violent crime, like income and wealth, is unevenly distributed in Chicago – and that this maldistribution is getting more extreme. I don’t have the data to say for sure, but I would guess that the same story is repeated in most of the other contenders for America’s murder capital.
Do you really want to solve the violent crime problem? Start by recognizing that guns travel. They go unimpeded from jurisdictions where they are easily gotten to places where they are not. Violence stays put.

Easy access to guns is just the icing. It’s the explosive fuse atop a long stack of community woes. There’s a 20th-century problem we haven’t solved: the inequality between races, between city and suburb, between ghetto and the leafier urban districts that Americans are falling in love with again. Every shooting in Chicago should remind us that we have failed.


By: Mary Sanchez, The Kansas City Star, Published in McClatchy,  August 30, 2013

September 2, 2013 Posted by | Gun Control, Gun Violence | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“For The Good Of Our Democracy”: On Syria, President Obama Had To Go To Congress

In seeking congressional authorization for military strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, President Obama is not weakening presidential power and is not looking for an out to avoid a war he doesn’t want. He is doing what is absolutely necessary in a democratic republic. He is rallying consent for a grave step and for what was always going to be a controversial decision.

True, Congress might vote no. If that happens, it is impossible to see how the president could then pursue an attack, even if he believes it necessary for national security. This is a risk, and a potential contradiction. It’s why Secretary of State John Kerry, a powerful advocate for Obama’s course, necessarily dodged questions on the Sunday talk shows about what the administration would do in the event of a negative congressional verdict. Obama simply has to assume it will win.

Congressional support is important for another reason: The policy Obama proposes is intended to do severe damage to Assad’s armed forces — from what I am gathering, no one in the administration is contemplating “pinpricks” or harmlessly tossing cruise missiles into lakes and fields – but also seeks to send a “message.” Using an act of war for “messaging” purposes is always vexed, but the message itself will be far more powerful if the President acts with Congress behind him. Were the president to act alone and then face an uproar in Congress, what would this do to American credibility and the world’s sense of our resolve?

And, yes, if the British Parliament could debate a strike, shouldn’t Congress?

Gaining democratic consent is especially important for an action that has very large long-term implications and clearly divides the country. Yes, the president did not seek congressional backing for his Libya policy. But in Libya, the United States was acting in support of allies. “Leading from behind” was a controversial phrase, but it did convey correctly that the United States was not acting alone or even as the lead power. In this instance, the United States is the main driver of the policy, and support from allies may be limited to France and a few other nations. A congressional stamp of approval would give the action the constitutional and global legitimacy it would lack if it were the decision of only one person. The delay created by seeking congressional support has the additional benefit of giving Obama more time to rally support around the world.

Nothing about this request will prevent Obama or future presidents from acting in an emergency and going to Congress later. But this is not an emergency. It is, however, important, and I wish Congress would call off its holiday and return to work, with the rest of the country, on Tuesday. If war isn’t a big enough deal to force Congress to shorten a recess, what is? The Senate seems to be moving in that direction. The House should, too.

Lastly — and, yes, this may seem wildly hopeful — a congressional debate of something this serious could be ennobling, whether the authorization wins or loses. Right from the start, the debate will not be purely partisan. Democrats are split, and so are Republicans.

Among progressives and liberals, there is a conflict over which historical metaphors are most informative. Those who see an attack on Syria as akin to Iraq or Vietnam have already started rallying in opposition. Those who see it as closer to our response in Bosnia and Kosovo (and our non-intervention in Rwanda) are more inclined to support the president. My hunch is that the president will rally enough Democrats to prevail, which is why I agree with the prediction of Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) Sunday on “Meet the Press” that the authorization will pass.

But this will be an even bigger test for Republicans, many of whom questioned the patriotism of Democrats who did not support President Bush during the Iraq war. There is also a genuinely anti-interventionist spirit within the libertarian wing of the party that was largely suppressed during the Iraq conflict and has come back to life under Obama. This view is represented most forcefully by Sen. Rand Paul, and it needs to be heard.

If this debate is carried out in good faith, as was the debate before the first Gulf War under President George H. W. Bush, it will strengthen the country. We often forget that the votes in the House and Senate over our response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait were closely divided. Yet the nation was more united because Americans knew their views had been forcefully represented in Congress. If, on the other hand, this Syrian debate is used by a significant number of Republicans for the main purpose of undermining Obama, the rest of the world will know how degraded our democracy has become. Call me naive, but I honestly think that most Republicans do not want this to happen and will rise to the seriousness of the moment, whatever their views.

Reluctantly, I think the president is right to strike against Assad. It’s widely said that Obama’s own words declaring a red line have boxed him in and that he has no choice but to act. That’s true, but insufficient. Obama spoke those words precisely because the use of chemical weapons risks, as he put it on Saturday, “making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons” and “could lead to escalating [their] use.” He had hoped that his words would be enough to deter Assad. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true.

I use that word “reluctantly” because, like so many who believe the Iraq war was a terrible mistake, I am wary of military intervention in the Middle East. But because of what Obama said and, more important, why he said it, I think we have to act in Syria.


By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 1, 2013

September 2, 2013 Posted by | Democracy | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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