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“Obama Facing The World As It Really Is”: A Smiling Pope, A Fallen Speaker And Two Tough Guys — Obama’s Crazy Week

The week began with President Obama on the tarmac of a military base in Maryland, waiting to welcome a global celebrity far more popular than he. It ended with him raising a toast to a hard-nosed world leader who has repeatedly challenged American interests and Obama’s resolve.

Along the way, the president’s most frequent legislative sparring partner in Washington relinquished his post on Capitol Hill, finally surrendering to the sharp polarization that has come to define American politics in the past five years. And abroad, another of Obama’s persistent antagonists — the Russian president — suddenly wanted a face-to-face chat about Syria and Ukraine.

The week’s events seemed like political surrealism. When Pope Francis arrived at the White House on Wednesday, the weather was so gorgeous it put Obama in a hopeful, reverential mood.

“What a beautiful day the Lord has made,” he said.

Two days later, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived on the South Lawn to a much stiffer, more martial ceremony, complete with a 21-gun salute and lengthy remarks read from thick binders. Behind the scenes, the two leaders grappled over questions of economic hacking and Beijing’s military adventurism in the South China Sea.

But amid the piety of the pope and the provocations by China loomed the potential of another government shutdown. The surprise announcement by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) on Friday that he would step down provided the week’s surpassing piece of political drama.

In Obama, Boehner has faced a determined adversary, but it was a mutiny within his own caucus that finally drove him to the exit. And as tempestuous as the Obama-Boehner relationship has been, the speaker’s departure signals that Obama may face an even more fractious GOP majority Congress in the remaining months of his presidency.

More than some of his predecessors, Obama is acutely aware of the contrast between his lofty ideals and the reality facing him. He talks about it all the time.

“Ultimately, global leadership requires us to see the world as it is, with all its danger and uncertainty,” the president told graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in May 2014. “But American leadership also requires us to see the world as it should be — a place where the aspirations of individual human beings really matters ; where hopes and not just fears govern; where the truths written into our founding documents can steer the currents of history in a direction of justice.”

The past week was a single lens into both those worlds, with their maddeningly uplifting complexity.

In Francis — and his progressive message on inequality, immigration and climate change — Obama saw the world as he wanted it to be. In everything else — Xi’s visit, Boehner’s resignation and a decision to meet with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin during the upcoming U.N. General Assembly session in New York — the president faced the world as it really is.

The president has had only a modest impact on three of the protagonists who dominated the week, although he has sought to engage all of them at different points. Xi and Obama have found a common cause in tackling climate change, but on many other important policy issues, they are at odds. Putin, like Xi, has joined the United States in pressuring Iran to scale back its nuclear program. But he defied American calls to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and has ignored the U.S. push to sideline Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as part of a political solution to the ongoing Syrian civil war. Obama sought to enlist Boehner’s help in forging fiscal and immigration reforms, but the GOP leader was never able to bring along enough members of his party to make the deals happen.

Still, Obama was at the center of all of the action over the past week.

Stanford University’s Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia for three years under Obama, returned a few days ago from Beijing. He said he was struck by the massive coverage in China of Xi’s visit to the United States, as he was by Putin’s desire to speak with Obama during the U.N. meeting. China’s and Russia’s dealings with the United States rank as each of those countries’ “most important bilateral relationship,” he said.

“It seems to me [Obama is] still pretty engaged in international affairs, and people want to engage him,” said McFaul, who directs Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “We’re still the central power in the international arena.”

During a news conference with Xi in the White House Rose Garden on Friday, Obama delivered a brief lecture on the many responsibilities that accompany China’s rise from the “poor, developing country” it once was to its current status.

“It is now a powerhouse. And that means it’s got responsibilities and expectations in terms of helping to uphold international rules that might not have existed before,” the president said.

But on several issues, Xi asserted that China would not mimic other world powers. “Democracy and human rights are the common pursuit of mankind,” he said. “At the same time, we must recognize that countries have different historical processes and realities, and we need to respect people of all countries in the right to choose their own development path independently.”

Although the White House has emphasized the value of the time Obama and Xi have spent “outside the glare of the klieg lights,” in the words of press secretary Josh Earnest, experts cautioned that that sort of schmoozing has its limits.

Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said there’s an “American tendency to believe in the personalization of relations.”

“It’s all generally true, but the president of China doesn’t come as a person,” he said. “He comes here as the leader of the Communist Party, and the leader of China.”

Obama’s exchanges with the pope were less charged.

Obama and Francis chatted amiably as the choir of Washington’s St. Augustine Catholic Church sang “Total Praise” on the South Lawn, and in their public remarks, the president and the pontiff emphasized their common values.

The pope said he found it “encouraging” that Obama was cutting carbon emissions linked to climate change. Meanwhile, the president not only praised Francis’s vision of “empathy,” but also said his “unique qualities as a person” gave the world “a living example of Jesus’s teachings, a leader whose moral authority comes not just through words but also through deeds.”

On Friday, after word of Boehner’s resignation became public, Obama said he hoped lawmakers would “really reflect on what His Holiness said,” especially the idea “that we listen to each other and show each other respect, and that we show regard for the most vulnerable in society.”

Seven decades ago, with Eastern Europe in turmoil, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin dismissed the Vatican’s influence in the world with this question: “How many [military] divisions does the pope of Rome have?”

Michael Ignatieff, a professor at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, described Obama as “a realist and a pragmatist” with reasons to align himself with Francis.

“A ‘realist’ fact about the modern world is Pope Francis has divisions,” said Ignatieff, who led Canada’s Liberal Party in opposition between 2008 and 2011. “He has articulated a longing for justice, the care of nature, the care of the poor — that’s very powerful stuff.”

 

By: Juliet Eilperin, White House Bureau Chief, The Washington Post, September 26, 2015

 

September 28, 2015 Posted by | John Boehner, Pope Francis, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Pope Francis Makes Tea Party Heads Explode”: Why Steve King & Louie Gohmert Have It In For The Pontiff

The Bishop of Rome is coming to Washington in September to address a joint session of Congress, and boy are things already getting frisky. Pope Francis is an extraordinarily popular Pope who’s not afraid to wield that popularity for human rights and economic justice. In other words, he’s well to the left of most members of Congress, and he may well get up in their faces about issues near and dear to him. Since you’re sort of required to clap for the Pope, this is going to make for an interesting scene.

In late 2013, not long after his election, Francis wrote an extensive document making economic justice a centerpiece of his papacy. “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life,” he wrote, “today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality.”

“Such an economy kills,” wrote Pope Francis, denouncing the current economic system as “unjust at its roots” and one “which defend(s) the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.” Such a system, he warned, is creating a “new tyranny,” which “unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.”

On foreign affairs he’s made his priorities known, too. Earlier this year, Francis helped broker the thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba, and just this week,the Vatican announced that it would sign a treaty recognizing a Palestinian state. As Patricia Miller writes in Salon, these sorts of moves aren’t some radical break in policy for the Vatican. It’s just that American conservatives were able to turn a blind eye to these actions before “rock star Francis” commanded their attention. “It’s more accurate,” Miller writes, “to view this particular step in the Vatican’s relationship with Palestine both as a continuation of the Holy See’s long-standing support for Palestinian statehood and as an expression of Francis’ overriding interest in fostering international peace—and his unique ability and willingness to put his finger on the scales to do so.”

The Vatican’s recognition of a Palestinian state under Francis comes at a time when the Republican Party is more reflexively “pro-Israel” — which is to say, pro-Netanyahu — than ever. It’s become routine, if not an outright litmus test, for Republican presidential candidates to reject the pursuit of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, a position that both Democratic and Republican standard-bearers have held for decades. The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to veto U.N. resolutions recognizing a Palestinian state as a favor to Netanyahu’s Israel, and yet Republicans still assault Obama as working hand-in-hand with the Iranians to assure Israel’s destruction. And now we’ve got an actual religious and political leader who has recognized a Palestinian state coming to address Congress.

The fine congressional reporters at Politico did that thing where they asked the usual funny, good-for-a-quote Republican suspects for their opinion on Francis’ upcoming speech in light of his treaty recognizing Palestine and other heretical moves, like his criticism of unregulated capitalism. And the members were, indeed, good for various funny quotes.

Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina is stunned to see the Pope getting so “political” and demands he rein in his activities to more traditional church-y stuff. “It’s interesting how the Vatican has gotten so political,” Duncan said, “when ultimately the Vatican ought to be working to lead people to Jesus Christ and salvation.” Iowa’s Steve King echoed Duncan, saying he’s not sure that he’s as good of a politician as he is a Pope.”

Know your place, sweetheart.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp holds the interesting position that Catholicism is agnostic on issues of poverty, and Francis should stick to what he describes as Catholicism’s “non-negotiables,” like its opposition to abortion and gay marriage and its support for school choice. “How do you deal with a poverty problem? There’s not a Catholic [fix], contrary to the arguments of certain economists that work at the Vatican… But there’s a Catholic view on life, on marriage, on the rights of parents and education. So I hope he sticks to this.” As for foreign policy, Huelskamp gives Francis his permission to speak to “faith and morals… but on foreign affairs, maybe not.” Because morals certainly have no place in foreign affairs.

The quotiest of them all, Rep. Louie Gohmert, describes the Palestinians as “haters” and wants the Pope to know that they don’t take too kindly to his style of Popin’ down in East Texas. “The Pope is the head of his religion, and he makes those calls for himself,” Gohmert generously concedes, “but I represent 700,000 people from East Texas and a vast majority agree with me.”

There’s a whole lot more in here, including Rep. Trent Franks questioning Pope Francis’s grasp of scripture.

It’s fascinating to see these members trying to impose constraints on what’s acceptable for the Holy See to say in his address to Congress. Just a few months ago, conservatives were apoplectic that anyone would dare criticize Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to trash the President’s foreign policy before a joint session of Congress. The man has a right to speak his mind! It helped, of course, that Netanyahu’s mind and the Republican mind were one and the same. Now the Pope might come and say “Palestinians have rights too” and everyone’s all, Whoa whoa whoa, let’s stick to the fetus here, guy. 

 

By: Jim Newell, Salon, May 15, 2015

May 18, 2015 Posted by | Conservatives, Louie Gohmert, Pope Francis, Steve King | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“American Pathologies”: A Texas Law Would Let Teachers Shoot Students Who “Threaten” School Property. Guess Which Students Would Suffer Most?

Proposed legislation in Texas would allow teachers to use force, including deadly force, against students threatening the lives of others. If that unsettles you, consider the bill’s next provision: Teachers could also use deadly force to stop students from threatening school property. The bill, nicknamed the “Teacher’s Protection Act”, would create “a defense to prosecution for and civil liability of an educator who uses force or deadly force to protect the educator’s person, students of the school, or property of the school, and suspension of a student who assaults an employee of a school.” Proposed by Rep. Dan Flynn, the bill is unlikely to become lawbut it indicates a twisted pathology in the way we think of schools and students.

The bill is the logical conclusion of a diverse set of American pathologies, including the tendency to classify the protection of property as tantamount to the protection of life, and the use of zero tolerance policies in schools to make them precursors to prison, especially for black students. This law expresses both disturbing habits in two distinct ways.

First, by extending protected lethal force from the defense of life to the defense of school property, the law permits deadly violence in schools as a reaction to rather typical disciplinary problems. Imagine, for instance, a case of trespassing (students coming onto school property after hours) or theft of school property. In ordinary circumstances infractions like these would be regulation bad behavior, but if schools are given their own version of castle doctrine, it is unclear if these behaviors would still be viewed as ordinary rule-breaking, or something worthy of a lethal reaction.

Second, the law would rely on teachers’ judgment to distinguish between situations requiring lethal force and situations not requiring lethal force. In such situations, teachers own unconscious biases could influence their decisions in ways that disproportionately affect minority students. It’s already clear, for instance, that when it comes to doling out discipline, teachers are not colorblind. A 2014 report produced by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil rights found evidence that black children as young as preschool aged are suspended at much higher rates than their white peers. As they move up in the school system, the report found, black students are expelled and suspended at a rate three times higher than their white peers. Moreover, while black students comprise only 16 percent of total school enrollment, they make up 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement, and 31 percent of students arrested for school-related reasons. In all grades and forms of discipline (expulsion, suspension, etc.) boys make up a greater proportion of the punished than girls.

All of this amounts to a much harsher disciplinary picture for black boys than any other students, suggesting that, if teachers were to be given leeway to use lethal force for widely expanded reasonssuch as the defense of lunch tables and chalk boardsit’s likely black boys would wind up disproportionately on the losing end. Far from protecting teachers, this law would only place a population already vulnerable to harsh disciplinary measures inside school walls at further risk. Texas doesn’t exactly have a history of forward thinking when it comes to matters of human rights, but in a time when the lives of black boys seem to be ended with startling impunity by authority figures, this bill seems especially ill-considered, and especially cruel.

 

By: Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, The New Republic, January 30, 3015

January 31, 2015 Posted by | Civil Rights, Gun Violence, Texas | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mike Huckabee Pushes For An American Theocracy”: An Ayatollah Wannabe With A Barbaric Concept

Mike Huckabee sounds like quite the Ayatollah wannabe:

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) said during an appearance Thursday on a Christian television show that he’s thinking about running for President to help the nation know where laws come from: God.

“We cannot survive as a republic if we do not become, once again, a God-centered nation that understands that our laws do not come from man, they come from God,” he said on the show “Life Today.”

When Huckabee added that he wasn’t demanding a theocracy, host James Robison said, “We have a theocracy right now. It’s a secular theocracy.”

“That’s it!” Huckabee said, describing the current political order as “humanistic, secular, atheistic, even antagonistic toward Christian faith.”

There’s an interesting discussion to be had about whether rights come from God or from man. Or, in more secular terms, whether rights are inherent or rather endowed by society. The Founders tended to come down on the side of inherent rights; I rather believe that they’re endowed by society, in part based on technological progress. For instance, given the easy availability of modern air conditioning, I believe that failing to provide basic climate controlled rooms to prisoners constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. I also believe that women have a right to birth control. That’s a controversial position to be sure, but one on which reasonable people can disagree.

But regardless of one’s view of rights, it’s an entirely different story to say that laws come from God. There is no secular way to interpret that comment. Laws cannot be inherent–only values can. Laws are at best the imperfect and often arbitrary attempted codification of our values. They are the imperfect rules we agree to live by, codifying our rights and binding us in an orderly society and (hopefully) protecting us from the wrongdoing of others. The notion that laws come directly from God is frankly a barbaric concept relegated in most parts of the world to the most backwards theocracies and the enemies of Western pluralism.

It matters little if Mike Huckabee is as dangerous as he sounds, or if he’s playing that way to appeal to the scariest parts of the Republican base for his own presidential aspirations. His notions are frankly unAmerican, and belong more in Riyadh or Tehran than in Washington, DC.

 

By: David Atkins, The Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, January 24, 2015

January 26, 2015 Posted by | Christian Right, Mike Huckabee, Theocracy | , , , , , | 4 Comments

“Because The NRA Tells Them To”: Republicans Are Blocking Ratification of Even the Most Reasonable International Treaties

The world got a present on Christmas Eve, when an international treaty to limit the sale of weapons to warlords and terrorists went into effect. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) aims to limit the number of civilians slaughtered around the world by requiring any country that sells weapons to establish the same kind of export criteria that the U.S. and other Western democracies have in place. It has been signed by 130 countries and ratified by 60, ten more than it needed to become effective. When the U.N. General Assembly put it to a vote last year, only three countries opposed the treaty outright: North Korea, Syria, and Iran.

While the Obama administration has signed the treaty, there is no chance it will get the 67 votes needed for Senate ratification. In October 2013, 50 senators sent the president a letter expressing their opposition to the ATT. They included every Republican except Mark Kirk, and five Democrats—Joe Manchin, Mark Pryor, Mark Begich, Mary Landieu and Kay Hagen. (Manchin was the only one of the Democrats who was not up for reelection last month, and all four that were lost.) So the Republicans stand together with the Axis of Evil 2.0 because the National Rifle Association opposes the treaty. The NRA sees it as a potential threat to gun ownership because it does not explicitly provide a guarantee of the “American people’s rights under the Second Amendment.”

In the Senate’s first two centuries, it approved more than 1,500 treaties. It rejected only 21; another 85 were withdrawn because the Senate did not take action on them. A treaty that is not approved, rejected, or withdrawn remains in limbo. At present, there are 36 treaties awaiting action by the Senate, dealing with everything from the protection of albatrosses to the testing of nuclear weapons.

While protecting waterfowl might seem like something reasonable people could agree upon, apparently no issue is too small for the foes of the imaginary threat of a world government. There are more serious questions not being addressed, however, including:

—The United States has six tax treaties with over 60 countries to prevent double-taxation and make tax evasion more difficult. Republicans have prevented approval of the six, costing the country billions in lost revenue each year.

—Drafted over thirty years ago, the Law of the Sea Treaty is designed to bring some order to the world’s oceans and lessen the chances for conflict in places like the South China Sea. Ratified by 162 countries and supported by the oil and gas industry, the Pentagon, environmentalists, and past presidents from both parties, it was opposed by Republicans because “no international organization owns the seas.”

—The Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities would apply the standards found in American law to other countries. It is supported by veterans’ groups and corporate interests and has been ratified by 141 countries. Home-schoolers and right-to-life groups opposed it, however, believing false claims that it would interfere with their children’s education and increase access to abortion. When it came to a vote two years ago, 38 Republican senators voted nay.

—The Convention on the Rights of the Child, one of the most popular and respected human rights treaties in history, was negotiated during the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations with major American input. The United States may soon be the only country among the 193 members of the U.N. that has failed to ratify it. Opponents argue it would hurt traditional families and the rights of parents.

One of the most frequent criticisms of any treaty is that it undermines American sovereignty. But that is the price of international cooperation. Any relationship, whether between two people or among two hundred countries, requires some limits on what one party can do. Globalization has made such cooperation even more imperative; it is impossible for one nation to deal unilaterally with today’s gravest problems. Even the world’s only superpower cannot ignore that fact.

The term “American exceptionalism” never appeared in any party platform until the election in 2012. It made its debut in the Republican platform that year as an 8,000-word section, devoted to the concept that America holds a unique place and role in human history. If the GOP continues to let paranoia prevent this country’s leadership, or even participation, in addressing the challenges created by an ever-more globalized world, that role in history will be short.

 

By: Dennis Jett, Professor of International Affairs, Penn State University; The New Republic, December 26, 2014

 

December 29, 2014 Posted by | International Treaties, National Rifle Association, Senate | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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